HC Deb 20 March 2002 vol 382 cc306-14 3.32 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the break-in at Castlereagh police station.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid)

On Sunday evening, several people broke into a special branch office at Castlereagh in Northern Ireland, assaulted the duty officer and stole several documents.

There has inevitably been much public speculation about who was responsible for the incident and the exact nature of the documents that were taken. The House will understand that, in the context of a live criminal investigation, it is not helpful to put into the public domain information that would otherwise be known only by the perpetrators or the investigators. Suffice it to say that all lines of inquiry remain open. As to the nature of the documentation, the Chief Constable has established a high-level team to assess any impact that its theft could cause.

At this sensitive moment when the damage is still being assessed and a variety of remedial measures are being taken, I hope that the House will understand why I cannot be more forthcoming. However, I can reassure the House that the Government, like the Chief Constable, are absolutely committed to taking all necessary steps to mitigate any damage from this serious incident.

The Chief Constable has appointed Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Wright to take charge of the criminal investigation. He has also referred the matter to the ombudsman. In addition, I have established a review to proceed in parallel with the criminal investigation that will report to me. It will be conducted by Sir John Chilcot, a former permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, who has extensive experience of policing and security issues. He will be assisted by Mr. Colin Smith, a former inspector of constabulary and chief constable of Thames Valley, who will act as an assessor.

I am placing Sir John's terms of reference in the Library of the House for the information of Members. The purpose of the review is to establish how the incident could have happened, to assess the extent of any damage caused to national security, to audit the measures taken in response to the incident and to identify any wider lessons on national security.

Any breach of national security is a matter of grave concern. The work undertaken by the special branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland bears directly on the safety of lives both in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom more generally. I am determined therefore that we will establish the facts surrounding this serious incident as quickly as possible, and ensure that all necessary remedial action is being taken.

Mr. Davies

The House will be grateful for that statement. No one will he in any doubt as to the seriousness of the incident for the morale and credibility of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and particularly for the viability of special branch operations. Police agents will obviously be very reluctant to maintain contact with their handlers while they fear that they might have been compromised. New sources are likely to be fearful of coming forward, and agents who think that they may have been exposed will face the agonising dilemma of whether to flee the Province, thereby perhaps increasing suspicion about them, or stay there, risking their lives.

It is always possible, by mismanaging a crisis of this kind, to make it even worse. Does the Secretary of State agree that such an incident needs to be managed in a decisive but controlled and co-ordinated way? Otherwise, uncertainty, demoralisation and public disquiet will all be aggravated. Is it not the case that in this instance the Government's handling has not been controlled or coherent?

The right hon. Gentleman said that there will be three inquiries. Of course the police must conduct a normal criminal investigation, but it is far from clear why it is necessary to have two further inquiries, one conducted by the police ombudsman and another under the direction of Sir John Chilcot. Is it not the case that the police ombudsman has the powers to conduct inquiries only where police officers are concerned, so if her inquiry runs up against individuals who are not police officers, she will be outside her remit? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is highly undesirable in such a case that there should be two separate inquiries? Clearly, we want one inquiry with a single responsibility to get to all the facts, and in which no one can say that certain matters are the responsibility of someone else. This action is not co-ordinated or controlled, and it needs a good deal more justification than the Secretary of State gave it.

There has been a spate of rumours and speculation, as the Secretary of State says. Can he give the House an unqualified assurance that those rumours do not derive from press briefings given by himself, the Chief Constable or anyone responsible to him? Can he also give the House an assurance that if there have been leaks, he will undertake to investigate them?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in retrospect it is unfortunate that he did not take the initiative and come to the House himself immediately after the incident, as he could have done on Monday, or ask one of his deputies to do so in his place? That would have enabled him to pre-empt the rumour mill and give an authoritative account of the position. Instead, he preferred to brief the press yesterday and had to be dragged to the Dispatch Box today by the official Opposition. Is not that an unfortunate way to treat the House? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that when the Chilcot review, which we shall certainly support in any way we can, reports, he will take the initiative and come to the House to make a statement on that?

