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Amesbury Update

Volume 644: debated on Monday 9 July 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement updating the House on recent developments in Salisbury and Amesbury. As I told the House last week, a major incident was declared in Wiltshire on Tuesday after two people were found unwell at a home in Amesbury. Both were taken to Salisbury District Hospital, where they were treated for exposure to a nerve agent of the type known as Novichok. This has been identified as the same type of nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal.

It is with profound sadness that I must inform the House that one of the patients, Dawn Sturgess, died last night at Salisbury District Hospital. I know that the whole House will want to join me in expressing our sincere condolences to her family and friends. The police are working to ensure that her family have all the necessary support they need at this extremely difficult time. I know that the House will also want to join me in expressing our sincere thanks to the police, emergency services and staff at Salisbury District Hospital for their tireless professionalism and for the dedicated care they provided to Dawn Sturgess and continue to provide to Dawn’s partner, Charlie Rowley, who remains critically ill in hospital. I met some of the emergency workers at the weekend and I know just how hard they have worked and how committed they are to doing the best job possible. Hon. Members may also be aware that a police officer working on the investigation presented at Great Western Hospital and was later transferred to Salisbury District Hospital as a precautionary measure. I can report to the House that the police officer was not poisoned, did not require treatment and has since left hospital.

Dawn’s death only strengthens our resolve to find out exactly what happened and who is behind it. Earlier today, I chaired a Cobra meeting to discuss the next steps, and the Prime Minister and I will continue to receive regular updates on the situation. This is now a murder investigation, which is being led by about 100 detectives from counter-terrorism police command, alongside officers from Wiltshire police and other constabularies. We know that tests conducted at Porton Down have shown that both individuals were exposed to the same type of Novichok used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March. Officers are still trying to work out how the pair were exposed to the same nerve agent, although tests have confirmed that they touched a contaminated item with their hands. The investigation is now moving as quickly as possible to identify what the source of the contamination was.

Police officers have cordoned off a number of sites in Amesbury and Salisbury that they believe the two individuals visited in the period before they fell ill. This is a precautionary measure while the police continue to investigate how they came into contact with the substance. As I told the House last week, there is no evidence that either person visited any of the sites that were decontaminated following the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. We have taken a very robust approach to decontamination, and all sites reopened following the attempted murders in March are safe. Last week, the chief medical officer for England said that the risk to the wider public remains low but that people in the local area should not pick up any strange items such as needles, syringes or unusual containers, given that the source of the contamination has not yet been found. That advice remains unchanged. I have asked the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to ensure that the advice remains appropriate, in the light of the news overnight.

This is, of course, a very upsetting time, not just for Dawn’s family but for the people of Amesbury and Salisbury, who have seen the places they know and love cordoned off and become a murder investigation scene. I reassure them that we are doing everything we can to help to keep people safe. In addition, I have agreed with my colleagues that the Cabinet Office will work across Government Departments to develop a suitable support package for local businesses, some of which I met yesterday.

The murder investigation is ongoing and investigators are working urgently and around the clock. The work will take time and the investigation must be allowed to proceed on the evidence and the facts alone. 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 the House and for allowing me prior sight of it. I welcome the fact that he is doing his best to keep the House promptly updated on this very serious incident. The whole House appreciates that he chaired another Cobra meeting on this important issue this morning.

The first thing that must be said is that our deepest sympathies go out to the friends, family and loved ones of Dawn Sturgess. It was a horrific way to die. Opposition and Government Members can agree that it is of paramount importance that we establish exactly how it happened. I am sure the family and loved ones of Charlie Rowley must be deeply concerned at this time. We can at least offer them the reassurance that we are confident that the medical staff and medical specialists are doing everything that they can. We wish him a full recovery. I repeat the Opposition’s admiration of and support for the work of the emergency services, the NHS, the security services and the vital public servants at Porton Down.

The Home Secretary will be aware that there was some concern among some people in Salisbury and Amesbury that they were not being given enough information. Ricky Rogers, a leading Wiltshire councillor, said that the death of Sturgess had “heightened tension”. He went on:

“Local residents have never been told enough about the first incident back in March. I think someone from counter-terrorism needs to come here and tell us what they know”.

