HC Deb 13 November 1972 vol 846 cc30-5

Mr. Clinton Davis (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement concerning the measures which are being taken by the Government, the Metropolitan Police and, in particular, the Special Branch following the delivery of a number of letter bombs to Jewish organisations and inviduals on 10th and 11th November, 1972.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Robert Carr)

I am grateful for this opportunity to express the horror of the Government and, I am sure, of the whole House at this latest manifestation of terrorist activity.

The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis tells me that since last Friday 19 letter bombs addressed to Jewish organisations and individuals have been received in the London area. Two more have been received in Glasgow. One of the bombs exploded when being opened, and I should like to express the sympathy of the House to the person who was injured and to his family.

Police forces throughout the United Kingdom were immediately informed of this latest terrorist attack and liaison with foreign police forces, including the police in India, was established. The Metropolitan Police also informed the Israeli Embassy and the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

The Metropolitan Police gave certain public advice during the weekend about letter bombs. All members of the public should be aware of this danger, and it is important that anyone who suspects that he might have received a letter bomb should not tamper with it in any way but should inform the police immediately.

The police have made special dispositions to cope with this situaion. The Post Office is working in close collaboration with the police to reduce the risk; but obviously it would not be in the public interest for me to disclose the precise nature of the measures that are being taken.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that civilised opinion in this country will wholly support his condemnation of this violent, cowardly campaign, which will not succeed in intimidating any section of the British people? Is he also aware that the assurance that he has given that no one need have any qualms about going to the police if he suspects that a letter bomb has been delivered to him is to be welcomed? Will the right hon. Gentleman also assure the House that this Government will take effective action against any foreign diplomat, regardless of arguments about diplomatic immunity, and against any foreign Governments who give aid and comfort to verminous characters engaged in this murderous campaign?

Mr. Carr

I welcome and wholly support what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his supplementary question. Dealing with the second part of it, the House will note that my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary is listening to what has been said. Certainly I give the assurance on behalf of the Government that any evidence that we receive about any diplomat or foreign embassy giving aid and comfort to this sort of activity will be treated and acted upon with very great seriousness.

Mr. Edward Taylor

As these letter bombs appear to have been sent indiscriminately to members of the Jewish community and to Jewish businesses throughout the country, and as people have been killed and injured by them, surely these letters are difficult to identify. Can the Secretary of State give some guidance, possibly through the Press or even by post, to individuals who may be receiving bombs, so that they know what to look for?

Mr. Carr

I am giving special consideration to this point. I do not want to cause undue alarm amongst members of the public. Such alarm might merely result in the police being swamped with such a vast number of inquiries that they could not deal effectively with any of them. On the other hand, I realise the need to try to inform, on a selective basis in the best way that we can, the people most likely to be attacked about what they should look out for. I am in consultation about this. I am aware of what might be done in London through my responsibility as police authority. I shall be discussing with chief officers of police throughout the country what steps they might take.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we all share the condemnation expressed by the Government of this contemptible way to try to advance a political cause? However, can the right hon. Gentleman cast any light an the conflicting reports which have emerged about the statement of the Indian authorities that they informed Interpol about the possibility of such letters arriving in Britain? A rather disturbed situation has arisen in which we are told that the message was never received by the British authorities because of a mix-up at the Interpol office in Paris. Is not international co-operation crucial if crimes of this sort are to be prevented?

Mr. Carr

I can reply with authority only about what has happened in this country. The police in this country received no such warning. I also understand—and I have no evidence to doubt this assurance—that Interpol itself received no warning. Obviously I want to go into this further. But certainly no warning was received by the police in this country.

Mr. Rost

May we be assured that special security arrangements are in hand to vet mail coming to the Palace of Westminster, bearing in mind that overworked ministerial staff and Members' secretaries are largely responsible for opening mail and may therefore be vulnerable?

Mr. Carr

I hope that all hon. Members will both personally take great care and also give special and personal instructions to their secretaries about this. As to whether any more can be done before letters reach hon. Members and their secretaries, I am at the moment consulting my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Edward Short

May I support what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) said? There is a real problem for our own secretaries. They do not know what to look for. We have seen a picture of the front of a letter, but we do not know the weight or the thickness of such a letter. Will the right hon. Gentleman publicise more details—what they look like, how thick they are and how heavy they are—so that we know what to look for?

Mr. Carr

I assure the right hon. Gentleman about my belief that something is needed here. It is difficult to know what is right without causing a degree of alarm which would result in the swamping of the police, to which I referred just now. But certainly I will do something about this. I will not take the matter lightly.

Mr. Mayhew

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the measures that he has announced will be universally supported? Will he bear in mind that, unfortunately, terrorists on both sides are using this atrocious weapon and that so far this year more Arabs and their supporters have been killed or injured by them than Israelis and in fact that the first victims were Arabs? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, further, that public opinion roundly condemns Arab organisations or Governments which condone Arab terrorism, that it also condemns pro-Israeli organisations such as the Herut Party in this country, which condones Israeli terrorism, and that it will be specially critical of Members of this House who condemn terrorists on one side but not on the other?

Mr. Carr

I take that point. I think that everything that has been said this afternoon has condemned terrorism, without any partisanship. We must condemn it from whatever source it comes.

Rev. Ian Paisley

As these terrorist organisations have had dealings with the Irish Republican Army, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether any of these letter bombs intercepted by the Post Office were addressed to people in Northern Ireland and what special steps are being taken in Northern Ireland to deal with what could be a very nasty situation if this type of terrorism were brought into the situation?

Mr. Carr

I said earlier that I would be consulting chief constables and others with responsibility outside London. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will certainly not miss Northern Ireland out of those consultations.

Mr. Kaufman

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) that all those who send letter bombs and all those who 'sympathise with those who send letter bombs are utterly to be condemned, both Jews and Arabs, including the deplorable Mr. Malvyn Benjamin, who made the statement yesterday.

Although Jews in this country must resign themselves to regarding themselves as being in the front line in this new campaign, it is utterly intolerable that British Post Office staffs who have nothing to do with it should be exposed to danger, mutilation and death. Although it is obviously difficult to take measures against those who are responsible for these letter bombs, the Government should consider taking action against Governments who are known to harbour those who send them.

Mr. Carr

I agree with all that the hon. Gentleman said about embassies and Governments, but it is necessary to have evidence and not just reports. I assure the House that the dispositions I referred to include greater consideration of all we can do to protect the Post Office staff who have to sort letters in the first place.

Mr. Faulds

May I underline what the right hon. Gentleman has just said? Would it not be advisable to suspend judgment as to who is responsible for these outrageous incidents, more particularly as it was the Zionists who first used these methods—[Interruption.]—yes, and because these incidents are, suspiciously, a great boon to Israeli propaganda?

Mr. Carr

We must all be clear that we are not here to judge between Arab and Jew or between any one person and another. We are here to protect every person who lives in this country, whoever he may be, whatever his partisanships and loyalties may be, from the dangers of this sort of dastardly attack.