HL Deb 07 November 2001 vol 628 cc264-82

6.43 p.m.

Lord Lucas rose to call attention to the case for planning for the possibility of a successful terrorist attack on the United Kingdom using a weapon of mass destruction; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we move now from Barnett fair to the bazaars in Peshawar with which I am rather more familiar. The previous time I was in Peshawar, which is a wonderful place to buy all kinds of things that governments do not want you to have, we went up in the hills to try out a Kalashnikov. We set up a tin can on a rock a couple of hundred yards away, took a pot shot at it and missed. It took five minutes for the firing in the hills to die down, so we did not try it again.

These days Peshawar is a place where you can buy rather more dangerous things than that. Indeed, there are quite a lot of places in the world where you can get hold of nuclear materials and possibly chemical and biological weapons. Someone with the resources of Mr bin Laden can doubtless hope at least to lay his hands on them. As President Bush was quoted as saying yesterday—I think quite rightly—we face a real danger that weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of terrorists—and not terrorists as we have been used to them. These terrorists know no limits to the destruction they are prepared to cause. They have no fear for themselves; they have no regard for the life of others and they are not susceptible to negotiation. As I have said, the raw materials are there, or at least potentially there, for them to make use of and to attack us with.

What concerns me today is to look at the long-term consequences of a successful attack; at what we should do to try to prevent such an attack and at how we should plan to overcome the consequences should one occur. I look first at the old-fashioned weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, dirty bombs and all that kind of thing, which share the characteristic that they are limited in time and area. Probably we are looking at only a single attack; these weapons are hard to deliver and equally hard to get hold of. There will be one event, at one time, and it will cause a terrible amount of destruction, but that will be the limit of it.

What would we do should such an attack occur in this country? I suspect that we would do quite well. It is the sort of attack we imagined being part of during the Cold War, although I suspect our plans have lacked some polish since then and could do with some reviving. Should such an attack occur, it will be much better if we have planned well. What we need is a plan that people know about. If something like that happens, people want to know that the Government know what to do. If they have a role to play, they want to know what they should be doing or who they should ask to find out what they should be doing. If we cannot react fast, we invite the spread of chaos.

We need to plan ahead to be resilient in the face of such an attack. Telecoms is a good example as even when just one building collapsed in the United States it was clear how badly affected the mobile phone services were. It took a month for some of them to recover. Certainly some of them were unusable for a week or so because they had not been built in a resilient way. If we want to have services that are resilient, we must plan for that, just as the Internet was planned to be resilient. Such services should not be, or at least sufficient of them, should not be vulnerable to one event. Let us imagine what such an event might be. Suppose someone set off a small nuclear bomb outside Westminster Hall on a day when Parliament was sitting. What would happen to government? What would happen to the administration of this country? What would happen to telecommunications, the media and commerce? Do we know? I do not suppose that we do because we have not asked the questions. It does not take much to ask those questions, but it would take several years to make proper plans for the consequences.

Businesses are beginning to ask those kind of questions following the attacks in New York. They are beginning to ask, "Do we really want all our people in one place? Do we really want to have all our telecommunications going through one pinch-point that could be taken out in a terrorist attack?" Those are the kind of questions we ought to ask here. We ought in our forward planning for government to make sure that in 10 or 20 years' time we have a governmental system which will be more resilient to any such terrorist attack.

Planning has always had a bit of a bad name. It has been notable by its absence in recent crises. When we hit the petrol crisis it was clear that there was no great plan. In the foot and mouth crisis, we took far too long to react because people had not planned for it. In the BSE crisis, which I found myself in the middle of, there was an absolute prohibition on planning on the basis that if we made any plans as to what we should do if BSE proved to be infectious to humans, people would worry that it might be infectious to humans and so it was therefore considered better all round if we did not plan.

That is a bad argument, but a reasonable one because people worry if they know you are planning for something horrible to happen. But just at the moment we all know what terrorists are capable of. We all know—it is in the papers every day—what they might become capable of. People already have those concerns in mind. This is an excellent time to plan because just at the moment planning will calm rather than frighten. It will also have the beneficial effect of helping people to understand why we need to engage in what I suspect will be a long, difficult and bloody campaign in Afghanistan.

It is not too hard, given the time and the will, to plan to react well to an old-fashioned weapon of mass destruction, not least because, should such a thing happen to us, all our friends round the world would pile in to help. We would not be lacking assistance or resources to deal with the problems that resulted.

However, what would happen if we were the subject of a biological attack? Suppose that someone released an organism in the middle of London that was as infectious as the common cold and as deadly as the plague. First, all our borders would slam shut. No one would want anyone to carry the plague from England to anywhere else. We are easy to isolate because we are an island. We would find ourselves in an island isolation ward on our own.

