Britain open to terror from the sea, MPs warn

Gavin Cordon,Press Association
Monday 18 May 2009 00:00

Britain's maritime defences are not properly resourced or co-ordinated to deal with the threat of terrorist attack, MPs warned today.

The Commons Defence Committee expressed concern at the level of preparation for dealing with threats which had been identified to the UK's sea ports and other critical national infrastructure.

It said that there was no single organisation with overall responsibility for the security of Britain's coastal waters.

The Royal Navy had just six warships - three Type 23 frigates and three minesweepers - plus two offshore patrol vessels and a support tanker specifically tasked with the protection of UK waters.

They were supplemented by a "motley collection" of sea-going vessels available from other organisations, including around 70 from the police, 50 from the Ministry of Defence Police, five Coastguard inshore patrol boats, and five cutters operated by UK Border Agency.

The committee called for a more pro-active approach to maritime security through the development of a "deterrent capability" to ward off attacks on civilian targets.

"We do not question their competence or intention, but the extent to which they are properly resourced and co-ordinated," it said.

"We are concerned at the level of action being taken to address identified threats to aspects of critical national infrastructure, such as ports, and that what assets are available for the purposes of maritime security tend to be largely reactive forces.

"We feel that there is a strong case for developing a deterrent capability in relation to threats to civilian maritime targets.

"It need not necessarily be resourced by the military, but we are not satisfied that an intelligence-led approach is sufficient."

The committee also urged the Ministry of Defence to make greater use of the Territorial Army in dealing with civil emergencies - like floods or foot and mouth - rather than always resorting to regular forces.

"We have been informed of the frustration felt by many in the Territorial Army, and by district commanders, that the Territorials are rarely - if ever - called upon in civil emergencies, even though it would be practical and good for their morale to do so," it said.

It expressed concern that the help that the military was able to provide to the civil authorities for dealing with emergencies was not properly understood within the rest of Whitehall.

Committee chairman James Arbuthnot said: "If ever there were an emergency where a government department misunderstood what the military could deliver, there could be serious consequences."

An MoD spokesman said: "We do not believe that there is likely to be an emergency situation where a Government department misunderstands what the military could deliver.

"There are clear procedures in place for the Armed Forces to provide military assistance to other Government departments both in times of national crises, or as part of routine business.

"At a local level, we work with those who will provide front line emergency responses to the regions and educate them about the type of military help they will receive and how to request it.

"Nationally, work is under way to provide other Government departments with formal guidelines on how to request military assistance in areas such as Counter Terrorism and Explosive Ordnance Disposal.

"We also regularly take part in regional and national exercises to practice and refine procedures for dealing with all kinds of incidents from flood recovery and logistics planning to counter terrorism exercises."

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "It is clear from this report that the Government has not given sufficient attention to the role of the Armed Forces in its domestic security policy.

"The lack of clarity about the role of the MoD, together with the concern over the level of resources, particularly in terms of maritime security, needs to be addressed.

"This is why we need a Strategic Defence Review to identify the roles and missions the Armed Forces will be needed for and the level of resources to carry out those tasks."

Shadow security minister, Baroness Neville-Jones said: "We cannot discount the possibility that the commando-style terrorist attacks in Mumbai and Lahore will become models for attacks here in the UK.

"At the same time the scale and frequency of natural hazards is increasing. There could be many occasions when the emergency services might be overwhelmed, which is why we need clarity about the military contribution.

"This report makes it clear that there is still a long way to go. But while Labour seem to have run out of ideas, for years we have been calling for a dedicated homeland command to fill this gap."

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