Skip to main content

Departmental Restructuring

Volume 459: debated on Monday 30 April 2007

9. If he will issue a consultation paper setting out the advantages and disadvantages of dividing the Home Office in two. (134281)

The refocusing of the Home Office will allow the Department to concentrate on personal, community and national security. Today the threat posed to the last of those has again been highlighted. The House will be well aware that this morning five dangerous terrorists were put behind bars, thanks to the hard work of the Security Service and the police. I want to place on record in the House our thanks to the men and women in the police and security services who have worked so hard to ensure that the perpetrators of that plot were brought to justice and that a major terrorist attack, which could have killed and injured many, many people, has been averted. The case reminds us all that the terrorist threat we face is real and severe, and that, given the changes in the world at both global and local level, the advantages—indeed, the necessity—of refocusing the priorities of the Home Office to concentrate on the challenges of today’s world and the priorities of today’s British people are clear.

Unfortunately, my friend did not answer my question. Why should we trust his judgment on splitting the Home Office when former Lord Chief Justice Woolf has called for consultation, as has former Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler? Why do we have to rely on ministerial fiat? Why do we have to rely on the royal prerogative to reconfigure Whitehall? Why does my friend not just ask people whether it is a good idea?

A great deal of consideration has been given to this decision, and the basic reason why we are refocusing the Home Office is quite clear. It is that the nature of the world and the threats that it contains are changing rapidly. The exponential growth in the threat from international terrorism, from international crime and from managing immigration—a subject constantly raised in this House—as well as the social changes in our communities that have led to the necessity to concentrate on tackling antisocial behaviour, have all given us major challenges in today’s world. They are all reflected in the priority placed upon them in opinion poll after opinion poll by the people of this country. We are therefore responding both to those realities and to the priorities of our public.

But which of the two new Government Departments will be responsible for picking up the pieces from yesterday’s dismal decision on the two Libyan terror suspects?

Ultimately, counter-terrorism will be the responsibility of the Home Office. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me to comment on the decision taken last Friday to release two suspected terrorists, I believe that my views on the matter are known. However, we are subject to judicial process, because I have authorised an appeal against that decision as soon as possible. As it is sub judice, I shall say no more on that subject.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the light of the convictions agreed today, the concentration of the reformed Home Office obviously needs to learn the lessons of what happened on 7 July 2005? However, the understandable hurt and distress of the families of the dead and the victims who were injured cannot be helped by an extensive investigation costing large sums of money, when the facts are known, including whatever failings existed. Today, we should thank the security and policing services for saving us, through what is now known as Operation Crevice, from the most horrendous terrorist attack in 2004. They saved us from another distressing and hurtful attack by terrorists seeking to damage our country.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. He is probably among the few people who have had experience of the recent level of terrorist threat, and is aware of the capacity of terrorists to inflict terrible damage on the people of this country. May I express my condolences to the families of the injured and those who lost their lives on 7/7, as I realise the extent to which today’s events will bring back the hurt and anguish from which they have already suffered?

I am also aware of the demands to conduct a wider inquiry, but I do not believe that a public inquiry is the correct response at this time, because it would divert the energies and efforts of so many in the security and police services who are already greatly stretched in countering that present threat. Our responsibility as a Government is to try to minimise the chances of any other group of families ever having to suffer as the 7/7 families did. Nevertheless, I understand the anguish, which is why I have agreed with MI5 to publish on the web the answers to questions that have been posed before, during and after this trial. That is unprecedented, but I think it is fitting.

In addition, I can tell the House that today I have spoken to the Prime Minister, who has spoken in turn to the Chair of the independent cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee, which previously examined the evidence surrounding 7/7. The Chairman has confirmed today that it has revisited the issues and that the facts in the report still stand. However, the Committee has been asked again, through the Chair, to reappraise all these matters and questions, following the evidence arising from the trial, in order that members of the Committee and others can be satisfied that any questions raised have indeed been answered, and in order to identify any questions that have not been answered, to answer them and to report through this procedure to the Prime Minister. I think that that is a way of answering some of these questions without a massive diversion of resources from our security services, and I hope that it is welcomed by the House.

The Home Secretary has made his case for breaking up the Home Office by arguing that it will improve our ability to deal with terrorism. A former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), followed up on that. The terrorist trial that concluded today has shone a light not only on the terrible world of terrorism, but on the operations of our security services. Like the Home Secretary, we must express our gratitude to the men and women who prevented more atrocities, and I join him in paying tribute to them. But that gratitude must not deflect us from asking the necessary questions about the operation of the security services.

