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Manchester Arena Inquiry: Volume 3 Report

Volume 828: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2023


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 6 March.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the inquiry into the horrendous attack on Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017.

I work closely with MI5. While its activity is necessarily discreet, the whole country should be profoundly grateful for the patriotism and courage of its staff. They work indefatigably every day to keep the British people safe. Since the start of 2017, MI5 and the police have disrupted 37 late-stage attack plots.

An Islamist suicide bomber murdered 22 people and injured more than 1,000, as well as inflicting incalculable psychological damage and misery. I know that the whole House will join me in expressing our profound sorrow and extending our heartfelt condolences to everyone affected by this barbaric act. They were supposed to have a brilliant time and come home safely. What should have been a simple pleasure turned into a hellish nightmare. It is vital that we understand what happened and what lessons we need to learn, because we must do everything possible to prevent a repeat of this outrage.

Volume 3 of the inquiry was published last Thursday. I would like to thank Sir John Saunders and his team, who have spent more than three years on it. Sir John finds that there was a failure by the Security Service to act swiftly enough, and that there were

‘problems with the sharing of information between the Security Service and Counter Terrorism Policing’.

Following the publication of the report, the director-general of MI5 and the head of counterterrorism policing offered their profound apologies for not preventing the attack. Sir John does not blame any of the educational establishments that the bomber attended for failing to identify that he was a risk, but he does find:

‘More needs to be done to ensure that education providers share relevant information about students’.

Sir John concludes that the bomber

‘should have been subject to a Prevent referral at some point in 2015 or 2016. However, it is very hard to say what would have happened if’

the bomber

‘had been approached under Prevent or the Channel programme.’

The police investigation into the attack, Operation Manteline, is praised.

Although Sir John cannot conclude whether the attack would have been prevented, he finds that there was a significant missed opportunity to take further investigative action that he judges might have led to information that could have prevented it. While this is welcome, and the Home Office will work at pace with both organisations to act on the chairman’s recommendations, we must not lose sight of the fact that responsibility for the attack lies with the bomber and his brother. These conclusions require careful consideration.

Since 2017, the Government have made a number of changes to how we deal with and seek to prevent terrorist attacks. We have given law enforcement and intelligence agencies improved powers. We have strengthened the controls around access to explosives precursors. We have strengthened the management of terrorist and terrorist-risk offenders in prison and on licence. We have ended the automatic early release of terrorist offenders in England, Wales and Scotland, and we have ensured that the sentences served by terrorists reflect the severity of their offending. We have strengthened the tools for monitoring dangerous people in the community.

We have invested heavily in counterterrorism. We unveiled a new counterterrorism operations centre in 2021 that brings together partners from counterterrorism policing, the intelligence agencies, the criminal justice system and other government agencies. This will allow minute-by-minute collaboration between teams in the police and MI5. Last year’s integration of Special Branch into the national CT policing network will improve our response to the full range of national security threats, boost skills and ensure better communication between agencies and a more consistent and effective national response.

Work is under way to develop a new faith security training scheme to raise security awareness among faith communities and help them to mitigate threats. We continue to engage with faith organisations and security experts to develop the scheme. In April, my right honourable friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) announced the continuation of the Jewish community protective security grant for 2022. In May, new funding was allocated to provide protective security at mosques and Muslim faith schools.

In response to any terrorist attack affecting British nationals, in the UK or overseas, the Home Office’s victims of terrorism unit works to ensure that the right support is available to them. The unit is conducting an internal review to strengthen its work. I am overseeing a comprehensive review of the Contest strategy to combat terrorism. It follows on from the independent review of Prevent, led by William Shawcross, which assessed the programme’s effectiveness in preventing people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. As the review made clear, Prevent requires major reform, and I have accepted all its recommendations.

Prevent has underestimated the threat of Islamist extremism, which remains by far the biggest threat that we face, and too often it has minimised the role of ideology in terrorism. It will focus on security, not on political correctness, and its first objective will be to tackle the ideological causes of terrorism. The Government have also developed a comprehensive system of support for the owners and operators of public places across the UK. It includes access to research-driven expertise through products delivered by the National Counter Terrorism Security Office and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure.

