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Salisbury Update

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 5 September 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the investigation into the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and the subsequent poisoning of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley earlier this year. This was a sickening and despicable act in which a devastatingly toxic nerve agent, known as Novichok, was used to attack our country. It left four people fighting for their lives and one innocent woman dead, and I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the family of Dawn Sturgess in particular following their tragic loss.

In March, I set out for the House why the Government concluded that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter. I also said that, while we all share a sense of impatience to bring those responsible to justice, as a nation that believes in the rule of law we would give the police the space and time to carry out their investigation properly. Since then, around 250 detectives have trawled through more than 11,000 hours of CCTV and taken more than 1,400 statements. Working around the clock, they have carried out painstaking and methodical work to ascertain exactly which individuals were responsible and the methods they used to carry out this attack.

This forensic investigation has now produced sufficient evidence for the independent Director of Public Prosecutions to bring charges against two Russian nationals for: the conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal; the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey; the use and possession of Novichok; and causing grievous bodily harm with intent to Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey. This morning, the police have set out how the two Russian nationals travelled under the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, names the police believe to be aliases. They arrived at Gatwick Airport at 3 pm on Friday 2 March, having flown from Moscow on flight SU2588. They travelled by train to London Victoria, then on to Waterloo, before going to the City Stay Hotel in Bow Road, east London. They stayed there on both Friday and Saturday evenings, and traces of Novichok were found in their hotel room. On Saturday 3 March, they visited Salisbury, arriving at approximately 2.25 pm and leaving less than two hours later, at 4.10 pm. The police are confident that this was for reconnaissance of the Salisbury area. On Sunday 4 March, they made the same journey, travelling by Underground from Bow to Waterloo stations at approximately 8.05 am, before continuing by train to Salisbury.

The police have today released CCTV footage of the two men which clearly places them in the immediate vicinity of the Skripals’ house at 11.58 am, which the police say was moments before the attack. They left Salisbury and returned to Waterloo, arriving at approximately 4.45 pm, and boarded the Underground at approximately 6.30 pm to Heathrow, from where they returned to Moscow on flight SU2585, departing at 10.30 pm.

This hard evidence has enabled the independent Crown Prosecution Service to conclude it has a sufficient basis on which to bring charges against these two men for the attack in Salisbury. The same two men are now also the prime suspects in the case of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley. There is no other line of inquiry beyond this. The police have today formally linked the attack on the Skripals and the events in Amesbury such that it now forms one investigation. There are good reasons for doing so.

Our own analysis, together with yesterday’s report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has confirmed that the exact same chemical nerve agent was used in both cases. There is no evidence to suggest that Dawn and Charlie may have been deliberately targeted, but rather they were victims of the reckless disposal of this agent. The police have today released further details of the small glass counterfeit perfume bottle and box discovered in Charlie Rowley’s house which was found to contain this nerve agent. The manner in which the bottle was modified leaves no doubt that it was a cover for smuggling the weapon into the country and for the delivery method for the attack against the Skripals’ front door. The police investigation into the poisoning of Dawn and Charlie is ongoing, and the police are today appealing for further information. But were these two suspects within our jurisdiction, there would be a clear basis in law for their arrest for murder.

We repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March, and they have replied with obfuscation and lies. This has included trying to pass the blame for this attack on to terrorists, on to our international partners, and even on to the future mother-in-law of Yulia Skripal. They even claimed that I, myself, invented Novichok. Their attempts to hide the truth by pushing out a deluge of disinformation simply reinforces their culpability.

As we made clear in March, only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive to carry out the attack. Novichok nerve agents were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s under a programme codenamed Foliant. Within the past decade, Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of these agents, long after it signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles.

We were right to say in March that the Russian state was responsible, and now that we have identified the individuals involved, we can go even further. Just as the police investigation has enabled the CPS to bring charges against the two suspects, so the security and intelligence agencies have carried out their own investigations into the organisation behind this attack. Based on this work, I can today tell the House that, based on a body of intelligence, the Government have concluded that the two individuals named by the police and the CPS are officers from the Russian military intelligence service known as the GRU. The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command, so this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state. The House will appreciate that I cannot go into details about the work of our security and intelligence agencies, but we will be briefing opposition leaders and others on Privy Council terms and giving further detail to the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Let me turn to our response to this appalling attack and the further knowledge we now have about those responsible. First, with respect to the two individuals, as the Crown Prosecution Service and the police announced earlier today, we have obtained a European arrest warrant and will shortly issue an Interpol red notice. Of course, Russia has repeatedly refused to allow its nationals to stand trial overseas, citing a bar on extradition in its constitution. So, as we found following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, any formal extradition request in this case would be futile. But should either of these individuals ever again travel outside Russia, we will take every possible step to detain them, to extradite them and to bring them to face justice here in the United Kingdom.