However, since he said that, the Metropolitan police counter-terrorism chief Neil Basu has made a very full public statement, which may have allayed some concerns. The Opposition appreciate that the security services cannot reveal everything they know as soon as they know it, but will the Home Secretary give an assurance that local people will be kept as fully informed as is feasible?

I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement of work on a support package for local business, which I asked about last week. We will wait to hear further detail. It has been a terrible period for the community. Public concern after the first incident, and now this second poisoning incident, represents a blow to business and retail in the area. Local businesses were only just recovering from the fallout from the original incident, so we welcome news about a support package.

Going forward, after these very serious security incidents, the most important thing is that we limit speculation and guesswork and have the most thorough investigation that goes where the evidence takes it. The sad death of Dawn Sturgess deserves no less.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. I join her in expressing our thoughts for the family and friends of Dawn Sturgess, who will of course be going through an incredibly difficult time. She was right to start with those remarks and to remind us all that Charlie Rowley is still gravely ill in hospital. The thoughts of the whole House—of all of us present today—remain with him. We wish nothing less than a speedy recovery for him.

As she did last week, the right hon. Lady quite rightly took the opportunity to commend the work of the emergency services. As I mentioned, I went to Amesbury this weekend and met emergency workers from the local police, health and fire services, and took the opportunity to thank them for everything they have done and continue to do, both in response to the original incident and, of course, now. In their approach to the work and how they have done it, they continue to help local people and to build confidence, so the right hon. Lady was right to mention them.

The right hon. Lady mentioned that she has heard people ask in some quarters whether more information could be made available, especially relating to the original incident in March. That desire for more information, especially from local people, is perfectly understandable, but, as she herself appreciated this is a live, ongoing police investigation, and what the police can share with the public is always limited. That is understandable, but as she noted, and I thank her for that, the head of counter terrorism policing, Mr Neil Basu, has now made a further statement, which touches on both the original investigation and this current incident. I have every reason to believe that he is sharing whatever information he possibly can with the public, but it is right that the information that is shared is a decision made by the police, and by the police alone. If it would be helpful to the right hon. Lady, I would happily arrange a further briefing on Privy Council terms with perhaps the deputy national security adviser. In that way, she could get a bit more information. If she wants to take that up, I think that she would find it helpful, and that offer is available to her.

The right hon. Lady also talked about the support package. I share her concerns there. She will know from the original incident that a support package was put together by central Government working with the local council, Wiltshire Council, and that a number of businesses have received support. Given this new incident and the impact that that can have locally on businesses, and given the meetings that I have had with some of those businesses, it is important that we look at that again and see what further support can be provided. At today’s Cobra meeting, I felt that it should be cross-Government support, taking in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as well as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury. They should all be involved and working together. That is why the Cabinet Office offered to co-ordinate that activity, and it is working on that as we speak. The local Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who joins me on the Front Bench, has been very involved, coming up with some helpful suggestions for local businesses, so we will certainly be following up on those, too.

The right hon. Lady said that speculation should be limited. I do not think that speculation will add in any way to what local people and the country at large want to see. As she quite rightly said, people want to be led by the evidence, the full facts, which is why we must all allow the police to do their work. Whenever I have any further information that I can share publicly, I will, of course, come to the House to do so. As I have just said, if it is information that cannot be made public, I am happy to make sure that she gets updates on Privy Council terms. I very much welcome her approach to this, because it is exactly what the country wants to see.

Given that, exactly 12 years ago, the Russian Federation Council passed a law permitting the extra-judicial killing of opponents overseas, is it not rather strange that Sergei Skripal was living in plain sight in Salisbury? Can the Home Secretary assure the House that those other defectors, such as Oleg Gordievsky, who has been sentenced to death in absentia, and Victor Makarov are having their security arrangements suitably reviewed and any protection that they require afforded to them?

I am very happy to assure my right hon. Friend that, clearly, there were lessons to be learned from the original incident, and that, no doubt, there will be in due course from this new incident. I know that the security services and the police have drawn lessons from the action on 4 March, and part of that is making sure that all people in Britain, whether they are British citizens or others, have the level of protection that is necessary.

