HC Deb 18 March 2004 vol 419 cc141-84WH
[ Relevant documents:

Eighth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2002–03, HC 415–, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6108.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton):

I call the Chairman of that important Committee, who is a distinguished Member of the House, Dr. Ian Gibson.

2.30 pm
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab):

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—you flatter me. I am pleased to deliver the report and to introduce today's debate. Although this is an important subject, the debate is not unique. For many years we have talked about science and its role in defending the state and the world against terrorist acts. We did so in the late 1960s, particularly in relation to events in Ireland and so on—the British Society for Responsibility in Science examined events in Northern Ireland and how to allay some effects of the acts that went on there. Such consideration continues today.

It is appropriate that we are having this debate today, in the wake of the atrocities in Madrid. We offer our great respect to the people there, who have stood up with great dignity and said that enough is enough. We associate ourselves with them—not only those in the scientific community, but the whole community in Spain who have suffered that atrocity. We believe that a similar event may happen here—indeed, many people in this part of the world probably thought that it had happened this morning, when Parliament square was closed off. Thankfully, the cause was a spillage from a chemical container after a crash, but it could have been the type of event that we all dread.

That is the spirit in which the Committee entered into our deliberations and investigations. It was a spirited inquiry. We examined how counter-measures against biological, chemical and radiological terrorism are informed by science and technology; how the surveillance of dangerous chemicals and pathogens is co-ordinated nationally and internationally; the policies that we have here and internationally to respond; the public communications policy on such threats and on the responses to biological, chemical and radiological terrorism; the relevant research being undertaken in the UK and the controls that we place on that; and the need for an ethical code of conduct for scientists working with pathogens and chemical substances.

I am pleased that we have the opportunity today to discuss the report. Yesterday, in an astronomically superb Budget, science was mentioned—perhaps more times than I have had hot dinners in a month—not only in terms of its relationship to terrorism, but in terms of improving health, understanding of climate change and so on. I am proud to be associated with our Government's putting money into such fields. Of course, terrorism was also mentioned, so our debate is very apt.

We recognise that we now live in a dangerous world. The attacks in Washington, Bali and, of course, New York have heightened our resistance to such events. Terrorism is not merely about suicide bombers, or planes crashing into twin towers; it is now about individuals' propensity to release white powders. White powders were released last weekend, and good science was required to identify whether they were talcum powder or anthrax spores. In the aftermath of New York, panic was created in that city and in Washington by the release of suspect packages. The postal services in this very place were actively looking at the possibilities. At one end of the scale are pranksters; at the other are serious terrorists who are trying to impose their ways and ideals on the world. I always think that that is a vicious, nasty way to get one's political views over—ht affects defenceless people. We have to take every possibility seriously and try to make sure that nothing gets past our surveillance systems. We can never claim to be 100 per cent. perfect, but we can be 80 or 90 per cent. sure that we are pulling out all our stops against terrorism and such a use of science.

I often wonder how to define terrorism, given how the word has been used. The literature that I have received from the Halifax, where I have an account, defines it brilliantly. Insurance companies and building societies have had it right for a long time, but I bet that few right hon. and hon. Members have looked at their building society policy to see how such institutions define terrorism. The Halifax defines it as the use, or threat of use, of biological, chemical and/or nuclear force or contamination by any person(s), whether acting alone or on behalf of or in connection with any organisation(s) or government(s), committed for political, religious, ideological or similar purposes including the intention to influence any government(s) or put any section of the public in fear. Gosh—that definition covers everything. It makes us sit up and think that such institutions have been thinking it through. Hopefully, we can relate to that attitude and see the whole fight against terrorism in those terms.

Before discussing the inquiry, I must thank the Committee Clerks, whose brilliance is often exposed by our Committee, through Radio 4 and letters to Ministers. They keep us in check—by gosh, that is sometimes a hard job, but they do it brilliantly—and I thank them for that. I also thank the people who have hosted us, such as the Home Office officials who steered us through difficult waters, and the British embassy in Washington and the consulates-general in Atlanta and San Francisco, who hosted the Committee on its annual visit to the United States, which was very useful. I must also thank our well known and distinguished specialist advisers: Professor Roy Anderson of Imperial college; Professor Alastair Hay of Leeds university, who was, of course, strongly associated with the David Kelly inquiry; Professor Bill Keevil from Southampton university; and Professor Michael Elves, who used to work for Glaxo Wellcome. They helped us in our inquiries, and tailored and supported us in our question. Although many issues should be highlighted, today I shall address three main points in the report, the first of which is openness and security. I do not do so vindictively; I simply want to question how Select Committees, through our inquiries, are able to obtain information to inform and instruct us, thus allowing us to feel as though we are making a responsible, well researched response to the cases being examined. Another job of mine is to sit on the Liaison Committee with the Chairmen of other Select Committees. A few hours ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee's first special report on the decision to go to war in Iraq was published. It identifies many of the same problems of openness and security that our Committee faced, although I shall not go into all the instances detailed in the report.

I believe that the issue will be raised on the Floor of the House, and might be resolved there. How is the judgment made on whether individuals are to be allowed to go before a Select Committee to give information and to answer questions honestly? How is that balanced against their role of protecting the state, the nation, the realm and so on, which means that they cannot give information that might be highly secret and might be given to the enemy or terrorists? That is an extremely difficult balance to strike, and no one has a perfect solution, but we learn by experience. As the Chairman of the Committee, I was engaged in many back-room conversations with all sorts of people who are high up in the Government about getting hold of information, and I often found that things that seemed to be secret were not. Quite a lot of them were on websites. Even the high-ups in Government do not always know exactly what is out there. Perhaps we should address that.

Talking to people behind the scenes resolved a lot of misunderstandings. For instance, some people thought that we were out of order for conducting the inquiry. We made it clear that we were looking at the use of science and technologies in the war against terrorism. We did not want to know the dreadful secrets—who knew what and when, and who said what to whom. We wanted to know what was going to happen, who made the decisions, and whether decisions on new areas of endeavour would be made. After discussion, those matters were resolved—it took a bit of hammering out, but we got there in the end, and I am grateful for that.

The Home Office originally greeted us with some antagonism and, although I say this to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration in real friendship, we felt somewhat slighted at the time. At no point were we attempting to discover dreadful secrets. We just wanted to know what was being done in a general sense. For example, when the Committee was examining what was happening on the London tube, we did not want to know details about the District line or the Circle line; rather, we wanted to know that general problems were being looked at, that questions were being asked and that progress was being made. That information was hard to get. The Foreign Affairs Committee—for obvious reasons—encountered much the same attitude during its work on Iraq. The problem is getting to people. If they do not want to answer a Select Committee member's question, fine—they can say, "I'll write to you," or, "I'll have to take advice on this." We are not there to nail people to the carpet and put them under that pressure. Our job in Select Committees is to allow the public to see that there is proper, open scrutiny of processes in this place. As politicians, it does us good to engage in such processes. I have got that off my chest now. I hope that we never have to go through such an experience again.

When we conduct inquiries, we talk to the Chairmen of other Select Committees so that we do not cross each another. For example, when we examined scientific teaching in schools, I had no problem with my opposite number on the Education and Skills Committee—we talked about the problem, each asking the other whether his Committee wanted to do the job. On another subject, I might say, "No, you do it", to which the reply might be, "Great, we'll keep in touch". That is the spirit we need, especially in the field of science and technology, which crosses boundaries.

The US National Academy of Science undertook studies of the scientific response to terrorism—that is why we went there; we knew that the people there were up to the work. The information that the academy gave the US Government about the gaps in capability was published freely. The academy agreed to limit distribution of only one chapter, an agricultural study, which was fair—that chapter was about problems in the agricultural mid-west and so on. For a long time, the only studies that we came across in this country were secret and denied to us. Those who think that we might have been overstepping the mark must forgive us, because we had the American example before us. I appreciate that American society is wide open and the people there love talking—well, I wonder sometimes, but more seems to come out there because of their structures and the openness of American society. Many of us feel that that is something that we in this country might mimic.

I am interested in that topic, because my friend Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser, told our inquiry: I have…travelled around the United States and talked to a large number of groups both in private and in public and…I would say it becomes immediately apparent to me I can say less in public about what we are doing than my counterparts in the United States could say". That statement is illustrated by recent events, when David King was told to shut up about climate change versus terrorism and so on. I might add that David King has said similar things to others down the line. The problem is partly to do with our culture and the way we work. Our experience is that that does not happen in the United States to quite the same extent, and it was illuminating to see how easy it is to conduct work on science and terrorism there.

It was a great privilege to visit the top brass at Fort Dietrich, the Lawrence Livermore, universities, Capitol Hill, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services and other places that I had never in my whole life imagined I would visit. I never felt that there was any question that those people would not answer, except for one moment in Riverside, California. The chap speaking to us said, "I'm not sure I should be telling you this, but I will anyway." He told someone else to go out just to check and carried on speaking. The other guy came back and said, "It's okay, carry on." Well, the chap had said it by then. That atmosphere made us feel that we were learning something and that we could apply that information to the situation in this country.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister herself told the Committee, secrecy is not in itself something that we should protect and hold up as a virtue. We should try to open things up.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con):

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that all the information that we were given in confidence at establishments that we visited in this country remained confidential, and that is extremely important because it means that our Select Committee—indeed, all Select Committees—can be trusted with such information?

Dr. Gibson:

Of course I confirm that. The Select Committee visited various places in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, including Porton Down. There can be nowhere more secret than Porton Down, which is at the forefront in its work to protect the nation and solve problems. Its staff are so knowledgeable. However, I have to say that most of their work is in defence, not civil defence. We discovered that more work goes into Ministry of Defence projects than protecting the public.

I believe that I represent the Select Committee when I say that the more the public know, the more confident they become. Although there are limits, of course, trust becomes an issue if the public believe that they are not being given information. We hear that all the time, whether we are talking about genetically modified crops, measles, mumps and rubella-MMR-jabs or Iraq. Politicians have to judge when to release information to make people feel better. For example, the Washington metro issued a press release describing how its detection system would operate in the event of a chemical or biological weapon attack. I do not particularly want to know the details; I instantly forget them anyway, and I am much more interested in other things that happen in the United States. However, the fact that the information is available on a website allows people to feel that something is being done, whether it is detecting a radiological weapon, a biological weapon or whatever. That contrasts with our Committee's efforts to find information about the tube in this country.

As many people have said, there is a heightened risk in this country. People travel on the tube in the morning. I travel to work at 7 o'clock. That is, of course, when the working classes go to work, so fewer of them are likely to be blown up. I suppose that the time to hit the middle classes would be at 9 o'clock in the morning. Both early-morning tube goers and tube goers who travel later in the morning need to know what would happen if someone released something. If someone had released something in Parliament square this morning, I would have had every confidence in the services' response. I watched how the police instantly cleared the place and the fire brigade got to work. That is fine in London, but would that happen at the Forum in Norwich if, one Saturday morning, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and I were leading the charge and talking to members of the public about a major higher education issue? Suppose that they were all in there listening and drinking coffee—I assure hon. Members that thousands would be listening to us—and someone did something. Could the Norfolk response force respond fast enough? Having made local investigations, I have my doubts. We never know where such an incident will happen.

The Select Committee met members of MI5 and MI6. It was all very secret, but one thing that I remember—perhaps I should not divulge it—is that Parliament, while an obvious target, would not necessarily be the place where an attack would happen. As the Home Office said this week, one cannot make assumptions about where it might happen. We must be ready for an instant response on a geographical basis to whatever the problems might be.

