With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the terrorist attacks in Brussels, our response and the threat we face from terrorism in the United Kingdom.
The cold-blooded attacks in Brussels yesterday morning have shocked and sickened people around the world. Fourteen people were murdered and 106 wounded when two bombs exploded at Brussels airport. A further attack at Maelbeek metro station an hour later killed 20 people and wounded more than 100 others. As the Prime Minister has just said, four British nationals are among the injured and we are concerned about one missing British national. Their families have been informed and they are receiving regular consular assistance. We are working urgently to confirm if any other British nationals have been caught up in these attacks.
The investigation into the attacks is still ongoing. These figures may change and it will take some time for a fuller picture to emerge. But we know that Daesh has claimed responsibility.
Mr Speaker, these were ordinary people simply going about their daily lives, families going on holiday, tourists visiting the city, workers making their way to their offices. They have been attacked in the most brutal and cowardly way. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our thoughts and prayers to the victims, their families and those who have been affected by these events.
In Belgium, the authorities have increased the country’s terrorist threat level to four, the highest level available, meaning that the threat is serious and imminent.
Yesterday, I spoke to my Belgian counterpart Jan Jambon, to offer my condolences and to make clear that the UK stands ready to provide any support that is needed.
Belgium is a friend and an ally, and we work closely together on security matters. Following the attacks in Paris last November, we deployed police and intelligence service resources to Belgium to support the ensuing investigation, which last week resulted in the arrest of Salah Abdesalam.
This is the fourteenth attack in Europe since the start of 2015. In January last year gunmen killed 17 people at the office of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris; in February, two people were shot dead at a synagogue and café in Copenhagen; in August an attack was prevented on a Thalys train en route to Paris; and in November 130 people were killed and many more were injured in a series of concerted attacks in Paris.
There have been further attacks in other parts of the world, including in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Egypt, and in Tunisia where 30 British holidaymakers were murdered. More recently, a suicide bomber killed at least five people and injured more than 30 in an attack in the heart of Istanbul.
And there continues to be a threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism. The murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay who died on 15 March is a stark reminder of the many forms of terrorism we face.
In the UK, the threat from international terrorism – which is determined by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre – remains at SEVERE, meaning that an attack is highly likely. In the last 18 months, the police and the security services have disrupted seven terrorist plots to attack the UK. All were either linked to, or inspired by, Daesh and its propaganda. We know too that Daesh has a dedicated external operations structure in Syria which is planning mass-casualty attacks around the world.
Mr Speaker, following yesterday’s attacks in Belgium, the government took precautionary steps to maintain the security of people in this country. This morning the Prime Minister chaired a second meeting of COBR, where we reviewed those measures and the support we are offering to our partners in Europe.
Border Force has intensified checks at our border controls in Belgium and France, increased the number of officers present at ports and introduced enhanced searching of inbound tourist vehicles. Further measures include security checks on some flights and specialist search dogs at certain ports.
The police also took the decision to increase their presence at specific locations – including transport hubs – to protect the public, and to provide reassurance. In London, the Metropolitan Police have deployed additional officers on the transport network.
I can – however – tell the House that neither deployment is in response to specific intelligence.
Government response to the threat
As I have informed the House on previous occasions, since 2010 the government has undertaken significant work to bolster our response to the threat we face from terrorism.
Last year, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act provided new powers to deal specifically with the problem of foreign fighters, and prevent radicalisation. We extended our ability to refuse airlines the authority to carry people to the UK who pose a risk. And we introduced a new power to temporarily seize the passports of those suspected of travelling to engage in terrorism. This power has now been used on more than 20 occasions, and in some cases has led to longer-term disruptive action such as the use of the Royal Prerogative to permanently cancel a British passport.
A week ago the House debated the second reading of the Investigatory Powers Bill, which will ensure that the police and the security and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to keep people safe in a digital age.
Through our Prevent and intervention programmes we are working to safeguard people at risk and challenge the twisted narratives that support terrorism. This includes working with community groups to provide support to deliver counter narrative campaigns. Our Channel programme works with vulnerable people and provides them with support to lead them away from radicalisation. And as we announced as part of Strategic Defence and Security Review in November last year, this year we will be updating our counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST.
In addition, we have protected the counter-terrorism policing budget. Over the next five years we will invest an extra £2.5 billion in a bigger more capable global security and intelligence network. This will include employing over 1,900 additional staff at MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and strengthening our network of counter-terrorism experts in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Government response to the threat in Europe
Together, these measures amount to a significant strengthening of our domestic response. But as the threat continues to adapt and morph, we must build on our joint work with our international partners.
As this House is aware, the UK enjoys the longest lasting security relationship in the world through the Five Eyes – with our allies the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
That relationship allows us to share information, best practice and vital intelligence to disrupt terrorist activity, prevent the movement of foreign fighters and stop messages of hate from spreading.
Following the attacks in Paris last November, our security and intelligence agencies have strengthened co-operation with their counterparts across Europe, including through the Counter-Terrorism Group, which brings together the heads of all domestic intelligence agencies of EU member states, Norway and Switzerland. Through this forum, the UK has been working to improve cooperation and coordination in response to the terrorist threat and to exchange operational intelligence.
And we are also working bilaterally to increase aviation security in third countries.
Because as I told the Five Country Ministerial in February, defeating terrorism requires a global response, and we will not succeed by acting in isolation.
The United Kingdom has intelligence and security services that are the envy of the world, and some of the most enduring international security relationships.
Together with our allies around the world, we must act with greater urgency and joint resolve than we have before.
We must continue, as we already do, to share intelligence with our partners, be proactive in offering our expertise to help others, and encourage them to do likewise.
We must organise our own efforts more effectively to support vulnerable states and improve their ability to respond to the threat from terrorism.
And we must do more to counter the poisonous and repugnant narrative peddled by Daesh and expose it for what it is – a perversion of Islam built on fear and lies.
Mr Speaker, this is the third statement to the House that I have given following a terrorist attack in just over a year. Each horrendous attack brings pain and suffering to the victims and their loved ones. Each time the terrorists attack they mean to divide us.
But each time they fail.
Today, all around the world people of all faiths and nationalities are standing in solidarity with Belgium, just as they stood together after the other appalling attacks. In the UK, people of all backgrounds and communities – Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, and people of no faith – are united in our resolve to defeat terrorism.
The terrorists sought to strike at the heart of Europe. They seek to attack our values and they want to destroy our way of life. But they will not succeed.
These attacks occurred away from the shores of the UK, but we should not forget that our own threat level remains at severe, which means that an attack is highly likely. We will remain vigilant. The police and security services will continue in their dedication to keeping people safe. And the public should remain alert.
Together, we will defeat the terrorists. This is the challenge of our generation. And it is a challenge we will win.
I commend this statement to the House.