HL Deb 19 December 1983 vol 446 cc496-504

3.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, with the leave of the House. I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

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

"At 12.41 p.m. on Saturday, 17th December, the Central London Samaritans received a telephone message that the IRA had placed a car bomb outside Harrods, 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 p.m. At 12.48 p.m. 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 codeword, 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 p.m. a bomb estimated at some 25 lbs 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 can 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 they admitted responsibility for the attack, as well as for the bomb outside Woolwich barracks ten days ago. They also claimed that the attack was unauthorised and would not be repeated, and they 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 them 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 10th 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. But 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 in order to give full effect to the extra measures I have outlined to increase security. Those who perpetrated this crime will already have learned that their action has in no way weakened the unshakeable resolve of Government and public alike that violence will not secure its objective. Indeed, if anything, an outrage of this kind makes our resolution and determination stronger than ever".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, we on these Opposition Benches are grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable and learned friend in another place. It is on such an occasion as this that all Members of your Lordships' House speak with one voice—and that was exemplified by the visit paid by the Prime Minister the Home Secretary, the Leader of the Opposition and my honourable friend the shadow Home Secretary to the hospitals, where they visited the injured. In doing so, they represented us all.

As I said, there is unity in the expression of our abhorrence at an act which will take its sordid place in the annals of evil men; and at this time, like the noble Lord the Minister, we want to be associated with the sense of loss that we all feel—a national loss—about two brave, young, promising members of our police force. We extend to their families our heartfelt sympathy, as we do indeed to the families of three other young people who lost their lives in this terrible ordeal. Our prayers, too, are with those who were injured, including several members of the Chelsea police force who are now lying in hospital, and we hope that they will have a full recovery.

We want also to associate ourselves with all that has been said about the police and others who assisted as well as they could after this dreadful affair had taken place. I hope your Lordships will agree with me that we ought possibly to include the members of the staff of Harrods, who, according to all reports, behaved with great coolness of mind, with great courage and with great care for the public.

As the noble Lord the Minister said in repeating the Statement made by his right honourable and learned friend, our united determination is that the perpetrators of this foul crime should be brought to justice. Equally are we determined that not one drop of political advantage should be gained by the shedding of this innocent blood.

I could say something about the security measures which were announced this afternoon after a consultation between the the Home Secretary and the Commissioner of Police. I think we were all interested and grateful to learn of the larger measures of security that are now being taken, but I think it would be wise of me if I did not strive to ask any questions about them. I am perfectly sure that the noble Lord the Minister will bring to this House those matters which he thinks are appropriately brought to us, and that all of us should exercise that degree of discretion which, unfortunately, a foe of this kind engenders within us.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that those of us on these Benches wish to be associated with the words of the Home Secretary in another place, expressing his horror at the scale of this atrocity committed outside Harrods on Saturday? Is he also aware, first, that it appears from the statement made from Dublin by the IRA that they claim that there are representatives active in the United Kingdom, supplied with explosives provided by the IRA, who are wholly outside the control of the IRA leadership in Dublin? Is he further aware that no one would take protestations of this kind in any degree seriously?

Secondly, is he aware that we recognise that there is no certain way in which we can protect members of the public when they are involved in the simple process of Christmas shopping? But will he recognise that it is perhaps desirable to take into account the ease with which car bombers can put their vehicles of destruction outside large departmental stores in London which we know, on the basis of past experience, to be potential IRA targets? Could one at least express the hope that this matter, relating to car parking arrangements outside potential targets of the IRA, will be taken into some degree of consideration?

Lastly, would the noble Lord take this point into account? In view of the dreadful death of these young police officers and of the other members of the public which took place on Saturday afternoon, as well as the injuries caused, including those to a number of children, could we express the hope that those American citizens who have subscribed money to Noraid and other front organisations of the Provisional IRA in the United States will take account of what their money has achieved?

3.58 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lord. Lord Mishcon, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for their response to the Statement on this appalling event. I welcome the sympathy which they have extended to the injured of all sorts, and indeed of all ages and nationalities, who were caught up in the blast. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, did not wish me to dilate in any way—and I am grateful to him for that—which might compromise the effectiveness of the police response to the heightened threat. I think, however, that your Lordships would wish to know that the commissioner is concerned that the need for the increased commitment of police to central London should not in any way diminish the resources available for policing greater London as a whole. To allow for this, training courses have been suspended, overtime has been increased and senior officers have been given discretion to cancel rest days when this is necessary to maintain proper levels of policing. A proper cover, therefore, will be maintained at all times and in all places.

