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Terrorist Attack in Nice

Volume 774: debated on Monday 18 July 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement delivered in the other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“The full horror of last Thursday night’s attack on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice defies all comprehension. At least 84 people were killed when a heavy goods lorry was driven deliberately into crowds enjoying Bastille Day celebrations. Ten of the dead are believed to be children and teenagers. More than 200 people have been injured and a number are in a critical condition.

Consular staff on the ground are in touch with local authorities and assisting British nationals caught up in the attack. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is providing support to anyone concerned about friends or loved ones. Over the weekend the French police made a number of arrests, and in the coming weeks we will learn more about the circumstances behind the attack.

Mr Speaker, these were innocent people enjoying national celebrations. They were families—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons and friends. Many of them were children. They were attacked in the most brutal and cowardly way possible, as they simply went about their lives. Our thoughts and prayers must be with the families who have lost loved ones, the survivors fighting for their lives, the victims facing appalling injuries, and all those who have been mentally scarred by the events of that night.

I have spoken to my counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, to offer him the sympathy of the British people and to make it clear that we stand ready to help in any way that we can. We have offered investigative assistance to the French authorities and security support to the French diplomatic and wider community in London.

This is the third terrorist attack in the last 18 months with a high number of deaths in France, and we cannot underestimate its devastating impact. We have also seen attacks in many other countries, and those killed and maimed by these murderers include people of many nationalities and faiths. Recently, we have seen attacks in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, and America, as well as the ongoing conflict in Syria. Last month we marked a year since 38 people—30 of them British—were murdered at a beach resort in Tunisia.

In the UK, the threat from international terrorism, which is determined by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, remains at severe, meaning that an attack is highly likely, but the public should be vigilant and not alarmed. On Friday, following the attack in Nice, the police and the security and intelligence agencies took steps to review our own security measures and to ensure that we have robust procedures in place. I am receiving regular updates. All police forces have reviewed upcoming events taking place in their regions to ensure that security measures are appropriate and proportionate.

I can also tell the House that the UK has considerable experience in managing and policing major events. Extra security measures are used at particularly high-profile events, including, where the police assess there to be a risk of vehicle attacks, the deployment of a measure known as the “national barrier asset”. This is made up of a range of temporary equipment including security fences and gates that enable the physical protection of sites.

Since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, we have also taken steps to improve the response of police firearms teams and other emergency services to a marauding gun attack. We have protected and increased in real terms counterterrorism police funding for 2016-17, and over the next five years we are providing £143 million for the police to further boost their firearms capability. And we continue to test our response to terrorist attacks, including learning the lessons from attacks like those we have seen in France, through national exercises which involve the Government, military, police, the ambulance service, the fire and rescue service, and other agencies.

But the threat from terrorism is serious and it is growing. Our security and intelligence services are first rate, and they work tirelessly around the clock to keep the people of this country safe. Over the next five years, we are making an extra £2.5 billion available to those agencies. This will include funding for an additional 1,900 staff at MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as well as strengthening our network of counterterrorism experts in the Middle East, north Africa, south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

We have also taken steps to deal with foreign fighters and to prevent radicalisation by providing new powers through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. We continue to take forward the Investigatory Powers Bill, which will ensure that the police and the security and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to keep people safe in this digital age.

The UK has in place strong measures to respond to terrorist attacks. Since coming into office in 2010, the Government have taken significant steps to bolster that response. But Daesh and other terrorist organisations seek to poison people’s minds, and they peddle sickening hate and lies to encourage people to plot acts of terrorism or leave their families to join it. This is not just in France or this country but in countries around the world. We must confront this hateful propaganda and expose it for what it is.

In this country, that means working to expose the emptiness of extremism and safeguard vulnerable people from becoming radicalised. Our Prevent programme works in partnership with families, communities and civil society groups to challenge the poisonous ideology that supports terrorism. This includes supporting civil society groups to build their own capacity. Since January 2014 their counter-narrative products have had widespread engagement with communities. In addition, since 2012 over 1,000 people have received support through Channel, the voluntary and confidential support programme for those at risk of radicalisation.