What would we do other than die? I am sure that we do not have a clue. There has been no plan for that sort of thing in this country and it is evident from the American reaction to anthrax that there has been no plan there either. How likely is an attack at such a level? At the moment it is not very likely. We can see from the current anthrax outbreak in the States that we are not facing anything as dangerous as chemical or nuclear weapons. The diseases involved are easy to conquer and limited in spread. They also do not appear to be widely available—they certainly have not been used in the way that they might have been if they were widely available.

However, we also know that the technology to make such diseases easily available is on the way. We have sequenced the human genome and the genomes of about 100 human pathogens. Every day we understand more about the mechanisms of diseases and disease-resistance. The machinery to make pathogens—certainly to make viruses and possibly to engineer bacteria in serious ways—is available in thousands of laboratories all over the world with standard biological laboratory equipment.

Mistakes in conventional experiments in Australia have shown just how close people can get to such a result. About a year ago, while trying to do something else, the Australians engineered a mousepox virus that destroyed the immune system of the mouse that it infected, so it became impossible to immunise against it. They inserted into its genome a copy of Interleukin4, which is a standard component of the mouse immune system. They had not expected that effect. Should Mr bin Laden get hold of smallpox, which is not impossible—there are certainly some remaining traces of it in the world, although not much, thank goodness—it would not take much more than a standard biology laboratory for him to be able to create a smallpox that we could not vaccinate against. Even at this moment we would have no defence against that.

In a few years, when we can really engineer pathogens and produce viruses whose coats are human protein so that the immune system does not attack them, when we can combine the virulence of plague with the ease of movement and infection of the common cold, then we will be able to produce some truly terrifying pathogens. The knowledge and ability will be there and we know from what happened on 11th September that the motivation to use them will be there, too.

What should we do? First, we should pursue with resolution the task of dealing with international terrorism that we are currently set about. The less powerful the terrorist networks, the less chance there will be of one of them producing this sort of weapon.

Secondly, we should do what we can to prevent bioterrorism in particular. The first weapon against it should be intelligence. Anyone producing an engineered pathogen needs a laboratory, equipment and, above all, reagents. All of those are traceable, but it takes time. The Americans still have not tracked down a list of all the laboratories in the United States that could have produced the anthrax that is troubling them at the moment, because they had not prepared and planned. These things cannot be done in a few weeks from a standing start. If part of the task of the intelligence services was to monitor any facility that might be producing such pathogens, they would be in a much better position to react should one appear.

We also need co-operation. No state should be in the business of producing the sort of pathogen that could cause us real trouble. States need bioweapons that cannot bite back. They need something that will destroy their enemy, but not come back and kill the state that sent it. An engineered smallpox or common cold would not be a good state bioweapon. Everybody—or almost everybody; I am sure that there will be a few exceptions—ought to be prepared to cooperate to make sure that the intelligence services world-wide have the information that they need to keep bioweapons development under control. The United States Government need to learn a lesson on that. They have come close to wrecking the bioweapons treaty by refusing inspections. They have to turn their minds to that again.

We need to make sure that we study from a defensive point of view the sort of technologies that will be used by bioterrorists and the proper counter-measures to them. I hope that Porton Down is doing that at the moment. We should watch world-wide for terrorists testing bioweapons. With current technology, no one will produce a perfect pathogen at a first try. They will produce something and then try it out to see whether it works. We need to watch for unusual diseases or unusual variants of diseases appearing world-wide, as a symptom of someone being on the way to producing a bioweapon. We need to be imaginative in thinking about how such an attack might occur. One obvious way would be to produce a fungus that successfully attacked wheat. A new wheat fungus that was resistant to all known methods of killing it might very easily wipe out the US wheat harvest for a year or two, which would have considerable effects. We should not limit ourselves to the obvious human pathogens.

Thirdly, we need to be able to react fast. We need to plan a reactive structure that could be used in the event of an attack. We need microbiologists. Microbiology as a medical discipline is very run down at the moment. There are only one or two such professors in the UK. We think that we have defeated pathogens, but if we are to defeat an attack, we need the resources in place. We need more microbiologists. We also need diagnostics and laboratories. That means that we need to do a great deal to preserve the presence of the international pharmaceutical industry in this country, because we will not have the resources in our national laboratories.

Communications and power facilities need to be available whatever might happen to the nation. If we have to close off parts of the country to prevent disease spreading, we still need to be able to react to the disease. We need to plan to limit the spread. We do not want to follow the foot and mouth example and use culling. We need to plan for isolation and know what we are going to do if we are cut off and cannot get food and fuel into the country. There will be a premium on being able to deal with the outbreak fast, but we need to understand how we would deal with it if it took time.

Lastly, we need to plan for recovery. That may come more into the sphere of Mr Opik in another place and his near-earth objects. What happens if something really gets out of control? What do we need to have in place and how do we need to design our basic systems so that we can pick ourselves up off the floor? The Internet is a pretty good example of something that will work in the case of disaster. We need to extend that principle to power in particular and to some elements of manufacturing and distribution.

