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Amesbury Incident

Volume 644: debated on Thursday 5 July 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding the events that have been unfolding in Amesbury and Salisbury. This morning, I chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee, Cobra, covering the ongoing investigation in Amesbury. I have been separately briefed by the security services and by counter-terrorism police.

As many Members will now know, a 45-year-old man and a 44-year-old woman were found to be unwell at a property at Muggleton Road in Amesbury on Saturday—both are British citizens. Paramedics attended the scene and admitted the pair to the accident and emergency department at Salisbury District Hospital, where they were treated for exposure to an unknown substance. Further testing by expert scientists in chemical warfare at the Porton Down laboratory confirmed this to be the nerve agent of the type known as Novichok. This has been identified as the same nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal.

The pair are currently in a critical condition, and I am sure the whole House will want to join me in wishing them a full and swift recovery. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to the emergency services and staff at the Salisbury District Hospital for their tireless professionalism and for the dedicated care they are providing. I understand that there will be some concerns about what this incident means for public safety. In particular, I recognise that some local Wiltshire residents will be feeling very anxious. Let me reassure everyone that public safety is of paramount importance. Public Health England’s latest assessment is that based on the number of casualties affected, there is no significant risk to the wider public. Its advice is informed by scientists and the police as the facts evolve. Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, has confirmed that the risk to the public remains low, and has asked that the public follow the advice of Public Health England and the police. She has also advised that people who have visited the areas that have been recently cordoned off should wash their clothes and wipe down any items they may have been carrying at the time. She has also urged people not to pick up any unknown or already dangerous objects such as needles and syringes. That is not new advice and it follows on from what was said in March. We have a well-established response to these types of incidents and clear processes to follow.

I also want to add that all the sites that have been decontaminated following the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal are safe. All sites that have been reopened have undergone rigorous testing, and any items that may have harboured residual amounts of the agent were safely removed for disposal. We have taken a very robust approach to decontamination, and there is no evidence that either the man or the woman in hospital visited any of the places that were visited by the Skripals. Our strong working assumption is that the couple came into contact with the nerve agent in a different location from the sites that have been part of the original clean-up operation. The police have also set up two dedicated phone numbers for anyone with concerns relating to this incident. Salisbury District Hospital remains open as usual and is advising people to attend routine operations unless they are contacted and told otherwise.

We are taking this incident incredibly seriously and are working around the clock to discover precisely what has happened, where and why. Be assured that we have world-leading scientists, intelligence officers and police on this case. Local residents can expect to see an increased police presence in and around Amesbury and Salisbury. All six sites that were visited by the pair before they collapsed have been cordoned off and are being securely guarded as a precaution. An investigation has started to work out how these two individuals came into contact with the nerve agent. About 100 detectives from the counter-terrorism policing network are working to support this investigation, alongside colleagues from Wiltshire police.

Obviously, this incident will invoke memories of the reckless attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal earlier this year, given the similarities. I know that many Members will question whether this incident is linked to that one. That is clearly the main line of inquiry. However, we must not jump to conclusions and we must give the police the space and time to carry out their investigations—the police’s work will take time. But we are ready to respond as and when new evidence comes to light and the situation becomes clearer.

Following the events in Salisbury earlier this year, we rapidly worked with international partners at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to confirm our identification of the nerve agent used. Through a process of extensive, impartial testing and analysis, our findings were confirmed correct beyond doubt. The use of chemical weapons anywhere is barbaric and inhumane. The decision taken by the Russian Government to deploy them in Salisbury on 4 March was reckless and callous. There is no plausible alternative explanation to explain the events in March other than that the Russian state was responsible, and we acted accordingly. The British Government and the international community immediately and robustly condemned this inhuman action. In the light of this attack, the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats from our shores, and we were joined by 28 of our closest international allies in this action, ranging from the United States to Ukraine, who expelled more than 150 of the Russian state’s diplomats.