The former Home Secretary said that the facts are known. After the 7/7 bombings, the then Home Secretary told us that the attack came out of the blue. The security agencies briefed the press that the suicide bombers were all unknown to them. We now know that that was not true. Two of the 7 July bombers had been under surveillance for more than a year. MI5 dropped the surveillance. It said that that was unavoidable, based on the surveillance resources available to it. As the Home Secretary has said many times, there will never be a 100 per cent. guarantee against terrorism—and we do not expect that, but some mistakes are inevitable and some are not. His web-based response is not the answer. The ISC does not have the investigative capacity to give the answer. Will he please think again—

Order. I know how serious this matter is, but we have to be careful: the Home Secretary is not making a statement—[Interruption.] It was long, I agree. I allowed some latitude to the Home Secretary and to the right hon. Gentleman. But the right hon. Gentleman can still ask another question, and there are Back Benchers who also want to ask questions about this matter. There is nothing to stop him calling for a statement or asking an urgent question tomorrow, if he feels it necessary.

One of the reasons why we ought to be careful about perpetuating some of the myths in the press on these matters is that, with any amount of sincerity, it is possible to get these matters wrong. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) is wrong to say that the identities of the two people were known to the security services. They were not known to the security services until after 7/7; with the virtue of hindsight and retrospective checking, it was discovered that two people whose identities had not been known at the time turned out to be involved in the later bombing. Notwithstanding the fact that what the right hon. Gentleman said is incorrect, there are legitimate questions to be asked, and I am trying to get them answered in a way that does not divert the short and necessary resources and energies of our Security Service from the continuing fight. I think that I have identified a way of doing that.

I thank the Home Secretary for that answer, but I am afraid that I do not agree with him. What he said does not answer the question of why MI5 did not notify West Yorkshire police special branch of any concerns about Mohammad Sidique Khan after it had trailed him all the way to Yorkshire, even when it had a name, a photograph, a family address and his car registration. We are told—the Home Secretary repeated this—that there were no suspicions about Khan before 7 July. Yes, there were. Those suspicions related to criminal activity in support of terrorism, and they were not followed up by the police or the agencies. Evidence is now available that was not publicly available before the conclusion of the trial. An inquiry is an essential tool. It will not distract the agencies. It will provide the public with the confidence that they need to know that the agencies are doing their job as they should, to the maximum of their ability.

The right hon. Gentleman started with another factual error. I cannot confirm or deny any detail of this, because it is not convention, as he will well know—but on the question of West Yorkshire police, just let me say that the matter was investigated by the Intelligence and Security Committee. It could not be referred to at the time because of the sub judice rule, but I can tell him that, having investigated the allegations that he makes, the ISC was satisfied that there was no wrongful conduct on this occasion. [Interruption.] Well, no mistakes were made—put it that way.

I hope that the House will be satisfied with the way that I have tried to find through this matter. I have tried to balance the need to answer legitimate questions, in the first instance, with the need to address the recommendations that will come from the ISC and the need to retain all the resources towards the fight, to make sure that other families are protected as we all want our own families protected. I hope that the House is also satisfied that not only have five very dangerous people been jailed today, but the judge has now passed sentence and in two cases there is a life sentence with a minimum of 40 years, in two cases a life sentence with a minimum of 35 years, and in one case a sentence with a minimum of 20 years. That begins to reflect the seriousness of this crime.

To go back to the original question, a consultation paper would have been better than a simple assertion without evidence or detail. May I also pay tribute to the work of the intelligence services and the police? They have been extraordinarily diligent and have worked in very difficult circumstances. However, the fact remains that the trial has opened up several areas of questioning from which it is absolutely essential that we learn lessons if we are to protect people effectively in the future. This is within the core responsibilities of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department. I regret that he has rejected the concept of a full inquiry, because an independent inquiry is necessary to examine not only the reasons why the Home Office made it clear that these clean skins, as they were called, were unknown to the police and security services—he has asserted that that was the case—but whether there was proper co-ordination between MI5 and MI6 when it was learned that two of the bombers were—

First, the Intelligence and Security Committee is independent. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that his colleague the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), or the Conservative Committee members—the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)—are anything other than independent minds. Secondly, I have not rejected the possibility of an independent inquiry. I have rejected the idea of a public inquiry at this stage, because of the energies and resources that that would divert.

Finally, I understand the legitimacy of concentrating on questions. I speak as someone who has met group after group of families affected by 7/7. I understand their anguish about such questions, because I have met them time and time again. To my knowledge, there are no new questions raised by the trial. Nevertheless, the questions that have already been raised ought to be answered. The Prime Minister has asked the Intelligence and Security Committee to identify whether it can find questions that have not yet been answered. If it does, it will report that to the Prime Minister. I hope that this approach respects the need of the nation to be protected and the need of all those who have lost family members or whose family members have been injured to get answers to their questions.