I have rabbited on enough about openness. The Select Committee examined the homeland security situation in the United States. We were right to say that we should not invest billions and billions of pounds in a homeland security unit, as they have in the United States, even though we have the money. Every time the Chancellor stands up, I feel so confident that money will appear for whatever is necessary. However, the arguments against such a department are not simply financial; they relate to the necessary structures, and there are relevant structures in this country. We have experience, built on history, of handling terrorist attacks and bombings. Everyone here knows that. However, the Committee asked that something be done about creating a Home Office defence research centre. Lots of people have lots of information about health, vaccines and so on, but it is spinning around in a maelstrom—it is not joined up. We feel that we need a bricks and mortar building or at least a virtual set-up of some sort, so that people could access new information about scientific discoveries, such as chemical detection mechanisms, or ways to detect powder containing the anthrax bacillus. We feel that we need some means of co-ordinating information, so we were disappointed when the Home Office said that the necessary provisions were all there and that co-ordination would kick in, just like that, if there was an incident.

At my age, however, I am quite cynical about the "we British will muddle through" philosophy. People say, "We will muddle through if something happens. It will be okay," but let us face it, the attacks that happened in Madrid were, in a sense, obvious—the effects of the bombs were centred on one geographical area and all the organisations could focus there. However, the fallout from a biological or chemical weapon could blow around. As the Committee saw at Porton Down, excellent research is being done on modelling air plumes to determine how they might, at certain times of the year and with the wind in a certain direction, move from one place to another. Such research is going on, but how do we know that it will get to all the people who are interested in the subject? Do the fire service or railway staff know about it? How would they get that information? If something happened, who would tell them, "We've got to go over there. The wind's moving in that direction, but it might move that way."? Who would co-ordinate such things? I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister saw the exercise in London, because I saw her lurking in a doorway watching. I gather that there will be a coordinated exercise between the US and the United Kingdom—the Home Secretary recently went to the US to talk about a joint exercise. There is nothing like a fire drill to find out which doors are propped open and who does not know where to go. We need to ensure that we have some experience of the calamity that might ensue if someone managed to release something and it started to spew out. That will at least make clear what everyone's responsibility is and how scientists can access information and feed it to the front-line staff who will have to implement procedures.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con):

The hon. Gentleman mentioned collaboration and co-ordination between this country and the United States. Would it not be a good idea for this country to have the same degree of collaboration with other European Union countries? Such collaboration does not exist at the moment.

Dr. Gibson:

I believe that I have read and heard that there will be such co-ordination between Ministers across Europe. There is a realisation that interaction with authorities across "the pond" is only one aspect of what we need to do. Incidents can happen anywhere, and the effects on one country can spread to others as people move around. We saw that with severe acute respiratory syndrome—SARS.

One of my best experiences during our trip to the States was at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. What a centre! Hon. Members will remember me sitting, like someone on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, in an amazing room. Press conferences were going on and information was coming in from every city and township in the United States. If there had been an outbreak of anthrax or some other infection, the centre would have known where it was. The operation was beautifully co-ordinated. I will always remember hearing that one of Mayor Giuliani's first reactions on seeing the planes go into the twin towers was to say suddenly, "Phone up those"—I shall not use the words he used—"at that centre in Atlanta. Those planes might have had biological and chemical weapons on them." What thinking. I doubt that anyone in this country, without training and co-ordination, would have thought like that. Although I know that Mayor Giuliani is a genius, I cannot believe that one man alone arrived at that way of dealing with things. It is more that there was a certain attitude: no one would assume that there was just one event happening, because there could be two or three associated events. When the planes hit the Pentagon and the towers, that is what he thought. Within an hour, helicopters were moving to New York and Washington to take samples and so on. That has not been publicised, but it shows how the co-ordinated approach was instilled. Getting it together can save many lives.

My final point is about recent work by the Royal College of General Practitioners with the Department of Health. In their report, mention is made of front-line GPs and staff in the primary care communities and what they would know in the event of a terrorist incident. The paper includes some very interesting stuff. It is just about to be published, and has not yet been ratified, but I doubt whether there will be major changes. The report considers the right way to handle front-line medical people and how those teams would react to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear release. The report makes the point that GPs have never seen anthrax or many of the diseases caused by the organisms that might be used. It also picks up a point from our report, which stated: Unless GPs are able to give authoritative information the health service risks being overwhelmed by concerned members of the public. Panic can be prevented, if GPs are up to it. They are trusted—I trust my GP, and I think that many people feel the same way. GPs must be brought up to date on potential terrorism, and on what to look for in people who might turn up in their surgeries on a Friday night, or whenever. The report also deals with what would happen after an event. How should the worried well be handled—people with nothing wrong with them, but who are scared? Informing and instructing people about how things should be handled would, I think, decrease the number of worried well. The royal college says that such information is important, and it is involved in work on such issues. Many other questions arise for GPs—legal questions and matters of personal protection. The matter is being taken seriously, and I welcome the interaction.

We do not need to think that we will send people into a panic. I truly believe that the more information people have, the more confidence we instil in them, and the less the terrorists will be able to get their ideas through. I know that there is a limit, but my question for my right hon. Friend the Minister is, how are we to define that limit? The only way forward is a corporate interaction between all the people who will be on the front line when the incident happens. I am far from being alone in believing that such an incident will happen in this country. Are we ready? Are we organised?

2.58 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con):

I start by endorsing the final remarks of the Chairman of the Select Committee. The biggest lesson that we learned from our inquiry, and particularly from our visit to the United States, was the fundamental difference of approach to secure information on either side of the Atlantic. We tend to be obsessive about secrecy, and often we are secretive about the wrong things—things that do not matter that much. In the United States the culture of openness is entirely intentional, and the philosophy behind it is: the more people know, the less they will panic, and the more the aggressors will know that we are several steps ahead of them. We need a complete change of our approach to secrecy in government in this country. I can keep a secret as well as the best man, and perhaps better, because of the large military presence in my constituency. In the past 20 years I have been briefed and trusted regularly by successive Governments with a lot of information, which has helped to inform my contributions in this House and helped me to represent my constituents. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is right: our Committee's visit to the United States was remarkable, and our report is remarkable because of the depth of the information that we sought and were given. I promise that I will bore the Chamber with this point only once, but there was something special for me in the visit. Wherever we went, whether it was the White House, Fort Dietrich, Atlanta or the Lawrence Livermore national laboratory, my constituents were praised because of their work at the two establishments at Porton Down—the Health Protection Agency and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. I was proud of that.

Dr. Gibson:

They all vote Labour.

Mr. Key:

The hon. Gentleman can be sure that they will not be voting Labour at the next election.

I shall dwell on two aspects of our report. The first relates to paragraphs 180 to 182, the section is on "Planning and exercises". In it, we invite the Government to release more information to the public and to ensure that lessons learned are disseminated throughout Government. We also press for more complex, larger-scale exercises. The hon. Member for Norwich, North commented on the Home Office's extraordinary ability to engage in the incident that occurred this morning in Parliament square. While preparing for this debate, I, too, observed what happened from Portcullis House, and I was impressed. I compliment the three emergency services directly involved and the others who were involved behind the scenes. After watching for about half an hour, it became clear that the response was well organised, the personnel well trained, and the procedures and clear-up efficient. I am sure that the incident was enormously inconvenient to thousands of people throughout the capital, but there could not have been a better demonstration of the progress that has been made in this country in preparing for such incidents.

When I returned to my office, one of the first things that I did was to get on to my computer and look up London Prepared, the website established by the London emergency services. On it, I saw exactly why I was right to judge that the services had been well trained and prepared for incidents such as today's. I looked at a few more websites to see whether anything had changed since last I checked them, and I am delighted to say that a lot had changed and that they had all been updated. The terrorism pages on the Home Office website are extremely informative, as is www.ukresilience.info. The Health Protection Agency website is especially helpful: it is designed to help GPs and anyone else, including ordinary families, to understand what is going on and what they should do if they are worried or if something happens. A lot of people will be checking such websites at this time of heightened concern about terrorism. Those websites are good, but hon. Members will not be surprised to hear me say that the best one is the Wiltshire police website. It is the only website of its sort that I have seen. There are links from the Home Office, Health Protection Agency, UK Resilience and other websites to its major incident planning pages, which are a good example of what can be achieved in terms of co-ordination at a local level. I commend them strongly. When the Minister gave evidence to the Select Committee, I asked her about some exercises that were taking place. I was delighted by the outcome of the exercise in London at Bank station, which obviously taught a lot of people a great deal, but I recalled the Minister saying that a lot of desktop exercises were taking place as well, so I checked them out. From the Health Protection Agency website pages on the emergency response division exercise programme, I learned that there have been five recent exercises. There was Red Scar I, a smallpox exercise on 24 March last year in Oxford; Exercise Shipshape, a SARS exercise on 6 June last year in Bristol; Red Scar II, another smallpox exercise on 7 July last year in Leeds; Green Goblin, a chlorine gas terrorist attack exercise on 10 October last year in Peterborough; and East Wind, a dirty bomb terrorist attack exercise on 23 January this year in Cambridge. I delved a little deeper and discovered that Green Goblin involved syndicates from the local and regional eastern and east midlands areas, and the HPA national area. The key action points that emerged from the exercise are that there should be a formal joint health advisory cell training exercise involving health training with the police; a review of major incident plans to include the CBRN element; and an identification of alternatives in the event of mobile phone and BT networks going down, and so on.

There was considerable detail, but that was only a tabletop exercise. That is the problem that we have to come to terms with. It entails changing our attitude towards secrecy, taking the British public into the Government's confidence and having full-scale exercises, such as the London exercise at Bank tube station. Such exercises should be extended to cover not just chemical threat, which is comparatively easy to deal with because it is about containment, but biological, radiological or nuclear threat. I found a contrasting example by going to the US Department of Homeland Security website and seeing the announcement on 1 March of the deployment of the national incident management system—NIMS—which went into enormous detail. We should not be surprised, given the immense resource that US Administration have put into it, that the amount of planning, preparation and detail on that website is very impressive. We in this country should move forward more swiftly in such areas. Much of that depends on training and much training has been done. The Home Office is right to have concentrated on that.

The nuclear, biological and chemical centre at Winterbourne Gunner in my constituency used to be the Army's exclusively. The site is now shared with the police NBCR centre, where many thousands of policemen and women from every constabulary in the United Kingdom have now trained. As an aside, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was interested to discover that all journalists going in theatre where the military are active now have a briefing from the defence NBC centre at Winterbourne Gunner, which is no doubt why we saw more responsible journalism during Operation Telic than we saw a decade ago. To return to my theme, tabletop exercises are all very well, but what people are doing in Peterborough, Leeds or Cambridge might not filter through to Bristol, Plymouth or Southampton. I ask the Minister to carry out more exercises—we need more effort and expenditure in that regard. The second major area that I wish to explore arises from evidence given to the Committee on 2 April 2003—question 207 in particular, which was put by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). He asked Dr. Wright of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry about concerns for the safety and security of sites. Dr Wright replied that there was great concern about animal rights extremists, both on site and elsewhere. That must be a concern for British industry, and for all the people who work at such sites. I dare say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you noticed an item on BBC News Online on 10 March, repeated on the media generally, about scientists' neighbours being targeted. The report said: Scientists are being targeted by animal rights activists the University of Nottingham says. It described how letters were being sent to scientists' neighbours, which was placing undue pressure on those communities. We are familiar with the problem—the story of Huntingdon Life Sciences comes to mind. The day before yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health made an announcement in the House about developments in respect of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and blood donations. As it happens, work on blood donations has been done by scientists who also work on vaccines and the protection of military and civilian populations. To protect people, those scientists need to conduct trials on some animals. I learned only yesterday that, as a result of that work, a family in my constituency is about to be harassed by animal rights activists because the man is the owner and managing director of a very small business that provides mice. His house is to be picketed on mothering Sunday, and he and his wife will have to go, or stay and be intimidated. Such harassment is outrageous, and I do not believe that it earns anyone any friends.