We have already seen multiple explanations from state-sponsored Russian media regarding this latest incident. We can anticipate further disinformation from the Kremlin, as we saw following the Salisbury attack. As we did before, we will be consulting our international partners and allies following these latest developments. The eyes of the world are currently on Russia, not least because of the World cup. It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on. Let me be clear: we do not have a quarrel with the Russian people. Rather, it is the actions of the Russian Government that continue to undermine our security and that of the international community. We will stand up to actions that threaten our security and the security of our partners. It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, parks or towns to be dumping grounds for poison. We will continue our investigations as a matter of urgency, and I will keep the House and the public updated on any significant developments. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for making his statement to this House and for giving me prior sight of it. The whole House appreciates that he came here directly from a Cobra meeting. As he said, the first duty of any Government is to secure the safety and security of their people and all those resident in this country. No Government can allow the poisoning of their citizens or residents as they go about their daily lives, by state actors or others. As he has said, the use of chemical weapons is both barbaric and inhumane. Our thoughts and best wishes go out to Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, and we wish them a speedy and complete recovery. I would also like to place on the record the admiration and support we on this side of the House have for the work of the emergency services, the security services and the vital public servants at Porton Down.

The Home Secretary will appreciate how alarmed the public, particularly the people of Wiltshire, must be at this second incident involving the nerve agent Novichok in four months. This incident has occurred long after local people had been assured that there had been a thorough clean-up of the area. We understood that numerous areas across Salisbury had been decontaminated, at great expense and with great thoroughness. It is still not clear whether this is a wholly separate incident or the fall-out from the original incident but with effects being felt months apart.

The Home Secretary will appreciate that if there are connections, other than the type of nerve agent involved, between this latest incident and the Skripal case, the House and the general public will obviously want to know as soon as possible. The House has not received an update on the Skripal case for some time; the Home Secretary may wish to take this opportunity to update the House and the general public about ongoing work on the Skripal case. The House and the public at large will want reassurance, but they will want it to be based on facts. I agree with the Home Secretary that we should not jump to conclusions. We need the facts on this serious matter, and no doubt Members from all parties will resist the temptation to engage in wild speculation or to offer their own guesswork as informed opinion.

Members from all parties, along with the general public, will eventually want to understand how this incident could have occurred. The public will also be concerned about other issues. Do the local police have the resources that they need? Will the Government be providing them and the local authority with additional emergency funding for the enormous drain on resources that this investigation and the securing of various sites will inevitably involve? As well as causing great public concern, this second incident will be a blow to business and retail in the area. Local businesses were just recovering from the Salisbury fallout; what support will they be given? Will the Secretary of State assure the public that this new clean-up and decontamination effort will be exemplary in its thoroughness?

There are some matters that the Secretary of State might usefully raise with his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care. Do all relevant emergency workers and health professionals have sufficient information to recognise the symptoms of this type of poisoning? Do they have advice on how to respond to suspected cases? The public will have noted that although Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley took ill on Saturday night and were taken to exactly the same hospital as the Skripals, it apparently took two days to refer the case to Porton Down.

As the Home Secretary said, the eyes of the world are on Russia. We will all have seen the very warm and enthusiastic response of the Russian people to people coming from all over the world for the World cup. The Opposition supported the expulsion of the 23 Russian diplomats and the other related actions that Her Majesty’s Government took in the wake of the Salisbury incident, and we will support any action that the Government take that will keep our people safe. We cannot allow the streets of ordinary British towns and communities to become killing fields for state actors.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her support and her comments and join her in stating again that the whole House wishes the victims a very speedy recovery. I very much welcome her questions, which I shall try to respond to in turn.

The right hon. Lady asked, perfectly correctly, for reassurance that this incident is not connected in any way to the areas that were decontaminated after the original incident back in March. We are very comfortable that that is not the case—and that is not just the view of Ministers on their own; it is the view of experts, especially the decontamination experts. They are clear that the decontamination exercise was successful, as is Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, and we are happy to say that those areas are all safe. We are also comfortable that, from what we know, in this particular incident neither individual contracted or came into contact with the nerve agent at any of the decontaminated areas. That is our belief.