This chemical weapons attack on our soil was part of a wider pattern of Russian behaviour that persistently seeks to undermine our security and that of our allies around the world. They have fomented conflict in the Donbass, illegally annexed Crimea, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and election interference. They were behind a violent attempted coup in Montenegro, and a Russian-made missile, launched from territory held by Russian-backed separatists, brought down MH17.

We must step up our collective effort to protect ourselves in response to this threat and that is exactly what we have done since the attack in March, both domestically and collectively with our allies. We have introduced a new power to detain people at the UK border to determine whether they are engaged in hostile state activity. We have introduced the Magnitsky amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act in response to the violation of human rights. And we have radically stepped up our activity against illicit finance entering our country. We also expelled 23 Russian diplomats who had been identified as undeclared Russian intelligence officers, fundamentally degrading Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come.

In collective solidarity, and in recognition of the shared threat posed to our allies, 28 other countries as well as NATO joined us in expelling a total of over 150 Russian intelligence officers: the largest collective expulsion ever. Since then, the EU has agreed a comprehensive package to tackle hybrid threats; the G7 has agreed a rapid response mechanism to share intelligence on hostile state activity; NATO has substantially strengthened its collective deterrence, including through a new cyber operations centre; and the US has announced additional sanctions against Russia for the Salisbury attack. Our allies acted in good faith, and the painstaking work of our police and intelligence agencies over the last six months further reinforces that they were right to do so.

Together, we will continue to show that those who attempt to undermine the international rules-based system cannot act with impunity. We will continue to press for all of the measures agreed so far to be fully implemented, including the creation of a new EU chemical weapons sanctions regime, but we will not stop there. We will also push for new EU sanctions regimes against those responsible for cyberattacks and gross human rights violations, and for new listings under the existing regime against Russia. We will work with our partners to empower the OPCW to attribute chemical weapons attacks to other states beyond Syria.

Most significantly, what we have learnt from today’s announcement is the specific nature of the threat from the Russian GRU. We know that the GRU has played a key part in malign Russian activity in recent years, and today we have exposed its role behind the despicable chemical weapons attack on the streets of Salisbury. The actions of the GRU are a threat to all our allies and to all of our citizens. On the basis of what we have learnt in the Salisbury investigation and what we know about this organisation more broadly, we must now step up our collective efforts, specifically against the GRU. We are increasing our understanding of what the GRU is doing in our countries, shining a light on its activities, exposing its methods and sharing them with our allies, just as we have done with Salisbury. While the House will appreciate that I cannot go into details, together with our allies we will deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus to counter the threat posed by the GRU.

I have said before, and I say again now, that the UK has no quarrel with the Russian people. We continue to hold out hope that we will one day once again enjoy a strong partnership with the Government of this great nation. As a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council, we will continue to engage Russia on topics of international peace and security, but we will also use these channels of communication to make clear there can be no place in any civilised international order for the kind of barbaric activity which we saw in Salisbury in March.

Finally, let me pay tribute to the fortitude of the people of Salisbury, Amesbury and the surrounding areas, who have faced such disruption to their daily lives over the past six months. Let me thank once again the outstanding efforts of the emergency services and National Health Service in responding to these incidents. Let me thank all those involved in the police and intelligence community for their tireless and painstaking work, which has led to today’s announcement.

Back in March, Russia sought to sow doubt and uncertainty about the evidence we presented to this House, and some were minded to believe it. Today’s announcement shows that we were right. We were right to act against the Russian state in the way we did, and we are right now to step up our efforts against the GRU. We will not tolerate such barbaric acts against our country. Together with our allies, this Government will continue to do whatever is necessary to keep our people safe. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating what is a detailed Statement. The House is grateful for the information that she provided. This was undoubtedly a shocking and deplorable act. I am sure that the House will join me in sending our thoughts to those whose lives are in danger and our deepest condolences to the friends and family of Dawn Sturgess, who tragically died following exposure.