Dr. Reid

First, I hope that I have not given the impression that I do not regard this issue as serious. Indeed, I have gone out of my way to say that I regard any breach of national security as serious in its immediate and wider implications, and I would not want to diminish in any way the seriousness with which I regard this incident.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, any breach of national security immediately raises problems of operational effectiveness and the prospect of putting anyone who is involved in danger. That is why we are assessing what may have been taken and why I want Sir John Chilcot to have regard, among other matters, to damage assessment of specific and more general operational capability and of the threat posed to individuals.

The hon. Gentleman demanded, as a general proposition, that I act in a decisive and controlled way before attacking everything that I have done as decisive and controlled. I did act decisively yesterday, and there are various reasons why I thought it absolutely necessary to do what I did. Had the situation been such that the only or best option was to come to the House first, then I would have done so, but under the circumstances I was wise to discuss the matter with not only my security Minister but the Chief Constable and others in Northern Ireland before acting as quickly and decisively as possible.

In fairness, the hon. Gentleman might have informed the House that my security Minister and I had a conversation with him, as well as others. That is not to say that it is not preferable to come to the House. As a general proposition, I agree with that and will try to do it whenever it is in my power to do so. I hope that he understands, however, that with fast-moving events, when decisiveness and control are so important, it is necessary to take decisive and controlled action, as he said.

The hon. Gentleman also said that there would be three inquiries. I do not know what he bases that on. He agrees that there should be a police inquiry, which is absolutely necessary. I take it that he agrees that I should have taken decisive action to initiate a wider review. It is not yet apparent that there will definitely be a third inquiry by the ombudsman, but the Chief Constable acted correctly and appropriately by referring the matter to him when he decided that the threshold for the ombudsman's powers of inquiry had been met. To put it succinctly, the hon. Gentleman knows that the threshold for the ombudsman's powers to inquire are met when there may have been, or has been, a disciplinary or criminal offence by a member of the police. That threshold was met and the Chief Constable acted properly. It is now up to the ombudsman to consider the matter.

On the hon. Gentleman's other points, no one to my knowledge with my authority or in my organisation has given details to the press of the incident as far as I am aware. Indeed, I will be amazed if that is the case because so much of what has appeared in the press has been inaccurate either in the detail or on the process. Although I should like nothing better than to rebut some of the inaccuracies, he will understand that on something as important and sensitive as this incident, that would put me down an avenue in which it would be difficult not to discuss the matter in detail. I hope that he and the House will be tolerant if I cannot give as much detail as I might like.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Is it not extraordinary, after all that has happened in Ireland, that there still appear to be parts of the secret state who think that they can act with impunity? My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is a long history of such inquiries in Ireland encountering a wall of silence and fizzling out after the lapse of time. Can I have his assurance that that will not be allowed to happen in this case?

Dr. Reid

On the first point, I would be very wary of basing all sorts of propositions on a premise that a particular group, or a particular part of a particular group, was involved. The answer is that we just do not know, at this stage, the motive, the organisation or the individuals who may have been involved.

The second point is that, as my hon. Friend says, there has been a long history of inquiries of this nature; there has not been a long history of my being Secretary of State, and I can assure him that if it is within my power—whoever the individuals are and whatever their motive—and if there is any way of discovering that and dealing with it, it will be done. The inquiry has been established not as an attempt to divert attention or in any way to cover up the grievousness and importance of what happened, but precisely to try to elicit the information necessary to get to the truth. That is hugely important in terms of operations and for those people, including many brave people, who have acted according to their consciences in the past and who may or may not be in danger as a result of any breach of security. It is also hugely important for the peace process that we get to the bottom of what went on.

Lembit Opik (Montgomeryshire)

I thank the Secretary of State for prior notice of his statement. I also thank the security Minister for our informal conversation earlier this week, which satisfied me that the Government are, in fact, taking the issue very seriously.

First, although having three investigations—the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) made some points about this—may not make it less likely that any investigation gets to the answer and the truth, would it not be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman formalised the interaction between those investigations to ensure that potentially useful cross-references are dealt with in a codified and organised fashion?

