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Salisbury Incident

Volume 637: debated on Thursday 8 March 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the incident in Salisbury that has been unfolding over the past four days.

Let me first pay tribute to the continued professionalism, dedication and courage of the emergency services. They have handled the incident with their customary attentiveness, alacrity, and sense of public duty. First responders put themselves in dangerous situations on a day-to-day basis, and this incident has underlined that fact—to which, sadly, I shall return later in my statement.

I shall now update the House as far as is possible on the basis of the current facts of the case. At approximately 4.15 on Sunday afternoon, Wiltshire police received a call from a member of the public who was concerned for the welfare of two people in a park in Salisbury. Emergency services were called, and the two were admitted to the A&E department of Salisbury District Hospital. They were a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s, with no visible signs of injury. They are understood to be Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Both remain unconscious, and in a critical but stable condition.

I regret to inform the House that a police officer has also fallen seriously ill. The officer was one of the first responders on Sunday, acting selflessly to help others. The latest update from the hospital is that the officer’s condition remains serious but stable, and that he is conscious, talking and engaging. Officers from Wiltshire police are providing support for the officer’s family and colleagues. Our thoughts are with all three victims, and their families and friends, at what will be an incredibly difficult time for them.

Wiltshire police began an investigation on Sunday to determine how the individuals had fallen ill, and whether a crime had been committed. They declared a major incident on Monday. On Tuesday the Metropolitan police decided that, given the unusual circumstances, responsibility for the investigation should be transferred to the National Counter Terrorism Policing Network. Samples from the victims have been tested by experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, who are world-renowned experts in the field. As Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley announced yesterday, that forensic analysis has revealed the presence of a nerve agent, and the incident is therefore being treated as attempted murder. I can confirm that it is highly likely the police officer has been exposed to the same nerve agent.

I spoke only this morning with Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, and he confirmed that we remain in the midst of a fast-paced, criminal investigation. As such, I will not comment further on the nature of the nerve agent. We must give the police the space they need to conduct a thorough investigation. All Members will recognise that an investigation such as this will be complex and may take some time.

Public safety continues to be the No.1 priority for this Government. Professor Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, stated yesterday that, based on the evidence we have, there is a low risk to the public. The UK has a world-leading emergency response. It is regularly tested and exercised to ensure we can deliver an effective response to a wide range of chemical, biological and radiological incidents. The three emergency services are well supplied with state-of-the-art equipment to respond to such threats.

The frontline response is supported by world-class scientific research and advice. This ensures that decision making on the ground, by all agencies involved, is firmly based on the available evidence. This will also support the decontamination activity needed to return the location to normality.

The police are working closely with Public Health England, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the DSTL. They have cordoned all known sites in Salisbury that were visited by the two initial victims before they became unwell, and are taking the necessary measures to protect public safety.

I want now to turn to the speculation—of which there has been much—around who was responsible for this most outrageous crime. The use of a nerve agent on UK soil is a brazen and reckless act. This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way. People are right to want to know who to hold to account. But, if we are to be rigorous in this investigation, we must avoid speculation and allow the police to carry on their investigation.

As the assistant commissioner said yesterday, the investigation now involves hundreds of officers, following every possible lead to find those responsible. Some of those leads have come from members of the public. I would like to thank the people of Salisbury for their help and for the calm they have shown over the last four days. I encourage anyone who visited Salisbury town centre and surrounding areas on Sunday afternoon, who has not yet spoken to the police, to get in touch.

We are committed to doing all we can to bring the perpetrators to justice—whoever they are, and wherever they may be. The investigation is moving at pace, and this Government will act without hesitation as the facts become clearer. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear on Tuesday, we will respond in a robust and appropriate manner once we ascertain who was responsible.

I would like to close where I began, by expressing my sincere thanks to the emergency services and hospital staff for their tireless efforts over the last four days. They have acted with utter professionalism both to minimise the risk to the wider public and to care for the victims of the attack, for which I know we are all very grateful. Our thoughts will be with the victims and their families over the coming days.

Finally, I thank Members for their understanding that there will clearly be limits on what we can say as this investigation continues. As and when information can be made public, it will be. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement. May I start by paying tribute to the courage and dedication of the emergency services that responded to this horrendous incident? In particular, may I say that the thoughts of the whole House will be with the officer who has been hospitalised following this attack? I also pay tribute to the people of Salisbury. Can the Home Secretary confirm that the great cathedral city of Salisbury remains open for business?