We need a back-up. We need to back up our civilisation in the way that we back up a computer. When people have died in large numbers, no one will know what is where or how to do things. We need to know where to find that knowledge and the Government need to provide a place for it.

If we plan, we will do much better. We will be much less likely to be attacked successfully; and if we are attacked, we shall resist and survive it much better. If we do not plan, we are putting ourselves at the risk of one man coming into Heathrow airport and putting an end to what we have all known in this country. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

7 p.m.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, I clearly appreciate the thrust of this debate, which addresses the possibility of a successful terrorist attack. It is of course concerned, as I see it, with our local authorities and the emergency services, how they will cope and the extent to which that has been planned for. What preparation have the police made? How ready are our fire services? Are our hospitals, doctors and nurses prepared for the worst of scenarios? And if needs be there are the Armed Forces.

I do not dissent for one moment from this concern. I indeed support the concern for a comprehensive programme to deal with such an atrocity. However, on the basis that prevention is better than cure, the prime objective must be to do all in our power to avoid the possibility of a successful terrorist attack. Although I know that all noble Lords will understand, it is my intention to stray into that area because I believe that too many too often pay lip service to it and the necessary practical steps are either not taken or, if they are, they are not enthusiastically implemented.

That brings me once again to the conflict between human rights and civil liberties on the one hand, and safety and security on the other. Perhaps I may first say that practical steps should be taken to make secure nuclear power stations, railway tunnels, particularly the Channel Tunnel, and airports which are likely targets for the terrorist. However, as regards aeroplanes, I believe that the possibility of hijacking a plane for the purpose of turning it into a guided missile, as occurred on 11th September, is now a more remote possibility. I say that because before 11th September the culture was that where hijackers were attempting to take over a plane the crew were to obey the hijackers, calm the passengers and bring the plane down safely and allow negotiations to take place. There are numerous examples of such incidents. But 11th September changed all that. Whether or not there are sky marshals and more secure cockpits, it seems to me that never again are 200 to 300 passengers placidly going to allow four or five hijackers to take over a plane without a struggle. Any potential hijackers will now know of that.

Another area of concern must be to make more secure hospitals and research establishments where there are ingredients for assisting the terrorists in practising their insanity through the bringing about of nuclear, chemical or biological atrocities.

Of course, the areas to which I have referred are not an exhaustive list and many noble Lords could no doubt refer to many others. I am sure that there will be no complacency on the part of the Government in exploring every avenue to prevent terrorists acquiring from this country the means to spread their terror. I believe that there will be no complacency in taking steps to increase the security around the establishments thought to be likely targets.

I now want to turn to our democratic system, which is very largely underpinned by laws in relation to human rights and civil liberties and the extent to which in the present climate they make the safety and security of this nation's people more difficult to achieve. It is not an issue that I raise for the first time. Noble Lords may recall that during the debate in the recess, on 4th October, I stated that I believed that the balance between human rights and civil liberties, and safety and security, had to be re-established. Everything that has happened since has only reinforced my view.

On 4th October I suggested that the Government should seriously and urgently consider and examine the introduction of ID cards, the law on extradition, the law in respect of asylum seekers and as regards those openly preaching support for the terrorist actions of Osama bin Laden. We are now told that many are recruiting for his Taliban army. I am extremely pleased at the action the Government have taken so far in these areas.

I appreciate that there are those who say that to reduce or dilute our human rights and civil liberties legislation would be a betrayal of our civilised behaviour and would be to surrender to the terrorists. I do not accept those arguments in the present climate. My view is that the first priority in the provision of human rights and civil liberties is for people to live without the threat or fear of terrorism. I believe that our laws must be drafted or redrafted to ensure that as far as possible that approach is reinforced. Some may believe that in achieving greater security and safety our human rights and civil liberties are being diluted; then so be it. It seems to me that we have reached a stage in this country where the vast majority of our people are law-abiding and innocent of any wrongdoing and are now being exposed to dangers because our laws enable unscrupulous wrongdoers to practise their evil. That cannot be right. It is about time there was a revaluation of our legal system which currently enables villains to use our generous and liberal laws to escape what most people understand to be justice. As a result, they continue to be a threat to our people and our cherished way of life.

7.7 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for introducing this debate. After only two speakers it is already wide-ranging and I shall probably widen it a little further. I begin by declaring some interests. I am, and have been for the past 28 years, a London borough councillor. I am now a member of the Greater London Assembly, a member of the Mayor of London's advisory cabinet and perhaps even more relevant to this debate, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, whose finance, planning and best value committee I chair. So the subject under discussion has been a matter of some concern in wearing all of those hats over the past month or two.

Because of that, although I speak today from the Front Bench, I wish to speak primarily about London and the role of the Metropolitan Police. I do that because it reflects my knowledge and experience and also because we have to accept that, while these attacks could take place anywhere, London must be one of the more likely targets for obvious reasons. In addition to its role in London, the Metropolitan Police is also the national lead on matters such as this. I also believe that some of the lessons learned from London's experience over the past 30 years could well be applied and adapted elsewhere. I shall return to that shortly.