The right hon. Lady asked whether there was any more information on the connection between this incident and the original incident. That is of course the main line of inquiry for the police, for obvious reasons, but as she alluded to—it is worth restating—none of us should rush to prejudge the outcome of the investigation. As more evidence and any information comes out, we will of course share that with Members and with the wider public.

The right hon. Lady rightly raised the issue of resources, and I can reassure her on that. In fact, one of the main things that we discussed at the Cobra meeting earlier was ensuring that all the necessary resources are made available, as they were back in March. We wanted to make sure that that applied to everyone involved in dealing with this incident, but particularly local police, CT policing and the security services. I am comfortable that any resources required will be provided and any further requests will be met. That will be a priority for us.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the impact on the local area, and she was right to do so. People local to the area were heroic in their response to the original attack and have united, together as a community, and sent a clear message of support for each other. At the time of the original incident, there was a lot of support from the local council, Wiltshire Council, and from local political leaders, including my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who contacted me at the moment he knew about the incident to ask about further support. We are looking at what more can be done. We will meet the leader of the local council, Baroness Jane Scott, and talk about precisely that, and we will also talk about, as the right hon. Lady mentioned, local businesses, many of which were just starting to recover. Whether they are high street shops or part of the local tourist trade, we want to make sure that their business is as unaffected as possible, so we are looking at what further support we can provide to them. The right hon. Lady was absolutely right to raise that point.

The right hon. Lady asked about local health expertise. The Department of Health and Social Care is of course making sure that if any extra resources are required, they will be provided to the health services. It is particularly important that, given that it is where the victims are, Salisbury District Hospital has all the support needed. My current understanding is that in respect of the two victims in this case, the health professionals in the hospital were able to use some of the experience that they gained from March’s incident in their approach, which meant that the right type of medical support was provided earlier than it perhaps would have been otherwise. There is considerable local expertise, but of course if more needs to be provided, it will be.

Lastly, the right hon. Lady asked me about an update on the police investigation into the original case. That investigation is of course ongoing and involves CT policing, local police and the security services, but it would be inappropriate for me to say anything further on that at this point.

We can be sure that this incident will be used by Russian state misinformation campaigns to try further to obfuscate what happened in March. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we counter that through a steady drumbeat of telling the truth about what happened in March and of giving as much information about this incident as we can, when we can?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. He will know that the Russian disinformation campaign has already begun. As soon as this news was made public yesterday, we saw that, certainly on social media. For that reason and many more, it is important that, as more evidence of what happened emerges, the UK, together with our international allies, presents that to the public and makes it very clear and very factual.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement. As others have said, our immediate thoughts are with Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, whom we wish a very speedy and full recovery. They are completely innocent victims in this whole affair. I endorse the statements that have been made about our support for the emergency services; we can only wonder about the concern that they themselves must feel for their own personal safety when they cope with matters of this kind.

I particularly welcome the Home Secretary’s statement in two regards. First, it is important to reassure the public that there is no generalised threat to the wider community and dampen down irresponsible speculation that might be to the contrary. I also welcome the fact that he draws a distinction between the Russian people and the Russian state, particularly at this time. We should try hard to make sure that that message resonates within Russia itself, particularly given the events that are happening there at the moment.

I wish to press the Home Secretary in two respects. First, he says that people will naturally be concerned to understand the link, if any, between this incident and the Skripal case. Is it possible for him to identify whether the Novichok in this instance is from the same batch as was used in the Skripal case, or will that not be possible, and will he therefore not be able to say whether there is a direct link? Secondly, he has updated the House on the expulsion of diplomats, but, of course, there was a great range of other measures discussed as well in response to the incident on 4 March. If he is not able to do this now, can he say when he will be in a position to update the House on other matters, particularly with regard to the seizure of Russian state assets and to improving checks at our borders?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. Again, he has made a number of important points. I join him in commending the work of the emergency services; their response has been absolutely exceptional both back in March and, from what we have seen, in the past few days. He is also right to emphasise the distinction between the Russian people and the Russian state. Our quarrel is with the Russian state, not with the Russian people. In the World cup so far, the Russian people’s response and welcome to British fans and to the British team has been very nice to see, which emphasises the point that he has made.