However, this is an international problem that requires an international solution so we are working closely with our European partners, allies in the counter-Daesh coalition and those most affected by the threat that Daesh poses to share information, build counterterrorism capability and exchange best practice. As the Prime Minister said,

“we must work with France and our partners around the world to stand up for our values and for our freedom”.

Nice was attacked on Bastille Day—itself a French symbol of liberation and national unity. Those who attack seek to divide us and spread hatred, so our resounding response must be one of ever greater unity: between different nations, but also between ourselves. This weekend we saw unity in action as people came together to support each other. People sent messages of condolence, and Muslims in this country and around the world have said that those who carry out such attacks do not represent true Islam.

I want to end by sending a message to our French friends and neighbours. What happened in Nice last Thursday was cruel and incomprehensible. The horror and devastation is something many people will live with for the rest of their lives. We know you are hurting. We know this will cause lasting pain. So let me be quite clear: we will stand with you. We will support you in this fight. Together, with our partners around the world, we will defeat those who seek to attack our way of life”.

That concludes the Statement.

I start by welcoming the Minister to her new post and the quiet life that involvement with the Home Office normally provides. I also thank her for repeating the Statement already made in the Commons.

I am sure that everyone in this House would wish to associate themselves with the expressions of condolence in the Statement to the family and friends of the 84 people killed in Nice on Thursday night. Our thoughts are also very much with the 85 people—and their families and friends—who are, it is reported today, still in hospital, 18 of them in critical condition. We also express our support for the people of France at this difficult time following the third big terrorist attack there in 18 months. Unfortunately, there have also been terrorist attacks elsewhere in Europe and in many other parts of the world over the same period. That means that dealing with this apparently increasing problem requires, as the Statement said, an international solution to defeat those who attack us and our partners.

Have any British citizens, or close relatives of British citizens, been killed or injured in the attack and, if so, how many? What specific assistance has been offered to either them or their families? Is any new or additional advice being offered to British nationals travelling to France, or thinking of travelling to France, in the light of this third attack in some 18 months? The Tunisian delivery driver who carried out the mass killings held, as I understand it, a French residency permit, which once again brings it home to us that terrorist attacks are not necessarily carried out by people who move into a country and then shortly afterwards commit the atrocity.

We regularly, and quite rightly, express our appreciation of the work of our police, security and intelligence services in protecting us, and we reiterate that appreciation today. However, in the light of what is said in the Statement, are the Government saying that an attack of the kind we have seen in Nice, with a truck being driven at speed and for a considerable distance into the large crowds who had congregated in significant numbers to celebrate an important national day, could not happen here because our policing and security arrangements would not have allowed a truck travelling at speed, driven by an armed individual or individuals, such access to a large crowd?

Can the Minister say whether the Government and our police and security services have learned any lessons from this terrible incident in Nice, without necessarily indicating exactly what those lessons might be?

The French Interior Minister has been quoted in the press this morning as calling for young volunteers to join France’s security service reserves. Apparently, the reserve force is made up of 12,000 volunteers aged between 17 and 30. The best way to make the use of such a large force unnecessary is to prevent terrorist attacks happening in the first place, but are we in a position to strengthen our police and security services at short notice, should it ever, unfortunately, become necessary to do so?

Finally, we have recently seen a significant increase in hate crimes in this country following the EU referendum and its outcome—an increase which the Prevent programme does not address. Do the Government regard this sudden rise in such crimes as potentially increasing the threat of a terrorist attack in this country, or is it their view that the recent increase in hate crime will have no impact or implications in this regard?

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and congratulate her on her new appointment, which I personally warmly welcome. I say “personally” because I am sure she will be a formidable adversary, but I welcome her on a personal level. I add our condolences from these Benches to all those affected by the horrific events in Nice—a truly horrifying massacre of innocent people.