The apparent poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal and the police officer who suffered serious injury must of course be fully and completely investigated. I wholeheartedly concur with the Secretary of State that the investigation should be allowed to take place free from speculation, conjecture or interference. At best, these can be a distraction; at worst, they can hamper the investigatory efforts. Hon. Members and right hon. Members should be equally cautious and guarded in their comments. Idle or ill-informed speculation is not helpful. Can the Home Secretary assure the House that all the necessary resources are being made available to the investigation? Clearly, it is vital that there should be no speculation about the conclusions of the investigation, and that it is allowed to take its course, but will she ensure that she continues to keep the House updated?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Foreign Secretary, asked the Foreign Secretary on Tuesday about the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. Is the Home Secretary satisfied that the Government have all the necessary sanctions available to them? A number of proposals are currently being debated in Committee. Will she look at them again to ensure that we have the necessary tools?

This case raises broader and extremely important issues. These include how we prioritise the fight against crime and terrorist crime in this country. There is, after all, no greater priority for the state than to secure the safety of all those who are resident here. Today is not the day for discussion of those priorities, or divisions over them, in the fight against crime and terrorism, or for a discussion on budgets and how they are allocated. We will return to those matters at another opportunity. For now, let us be clear that we on the Labour Benches are appalled at the idea that anyone might be poisoned on the streets of our towns and cities, and we offer our full support to those seeking to investigate the matter. We commend the professionalism, dedication and bravery of the emergency services, and we share the Government’s determination that this case should be brought to a speedy and just conclusion, and that similar incidents should be prevented in the future.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his carefully thought-out and considerate comments. I am delighted to hear such unity of purpose across the House on this matter. He referred to the great cathedral city of Salisbury, and I share his views on that city and on the people of Salisbury, who have reacted so well. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who is with me here on the Front Bench, for his consideration and support over the past four days.

Yes, I can reassure the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and the House that the police and the emergency services have the necessary resources. That is always one of my first questions, and they have been reassuring on that matter. On his point about keeping the House updated, of course I will do that. I thank him for his consideration and understanding that there might be limits to that, but when I can, I will of course take the opportunity to come here to discuss the matter with the House. Partly because of the severity of the situation, I recognise the need to do that whenever possible. Members are rightly keen to find out what is happening.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. We are of course engaging with the Members of Parliament who are proposing additional amendments. There have already been amendments to the Criminal Finances Act 2017 that reflect the sorts of initiatives he is asking for. There are additional proposals relating to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, and we will be considering them carefully.

The circumstantial evidence against Russia is strong—who else would have the motive and the means?—and I will put the same question to the Home Secretary that I put to the Foreign Secretary earlier this week. Those of us who seek to understand Russia know that the only way to preserve peace is through strength. If Russia is behind this, it is a brazen act of war and humiliates our country. I echo the remarks of the junior Defence Minister last week: defence is the first duty of the realm and spending 2% on defence is now not enough.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. My first concern must be the incident in hand and the safety of the people in the area around the incident. There will come a time for attribution, and there will be further consequences and further information to follow. Now, however, I am concerned about the incident and its consequences.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement. The circumstances surrounding these attacks are extremely worrying, particularly the fact that they constitute a potentially serious threat to public safety—although I am relieved to note that the chief medical officer considers there to be a low risk to public safety now. The emergency services have done a fantastic job, putting their safety on the line to ensure that Mr Skripal and his daughter were stabilised as soon as possible. We are pleased to hear that the police officer’s condition has improved and that he is now able to communicate. Our thoughts are with his and Mr Skripal and his daughter’s family and friends at this time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) put questions to the Foreign Secretary on Tuesday that I want to put to the Home Secretary today. How do we protect human assets such as Mr Skripal in this country? Will this type of scenario lead to a review of how we best protect such people across the United Kingdom? Considering Mr Skripal’s background, he was at high risk of being the victim of an attempted assassination, so does the Home Secretary know how the planning of such an attack was able to slip through the net of the UK intelligence services? What steps is she taking to ensure that those who are at risk living in the UK are properly protected?

Earlier this week, the Foreign Secretary stated that the Government would respond appropriately should evidence emerge that implies state responsibility. Will the Home Secretary therefore confirm that she has had, and is continuing to have, discussions with her counterparts from across Europe and further afield to get to the bottom of the matter? Reports that as many as 14 deaths on UK soil could have occurred in similar circumstances is very worrying. Will there be an inquiry into those incidents and the frequency of such attacks?

