Lapse in security


He calls himself a shadow minister, but he is more of a ghost minister, because he does not have a department to shadow."

UK Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram described Conservative MP Patrick Mercer this way in a House of Commons debate in September 2003. Mercer is shadow minister for homeland security, even though the British government has not set up a post to oversee national security.

In the three years since that remark, Britain has faced the threat of an avian flu pandemic, floods, terrorist attacks on the capital London and accusations over the mishandling of intelligence by the police and security services. Perhaps it should be asked why there is no department for Mercer to shadow.

Mercer's role as shadow minister entails auditing the government's security apparatus, which includes everything from counter-terrorist operations to the workings of Project Contest - the government's counter-terrorism strategy. The project consists of four broad areas known as the 'four Ps': prevent, pursue, protect and prepare.

Mercer says: "I am particularly interested in the prevent and protect elements. I believe that if you prevent something in the first place - and that is what we need to be doing - you will not need to pick up the bodies afterwards."

Despite his position, Mercer has no security clearance and is not privy to any secret material. He said: "Everything that I receive comes through open sources. I get no briefings from the government."

Making a difference?

It is difficult to measure how useful a shadow minister is, especially when he has no official counterpart, but Mercer believes that his actions are making a difference.

He says that after pushing the government to provide better information to the public about the threat of terrorism, they eventually issued a booklet entitled Preparing for emergencies in 2004, despite claiming at first that it was neither necessary nor desirable. From time to time, the government also engages in public information campaigns, particularly in London and on the transport network, warning about the threat of terrorism.

Mercer says: "Again, nothing far enough, but it is a start. [These are the effects] we are having on the government. Latterly, we are seeing important voices within the government calling for the creation of a single cabinet post as a minister for counter-terrorism or for homeland security."

This issue has invoked much debate. Tony McNulty is the current minister of state for policing, security and community safety, which includes counter-terrorism. However, Mercer says the problem with this post is that it incorporates too many different elements.

He says: "I think that the government was, inexcusably, surprised by the 7 July 2005 attacks [in London] and that it was only after we had actually been attacked that they began to realise that there was a need for a single minister to co-ordinate all the different and difficult problems.

"The Civil Contingencies Secretariat needs some kind of political master to give it some muscle to operate across the ministries and inside government. But it cannot do this at the moment. If, for instance, a bird flu epidemic hit, [it would be] very hard for the Secretariat to issue orders to the Department of Health.

"If an order needs to be given, who does it? It cannot be a civil servant, it has to be a minister and the Secretariat lacks a minister."

So why has the British government not introduced a minister if it is needed that much? Mercer says that it is because doing so would be difficult, would absorb ministerial salary and would probably have to be a cabinet position and therefore subject to issues of precedent, rank and status.

He says: "I think people also look at the problems that Tom Ridge faced in the US when he became head of the Department of Homeland Security. And the biggest stumbling block to this is that we [the Conservatives] have suggested it. It is difficult for the government to say yes, the Tories are right."

However, Mercer believes that a number of coded messages coming out of the Labour Party hint at a change. Speaking in February at RUSI, Gordon Brown hinted at such an option when he mentioned a single security budget. John Denham, the Home Affairs Select Committee chairman, has talked more openly on the subject.

Speaking on the political website ePolitix in April, Denham said: "What the government needs to recognise is that the responsibilities for co-ordinating its work in the Muslim community in particular is currently spread over many different ministries and ministers and there is no impetus and central drive to it."

Mercer says this is proof that change is coming. He said: "I would be surprised if he [Denham] was talking in a void. My view is that if and when there is a change in leadership in the government, Labour will introduce a counter-terrorism minister while declaring that it has nothing to do with the Tories' homeland security minister concept.

"I could not care less what they do, just as long as when they do it, they do it openly and honestly and they create a post that will help to protect this country. They will have our support for that."

Ministerial powers

If a minister is created to deal with these issues, should it be minister for counter-terrorism or a minister for homeland security, which would incorporate all elements of resilience, including flooding, disease pandemics and so on, as well as terrorism?

Mercer says: "It is a difficult one to answer, but I believe that when [the Conservatives] take over government, our new department will concentrate solely on security, rather than the civil contingencies elements.

"I believe that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, as it stands, is a very good organisation and can be used to pull together the assets that are needed on an irregular basis for things like bird flu, flooding and foot and mouth. They will know where the expertise lies, but I think that this would be a distraction [to the new department], as was shown by Hurricane Katrina in the US. There is no need to ask counter-terrorism experts to start thinking about weather conditions."

He adds: "We want to create a single minister of cabinet rank who will be a member of the Home Office team but who will probably be a cabinet office minister. So this person will work for the Home Secretary but will still be a cabinet minister."

Such a move would be difficult to execute. There would need to be new executive powers issued over counter-terrorism forces and the new minister would need regular briefings from the intelligence services. Protocols would have to be established to allow the minister access to Ministry of Defence, Department of Health and Department of Transport assets.

The Conservatives also have plans to raise a new border security force. While details on its exact makeup are sketchy, it is envisaged that it would be purely a security organisation, not a constabulary as such.

Mercer says: "We are not sure what the chain of command will be, how they will be staffed and so on, but at the absolute top will be this new minister."

Restoring public confidence

The recent controversy over the police raids in Forest Gate, East London, has reawakened the cries for a public inquiry into the handling of intelligence surrounding the July 2005 bombings in London. Mercer acknowledges that the Conservatives called for an inquiry shortly after the attacks, which he says may have been too early. As such, the party was criticised by the government and media. But since then, the situation has changed.

Mercer says: "We have had the victims becoming more vocal, we have had the pre-Christmas announcement that there would not be an inquiry, the Intelligence and Security Committee report, the Home Office narrative and the Greater London Assembly report into what went wrong. Now the government is producing a lessons learned report, there are the stories in the media about the US knowing about the July bombers and then Forest Gate. Potentially, at any point, there could be another attack. Every one of these things is another death of a thousand cuts as to why they [the government] have not had a public inquiry.

"We needed something and that should have been announced within a couple of weeks of the attacks. That would have averted some of the criticism that has been received."

Mercer adds: "We do not want a vast charivari, we want it to be something that is carefully done, an independent inquiry of broad remit but as unintrusive as possible for the security services. Of course, many aspects of the inquiry will not be able to be public because of the secret nature of the work involved.

"The thing that the government does not understand is that everything we do must be thought of in the climate of what we will say or do after the next attack. Any moves we propose or oppose, we have to test that against what public opinion will be saying after the next attack. Because after the next attack, there will be an outcry for a public inquiry."

Chris Pope is editor of the Rusi/Jane's Homeland Security Monitor




Explore our related content