HL Deb 07 February 1991 vol 525 cc1284-8

3.41 p.m.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement on the terrorist incident in Whitehall which is now being made in another place by my right honourable Friend the Home Secretary.

"Shortly after 10 a.m. a white transit van was driven up and parked on the corner of Whitehall and Horse Guards Avenue. At about eight minutes past ten 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 their injuries were not serious and a number of other people may have had very minor injuries. 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 which they showed.

"Mortar attacks are, sadly, 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 all be on guard at all times against attacks from a variety of sources.

"The Government have a range of contingency plans against the terrorist threat and countermeasures are kept under constant review. We are assessing urgently 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 the millions who visit or travel through it.

"We must, of course, take all reasonable security measures. That means continuing police efforts; and public vigilance in support of them. But there is a limit to the kind 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, the whole country, will condemn utterly this deliberate and ruthless attempt to injure or kill members of the Government, officials, and indeed anyone 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 is only by chance that no group was there today. The House will want to be reassured that the Cabinet met to conduct business as usual. The machinery of government and our democratic process were not, and will not, be disrupted by such terrorist attacks. Today terrorists have attempted to strike at the heart of our Government. They failed".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. We also condemn and deeply deplore this act of terrorism and hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice very soon. We recognise that we live in a dangerous time and that we are dealing with people who have no respect for human life, no respect for democracy and no respect for the rule of law. By their attack on the Government of this country they have shown that they have no respect for the workings of democracy. We sympathise with those who have been injured but we must be thankful that there is no serious casualty on this occasion.

We are glad to understand that all steps are being taken to increase security in the area and that contingency plans are under constant review. We note particularly what the noble Lord said about the physical security of Whitehall and of this building. Does the noble Lord think that security in this House is as tight as that in another place? We agree with the observation that all of us in a democracy wish to be as free as possible to go about our daily business, including the affairs of this Parliament.

Finally, we are all grateful to the police and emergency services for their prompt and efficient reaction to this murderous act.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, we too thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I join the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, in expressing our admiration for the prompt response of the police and emergency services to this incident and also in expressing our gratification that this contemptible attempt to murder Ministers and officials failed.

Does the noble Lord agree that if the weather today had been different it is highly likely that many innocent members of the public would have lost their lives? I have one further question, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and which relates to physical security in the Westminster and Whitehall area. Is the noble Lord aware that cars are still unfortunately allowed to park outside a number of government departments which could be terrorist targets? I am not pressing him on this question but I hope very much that this matter will be looked into urgently.

Finally, is the noble Lord aware that there is not the remotest prospect that terrorist outrages of this character will in any way deflect us from our policy towards Northern Ireland?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I am sure the whole House is grateful for the remarks made by the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn and Lord Harris of Greenwich. It is important that people should get the message that those who perpetrated this attack certainly have no respect for democracy. All steps are being taken to reinforce the security measures which are already in place. It is right that I should make it plain that security in the Whitehall area was already at a high level, but the acting Commissioner is considering urgently what further steps may need to be taken.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, will know that a number of measures have been taken by the authorities both in another place and here. However, it is right that we should examine whether it is necessary for us to take any further measures. I have no reason to believe that the measures which have already been taken are not adequate to meet the threat; but it is right that we should look again at all of them.

If I may say so, with respect, the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, are entirely apposite. Had the weather been different, there may well have been a number of parties in Whitehall at the time, and—who knows?—if the aim had been just slightly different, many people may have been killed; that is, innocent people, children, and people visiting Whitehall at the time. I am sure that the acting Commissioner will heed what the noble Lord said about the parking of cars in the area.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. Perhaps I may make two points. First, every Thursday morning the people of this country, and the world, are informed that the Cabinet will be sitting at 11 o'clock. Moreover, in these days, we are told that the War Cabinet will be sitting at 11 o'clock; sometimes we are even told what subjects they will be discussing. That information gives the terrorists the time as well as the place to attack. Therefore, would it not be as well, in the proposed security review which will undoubtedly take place, for the Government to consider varying the times of the Cabinet meetings? Let us make no mistake about it, the whole of the Government are present at one place at one time, and everyone, including terrorists, knows that they will be there at that particular time. I hope that the Government will take that factor into account.

Secondly, I should like now to follow on from a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, about parking vehicles in Whitehall. Vehicles are still parked outside the House of Lords car park on a daily basis. That represents a security threat not only to the House but also to the whole area. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will take that fact on board. Parking in the area should be avoided.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I cannot say any more about the parking of cars than I have already said. One must bear in mind the point made earlier by the noble Lord about the timing of Cabinet meetings. However, one has to keep a sense of proportion in the matter. It would be a bad thing if the terrorists were to gain the impression that, as a result of their activities, they were succeeding to the extent of interrupting the business of government. That message must not go out from this place.

Lord Colnbrook

My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords and express my total condemnation of this ruthless attempt on the lives of Her Majesty's Government. As has already been said, it is clear that the perpetrators have no respect for any kind of human life; indeed, they may easily have killed hundreds of people who had nothing to do with them. Should it not therefore be made clear to anyone who is minded to support this organisation, whatever it may turn out to be, that total ruthlessness is the only weapon that such an organisation has. People should be made to realise that if the terrorist organisation concerned was to succeed in its aims, then that would be the way that it would run its affairs. How anyone could support an organisation which pursues such methods to achieve its aims, and would continue to do so if it achieved them, passes my belief.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, my noble friend has spoken from his own personal experience of the IRA threat and with his background of having fought it so bravely over the years. I am sure that the House is grateful for his remarks.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I too join those who have praised the efforts being made by the police and other custodians, sometimes at the risk of their own personal safety. The noble Lord the Leader of the House made reference in the Statement to public vigilance. We should concentrate very much on associating ourselves with all the efforts which are being made by the police and others in this respect.

Sometimes public vigilance is much more lax than we would wish it to be. In particular, when the police and others are attempting to carry out what are considered to be necessary safeguards, they should be treated with courtesy by the public. Such measures are often seen by the public as interfering with their liberty. However, such safeguards are always carried out in the interests of their personal safety. As I said, I believe that the police and other custodians who are carrying out such duties should always be treated with courtesy.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I am sure that every sensible person in this country realises the enormous debt that we owe to the police for the work that they carry out in countering terrorism. The noble Lord is so right to draw attention to the need for public vigilance. The fight against terrorism cannot take place just as a result of putting more police officers on the streets; indeed, it must be a matter of good intelligence and real co-operation by the public with the police.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, does my noble friend agree how right the former Prime Minister was to allow the gates to be erected at the entrance to Downing Street on security advice, and how wrong were those who criticised such action?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. A direct attack on Downing Street has taken place. It would have been absurd if the previous Prime Minister had not heeded the security advice she received that there might be such an attack.