What do we do about it? Is it true that there is adequate legislation to protect individual households? In the United States, there is federal and state legislation on the issue. The federal legislation, for which the reference number is HR 3448, is the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act 2002, section 336 of which is entitled "Animal enterprise terrorism penalties". That legislation is applicable throughout the US. I believe that, had similar legislation been applicable in this country, what happened to Huntingdon Life Sciences and the companies serving and the people working for it would not have occurred. State legislation is pending in Missouri in the form of Senate Bill No. 657 of 27 February 2003. Texas has new section 28.09 of the penal code, entitled "Animal Rights and Ecological Terrorism", which is about to be enacted. New York state has Bill A04884. There are other examples—state legislatures are taking the issue very seriously.

In this country, there has been a great deal of argument about whether it would be practical to protect civilian work forces, whether at military or civilian establishments. The Government amended the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, section 42 of which gives police the power of direction to stop the harassment of a person in his home. Section 43 deals with malicious communications—telephone calls in the middle of the night and so on—and section 44 with collective harassment. However, I spoke to the police today about the case that I described, and I learned that they are diffident about using such provisions. There is not much experience of using them, and the police are not very confident that the amendments that the Government made to that Act will work. We shall see.

Bob Spink:

Does my hon. Friend think that one solution might be to extend the Protection from Harassment Act 1997? That Act protects individuals, but offers no protection to corporate bodies, so it could not be used to protect Huntingdon Life Sciences, for instance. It should have been able to be used. Such an extension would be a good way to make progress, and I believe that the industry agrees.

Mr. Key:

Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very practical suggestion, for which I am grateful. However, I think that it will run up against a problem that has been identified by a number of concerned groups. Obviously, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry is concerned, but so are the Research Defence Society, the Biosciences Federation, the trade union Amicus and others. They have been working for some time on a draft Bill, which they call the Scientific Procedures on Animals (Public Order, etc.) Bill. It is pretty wide. First, it defines harassment, which relates to the family in my constituency who will have such a horrible weekend. The Bill provides that harassment is, in certain circumstances to do with animal research, illegal and talks about how the measures would work. Clause 5 relates to the conduct of putting people in fear of violence, clause 6 is about police direction to stop the harassment of a person in his home and clause 7 relates to harassment of a person in his home. That is all entirely practical.

The Home Office argues that there would be a duplication of existing legislation, but I am not sure that that is a strong argument. There are plenty of examples of apparent duplication, such as football hooliganism legislation. It was argued for years that there was no need to bother with specific legislation because football hooliganism was already covered by public order legislation. However, that position did not stand and legislation was introduced that was effective because it was specific to the case. We need legislation, and there is no problem with duplication, because we need to facilitate the coherent approach that is sought by the police. I say "sought" because the police would do more to protect citizens if they could.

There are four arguments in favour of passing such legislation. First, it would allow organisations such as universities or companies that are regulated by the Government to be protected and for them to protect their staff. That cannot be done now under injunctions obtained under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Secondly, a special Act would provide the courts with powers to issue restraining orders against those with a proven track record of criminal or intimidatory behaviour. Thirdly, it would make illegal so-called home visits that have the sole intent of intimidating families. It is terribly important to prevent such behaviour, because it is contrary to article 8 in schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which states the right to secure and peaceful private and family life. That is impossible if people are picketing one's front door on mothering Sunday. Finally, such legislation would provide a three-strikes-and-you're-out clause for repeat offenders. At the moment, activists say time and again that what they do on one occasion does not add up to a row of beans, but it sure amounts to a row of beans if all the beans are counted.

The time has come for us to grasp the nettle. A number of interested parties are talking to the Department of Health—I am thinking particularly of thousands of my constituents who work in this field, at Porton Down and elsewhere. They want to know that the Home Office is actively engaged with the issue, because if we cannot encourage scientists to undertake such work, two things will happen. First, the work will simply be done elsewhere, probably in the United States, and we will lose an important part of our science base in this country. Secondly, we will all be losers because we will be less safe. We will not be protected by our scientists in the way that our citizens should be able to expect from the Government. We should do what our citizens who are scientists and researchers—in my case, my constituents—expect us to do to protect them, for the sake of our nation's security.

3.19 pm
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab):

There is no doubt in my mind that the terrible acts of terrorism that occurred on 11 September 2001 in the United States of America brought home in the starkest possible fashion the threat to freedom and democracy posed by international terrorists. The devastation and carnage and the chilling disregard shown by the perpetrators for any human life, including their own, sent shock waves throughout the world, as did their willingness to slaughter thousands of innocent people without warning in the pursuit of some fanatical belief.

It should have been clear to everyone that such terrorist groups, if they acquired weapons of mass destruction, would not hesitate to use them. A major factor in my decision to support the war in Iraq was the fact that the United Nations was convinced that Saddam Hussein was developing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons programmes, and the danger that those weapons could find their way into terrorists' hands. I still think that that was the right decision. Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world, and even though weapons have not been found, I still believe that we did the right thing, because of the danger that he represented.

Bob Spink:

Like me, the hon. Lady is aware that Saddam Hussein was not only thought to have those weapons, but had them and had used them. He used them at Halabja on 16 March, 16 years ago this week, and followed that with the Anfal campaign, in which 182,000 Kurds were slaughtered by chemical weapons of mass destruction. There is no grey area: we all knew that he had those weapons and that he would use them if he could, although we do not know what has happened to them and when he lost them. I congratulate the hon. Lady on having the courage to support the Prime Minister in going to war and removing that evil regime.

Geraldine Smith:

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I agree with what he says. Iraq is a better place because Saddam Hussein is gone. People who think that we are threatened by terrorism because we went to war are mistaken and naïve; that threat existed before the war with Iraq, and there is no rhyme or reason governing why those fanatical people attack certain countries.

The Government and the official Opposition both recognise the threat of international terrorism and the terrible consequences that the failure to defeat that threat would have. The Prime Minister has rightly mounted a personal crusade to bring the issue to the top of the international agenda. I think that the following short extract from a recent speech that he made crystallises the extent of the threat that he perceives: September 11th was for me a revelation. What had seemed inchoate came together. The point about September 11th was not its detailed planning; not its devilish execution; not even, simply, that it happened in America, on the streets of New York. All of this made it an astonishing, terrible and wicked tragedy, a barbaric murder of innocent people. But what galvanised me was that it was a declaration of war by religious fanatics who were prepared to wage that war without limit. They killed 3000. But if they could have killed 30,000 or 300,000 they would have rejoiced in it. The purpose was to cause such hatred between Moslems and the West that a religious jihad became reality; and the world engulfed by it. We know that the terrorists would, if they could, go further and use chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction. We know, also, that there are groups of people, occasionally states, who will trade the technology and capability of such weapons. It is time that this trade was exposed, disrupted, and stamped out. We have been warned by the events of 11 September, and we should act on the warning. From September 11th on, I could see the threat plainly. Here were terrorists prepared to bring about Armageddon. I firmly believe that the Prime Minister was right in his assessment of the situation. Avoiding the nightmare scenario that he describes will require international cooperation on an unprecedented scale. I have every confidence that the UK Government will do all in their power to facilitate the necessary mechanisms, measures and procedures to make that happen. It has been said that there is impressive collaboration between the UK and its allies, particularly the United States. However, co-operation within the European Union is less evident. The Government agree that there is scope for increasing co-operation within the European Union, and after the appalling atrocity that occurred in Madrid, that will no doubt be easier to achieve.

I am less confident that the Government have adequate measures and structures in place to prevent or deal with the effects of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack. MI5's considered view is that it is only a matter of time before a CBRN attack is launched on a major western city. Bearing it in mind that the United Kingdom is high on the terrorists' hate list, there must be a real prospect of one of our cities becoming a target. Despite that, the Science and Technology Committee was unable to detect any extensive effort to develop CBRN counter-measures. As a result, there has been no clear statement on what is required, and the research community has been unable to respond in a co-ordinated manner.

Homeland defence depends heavily on the input of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. Although, as hon. Members have stressed, that establishment is internationally recognised for its expertise in defence-related technologies, its main function is to support the military. A similar establishment, working in civil defence against CBRN attacks, is required. That could be achieved by the creation of a Government agency—a centre for home defence—under the auspices of the Home Office. It could have its own research budget and would be responsible for researching and deriving new technologies for home defence, as well as adapting military technologies for civil use. It would have the ability to commission research by the Department of Health and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and would be responsible for identifying relevant research expertise within universities and research council institutes, as well as for forming strong links with academic and Government research laboratories overseas. I am firmly convinced that the creation of such an agency would greatly enhance the country's ability to produce effective counter-measures against a CBRN attack.

My final point relates to an issue that has already been mentioned: the unnecessary secrecy that seems to permeate the Home Office, which we saw during our Committee inquiry, and the lack of information on these matters that is made available to the public at large. I accept that there must be a balance—I was quite pleased that, after meeting the head of MI5, I knew no more about national security and secrets than I had an hour before; I felt that she was just doing her job. We sometimes have only ourselves to blame: when ex-Cabinet Ministers run to the press to talk about matters that could damage national security and the national interest, it undermines our credibility as politicians.

It is sad to say—but true—that the Committee learned more on our visit to the United States about how the Americans are dealing with some aspects of CBRN threats than we could glean from our Government about how we are dealing with such threats. When we were in America, we visited the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta, which even lists the number and distribution of smallpox doses for vaccinations. Scientists at Lawrence Livermore national laboratory in California briefed us on their detection systems and capabilities. US officials gave our Committee unrestricted briefings, and we met representatives of the Department for Homeland Security. The US was definitely much more open with information, and is it less safe as a result? I do not think so, so impressive are the measures that the Americans are putting in place to fight terrorism. Their openness with the public is the right approach.

One of the consequences of over-zealous secrecy is that it inevitably gives rise to the suspicion that the Government are simply avoiding embarrassing questions and have a misguided view that openness will somehow panic the public. As has already been said, if we are more open and tell people what the risks are, they become more confident and less frightened. I believe that much more needs to be done to make people aware of the potential danger and how the risk can be limited. We in this country seem to be in a bizarre situation: the vast majority of Members of Parliament fully recognise the real threat that terrorists will launch a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack, and how devastating the consequences would be, but it seems that a substantial proportion of the public believe that the threat is too remote to be taken seriously and that politicians are just trying to scare them. We need a much more open public discussion about all the issues surrounding the terrorist threat and what can be done to combat it. The Government must take the lead and inform the public as frankly as they are able to about the risk and the nation's state of preparedness to deal with a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.

3.31 pm
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con):

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). Today she showed the familiar passion and courage that this House and the country have come to expect from her, and for which she is known. I shall be echoing many of the points that she made.

I pressed the Committee to prepare the report, and I welcome the debate which is, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said, most timely. There was a full-scale chemical alert around the Palace of Westminster today, when a van was in an accident involving two chemicals which, if mixed, might have produced poisonous gases. That was not, as we have already heard, a terrorist attack, but it clearly shows, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) explained, what can happen and what the response should be. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's remarks and I associate myself with his praise for the services that dealt with the incident. I was in the middle of it.

Our inquiry looked at how science and technology could be harnessed to develop counter-measures to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear devices employed by terrorists, and how science and technology are informing the response to terrorism. The UK's greatest source of expertise is, of course, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. It has a military focus and no home defence remit. Therefore it is logical that the Committee should recommend the establishment of a centre for home defence, under the Home Office, to develop technologies that can be put to civilian use. Protecting civilians is as important as protecting servicemen and women.

I shall focus on the Government's overall management of the use of science and technology in home defence and their duty to make the public aware of what is going on. Our report is very relevant in the light of the Madrid bomb, as we have heard, and the escalating threat of terrorist attacks on the UK—principally London, I suspect.

