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Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Is Britain prepared for national emergency?
11 September terrorist attack on One World Trade Center
Could it happen here?
BBC correspondents Daniel Sandford and Paul Adams examine the implications of a Commons defence select committee report into security and defence in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Daniel Sandford

Much has been done to improve security at airports and strategic sites since 11 September.

But the 11 members of the Labour-dominated Commons defence select committee feel the government failed to grasp a unique opportunity to re-examine how the UK deals with national disasters.

Its report says: "If the events of 11 September had not been able to galvanise Whitehall departments into constructive, co-ordinated and urgent action, it is difficult to imagine what would have.

"Our criticism is not that nothing has been done.

In many areas, the government has confused activity with achievement

Defence Select Committee

"On the contrary, a great deal of effort has been expended without clear strategic direction.

The report continues: "In many areas, the government has confused activity with achievement."

Three months before 11 September, the government set up the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) in the Cabinet Office.

It was designed to handle major national crises in the light of the 2000 fuel protests and the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic.

But the report says: "It is a matter of regret that the CCS was not able to respond more positively and energetically to the events of 11 September.

"Instead of using its unique position at the heart of government ... it seems to have become bogged down in the details of the plans of individual departments."

National disaster

The report continues: "Instead of being the solution to the habitual 'departmentalism' of Whitehall, it has become a casualty of it."

The MPs suggest the CCS should be transformed into the Emergency Planning Agency.

Led by a cabinet minister - but not the home secretary, who is too busy - it would be a one-stop shop for all government departments and local authorities.

As well as advising on how to prepare for emergencies, it would take the lead in the event of a national disaster.

Nuclear attack

The committee is also concerned the armed forces, police, fire and ambulance services all use incompatible radio systems.

And the proposed solution, Airwave, is beset by teething problems and delays.

The Emergency Communication Network is supposed to operate outside the public telephone network in the event of a disaster.

But Hounslow chief emergency planning officer David Kerry calls it "a waste of space and money".

The committee also believes the fire and ambulance services need extra training and new equipment to prepare for a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.

Paul Adams

The committee's findings raise three key questions:
  • What is being done to protect against "rogue" aircraft such as the planes hijacked and used as missiles last September?

  • How well are the UK's forces and bases defended against terrorist attack?

  • How much help can the armed forces be expected to provide emergency services in the event of a major crisis?

Some of the answers are contained in the new chapter of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) Strategic Defence Review, published earlier this month.

Privately, officials admit the chances of intercepting a "rogue" aircraft originating inside the UK are practically zero.

But the government says it intends to "refine" existing arrangements "as necessary".

Although apart from enhancing radar systems and making three extra airfields suitable for Tornado F3 Quick Reaction Alert aircraft, little is likely to change.

Tornado F3
Extra airfields are being made suitable for Tornado F3s

The MoD denies not enough is being done to defend key sites against terrorism.

The report says an "asymmetric threat" is a danger at Portsmouth naval base.

But officials say discussions of concrete measures to enhance security are "not helpful."

They also bristle at the report's assertion that the armed forces do not maintain manpower or resources dedicated to assisting civil authorities.

Officials say the Army's role in the foot-and-mouth crisis proves regular forces are always available on request.

One defence source calls the MPs' argument "spurious".

"We do not have the luxury of setting aside troops for this," he says.

Volunteer reserves

The Strategic Defence Review makes clear large numbers of frontline troops will not be tied up dealing with terrorist threats to the UK.

But it pledges to make it easier for civil authorities to get help when needed.

The review also outlines plans for Reaction Forces made up of some 6,000 volunteer reserves, with limited extra training, to help with the UK's defence and security.

The report says it is taking too long to establish the units.

But officials say an "initial capability" should be in place by the end of the year.

See also:

24 Jul 02 | Politics
14 Dec 01 | Politics
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