However, we must go further. Martyn’s law, formally known as the Protect duty, will introduce proportionate new security requirements for certain public premises throughout the UK. They will be better prepared and ready to respond, and their staff will know what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Martyn’s law will clarify who is responsible for security activity at the premises in scope, increasing accountability. We are also considering how an inspection function will oversee compliance, to provide appropriate advice, and, where necessary, to sanction.

Martyn Hett was one of those killed in Manchester. I am enormously grateful to his mother, Figen Murray, and the Martyn’s law campaign team, as well as to Survivors Against Terror and all the security partners, businesses, charities, local authorities and victims’ groups that have informed our work. I have always been humbled when I have met them and heard about their experiences.

The doctrines that underpin the way in which the emergency services respond to incidents have improved since the attack. Let me end by once again recognising the anguish, and the courage, of the loved ones of those who were killed or hurt on that dreadful night. It united the country in sorrow and in disgust. We will continue to work non-stop to prevent further such tragedies from being visited on others, and I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I start once again by praising the work of our intelligence agencies and those who work for them. They help keep our country safe. As the Home Secretary pointed out in her Statement to the other place, MI5 and the police

“have disrupted 37 late-stage attack plots”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/3/23; col. 41.]

since 2017—plots that no doubt would have cost lives.

However, in a democracy, even the work of our secret services should be open as far as possible to scrutiny and be accountable with, where necessary, difficult questions asked. Such questions have arisen from the Manchester Arena attack and the public inquiry ably chaired by Sir John Saunders.

Before posing some of these questions and comments, I once again express the profound sorrow we all feel at the 22 people who were brutally murdered, the more than 1,000 injured and the many others psychologically damaged. We once again send our heartfelt condolences to all those affected by this barbaric act.

The open volume 3 Saunders report makes a wide range of recommendations. Can the Minister outline how these are going to be taken forward? These are the published ones, but what about the secret reports and recommendations that will be contained in that? Can the Minister confirm to us that the ISC, as a parliamentary scrutiny committee, will be fully informed and involved?

What about the families so tragically and awfully affected? How will they be supported and informed as we move forward?

The Minister will also know that Figen Murray, many of the Manchester Arena survivors and all of us are waiting to know the government timetable on the introduction of the so-called Martyn’s law. What is that timetable, and can the Minister say any more than what was said in the other place, which was, in essence, shortly and in due course? It would be helpful if we had more detail as to when Martyn’s law might be introduced.

Sir John concluded:

“There was a significant missed opportunity to take action that might have prevented the Attack”,

and that there was a failure to act on information and to share information. Is the conclusion that this is due to individual failures of judgment by MI5 officers, or is it part of a wider systemic failure in the security services? Sir John said that others were involved in planning and carrying out the attack. Can we be assured that progress is being made in arresting the others?

The terrorist bomber frequently visited someone who was in prison for terrorism offences. That did not, it seems, trigger any alarm. Are the Government looking at Sir John’s recommendations about changes in approach to visits to terrorist and extremist prisoners?

In the report, we are also told that the bombers used a video online to help them make the device. How is it possible for a video such as that not to be taken down? Will the Online Safety Bill deal with matters such as this?

Concerns were raised about Libya and the Security Service not sufficiently understanding these threats. Has this led, or will it lead, to any change in how we assess and reassess threats—with no fixed view on the hierarchy of such threats but one based on evidence now and as it emerges?

Can the Minister also comment on the fact that some of the families still feel that, because of the secrecy of much of the evidence provided by MI5, they received less information than they wanted? Much of the proceedings was held in camera, which was justified because, if it were not, such evidence would not be made available at all—that is the official explanation. Does the Minister believe that there is a paradox here, because the Manchester Arena inquiry was a public inquiry, yet some of it was not public. That is unlike an inquest, where people can be compelled to attend and give evidence in public. As the Spectator reported in an excellent article, this contrasts with the inquest on 7/7, another terrorist incident, where MI5 officers attended in person, appearing behind a screen and identified by a letter but still able to be cross-examined. Will the Minister look again at the boundaries in public inquiries between necessary secrecy and transparency, and at the use of public inquiries rather than inquests?