The report is particularly relevant to my constituents, who feel, for two jolly good reasons, that they are in the front line of a potential terrorist attack. They were attacked by terrorists about 20 years ago. It was IRA terrorists who perpetrated an attack, with explosives, on Castle Point. The oil storage plant that they attacked is no longer in my constituency, so I stress that it is no longer a target for anyone in that respect. However, my constituents still feel under threat because thousands of them travel to London by train every day. They use the tubes and travel on the roads. They have a right to know what is going on and I have a duty to fight in this House for their best interests. That means ensuring that they know what is going on. That is why I pressed so hard for the report in the first place, as hon. Members may recall. Let me inform the debate by giving hon. Members the result of a recent internet poll, which asked: Do you feel confident there are enough security measures in place to prevent an attack on London's transport system? Some 85 per cent. of those who answered—some will have been my constituents—said, "No." That is a very stark message for the Government, who have a clear duty to reassure the public that adequate steps are being taken. That is why it was wrong of the Department for Transport to pull out of the evidence session. It had no good reason to do so—at least, no reason has been given for its shyness.

The Home Secretary has a duty to proceed sensitively when inquiries deal with highly classified information. However, the members of the Select Committee, like members of all such Committees, are grown-up people. We understand the sensitivities and we accept that there is sometimes a need for confidentiality. We would therefore have accepted it if Ministers had told us that certain issues could not be discussed openly. However, the Government were disingenuous when they said that our inquiry's remit did not justify a detailed analysis of counter-terrorism measures. Select Committees are here to hold the Government to account and it is for us, not a control-obsessed Government, to set and interpret our remit. We do our job with total responsibility and a clear awareness of the sensitivities and the need for security.

I suspect that the Government's reasons for secrecy and non-co-operation with our inquiry had more to do with controlling information, avoiding embarrassment and a misguided belief that openness might cause panic in the population. A culture of secrecy is embedded in the Home Office, which is afraid that public scrutiny will expose the Government's lack of preparedness and incompetence in this important area. The Government are far too preoccupied with the danger of alarming the public, but that makes the public cynical and distrustful, and it lowers their confidence that adequate measures have been or are being put in place for their protection.

Constituents tell me that they want to know more. Mrs. C. F. from Thundersley contacted me just this week, saying that she did not trust the Prime Minister to tell the truth on the issue. The hon. Member for Norwich, North, who is muttering at the moment, has said that if the public are kept in the dark, "trust becomes an issue". The public are being kept in the dark and trust is an issue, which is why Mrs. C. F. of Thundersley contacted me this week, and she is not the only one.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Coop):

Would the hon. Gentleman accept that a little learning can be a dangerous thing and that people who do not have sufficient understanding might be frightened out of their wits?

Bob Spink:

No one in this place or anywhere else could ever accuse the hon. Gentleman of having only a little learning. He is extremely intelligent and articulate—hence his excellent intervention, which I will answer in this way.

My constituents want some facts. They want to know what the risks are because they face them daily. They want to know what defences are in place to protect them. They want to know what chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear counter-measures can be expected in the event of an attack. They want to know what they should and can do in certain circumstances to help themselves and others who may be hurt or need assistance, and to ensure that they do everything possible to assist the security forces to prevent a crisis in the first place or to deal with one if one sadly takes place. People want to be trusted and empowered; they do not want to be nannied by a control-obsessed state.

Our health professionals and general practitioners, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North mentioned, will be unable to give authoritative advice and in a crisis the health service could easily become overwhelmed by concerned members of the public. The media would not be able and ready to feed information to the public quickly and accurately to help in the counter-terrorist battle. Such states of preparedness are long overdue and should be delivered by the Government. We are not in a state of preparedness, so our response in a crisis will be less good. The impact of any attack would therefore be greater in human and organisational terms.

As we have heard, the United States prepares itself differently. Sadly, I could not attend the United States visit because I had a constituency engagement and one's constituency comes first. It is accepted that the United States does things more openly, so it is more accountable for its actions or inactions in a crisis. That does not make it less safe; it improves the response and limits the risk. During our inquiry—although I did not attend, I followed the evidence carefully—the US Government gave us evidence, including unrestricted briefings on therapeutic counter-measures conducted by the US military. Indeed, they gave us more briefings and information than our Government would trust us with. The bottom line is that being prepared and informed makes the target smaller; being uninformed and unprepared makes the target bigger. That is why I welcome this report. As for potential terrorists, they have access to the internet and other sources of information, and have been using and training on them for many years. They have access to information of which the public would never dream. We cannot tell them anything that they do not already know or could not already find out.

I now move from the issue of secrecy to that of organisational competence. The Government are found wanting here too. The first question is: who is responsible? The Government fall at that initial fence. Our inquiry found that it is not clear who in Government is responsible for determining to what threats the UK should respond and with what priority. We have not established how risk assessments inform Government policy, nor, therefore, the scientific and intelligence response. It is our duty to highlight that shortfall. For instance, we need closer collaboration and co-ordination between the Home Office and the Department of Health. We must be clearer about where responsibilities lie, including the roles of the Health Protection Agency, the Medical Research Council, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, and other agencies and bodies such as the research councils, the military and the pharmaceutical industry, which could play a crucial role in helping to develop biomedical countermeasures. There is still much to do to co-ordinate those various disparate bodies. We must have proper co-ordinated control of the myriad agencies that are or should be involved in ensuring that science and technology are maximised in this country's defence against possible terrorist threats. We must have a single, high-level, ministerial point of responsibility, so that we have a clear point of accountability, which, pray God, will never be called to ultimate account.

Our proposed centre for home defence would be a key factor in pulling all the various players together as a single team. Its first job might be to oversee much needed research on decontamination processes and procedures. At the moment, the buck must stop with the Prime Minister, as the inquiry showed him to be wanting. I commend the all-party report and urge that action be taken to improve information flows, including to the public, and to sort out the lines of responsibility, management and overall organisation of the defence of Britain against the terrorist threat.

3.46 pm
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab):

It is a great pleasure to see you chairing another debate involving the Select Committee on Science and Technology, Sir Nicholas. I am starting to think that you are an honorary member of the Committee.

Terrorism is undoubtedly one of the greatest threats facing the world today. Our distinguished chief scientific adviser can think of only one greater threat—climate change—as he revealed during his recent visit to the United States. Last week's events in Madrid have brought terrorism into sharp focus once again, as, regrettably, do the almost weekly events in Baghdad.

We have a new expression—asymmetric warfare. We do not know who the enemy is or how, where or from which direction they will strike. Recent events worldwide have shown that the new form of terrorist is not even prepared to give a warning to save lives. Indeed, the evidence shows that they want to cause as many deaths as possible. That is why these people are some of the most evil terrorists in recent history.

Who would have thought that anyone could even dream of flying an aeroplane fully laden with passengers into a tower block? To fly two such aeroplanes into the highest tower blocks in the world is beyond my comprehension, not to mention flying another into the Pentagon and a fourth that crashed into the ground. How many scenarios can a terrorist think of? The possibilities are endless, which is a big problem. That is why the provision of intelligence, in which science has a role to play, is critical in combating terrorism. Nosey neighbours are back in business.

I have always believed that tackling the causes of terrorism is far more important than declaring a war on terrorism, which only creates more terrorists, as we are beginning to see. In my opinion, the main causes are poverty, intolerance and social exclusion. We need to declare a war on those problems first.

We now come to the main theme of the debate. I have been concerned about building security ever since the IRA began to attack areas of Britain that have high-rise buildings or office blocks with frontages that have acres of glass in them. It appears that we do not build high-rise blocks in Britain that could collapse like a pack of cards, as the twin towers did in New York. I am, however, greatly concerned about the amount of glass in buildings that can, and usually does, fall on to people, or fly in and out and damage people, when there is a bomb blast. I am also concerned that air intakes are usually at the bottom of buildings and are unprotected, so they can be used to introduce volatile chemicals to buildings.

Science can provide the answers to these problems. We can, for example, design chemical and biological detection devices that can be placed in air intakes, or filters that will filter out certain biological agents and even chemical agents. The obvious answer, however, is to redesign buildings to make them safer—for example, by removing air intakes from areas that are open to the public. I am pleased that organisations such as the Institution of Structural Engineers have begun to take the issue very seriously indeed. The IStructE published "Safety in tall buildings and other buildings of large occupancy" in July 2002, which was a useful addition to the debate. We should ask how safe a tall building is. However, I would like to put the question another way: "How tall can a safe building really be?" We must think how many people work in the building or visit it and how many would therefore need to escape in a real emergency, be it an accident or a terrorist attack. I can find no debate in the public domain on how tall such buildings should be, no matter how costly the land in London, New York, Manchester or other major cities.

I turn to the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. When I was a research chemist in 1965, I synthesised a new polyfluorinated compound that was impossible to handle in the department in which I worked, even using the extremely efficient new fume cupboards that had been fitted in the laboratories. That compound was so volatile and lachrymatory that within minutes of my isolating it for the first time from an ethereal solution in a fume cupboard, the whole department—a large department at Durham university—had to evacuate the building. Even in great dilution, the chemical was swept in through the air intakes and in a few minutes had filled every room in the building. That compound was of obvious interest as a potential riot control agent. I believe that its properties were drawn to the attention of the chemists working for the chemical defence establishment at Porton Down at that time—many years ago, I hasten to add.

That incident brings me on to one of the main themes of the Committee's report, which is covered in chapter 7, "Security of research". Parts 6 and 7 of the 2001 Act tighten controls on access to pathogens and toxins used in UK research laboratories. Under the 2001 Act, universities and research establishments must notify the Government if they hold dangerous substances and provide information to the police if requested. Would my new compound have counted as one of those? Is there a list of such toxins? The answer is that the 2001 Act would not have applied to my new compound.

There is a list of biological agents for export control. In fact there are two lists and therein lies another problem. The chemicals on the best-known list, the so-called Australia group list, which is in schedule 5 of the 2001 Act, are not like mine. They are highly toxic chemicals, such as ricin, that are entirely natural products, not synthetic chemicals. The other materials in the Australia group list are viruses, rickettsiae, and bacteria. We are also told that counter-terrorism officers are drawing up a second list, the so-called Salisbury list, which seems to have a different categorisation from the Australia group list. I am told that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) is in no way connected with the Salisbury list.

Clearly, there is some confusion on the Committee about the two lists. The Australia group list is current in the 2001 Act, so that is the legal requirement. The public are not allowed to be told much about the Salisbury list, although we understand that it has been widely distributed among university health and safety officers. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will clear up the confusion over the two lists and tell us why the Government seemed to be so secretive with the Committee about the content of the Salisbury list. It would seem that toxic chemicals other than natural products should be on the Salisbury list. The Australia group list contains none of those, not even organophosphates—nerve agents, such as sarin, which terrorists used on the Tokyo underground.

Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister can also tell us why scientists are still waiting for the Government to set a minimum standard of compliance with the 2001 Act. She told our Committee that that would happen by the end of next August. Perhaps she can tell us today whether the target will be met.

There is a need for greater awareness in the academic community of the contents and implications of the 2001 Act. What are the Government doing to encourage universities and others to comply? I note that the Government's response to our report, published on 22 January, agrees: The present situation in relation to the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act is unsatisfactory".

Next, let us turn to the thorny problem of vetting students and researchers. In the 1960s, the university of Salford, where I worked, had one of the best laboratories of any country in Europe for handling low and high-level radioactive chemicals that emitted all the potentially dangerous radiations: alpha-rays, beta-rays, gamma-rays and x-rays. People came from all over the world to be taught nuclear science in the Cockcroft building, and a large contingent of both undergraduate and postgraduate students came from, and returned to, Iraq. Need I say more?

