HC Deb 07 February 1991 vol 185 cc413-9 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about events in Whitehall earlier today.

Shortly after 10 am, a white Transit van was driven up and left on the corner of Whitehall and Horse Guards avenue. At about 10.8 am, three mortars were fired from the vehicle, either by remote control or with a timing device, in the direction of Downing street. One of the mortars landed in the back garden of No. 10 Downing street and exploded. The other two landed on Mountbatten green, behind the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One exploded but the other failed to do so, disgorging its contents on the green.

One official and one police officer were injured. We believe that their injuries were not serious; a number of other people may have had minor injuries. I am sure that the whole House will want to convey its sympathy to those people. It is indeed fortunate that there were no worse injuries. Several windows at the back of No. 10 were shattered, but no structural damage is apparent.

The police and emergency services arrived rapidly on the scene. The whole area was cordoned off and explosives officers searched the scene for further devices. The whole House will wish to thank the police and emergency services for their immediate response and for the skill and courage they showed.

This reckless attack appears to have been the work of the Provisional IRA. Mortar attacks, sadly, are not unknown in Northern Ireland, but this is the first time that terrorists have attempted such an attack on the mainland of Britain. The terrorists constantly change their methods of attack in an attempt to catch us off our guard. We must be on our guard at all times against attacks from a variety of sources.

The Government have a range of contingency plans against the terrorist threat and counter–measures are kept under constant review. We are urgently assessing the significance of this morning's attack and its implications for security. We will be looking again at the physical security of the whole Westminster and Whitehall area. It must be made as safe as humanly possible for all those who live or work in the area, as well as for the millions who visit or travel through it.

We must take all reasonable security measures. That means continuing police efforts and public vigilance in support of them. But there is a limit to the sort of defensive measures that can be taken. In a democracy, people wish to be free to go about their business. To disrupt their lives any more than we need to would be a concession to terrorism.

This attack bears all the hallmarks of the violence perpetrated by the Provisional IRA, who have killed so many people and caused so much injury and suffering in Northern Ireland, on the continent of Europe and on the mainland of Great Britain. We must be thankful that, in this instance, the terrorists were unsuccessful.

The whole House and the whole country will utterly condemn this deliberate and ruthless attempt to injure or to kill members of the Government, officials and, indeed, anyone else who might have been in the vicinity of such a reckless and cowardly attack. The House will need no reminding that many visitors, families and children visit Downing street and it was only by chance that no group was there today.

The House will want to be reassured that the Cabinet met to conduct its business as usual. The machinery of government and our democratic process were not, and will not be, disrupted by terrorist attacks. Today, terrorists have attempted to strike at the heart of our Government: they have failed.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

May I begin by joining the Home Secretary in his condemnation of the act of terrorism that took place this morning? We express our profound relief that no one was killed, and offer our sympathy to the police officer and to the member of the Downing street staff who were injured and to those members of the public who, the Home Secretary tells us, suffered minor injuries as a result of what happened.

May I also express our admiration and gratitude to those members of the police, of the fire brigade and of the ambulance services who, as always on these occasions, did their duty at considerable risk to themselves?

May I support the Home Secretary in his insistence that neither the business of government nor the processes of Parliament can be disrupted by this attack or by such attacks? May I make it clear that we believe that an attack on the democratically elected Government of this country is an attack on democracy itself?

May I finally, and most importantly, reiterate the determination of the Opposition that terrorism of all sorts will be defeated? The perpetrators of today's attack can gain nothing and will gain nothing from what they did. We look forward to their speedy capture and to the conviction of all those who were in any way responsible.

Mr. Baker

I am grateful for the words of the right hon. Gentleman and I am sure that the whole House is united on this. As he rightly said, attacks of this sort are an attack on our democratic process. Terrorists, to whichever terrorist group they belong, are not interested in democratic processes; they just want to destroy the democratic process. May I also thank the Leader of the Opposition personally for his words on the 1 o'clock news? On these matters, nothing divides us.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

Is the Home Secretary aware that the IRA maintains very close liaison with other terrorist groupings throughout the world, including Arab terrorists? Does he accept that this latest dastardly attack, which will not deter either the Government or the people of the United Kingdom, may be another form of proxy, this time on behalf of Iraq? The IRA will be hoping to obtain money and guns from that country.

Mr. Baker

The IRA has in the past certainly derived a great deal of help from the Libyan Government. However, I must say to my hon. Friend that I have no special reason to connect this morning's IRA attack with the activities of any other terrorist group.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

The right hon. Gentleman's statement rightly ended with an assurance that the democratic process would not be disrupted by terrorism. Does he share my deep regret that we have not yet seen the restoration to Northern Ireland of the democracy that was removed 18 years ago, at the behest of terrorists?