We must also pay tribute to the dedication of the staff at Salisbury District Hospital and their tireless work in responding to this appalling crime. Like the noble Baroness, I also want to praise the resilience of the residents of Salisbury, Amesbury and the surrounding area. They have lived with this from day to day while most of us were able to read about it then move on to something else in our lives. For example, nearly 100 Wiltshire Police officers and staff have sought psychological support following the attack. The chief constable said that the cuts to police increases the pressure on his officers. Given the impact that this has had on the local community, what support, including financial support, have the Government provided to Salisbury and in what form? We should also pay tribute to the extraordinary diligence of and forensic work undertaken by our police and security services to identify those responsible and establish both the identities of the two Russian suspects—who can now be charged—and on whose authority they were acting.

I congratulate the Prime Minister and I welcome the confirmation of a European arrest warrant being obtained and an Interpol red notice being issued shortly. We know from bitter experience that it is futile to seek an extradition warrant from Russia. What will happen to that specific warrant if we leave the European Union either without a deal or having been unable to negotiate the remaining part of the European arrest warrant? The noble Baroness will be aware that there are difficulties with us remaining. I appreciate that a pragmatic, common-sense decision has been taken, rather than an ideological one, but what will happen in future? What would happen to this warrant, had it not been executed and those two people detained, by the time we leave the EU?

Russia’s reticence to allow its citizens to stand trial in the UK is unsurprising. Both suspects have been identified as officers of the Russian military intelligence service, known as the GRU. As referred to by the noble Baroness, the GRU is highly disciplined with a well-established chain of command. This attack was almost certainly approved at a senior level of the Russian state. The use of a nerve agent is a clear breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention and international law; we condemn the attack and its perpetrators in the strongest terms.

Given the findings of the OPCW and Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, including against its own citizens and former intelligence officers whom it regards as legitimate targets, what action are the Government taking at an international level to ensure that state actors cannot act with impunity? What discussions have there been with the US and European countries about further sanctions against Russia? As we leave the EU, our relationships and partnerships with our European neighbours will undoubtedly change; additional effort from us will be required to maintain them. What action are the Government taking on this issue at both a European and international level? We need to ensure that we maintain those relationships for the future so that action can be taken.

How closely are the Government working with the UN to strengthen the international monitoring and prohibition of chemical weapons? I am sure the noble Baroness recognises that the first duty of any Government is the safety and security of their citizens. The noble Baroness may be aware from debates in this Chamber that the police and security services have been clear that in protecting our citizens, one of our greatest assets in the community is local knowledge provided by police officers on the ground, yet police officer numbers across the country are falling and police stations are closing. Some £3 billion has been lost from the policing budget over the past eight years and there are 21,000 fewer police officers today than there were eight years ago. What assessment is being made of the impact of falling police numbers on maintaining national security? Is this being kept under review, including with a commitment to any necessary funding? I know that funding for the security services will increase but I am talking particularly about the ability of police officers on the ground to get local intelligence.

On funding, I would like to ask about CBRN training and support. I have asked this question in your Lordships’ House before, having previously been a Minister with responsibility for CBRN. In how many of our public services is training provided, and is funding being provided for the equipment, given the previous cuts?

Finally, I emphasise our gratitude for the work of our public servants and recognise the pressures we have seen on our health service staff, emergency services, the police and the security service in their ongoing work. They are not just dealing with this incident and the fallout from it; they are looking at ongoing threats from many different sources and they need our support, not just our words—and our response to their need for resources.

My Lords, I would like to thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement, which demonstrates what excellent work the police and security services can achieve when working together. They deserve our heartfelt congratulations for identifying the perpetrators of this terrible crime. Sadly, I suspect that identifying the perpetrators will prove to be the easy bit. The question is: what happens next? Central to the Government’s response is issuing a European arrest warrant. I would like to echo the questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the future of this vital component of our crime-fighting armoury. The Government’s White Paper on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union recognised the importance of the European arrest warrant. On maintaining our ability to access the warrant, it says:

“The UK recognises that being a third country creates some challenges for the full operation of the EAW as it stands, particularly in terms of the constitutional barriers in some member states to the extradition of their own nationals. The withdrawal agreement will address this issue as part of the implementation period”.

Could the Leader of the House explain exactly how the Government plan to achieve this, and what progress has been made since the publication of the White Paper?

The Statement also contains two further proposals for EU co-operation. It says:

“We will continue to press for all of the measures agreed so far to be fully implemented, including the creation of a new EU chemical weapons sanctions regime”.

It goes on to say that,

“we will not stop there. We will also push for new EU sanctions regimes against those responsible for cyber-attacks and gross human rights violations”.