I thank the Home Secretary both for his statement and for the courtesy of giving me advance sight of it. This is first and foremost a personal tragedy for the deceased and her family and friends, and I wish to express condolences to them on behalf of the Scottish National party. We are also very conscious that Mr Rowley is still seriously ill in hospital, and that this must be a particularly stressful time for his family and friends; we very much hope that he will make a full recovery. Like others, I wish to acknowledge the emergency services, particularly the NHS staff, for their swift, professional and brave response to these incidents.

It is very concerning that a citizen of these islands has died here as a result of contact with a nerve agent that we understand originates from Russia. But this is now a murder inquiry and justice must be allowed to take its course. In the meantime, I have two questions for the Home Secretary, the answers to which should not prejudice ongoing investigations as to culpability. First, local people will understandably be very alarmed, and our hearts go out to them. Will he tell us how wide an area is now being decontaminated, and when can local people be assured that the wider clean-up operation has been completed?

Secondly, last Thursday the Home Secretary was unable to confirm whether the Novichok used in this instance can be attributed to the same batch as was used in the attack on the Skripals. Will he confirm today whether it will be possible to establish that from testing, and if so, when that information might be available?

The hon. and learned Lady is right to send her condolences and thoughts to the family of Dawn Sturgess, and to send her best wishes to Charlie Rowley. As she said, the situation is concerning to people in this House and across the country, but especially to local people. However, she has rightly identified that, as the investigation is ongoing, there are a number of things that probably cannot be shared at this point.

The hon. and learned Lady asked two specific questions, the first of which was about decontamination. I assume that she was referring to the original incident. A number of sites relating to the original incident were cordoned off. Once the police had finished their investigation of those sites, they were made available to the scientists and experts for decontamination. Not all the sites from the original incident have been fully decontaminated. Those that have been decontaminated have of course been opened up and are safe, but some sites are still going through the decontamination process.

As for the new incident, a number of sites have been cordoned off and are being used for live police investigation. The decontamination will not begin until the police investigations are complete. Once the police are ready they will of course hand the sites over for decontamination, but the police work will take priority and the sites will be cordoned off. It is worth mentioning that all the sites will be protected. We would not want someone to enter them even accidentally—not just from a policing perspective, but of course because they have not been decontaminated, or the decision has not been made—so they are guarded at all times.

The hon. and learned Lady also asked about the batch. She is right to remind the House that the nerve agent used in the latest incident is the same as that used in the incident on 4 March, but the scientists have not been able to identify or determine whether it is from the same batch. It may well be, but that is not known at this point. That is partly due to the sample that the scientists at Porton Down have at this point. From this incident, they have blood samples from the two individuals who were contaminated, and these samples are not strong enough to match to a batch. That might well be possible if further evidence is available later in the investigation.

May I provide some reassurance to the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary? I have known Assistant Commissioner Basu since his time as borough commander in Barnet, and he is an excellent police officer. No doubt he will be thorough in his investigation and certainly very professional. Will the Home Secretary provide me with some reassurance that Assistant Commissioner Basu has the necessary resources, because he really is looking for a needle in a haystack? The second contamination occurred some distance from the first, so he has a very large area to cover.

I thank my hon. Friend for expressing his confidence in Neil Basu, who has been leading both investigations, into the original incident and in this case. He has also excelled himself in his response to some of the terrorist attacks that, sadly, the country has seen.

My hon. Friend asks me particularly about resources. I would like to assure him on that. One of the reasons I went to speak to the chief constable locally, and have spoken to counter-terrorism police both last week and today, was to assure myself on that point. I remind my hon. Friend that as well as the more than 100 counter-terrorism police officers there locally at the moment, there is support from Wiltshire police in their work and other constabularies are also involved through a mutual aid process. When the second incident occurred, Wiltshire police requested support from military police as well, to help guard some of the sites. That military police support was on the ground within 48 hours. I believe that at this point there is enough support, but we will keep that under review, and if more support is needed, we will of course make it available.

I thank the Home Secretary for his update on the murder investigation into this vile use of a chemical weapon on British soil. I join him and the shadow Home Secretary in sending our condolences to Dawn Sturgess’s family and our thoughts to Charlie Rowley.

