HL Deb 22 January 1985 vol 459 cc125-33

3.56 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement about the conclusions of the inquiry into security arrangements for last year's Conservative Party conference, which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement reads as follows:

"On 22nd October last year I made a Statement about the explosion at Brighton. Police investigations into that crime are still continuing. The evidence so far obtained suggests that the explosion was caused by a device containing between 20 and 30 pounds of explosive placed behind a bath panel in Room 629 on the sixth floor of the Grand Hotel. It was almost certainly detonated by a long delay timer. The police have made exhaustive inquiries about staff and guests at the hotel. They have established that someone who stayed in Room 629 for three days about three weeks before the explosion had given a false address. Inquiries to trace him and other inquiries related to electronic devices recovered from the debris are continuing. The House will not expect me to go into further details about them.

"In my Statement last year I told the House that the Chief Constable of Sussex had asked Mr. Hoddinott, the Deputy Chief Constable of Hampshire, to investigate the security arrangements in place at the time of the conference. I have now received and studied a copy of his report. It cannot, for reasons of security, be published, but I have placed in the Library of the House a summary, which Mr. Hoddinott has confirmed gives a fair and accurate account of his findings. Copies are also available in the Vote Office. I understand that the Sussex police authority are meeting to discuss the report with the Chief Constable tomorrow.

"Mr. Hoddinott has conducted a comprehensive and detailed inquiry into the plans and arrangements made for security at the conference and the efficiency with which they were carried out. The House will see from the summary that he has judged the performance of the Sussex police against the information which was available to them and the level of precautions which were then regarded as usual and acceptable to those concerned.

"His general conclusion against that background is that the Sussex police made proper and reasonable plans and implemented them competently and professionally.

"He finds that they had access to all the relevant intelligence information up to the time of the explosion and took proper account of it. He makes a number of detailed criticisms of the arrangements for communications within the Sussex force both of threat levels and the requirements for searches. He also criticises the adequacy of the co-operation between hotel management and the police.

"Mr. Hoddinott paid particular attention to search procedures. He did not criticise the police for failing to control and search each person entering the hotel during the period of the conference. He concluded that the hotel and those wishing to use it would not have accepted such an arrangement and that, given the assumption of free access to the hotel, the numbers involved would anyway have made it impracticable. He stresses that it has hitherto always been the practice of the police to take the basic nature of the occasion to be protected as the starting point for protection and security precautions, rather than to seek to change the nature of the occasion itself on security grounds.

"Mr. Hoddinott found that it would not have been the practice of any police force in Great Britain or Northern Ireland to conduct a full search of the entire hotel prior to the conference. The view would have been taken that, if it were to be fully effective, such a search would have taken some weeks, during which time the hotel would have had to be closed, with public access denied until the conference was over. Mr. Hoddinott's judgment is that on the basis of the procedures which then seemed reasonable and likely to be acceptable to those concerned, Sussex police are not to be criticised for the fact that the bomb hidden on the sixth floor was not discovered.

"Mr. Hoddinott was critical, however, of the inadequate search that was made of the first floor, which should under standard police procedures have been searched. The failure to do so adequately was caused by the absence of a clear allocation of responsibility within the Sussex police.

"Different and stricter arrangements for searching were possible at the Conference Centre, where the building was to a much greater degree taken over for the exclusive use of the Conservative Party and was inherently easier to search.

"Looking to the future, Mr. Hoddinott has not attempted to prescribe new policing arrangements, but he has, as the House will see from the summary of his report, drawn attention to a number of important areas where changes now need to be considered on a national basis. He also makes clear, however, that a balance will always have to be struck between security and the conduct of political affairs in our open democratic society.

"The House will recall that I announced in my Statement last October that we had at that stage already set in hand new arrangements centrally both for assessing terrorist intentions and capabilities and co-ordinating the counter-measures required to meet them. These central arrangements are now fully in place and I believe they have already proved their value.

"But many of the specific counter-measures are and will remain the responsibility of local police forces, with the Metropolitan Police Special Branch having particular national responsibilities. To assist them in their task I am now setting up a new permanent working group. Its role will be to bring about successful co-ordination between police forces throughout Great Britain and also to ensure that they have available to them all relevant techniques and experience. This group, under Home Office chairmanship, will monitor the advice and techniques available for protecting targets and countering terrorist threats and will co-ordinate the promulgation of advice to police forces. It will include, in addition to the police, representatives of the security service and the Army. I have already arranged with my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Defence, Northern Ireland and Scotland to involve the Army and the RUC in training police officers from all mainland forces in search techniques and to ensure that full use is made of the relevant experience gained in Northern Ireland.