The hon. Gentleman asked two questions: one about the nerve agent and the second about Russian action. On the nerve agent, scientists from Porton Down are absolutely clear that this is the exact same type of nerve agent from the Novichok family of nerve agents that was used in the March attack, so we are very clear on that. He asked specifically about the batch. We cannot attribute this to the same batch at this point, but scientists will be looking into that. I have been told that that may not even be possible because of a number of factors, but we cannot rule out, of course, that it was from the same batch. Although we are comfortable that it is the exact same nerve agent, we cannot at this point say that it is from the exact same batch.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about any further action against Russia. I think that I said in the statement that, as we continue with the investigation and as evidence emerges, we will respond accordingly.

I strongly support my right hon. Friend’s statement today and the information that he has given us. Obviously, local people will need maximum reassurance. Will he reaffirm that the risk to the general public is very low and that the Government’s top priority is the safety and wellbeing of local residents?

I am very happy to reaffirm that. The statements made yesterday by the chief medical officer and Public Health England were very reassuring; the risk to the public remains low. There is advice from the chief medical officer for those whom I mentioned briefly in my statement—those who believe that they may have been in some of the same areas that are now cordoned off to take some precautionary action. That kind of belt and braces approach is very appropriate, but the risk to the public remains very low.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Our police, intelligence officers and medical staff are among the best in the world, and I know that they will be doing everything possible to keep people safe and to pursue this vile crime against this couple and the original Skripal attack. Can he confirm that he has had no co-operation from the Russian Government, which would be both revealing and shocking in itself? Will he also say a little bit more about Novichok and whether or how it degrades or deteriorates and how easy it is to detect, as he will be aware that there is already conflicting information and, potentially, misinformation being circulated on this?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. First, I can confirm that we have had no co-operation from the Russian Government, but given their responsibility for the original attack and their campaign of disinformation, no one in the House should be surprised about that. I have made it clear today that, if the Russians wanted to respond in a positive way and provide more information—for example, on Novichok and on how they disposed of the nerve agent, if they did—they could, but they have clearly chosen not to. I have no doubt that, in the coming days and weeks, we will see an increased campaign of disinformation from the Russian state.

The right hon. Lady specifically asks about Novichok and that type of nerve agent. Like all nerve agents, it will deteriorate over some time, but my understanding is that, in the case of this type of nerve agent, that some time could be months and months. Therefore, it is scientifically perfectly possible that this nerve agent came from the same batch; it could well be the exact same nerve agent that was used in March because it would not have had enough time to deteriorate in any meaningful way.

The right hon. Lady also asks about detecting a nerve agent. It is not easy to detect at all. Detection equipment is available for radioactive substances, but detecting a nerve agent is a very different matter and there is no easy way at all to detect it. There are some ways to help find it, but it is hard to detect. That said, the considerable experience that we built up back in March will help us in responding to this incident, too.

Order. Understandably, a significant number of Members wish to participate in these exchanges and to question the Home Secretary. There is a debate to follow on proxy voting, which is well subscribed and which risks having very little time left for it. If that were to transpire, it would be open to the Government to reschedule that debate on another occasion so that Members were not disappointed, but, in the meantime, if people could ask short questions and the Home Secretary could provide short replies that would help.

It is quite extraordinary and shocking to hear the statements that are already coming out of Russia. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is really important that we work with our international allies to counter the fake news and the disinformation coming from Russia and others?

Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly what we have been doing, especially since the incident in March. This recent incident is a reminder that there is more to do.