We cannot undo the past, as much as we would all like to, but all the victims and all the families deserve as much of the truth as possible. The recommendation of Sir John Saunders’s excellent report should be taken forward, alongside other initiatives such as an independent public advocate, as quickly as possible. The families deserve no less.

My Lords, I echo the sentiments at the end of the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I too welcome the third volume of the inquiry, and thank Sir John Saunders and his team for all the work they have put in.

We must remember that our thoughts must be with the families, friends and all those affected by this atrocity. Twenty-two innocent people lost their lives, hundreds more were injured, and many thousands are emotionally and physically scarred for the rest of their lives. Those responsible for this terrible, cruel and merciless act are the bomber, his brother, those who radicalised them, and those who provided them with support. We condemn their actions. We must take steps to ensure that everything possible is done to make such a set of acts impossible in future.

The inquiry has shone a light on what must be achieved to do just that. We have to face up to the shortcomings which the inquiry has exposed, no matter how hard a reading they make, and put in place the appropriate safeguards. I welcome the Government’s Statement about how they are going to address these matters, and that they intend to press forward with all the recommendations raised by the inquiry. I will come to the closed chapters in a moment. However, much more detail is needed if this House, the public and, most importantly, those directly impacted by the atrocity are to be satisfied that everything possible is being done.

I have a number of questions for the Minister, and I will try to avoid repeating those of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. First, the inquiry report contains closed chapters and recommendations, so can the Minister tell the House whether the Government have received those closed parts? If they have received them, can he say whether the recommendations within them will be restricted to selected Ministers, or, as I hope, that there can be engagement with the ISC, even if it is in camera, so that there will be an extent of knowledge and understanding of these issues wider than a very small group of people? As long as there is mystery, there will be misunderstanding.

Secondly, on Martyn’s law, I welcome the intention to introduce the legislation. We are promised the legislation “in the spring”. I am told that we are now, officially, “in the spring”, so when will the Government produce the draft legislation for us to scrutinise? I obviously recognise that there is difficulty in introducing the legislation itself because of parliamentary timetabling, but producing the draft legislation, which has been promised, is in the Government’s hands. I will try to help the Minister with the wording “in the spring” by asking: will it be introduced before Easter, before the Coronation, or in the official period called “the summer”?

My third question is on the issue of workforce pressure. One of the things that was quite clear from the inquiry report was that there were staff shortages, particularly in the north-west of England. If the Government intend to follow through on all these recommendations, how do they intend to meet the shortfall in personnel identified by the inquiry?

I turn to the countering extremism strategy. This was declared out of date in 2018 by the relevant commissioner. What steps are the Government taking to revise and publish a new strategy? In that context, are Prevent, Contest and the Shawcross review now being seen together as a whole? When can we expect to see their results being addressed? Will the conclusions be drawn together into a revised countering extremism strategy package, so that all the thoughts about the way forward are contained in a single document?

Finally, the Secretary of State responding in the House of Commons repeatedly said that she wanted to focus on security, not political correctness. I may be slightly dim on this matter, but can the Minister tell us what political correctness she was talking about? In the end, we all share the ambition to ensure that the people who have been most affected by this—the families, the friends and everyone else who has been scarred by this—understand that we will do everything we can to prevent it. I look forward to the Minister’s answers.

I thank both noble Lords for their comments and echo the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. As the report made very clear, responsibility for the events of 22 May 2017 lies with Salman Abedi and his younger brother, Hasham Abedi. That is not to say that we should not also remember the victims and their families; it was a particularly awful tragedy and I am sure that all noble Lords’ thoughts and sympathies are with them.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I congratulate the intelligence agencies. As he pointed out, they have stopped 37 attacks in recent years, as was made clear, and frankly they deserve our admiration for that, notwithstanding any particular failures or problems that have been identified through Sir John Saunders’ report. While I am thanking people, I also, obviously, thank Sir John for his comprehensive report, which has considerably helped in forming our response—not just the Government’s response—to such events and how we deal with them going forward.