Secondly, given the obvious possibility of internal assistance with this breach—although we must not draw any conclusion until we have the facts—what steps does the Secretary of State intend to take to ensure that those involved cannot cover up some of the evidence that could highlight what happened? Thirdly, what steps has he taken as a matter of urgency to protect the welfare of individuals who may be seriously compromised by the theft of the information?

Dr. Reid

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. On formal co-ordination of any inquiries, I have already said that, in addition to the criminal investigation, it was appropriate for me to act decisively and to call an inquiry. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), with a little lightness, if I may say so, added a further inquiry—a leak inquiry—during his contribution, but the two inquiries are absolutely essential. However, of course, we want the maximum access to information for the review, as it will be named, carried out by Sir John Chilcot, but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Opik) will understand that the operational independence of the police in their investigation is a matter of some importance as well, so it is difficult to formalise because that investigation cannot, of course, come under political control. Nevertheless, I take his point about generally ensuring that one inquiry does not run across or prohibit the other. That is very important.

The hon. Gentleman asks about measures taken to try to minimise the possibility of any cover-up or destruction and so on. I can assure him that, so far as I am aware—obviously, I do not control the operation of the investigation—a tremendous amount of work was done to seal off the area to try to ensure forensic evidence and so on was preserved. Every effort is being made to try to investigate all possible lines of inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the welfare of the individuals concerned, which is very important in any breach of security. I am aware that, where it is believed that there might be a threat, steps are being taken to inform those who might be the subject of any danger as a result of this or any other breach of security. That would be a natural thing to happen.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the two issues that seem to be at stake are first, who did it, and secondly, how it was done? The arrangements that he has described seem eminently well suited to answering those two questions. Does he agree that it is at the least ill judged, and may turn out—I hope not—as events unfold, to be irresponsible, for the Opposition to seek to exploit this serious matter?

Dr. Reid

On my hon. Friend's second point, yes it would be irresponsible for anyone to try to exploit this matter, particularly since, as he said, at this stage the two questions of who did it and how it was done remain unanswered. I would add a third question: why was it done? That is not clear either at this stage so in terms of motive, culprit and method, we are still at an early stage. I confess to my hon. Friend and to the House that I do not have a clear view on any of them at this stage. No one appears to have claimed credit—if I may use the word—for the incident.

The questions that my hon. Friend mentioned on method and the culprits are important. The question of why is also important. However, whatever the answers to those questions, I would not seek to diminish the fact that any breach of national security is always of importance, and this one is no exception.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

We view what happened in Castlereagh with the gravest concern. It is extremely serious and we are very worried about possible ramifications not just for national security but for the integrity of policing operations in Northern Ireland.

I am also concerned about the potential multiplicity of inquiries. I can see a distinction between the police investigation and the review being undertaken by Sir John Chilcot and Mr. Colin Smith, but I am worried about the potential overlap between the police investigation and any action by the ombudsman. That concern is deepened by the weaknesses in the investigative capacity of the ombudsman's office, as revealed by the recent ombudsman reports. Can we have a clear assurance that the police investigation will be primary and that there will be no interference with that investigation until it has run its course and, we hope, identified the people who were responsible?

I endorse what the Secretary of State said about being cautious about responsibilities on the issue. There is a tendency to be far too quick to run to conspiracy theories. I very much regret that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), for whom in many other respects I have a regard, seemed to feed that tendency of jumping to conclusions, and indeed on this matter jumped to the wrong conclusions.

There is no doubt that those who were responsible in some way or other obtained detailed information about the police office at Castlereagh to obtain entry. That seems to be clear. We do not know yet how that information was acquired, and we must be careful not to pre-judge the matter. However, I cannot avoid saying that it appears to be linked to the very significant demoralisation among present and particularly former members of the police. The Secretary of State should reflect on that because that demoralisation, which is inseparable from the policies that he has pursued, has to a significant extent led to the problem before us. Indeed, that has been exacerbated by some current decisions, particularly with regard to uniforms.