In one sense I wish to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies. The Motion refers to "A successful terrorist attack". I understand why it deliberately states that and why that is the purpose of the debate. But we should begin by stressing that great effort has been put into ensuring that any such attack is not successful. I am absolutely certain that for the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that has to be the first priority. We have not had any intelligence that suggests that such an attack in London or elsewhere is planned. But the same was said in New York, whether correctly or not I would not know.

Much of the activity since 11th September has been designed to give public reassurance. That is why we have had variously 1,000 or 1,500 additional police officers on the streets of London to give reassurance to the public and to those sections of the community which feel particularly vulnerable. I refer in particular to the Muslim community and their mosques. I know that that has been much appreciated.

I refer to the theme of public reassurance which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, mentioned. I could not be here for Questions on Monday but I have readHansard. I noted that they revealed a degree of ignorance of current arrangements on the part of those noble Lords who took part. Clearly, your Lordships are generally better informed than are most members of the public—I genuinely believe that—so I suspect that if noble Lords are not well informed, neither is the general public.

It might be useful for public reassurance for the Government to give greater publicity to the structures and arrangements that exist—and have done for years—to deal with such emergencies. What is done may sometimes be secret and confidential; but the existence of such structures is certainly not. It is in the public domain and perhaps the public should be more aware of it. The Government should consider that as part of public reassurance, which may be all the more necessary after the rather chilling speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, tonight.

It is for the Minister, not for me, to explain what are the arrangements, and he has more time to do so than I have been given, but I want to refer to one aspect—the situation in London. At operational level, planning to respond to emergencies is carried out through the London Emergency Services Liaison Panel—LESLP to its friends. It has met regularly, on and off, since 1973; it is not a new body. It brings together the three police forces operational in London—although, interestingly, not the Ministry of Defence Police—as well as fire and ambulance services, the Port of London Authority and representatives of the London boroughs and the City Corporation. As the Minister confirmed on Monday, the Metropolitan Police is in overall charge—it chairs LESLP and takes overall operational charge.

Sadly, since LESLP was established in 1973, London has had too much experience of emergencies, whether terrorist bombs or civil emergencies such as train crashes. I am confident that operationally our emergency services work well together on such occasions and will do so almost whatever happens. LESLP has been developing for almost 30 years, but I understand that it is not fully replicated elsewhere in the country. What lessons have the Government learned from the experience of LESLP? To what extent could it or should it be replicated elsewhere, especially in our major cities?

However good it is, LESLP has one big weakness: it has no statutory basis or funding arrangements; it relies on the good will of its members. Are the Government considering giving LESLP a statutory basis—preferably, but not necessarily, under the Greater London Authority—together with recognised funding arrangements? That could help information-sharing among the various agencies involved, which, I gather, can sometimes prove a problem.

I turn more closely to the Motion, which envisages a successful terrorist attack using a weapon of mass destruction. The events of 11th September have caused all of us, including our emergency planners, to think the unthinkable. Before 11th September, no one seriously contemplated what happened then and what could happen. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has described for us tonight other possible scenarios. These involve envisaging casualties on a scale higher than ever previously contemplated or planned for.

Will the Minister give us assurances tonight on some necessary questions? For instance, are there sufficient available and suitable areas for use as survivor reception areas? Are temporary mortuary facilities available for thousands of fatalities? Could accommodation, catering and medical facilities be provided for the non-fatally injured and evacuees? Do we have facilities quickly to set up family reception areas? We are thinking on a scale that we have not previously had to contemplate.

Those are important issues, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is right to draw our attention to them. He is right to say that such scenarios are difficult to contemplate. We hope they are unlikely to happen, but they may and we should plan for them. Those questions assume large numbers of casualties, and we must be ready for that should it happen.

However, in my inexpert view I believe that, if anything should happen in London—God forbid—it is unlikely to be an attack by a weapon of mass destruction and will not necessarily lead to major casualties. It is more likely to lead to major disruption. We all know that there are a relatively small number of locations in London which, if attacked, may produce no casualties, or only accidental ones, but could bring the whole of Greater London to a halt, not just for the day—London Underground manages that quite easily—but for a significant period, with millions of people within that area needing to get out. I wonder whether our emergency planners are seriously preparing for such an emergency. Reassurance on that from the Minister would be welcome. I do not know what steps are being taken to deal with such an eventuality, which I think is more likely than a successful attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

I turn to the political—with a small 'p'—aspects of the matter. We know that the police are in overall operational charge in London. Who is in political charge in London? One lesson that we learnt on 11th September and in the following days was that nobody had given any thought to the fact that we now have a London government and a directly elected mayor. I plead guilty to that too. I spent many happy hours in the Chamber considering the Greater London Authority Act 1999, and I do not recall us discussing the matter at all. It became clear that the mayor and the GLA, as distinct from some of its functional bodies, had no role in such emergencies.