I thank the Home Secretary for his excellent statement and join others in celebrating his distinction between our condemnation of the Russian Government and our support for the Russian people. His careful phrasing today and his diplomatic sensitivity is vital. Will he reassure the House that all Ministers will follow his lead and his calm strength?

May I stress the need to support local organisations? Budgeting in an annual budget cycle for an international chemical weapons attack simply does not happen, so the local council, the local hospital, the local police force and local businesses need financial support from central Government, and they need it quickly.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that point. He will recall that, when the previous incident happened, I was the Local Government Secretary and was very much aware of that. We provided support then, and we will certainly be providing support again this time.

The Home Secretary referred in his statement to the strong solidarity that Britain’s allies had shown to us in the wake of the Skripal incident a few months ago. Is he confident that we can maintain strong solidarity in the wake of this incident among liberal democracies, and does he agree that that is essential when the forces of nationalism are on the rise in a number of countries?

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Having that unity among freedom-loving nations is very important in the face of this type of incident. There are a number of important multilateral events coming up: the western Balkans summit, the NATO summit and the visit to the UK by the President of America. Those are all fresh opportunities to build on that solidarity.

I understand that people will want to hear from the police investigation as soon as possible, but from what I heard from the police in the briefing I received this morning, it will take some time. We need to give them that time, but I assure my hon. Friend that as we get more information we will bring it to this House immediately.

If and when the Government come to the conclusion that Russia was responsible for this attack—whether through targeting or by accident—will the Government pursue further co-ordinated action with our allies in response?

We absolutely need to keep all options open. I think that the hon. Gentleman would understand that the focus right here and now—certainly in today’s Cobra meeting—is very much on public safety, the police investigation and supporting the victims. I am sure that we will be considering other options as more information comes to light.

Obviously, this situation is distressing and it is being monitored by many of our constituents all around the country. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the incident is being treated with the utmost seriousness and that the Government are being regularly updated on developments?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. From the moment we knew about the incident, we have responded in that way—and not just the Government, but, just as importantly, local emergency services, the local council, local police and counter-terrorism police. We will keep treating the situation as an absolute priority.

The hon. Lady asks another important question. There are no easy ways. Since the March incident we—not just the Government, but the wider responsible media, Members of Parliament and others—have learnt to call out misinformation whenever we see it. This misinformation is often directed not only at us or the British public, but at a wider international audience, so working with our international allies can also help.

From the statement today and statements after the March incident, it is quite clear that our agencies are world-leading and well recognised as being so throughout the world. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that those agencies will have all the resources that they need to get to the bottom of this situation?

Yes. As my hon. Friend will know, a number of agencies and organisations are involved in addressing this incident—to deal not only with the criminal investigation, but the health issues—and I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

The St Petersburg troll factories and the RT propaganda channel are already gearing up to spread misinformation. Could we not at least do a little bit more to expose this? In particular, would Members of all parties in this House not appear on Putin’s propaganda television channel?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue. There have been far too many incidents when Members have sadly supported the Russia propaganda regime, and RT is one way in which they have done so. If any Member has an ounce of common sense, they will realise—especially after this second incident—that the British public will not support any of them if they support President Putin.

The Croatian Prime Minister told me last week at the Council of Europe that the evidence that made him expel a Russian diplomat had been absolutely compelling. Will the Home Secretary ensure that the evidence that he produces will be just as compelling in this case?

This is an opportunity to highlight just how seriously we take evidence and the facts. Already our world-leading scientists have been involved in the identification of the nerve agent in this incident, and that is exactly how we will proceed. As we gather that evidence, of course we will discuss it with our international allies.

The Home Secretary is right to draw a distinction between the Russian Government and the Russian people. With a potential clash between Russia and England in the World cup, what conversations has he had with the Foreign Secretary to ensure that English fans in Russia are being kept up to date through regularly updated Foreign Office travel advice?

Even before the World cup started, a robust and well-thought-through plan was put in place after work between my Department, the police and others to support British fans in Russia. In the light of this incident, we will certainly be reviewing that information. There is nothing at this point to indicate that the risk to fans in Russia has changed in any way, but we want to keep that under review.