The noble Lord. Lord Harris, specifically raised two matters. First, he hoped that the Americans who misguidedly support allegedly charitable organisations, purporting to support the cause of republican nationalism by means of the IRA, would know what their money had bought. I hope indeed that they do know what their money has bought. It is a tragedy which will be more close, perhaps, to the hearts of some of them, in that one of their fellow citizens, aged 28, was a victim of this outrage.

Finally, the noble Lord. Lord Harris of Greenwich. asked about the possibility of banning parking outside major stores during the Christmas period. This was a matter upon which my right honourable and learned friend specifically consulted the commissioner, who told him that this possibility had been most carefully considered but that it would not materially assist in reducing the risk of terrorist bomb incidents in London. As your Lordships know, Sir Kenneth Newman has considerable experience of these problems, and of the measures against them, from the period when he was Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I think that we are in good hands.

4 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, in the short period I have been a Member of your Lordships' House, this is the third occasion on which I have had to comment on the ferocious murders which have been carried out by the IRA, each of them just as grisly as before. Have your Lordships taken into consideration that on Saturday of last week a young Irish policeman in the Republic of Ireland, a young member of the Irish Army in the Republic of Ireland, a young soldier in Northern Ireland—a member of the UDR Regiment—two young members of the police force here in London and five civilians all lay murdered? All were victims of the IRA. A large number of others were maimed. This should indicate that the IRA are the enemies of all of us in these islands, both in Ireland and in Britain, and that now it is time for the Government to take into account the legitimacy or otherwise of the so-called Provisional Sinn Fein as a political organisation. Will the Minister accept from me, as one who has lived in Northern Ireland, that Provisional Sinn Fein and the IRA are one and the same thing?

The so-called Member for West Belfast in another place at the present moment issued statements over the weekend condoning the murder of the young Irish policeman and Irish soldier on the ground that the murderers were doing their duty. He has refused to condemn those who were responsible for the grisly murders and maiming which took place here in London. Will the Minister accept that if the Government were now to decide to treat Provisional Sinn Fein as they should be treated—as the IRA—they would have the overwhelming support of the people in Ireland and in Great Britain.

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is certainly a sad matter of note that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has had such frequent occasion to make such observations as he has just made during the time he has been in your Lordships' House. He has particular experience of this matter, which we all respect. As to the first point which the noble Lord raised, it is indeed significant that within a period of two days police officers and soldiers were killed in the Republic of Ireland, in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland. We have indeed a common enemy. As to the noble Lord's question about banning Sinn Fein, my right honourable friend is urgently considering with his colleagues this possibility and its implications. It is also understood that Dr. FitzGerald is giving thought to the same matter.

Lord Blease

My Lords, may I join my fellow citizen from Northern Ireland, my noble friend Lord Fitt, in emphasising the number of occasions when this House has graciously and sympathetically identified itself with the people of Northern Ireland who have fallen victim to terrorist brutality and murder gangs.

As a citizen of Northern Ireland, one who left Northern Ireland's shores this morning, I wish publicly to express my support for the Government's Statement. I want to share wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lord Mishcon in conveying heartfelt sympathies to all those who have suffered as a result of this outrageous attack on the London shopping public, at a time when the community celebrations are for peace and goodwill. Families throughout these islands, both in Britain and in Ireland, will be united in the terrible sense of pain, agony and grief which we share with all those for whom this Christmas will be a time of intense suffering through vile acts of such savagery. It is understandable that a wave of public revulsion and emotional distress will arise at this dreadful time. However, I appeal to all those with influence in Her Majesty's Government and in the Opposition not to precipitate any major political decisions arising from this recent upsurge of terrorism, especially at this highly emotional time. We must sit down calmly and think through what will be the results of these tragic events and their repercussions—repercussions which, as the Minister has fairly said, go far beyond these shores. Perhaps they will have a detrimental effect on the machinations and the evilness of these persons who perpetrate such crimes. By all means let us strengthen, support and encourage all those with responsibility for security, but parliamentary democracy and justice can be impaired and undermined seriously by proscribing duly elected representatives. It does not end at the door of Parliament; it can go into the media, broadcasting, public bodies and otherwise. I would urge serious consideration of other ways, rather than the proscription of elected representatives. I feel that the electorate ought to be the ones who are responsible. They are the persons who will take the right direction. Once we begin to tamper and interfere with parliamentary democracy we are heading for trouble. I wish to end by saying that I support wholeheartedly at this particular time the remarks from the Government Bench of the noble Lord the Minister.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am glad to welcome the stalwart support of the noble Lord, Lord Blease, who never hesitates to put a forthright view on occasions such as this. Humanity is diminished by the inhumanity of these attacks. It is important that we should not also diminish democracy in our response. My right honourable and learned friend and all my colleagues are very well aware of the care with which any response must be framed in order to show that it is in no way a concession or a diminution of human liberties that is wrested from us by terrorists who are murderers most foul.