I am sure that the Minister will tell us of the London resilience sub-committee within the Civil Contingency Committee structure. Since 11th September, the mayor and the chief executive of the GLA are members of that sub-committee. I know that it meets every few weeks; I believe that it is attended by about 50 people, and I am sure that it is doing great work. The mayor has expressed publicly and privately his satisfaction with those arrangements, so I am in no sense speaking on his behalf. However, communication with and reassurance of Londoners, and perhaps others, will be an important role after a major attack such as we are envisaging tonight. Who will provide that?

The Minister for London is a fine fellow and at present a London Member of Parliament, but he has an electorate of perhaps 60,000 and is appointed by the Prime Minister. The mayor of London—whoever that may be; I do not refer to the present incumbent in particular—has an electorate of 5 million people and has been elected by Londoners to do the job and to represent them. Londoners will expect whoever is mayor of London when, God forbid, such an emergency occurs, to take the public and political lead and provide reassurance and communication. Are the Government ready to contemplate that? If they truly believe in devolution—in this case, to London government —they should be. Of course, I recognise that in a national catastrophe the Government have a role to play on a national and international scale.

Finally, I will use this opportunity, as chairman of the finance committee of the Metropolitan Police Authority, to raise the "give us the money" issue. It is a serious issue. Much has rightly been made of having an additional 1,000—or even at times 1,500—police officers on the streets of London. An obvious point that is not often recognised is that they are not actually additional officers but existing officers working considerable additional overtime, whether they have come from the territorial support group or the borough police services. There are an awful lot of tired police officers in the Metropolitan Police.

Since 11th September, the additional officers have cost the Metropolitan Police Authority more than £1 million a week. The MPA is already overspending on its budget this year and it is taking strenuous steps to get back within it, regardless of the events of 11th September. The GLA took over as police authority from the Home Secretary only last year. We inherited no reserves at all—none, not a penny. We tried to create a small reserve in the current year's budget but that has gone. We do not have the money to continue to meet the additional cost week after week for goodness knows how long. We do not yet know what is expected from us next year or what the Government will pay for. It would enormously enhance my reputation if the Minister would stand up today and hand over the cheque to me. I could then bank it tomorrow.

I suspect that that will not happen. I am sure that the Minister is in no position to tell us today how much we shall receive, but I hope that he can tell us at least when we will know how much we shall receive. We have had to satisfy the statutory responsibilities of our treasurer in making arrangements for covering the cost in the, I hope, unlikely event that we have to meet it. However, if we had to do so, there would be serious consequences indeed for policing in London. We need to know—and we need to know urgently—I suspect from the Chancellor rather than the Home Office what we are to receive, and when, to cover the cost of this year's emergency policing and in response to the proposals for next year. It would be most helpful if tonight the Minister could indicate the amount or, more likely, the timescale.

Short though the debate will be, it has been useful. I hope that in reply the Minister will give me not only the reassurances I seek but the wider reassurances which the public want.

7.22 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lucas has done the House a service in bringing forward the debate today. It is timely because we need to consider and plan for what so recently was considered to be unthinkable.

I hesitate in rising to speak because when previously I dealt with governments I always said that although we might try to think of every eventuality they would consider in their treatment of my county, they would always put forward something else. And they always did. One of the lessons of 11th September is that bin Laden thought of something else. We should not assume that he does not have other original tricks up his sleeve.

However, considering the debate in the context of my noble friend's Motion dealing with weapons of mass destruction, conventionally they are nuclear, biological and chemical. The big point about nuclear weapons is that it will probably be difficult for a terrorist organisation to obtain a conventional nuclear bomb. On the other hand, it will probably be all too easy for them to obtain what is known as a "dirty bomb"; that is, a conventional explosive wrapped in highly radio-active material which is distributed over the area surrounding the explosion.

Not least of the problems which we face is that such weapons and materials are not difficult to transport and do not take up a huge amount of space. In accepting that some people are inclined to act improperly, we must bear in mind that the number of containers which daily enter our ports is vast and that the current rate of checking is less than 10 per cent. It is about 5 per cent. That is one issue about which we need to worry.

The next category of weapons is biological. They are unpredictable but we need to take notice of what my noble friend said about the increasing possibility of designer weapons. Biological weapons are, more than anything else, psychological weapons. Of course their use raises the possibility of a large number of deaths, but the purpose of bio-terrorism, using conventional diseases, is to disable society through terror—to disrupt society. Again, prevention is vitally important.

Chemical weapons are probably less of a problem. We saw what happened when the Falun Gong tried sarin gas on the underground in Japan. Although the effects were not as bad as we might have thought could be achieved, we should not in any way be complacent. Frankly, I have a daily fear that someone will do something terrible to London's Underground and cause immense damage in the process.