I will do my very best to answer all the various questions that were asked. Obviously, if I miss anything inadvertently, I will commit to write. Both the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Lord, Lord German, asked about the Statement. Volume 3 has been published and the chairman is determined to monitor recommendations that have been made with the ISC. Volume 3 “open” has only just been published; Volume 3 “closed”, to my knowledge, has not yet been shared with the Government. The Government will carefully consider the report’s findings and recommendations in full and consider any recommendations Sir John makes about the role the ISC can play, in light of the memorandum of understanding that exists between the committee and the Government, which we have discussed many times in the last few days. As noble Lords will be aware, the MoU is available on the committee’s website.

Work on Martyn’s law, which both noble Lords asked about, is progressing at pace and legislative proposals will be taken forward when parliamentary time allows. In the interim—I suppose this the option D that that noble Lord, Lord German, did not identify—we will be publishing a draft Bill in this parliamentary Session. I cannot say more than that yet. I appreciate that it has been several years since the attack, and while we accept that we have to deliver this as quickly as possible, we need to develop proposals that realise effective outcomes and truly make the public safer, and to develop appropriate and proportionate provisions which consider the impacts on the premises that will end up being in scope.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about prisons and prison visits and the fact that Salman Abedi was able to visit a particular character in prison when he was a terrorist offender. The man’s name was Abdalraouf Abdallah. Abdallah was a category B prisoner and this was arranged through the standard visits process. Under the new approved contact scheme, we are enhancing checks on visitors and communications linked to certain offenders, including tagged offenders, regardless of their categorisation.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, very sensibly if I may say, quoted the Spectator, which I was delighted to hear from the opposite side of the House, in referencing the 7/7 inquiry. In effect, he was asking what was restricted from the final report, and whether the Government are effectively hiding anything. The answer, of course, is no. The inquiry was rigorous, evidence-based and had access to every bit of information that MI5 and the police held that was relevant to the attack. It was established for the very purpose of ensuring that information that was national security-sensitive could be fully considered as part of the judicial investigative process. The nature of MI5 and counterterrorism’s police work means that a great deal of what they do and how they do it has to remain secret. The chair acknowledged that. He said that revealing details of how they operate would hand our adversaries—in this case, terrorists—an advantage that would impact the UK intelligence community’s ability to keep the country safe.

MI5 and counterterrorism policing gave as much evidence as they could in public, and it was for the chair to determine what was or was not made public. He was clear that he would make his own judgments on this and said that he would

“not allow the proceedings to be ‘stage managed’ by the Security Service”,

Greater Manchester Police or others, and that he would not

“act as a rubber stamp”

when taking decisions on restriction orders. That is a pretty clear statement that he certainly conducted his inquiries in the most robust way that he could, which was certainly appropriate to the circumstances, based on the national security considerations that he identified.

On the video that was published, I am not as familiar with the Online Safety Bill as perhaps I ought to be, so I shall reserve judgment on that—but I certainly hope that it would be taken into account, and I shall most certainly also make sure that my colleagues in the relevant department are aware of the noble Lord’s request.

On inquests and the various changes that have been made or considered, I appreciate that it is a difficult problem. It is probably not for me to comment on the nature of coroners’ inquests and what have you. All I can say is that the law was carefully looked at, and it was decided that it would not be appropriate to change it in these circumstances. I think that is fair, but I appreciate that it is not the message that the families want to hear. I feel for them, but I also understand the broader context in which that question was asked.

On resources, we have invested heavily in counter- terrorism. The new Counter Terrorism Operations Centre was announced in 2021, which brings together partners from counterterrorism policing, the intelligence agencies, the criminal justice system and other government agencies. That will allow minute-by-minute collaboration between teams in the police and MI5. I hope that goes some way to answering the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord German, about resourcing. It is adequately resourced with substantial amounts of money. From memory—my papers are in a bit of a mess—I think that the number is about £370 million over the next couple of years. It is definitely going to improve cross-agency communication, which—to bring it back to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, made—was perhaps what Sir John meant when he talked about significant failures.

