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Terrorism: Public Alert Technology

Volume 790: debated on Monday 16 April 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will authorise the use of public alert technology for mobile phone systems for use by the police and emergency services in the event of a terrorist incident.

My Lords, the Cabinet Office has been requested to provide Ministers with advice from the police and other emergency services about the scenarios where a national alerting scheme could improve public protection. An initial analysis of what a scheme might look like and what delivering a scheme might entail is scheduled for May 2018.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, if somewhat bemused by it. Three trials were organised by the Cabinet Office and conducted in 2013, which is nearly five years ago. There was then a report from the Cabinet Office saying that the trials had been extremely successful, and it made a series of recommendations. Why is it taking so long to implement a scheme that could save lives by alerting people to an emergency and to the advice of the emergency services?

I begin by commending the noble Lord on the report he did for the Mayor of London, which had a number of recommendations —127—on how better to deal with terrorism, of which this was one. I reassure the noble Lord that the Cabinet Office is taking this seriously; I had a meeting with officials this morning at which I set out a timetable for the next phase in this approach. I agree with him that there is a real potential to reduce harm to people and mitigate damage to property if we make progress with a national alerting scheme, but there are some real issues—technical, political and administrative—that need to be addressed before we can make progress with the scheme.

Does my noble friend accept that when there were attacks on London transport, what the police actually did was to switch everybody’s mobiles off in case they were used to trigger another device? Does that not bring into question how useful it would be to put this alert out on mobiles which might, at that stage, be switched off?

Any progress will of course be made after consultation with the police, but my understanding is that that problem can be overcome. Basically, what we are looking at is the reverse of a 999 scheme: instead of the citizen telephoning the emergency services and asking for help, the emergency services contact the citizen and give the citizen advice. There is real potential to avoid damage to individuals and to property if the scheme is worked up, but there are some issues that need to be addressed before we can make progress with a trial.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what network providers have been contacted about this and whether they have agreed to carry out this system?

The noble Baroness is quite right that this would need the co-operation of the communication providers and, indeed, Ofcom. My understanding is that after initial discussions they are willing to take part in such a service: that is not one of the obstacles we envisage in our way.

My Lords, the Minister has not answered my noble friend’s first question: why has it taken five years to get not very far and when is it going to be complete?

The noble Lord is quite right that some work was done a few years ago—I think in 2014—but at that stage it was decided not to make progress. Progress was reignited by the report done by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, and the correspondence with the Mayor’s Office and the Cabinet Office. As a result of that, progress is now being made. I accept what the noble Lord has said about a possible delay. We think the scheme has potential and we are working it up.

My Lords, did the Minister’s meeting this morning have anything to do with the fact that the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was coming up this afternoon?

The meeting I had this morning was precisely because the noble Lord, Lord Harris, had a Question, which he put to me. However, the work was in hand and if the noble Baroness looks at the progress report—which I think came out last October, following the noble Lord’s report—it said:

“Engagement is continuing between City Hall, the Cabinet Office and other partners on this work. MOPAC”—

which is the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime—

“will continue to work with central government to make the case for a trial in London of the technology suggested in Lord Harris’ review”.

So it is not the case that nothing was happening before the noble Lord tabled his Question.

But, my Lords, I think it is almost a lack of progress report rather than a progress report. I am greatly encouraged that my noble friend Lord Harris put this on the table today; otherwise, the Minister might not have had the meeting at the Cabinet Office this morning. I put it to him that other countries seem to have resolved these issues: the US in 2012, and Australia has had a similar system since 2009, as, indeed, has the Netherlands. I ask him to reflect that this is about alerting people not just to terrorist incidents, but to the lack of an incident. He will recall two incidents last year when there were stampedes at Oxford Street station because misinformation went out. The sooner such information can get to people as quickly as possible, the sooner we can stop disinformation and the kind of injuries we saw in those two incidents. So I urge that we have a progress report as soon as possible, rather than a lack of progress report.

I hope I was able to reassure noble Lords that progress is now being made. I accept the implied criticism that we could have got here a little sooner. There is the potential, as the noble Baroness has just said, to avoid the sorts of incidents that she mentioned. There is also an opportunity to use technology in a way that it is not used in other countries at the moment, I think, which is why we are looking at a slightly different scheme; for example, in the case of the attempted murder in Salisbury, with a modern system it would have been possible to identify anyone with a mobile phone who had been in an area of contamination at the relevant time and send them a specific message. This is new technology and we want to make sure that if we go ahead, we use all the benefits that modern IT provides.

My Lords, can the Minister say what political issues are delaying the introduction of this technology?

Well, there is the issue of whether somebody should have the right to send a message to somebody on their mobile phone—whether or not they want to receive it. There are those sorts of issues.

Well, some people may not want to get a message. There are other issues about who would be in control of the system: the police or the other emergency services? There are some technical and administrative issues that need to be addressed.

Following up the particular point about data of the individual, bearing in mind the recent arrangements over personal data protection, will it be essential that individuals agree that they may be approached by this reverse 999 system?

No, the system the Government are looking at is not one you would have to opt in to, as with many of the existing systems. You would get messages automatically, which is why I think it raises some of the issues touched on in the previous answer.

Does the Minister agree that the problems he has outlined are very large compared with the technological problems associated with introducing identity cards? Will he come forward with at least the same enthusiasm on identity cards in the future?

I hate to disappoint the noble Lord but the introduction of ID cards is not on the Government’s agenda at the moment, nor do I think it will be in the near future.

My Lords, what advice does the Civil Contingencies Secretariat now give to households in case of emergencies? Until about 10 years ago quite detailed advice was given. Has this been updated recently and what provisions, et cetera, should households have in place should there be a crisis, particularly something affecting cyber and delivery, for example?

I may need to write to the noble Lord on that and how it relates to the civil contingencies unit. In some parts of the country there are arrangements whereby if there is an emergency, the landlines of those who live in the immediate vicinity are automatically contacted and they are given a message. But I would like to do some more work on the specific question the noble Lord asked and then write to him.