"The Chief Constable of Sussex, after discussion with his police authority tomorrow, will take corrective action for the future on the specific criticisms of his own force contained in the report, and the new working group will ensure that the points of general relevance are made to all chief constables.

"Since the explosion at Brighton the Metropolitan Police have reviewed and increased the measures they take to protect members of the Cabinet and others who may be at particular risk. Mr. Hoddinott's report is bound also to lead us to consider afresh all the precautions that need to be taken for the major party conferences in 1985 and for similar major political events. Difficult decisions will have to be taken about many matters relating to security, including the extent and manner of public access, the accommodation of political leaders subject to particular threat, pass systems and arrangements for stewarding meetings. These questions raise important issues about the cost and acceptability of changes to established democratic traditions.

"The answers will not be the same in the case of each event, but I am sure that representatives of the political parties should participate in the process of resolving these issues. I have therefore asked Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Lawrence Byford, to head a team of chief constables and others to prepare urgently proposals for security at this year's party conferences and comparable occasions, and I am writing today to invite party representatives to be involved actively in the work of this group.

"I am most grateful to Mr. Hoddinott for the very thorough and professional way in which he carried out his task. He has given his assessment of what happened at Brighton, of the problems that now need to be tackled and the further questions that must be answered. As I said last October, total security is impossible in a free, democratic society. But in the light of Brighton we must enhance previously acceptable levels of security and equip ourselves to take in a clear-sighted way the difficult decisions involved in making any changes in the balance between security and the conduct of politics in a free society. I believe that the decisions that I have now taken will help significantly to enhance security and provide a firm framework for giving acceptable and practical answers to the outstanding questions".

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends who sit on these Benches, may I express the usual appreciation to the Minister for having repeated the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. What happened on 12th October last year was not only a near disaster for the Conservative Party: it was indeed a near disaster for the nation. Members of this House will undoubtedly wish to take upon themselves every responsibility which they reasonably can in assessing the Statement to which the House has listened this afternoon.

As it is the responsibility, the duty, of all our democratic parties to examine what happened on 12th October last and to try to ensure that nothing like it happens again, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Minister whether, doubtless on Privy Council terms, a full copy of the report—which understandably is not being dealt with in your Lordships' House or possibly in another place this afternoon—will be given to the leaders of the parties in another place.

My first words on behalf of these Benches would be to express appreciation to Mr. Hoddinott for what appears to be—I have to say "appears to be" because we have had only a summary of his report—a very comprehensive investigation. May I also say on behalf of my noble friends what was said on the last occasion precisely three months ago: how much we admire the courage shown in such a traditional way by our police and all those who tried to assist them on that dreadful occasion.

Having said that, there is cause for anxiety even in this summarised report. I wonder whether your Lordships will bear with me if I ask certain questions and make certain comments on what we have been told. The Statement first of all dealt with the disaster which occurred as a result of something being placed on the sixth floor in a certain room. The Statement goes on to say that there was an occupation of that room—that very room where the electronic device was obviously placed—some three weeks before the incident.

Therefore, there are the questions of search and inquiry. Those are the only matters which I am going to raise. I have no intention of raising matters which, for security or other reasons, should not have public comment at this stage. However, one's anxiety arises from the fact that three weeks before there appears to have been placed in a certain room, by someone who it is now known gave a false address, this electronic device. It was there for three weeks.

We are told in the Statement that it was not deemed to be feasible to make a full search of the hotel during the few weeks before the conference. We are told that the reason for that is that the hotel would have had to be evacuated, and there were other practical reasons why a full search could not be made. Is not one under a duty to inquire whether any search was made, even if it could not be a full search, even if the hotel was partially occupied? Was there a search of articles being brought into the hotel by various people, especially at the vital time, when one knows perfectly well that shops all over the country, and certainly in central London, regularly require such a search to be made? A fortiori, one says, should not such a search have been made on this occasion?

We are told that one of the criticisms in regard to searching concerned the adequacy of the co-operation between hotel management and the police. Ought we not to be told where the co-operation was lacking? Was it the hotel management? Was it the police? Or was it both? What one wonders is whether in the course of the investigation that has so far been made it has been found that there are any police powers which, in the dangerous times in which we live, would have been useful to the police and would be useful in future. If so, can Parliament help?

