HC Deb 19 December 1983 vol 51 cc19-27 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the bomb incident in Knightsbridge last Saturday afternoon.

At 12.41 pm on Saturday, 17 December, the central London Samaritans received a telephone message that the IRA had placed a car bomb outside Harrods and that there were two bombs inside Harrods, one in Oxford street and another in Littlewoods store in Oxford street. The telephone call was made by a man with an Irish accent, and a code word previously unknown to the police authorities was used to preface the message. As subsequent events showed, much of the message was false. In addition, the police had already received 22 other similar messages earlier that day about suspicious devices, all of which turned out to be false alarms.

The Samaritans passed on the message to New Scotland Yard at 12.44 pm. At 12.48 pm police units in the three divisions concerned were alerted. The stores were also alerted and put their own contingency procedures into operation. Police on ordinary and special security patrol and traffic duties instantly started a systematic search of the immediate vicinity for suspicious motor vehicles. Some roads were closed to the public and some premises were evacuated. Efforts were also made to establish the authenticity of the code word, but with no success. At Harrods police officers were stationed at each of the doors leading to Hans crescent to prevent people leaving the store by that route, while the road outside was cleared and searched.

Nothing was found in Oxford street; but at 1.21 pm a bomb estimated at some 25 lb exploded in a car parked in Hans crescent. It killed five people: a policeman, a policewoman, a young mother, a reporter and an American citizen. In addition, 92 people were injured, of whom 20 are still in hospital, five of them seriously injured. Of the 78 civilians injured, several were children, of whom two are still in hospital. The bomb also caused extensive damage to property, including many homes in the area and cars parked in the street.

Subsequent investigations have established that the car used was a blue Austin 1300 GT, registration number KFP 252K, which the police are engaged in tracing. The bomb was detonated by a timing device similar to that used in other IRA attacks.

A mass of debris and other evidence is being carefully sifted and examined, and other inquiries about the car and its contents are being vigorously pursued. I assure the House that everything possible is being done to bring those responsible for this outrage to justice.

The IRA made a statement last night in Dublin in which it admitted responsibility for the attack, as well as for the bomb outside Woolwich barracks 10 days ago. It also claimed that the attack was unauthorised and would not be repeated, and regretted the civilian casualties. As I have said elsewhere, I find the disclaimer of responsibility utterly contemptible. Those who place a bomb of this size in a street crowded with Christmas shoppers cannot evade responsibility in that way. Moreover, the bomb was timed to go off just at the moment when those investigating the situation were likely to be approaching it. I totally reject the implied distinction between civilian and police casualties. What has happened is that the IRA has found that the action taken by its members has caused universal revulsion and condemnation. It is a piece of nauseating hypocrisy for it now to try and disown it and to claim that some kinds of brutal murder are legitimate and some are illegitimate.

The whole House will, I am sure, wish to join me in expressing a sense of outrage at what has occurred, sympathy with the victims and their families, and admiration for all those, including the police, emergency services and staff at the hospitals, who have worked tirelessly and with devotion to deal with the aftermath of this monstrous crime.

Before this incident the Commissioner had already taken special action in central London to counter recent terrorist threats. He had increased the number of police officers on traffic, crime and public order duties and had deployed additional officers from special units, including dog handlers, to inner London districts. He had also, following the Woolwich bomb incident on 10 December, issued an appeal for stores and the public to exercise increased vigilance.

I reviewed yesterday with the Commissioner progress on his investigations into the incident and on further measures which he has now put in hand for the public's greater protection in the weeks ahead. The Commissioner has introduced an additional measure whereby a number of vehicles are charged specifically with the task of responding to bomb threats anywhere in the Metropolitan area. These crews are patrolling 24 hours a day; they are able to respond swiftly to any threat received and to summon specialist help where necessary. The Commissioner has further increased by 64 officers the number of dog handlers deployed, deployed 30 additional traffic branch officers, and increased uniform foot duty officers by 320 in the inner district. He has also increased the number of CID and special branch officers by 200 in central London and deployed a further four special patrol group units totalling 120 officers in the inner districts. Particular care has also been taken to ensure that policing against terrorist threats is fully maintained elsewhere in the London area during this period.

Public vigilance is now essential to give full effect to the extra measures to increase security that I have outlined. Those who perpetrated this crime will already have learnt that their action has in no way weakened the unshakeable resolve of the Government and the public alike that violence will not secure their objective. Indeed, if anything, such an outrage makes our resolution and determination stronger than ever.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

On behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, I offer our heartfelt sympathy to the families and other loved ones of those who lost their lives in Saturday's atrocity—the courageous members of the Metropolitan police who were killed in bravely carrying out their duties to the community, and the innocent shoppers and passers-by cut down while preparing for a festival of celebration. It is especially painful that all who died were so young. We offer our sympathy to those who have been injured, some of them dreadfully maimed, and to their families. We thank all those in the hospitals dedicating themselves to ease the suffering. Like the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I have had the privilege of meeting some of them.