Lord Boothby

My Lords, I feel sure that I am expressing the view of all of us who sit on the Cross-Benches when I say how much I agree with everything that has been said in the House this afternoon, in particular the hope which has been expressed that the lesson will at last have been learned in the United States of America. Secondly, may I associate myself with the moving and perhaps overdue tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, to the police, to whom we owe so much, and to whom we shall always owe so much.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, reminds us that this House speaks with a voice, the unity of which is rarely paralleled. It will be taken note of, I hope, not only on the other side of the Atlantic but by all those who have shown courage, resourcefulness and steadfastness in the face of this terrible threat.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, during the late war we dominated the intelligence field. Intelligence is one of the integral, if not the most integral, element, in countering terrorism. I ask not for details, but can my noble friend give an assurance that those who do this work are fully manned, have the proper equipment, and are of the right quality to deal with the very devastating activities against this country?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that we are very well aware of the intelligence dimension of this exercise, and that we do not stint our efforts in pursuing it.

Lord Plant

My Lords, I wish to speak as anex-chairman of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I saw these devasting incidents when I was chairman over there—as did the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when he was serving in Northern Ireland at the same time. It is indeed distressing. I support completely the Government Statement. But I would go further: I believe it would be the wish not only of the people of Northern Ireland but also of the people of the United Kingdom to proscribe the IRA. I believe that people are waiting for a move from the Government. I do not believe there is any good in the Government sitting down and saying, "We are looking at this question in depth". I believe the time has come for very considerable action.

I was glad to hear the noble Lord the Minister say that the policing in London has been strengthened at Christmas. It is of course a time when the police cannot enjoy the comforts of their families because they will have to do more overtime and more pounding of the pavements. But I believe that the police in London, as with the RUC, will be only too glad to do what they can to rid of us the scourge of the IRA. They are murderers, and I believe that the Government have to act in that light.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Plant, is an expert on human rights. The most fundamental of all human rights is the right to live. It is that which we seek to defend, and it is not improper to take very great care about the way in which we do that and not to plunge at once into this course.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has just said something which I, too, believe in. It is all very fine saying that we must take action, but we cannot take violent action immediately without giving the matter great thought and realising exactly what it is that we are in for. I agree with the noble Lord in that respect.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am glad for the support of the noble Baroness, which is sometimes not so readily available to me.

The Lord Archbishop of York

My Lords, since almost every section of the House has expressed its support, sympathy and admiration for the Statement which has been made, perhaps I may also add a word of support from these Benches. I should simply like to remind your Lordships' House that that to which we are reacting today is also the almost daily experience of the people of Northern Ireland. So may I ask that your Lordships extend the sympathy which we have expressed to the victims and their relatives also to the people of Northern Ireland for their prolonged agony?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the most reverend Primate brings the compassionate support of the established Church to our efforts to see that in the tug of war between good and evil we are not dragged further towards evil by such terrible events.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, the Statement repeated by the noble Lord the Minister called for public vigilance. That is a very sensible and highly desirable call to make to the British public. But I wonder whether the noble Lord will look into a query that I have, although I am not sure he will be able to answer my point this afternoon.

There have been instances in London when the public have exhibited vigilance and have then run into dispute. For example, in some parts of London, such as the London Borough of Ealing, when people find an abandoned car they are tempted to look around it, and they may fear that it contains a bomb. They think it prudent therefore to inform the local authority; whereupon the local authority tells the member of the public to inform the police—whereuponsome sections of the police say "No, it is the responsibility of the local authority". If we are to call for public vigilance. we have to make it very clear to the public to whom they should apply the results of their vigilance—whether to the police or to the local authority—and so avoid the confusion that I have outlined but which, unfortunately and regrettably, exists.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the answer is to tell the police and to tell them quickly.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, I intervene because, as the only citizen of the Republic of Ireland present, my silence may be interpreted as in some way dissenting. I want to assure the House and the Minister that I fully support not only what he has said, but in particular what was said by my noble friends Lord Fitt and Lord Blease.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding us once more that with the Republic of Ireland, we have here a common enemy.