Finally may I say, in regard to the party consultations which are going to take lace about future party conferences and adequate safeguards, that I am sure that the party to which I have the privilege to belong will most certainly and freely co-operate in any work done in this connection.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, first may I hope that it is in order to congratulate the Chief Constable of Sussex on his initiative in setting up this inquiry, which is a productive inquiry and a step which showed considerable forethought on the part of that police officer. I am sure your Lordships will agree that this is a situation in which pre-eminently there is a danger of being wise after the event and of showing hindsight and of asking questions now which would never have occurred to anyone at that time.

I find the fact to be really clear from this report that no reasonable precautions could have been taken at that time which would have averted this appalling outrage, but I do not myself find that very surprising. We ought to recognise that it requires no skill and no intelligence, and no bravery, to plant a bomb with a time fuse on it and then disappear across the ocean before the explosion takes place. I believe that however often we endeavour to obviate that happening there will always be ways in which it is liable to occur which cannot in fact be avoided.

Having said that, I make it clear of course that we must take all possible steps to avoid such situations, and certainly to make them more difficult. Clearly when this report is available it will have to be studied in detail to ascertain the specific proposals which might make it a little more improbable that actions of this sort will take place in future.

I think at this moment there are only three specific comments I should like to make upon the Statement by the Minister. First, there is a reference to the fact that apparently the searching of the first floor at the hotel proved to be inadequate. Am I right in thinking that whether that be correct or not it had no direct bearing upon the tragedy which followed? Secondly, would the noble Lord the Minister agree that one of the steps that might be taken in the future is to consider ensuring, on informal occasions such as the evenings of a party conference, that the number of individuals who are obvious security targets is limited to a few rather than the largest possible number?

Thirdly, would the noble Lord the Minister agree, as I am sure he does, that perhaps one of the safeguards against repetition of behaviour of this sort is that any government should make it clear that their policy, whether it be right or wrong, will not be influenced one jot by outrages of this nature?

4.18 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful both to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, for their reception of this report and of the important work which has gone into making it. As to the question of the consideration of the full text of the report, I have to say that the number of copies of the report that have been produced is exceedingly small. Access to it has been strictly limited on security grounds. Although it will be of use for the future, it will be made available only on a strict need-to-know basis. I think it is the experience of all people concerned with secure documents that it does not matter to whom the document may be addressed, as the number of addressees increases so security goes down. Therefore, my understanding is that the number of copies of the full report will not be increased beyond the number already made.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, also asked a question about the full search of the hotel. In that context I can first of all tell the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that he is right in the assumption that, whatever search procedures had been carried out on the first floor, the result would have been the same because there was no connection between the first floor and what happened on the sixth. A full search which would have guaranteed the discovery of the infernal device (I think I should call it) on the sixth floor would have involved a process taking several weeks, possibly necessitating physical damage to the hotel and its closure throughout the whole of that period, and its being open only to accredited attendants at the conference during the conference period until it was over. I doubt very much whether the management of any hotel would have regarded that as an acceptable way of managing affairs. Even if it did, and one was able to set aside the statutory requirements on innkeepers to admit the public, I doubt very much whether the representatives of the parties who are about to discuss these matters would think that was a proper way of proceeding. However, it is for them to decide.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister, before he continues, would kindly deal with the point I made. I admitted freely that a full search was impracticable, and I asked whether any search at all was made.

Lord Elton

My Lords, there were searches at times both of parts of the hotel and, I understand—I am subject to correction—of individuals coming in and out. But the number of people going in and out made it quite clear that a rigorous search of everybody would be pointless and unacceptable.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, then went on to say that he trusted that there would be no concentration of terrorist targets. I may have misinterpreted him, but I think he was saying that there was the greatest risk when the greatest number of targets were assembled together. That is something which is readily appreciated. But the Government, like the rest of your Lordships, do not think that terrorist activities should be allowed to dictate the way in which politics are carried on in a free democratic society.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are electronic devices which will reveal the presence of bombs and other electronic devices hidden behind walls? If such detective devices had been used, it is possible that this bomb, concealed as it was, might have been located without tearing the hotel to pieces. Can my noble friend say whether the police are equipped or will be equipped with these electronic devices of a detective character?