Mr. Baker

Of course I am aware of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Talks are continuing at present to try to make some movement in the Province. The people he represents and the people of Northern Ireland generally have been subjected to considerable violence over the past 20 years or so. It is violence perpetrated by terrorists—principally by the IRA, but by others as well. We must defeat them there, just as we must defeat them in Great Britain.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

May I add to the expressions of relief about the fact that, happily, nobody was injured in this dastardly attack, my congratulations and those of all Conservative Members to my right hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the typically robust and courageous way in which they responded this afternoon? I hope that the Home Secretary agrees that although such an attack may win publicity for the IRA, it can do nothing but strengthen public support for Government policy.

Mr. Baker

I am sure that my right hon. Friend speaks for the whole House in that and not just for Conservative Members. We must make it clear that these attacks do not break the resolve of the Government to continue governing—that is what terrorists always want to do. They have made a dramatic attack, but it has not succeeded; it has failed. That is the important message which must go out.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Is the Home Secretary aware that I completely accept his view that terrorists will always break through even the best security arrangements and that this morning, judging from his report to the House, the emergency services, as ever, did well?

As he is the police authority for the Metropolitan police—this does not apply to any other part of the country—and with his complete responsibility, whose head will the right hon. Gentleman cause to roll for allowing the failure of security? In our main road near Parliament, a vehicle was parked for eight minutes. If anybody else tried to park there, he would be stopped. Something went wrong. Will the Home Secretary look into that?

Mr. Baker

I am surprised that such comments should be made by a right hon. Member who has held my office. The incident will be looked into. I have spoken to the Commissioner, who is having a meeting with the commissioners. One cannot fault the police security.police security has been stepped up in the Westminster and Whitehall area, but I ask the House to appreciate that it is difficult to deflect or stop an incident of this sort, involving a van stopping casually for a few minutes. Such an incident has not happened on our island before. We must examine it very seriously indeed to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this would be a wholly appropriate moment, with the aim of strengthening the common cause against terrorism, for the Opposition to change their policy and now to support the prevention of terrorism Act?

Mr. Baker

As I made clear at Question Time this afternoon, I shall be bringing forward proposals in the next few weeks to extend that Act for a further year. We cannot lower our defences at all. The Act has worked, arid is working, effectively. When it comes before the House, it will be for Opposition Members to decide their response to it. I hope that they may this time find it in their hearts to support it.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept from my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself our sense of relief at the failure of this spectacular and cowardly attack? But does he agree that many in the House and throughout the country at this time feel great solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland, who have had to suffer similar attacks but with less spectacular accompaniments?

Mr. Baker

I have considerable sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, because this is the first time that there has been a mortar bomb attack on the mainland of Great Britain, although, alas, such attacks are not unknown in Northern Ireland. In 1989 in Northern Ireland, there were 15 attacks involving a total of 81 bombs, of which 38 exploded and the rest were neutralised. We must do everything we can to discourage that form of terrorist activity on the mainland.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

Will the Home Secretary, in his review of this incident, check that a proper balance is being struck between closing off the whole of Whitehall while investigations necessarily take place and the need to return to normality as rapidly as possible? If it is business as usual for the Cabinet and Question Time in this House, which we wish to maintain, it should be business as usual for the public and the movement of the public as quickly as can be obtained.

Mr. Baker

The police do not wish to inconvenience the public any more than is absolutely necessary. It is an operational decision by the police, which I have discussed with them, that that part of Whitehall should still be cordoned off. They want to make absolutely certain that there are no further explosive devices. Indeed, the police would be failing in their duty if they did not do that. But my hon. Friend is right to say that, when faced with terrorism of this sort, a balance in a democracy must be struck between allowing people to go about their business as normally as they can and at the same time providing proper security. I believe that it would be a concession to terrorism to try to make the whole of central London a cordon sanitaire.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

Is the Home Secretary aware that "Sky News" this morning ran a story that an eye witness, a doctor, saw two bodies in the van, and that that report was later carried by a London Broadcasting news programme? Are we to take it, since the right hon. Gentleman did not refer to it in his statement, that the story was bogus, or is confirmation of the report still awaited?

Mr. Baker

I cannot be responsible for what is said on "Sky News". I was aware of the report, and other reports concerning the event are being looked into by the police.

