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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 16:27 GMT
Blair rejects homeland security chief call
The home secretary is responsible for security
Calls for a new cabinet post of head of homeland security to be created have been rejected by Tony Blair.

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith pressed the prime minister over the idea in the Commons, saying counter-terrorist efforts needed better government coordination.

The priority for this government is countering terrorism and continuing to develop contingency arrangements

Home Office
The Tories want the UK to mirror the US President George Bush's introduction of a director of homeland security.

Mr Blair instead argued America had very different systems and he praised the work being done by British security forces.

The Commons defence select committee has suggested a cabinet post be devoted to counter-terrorism and now the idea is being underlined by the Conservatives.

Mr Duncan Smith says the job would involve co-ordinating the roles of different government departments and intelligence agencies in countering the threat of terrorism in UK.

The idea has already been dismissed as a gimmick by government officials who say the current system, which places responsibility at the door of the home secretary, is working.

But the Tories say recent confusion over government statements about the possible threat of a terror attack highlighted the need for a dedicated appointment.

Single figure

The Home Office had released a stark warning that the UK faced a possible chemical or nuclear terrorist attack but then withdrew it an hour later and replaced it with a toned-down version.

The Tories say there are too many ministers involved in the present system and Home Secretary David Blunkett is already responsible for a wide range of other issues.

Tom Ridge
US homeland security chief Tom Ridge recently visited the UK
Mr Duncan Smith said the National Audit Office had discovered a third of ambulance trusts were not ready to deal with a chemical, biological or radioactive incident.

That claim was countered by Mr Blair, who said the NHS was doing many things well and was doing everything possible to improve in other areas.

"Virtually every single major country round the world if receiving intelligence about potential threats," said Mr Blair.

"It is extremely important we make every preparation but also that we make sure we do not unnecessarily alarm people."

Other cabinet ministers take part in cabinet committee meetings headed by the home secretary.

That was a system that worked, said Mr Blair, who saluted the "superb work" performed by the security services.

'No confusion'

Earlier, Mr Blunkett dismissed suggestions there were confused messages coming from government.

The mistaken release of the Home Office warning was a "complete cock up", said Mr Blunkett.

But ministers had been clear the UK was at the same "heightened readiness" against attack, he said.

New fears over possible terrorism have been prompted by reports that a gas attack was being planned on the London Underground.

Mr Blunkett said his inquiries showed the story had not been linked by MI5 or the Anti-Terrorism Branch of the Metropolitan Police because the claims were not true.

There had been no specific threat to the Tube, said Mr Blunkett, who has stressed the need for continued vigilance by the public.

Lib Dem proposal

The Liberal Democrats said duplicating American structures was not the answer.

Home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said: "Events over the last few weeks have not always inspired confidence that the Government has co-ordinated policy and messages about security in Britain.

"This appears to have been a case of bad administration and muddled communication rather than poor intelligence or actual uncoordinated security.

Homeland security structures should be clear, said Mr Hughes, but it would be a mistake to duplicate US systems.

The BBC's Guto Harri
"It sounds like a good idea and it seems to work in the US"
Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin and
Home Secretary David Blunkett debate the issues

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