But how credible is it for the British Government, at this point, to go into a meeting in Brussels and say, “We actually think it’s crucially important that we have this new sanctions regime. Will you please do it? Oh, and by the way, we are then leaving you to it”? We have just passed legislation to set up our own sanctions and anti-money laundering regimes explicitly because we will not be part of these mechanisms, which the Government are here lauding as crucially important. How will the Government square that circle to make sure that we benefit from common European sanctions?

The response of our European partners to the Salisbury attacks, as the Government have said, has been truly extraordinary. I was in Estonia last week. It is a very small country which abuts Russia. Their Prime Minister, after literally years of delicate negotiations, had arranged to make a cultural visit to Estonian communities in Russia. Immediately after the Salisbury attack took place, he cancelled it. This is a big deal for them, but he did it in support of us. I think the question has to be raised about the extent to which we can expect members of the EU to show that kind of major solidarity, at a time when they feel sad, frustrated and neglected because of our actions in respect of Brexit.

The key question, however, concerning the European arrest warrant or anything else, is: how can we seek effectively to stop such attacks taking place in future? It is not credible to expect that we will get these two characters, whatever their real names are, in front of a British court. Obviously, there are no easy answers but I have two questions for the Leader of the House about specific action. First, is there any scope for the charge of conspiracy to be brought against individuals higher up in the GRU who must have given the orders, if intelligence suggests who those individuals might be?

Secondly, more generally and more likely to be effective—arguably, the most effective of all—is to look at attacking, if we can, those Russian oligarchs whom we know to be cronies of the Russian regime and who have put their money here in London. The Government talk of radically stepped-up activity in this area, but can the Leader of the House tell us what that radical stepping up means, how many unexplained wealth orders have so far been issued and how many she believes the Government could issue in the near future? If we are to be successful in stopping such attacks in future, we have to hit the Russian regime where it hurts: in the pockets of the people who benefit the most from it. This must be a key component of the Government’s strategy. How confident is the Leader of the House that the Government have got a grip on that?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. As the noble Baroness did, I again pay tribute to the people of Salisbury and Amesbury and send them our very best wishes.

I assure the noble Baroness that we are committed to working alongside the local authority and emergency services to help the local area meet any further exceptional costs arising from the incident. We have already announced more than £7.5 million of funding to support businesses, boost tourism and meet some of those costs. The Home Office has also provided £6.6 million of extra funding to Wiltshire Police to cover its extra costs.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord rightly raised the issue of the European arrest warrant. We want, as we have continually said, to continue our close relationship with the EU once we leave, and a key part of our negotiations, which we are discussing now, is how that will continue. Obviously, involvement in the European arrest warrant is part of that but the negotiations are ongoing. They will continue. Again, today’s events reinforce the importance of maintaining the relationship with the EU.

The noble Baroness asked about America. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Trump and is contact with our other close allies. With regard to the United States’ additional sanctions, we are co-operating with it closely as it works towards a potential second round of sanctions later this year. Noble Lords will also be aware that in June we led the diplomatic efforts to strengthen the ban on chemical weapons through the OPCW, despite Russian resistance, and we intend to work further with partners to empower the OPCW to attribute chemical weapons attacks to other states beyond Syria. Those discussions are ongoing.

The noble Lord asked about sanctions. He is absolutely right that we currently implement sanctions through the EU. We will be looking to carry over all existing EU sanctions at the time of our departure. As he rightly says, we have put in place a legislative framework through the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act to give us full control of our sanctions policy once we leave the EU.

The noble Lord also asked about criminal financing. To date, the NCA has considered around 140 cases where the use of an unexplained wealth order may be the appropriate course of action. A significant number of these are against assets believed to be held by Russian individuals. It continues its casework to apply for further unexplained wealth orders, adding to those currently in place. We are also reviewing all tier 1 investor visas granted before 5 April 2015, many of which were issued to wealthy Russians. We have not ruled out making further changes to the tier 1 investor route in order to ensure that it continues to work in the national interest.

I will have to write to the noble Baroness about her questions on CBRN as I do not have the details with me. I will do that.

My Lords, will the Minister be able to comment on a question that hangs over all this—why the Skripals and why now? It is a matter of timing. Can a statement be made on that at some point because clearly there is a story behind it? My main concern is that we have heard this afternoon that a nerve agent—a chemical weapon—was brought through a civilian airport. I cannot even get a tube of toothpaste through, yet they managed to bring this through and then leave it behind rather indiscriminately, if that is what happened. What are the implications for airport security?