Mr. Paul Marland (Goucestershire, West)

I was at the Scottish Office when the attack occurred. The white van was parked at the front and the mortars landed at the back. We were not allowed out of the building at the front or the back. I wish, in praising the police and others who came to our assistance, to praise the staff at the Scottish Office. They were cool, calm, totally controlled and cheerful, and showed great courage in a difficult situation.

Mr. Baker

The staff in the Scottish Office, the Cabinet Office and No. 10 were restricted to that area because there was a possibility of devices going off, both at the back of No. 10 and Whitehall. It takes some time to determine the position and there is always the possibility of a second vehicle in such attacks, so one must be certain before allowing people to move. I agree with my hon. Friend that the staff in all those offices have behaved well.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

What is the hard evidence, other than the method of operation, that points to the IRA as the perpetrators of this outrage?

Mr. Baker

The source of my advice, from people who have dealt with such matters, is that the incident bears the hallmarks of a Provisional IRA operation because of the type of vehicle used, and the fact that the roof was cut away and there was a delivery platform fixed in the van. Such incidents are not unknown in Northern Ireland and the incident bears the hallmarks of an IRA attack.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the advisability of increasing the military presence in Whitehall above the tourist attraction of the Household Cavalry will at least be considered in the security review that he announced in his statement? Does he agree that the criticism of our right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) when the gates were erected at the entrance to Downing street now looks incredibly silly?

Mr. Baker

I will certainly draw the first point to the attention of the Commissioner. As I have said, a balance must be struck as to the extent of the security measures. I am certain that the gates at No. 10 were necessary and that they act as a positive discouragement to frontal attacks through Downing street.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

I met Mr. Ahmad Omar Amesh, the head of the Libyan interest section, this morning. The Libyan Government condemn the terrorist outrage. However, Libya also condemns the state terrorism applied to Iraq. It condemns the saturation bombing of innocent people who have no quarrel with US—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is a bit wide of the the statement.

Mr. Brown

There is no evidence of any link with Libya. Clearly, it is easy for the media to make all sorts of snide remarks, invent stories and create the hysteria that, somehow, in some foreign country in the middle east—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that is enough, Ron.

Mr. Brown

There is conjecture, and stories—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman can speak for which country he wishes. As he will soon no longer be speaking for the people of Scotland, he will have plenty of time to do so.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet had a narrow escape from a carefully planned attack? Is not it appropriate to thank God for their safety?

Mr. Baker

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. There is no doubt that the attack was aimed to injure or kill Government Members and officials working at the heart of government. It is fortunate that the mortars did not explode on the building itself. I very much share my hon. Friend's views.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The whole House is obviously united in the belief that democracy will never be threatened or intimidated by mindless acts of terrorism on the streets of London. At present, cuts have either taken place or are being considered for both the London ambulance service and the London fire brigade. Given the tension that exists in London now, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to look at both those emergency services to ensure that they are adequate to meet all the challenges they might have to face?

Mr. Baker

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government are providing a substantial national increase next year in the amount spent upon the security forces. Certain councils and authorities may decide to make other changes, but the Government give high priority to supporting the forces of law and order. Since we have been in power, we have substantially increased the size of the police force by about 25,000. We have also substantially increased the capital spent on the fire service and the other emergency services. We shall continue to do so.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will call two more hon. Members and then we must move on.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in a terrorist war, each one of us is directly or indirectly involved? As the terrorist has to exist among us, we all can and must play a part through a much higher sense of vigilance. Does he believe that in this respect the media can play an extremely valuable educational role?

Mr. Baker

Yes, I agree with both my hon. Friend's points. Today's events remind all people in our country, from wherever they come, that they must be more vigilant about possible terrorist attacks, because such attacks may come from sources other than the IRA.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is my right hon. Friend fully satisfied that the powers and penalties available to the Crown to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of terrorism and the penalties that we hope will deter would-be perpetrators of terrorism are appropriate? Is not it the case that what occurred this morning was virtually a treasonable act, in that the terrorists launched an attack against this country's elected Cabinet at a time when this country is in a state of undeclared war but real conflict against Iraq?

Mr. Baker

Every effort will be made to detect and arrest the perpetrators of this incident. We have had some success in the past few months in detecting, arresting and convicting terrorists. Following the discovery of the arms cache in Pembrokeshire in 1989, two men were arrested, convicted of explosive offences in December last year, and each sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment. On 2 October, the Wiltshire police arrested two men at Stonehenge, and they have been charged with conspiracy to murder Sir Charles Tidbury. In addition, other terrorists, or people who are alleged to be terrorists, have been arrested and will face trial. That shows that we have made some headway in the past few months in detecting and arresting terrorists.