In order for terrorists to obtain any of those weapons, they must either purchase them from an illicit supplier or steal them from otherwise legitimate sources. We should all realise that the best way of limiting the possibility of such action is simply to prevent terrorists obtaining the weapons. Perhaps the Minister will say what steps the Government are taking in respect of security at all installations handling any of those substances—and not just in this country. Are we aiding Russia and some of the eastern European and central Asian republics in their huge task of dealing with large stocks of nuclear materials in particular? I understand that they are not always stored in the most secure installations. Their scientists, who have enormous expertise, are grossly underemployed and even more grossly under-rewarded and might be inclined to sell their services, if not their product, to someone who will pay them well. We need to pay particular attention to that aspect.

My noble friend Lord Lucas raised the question of how we would handle a biological attack. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Public Health Laboratory Service has been asked for advice? Are there resource implications for that service? Speed of foot when dealing with biological warfare is of fundamental and essential necessity. Initially, the possibility of treatment will depend on a rapid diagnosis of the disease—we may well have to deal with a novel disease—after which it will depend on having the facilities to continue the diagnosis. That will mean a steep learning curve for hospital laboratory services, at the end of which we shall need a high-tech industry to produce a cure in a short time. It would be interesting to know whether the Government have all that in the back of their mind.

Outside London, responsibility for major emergencies clearly rests with the major authorities. In my former county council, for instance, the emergency planning officer will have prepared plans to deal with everything from the catastrophic collapse of Bradwell nuclear power station downwards. The background behind that lies in the original civil defence legislation in which it was necessary to consider the possibilities of nuclear war. Nuclear war has been considered, and I dare say that if some of the old plans were dusted off we should find ourselves dealing with potential numbers of casualties greater than any of us have thought about tonight. Please God that that will never be a situation with which we have to deal.

The fact is that, outside the metropolitan areas, the planning responsibility is very clear. In London and, I suspect, in other metropolitan areas, the responsibility is rather more divided. Plans exist for everything that one can think of in this field. But the question that will always remain is: have we thought of everything? I suspect that we may not have done.

The plans involve all the emergency services—that is, police, fire, health, social services, and so on. I know that the plans are taken off the shelf, dusted off and rehearsed with great regularity. Again, I ask the Government whether, in the present environment, they are issuing additional guidance as to what the emergency planning authorities should be doing. I know that there has been what I would label a "wake-up call", and I was gratified to hear that.

I want to ask the Government another question. In the present situation, what guidance are they giving to the public utilities—the water companies, the energy companies and telecoms? Resilience—the ability to bounce back—is absolutely critical. Of course, security is also vitally important. There has been plenty of publicity about the possibility—again, I hope that it will never happen—of a 747 being flown into one of our nuclear power stations or, indeed, into Sellafield.

In fact, the worst-case scenarios for Sellafield are considerably worse than what happened at Chernobyl. That may or may not cause a problem because, if the wind was in the right direction, it might take all the contaminated material out over the Atlantic Ocean and dump it there. That would cause a subsequent problem, but we would not have the immediate difficulty of huge disruption and damage to health and society on land. I say that because, in fact, a great deal of the nuclear waste from Chernobyl went straight over Essex. However, it went over at about 4,000 metres and stayed at that height because it happened not to rain. We were extremely lucky.

All those industries need well considered recovery strategies. They must have those plans in place. Therefore, again, I must ask the Government whether they are working with the utilities to encourage them to develop recovery strategies. How quickly can those industries get back on their feet if their administrative headquarters are taken out? That is a question that must be asked.

It is also a question that must be asked of business and commerce because they also need to consider this type of issue. Of course, for the small commercial enterprise that is not a problem. If one happens to be involved in such an incident and one's business is destroyed, one must hope that the insurance cover will not "run". I sometimes think that having insurance cover is like having an umbrella which is taken away when it starts to rain. In fact, the insurance industry does a very good job. But major industries which operate on multiple sites should consider what they need to do in order to come back from a major disruption to their business. It is no good having a recovery centre in the street next to the main administrative centre because the odds are that both will go at the same time. There are certainly cases where that is the situation.

I am sure that the Minister will have some interesting comments to make in response to the debate. I am not too pessimistic about the present situation. I believe that British society is remarkably resilient. I offer one final thought. Every time any one of us alters our plans because we are afraid of what might happen as a result of the activities of Mr bin Laden and Al'Qaeda, we play his game. We really should know better.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for introducing this short debate. In answer to one of the last points mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I begin by telling the House that I do not have anything interesting to say, and I have no comments to make on any of the scenarios that have been put before the House because that would cause more problems than it would solve.

However, I shall seek to deploy some points at greater length than I was able to do at Question Time on Monday when I answered a Question that related only to London. I shall also talk about the type of plans that we are making. However, I must say to anyone who is listening: switch off because there will be no detail, no examples and no free thinking. I shall stick fairly closely to the script that I have. That in no way short changes noble Lords who have spoken in the debate; it is the realistic position that I must take.