I thank the hon. Lady for her support for the general tone of the Government’s approach, and I of course join in her admiration and support for the emergency services, which are doing such excellent work. I must repeat to the hon. Lady that the investigation is ongoing at pace, and the police and the other services involved appreciate the urgency. It does not help their work, which must be our priority, to speculate about what might happen when we make an attribution. When we are ready to bring more evidence to the House, I reassure the hon. Lady that I hope to be able to go further in answering her questions. For now, she must allow me to say that we will not be drawn any further as we allow the investigation to complete.

Whoever the culprit, it is just as well that we are currently reviewing our defence capabilities, so that we can increase them—can’t we?

As far as our security at home is concerned, I reassure my right hon. Friend that we have already put in substantial extra funds. The security services are recruiting 1,900 new people between now and 2020, and I am reassured by them that that recruitment is proceeding at pace and with success.

I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to our remarkable emergency services, which have responded with such professionalism to this awful attack. All our thoughts will be with the brave police officer and with Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

I have written to the Home Secretary to ask for a review of 14 other cases, and she will know that there are many ways in which that could happen and precedents for doing so. As for the immediate investigation, has she considered going to the UN Security Council to ask for a statement calling on all nations to provide assistance, including willingness to extradite suspects if necessary?

I thank the right hon. Lady for that. I have her letter, and will respond, but gently say that now is not the time to investigate what is, at the moment, only rumour and speculation; now is the time to focus on the incident at hand, and the investigation that is proceeding. She makes a suggestion regarding international activity; at some stage, we will come back to the House with our proposals, but for now, we are merely preparing, and concentrating on the incident.

I share the sentiments of my right hon. Friend about the bravery of our police officers and the people in Salisbury who witnessed this terrible tragedy; it was an awful thing for them to have to see in their town. Will she assure the House that all appropriate support will be made available, not just for the police officers, but for any witnesses who might come forward?

Yes. That is a very good point. Quite a number of individuals in Salisbury have been concerned about their health, and have wanted to report concerns about the incident. They have been coming forward and receiving the appropriate treatment and support.

I commend the Home Secretary on her statement, and on the calm and cool way that she has approached the immediate response to the incident. She will be aware, however, that many Members on both sides of this House have for several years warned of the growing threat of the terrorist Russian state under President Putin, whether we are talking about money laundering in the City of London, the targeted murders that my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) spoke about, or interference in our political and democratic system. Will the Home Secretary please assure the House that when this immediate crisis is over, she will work with other Secretaries of State in a joined-up way across Government not only to listen to concerns, but to take meaningful action to tackle this threat?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I reassure him that this Government have not been asleep at the switch, in terms of where our international enemies are. He refers to Russia. Separately from this incident, we have been very clear about our disagreements with Russia, particularly on Ukraine and Syria, and we have been outspoken in our criticism and our determination to take action—hence the amendment to the Criminal Finances Bill, and the considered amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. We will go further, should there be need to do so.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. Will she reassure the public that our renowned, world-leading facilities at Porton Down, where amazing scientific work is done, have the resources and capability to continue with the work that they have rightly been doing? They have been getting good results in the last few days.

Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to do exactly that: reassure the public that our facilities, support, scientists and expertise at Porton Down are world-class. I hope that gives the public, and her, the comfort that they need.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, and the calm leadership that she is showing on this issue. I associate myself and my party with her comments on our amazing emergency services, and pass on our thoughts to the victims.

Following on from the questions from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), whether or not Russian agents are shown to be responsible for this incident, is it not time that we got more realistic about Russia? Will the Home Secretary confirm whether the memorandum of understanding between the UK and Rosatom—the Russian nuclear power company so strongly championed by the former Prime Minister, Mr Cameron— has formally ended? She may not know that today, but will she write to me when she finds that out? If it has not been ended, will she make sure that it is ended, so that the love-in with Russia that we saw a few years ago is completely finished?

I cautiously welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I do not recognise his description of our relationship with Russia over the past few years, but I will indeed write to him on the matter that he raises.

I commend my right hon. Friend for her approach. Clearly, Members across the House will be calling for investigation of unexplained deaths that may be connected to this incident. Equally, a number of individuals out there will fear for their life as a result of their activities with Russia and other such countries. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to review the security arrangements for those brave individuals, so that they can live their life in this country in the way that they have chosen to, in a free society?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In this country, we want to make sure everybody is protected and everybody is free, in a free society, as he rightly says, to go about their family life and their work life. He makes a particular point about keeping a certain group of people safe. I gently say to him that that is a matter for the police and the other services, but I am confident that they know what they are doing and we will keep that in hand.

I join all those in the Chamber, including the Home Secretary and Opposition Front Benchers, who have praised the emergency workers and hospital staff. My thoughts and condolences are with the families involved.