May I ask the Home Secretary further about how the Home Office and the counter-terrorism police are working together to ensure not only that this investigation rightly has the resources and the immense expertise that it needs—I know he is doing that—but that counter-terrorism police can continue their important work on wider threats to this country? Have the police given him any timetable for any further updates?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. She asks a very important question. She will know that the Home Office works closely with counter-terrorism policing generally in any case, so every week I meet the head of counter-terrorism policing to get an update on the most important cases. Of course, this is one of those that will be getting a lot of attention, as is the original incident on 4 March.

The right hon. Lady will also know that resources for counter-terrorism policing were increased, and increased substantially, following the five terrorist attacks of last year. We constantly keep that under review to make sure that the resources are there, given the priority for this type of policing. In response to this incident, counter-terrorism police are drawing a lot of support from Wiltshire police and the other constabularies, and from the presence of military police, because that allows them to focus on what they specialise in. They are all working very closely together. We will keep that under review and keep working with them, and if extra support is required, we will certainly be making that available.

One of the striking things about the Skripal attack was the concerted campaign of misinformation with which we were attacked in this country. Will the Home Secretary talk a little bit about what the Government will do to work with international partners to make sure that people in this country know as many of the facts as possible and are in the best possible position to judge correctly the misinformation campaign that will inevitably follow?

My hon. Friend rightly reminds this House about the Kremlin’s persistent and constant use of disinformation against those it perceives as its enemies. After the original attack, the Kremlin did that time and again. There were over 25 disinformation narratives in response to the March attack. Sadly, with regard to the Amesbury poisonings, the Kremlin has already established some 12 false narratives. It specialises in false information. This is an opportunity to remind Members that in initiating work with Russian television, radio and other outlets, the only job that they are doing is helping the Kremlin to feed poison to the rest of the world.

On the Russians feeding poison to the rest of the world, is it still the Government’s working assumption that the only credible explanation for what happened earlier this year was that the Russian state was directly involved in ordering the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal? If that is the case, is not the most likely explanation still that the Russians have been so careless about the way in which Novichoks have been used in the United Kingdom that this murder lies at the door of the Kremlin?

It is absolutely still the Government’s view that there is no other plausible explanation than that the Kremlin was responsible for the attack on Yulia and Sergei Skripal on 4 March. With this latest incident, we must be led by the evidence and see what the facts are as the police continue their investigation, but frankly it is hard to see that that there is any other plausible explanation.

I echo my right hon. Friend’s gratitude to Wiltshire’s emergency services and staff at Salisbury District Hospital. Will he ensure that they have available all the information, support and resources they need to continue to do their job?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. With this new incident, having the first Cobra meeting helped a lot in making sure not only that the right amount of resources were made available but that they are being used in the best way and have the biggest impact. We will constantly keep that under review. We are ensuring that, whether for the police work or working with the local authorities and others, the resources that they need will be there.

May I associate myself and my party with what has been said about the tragic death of Dawn Sturgess? It was needless, it was undeserved, and, to be honest, it seems chillingly sinister that a death like that can happen in our country in this day and age.

I accept the argument that the Russian state was probably associated with the attack earlier in the year. The Home Secretary is correct to say that we should not jump to any conclusions while the investigation is carried out. With regard to the earlier question about involvement on the international scene in trying to work out what happened, has he applied pressure to his counterparts in the Russian state—perhaps not with any sign of success—to see whether it would be forthcoming with intelligence about the agent and, more importantly, its possible cure?

The hon. Gentleman reminds the House of the nature of the original attack, about which we do have far more information and facts. It reminds the House of just how barbaric and inhumane that was: the use of a nerve agent—a chemical weapon—for the first time in Europe since the second world war; an act carried out by the Russian Government. That is the view not just of the British Government but of 23 of our allies across the world. As a result, we saw the action that they all took, united with us, to expel diplomats.

With regard to this incident, again, we do not want to jump to conclusions. We want to see what the facts bring out. The hon. Gentleman asked whether any type of help has been forthcoming from the Russians. The only thing forthcoming from the Russians is a disinformation campaign.

Business of the House


That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill:


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Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

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