Yesterday Home Secretary Jacqui Smith made a statement on the twelve arrests that took place in the North West of England earlier this month. She told the House of Commons that:
"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 street. 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."
I'm afraid it stretches credulity to say that being forced to bring forward arrests by several hours is a simple matter.
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling responded for the Conservatives:
"I was asked after the event in an interview whether I blamed the Home Secretary for the fiasco. I said no—for once she was blameless, and I am glad that she recognised immediately that Bob Quick had to go. 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.
Will the Home Secretary confirm that the security services have in the past year issued a number of warnings about flaws in the student visa system? Can she explain why the Home Office’s response to these warnings has been to cut back the visa operation in Pakistan? The UK Border Agency’s monthly report for February says:
“The UK hub started handling all…settlement applications from Pakistan…from 26th January. This will enable us to fully test the concept of the UK hub…whilst enabling a reduction of staff in Islamabad (along with the hubbing of all other application categories in Pakistan to Abu Dhabi).”
So why are student visa applications from Pakistan being handled not from Pakistan but from Abu Dhabi; and why is Pakistan, of all countries, being used to “test a concept”? 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?
If the security services say there is a big problem, why is the right hon. Lady cutting front-line staff in Pakistan, so that we cannot do adequate local verification? Why does she think that people in Abu Dhabi are better placed to judge an application? Will she confirm that one of the suspects in the case was allowed into Britain even though he had suspect papers? 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?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) knows, this Home Office is paranoid about bad news. Is it true that three years ago, a chief immigration officer who wrote an internal report criticising the way in which student visa applications in Pakistan are handled was disciplined and the report suppressed?
These are key issues that the Home Secretary has to address in relation to national security, but it is to her discredit that her statement today fails to address many of the problems that her Department faces. This should have been a statement that allowed the House to ask her why her Department made wildly exaggerated claims about leaks and national security, which led to the utterly unjustified arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford—the stuff of police states, not democracy. It should also have been an opportunity for the House to question her about the worrying issues that have arisen as a result of the policing of the G20 protests. However, this is hardly surprising. The right hon. Lady is the latest in a series of beleaguered Home Secretaries—three already in this Parliament. If we believe the Downing street 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."
Former Home Secretary Michael Howard made yet another powerful intervention:
"Does the Home Secretary agree that if the crucial objective of safeguarding national security, on which she has rightly placed so much emphasis this afternoon, is to be achieved, it is essential that there is among those in authority a shared understanding of what constitutes a threat to national security? That shared understanding clearly does not exist as between her and the Director of Public Prosecutions. If he is wrong on such a fundamental matter, how can she have confidence in him? If he is right, how can we have confidence in her?
Jacqui Smith: As the right hon. and learned Gentleman quotes—or purports to quote—the Director of Public Prosecutions, perhaps it would be helpful if I pointed him to paragraph 30 of the DPP’s lengthy statement of last week, where he says:
“One of the principal concerns at the Home Office was that whoever was responsible for the leaks in question may have had access to Ministerial papers and that there was a potential risk that highly sensitive material relating to national security might be disclosed. This damage should not be underestimated and once the pattern of leaks was established in this case, it was inevitable that a police investigation would follow.”