Home Secretary praises police actions in terror raids

April 20, 2009 at 10:55 pm 1 comment

jacquicommons
The Home Secretary made a statement to the House of Commons this afternoon on Operation Pathway. Today was Parliament’s first sitting day after the Easter break.

Jacqui Smith told MPs that 12 people were arrested in the north-west England under the Terrorism Act 2000 on April 8th.

“Of those 12 individuals, 11 remain in custody and have had their detention extended to April 22nd,” she said.

“Ten of the individuals are Pakistani nationals and one is a British citizen.

“The 12th individual, who is believed to be an Afghan, has been transferred to immigration detention. In addition to the arrests, a number of premises have been searched.

“The arrests were pre-planned as the result of an ongoing joint police and Security Service investigation.

“The decision to take action was an operational matter for the police and the Security Service, but the Prime Minister and I were kept fully informed of developments. The priority at all times has been to act to maintain public safety.

“The House will also be aware that during the course of Wednesday 8 April, photographs were taken of Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick as he was going to a meeting in Downing St.

“Mr. Quick was carrying papers that contained sensitive operational detail about the investigation and some of that detail was visible in the photographs.

“As a result, a decision was made by the police to bring forward the arrests to a few hours earlier than had been originally planned.

“The fact that these papers were inadvertently made public did not make any difference to the decision to carry out arrests—it simply changed the timing by a matter of hours.

“Assistant Commissioner Quick offered his resignation to the Metropolitan Police Authority on the following day and it was accepted.

“I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his work on counter-terrorism and for his many years of service. He has made an enormous personal contribution to making our country a safer place.”

The Home Secretary commended the police for the “professional manner in which they carried out the arrests.”

Ms Smith said that “wider questions” had been raised about the criteria for obtaining student visas and about the issuing of licences by the Security Industry Authority.

“We are currently delivering the biggest reform of border security and the immigration system for a generation,” she told MPs.

“Last year, we completed the roll-out of biometric visas across the world. Fingerprints are checked against counter-terrorism and crime databases, as well as UK Border Agency records.

“In posts that we have classified as high risk, such as Pakistan, we have a risk-management network that helps to ensure that the right visa decisions are made, for example by working with local authorities to ensure that the qualifications of prospective students are independently verified.”

The Home Secretary said that there has been an increase in the refusal rate for visa applications from Pakistan nationals. She warned that the threat level to the United Kingdom from international terrorism is still assessed as “severe”.

“A terrorist attack is considered highly likely, so I would like to repeat my thanks to the police and the security agencies for their work in relation to this investigation, and for everything that they do to protect this country and the people who live in it from the threat of terrorist attacks.”

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said that Ms Smith was “for once” blameless over the exposure of sensitve documents by Assistant Commissioner Quick, but “such a blatant breach of the relevant protocols meant that his position was completely untenable.

“That is as far as I am going to go in praising the Home Secretary.

“The past few weeks have been another chapter of chaos in the Home Office.

“We have warned for years about abuses of the student visa system for immigration purposes, but the emergence of a terror threat within the UK from this system is a worrying but perhaps unsurprising new development.”

Mr Grayling asked why student visa applications from Pakistan being handled from Abu Dhabi.

“Is the Home Secretary not aware that high-quality fake documents that will help applicants get visas are on sale for £100 in Pakistan? Is she aware that there are companies doing what one described to a national newspaper as a “roaring business” in helping student visa applicants?

“Will she confirm the extraordinary fact that under this Government, the British high commission in Pakistan previously estimated that half of all students to whom it grants visas disappear after reaching the UK?”

Mr Grayling also asked why front-line staff in Pakistan are being cut, and said one of the suspects was allowed into the UK with suspect documents.

“If that is the case, does it not blow apart the absurd claims made by the Immigration Minister that all this will be solved by the e-Borders database? And is it not true that even biometric data will not help us catch previously unknown terror suspects?