The Home Secretary has made a commitment to ensure that the safety of those at risk is looked at again and reviewed once this investigation is completed and we know exactly what has happened. Will she commit to ensuring that the police have the resources necessary to properly implement any improved security procedures once this investigation is out of the way and we know what we need to do?

We always make sure the police have the resources they need to keep this country safe. On this particular incident, on this attack, I have made it absolutely clear to the police and the emergency services that they have our entire support to do whatever is necessary to get to the bottom of this investigation. I understand the hon. Lady’s willingness to raise the issue of resources, but I reassure her, this House and this country that the police have the resources they need and are full tilt on this investigation.

I wish to add my tribute to the Wiltshire police force. My best friend from school serves in that force, and I know how dedicated he and his colleagues are to the security of the county. How are Wiltshire police working with national teams collaboratively to progress this investigation? What lessons will be shared with police forces throughout the UK?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his support in this important incident, on which it is very important to see local leadership as well from Members of Parliament. I reassure him that the local police and the national police are working well together. I spoke this morning to Mark Rowley, the deputy commissioner who is in charge of counter-terrorism, and he has of course been in regular contact with the Wiltshire police, because local knowledge is just as important as expert knowledge.

I commend the Home Secretary and the Opposition spokesman for the calm but clear statements they gave. No Member of this House would seek to compromise an ongoing criminal investigation by speculation about motives or perpetrators. However, given the circumstances and the huge level of public concern, will she consider the request made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) to review the 14 cases to which my right hon. Friend referred?

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that that is a series of rumours and speculations, and it is for the police to decide what to investigate. I understand that it is reasonable to want to raise it at this moment, but our focus must be on the serious event that has taken place over the past four days. Now is not a time to follow up on some other allegations.

I add my voice to those that have congratulated our emergency services and the Home Secretary on the way she is handling this serious event. Following the call from the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) to examine other unexplained deaths, the Home Secretary will be aware that this is not just confined to this country but can be seen in the international arena. Perhaps it is not the time right now, but will she assure the House that she will work internationally, so that when we find out “who”, “how” and “when”, we will be able to hold those people to account, even in the international arena? Will she join me in regretting the fact that Russia is disengaged from the Council of Europe, and therefore the European Court of Human Rights, which is not a good signal for good international relations?

I share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment with that situation. Russia plays a role internationally, although the Prime Minister has been very clear, calling this out at her Mansion House speech in 2017, that she has concerns about its behaviour. Russia does have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and we do engage with the Russians up to a point, but there is no “business as usual” here. We need to make sure that we are very clear-eyed about their role and their intentions, so I do join my right hon. Friend in that matter, and I hope we will be able to work internationally should the situation arise and this be needed.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. Has it been necessary to issue revised guidance to frontline police officers on what to do if they are concerned that such circumstances might arise again? If it has been revised, has she seen it, and is she satisfied with it?

As the hon. Lady will know, we have been operating at a “severe” terrorism level for a while now—five terrorist attacks got through last year, of course—and we did therefore review police guidelines on unusual substances last year, so I believe that the police have all the right information and tools available to them.

This country is rightly praised around the world for the dedication of our police and our determination to follow proper process to ensure we come to the right conclusions before then acting with calm deliberation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in these most awful and appalling of circumstances we need those attributes more than ever?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the professional approach we need to take to this incident. We must support the police, who have such a strong and rightly earned reputation internationally, to make sure they have the space and time to make the inquiries, collect the evidence and then proceed.

Can the Home Secretary tell us more about the work of Wiltshire public health officials to keep local people safe?

The chief medical officer has told us, given the information we have now, that she thinks the threat to the public is low, which I know will reassure local health officials in Wiltshire.

I agree we should be cautious about attributing guilt at this stage, but does the Home Secretary share my and my constituents’ anger about the cruel nature of this crime, which could so easily have resulted in considerably greater collateral damage, and will she therefore assure me and my constituents that eventually the full force of the law will be brought down upon the perpetrators?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Just because we want to approach this with a cool head in order to collect the evidence, it does not mean we do not share the outrage that he and his constituents clearly feel. When we have the evidence, I will return to the House.

As the proud husband of a serving police officer, I welcome the comments from the Home Secretary and Members across the House in support of the brave men and women in our emergency services. Should this not also serve to remind us, however, of the pressures on their families, who every day do not know when their loved ones leave for work what they will face?

That is such a good point. It is not just the individuals who are affected but their families, and I know that the thoughts of everybody in the House will go out not just to the victims but to the families around them, who must be having such a worried and anxious time right now.