As a result of my research on the Investigatory Powers Bill, I have been privileged to visit the headquarters of MI6 and GCHQ in recent months, and have been astounded by what those services are capable of and the work that they do. They deserve the highest praise. I know from personal experience in the police service of the expertise that exists in terms of policing events involving public order where large numbers of people gather. I am greatly reassured by the combination of those two bodies in the UK. Can the Minister comment on what appears to be a worrying trend that, far from being devout religious individuals holding extreme religious views, the people involved in these sorts of attacks are socially excluded, vulnerable petty criminals influenced by those advocating violent extremism based on a grotesque distortion of true Islam? I want to make an important distinction: they are being influenced by violent extremism, which should be seen as distinct from simply extremism, which the Statement mentioned.

Whether terrorist outrages are carefully pre-planned events, planned and co-ordinated by Daesh from Syria, or the actions of lone wolves inspired by Daesh, preventing them effectively depends on the sharing of intelligence across international boundaries. We need to know where to concentrate our limited resources, based on that intelligence. Can the Minister reassure the House that saving human lives will be placed above Brexit politics, and that the new Foreign Secretary is urgently acting to preserve and enhance links with our European Union partners so that effective counterterrorism co-operation improves rather than declines as a result of the UK leaving the European Union?

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked how many British citizens were victims of this attack. It is too early to say, but when we do have that information I am sure it will be shared with noble Lords across the House. He also asked about British citizens living here, or in France, being worried. The FCO has information on its website which is regularly and frequently updated. Citizens can contact the consulate, either at home or abroad, for updated advice about whether to travel or to find out whether their loved ones have been involved in this atrocity. The noble Lord talked about the lessons learned from Nice. He makes a very valid point. A COBRA meeting was held on Friday; we are always learning lessons and updating security to do things better. I am proud of the work that we have done in collaboration with the French authorities since this terrible attack. The noble Lord asked about strengthening funding for the security and intelligence services. We will be putting an extra £2.5 billion into them.

The noble Lord also asked about hate crimes increasing—they have. They increased after Paris last year and they increased after the EU referendum. I would not be surprised if another incident did not trigger another spike in hate crimes. In my other job, I talked about how communities have been quite resilient and come together since the Brexit vote. The Polish community certainly felt very strongly that the community around it was very much its friend. The community had come together to comfort and help each other in the wake of these events which were caused by a few criminals. That is what they are—criminals—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, they are extreme, violent people. We need to think about how our communities build up that resilience and to build on the cohesion work we have done to ensure that if anything else threatens us we are resilient to attacks and hate crime.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is absolutely right that the individuals who commit these crimes are not originally motivated by religion. They are isolated, bitter individuals who use some of the online forums that are so accessible and encouraging to them to promote, in the case of Nice, an extreme act of violence. Of course we do not know what has motivated this individual but I am sure that we will soon find out. The noble Lord also made a very good point about saving human lives being above Brexit. We have always worked with our neighbours in France, including before we even had a European Union. We will continue to collaborate with them, as we have done so effectively over the last few days.

My Lords, looking at the universities in this country, it seems to me that the dangers which the Minister so clearly outlined perhaps occur at a slightly more subtle level. I do not believe that there are students planning acts of terrorism or crimes, but I believe that there is a serious danger of Islamic bodies acting in isolation, creating a kind of self-imposed apartheid, not communicating with other student bodies and being quite hostile towards women on the campus. The danger might be the liability to nurture a sense of communal separateness—religious separateness—which could develop, in particular circumstances, into something much more dangerous. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments.

The noble Lord has a very good point. The values that we share are not those of separation. Students should be able to come together to debate and not feel segregated either by sex or by religion. Some of the interfaith projects which the Government run—I go back again to my previous department—certainly promote that idea of common values rather than the separation of ideology.

I would like to ask the Minister a little about the practicalities of this. The way that the truck was stopped was by the French police shooting the driver dead. If there was a similar event in Britain, those police officers would not be armed. In a previous Question for Short Debate, the idea of the distribution of armed officers across the country was raised with the noble Baroness’s predecessor. I urge the Government to look again at the ability of the police services outside London and the great cities to deliver a response to an attack like this, because I think it would probably not be adequate.

