Terror attack plans hit by troops shortage

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Ministers were accused last night of failing to prepare Britain for an 11 September-style terrorist attack after it emerged that the police and the Army lack enough specialists to cope with such an atrocity.

The Independent has learnt that police chiefs are so short of experts that they plan to use private security companies, such as Group 4, in the event of an attack. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has reached a "gentleman's agreement" with the private sector to get enough manpower to deal with nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) strikes.

At the same time, plans to set up specialist Territorial Army (TA) units to cope with such attacks are way behind schedule because troops are serving in Iraq.

Official figures show that the so-called Civil Contingencies Reaction Forces (CCRF) are at 70 per cent strength, some 2,000 troops short of the target set by ministers. The CCRF, which are due to be fully operational by today, were originally scheduled to be ready by December last year but the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan led to delays.

Patrick Mercer, the Tories' spokesman on homeland security, said that the lack of preparedness for the Army and the police should be a cause of "shame" for ministers. "It is outrageous that our police forces are so stretched that they have to come to a gentleman's agreement with firms such as Group 4 to provide emergency cover our citizens deserve as of right," he said.

A specialist police group set up to co-ordinate reaction to terror attack, Acpo Terror and Associated Matters, has decided that extra manpower is vital. The idea was drawn up by Assistant Commissioner David Veness, the Metropolitan Police's counter-terrorism chief, following concerns that there were simply insufficient staff to deal with an attack.

Companies such as Group 4 would provide low-level decontamination and clean-up facilities, allowing soldiers to tackle the most dangerous work. Group 4 has been asked to trawl through its staff files to see if it has former soldiers trained in NBC decontamination. An Acpo spokesman refused to comment on details of agreements with the private sector, but he said: "Police work closely with the private security industry on a range of issues to agree ways in which we can operate to our mutual benefit. Private security officers provide a valuable level of protection for a huge range of facilities across the UK."

The state of readiness of the CCRF has long been a worry for Army chiefs - territorials are signed up for operations in Iraq almost as soon as they are fully trained to deal with NBC contamination.

Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, has recently disclosed in a written Parliamentary answer that the units are only at 70 per cent strength.

Ministers indicated last year that reserve forces are to be used because the Government does not want domestic terrorism threats to "tie up" troops that may be needed abroad.

A spokesman for the MoD told The Independent no further figures were available to add to Mr Ingram's assessment. But he said: "Recruitment is going very well and we expect to be announcing full operational capability very soon."

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