We cannot predict a terrorist threat today that might be several decades away. Genetics is a red-hot research topic. However, who knows what threats will be possible tomorrow from knowledge gained today? Nevertheless, a voluntary vetting scheme was set up in 1994 to assist the Government in preventing the transfer of risky technology abroad. Currently, the scheme covers 10 countries of concern and 21 academic disciplines of concern. Where a postgraduate research application from a country of concern coincides with an academic discipline of concern, the advice is that the application should be referred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I repeat that the scheme is voluntary.

Evidence gathered during our investigation suggested that not all universities are taking the voluntary scheme as seriously as they perhaps should, especially in the current climate. The obvious conclusion is that if they do not start to comply and to take the voluntary scheme seriously soon, it will be replaced by something more rigorous, which might restrict their academic freedom more than at present. When we visited the United States of America, we were told that things are much more difficult there regarding the entry of students from abroad, who appear to be rigorously vetted. The long delays in granting visas are now causing serious problems for research programmes. Even travel to a conference abroad, followed by re-entry, poses severe difficulties.

Concerns that scientists could undertake unethical research have led to a proposal that they should take an oath analogous to the Hippocratic oath taken by medical doctors. The Pugwash conferences on science and world affairs have proposed such an oath, which can be found on page 63 of our report. The International Committee of the Red Cross has called on scientific and medical associations and industry: To adopt professional and industrial codes of conduct aimed at preventing the abuse of biological agents". Many learned societies have already introduced such codes of conduct for their members and we have recommended that all learned societies should consider introducing an overt ethical code of conduct as a prerequisite of membership". However, it is not essential for all scientists to belong to a learned society.

Concerns have also been expressed about the publication of research papers that might contain information of great interest to terrorists. In January 2003 a statement on such publications was issued by a journal editors' group on scientific publishing and security that featured mainly north American publications, althoughThe Lancet and Nature were also involved. We recommend in the report that the science Minister raise the issue in the European Union.

The Scott inquiry resulted in the Export Control Act 2002, which controls the export of military and dual use goods. It is essential that the Government do not use that Act to prevent the interchange of scientific samples between countries. We heard that scientists in the United States of America are finding it more difficult to exchange samples with scientists in other countries, including Britain.

In conclusion, a clampdown on security could make life much more difficult for British scientists and inhibit the usual academic freedoms across the world. Science has always relied on a free exchange of information, and people in different countries also freely exchange their roles. We urge our Government to take that into account when planning new legislation or enforcing existing legislation. We also call on scientists throughout the world to behave responsibly. There is a fine balance to be struck between the need for tight security and freedom in the academic community, which I hope will always lie in the latter direction rather than the former. Whatever we do, we must use all the endeavours of the scientists and all the available scientific techniques to minimise the risk of a terrorist attack.

4.1 pm

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Coop):

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who is learned in this subject—he always brings a tremendous expertise to our deliberations—and my fellow Committee members. One thing that I hope will come out of the debate is a strong sense that, in its ranks, Parliament has people who can make an important contribution to public understanding and the promotion of scientific matters.

Our Committee exists partly to act as a voice for science and engineering and their cognate disciplines, and to ensure that the numbers of scientists available to our country and the conditions under which they work are understood and protected. It also exists to check whether the understanding of science and technology in Government is sufficiently well developed. The premise is that science and engineering can make enormous contributions to the public good, not only for our generation and its successor, but into the distant future for generations yet unborn. Science contributes something to our culture that is ineluctably part of what it is to live in a civilised society.

I want to focus not on our report's virtues—although, like other Committee members, I am extremely proud of our work—but on its deficiencies. In the report, we have tried to change some things about the culture of our country, but so far we feel that we have failed. We have failed because, as Karl Popper was wont to emphasise throughout his academic life, science is characterised by its openness and spirit of rationality. There is a spirit of people making claims that are open to challenge by others and, in the light of those challenges, sometimes rescinding or modifying those claims and making them more resilient to empirical investigation.

Science is a model of how one might conduct oneself if one was trying to be attentive to the voices of others. In that respect, it is very different from the approach of terrorists, who are entirely and insanely deaf to the pleas, arguments and world views of other people. They are deaf even to the right of others to continue living their lives. At its best, science can show us how human rationality and the desire to improve life can be one of the attributes of which a civilised society is most proud. However, some people in this world learn the techniques, understand the technology and study science with a view not to improving the lot of humankind, but to promoting their own ideology, at whatever cost to other members of the human species.

We must ensure that we have the capacity to rebut the escalating expertise of terrorists. The hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key) made good points with regard to the increasing capacity of terrorists to understand scientific techniques and technology and to devise nefarious methods for the destruction of people who do not share their ideology. We need a counter-culture to give people the knowledge to rebut the arguments of terrorists. Knowledge is power and ignorance is not only powerlessness, but a source of fear. Terror is fear at its worst and we do people no favours if we pretend that voices that seek to understand these things should be silenced. That is what happened with the report and that is why it is, in many ways, defective. My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) made the powerful point that we have ended up knowing more about how Americans understand and deal with these matters than ever we found out about how the United Kingdom does so. We know more about American preparedness to tackle terror than about the UK's preparedness so to do. I put it to the Minister and the Government that that cannot be right.

Let us consider just one example. The American Association for the Advancement of Science published an excellent book on the preparations that were being made to deal with terror. One chapter dealt with the water supply. The problem with the UK is that if one starts to talk about anything in detail, the response of the Government and of Government agencies is almost to say, "No, we mustn't discuss that any more: we'll give the terrorists ideas." I think that they have ideas enough, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East was sharp enough to point out. Terrorists have ideas. They have thought about water, electricity and the very air that we breathe. It is up to us to stop pretending that as long as we are silent, ignorant and pretend not to take cognisance of these matters, somehow we will be safer—we will not be safer.

In the chapter that I mentioned, the American association considered the water supply and where it was vulnerable. It is very interested in the public understanding of that. If, for instance, an average member of the American public saw someone behaving in a suspicious way near an aquifer it is very likely that they would report it to the authorities with a view to having the behaviour investigated. At least, there is far more chance of that happening in America than here, because the Americans have tried to make their population aware of points of vulnerability, whereas we have not done so to anything like the same extent.

What can be done with water? The public in Britain, who on the whole are shielded, protected, or insulated from any of the matters in question, might well have a feeling of terror at the very thought that the water supply could be interfered with. After all, if it takes, say, 1 g of cyanide to kill a person, a tonne introduced to the water supply looks capable of killing 1 million. That is the thought, at least, that people who are scientifically uneducated might have. However, it brings to light immediately one of the issues that we have tried to understand. What I said about cyanide just now is of course a scientific non sequitur. It is true that cyanide is a terrible substance and that it could wreak great havoc and fear if substantial quantities were available to people as malevolent as the Madrid bombers. However, cyanide in the water supply reacts with the residual chlorine to produce potassium chloride, which, when suitably diluted, is relatively innocuous.

It does not follow, as the Americans point out, that because someone wants to poison people, vast quantities of poison in the water supply will do the trick. Chlorine itself would be a far more potent poison than potassium chloride, particularly in the quantities in which chlorine is available with respect to much of its industrial use.

Dr. Iddon:

I am impressed by my hon. Friend's knowledge of chemistry, but I hope that he will agree with me on one point that has not emerged in the debate—that all over the world, now, people are monitoring the production, transport, export and import of chemicals. That does not happen only with respect to the production of illicit drugs. While I have not heard this, I am sure that monitoring is also taking place of chemicals that could be used by terrorists. It is now, fortunately, very difficult to get hold of some chemicals.

Mr. McWalter:

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend, but it is interesting that chemicals that are produced in very large quantities, for very large-scale industrial processes, are sometimes those about which we need to be most wary.

An interesting aspect of the Americans' work on water supply is how the monitoring of water quality is developing. Not only is the focus on so-called naturally occurring pollutants—clearly, some nitrates and other pollutants are introduced through agriculture—but an attempt is being made to monitor water for much rarer components. The Americans are moving towards filtering out impurities that it would, in the normal course of events, be surprising to find in the water system.

The American Government approach is to have an open debate, to admit that there is a threat, to admit to vulnerabilities and to seek to engage the public where they can help. They want to let the public own the problem, rather than to say, "Oh, no. We are not going to let you own the problem. We are going to take it to some ultra secret hole in the ground and we will solve all the problems for you. There's nothing to worry about."

The Committee thinks that there are things to worry about, not least because the Committee is getting quite good at sometimes identifying where there is a scientific deficiency within Government. There was an amusing example of that only this Monday. One of the leaders of the research councils told us that they would engage the Government in discussion if only they could find someone sensible to talk to. He was not referring to the Home Office, I hasten to add.

The Committee has the capability. We are not front-line scientists, but we are experienced enough and have seen enough to understand when someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. At the Committee sitting dealing with water we asked the United Kingdom representatives about these problems and read them chapter and verse from the Americans, but they said, "We disagree." That was that. There was no argument. There was no discussion. There was no depth. In place of rational argument and an open sharing of concerns and understanding there was a complete clam. That is what is wrong with our report. Despite strenuous efforts, particularly by our ever-resilient Chairman, we were unable to break the mould of that way of thinking.

We are glad that the Home Office now has a chief scientist—we have been pressing for that—but I am slightly worried that the efforts of the Committee to get more scientists into government might be curtailed by things that were said in the Budget debate yesterday. If one is trying to get more expertise into government, the best way to go about it might not be to have large-scale redundancies in Departments that often seem to lack understanding of fundamental science. I believe that our report is one of which we can all be proud. We are also all proud of our debate today. It has the capacity to change the culture of government so that the Government are more responsive to science and more willing to give credence to scientific expertise held outside government and outside Oxford and Cambridge. If the Government persist in thinking that this is a problem that the public need not own, we will all regret it. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner was quite right when he said that we would have to deal with this in the end.

The Committee has sought to make the public more aware of the scale of the threats and then to equip them to understand how to work through the traumatic events that the terrorists would visit upon us. I hope that the Minister will announce today that the Home Office is more willing to share with us its view of these problems and that from today's debate will come a sense that not only the public, but the Committee, are being asked to share the problem.

4.19 pm
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD):

It is a pleasure to be the first non-member of the Committee to speak. I have found this afternoon's debate fascinating, particularly the obvious unanimity of views of Committee members about the value of the report. They are perhaps more unified on that than they are on the war with Iraq and how to deal with terrorism. The report has brought them all together and made a useful contribution to the debate on how to respond to the threat of terrorism. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and I have considered that in relation to the Civil Contingencies Bill. We examined the planning for such incidents in the abstract, whereas the Committee considered the specifics of how responses can be most effective.

Following on from what was said by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), I find it curious that we are bringing together the most rational and humane of disciplines—scientific disciplines—with the most irrational and inhumane actions, which are those of terrorists. To bring the two together is a helpful way of reminding us that in dealing with the terrorism threat we must continue to act rationally. The terrorism threat is designed to make us act in irrational ways—in other words, to break down our sense of humane and civilised behaviour. Throughout the period that we are under such a threat, it is important that we continue to behave rationally, and science, in a sense, is the apogée of our rational behaviour.

The report can help us in two respects. First, it discusses the technology that we need to respond to specific threats posed by terrorism. Secondly, it promotes the scientific discipline of evaluating risk properly to decide on the appropriate response. The technological responses are comprehensively covered in the report and I hope that the material collected there will form a useful benchmark for the Government's planning. As a layman I found it helpful. I am a technologist but not a scientist, and I recognise the difference between the two, but I found the report helpful in explaining some scientific issues engendered, in particular, by trying to respond to potential chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks on the United Kingdom. It is a very helpful document from that point of view.

I detected a certain amount of needle between the Government and the Committee over the report, which comes out in the Government's response. It starts by saying how wonderful the report is and that many of the recommendations are to be accepted, but goes on to say that they cannot accept some recommendations and completely to reject others. Clearly, there was some needle, but I hope that in terms of the substance of the report, as parliamentarians will appreciate, fences are being mended between the Government and the Committee and will continue to be mended with the help of the Minister's response this afternoon.