As I said on Monday, it is sad that in this country we have enormous experience of fighting terrorism. It has been present on our streets for many years and we deal with it as best we can. However, we have, at least, learnt from the experiences of the past three decades. Plans are always being adjusted and updated.

The issue of contingency planning is important. Pressure does not need to be applied to us on that matter as, indeed, it has not been necessary to apply it to previous governments. Planning continues in Whitehall departments on a day-in, day-out basis. I recall that, when I was at MAFF from 1997 to 1999, as a Minister I took part in, I believe, three planning exercises. I shall not explain what they involved, but they were genuine planning exercises, looking at events that might occur, at how well we were prepared to deal with such issues and how well we were prepared for recovery. There is a long-standing Home Office document that deals with the issue of disaster and civil protection. It has been printed and updated many times. We do not need to be persuaded to take part in and think about contingency planning.

The Home Office's national counter-terrorist exercise programme is designed to test these plans in conjunction with police forces and other government departments and agencies. The national programme involves on average three full-scale, live counterterrorist exercises per year and a substantial number of table-top exercises which cover the full range of possible scenarios. The planners of that programme will have listened to what noble Lords have said tonight. They will check their lists against what has been suggested may happen to see whether any matters raised tonight have not already been considered. I can assure noble Lords of that.

Since 1989 we—that is, the government machine—have been working on managing the consequences of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents. As I mentioned on Monday, we held a large-scale, operational exercise—Trump Card—in London last year.

Our contingency plans for dealing with a crisis in London are well developed because of the preparations and precautions that we put in hand in response to the major public safety concerns surrounding the millennium; for example, in relation to the "bug", the central-London celebrations, and the fears of terrorist activity. I can tell the House, although not in any detail, that an enormous amount of contingency planning went into the millennium and the bug.

People say, "Well, it was not a problem", but we do not know that it was not a problem. There was a massive amount of preparation in government and the private sector in many areas, including this country's infrastructure and distribution systems in case there were difficulties. People tend to forget that. That expenditure was well spent. We learnt much from that important effort—the issue was taken extremely seriously. None of that makes the UK a risk-free zone; no one is arguing that. There can be no such thing. We should keep things in context.

However, before addressing our arrangements for responding to and recovering from a disaster of the kind that has been hypothesised by various noble Lords, it is important to stress that the Government's priority is to ensure that such terrible eventualities do not come to pass. Our first watchword is prevention and our first line of defence, as the Prime Minister demonstrated in his speech in Cardiff last week, is to continue to play a full part in the coalition's political, military, diplomatic and humanitarian effort to defeat Al'Qaeda and the Taliban so that they cannot commit further atrocities and add to the worst terrorist attacks that the world has ever seen.

It has been said before—it has been said in this House—but it is worth repeating that things have changed since 11th September. As my noble friend Lord Davies said, people have got to wise up to that; the sooner that they do so the better. We are certainly changing with regard to our preparedness.

I can now say that later this month, the Government will introduce into Parliament an emergency anti-terrorism, crime and security Bill. It will contain a range of proposals that noble Lords will debate at length with a view to obtaining Royal Assent, I hope, well before Christmas. We continue to organise our efforts in an evidence-led way, gathering and assessing intelligence in this country and abroad so that we can take preventive and protective measures in response to any terrorist threat.

The position continues to be that there remains no intelligence of any specific threat to the UK at present. That is monitored very closely. We remain vigilant, taking all the necessary precautions. We should bear in mind the need for prudence and for a measured and proportionate response that does not generate unnecessary public alarm.

Our first responsibility is the safety of the public. Since 11th September, the Government have been subjecting every one of our arrangements for securing that safety to the most careful scrutiny.

If the House will permit me, I shall run through the machinery for handling terrorist incidents. The Home Secretary has overall responsibility for UK counterterrorism. If an incident occurs, he uses the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms—COBR—to co-ordinate the Government's response. There are well-established alert procedures for such a contingency, which have operated successfully in the past. We have experience in that area.

We also have well-established procedures for managing the consequences of any incidents. Lead responsibility for that also rests with the Home Secretary in his capacity as chair of the Civil Contingencies Committee, which has a dedicated secretariat. As chairman of the CCC, the Home Secretary has been leading a thorough and comprehensive review to improve the resilience of the UK at every level.

In the light of the terrorist attacks of 11th September and the fundamental challenge that they presented to the assumptions that underlay our existing contingency planning arrangements, the CCC decided to commission a set of specific reviews. They were to improve the resilience of London; to improve the resilience of services that are vital to the life of the nation; and to deal with the threat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism. The objective is to make sure that everything that can be done is done to enhance our resilience and protect our key facilities, utilities and essential services. The CCC draws together the key government departments, the devolved administrations and the police.