When we look at events around the world, particularly some of the horrors in America over the last few weeks, I personally always feel glad that we are not an armed country. I totally see where the noble Lord is coming from, but—I will disappoint him when I say this—we have some of the best policemen and women in the world. With the national asset barrier, we have ways of containing potential events such as this, but I would not like to see what the noble Lord talks about as widely available.

Can the Minister confirm that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has as part of its focus the identification and interdiction of the types of semi-lone wolves who were described earlier? Can she also confirm that there are sufficient portable barriers, including where necessary the use of fairly heavy vehicles, to protect from the kind of scenarios in places which might otherwise suffer the same fate as the Promenade des Anglais?

My Lords, I can absolutely confirm that JTAC is constantly monitoring such threats to our people and country. I am sorry, but I cannot remember the second part of the noble Lord’s question.

I can confirm that we are satisfied that we have the police-led and vehicle-led capability to deal with such large-scale firearm attacks in the UK. The noble Lord will have to forgive me—it is my first hour, never mind my first day.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. Further to that exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, the pattern around the world is increasingly that vehicles are being used as a weapon in terrorist attacks, particularly when there is a lone actor. Given those circumstances, could the Minister confirm that consideration is being given to making the resources available to local authorities and others to build much more robust street furniture? With all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, I rather suspect that a mobile barrier would have been completely ineffective given the size of the truck that was used, but I wonder whether more investment should not be taking place. We have extremely ugly concrete blocks around this building, and I rather fear that if the use of vehicles as weapons becomes more prevalent around the world, that is the sort of thing that will need to be present in very many other parts not only of this capital city but of the country as a whole.

The noble Lord makes a good point about the things we need to do in this country, which we do. The amount of barriers outside this building has certainly increased in the time that I have been here, and our security and intelligence services monitor the places around the country which they feel are vulnerable, and measures are put in place accordingly.

One of the things that the French really appreciated after the attacks in Paris was that British people continued to visit France, and enjoy all that it has to offer, in such numbers. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that it is really important for the message to go out that France is no more dangerous than any other country—I declare my interests in the register—and that it is a destination that British people should still be pleased to visit.

The noble Baroness reflects some of the comments that I heard in the light of some of the spikes in hate crime after the EU referendum. We should not let these sorts of events defeat us: France is a beautiful country that many people want—and will continue to want—to visit, and we should not be cowed by these sorts of threats. We should continue our daily lives and our holidays to these lovely countries.

My Lords, in her earlier remarks, the Minister quite rightly referenced the role that the internet can play. Of course, post referendum, we are well aware that some of the poisonous outpourings on it have gone way beyond our national boundaries, and indeed that there is a flow from beyond our national boundaries into this country, too. Given the xenophobia, racism and poisonous hatred that are often whipped up across the internet, can the noble Baroness promise us—beyond these first few hours in her new post—that she will look again at what the internet allows people to be exposed to and will see whether there are ways that we can strike a better balance between the proper emphasis we place on free speech and the poisonous outpourings that so many of us have witnessed in recent weeks?

I certainly confirm to the noble Lord that work is constantly ongoing not only to neutralise some of this horrific stuff that appears on the internet and on social media but to provide a counternarrative to it, so that it does not become a gospel for the isolated, potentially hateful individual.

One of the criticisms which have been made by many people about the great disaster which took place at Nice is that there were insufficient policemen to look after such a large gathering. Could the noble Baroness—I congratulate her on her new position—give us an assurance that British police have sufficient personnel, after all the cuts that have been made, to ensure that large gatherings in this country are properly policed?

The noble Lord is right that there were comments about lack of capacity or capability to act quickly in Nice. I reassure him that, not only are our police some of the best in the world, but we have seen how quickly they act and react to some of the terrible situations we have faced both here and abroad. I know that they are collaborating with the French, perhaps on lessons learned on how they can react quickly in future. I commend the British police for the high level of their training and the way in which they operate.