On the question that the Secretary of State raised at the end about why the break-in occurred, can he put the public mind to rest in one respect and eliminate one possible reason why it was done, by making it clear that the Government will support entirely the present arrangements for special branch, and will ensure that the capacity of the police with regard to special branch operations is increased, that their effectiveness is increased and that there is no question of using these events as a pretext for further run-down in that respect?

Dr. Reid

The right hon. Gentleman said that he had the gravest concern about the incident, and he is right to be so concerned. I would expect him to be, like ourselves, thus concerned.

The question whether there was inside knowledge is to some extent speculative, but that would appear to be the case prima facie. However, that does not lead us in any particular direction because, as the right hon. Gentleman points out, there might be a range of people who had inside knowledge. I do not want to speculate on whether they might be disgruntled or demoralised former police officers. There is a range of other people who might have inside knowledge as well. I know that all these matters will be investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the wider effects. There are always wider effects for the operation of national security, for the integrity of the process, the operations and, as he said, the policing effort in Northern Ireland and for the safety of individuals.

With reference to special branch, we have outlined our plans in the implementation plan, but they are subject to discussion. The Chief Constable will make a recommendation and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, we now have a Policing Board which deals with these issues. The board will no doubt want to consider all the ramifications of any change to special branch in the future, and I would not want to pre-empt its deliberations or decisions on the matter. I do not mean that the Policing Board will be considering that as a specific item arising out of the incident, but it considers all aspects of policing and will no doubt wish to speak to me. I see no reason why, in the first instance, the matter should lead us to any conclusions in any direction about special branch or any other element. I would not want to imply any premise about who was involved. None of us knows.

As regards the ombudsman, I think that the Chief Constable was right in law to refer the matter to the ombudsman. A referral is appropriate on the basis of his judgment that prima facie it cannot be ruled out that a police officer may have committed an offence or behaved in a way that would justify disciplinary proceedings. As the Chief Constable said, however, there is no evidence at this stage to suggest that an offence has been committed by a police officer, but he nevertheless considered it in the public interest to refer the matter to the ombudsman.

The ombudsman cannot properly investigate the matter in the sense that was suggested, running across the criminal investigation, as she cannot investigate Army or intelligence agencies. Clearly, it will be important for the police and the ombudsman to develop a close working relationship in any investigations. I stress that the matter has been referred to the ombudsman—that is as far as it has gone—and no investigation has started.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a lot of business today. I want to call all hon. Members who are standing. The House can assist me if hon. Members ask short questions and, of course, the Minister can help also.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I welcomed the statement from the Secretary of State and the three inquiries, which will have three different objectives. Will he make it clear that Castlereagh police station is not an ordinary police station, but a sophisticated intelligence bureau and interrogation centre? Entry into it would require substantial detailed knowledge. Will he ensure that matters of national security will not in any way frustrate the investigations by Sir John Chilcot or the ombudsman? The popular belief is that many previous investigations in Northern Ireland have been frustrated by special branch. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that a full report—in the context of national security, but not frustrated by it—will be compiled?

Dr. Reid

I can confirm that Castlereagh police station is not one that people would expect to be entered as easily as appears to have been the case, although I must inform the hon. Member that it is no longer the holding and interrogation centre that it used to be. I assure him that Sir John Chilcot and Colin Smith will report to me. They will have full access to all the information necessary for them to complete the damage assessment and the security audit, and to judge some of the wider implications of the incident.

I believe that both of those gentlemen are eminently qualified for the task I have given them, Sir John Chilcot, of course, knows Northern Ireland well, and he has experience of policing and of intelligence work. Colin Smith is a former chief constable of the Thames Valley force, and is a member of Her Majesty's inspectorate of police. Both men are therefore appropriately qualified, and have been at the cutting edge. When it comes to investigation, people will accept that Colin Smith has been robust in any investigation that he has pursued.