We in the House of Commons, and the British people whom we represent, are united in our utter and implacable determination to stand firm against the evil men who perpetrated this deed, and who now characteristically and contemptibly seek to creep away from the consequences of their inhumanity. The British Parliament will make no concessions to the bullet and the bomb.

We welcome the additional security measures which the Home Secretary has announced and we earnestly hope that they will grant a greater measure of safety to our people as they go about their lawful and peaceful occasions. Every effort must and will be made to trace and capture those responsible for Saturday's outrage, together with their fellow gangsters. All of our people are aware of the risks that they face and know that they must be accepted if the methods and processes of democracy are to be upheld.

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his expressions of sympathy to the victims and for his thanks to those involved in the aftermath of the bombing. The unity of the House on an occasion such as this is a bastion of protection for us all.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

On behalf of those whom I represent, I offer our deepest sympathy to the bereaved and injured. Will the Government remember that political parties in the Irish Republic and elsewhere share the IRA's objectives and that the hope of the attainment of that objective provides the incentive for continuing terrorism?

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said, and I note his observations about the political background.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

The aftermath of such an incident is not the best time to reach a cool appreciation of the position, but will my right hon. and learned Friend and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland consider carefully whether there is not now a much stronger argument for preventive detention of potential terrorists than has hitherto been the case?

Mr. Brittan

That course was followed in the past, and those who were responsible for it concluded that its termination was desirable and its continuation unhelpful. However, we shall keep all measures under review.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

The people of Northern Ireland can have real sympathy with those who have suffered because of this terrible, diabolical atrocity. During the past 15 years they have passed through a similar long, dark nightmare of atrocities. The Government's resolve will be welcomed by the people of Northern Ireland and we trust that a spirit similar to that shown by them during the Falklands campaign will be exercised with the same determination today. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman appreciate how the people of Northern Ireland feel at this time when one such terrible incident in London has called forth such an outburst of condemnation, and rightly so, yet they are frequently faced with such sacrifice and death?

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said and I appreciate that what London saw on Saturday is something with which the people of Northern Ireland have to live daily.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that most British people believe, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), that what happened on Saturday was an atrocity? When some members of the Provisional IRA say that they have espoused the cause of Socialism, they have espoused National Socialism akin to that of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. No one who seeks a political solution in Northern Ireland condones murder by the Provisional IRA, the INLA, the Red Hand commandos or the paramilitaries on both sides of the divide. What we object to is murder from wherever it comes. We must not show panic. The dignity of the House is something that we must put over.

There is no point in detention, because in the days of detention there were more murders. I legalised Sinn Fein because we must leave a chink for political action, much as we disagree with murder. If we think of having identity cards, I hope that the matter will be considered carefully, because the information that was given to me showed that it would be counter-productive. "Remain firm" must be the call, and we must not run into policies which will only be counter-productive.

Mr. Brittan

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to condemn murder from whatever direction it comes. It should not be our task to dignify those acts, for whatever reasons they are committed, as they are no more than foul crimes of the most barbaric kind. The right hon. Gentleman has given his views on the lessons to be learnt from his considerable experience of such matters, and the House will wish to consider what he said.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

(Bury St. Edmunds): I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his tribute to the men and women of the Metropolitan police and I welcome the measures which the Commissioner is taking to strengthen the anti-terrorist forces in central London. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do two things to assist the police further? First, will he explain to the nation and, if need be, to the House the importance of getting on to the statute book quickly the powers that are provided in the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill and the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, especially the powers of stop and search? Secondly, will he personally review the manpower and resources available to the special branch and reject any suggestion of dismantling the one arm of the police service which has a real chance of helping to protect our citizens against this dreadful plague?

Mr. Brittan

There is no question of the special branch being dismantled. The Government consider that it is highly desirable that those two Bills should be placed on the statute book as soon as possible.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

I associate the Liberal party with all the expressions of sympathy offered to the bereaved and injured, and with the warm appreciation of the work done by the police and the other public services. Is it not true that in tracking down the Baader Meinhof group in Germany the German Administration believed that the use of identify cards was indispensable, both to track down individuals and to uncover safe houses? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that although it is true, as the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said a moment ago, that most British people would not like such a system, nevertheless we would thole it—put up with it—if it became more likely that the evil men who are beyond reasoning could be tracked down and brought to justice for their activities?