I found two areas useful when looking at the technological response, which relates to the applied science that must be brought into play to combat the terrorist threat. The first is the question whether research is too defence focused, as was set out in recommendation 6 of the report and to which the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred in his introduction. There are associated recommendations, such as recommendation 54 on a centre for home defence. I hope that that issue will be followed up effectively, as the Committee is on to something there.

In the past, the focus of research was naturally on the threats imagined then, which were CBRN threats to military personnel in the field, or a nuclear catastrophe involving the protect and survive response that we would have had in the cold war, when there could have been massive nuclear attacks on cities throughout the United Kingdom. Neither scenario particularly applies these days and there seems to be significant scope for remodelling at least some ways that we might respond to attacks, given the expectation that they would take a completely different form.

In particular, I am considering the science of behaviour when dealing with the civilian population in the situations that we are thinking of, such as attacks on cities and transport networks. The responses might be quite different from those in a military situation. I support the Committee's recommendation in that regard.

Geraldine Smith:

Does the hon. Gentleman think that if the general public were to see the Government setting up a home defence agency, they would realise that the Government were taking the threat seriously? Although the public hear the Prime Minister saying that the fight against terrorism is a priority, they do not see any back-up. That needs to happen to make the general public realise how serious the situation is.

Mr. Allan:

The hon. Lady makes a good point. She makes me think of the Centre for Disease Control, which a number of hon. Members mentioned that they saw when they went to the United States. Such a visible presence is important for reassurance. The public are reassured by being shown a group of people with shiny machines who clearly know what they are doing. At present, we will not get such reassurance from the military facilities, which are, by definition, secretive. However, it would be useful if there were civilian equivalents that could be seen by the public—the equivalent of the Royal Automobile Club control centres that people see in another area of their lives—so people knew the far more significant threat to life and limb was being addressed. I agree with the hon. Lady that there is scope for that.

The question of the scientific expertise in the Home Office was raised in recommendation 7. I found echoes in that of the work that I do on information technology, as that relates to the Home Office. The Home Office seems to be a little light—to use a suitably delicate word—on the necessary expertise when dealing with scientific and technological matters. There is a genuine fear that joined-up government is not operating as effectively as it should on scientific and technical issues, including information technology. The Department of Trade and Industry is the lead Department in those areas and it has far more technical expertise, but frequently the Home Office is the operational Department that introduces legislation. If the Home Office is the lead Department in responding to attacks, it is important to beef up its scientific resources. We must overcome the sense that if the matter is scientific it is for the DTI and the Home Office is not going to employ scientists because the DTI already does so. We must ensure that the rhetoric of joined-up government works in that important context.

The other area to which science can make a major contribution is in the evaluation of risk. I noticed that there was a bit of a spat in the Government's response about defining risk versus threat. The Committee was using risk in a scientific sense, meaning the overall risk of something unpleasant happening, as one would use risk in the context of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and a measles outbreak. The Government responded rather petulantly by saying that they were talking about something else—that threat analysis and risk analysis are different. I believe that the Committee was correct to talk about the need to weigh up risk in terms of lost benefits as against the potential overall threat—both the likelihood of something happening, which is necessarily based on intelligence, and the severity of any incident. I recognise that those two need to be considered together.

That matter is particularly relevant in the context of the debate and was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) in relation to research and research directions. One could take a precautionary approach in which all forms of research that are potentially dangerous are shut down and there is no engagement with scientists from any countries that are potentially dangerous. There is a risk in continuing to engage in research in certain subject areas and with people from certain countries, but that risk must be evaluated against the potential benefits or disbenefits of ceasing to do so.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned Iraqi scientists in the UK in the 1960s. We do not know whether the scientists whom he met at Salford were so impressed by the way of life in the UK that they gained a code of ethics that diverted them from engaging in any programmes that we would find offensive. If we had shut the doors, they would not have had that opportunity, nor that exposure. It is a complex picture, but I believe that the Committee is right to argue against responding simply by shutting things down. We must be sensitive to the complexity of the situation and maintain a delicate balance.

As an MP who represents a constituency in which there are two active universities—Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam—I know that scientists from all over the world make enormous contributions to those universities and return to their countries as ambassadors for the UK. Those interactions continue over many years and the idea that we should shut down such exchanges carries significant risks in itself.

Dr. Gibson:

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is incongruous that, as a consequence of the top-up fees issue, we will have to recruit more students from abroad to get the money into higher education?

Mr. Allan:

I am not sure, but I get the sense that the Committee may be more united on tuition fees than perhaps they were on Iraq. Was not the Committee away on a visit during the last vote on the Higher Education Bill? Were not Committee members encouraged to stay on that visit by the powers that be, because they might have tipped the balance the wrong way if they had returned? I am entirely at one with the hon. Gentleman on tuition fees, which are a serious issue for universities.

One thrust of Government policy seems to be that universities should act more like businesses in a global economy—that they should go out and sell themselves and bring people in. If we are to do that, we must recognise the full consequences of it. We cannot do it and then say to them, "Ah, but, we're going to make life difficult for you when you try to do that."

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East spoke about vetting. I hope that voluntary vetting can mature so that universities may properly go about their business. Export controls are not too restrictive and voluntary vetting works and is better than trying to shut things down, perhaps without thinking of the knock-on consequences.

Mr. McWalter:

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has returned to his theme of shutting things down. Does he agree that it is more dangerous to shut things down than to continue to develop the expertise that our universities and other institutions can give us, so that we can deal with these matters as effectively as possible?

Mr. Allan:

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We require research to deal with threats, so research cuts both ways. I was interested in the point that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East made about expecting people to sign up to the ethical code and about the Pugwash conferences. We have similar debates in the IT field about science and technology being primarily for the benefit of humankind: it has no purpose outside that. By and large, the people who work in science and technology subscribe to the idea that their work is intended to benefit humankind. Sadly, there is sometimes a public perception that scientists and technologists are trying to create Frankenstein's monster and to get us all. That is not the case. I have certainly never found it to be true in my experience of working with scientists in Sheffield. I am sure that other hon. Members wholeheartedly agree with that.

It is important that we are clear about the fact that allowing scientists the freedom to work will allow them the freedom to advance humankind, including by finding solutions to problems that we face. For example, some solutions to finding intelligence on potential terrorists and dealing with them are technological, but they will not be found if technologists are not allowed to advance.

I was interested in the comments about openness. There was a clear clash for the Government over which approaches should and should not be taken. I shall not intrude into anyone's private grief, because there is plenty in the report and the Government response about the different attitudes on this issue. I am also aware of the Liaison Committee debate and can testify to the fact that the Chairman batted as firmly as he could—I do not know whether I should use a cricketing metaphor with this Chairman. He tried to punt the ball into the goal as accurately as he could on behalf of the Committee.

Dr. Gibson:

On the head.

Mr. Allan:

Indeed, and he took it on his head. He did a robust job and was widely praised by people across the House who want Select Committees to have the freedom to act on behalf of Parliament and not be muzzled by the Executive. That is an ongoing tension, which will always be there. However, I thought it important that the Committee stuck to its guns on that occasion.

Several hon. Members spoke about creating a full picture for the public. The hon. Member for Norwich, North started by talking about the more open culture in the US and then various other hon. Members spoke to that subject. I believe that the phrase that the Government have been using in the context of terrorist alerts is, "Be alert and not alarmed." We could add "be informed" to that. The tone of the report is that we should be alert and informed.

We particularly need to be informed about risk and understanding risk, perhaps in the sense that it was meant in the report. That is part of a much wider scientific debate with which we are all struggling, not least members of the Committee. We must try to get people to understand risk—for example, by understanding that devastating attacks of the kind that sadly occurred in Madrid, for which conventional bombs were used, are the most likely scenario. We are trying to evaluate the type of threat that we are most likely to face. The threat of an attack using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons is less likely, but such an attack would be more devastating if it should take place. People must understand that; they should not focus on CBRN attacks to the exclusion of conventional bombs just because the former have more devastating consequences than the latter. People must understand that the threat is about the likelihood and the consequences of an outrage happening, dealing with the outcome and reducing casualties.

Dr. Gibson:

I am tempted to say something about the intricacy of the bombs in Madrid. Using a mobile phone was an intricate means of exploding the bombs. The people who exploded them had done some training, so it would be as easy for them to learn how to use biological weapons as well. We must not underestimate the act. As horrific as it was, it was quite a complicated technological feat.

Mr. Allan:

That brings us back to the points made about access to materials. The bombs that exploded in Madrid were triggered by mobile phone and the type of electronic equipment that allows remote triggering of devices by mobile phone is available in Maplin. One can buy circuit boards there that allow one to switch on lights at home. Clearly it is more complicated to set up a bomb, but the technology that turns a mobile phone ring tone into an electronic impulse that triggers an action is widely available for various legitimate purposes. There are questions about access to the materials required for CBRN attacks, because they are not so readily available.

My understanding of the Madrid attacks is that they were a combination of readily available electronics with—if they were the materials mentioned originally—explosive material stolen from French quarry sources. It was material that can be stolen from a variety of places, put together with technology that is widely available. With CBRN attacks, if we effectively shut off access to the materials, they will not be so readily available. I defer to scientists on this, but it would be quite a delicate job to create the delivery mechanisms with the infective purposes required. That suggests that if people are really serious about causing damage, they can mount conventional explosive attacks on a regular basis, as the IRA showed over a long period. They might have the capability of mounting CBRN attacks, but they would require a more extensive lead-in period.

Dr. Gibson:

Five people died due to the anthrax envelope delivery system in the States, so it is not too difficult to get enough of it around by simple methods. If it is posted and somebody opens it, it goes into people's nasal tubes and they die.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Before I call the hon. Gentleman to respond to that intervention, I must say that I want to give the Minister proper time to reply to this important debate, and the Opposition spokesman has yet to speak.

Mr. Allan:

I am grateful for that reminder. We could continue this technical debate over a cup of tea or a beer later.

A lot of information about the specific likelihood of an attack at any place at any time is necessarily covered by the secrecy that the security services require, but there should be an understanding of the relative impacts of different types of attack and the complexities of people being able or likely to mount such attacks. Those are scientific issues that should be widely disseminated: people should be able to gain such information from open sources. I hope that we can work towards better information sources for the public and I congratulate the Committee on its contribution to that aim.

4.39 pm
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con):

It is a pleasure to speak opposite the Minister again, whom I wish well.

If one is a terrorist, it has been a fantastic fortnight: an extraordinarily well-co-ordinated operation took place in Iraq on the celebration of the day of Ashura, which was co-ordinated with simultaneous operations in Pakistan and failed operations in Afghanistan. They were followed by further operations in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad. Then, this time last week, we saw the shocking events in Madrid, which have been followed by more attacks in Pakistan and last night's hideous attack with a large bomb in Baghdad.

I am surprised that neither the Liberal Democrat spokesman—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan)—nor the Chairman of the Select Committee referred in their exchanges to events in the United Kingdom last February. I do not want to be drawn into precisely what happened, but last February we believed, correctly or incorrectly, that this country had suffered a chemical or biological attack. It was thought—it may have been proved untrue and I believe that some details are sub judice—that ricin had been deployed in north London by associates of Ansar al-Islam, which is a branch of al-Qaeda. I shall not elaborate.