I have read a large amount on this subject, and I say that the judgments of security officers are obviously finely calibrated, and they are taking into consideration a number of factors. Perhaps there were failings and they need to reflect on those failings—and MI5 has been very candid about making it clear that it holds itself accountable for this. But it is important to bear in mind that these are people making very careful judgments based often on flimsy evidence. We should take that into account when considering what they do and how they do it.

The noble Lord, Lord German, asked me what we were doing on Prevent. Of course, as Sir John mentioned, Prevent is not necessarily something that Salman Abedi would have been referred to—and, if he had, Sir John also acknowledges that it may not have made any difference. As the noble Lord will be aware, we also published the report on Prevent relatively recently. All the recommendations and considerations in that report are being carefully considered in the Home Office, and I am sure that we will have much more to say on that in due course. I think that I have answered all the questions.

I am sorry, but I have absolutely no idea what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary was referring to. I could speculate, but I would prefer not to.

My Lords, volume 3 of the Manchester Arena inquiry is really hard to take in, because it is shocking to hear the director-general of MI5 apologising for not preventing what seems to have been a preventable attack, even though of course the full blame for the atrocity lies with Salman Abedi. But in terms of learning lessons, one confusion that the Minister may be able to clarify is that Sir John says that he does not blame any of the educational establishments that the bomber attended, yet still concludes that more needs to be done by education providers and says that Abedi should have been subject to Prevent. I do not understand why. Does not that distract from the fact that a radical Islamist operated in plain sight of security forces post education and was not stopped?

Just to follow on about Prevent and whether we can trust it, I was glad that the Statement referenced William Shawcross’s review of Prevent, which admits that we underestimated the threat of Islamist terrorism for fear of, for example, being called Islamophobic—maybe that is part of the political correctness point. There was conflation of that kind of threat with views labelled extremist. Can the Minister reflect on how unhelpful it is at the moment to label a wide range of citizens as Nazis or far right—everybody from anti-ULEZ protesters to those worried about small boats—and that this might water down our official vigilance of security and the threat of radical Islam, in very unhelpfully labelling everybody as extremists?

The noble Baroness raises a good point. I sometimes think that the speed with which polar opinions are voiced in this country is unhelpful to sensible public debate. She makes her point well, particularly as regards the frequent application of the word “Nazi”, which is rarely appropriate in my opinion. As regards the education system, I take Sir John’s opinions at face value and have little more to add, I am afraid.

My Lords, I want to pick up on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about victims, what they have been seeking from the inquiry and the balance with the inquest. I heard the Minister talk about the closed chapters not being appropriate. However, there are mechanisms to help the survivors and the families to get closure.

I want to ask two tangential questions and if the Minister does not have answers now, I am more than happy to receive them in writing but they are significant. We have been promised a victims Bill for some time. There was a draft Bill, but we have been waiting for that and it is probably five years overdue. It would be helpful if he could give us a date for when Parliament will look at that.

The other thing that worries me is that I had hoped on the publication of the third part report to hear the voice of the Victims Commissioner. We do not have one. Dame Vera Baird left her post on 30 September last year. Applications were sought in August and the period for them closed on 10 October. The panel sift was on 15 December and there is total silence. The role of the commissioner in helping to hold inquiries and inquests to account, and supporting families, particularly in unusual incidents, is vital. When will there be a new appointment for Victims Commissioner?

I am afraid that I will disappoint the noble Baroness. I have absolutely no idea when the victims Bill is likely to arrive in Parliament. I will endeavour to find out and write, if I can, with any further information. As regards the Victims Commissioner, I cannot answer. I should reiterate my sympathy for the victims in this case, and I say from a personal point of view that I cannot necessarily see what difference having a Victims Commissioner would have made to their experience. It was going to be awful and tragic, whatever the outcome. I am sure that nothing can take that pain away.