Novichok was developed by the Soviet Union in the ’70s and ’80s. It is down to the Russians to fill in the gaps. If they cannot do so, the assumption has to be made as it has been. Will the Home Secretary absolutely assure us that—notwithstanding our success going into the World cup and the way in which we have warmed towards the Russian people—we will not let up on the Russian state, which stands accused of attempting to murder our citizens?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. He will understand that although this incident has a leading line of inquiry—the connection with the previous incident—we do not want to jump to conclusions. If it is established that the Russian state is entirely responsible for this incident as well, of course we will consider what further action we can take.

Russia is receiving lots of positive coverage at the moment because of the World cup. Therefore, tackling the disinformation issue is that much more important. Has the Home Secretary or anyone else called in the Russian ambassador to hold him to account for this incident and to say that the level of disinformation that Russia is propagating is completely unacceptable and will be challenged?

At this point, we have not called in the Russian ambassador. We will want to consider what further action we can take as this investigation develops, and that may well include speaking to the Russian ambassador.

The Amesbury incident is shocking, and I wish the pair affected a swift recovery. I am deeply concerned for Salisbury’s local economy and community. Will my right hon. Friend commit to the necessary support for Wiltshire to get through this? Will he also stress again that the Government’s priority is the safety of residents and that the risk to Wiltshire residents remains low?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. As a local MP, she will be concerned and will be hearing concerns from her constituents. I can give her that commitment: we will support the local economy, local businesses and local people in every way that we can. I discussed the matter this morning with the Communities Secretary, who shares that desire to help in every way that we can.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement. This must, understandably, be a time of great anxiety for local residents. Will he confirm that they are receiving all the public health advice that we can provide?

Yes, I can confirm that. There will obviously be more advice to come, as we learn more from the chief medical officer and Public Health England. The police and other agencies are working closely with the health authorities to ensure that the public health advice is updated at all times. Let me reiterate that the advice from the chief medical officer and Public Health England is that the risk to the public remains low.

The Salisbury attack and Russian disinformation shows how important it is to continue saying our side of the story. I understand that the BBC World Service is considering a considerable uplift in its broadcasting activities in the Balkans, eastern Europe and on the borders of Russia. Will the Home Secretary consider giving his support to the BBC World Service at this time, because it is clearly crucial to our safety at home?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is right that we look at how we can counter much of the disinformation out there that is coming from Russia, and the BBC World Service can play an important role in doing so.

There will be a great temptation to engage in speculation following this latest incident. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the police must be given the space that they need to be able to fully investigate the facts and establish exactly what happened?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As she will know, the police investigation has already begun. From the moment that this was declared a major incident, it has involved not just local policing but substantial support from counter-terrorism policing. Over 100 officers from counter-terrorism policing are already involved in this new incident. We will continue to make sure that they get the resources that are needed and are given the time to complete their work.

On Sunday, I drove through Salisbury on my way to the excellent Chalk valley history festival, also attended by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Driving through the city, one cannot but be struck by the historic beauty of Salisbury, particularly its cathedral. Obviously, Salisbury’s local economy is highly dependent on international tourism. Will the Home Secretary send out a message to those people intending to visit Salisbury and nearby Stonehenge that they must continue to do so against the threat of what is effectively terrorism? They should attend Stonehenge, go to Salisbury and enjoy the wonderful historic sites.

The hon. Gentleman is himself a distinguished historian. I trust that he was not merely attending the festival but orating at it.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Obviously, Salisbury is one of the most beautiful places in our country—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) shouts, “On earth.” I think we will have to agree with him on that. Whether by visiting Salisbury itself, nearby towns and villages or Stonehenge, this is a very good way that we can show our support. I would not only encourage members of the public to continue with their plans, but suggest that perhaps it is time to give ourselves an extra reason to make such a plan and be more determined to make a specific, special visit.