I can assure the right reverend Prelate that the Home Office has increased checks on private flights and freight arriving in the UK under existing powers, but because of the national security dimensions I am afraid I cannot comment on specific cases. He is right that the two individuals held valid Russian passports under identities that we now know to be false, and they were able to obtain UK visas using official Russian documents. We have taken further measures in this area including, for instance, introducing a new power to detain people at the UK border to determine whether they are engaged in hostile state activity. Obviously this is an area where the Home Office will continue to be vigilant. We will take further steps if they prove necessary.

The noble Baroness the Leader of the House, in answer to a question from my noble friend Lady Smith, listed about £14 million of additional support that has been given to the local police force and the local community. Is she able to tell us the estimated cost of the investigations carried out and the work done by the security agencies and the counterterrorist police? I suspect that is also a very substantial sum of money. When she is writing to my noble friend about CBRN, will she be able to tell us how many operatives in the emergency services across the country are now trained and equipped to deal with CBRN incidents compared with, say, five years ago and 10 years ago?

If the information is available, I will certainly include it in the letter together with a breakdown of the funding. I have the overall figures, but I will add what information I can, if it is available, to the letter that I will place in the Library.

I would like to press the Leader of the House again on a point raised by my noble friend Lady Smith. On the European arrest warrant, have there been any assurances been given to the Government about it in that we may have left before it is implemented, and particularly given that one of the Government’s red lines is that the Court of Justice of the European Union will no longer have any jurisdiction and equally the Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer apply in this country?

As the noble Lord will know, our future security relationship with the EU is something for the negotiations. That will continue. We have obviously been talking to our EU partners and allies about the new evidence we have found in the incident and they have shown great solidarity in supporting us with their actions. This will no doubt continue as this investigation continues. As the information we have today becomes clearer and can be shared, those discussions will no doubt inform the negotiations that are going on about our future relationship.

My Lords, one of the most interesting parts of the Minister’s Statement was the clear connection between the two individuals concerned and the nerve gas in the hotel bedroom. Is she able to give a little more detailed information? I realise she may not be, but if she could tell us a little more about that connection, it would be of great interest.

What I can say is the evidence found has pointed to the fact that the same chemical nerve agent in Salisbury was found in the hotel and that the bottle found was modified to allow smuggling into the country. The analysis by experts at DSTL has confirmed that the same chemical nerve agent was used in both cases. Yesterday, the OPCW provided independent verification of this after its own analysis of samples taken following the Amesbury poisoning. I am afraid that is all I can say on that issue.

Reference has been made to the economic help that the Government are giving to the people and city of Salisbury. Is there any indication so far of the results of that assistance? Is the decline in the number of local businesses in the centre of Salisbury being arrested? Are there signs of revival in the number of visitors to Salisbury?

Certainly we are working closely with the local authority and local businesses. A number of Ministers have visited, and I know the local MP is doing a lot of work to make sure that support is provided to the local area. With the Salisbury and Amesbury incidents—and this again today—I am afraid that I do not have the figures for visitor numbers to Salisbury. However, we remain committed to doing all that we can to help that area to revitalise and make sure the people enjoy the delights of Salisbury.

As there is no other Back-Bench question, can I press the Minister on the issue of the European arrest warrant—a point made by me, my noble friend Lord Cashman and the noble Lord, Lord Newby? We understand that the Government now believe that we should maintain and remain a member of the European arrest warrant, or have access to it, and that they are negotiating for that. In the event of there being no deal, or the Government being unable to negotiate it as an outcome, what will happen to this particular arrest warrant? Will it fall, as no action has been taken? Have the Government given any consideration to that specific point?

I am sure that the Home Office has. I am afraid that I do not have the information, so I will see what I can add to the letter that I have already committed to write.

The European arrest warrant can be executed effectively only if the individuals are present within one of the European states; if for the moment they are outside that jurisdiction, the arrest warrant is a precautionary measure. The other way of keeping an eye on this is through the activities of Europol and other institutions of that kind.

Can the noble Baroness assure us that steps are being taken to maintain that channel of communication? The European arrest warrant will fall, I suspect, when we are no longer part of the European Union simply because it is dependent on being part of the structure which allows it to be enforced. If we are kept informed by Europe and other similar institutions, there are other ways of proceeding, by means of a request for extradition. That is very slow, I am afraid, but at least it is a step that could be taken if we know where they are.