Statement to Parliament: Terrorist attacks in Paris

With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement about the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the threat we face from terrorism in the United Kingdom. It will take some time for us to learn the full details of the attacks last week, but the basic facts are now clear. Seventeen innocent people were murdered in cold blood, and a number of others were injured. Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who attacked the Jewish supermarket, claimed his actions were carried out in the name of ISIL. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Cherif and Said Kouachi – the two brothers who attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo – were associated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, the same Al Qaeda affiliate that had been in contact with the men who murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013. As the appalling events in Paris were unfolding, this House was debating the Government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, and the threat level in the United Kingdom – which is set by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre – and remains at SEVERE. This means that a terrorist attack in our country is highly likely and could occur without warning. Three serious terrorist plots have been disrupted in recent months alone. Nearly 600 people from this country have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight, around half of them have returned, and there are thousands of people from across Europe who have done the same. As I said during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism Bill and on many, repeated occasions, the Government will do everything it can to keep the public safe.

Increased security

As soon as the attacks in France took place, the Government increased security at the UK border. Officers from Border Force, the police and other organisations intensified checks on passengers, vehicles and goods entering the UK. And we offered the French Government all assistance necessary, including the full cooperation of our police and Security and Intelligence Agencies. On Sunday, before I attended the peace rally in Paris, I held talks with my counterparts from Europe, the United States and Canada to discuss what action we can take together. There was firm support from all the countries present for new action to share intelligence, track the movement of terrorists and defeat the ideology that lies behind the threat. It is important that we now deliver on those talks, and my officials, the Security Minister and I will keep up the pace – in particular when it comes to passenger name records – with other European member states.

Detailed plans

On Monday, the Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and I held a security meeting with senior officials to review the Paris attacks and the risks to the UK of a similar attack. Of course, we have long had detailed plans for dealing with these kinds of attacks. The House will recall the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 when terrorists armed with assault weapons and explosives took the lives of more than 150 people. Since 2010, and learning the lessons of that attack, we have improved our police firearms capability and the speed of our military response, and we have enhanced protective security where possible through a range of other measures. We have improved joint working between the emergency services to deal specifically with marauding gun attacks. Specialist joint police, ambulance and fire teams are now in place in key areas across England, with equivalents in Scotland and Wales, and they are trained and equipped to manage casualties in the event of this kind of an attack. The police and other agencies regularly carry out exercises to test the response to a terrorist attack, and these exercises include scenarios that are similar to the events in Paris. We will ensure that future exercises reflect specific elements of the Paris attacks, so we can learn from them and be ready for them should they ever occur in the United Kingdom. In addition, I should tell the House that the police can call on appropriate military assistance when required across the country. The attacks in Paris were enabled by the availability of assault weapons. Although there is obviously a number of illegal weapons in the UK, we have some of the toughest gun laws in the world and as a result firearms offences only make up a small proportion of overall recorded crime. The types of firearms used in the attacks in Paris are not unknown in the UK, but they are extremely uncommon.

Stepping up efforts

However, as the Prime Minister has said, we must step up our efforts with other countries to crackdown on the illegal smuggling of weapons across borders. In particular, the member states of the European Union need to work together to put beyond use the vast numbers of weapons in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and disrupt the supply of weapons from other parts of the world, especially North Africa. Mr Speaker, the measures we have taken following events in Paris are in addition to the substantial work the Government has undertaken, and continues to undertake, to counter the threat from terrorism. Last summer, Parliament approved emergency legislation to prevent the sudden and rapid loss of access to communications data and the ability to intercept communications where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. And Parliament is of course scrutinising the proposals in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill as we speak. This important legislation will strengthen our powers to disrupt the ability of people to travel abroad to fight, and control their ability to return here. It will also enhance our ability to deal with those in the UK who pose a risk. In particular, it will allow the relocation of people subject to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures to other parts of the country. In addition, the Prime Minister has announced £130 million over the next two years for the agencies, police and others in addition to the more-than half a billion pounds spent on counter-terrorism policing every year. And of course this Government has done more to confront the ideology that lies behind the threat we face. I have excluded more foreign hate preachers than any Home Secretary before me. We have deported Abu Qatada and extradited Abu Hamza. We have reformed the Prevent strategy so it tackles non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism, and we have invested more time, resources and money in counter-narrative operations.

Giving police and security services the capabilities they need

Mr Speaker, we have always been clear that the police and the security agencies must have the capabilities and powers they need to do their job, and following the attacks in Paris the Prime Minister has reiterated that commitment. Unfortunately, when it comes to communications data and the intercept of communications, there is no cross-party consensus and therefore no Parliamentary majority to pass the legislation to give the police and security services the capabilities they need. But let me be absolutely clear. Every day that passes without the proposals in the Communications Data Bill, the capabilities of the people who keep us safe diminishes. And as those capabilities diminish, more people find themselves in danger and – yes – crimes will go unpunished and innocent lives put at risk. This is not – as I have heard it said – “letting the government snoop on your emails”. It is allowing the police and the security services, under a tightly regulated and controlled regime, to find out the “who, where, when and how” of a communication but not its content, so they can prove and disprove alibis, identify associations between suspects, and tie suspects and victims to specific locations. It is too soon to say for certain, but it is highly probable that communications data was used in the Paris attacks to locate the suspects and establish the links between the two attacks. Quite simply, Mr Speaker, if we want the police and the security services to protect the public and save lives, they need this capability. Last weekend people of all nationalities, faiths and backgrounds came out onto the streets of France and other countries to demonstrate their opposition to terror, and to stand for democracy and for freedom. We must stand in solidarity with them, and do all that we can to confront extremism and terrorism in all its forms.
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