Mr. Brittan

I should have no hesitation in supporting such a measure if I believed that it would make a significant contribution to tracking down terrorists, but I am not yet persuaded that that would be the case.

Sir Hugh Fraser (Stafford)

Has consideration been given to using the special constabulary in London, which is fairly large, to assist the regular police force? Will my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that any talks with either the military or the political wings of the Provisionals in Northern Ireland will cease? This point was raised yesterday by the Prime Minister of Southern Ireland, when it was said that ever since the ill-fated talks started by Viscount Whitelaw suspicion has remained that there is a channel of communication. That channel must be completely blocked. Until it is, we have no certainty that the House or the Government are standing totally firm on terrorism.

Mr. Brittan

No such talks are taking place, and no such talks will take place. The special constabulary is supplementary to the ordinary police and will be used as necessary, but it must be for the Commissioner to decide whether the specials have a role to play in these situations.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

I join in the expression of sympathy to the victims of Saturday's bomb outrage at Harrods. Not for the first time in 14 years am I searching for new words to describe an atrocity. There are none. They have all been used. As an Irishman standing in this House I am ashamed, and I believe that my shame is shared by Irish people everywhere, that anyone could commit such an atrocity in the name of Ireland. If those who planted that bomb are Irish patriots, if those who provided them with the equipment and the plan are Irish patriots, and if those who are members of the same movement are Irish patriots, God save Ireland.

It will not have escaped the attention of the Home Secretary that, as well as the atrocity in Harrods, this weekend touched other aspects of the problem. A young soldier and a young guard were murdered in the Irish Republic while doing their duty, a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment was murdered in Nothern Ireland and a young Catholic, innocently going home, was murdered. The events in the Irish Republic and at Harrods have received international publicity, but the events in Northern Ireland have not. Murder there has become commonplace. It is there that the cancer is.

The political cancer that is Northern Ireland is spreading its tentacles, and it is an urgent and serious problem. The problem represents the failure of Britain and Ireland to sort out their relationships. That failure has been pushed into a corner called Northern Ireland. The people in all sections of Northern Ireland have been its victims. The urgency for the British and Irish Governments to act together on all aspects of the problem could not be more serious. The problem demands attention at the highest level of Government if we are to put an end for ever to atrocities and outrages such as this.

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the wider dimensions of terrorism affecting Ireland, both sides of the Irish Sea and both sides of the border in Ireland. There is an underlying political problem, but today I think that the right course is to make it clear that what happened on Saturday will do nothing towards its solution.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider suggesting to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that over the coming week parking facilities are withdrawn from around targets likely to be chosen by these evil, unprincipled and criminal murderers? As one who was quite close to the scene, I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to pass on to the organisers of the emergency services my congratulations on the speed and effectiveness of their response.

Mr. Brittan

My hon. Friend is right about the speed and effectiveness of the emergency services' response. His modesty has prevented him from saying that he contributed. I am sure that the House would like to express its appreciation of the fact that one of our number did so. I have discussed with the Commissioner the matter of parking, but, with his years of experience in Northern Ireland, his considered view is that it would not help to have a parking ban, for a variety of reasons relating to the way in which terrorism can and does work. I think that that is a judgment we should respect.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I associate myself with sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that all Opposition Members share the horror at this barbaric act which slaughtered people who had nothing to do with the struggle and which has given a malevolent and vicious twist to an already intractable problem. May I make the appeal that nothing is said which will give any incentive to any unofficial grouping to try to engage in retaliation across the sectarian divide, because that will only deepen the problem? May I say how horrified we are, but we hope that something will be done to prevent us from being here in another 14 years' time expressing similar sentiments after terrible things have happened once again?

Mr. Brittan

Any attempt at retaliation would be just as indefensible, just as horrific and just as much to be condemned as what happened on Saturday.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

May I say on behalf of Kensington residents, and, I am sure, of Chelsea and Westminter residents, how proud and grateful we are that members of the Metropolitan police, male and female, are willing to risk their limbs and even their lives to protect the public? On this occasion we should consider not just the temporary reinforcement of central London police but an increase in the permanent establishment of B division and the other inner London police districts. May I add on a personal note that my daughter is currently working at Harrods. From what she told me about Saturday's incident, I understand that the security practices carried out at the store are exemplary and may have contributed considerably to the saving of life.

Mr. Brittan

I am sure that the House will agree entirely with the comments of my hon. Friend, who is speaking on behalf of Kensington, in expressing his gratitude for the bravery of the men and women of the Metropolitan police. Were my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) not a member of the Government and thereby inhibited from participating in the exchanges, I know that he would wish to say the same on behalf of Chelsea, where the incident occurred.

We will keep the issue of establishments under continuous review.