No one can guarantee anything in Northern Ireland, and I cannot guarantee that we will get to the truth. However, I can guarantee that I and the two gentlemen whom I have named intend to do our utmost to find out what happened.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Many of us who have been involved in Northern Ireland for many years are, to say the least, mystified and appalled that Castlereagh could be broken into in the way that has been described. We therefore applaud the Secretary of State's decision to set up an independent inquiry under two such eminent men, both of whom have very good reputations in the Province.

However, could not the Secretary of State go a little further than the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) proposed and suggest to the ombudsman that it would not be helpful of her to get in the way of the other two inquiries, for fear of muddying the water?

Dr. Reid

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. However, I do not think it is always helpful for me to suggest things to chief constables, ombudsmen or to anyone whose office carries a degree of independence. Although no decision has been taken to investigate the matter, as there is no evidence yet that anyone in the police service has committed an offence or a crime that would warrant disciplinary action, it was perfectly appropriate for the ombudsman to be informed, and for the matter to be referred to her. In addition, regardless of the outcome, a good working relationship between the ombudsman and the police service is essential.

Two key things must happen—the criminal investigation must find out who is responsible, and the wider implications must be determined. That is why I have established the review.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that some people fear that this incident could dent confidence in the peace process. He has taken decisive action in establishing the independent inquiry under Sir John Chilcot, but does he agree that it is very important that the inquiry report directly to him? Given the pain and discomfort suffered by some of the people who have had to lead similar inquiries in the past, will he assure me that the direct line that will exist between the inquiry and himself will give the process clarity? Does he have any idea when the inquiry's report might be published, given the national security limitations involved? Will he bear it in mind that the general population of the island must be reassured so that the great work accomplished by everyone involved in the peace process can be maintained?

Dr. Reid

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments very much. He is a distinguished former Northern Ireland Minister, so his comments carry great weight. I can answer his question in the affirmative. Sir John—and Colin Smith, through Sir John—will have a direct line to me and access to me. I have met Sir John, who has already made arrangements to do just that. That is important, not only in terms of trying to get to the truth of the matter but in terms of there being wider public confidence that we are trying to get to the truth of the matter. I can assure my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that that is what we are about to do. [Interruption.] I cannot hear what the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is saying. Perhaps he is having trouble with my accent because it is from a different part of the world and a different social background. However, I will attempt to speak somewhat slower in future.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Although I welcome and support the overwhelming part of what the Secretary of State said, may I ask him to consider one point? By admitting that some people may be under threat as a result of the theft, he is inadvertently fuelling the media speculation that we all deplore. May I urge him to ensure that the assessment of the sensitivity and importance of the stolen papers is processed with the greatest possible speed and that decisive action is taken as a consequence to ensure that this media speculation comes to an end?

Dr. Reid

I can please both the hon. Gentleman and you, Mr. Speaker, by saying that the answer to his questions is yes.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

Clearly, this event has caused palpable shock and concern right across Northern Ireland: it is a deeply worrying event. Is the Secretary of State in a position to tell the House that a security review not just of Castlereagh but of other key security installations has taken place and that immediate steps will be taken to tighten security at such installations in Northern Ireland? Will he give an assurance that, consistent with the need to get to the bottom of the matter and to seek out the truth, the inquiry that he has set up will act and announce its conclusions publicly as soon as possible, so that all the speculation and rumour can be put to rest as quickly as possible?

Dr. Reid

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's first point. Although I got back only yesterday morning, I believe that steps were taken immediately to ensure that security was improved, or at least tested, elsewhere. I will speak to the Chief Constable about this issue once we have finished this private notice question. Obviously, this matter will be included as part of any damage assessment and security audit, which is part of the task that I have given to Sir John Chilcot. I assure the hon. Gentleman that Sir John is seized of the need to do this as promptly as possible, but it is not easy to get answers in Northern Ireland, even given a considerable length of time. Of course, we want to get answers.

Finally, I would like to be able to be in a position to give as much information arising out of any inquiry as possible. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that just as I am somewhat constrained today because of the wider aspects and implications of going into detail on matters of national security, that could apply to some of the information or conclusions that are drawn by Sir John in his review. I know that he will understand that.