HC Deb 18 December 2002 vol 396 cc842-3
Q10. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

What his latest estimate is of the risk of terrorist attack by al-Qaeda against the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister

As I made clear a few weeks ago, barely a day goes by without some new piece of intelligence coming via our security and intelligence services about a threat to UK interests. Although we have had some significant success in damaging al-Qaeda's capabilities since 11 September and have thwarted a number of attacks, the terrorist threat against the UK and UK interests remains real and serious.

Dr. Lewis

Have not the attacks in Bali and Mombasa shown that al-Qaeda specialises in multiple, simultaneous attacks? Given that al-Qaeda cells are believed to be in place in Britain, was not it unwise of the Home Office to withdraw last month the serious warning that it rightly gave of the sort of attacks that we could expect here in the UK? Was not it a mistake to think that it was wrong to spell out the threats in detail because the British people might panic? The British people need to be warned of what they might expect, and I do not think that they will panic if they are told the truth.

The Prime Minister

Of course it is important that people be told, but it is also important that we make a balanced assessment of how much information we give and what we say along with it. It is not just a question of the information; it is the judgment we make as to the weight that can be attached to it. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, a few weeks ago, there were stories in the newspapers about a possible poison attack on the tube. There was no specific evidence of such an attack, yet the information ended up causing, I think, unnecessary concern among people. It is a difficult balance to strike and we do our level best to get the balance right. However, it is important to realise that intelligence and information comes to us the whole time. If we published all of it, we would cause unnecessary alarm, so we must sift it and make a judgment. I believe that the judgments that we have made so far have been right and the circumstances in which that information was withdrawn were explained at the time.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

This week, Dorset police warned Christmas shoppers to be vigilant about terrorist attacks. Does my right hon. Friend share Dorset police's concern? What action has he taken to reassure constituents such as mine in Dorset about terrorist attacks?

The Prime Minister

It is important that people be vigilant, and this country has long experience of dealing with a possible terrorist threat from the IRA. However, it is important that we recognise that the terrorist threat could take many different forms. Although we are spending considerable sums on doing all that we can to protect ourselves against a threat, it is also important that we realise that there is a limit to what we can do.

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