As I said on Monday—and as has been confirmed in the Answer that the Prime Minister gave to a Written Question—the sub-committees of the CCC have been carefully constituted to ensure that all the relevant organisations and stakeholders, including the private sector, the public sector and government bodies at all relevant levels, are involved. There are 10 working groups covering the key areas of the critical national infrastructure and they are carrying out detailed reviews. Their work feeds into the appropriate sub-committees. That means that all the necessary professional expertise and operational experience has been assembled to help us to review and renew our plans.

All of the committees have been and continue to be extremely active. They are making sure that our contingency plans are reviewed and renewed in the light of new threats. They are identifying areas that are vulnerable to major terrorist attacks. They are also reducing that vulnerability through improved preparedness and by making sure that we have a better understanding of the dependencies and inter-relationships that characterise a complex open society. As my noble friend Lord Davies said, we are a democratic, tolerant and liberal society, and we shall keep it that way. If that means upping our defences to keep the society for which we fought so hard, we shall do that. We have to balance the rights that we use and bestow on people against the ultimate right that people want—the right to live. That is the top right; the rest of them are subsidiary to it.

I return to the list of the committees' functions. They are making sure that all reasonable precautions are taken; that guidance is brought up to date; that we have good communication systems in place; that we are as well prepared as possible; and that everyone knows how they fit into the overall picture, whether they work in the emergency services or in central, local or devolved government. Sometimes the work of those committees results in documents that are released to practitioners in the field. For example, the CBRN sub-committee—that is, the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear sub-committee—of the CCC oversaw the publication of co-ordinated guidance to local authorities, emergency services and the NHS on the response to the deliberate release of chemicals and biological agents.

However, by and large—and for obvious reasons—it is not sensible or helpful to elaborate on all the details of the work that is being done or on the arrangements that are being put in place. It has long been the practice of this country not to advertise its security and civil protection measures. I know that noble Lords will understand that that limits the extent to which I can be forthcoming with detailed answers to the questions that were raised in this debate. Of course, that in no way invalidates the questions; far from it. It is right that issues are raised. However, they need to be raised and answered in a way which is measured and proportionate and which keeps the public onside. That is not a question of Ministers saying, "I am a Minister. Trust me. We are doing what is necessary". There are teams of people working their socks off carrying through the processes in government, the utilities and the emergency services that I have listed. I assure the House that we will draw the Home Secretary's attention to the issues that have been raised this evening. Those issues will be put before the relevant committees to ensure that nothing has been overlooked.

I turn to the specific questions that were raised, although I cannot answer all of them. On London, I hope that on Monday I reinforced what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. On communication, I went out of my way to emphasise that the key role of the Mayor in such circumstances is to communicate with the people of London. He was elected by the people of London, as the noble Lord rightly pointed out, and he is fully in the loop with his team. He has already been out on the stump talking about the situation in London. He will have a key role in the communication exercise, should such events arise.

The noble Lord also asked about money for the extra police—or, as he rightly said, for the extra police hours. They are visible to most people in central London. That matter must be addressed; I can say only that that will be done soon. We are not oblivious to the fact that, as he said, it is costing some £1 million extra a week, over and above the original budget.

I turn to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, who discussed thinking about "something else". There are people thinking the things that they hope others have not thought about, which could be added to the list. However, it is not possible to list them; it would be counter-productive. There are people whose job it is to think the unthinkable, and then think the unthinkable on top of the unthinkable. As I said, things have changed since 11th September.

On the issue of the wake-up call, there have been communications with the emergency planning authorities around the country. As I have mentioned, in respect of London they have all been contacted individually so as to review everything from the centre and to ensure that all 33 authorities are on board and up to date.

I have covered as much as I dare cover in the hope that I have been able to provide some confidence that the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and other noble Lords have been and continually will be addressed seriously by government in co-operation with all the emergency services and the utilities. I also hope that people feel assured about our being prepared, having emergency plans and taking proportionate precautions to ensure that such issues do not arise, but that if they do arise we can manage the situation.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, the only volunteer this evening. Although I did not agree with much that he said, none the less I am grateful to him.

I am delighted for the noble Lord, Lord Tope. He almost appears to have acquired a promise that he will get his money. That does not happen often in this House. Even if the situation was not quite as clear as he would have liked, I believe he received some encouragement.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for what he felt he was able to say. I am encouraged that the Government are putting much effort into tackling the kind of problems that we have addressed. I am sorry that the Government feel that it is advantageous to be so secretive about things. I do not believe that terrorists are helped much by knowing the plans for dealing with the consequences of an attack on London. Terrorists are not generally people with the ability to frustrate such plans in any obvious way.

However, it helps ordinary people to know what is going on and it helps government committees. I remember from my days in MAFF, which has clearly improved since then, how many bad decisions were taken because MAFF committees never spoke to anyone outside their own little coterie. It helps to have the decisions, thoughts and conclusions of committees made open to the public when that can be done safely. I hope that the Government will give thought to whether that may be a better way to deal with the situation. At the end of the day, that may provide more reassurance and comfort to the public.

I am grateful to the Minister and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.