Sufficient time has now elapsed for us to consider these matters a little more carefully than in the first hours after the event. The decision of Harrods to search the store and not to pour those inside out on to the street saved a great many lives.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with those who have expressed sympathy to the victims of this dastardly offence? Among the more inspiring words spoken this weekend have been those of the relatives, who have shown great determination and an unwillingness to be deflected by their personal tragedy. Whether violence occurs in the Province, in the capital city or anywhere else in the United Kingdom, it will not further by one step the objectives of the perpetrators.

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The relatives have uttered inspiring words. I was especially struck when talking to one of the victims in hospital, who, quite without prompting, volunteered the observation that even though he had suffered as a result of what had happened it had not shaken his resolve bn one iota.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his statement this afternoon will be widely welcomed by both the residential and commercial community in central London, first, because of their determination not to be bombed out of their homes or businesses and, secondly, because they welcome the increased police support on the streets of central London, for which they will make their own contribution of support?

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. As I have said consistently in public statements since the incident, for us to be, as my hon. Friend said, "bombed out of our homes and businesses" would be the greatest victory that the IRA could secure. We shall not allow it to happen.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

We all join in condemning the vile and nasty act which occurred on Saturday, but I appeal to the Home Secretary and the House not to demand action which could lead to an escalation of the violence in Northern Ireland and Britain in the coming months. I refer especially to the demand for the proscription of Sinn Fein, an organisation which has the supporting votes of 42 per cent. of the Nationalist community. The demand that it should be proscribed is likely to criminalise and point towards violence many young men and women of the community, as we. experienced previously during internment. That would be a disgraceful and dangerous act. I appeal most sincerely to the Government not to move in that direction.

Mr. Brittan

I certainly would not wish to do anything which could lead to escalation. Whether the action to which the hon. Lady referred would have that effect is open to two views, but her observations are noted.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure to the limit of his influence that the details of this appalling crime receive the widest possible circulation in the United States of America?

Mr. Brittan

Certainly. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today broadcast by satellite to the United States.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I well understand that many hon. Members wish to participate, but there is other business to be dealt with.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Did my right hon. and learned Friend hear the broadcast yesterday by Lord Fitt, one of the bravest men ever to sit in the House, who advanced a different viewpoint from that of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short)? He said that the Provisional Sinn Fein consisted of daytime politicians serving the cause of violence and we should seriously consider their proscription.

Mr. Brittan

I heard the words of Lord Fitt, and he'was rightly described by my hon. Friend. There is room for two legitimate views about the wisdom or otherwise of proscribing Sinn Fein. We are urgently considering this matter. I beg the House to believe that powerful arguments point in both directions.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call four more hon. Members.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I recognise that the Dublin Government are making a major effort to stamp out terrorism, but will the Government re-examine the arrangements for the common travel area with the Republic? Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that the lack of adequate checks on travellers from Ireland helps some drug smugglers as well as some terrorists?

Mr. Brittan

I shall draw the observations of my hon. Friend to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the House this afternoon has been full of words, words, words and sympathy, sympathy, sympathy but that the country wants action? We have failed the nation. Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that politicians very seldom reflect the views of the electorate? Should we not hold a referendum on capital punishment for terrorists? That is what people want. We should give them the opportunity to vote on that issue. How many more people will be slaughtered while hon. Members sit around and funk the issue in the Division Lobby when they get the chance to reintroduce capital punishment?

Mr. Brittan

My hon. Friend knows my views on that subject. I do not believe that the arguments have been affected one way or the other by what has happened since I expressed my views.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

My right hon. and learned Friend has rightly expressed the abhorrence of the House at the outrage and his determination to bring the individual perpetrators of this hideous crime to justice, but has not the time come for the Government to consider whether a more effective way to deal with the IRA would be to ensure that its cause suffers with every outrage?

As the IRA's cause is supposed to be to get Britain out of Ireland, has not the time come to consider saying that Britain will stay in Northern Ireland for ever and that, thanks to the IRA, the concept of a united Ireland is dead?

Mr. Brittan

I am not sure that such a declaration would be the right way forward. The Government's position remains unchanged. We will not countenance change in Northern Ireland or any other part of the United Kingdom if it is brought about as a result of violence. Any action must be on the basis of a democratic solution.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

As our gentle democracy is always open to terrorists, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that without safe houses the IRA terrorists could not operate so effectively? Will he consider whether he and the Metropolitan police—indeed, the police throughout Britain—have the necessary powers and equipment to deal with those who keep safe houses?

Mr. Brittan

The powers are adequate. The problem is rooting out the people involved. If my hon. Friend has any further suggestions, I shall obviously consider them sympathetically.