“It is to her discredit that her statement today fails to address many of the problems that her Department faces.”

Mr Grayling raised the arrest of his colleague, Tory MP Damian Green and “exaggerated claims” that he had breached national security and the”worrying issues that have arisen as a result of the policing of the G20 protests.”

He called Ms Smith ” the latest in a series of beleaguered Home Secretaries—three already in this Parliament. If we believe the Downing St rumour mill—despite everything, it still appears to be operating—she will be on her way before long, as well.

“Of course, the truth is that we do not need just a new Home Secretary. What we need is a new Government, if we are to sort out all this mess.”

The Home Secretary responded that “the fact that the hon. Gentleman chose to spend a significant proportion of his response to my statement talking about me rather than about the issue says rather more about him than it does about me.”

She said the government had “considerably tightened the process for issuing student visas, not just from Pakistan, but more widely.”

Labour MP Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs committee, “expressed concern” that during the maternity leave of Meg Hillier, Home Office Under-Secretary of State, her duties as entry clearance Minister have been divided between four other ministers.

Ms Smith said that she had put in place “exactly what is necessary, including bringing in an additional Minister to cover my hon. Friend’s absence and to ensure the correct level of ministerial oversight during that leave.”

Chris Huhne, Home Affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, asked if the arrests of the terrorist suspects had been “weeks premature” as reported in the media.

“She said in her statement that the fact that the papers were inadvertently made public did not make any difference to the decision to carry out arrests, but that it simply changed the timing.

“Will she confirm that all those who were going to be arrested were arrested, and that all those who were arrested were going to be arrested within hours?

“Has any lasting damage been done as a result of Assistant Commissioner Quick’s indiscretion?”

Ms Smith said the press reports were wrong.

“The arrests were not brought forward by weeks; as I said, they were brought forward by a matter of hours. That goes for all the planned arrests, and the police were satisfied that the operation was carried out as they would have carried it out had it happened several hours later.

She said she did not believe that “there has been any lasting damage, either to this investigation or more widely, from the events of 8 April.”

Former Home Secretary John Reid said that “whatever needs to be done, the present visa regime is much more stringent and strict than it ever was before, including in March this year, and certainly more so than that which we inherited.

“Secondly, the way not to protect national security is to set our face against or dismantle e-Borders, the use of biometric technology or identity cards. That makes as little sense as trying to protect a house against burglary by taking out every lock and dismantling the burglar alarm.”

Ben Wallace, Tory MP for Lancaster and Wyre, said that Assistant Commissioner Quick’s “leak is one of a long line of breaches in information security, and it is clear that there is widespread ignorance of data protection procedures across some key agencies.

“In light of that, will the Home Secretary undertake an urgent review of the knowledge and awareness of both senior and junior figures in those agencies, to ensure that overall awareness of the manual of protective security is up to date and that this mistake does not happen again?”

Ms Smith said that “what happened with Assistant Commissioner Quick was not a leak. It was an unfortunate episode for which he has paid an extremely high price.

“If the hon. Gentleman is saying that all of us need to maintain extremely high standards when it comes to dealing with information that is potentially sensitive or may relate to national security, I wholeheartedly agree.

“That, of course, is why I will always put a high premium on protecting that information, which is used to protect the British people.”

Conservative MP Douglas Hogg tried to raise the policing of the G20 demonstration and the arrest of Damian Green.

The Speaker interrupted him.

“The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that he is going very wide of the statement.

“I know what the right hon. Lady could have done, but that is not what she did. She made this statement and that is what he must question her on.”

Labour MP David Winnick was also ruled out of order for trying to raise “concern about one or two individual police officers who have acted in a way that is totally incompatible with policing.

“We have seen outright police brutality shown to some of the (G20) demonstrators.”

Julian Lewis, Tory MP for New Forest, East, also tried to raise the arrest of Mr Green but was told by the Speaker that this was “nothing to do with the statement.”

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