UK 'could not cope with terrorist attack' - MPs

Britain's emergency services lack the capabilities and resources to cope with a massive terrorist attack on the scale of 11 September, MPs warned today.

Britain's emergency services lack the capabilities and resources to cope with a massive terrorist attack on the scale of 11 September, MPs warned today.

The Commons Defence Committee strongly criticised the Government's response to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, complaining of "inadequate central co-ordination and direction".

In a scathing report, the MPs highlighted a series of "real deficiencies" in the ability of the civil authorities to deal with a major terrorist incident.

Fire and ambulance crews lacked the equipment and training to cope with a chemical, biological or nuclear attack, there was no role for the regular Armed Forces, while crucial radio communications equipment contained "fundamental vulnerabilities".

The report sharply criticised ministers for failing to mount a "proper and comprehensive" review of disaster management procedures following 11 September and the "slow progress" in producing a promised civil contingencies bill.

It said a "strong central authority" was needed to lay down the law in Whitehall and co-ordinate the work of the various government departments involved in emergency planning.

The committee also urged ministers to consider establishing a police National Counter-Terrorism Service to take the lead in anti-terrorism operations within the UK.

It called for a review of security at nuclear power stations, sea ports, and on Royal Navy warships to ensure that they were properly prepared to counter the heightened terrorist threat.

The committee chairman, Labour MP Bruce George, said: "We do believe that there has been a lack of grip and direction on the part of central government.

"We are concerned that central government has not responded to the scale of the complexity of the challenge posed by international terrorism."

The committee was particularly critical of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat which was set up last year before the 11 September attacks specifically to co-ordinate government response to disasters.

"It was unable, however, to use its position at the heart of government to lead a strategic response to the new threats post-11 September," the report said.

"Instead of being the solution to the habitual 'departmentalism' of Whitehall, it has become a casualty of it."

The committee highlighted the urgent need to ensure that fire and ambulance crews had the necessary training and protective equipment to deal with a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) incident.

"There are real deficiencies in the resources and capabilities required to respond to a massive emergency such as one on the scale of September 11," it said.

"Now that there is a real threat of a CBRN attack on a scale not previously planned for, the Government must provide the additional resources needed."

It also questioned whether the planned new 6,000 strong rapid reaction force of Armed Forces reservists supposed to assist the civil authorities in the event of a disaster would receive proper equipment or training.

"We believe that it is irresponsible to offer to put volunteer reserves into a CBRN contaminated environment without also explicitly providing for their protection and training," the report said.

It pointed to a "lack of confidence" in the reliability of the radio communications system which would have to used in the event of a major emergency which may have "unknown but potentially fundamental vulnerabilities".

The report highlighted the vulnerability of the UK to a terrorist attack using shipping containers to smuggle in weapons of mass destruction and complained of the "lack of real urgency" in improving CBRN detection systems.

"The catastrophic scale of the potential consequences of a terrorist attack by these means, however, requires us fundamentally to re-examine our security measures. And to do so promptly," it said.

It urged the Board of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to mount a full-scale investigation into the consequences of a terrorist attack on a nuclear installation.

And following the reports that Moroccan police had broken up an al-Qaida plot to attack British and US warships in the Straits of Gibraltar, the committee called for a review of naval security.

"We believe the threat of an asymmetric terrorist attack on Royal Navy ships is a real one and we recommend that the MoD take urgent steps to ensure that any capability gaps in their defences against such known threats are closed," it said.

The committee did endorse the decision to give ministers rather than officials the responsibility for authorising the shooting down of a civil airliner in the event of a September 11 style suicide attack.

However, it called for "specific additional psychological advice and training" for the fighter crews that would have to carry out the orders.

Downing Street insisted steps had been taken to improve security and emergency planning, but conceded that more needed to be done.

"We have done a lot, we would argue. But equally there is more to be done," the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.

"We have tightened security in relation to aviation, civil nuclear sites and taken steps to cut off terrorist access to funds.

"On the whole we believe that the crisis machinery works well but it is always open to improvement and clearly we will look carefully at this report."

Home Office Minister John Denham said the Government had overhauled security measures, leaving Britain now much better prepared to deal with the threat of a major terror attack than before September 11.

"The Government welcomes the fact that the Committee has examined these important issues. We will reply to the report in detail in due course," he said.

"As the report recognises, this country is significantly better prepared both to prevent and to manage the consequences of a major terrorist attack, as a result of our response to the unprecedented and tragic events of September 11.

"Building on our experience of fighting terrorism over the last 30 years, we have ensured that the UK has in place tried and tested crisis management plans to deal with a major emergency.

"As part of this process, Sir David Omand has been appointed as Intelligence and Security Coordinator and Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office.

"Part of this role is to review the structures in place to ensure the most effective coordination between Departments and Agencies."