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is the purpose of the body set up by my right honourable friend, to which I referred in the substantive reply, that all police forces shall be equipped with all forms of equipment for this and any other technological purpose needed for security.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, can the Minister say whether, in the deliberations and the inquiries which took place and which are conveyed in this report, account was taken of an article written in a Sunday newspaper in Ireland, the Sunday Press, by a Mr. Michael Keane on the Sunday following the terrible bombing tragedy at Brighton? It would appear from the article that he had access to the devious, murderous thinking of the IRA in their planning of this outrage. Will the Minister take the opportunity now to say at the Dispatch Box that the Prevention of Terrorism Act was placed on the statute book in the wake of the terrible Birmingham bombing of 1974 and that it is because of incidents such as that and the Brighton bombing that that Act has to remain on the statute book, irrespective of whatever protest may be made? It is understood in this House today that sections of the Irish community have been protesting about the existence of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It is because of acts such as that at Brighton that that Act has to remain on the statute book.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for his comments on the Irish press, which I shall look at with interest. I can confirm that the presence on the statute book of the prevention of terrorism legislation will remain necessary for as long as this sort of thing goes on; but your Lordships will recall that it is only temporarily on the statute book because the Government believe that democracy must not become set in procedures which limit the freedom of the citizen for a moment longer than they are necessary.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, may I press the noble Lord on two parts of his reply? Would he not agree that it is particularly satisfactory, given the constant complaints that are made about the quality of internal police reports—that is, the police reporting on the police—that such an obviously high quality piece of work has been done by the Deputy Chief Constable of Hampshire?

Secondly, does he not agree that it is virtually impossible to demand that every single person going into a headquarters hotel for a party conference should be searched? From the basis of our own experience we know that such an objective would be quite impossible to realise, given the sheer weight of numbers of people going in and out and the volume of complaints if such procedures were implemented.

Lastly, though many of us undoubtedly agree with the noble Lord that we certainly should not make any concessions to the terrorists, does he not agree that real problems of the kind described by my noble friend Lord Wigoder arise when a number of potential targets are put in the same hotel? Is the noble Lord aware that, however good the policing, however thorough the search, it is virtually impossible to guarantee the safety of a large number of political leaders in such a situation?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that this is a good report and a commendable effort. I also agree that there are circumstances in which it is impossible to guarantee full security for all the people concerned. I have already said so. In that context, this reflects well on the police force in question. As to the dispersal of targets, that is a military precept which is well understood. I would only enter the caveat that we do not wish to run this country as if we were at war.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many people will agree with his reluctance to accede to the suggestion that, on what were called "Privy Counsellor terms", the secret parts of the report should be made known to selected people? Apart from the very sound reason he gave that the more people who know about it the less secret it becomes, from the parliamentary point of view it has always been accepted that it interferes with a full probe. If selected people in a special position are privy to something, it means that they cannot use that knowledge gained by that special privilege in a way that might be necessary in having the probe fully extended on such matters. That has been the case with Leaders of Opposition in the past who have refused to accept invitations to share such knowledge because of the restrictions it puts upon them in doing their duty later. I make that point simply because if we set a precedent of this sort on such a matter it may grow, and for it to grow to any great extent may be damaging to what we call our free parliamentary society.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that intervention.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether one other source of information has been investigated? It is a difficult thing to put a 20-lb bomb in a bathroom and for it to remain undetected for three weeks. A bathroom is a simple room; it is cleaned normally, and anything left lying about will be observed. Have the staff of the hotel been carefully examined? That room had probably been entered and cleaned by some peron every day over three weeks. Is it possible that a bomb could have been hidden without someone observing some kind of indication that the walls or something else had been interfered with?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as I said in my opening remarks, the evidence so far obtained suggests that the explosion was caused by a device containing between 20 pounds and 30 pounds of explosive, as the noble Earl has rightly said, placed behind a bath panel in Room 629. Unless the plumbers had been called in, I do not think that anybody would have seen it.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord if, in considering what steps might be taken to improve the possibilities of detection, he will bear in mind that auditors believe that a principle on which they operate is a good one and has been found to be beneficial? It is that, if you wish to examine and ascertain whether any improper transaction has taken place, you do not need to examine every transaction but the knowledge that you might examine any transaction is a useful deterrent. Would the noble Lord therefore be good enough to consider whether this principle might not be incorporated into those procedures where it is thought impossible, for example, that everybody entering a building should have his baggage or his person checked? So long as it was known that at any moment of night or day anybody might be asked to submit to such an examination, might that not be held to be a useful deterrent?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I believe that the principle of random search is fairly well understood in the security forces. I am sure that the people who are about to consider arrangements for this year's conferences will take note of what the noble Lord has said.