The report could not be more apposite. Not only have hundreds of people been killed in the past fortnight by bog standard terrorism, if I can call it that, but this country's experience so far at the hands of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists has been of the CBRN variety, at least within these shores. I am therefore particularly grateful to the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) for making the scientific elements of the debate so very clear. They pointed out that the responsiveness of science is clearly a responsibility not only for the terrorist, but for the Government. People who believe that science is a black art or something that can be sneered at, as my arts-inclined 12-year-old son tends to think at the moment, are quite wrong. Science can be the friend and ally of the terrorist, but it must be the friend and ally of western liberal democracy.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman mentioned that he and I sat on the Committee that considered the Civil Contingencies Bill. Frankly, that was a mixed pleasure. However, the Select Committee's report very clearly plugs the gap in the inadequacies that he and I described so many times. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) and the Chairman of the Committee made the whole issue of openness so very clear—if that is not tautology. A point made all the time during proceedings on the Bill was that the Government are not prepared to tell us what is going on. In a narrow sense, the Select Committee has made the openness of information and of witnesses more likely. I want the Minister to take note of my fervent belief that we must be told what the threat is if we are going to be able to counter terrorist threats in general and the CBRN threat in particular. Our population must be treated like adults and must be handled responsibly. I wholly disagree with the Government's approach that it is better not to panic people, and it is clear that several hon. Members here today agree with me.

People will continue to be ignorant and horrified unless they know that they are likely to be attacked with explosives and fire, or chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The reality is horrifying, but a little knowledge goes a tremendously long way. The Government seem to be saying that keeping knowledge to themselves will prevent panic. I say that knowledge dispels fear.

Several hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), made the point that we need to be trained. As well as being told what is going on, the population need to be trained in how to handle the effects of such attacks. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale referred to a centre for home defence. I would strongly support the creation of such a centre, which could inform training and ensure that people do not simply react to a terrorist incident in the way that they have been trained to react to, say, a fire. Clearly, reacting to a fire involves getting out of the building, moving to a concentration point and listening to further orders. Reacting to a contamination attack involves precisely the opposite: people must stay in one place and be dealt with by the authorities. The issue of training the public is therefore crucial.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) raised a similar issue. I must declare an interest because I spent many weeks in his constituency being trained in what we used to call nuclear, biological and chemical warfare skills—although with me it was more a case of a lack of skills. I pay tribute to Porton Down, where even a dunderhead such as me began to understand the intricacies of NBC—or what we might now call CBRN—warfare.

My hon. Friend said that the agencies' training exercises must go, but I strongly disagree. We have had only one field training exercise, or FTX, so far, but it was not a success and went nowhere like as far as it should have. All it did was point out the deficiencies in the training of our blue-light and emergency services. I do not mean to be rude about those services or to undermine their confidence, but table-top exercises or, to use the military terminology, CPXs—command post exercises—are not good enough. We must have more live exercises if we are to understand the threat and how to deal with chemical, nuclear and biological contamination. That could not have been made clearer than in the comments of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East, who described the gamut of scientific threats. We can learn how to overcome such threats only through constant practice and constant exercises. Sadly, that will involve a cost, and the public must accept that, although we went through something similar before the second world war and during the cold war.

Several hon. Members referred to the extraordinarily sensible idea of a centre for home defence. The Chairman of the Committee said that someone or something needs to draw the different agencies together and to act as a focal point. Someone has to be able to take control not only of research and analysis, which lead to conclusions, but of what physically happens when an event occurs. I can conclude only that many hon. Members in the Chamber would agree with me that we need a Minister for homeland security. It would not be the first time that we have had such a Minister. Indeed, we have had a Minister of Home Security. Probably the most famous was that well-known socialist, Herbert Morrison, and it is a great pleasure for me to follow in a socialist's footsteps.

Many points have been made about the issues before us, particularly during consideration of the Civil Contingencies Bill, and I would ask the Minister to consider most carefully an issue that has been touched on this afternoon. Our blue-light, emergency and military services will have to be thoroughly trained to deal with CBRN/NBC attacks. Is there, however, a national pool of volunteers, whose training—they may have been soldiers, sailors, airmen, policemen or scientists or have worked in the nuclear industry—is such that we would absolutely want to call them forward to deal with such events? It is interesting that David Veness, an assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, is talking about a gentlemen's agreement with the private security industry. Under such an arrangement, workers in the industry with past CBRN or NBC experience would be asked to volunteer to provide the muscle and the work force for disasters of the sort that we have discussed today. The Minister is aware that I have been peddling such a scheme for many months. I am sorry to bore her, but I would be interested to hear a response to that proposal. An emergency volunteer reserve could not only be useful, but provide a helpful focus for other volunteer work—next year is the year of the volunteer—and be remarkably cost-effective.

The Committee has produced a terribly useful report. It is slightly frightening and it shows differences between the Committee and the Government, but that is why we are here. We are here not to score party political points, but to seek things that are for the good of the nation. I very much hope that the Government will not only consider the points that the Committee has made, but implement them.

4.51 pm
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes):

May I repeat the comments made by others and say that it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Nicholas?

I thank the Committee, personally and on behalf of the Government, for producing the report. I am particularly glad to have heard such fine contributions from all parts of the Chamber today. The Committee's evident commitment to the issue is visible and powerful. Clearly, the Government take the threat from terrorism very seriously indeed, as I am sure do Members from across the House.

Protecting the public and our national security is probably our most important duty. Recent international terrorist attacks have presented the UK and our allies with new challenges, as we have seen in the past week. We have realigned our counter-terrorism programme to try to ensure that we are ready to respond to that new, evolving threat that we have faced since 11 September 2001. The threat has new dimensions and, as it has manifested itself, it has not remained static. The nature of the threat and our understanding of it evolve all the time.

Today's debate focuses on one aspect of the Government's programme—the scientific response. Delivering the counter-terrorism programme involves more than just science; it involves equipment, guidance, procedures, training—which the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) mentioned—intelligence, legislation, law enforcement and other matters. Nevertheless, science is crucial to development in those areas and often underpins it. Science adds value to the four main strands of our overall strategy: prevention, pursuit and detection of terrorists, protection and preparation to withstand the effects of any attacks.

By way of a slight digression, listening to my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) talk about the detail of science took me back a few years. Although I made a fairly quick transition after higher education from dealing with substances to dealing with people, I, too, did a science degree. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead reminded us of Popper, my mind leapt without any effort to Thomas Kuhn and the other philosophers. They showed us not only that scientific research and the substance of scientific findings are important for so many areas in life, particularly counter-terrorism, but that the paradigm of science—the principles, the philosophy and the methodology—gives us some very strong frameworks within which to approach such a complex subject.

I recognise that that is the case, and key to our response to terrorism has been a commitment to harnessing the best science and technology available. Whether or not people think that the Government have done enough soon enough, we are very well placed to deliver on that commitment, because the science base at our disposal is second to none in the world. The facilities and expertise on which we draw—be that within Government or through academia, industry or links with international allies—are world class. That makes it even more important that we do everything we can to utilise to the full the potential that such facilities and expertise give us.

The Committee's inquiry was extremely valuable. It has enabled us to take stock of how we co-ordinate the scientific response to terrorism and to identify ways of doing that better. Picking up on the comments of the Chairman of the Committee, I do not believe that it was out of order for the Committee to examine that issue. Indeed, I welcome the focus that the inquiry has given to the important role that science and technology play in our counter-terrorism and broader capability programmes.

The challenge of co-ordinating the scientific response to terrorism is clear. We must seek out the best scientific expertise and apply it as effectively as possible to every part of the Government's counter-terrorism programme. I welcome the Committee's endorsement of our long-held view that there is no need for a department of homeland security based on the US model. I shall say more about that later when we talk about the proposal for a centre for home defence. We are all trying to achieve the same objective, in that we recognise that to make progress on a very complex issue in which many strands of activity need to be brought together if we are to have an effective counter-terrorism strategy, the key is how we bring those issues together. At different ends of the spectrum are the arguments that we must have everything in one place, and that we cannot have everything in one place and must have strong and effective co-ordination mechanisms.

Leaving aside science and technology as a specific issue, if we are to develop an effective counter-terrorism response, we cannot simply have a split between the scientific expertise and capability that a Department might need to deal with a disaster, and the capability that it needs to respond to a terrorist event. For example, the Department of Health must be able to ensure that it and its satellite agencies can deal with mass fatalities or casualties however they are caused. Placing all the scientific expertise in a centre for home defence would mean that we had to replicate it in the parent Department to enable it to respond to non-terrorist incidents.

Dr. Gibson:

With regard to yesterday's speech by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it is interesting to note that one great success story in the cancer field involves the National Cancer Research Institute, which is becoming a paradigm for dealing with mental health issues and other issues. The institute is not made of red bricks; it is a virtual centre where people such as those from the Department of Health and charities can meet. The centre has been recognised as a good unit to take forward clinical trials in respect of cancer and so on. It is a model for other centres. The Committee is saying that we need something like that centre—even a virtual centre would do—where people are brought together regularly. The excitement and enthusiasm generated by people working together and getting together a strategy base on cancer and on how to handle the services meant that the establishment of the institute in 2000 was a major step forward.

Beverley Hughes:

I thank my hon. Friend for that observation. As for the concept of a centre for home defence and virtual centres, I am not quite sure how different such an approach would be from what we are doing, which is establishing a cross-government and cross-discipline methodology.

The purpose of the methodology is to benchmark what we have and audit it, and to identify the gaps, the priorities and finally the action necessary to fill the priority gaps, and to have a mechanism to ensure that we do those things within the time scales that we envisage. In a sense, that could be a concept of a virtual arrangement that ensures that what we both want to achieve—the development of the necessary scientific expertise and making sure that it is readily available—happens.

To meet the challenge of effective scientific coordination we need to do three things. First, we need to make the best use of the available sources of scientific expertise within Government. Secondly, we need to build up scientific resources in key areas. Thirdly, we need to ensure that we make the most of the knowledge base and capabilities outside Government, especially in industry, in academia and among our international allies.

The first part of meeting the challenge is to look at what we have and to use it effectively. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the police scientific development branch, two world-class scientific institutions, have been involved in most parts of the programme, from testing equipment to scenario modelling and ensuring that guidance to first responders is scientifically sound, for example. Scientists from both bodies were also seconded to the Home Office to provide direct and immediate scientific support and to maximise synergies with their respective parent organisations.

The Committee has rightly identified the need to improve the quantity and quality of science in the Home Office. I accept that point, as did our response to the Committee's report. So far, we have appointed Professor Paul Wiles as chief scientific adviser to the Home Office. He is working with Professor Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser to the Government, to improve the scientific culture of the Home Office. They are both driving that forward.

More recently, the remit of the police scientific development branch has been broadened to cover all Home Office directorates and units. The new Home Office development branch, as it will be known, will be managed by Professor Wiles and enable the Home Office to adopt a more strategic approach to science and technology. Through his involvement in the cross-Whitehall network of chief scientific advisers, Professor Wiles will also be well placed to ensure that the Home Office benefits from the scientific expertise of other Departments.

In addition to improving the use of science within the Home Office, the Committee has rightly identified the need to look more closely at CBRN counter-measures in a civil, rather than a military, context. I accept that the DSTL and existing military technologies certainly offer useful starting points, but the Government agree that the civil environment poses different challenges that require different solutions. I know that members of the Committee will clearly understand that.

Our programme needs to capture those differences. We are addressing that issue through a Home Office-led cross-government civil counter-terrorism research programme, which aims systematically to identify, prioritise and fill gaps in civil counter-terrorism research. In a way, I alluded to that when I outlined our approach. The programme has already produced a prioritised list of those research requirements, which has been agreed across all Departments, and a cross-Whitehall committee of chief scientific advisers has been tasked with scrutinising the list and ensuring that the relevant research is commissioned as part of each Department's core research programme.

That model has an important characteristic that would not necessarily be so strong if we had not a virtual, but a concrete centre for home defence: it retains the responsibility, ownership and accountability required of each Department for commissioning and delivering research relevant to its own area that is necessary for the counter-terrorism strategy. That is important. We cannot deliver everything that we need for counter-terrorism in a centralised way. We have to keep Departments involved and committed. They must own their responsibility. It has to be a cross-Government approach.

Geraldine Smith:

One of the problems is having someone in charge of everything to ensure co-ordination across Departments. We all know how difficult it can be at times to achieve the joined-up government that we want. Governments, be they Labour or Conservative, have always had problems because they work in Departments. It is hard to break down that culture and to get different Departments to work together. I am glad that there seem to be some positive moves, but a home defence agency, be it virtual or concrete, could be helpful.

Beverley Hughes:

This is one of the dilemmas that we face in any level of government. Some hon. Members here shared my experience in local government. I encountered the problem then. If an issue spans the gamut of the responsibility of the Government or council, there is a question of delivery. In seeking to reduce poverty among children, one cannot have a child poverty reduction department; it is necessary to have a strategy that demands the integration, commitment and involvement of all of the elements of one's work that impinge on child poverty. That could be education, social services, job creation, youth offending and so on.

It is not feasible to put in a single Department everything related to the expertise and activity that need to be deployed for counter-terrorism purposes. As all Departments have their own core business, such an approach runs the risk of allowing Departments to leave things to someone else. The main point is that there is a cross-over between the skills, capacity and expertise that individual Departments need for their core business and what they need to respond and contribute to a counter-terrorism strategy and its implementation.

Geraldine Smith:

I can understand what the Minister is saying about the need to work across Departments, but with something so serious as terrorism there is also a need for someone to take ultimate charge and to have the power to work across Departments. What happens if one is dealing with another Department and it says that it has to refer back to its Minister? Such matters are difficult, unless they can be pinned down to one person who has the responsibility to work across the Departments and to co-ordinate efforts.

Beverley Hughes:

At ministerial level, in terms of the relevant committees that they chair, both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have ultimate responsibility.

Perhaps I can outline in simple, broad terms what the structures are in government. I had planned to do so in response to an important point made earlier by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). I hope that these comments will reassure hon. Members.

The policy and strategy have several strands. There is a clear strategy for counter-terrorism. The capability programme is about minimising the damage from any attack and maximising our resilience. Within that programme is the CBRN programme, on which I report to the Home Secretary. Each of those elements has clearly identified work streams covering the whole range of issues and required expertise. Each work stream has an identified lead Department, lead Minister and lead senior officer, who together are responsible for reporting on and delivering the action plan and the priorities that have been agreed. It is a highly structured and detailed set of arrangements with clear accountability and responsibility at ministerial and official level. We could not operate with anything less. I assure hon. Members that those arrangements in government are really the only way in which we can deliver effectively on the complexity and range of issues that need to be addressed in an effective counter-terrorism strategy.

Bob Spink:

Will the Minister therefore tell me which specific Minister is finally and fully responsible for keeping my constituents, who are in the front line of the terrorist threat, in the dark about that threat?

Beverley Hughes:

If the hon. Gentleman will be a little patient, I will get to that point when I talk about secrecy and openness, which are key issues that I want to address.

We have digressed slightly from how we make the most of scientific expertise in government and how we improve our scientific base. The third issue that I want to mention is how we make the most of the knowledge base and the capabilities outside government—in industry and academia, and among our international allies. It is important that we tap the expertise of those groups.

I am confident that the cross-government civil research programme will facilitate a more focused dialogue with research councils and industry because, as I said, what has come out of it is a clear prioritised list of counter-terrorism research requirements. We will commission research by individual Departments to meet those priorities.

On the international side, I welcome the Committee's support for our strong links with our US counterparts. The Home Secretary's recent visit to the US demonstrated the strength of those links and how closely we are working together. I understand that it made a powerful impression on Members and was very much welcomed.

I agree that there is more scope for developing links at the European level. Of course, there are links already, particularly between the Department of Health and the EU Health Security Committee, and with individual countries. There are also links between our security services and those of our main European partners. I would not want hon. Members to think otherwise. Those links are very strong, and the intelligence reports that we get regularly include as much intelligence from international sources, including our European partners, as from domestic sources. All the information is put together. We share ours and they share theirs. That is the only way that we can hope to piece together the pictures that arise from information on what is happening in different parts of the world and make connections between activities. Al-Qaeda is a fluid, networked organisation with sophisticated communication patterns, and the only way to proceed is through detailed sharing of intelligence, as has been the case post-Madrid.

I also want to discuss the issue of openness and the media. The initial process by which the Committee began work and the response to its activities got off to a bad start with regard to the provision of information to it, and I realise that the wider issue of communication with the public has also been raised today. I hope, and my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee has acknowledged, that notwithstanding that bad start, through negotiation and greater understanding of the Committee's requirements and of what information Ministers felt that they could give, the Committee heard most of the information that it needed and most hon. Members who wanted to attend did so.

It was not a question of not trusting the Committee; it was a matter of initially not being clear about the detail required, how much we could let out into the public domain and whether some information could be given in closed session. We were comfortable about sharing information on the general remit in respect of the role of science and technology, but it would not be right to put in the public domain details of operational matters and implementation, such as information on the location of radioactivity detectors. I hope that through the Committee process, as difficult as it initially was, we reached a greater understanding, and that members of the Committee will accept that if there is another similar inquiry, we can start from a higher level of understanding.

Openness in public communications is another important issue. I do not think that we have a culture of keeping secrets from the public either because we are frightened that they will panic or because we do not think that they can take that information. I think that we have a mature public who are experienced, through 30 years of Irish terrorism, in taking a realistic view of the nature of a threat and the risk that it poses, and about being determined that, notwithstanding the need for sensible precaution, observation and vigilance, they will not allow the threat of terrorism to alter the course of their daily lives.

Patrick Mercer:

How does the Minister answer the point that, in response to repeated inquiries from me and other hon. Members about what state of national alert we are on, the Government say, "This is not information that we are prepared to divulge."? To find out what state of alert we are on, we have to depend on leaks from the BBC.

Beverley Hughes:

The organisation responsible for assessing the threat is the fairly newly created JTAC—the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. That body, not Ministers, provides information on a sector-by-sector basis on any change in the threat. The Government repeat that, as we have constantly said, the threat is real and serious. The director-general of the Security Service has made it clear that she thinks that it is a question of "when, not if" an incident occurs.

The JTAC changes the perceived threat level, but not in the general way that it is changed in America. In fact, the Americans are interested in our system because they sometimes change the general level of threat in their colour-coded way, but people do not understand what that means for them. An example of how we work in this country is our response to fears about Heathrow. Extra security measures were introduced and we changed the threat level for the aviation industry and the travelling public in the air. That was a sector-specific change in the threat level. That makes more sense because it helps people to understand in a more focused way the implications for them of any change.

One or two of my hon. Friends put to one side the fact that there is a real issue about preparedness and what we can say in detail in public. We do not know fully the knowledge and understanding that terrorists have; their scientific and technical expertise; or what they know about where our vulnerabilities lie. If we put that information in the public domain and it were used in any way, we would rightly be held accountable.

I hope that Members accept that there is a difficult balance to strike. It is a question not of being secret for secrecy's sake, but of trying to strike the right balance in relation to the detail of preparedness and what we are doing to increase our capability. As John Stevens said yesterday, we have had 30 years of dealing with terrorism and talking to the public about terrorism. That is not to say that we do not need to learn new lessons; we do. However, let us remember that we have that experience. I am sure that Members will accept that Ministers feel a heavy responsibility and are committed to getting this right. That informs our practice as much as anything. We have families too, and we have constituencies. If we thought that putting more information in the public domain would be helpful, we would do it, because the protection of our people is our highest priority.

We are reviewing how we communicate with the public. As we look at what is happening around the world, we might come forward with some variation in approach. We are not saying that we think that we have got everything right or that we do not want change. Indeed, we are examining the situation thoroughly, and we have not made any decisions.

Mr. McWalter:

Is my right hon. Friend saying that she is afraid that we might give terrorists ideas?

Beverley Hughes:

Yes. I cannot go into specifics, but I am aware of certain technologies, and we do not know how much the terrorists know about the potential of our devices that could be used in an incident.

Mr. McWalter:

Does my right hon. Friend not agree with the Americans that, if we assume that the terrorists know pretty much everything that is relevant, we will be much better prepared to deal with them than if we cross our fingers and hope that there are mutations of pathogens that they do not know about?

Beverley Hughes:

Yes, I agree. Assuming that terrorists know everything informs what people do in strategic, tactical and operational terms to be prepared. However, that is not necessarily an argument in favour of telling terrorists everything, because if they did not know everything they would know it afterwards and they would have been given another tool in their armoury. In the few minutes remaining I will try to deal with other issues that hon. Members raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned security of research. I am grateful for his acknowledgement that we must find a balance and a proportionate response. We must work to ensure the security of dangerous substances and knowledge, while guarding against disproportionate security measures that would undoubtedly hamper legitimate scientific research and academic freedom.

My hon. Friend also mentioned two lists: the Australia list in schedule 5 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and the updated list, which is not yet incorporated in legislation. I can tell him that work on that is still going on. The counter-terrorist security officers, who are tasked with advising laboratories on their protective securities, are using the more up-to-date list, even though, strictly speaking, only the older version is legally binding. Those officers have visited most laboratories in the country and have not encountered any problems in dealing with the up-to-date list. None the less, he is right that we are examining how we can incorporate a revised single list in the legislation. That needs to be done. I am simply saying that the fact that we have not yet done it is not affecting practice, which is based on the up-to-date list.

My hon. Friend also talked about the voluntary vetting scheme, which is also under review, and the Committee's recommendation for an ethical code of conduct, which is interesting. As a result of that suggestion, he knows that we are consulting representatives of the research community on the viability and value of such a code. Its implementation will be discussed under the auspices of the biological weapons convention next year.

I want to touch on a couple of points about health, and particularly the role of GPs, which my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee raised. The Department of Health has done quite a bit of work to ensure that information, including information on biological agents in particular, is disseminated to front-line professionals. It has funded the Health Protection Agency this year to undertake a programme of work to raise awareness through a number of initiatives: training sessions for accident and emergency staff together with police, fire and ambulance personnel are being delivered in each region; clinical action cards for GPs have been produced and are being distributed to every GP; training sessions for GPs are being delivered locally through the "train the trainer" mechanism, whatever that is; standard training material is being provided for use in GP postgraduate courses; there are exercises for training consultants; and so on. Therefore, "They are on the case" is the message. That programme is continuing.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and one or two other hon. Members raised the important question of exercises. I agree that it is critical that people do not merely write down what they should do in guidance, operational and procedural notes and so on. Departments and Government agencies already carry out exercises, including on a statutory basis, that are designed to test the planning and framework arrangements for radiological and biological incidents, using deliberate releases and accidents. Those will continue to be a feature of the exercise programme for CBRN resilience and counter-terrorism.

Numbers are also an issue. Since spring last year, there have been seven very large-scale live exercises. Six took place in England and one in Scotland. In addition, there were more than 30 smaller table-top exercises to support them. They took place in different parts of the country. There are also the counterbalance exercises, which I think I mentioned earlier. They are organised jointly by the Home Office, regional resilience teams, the devolved Administrations and the emergency planning societies. All those exercises focus on CBRN and long-term resilience. Since last year, there have been seven counter-balance exercises in England and one in Wales. Therefore, there is an ongoing and not insignificant programme of exercises at different levels to ensure that people practise what they are supposed to do and that they learn the lessons. Indeed, I do not agree that the Osiris initiative was unsuccessful. It taught us a great deal about how dealing with the health issues in particular and identifying and assessing an incident at an early stage can be most effectively achieved.

As time is up, if I have not addressed a particular issue I will write to hon. Members.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

May I say to the Minister that she finished in the nick of time? I congratulate the Chamber on a high-quality debate on a very important subject. All those who participated are to be congratulated on their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Five o'clock.

Back to