Four major UK security announcements on eve of parliamentary recess

Government to ramp up terrorism measures and allow the US to use Menwith Hill as part of the US missile defence system.

The UK government released a total of 46 written statements on one day last week, just as MPs were leaving parliament for the summer recess. The statements included four important policy announcements on defence and security issues:

  • New proposed counter-terrorism powers;
  • Closure of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO);
  • Approval of the construction of two new aircraft carriers; and
  • Approval for the use of Menwith Hill as part of the US missile defence system.

BASIC Co-Executive Director Ian Davis said:

This is a mixed bag of announcements. Some like the closure of DESO are very welcome, while others such as the construction of new aircraft carriers and a deepening of Britain’s role in the US missile defence system less so. They hinge upon threat assessments and solutions more in tune with the past century than present and future security concerns”.

New counter-terrorism proposals

It was this issue that grabbed all the media headlines last week. In a statement to parliament on July 25, Gordon Brown said Britain must be “strong in security, robust in our resolve, resilient in response”. He detailed the scale of the terrorist threat:

  • 15 attempted terrorist attacks since 9/11;
  • 30 more plots known to the authorities; and
  • 2,000 individuals being monitored.

The prime minister outlined government strategy for what he called “a generation-long challenge to defeat al-Qaida-inspired terrorist violence”. He announced an integrated border force (encompassing customs and immigration officials, but excluding the police) to combat terrorism, a review of the use of intercept evidence in court and invited discussion on plans to double the current limit for detaining terror suspects without charge, from 28 to 56 days (less than two years since parliament defeated Tony Blair’s plans for 90-day detention).

The prime minister’s statement came on the back of the release of both an Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) Report on UK involvement in the US rendition programme and the Government’s response. The Committee concludes that there is no evidence of any UK Agency being directly involved in US rendition, although there was one case where MI5 contributed to the seizure of two British residents by the CIA, which secretly flew them to Guantánamo Bay. In a scathing attack on the US security services the Committee said:

The Security Service did not foresee that the US authorities would disregard the caveats, given that they had honoured the caveat system for the past 20 years. This case shows a lack of regard on the part of the US for UK concerns – despite strong protests – and that has serious implications for the intelligence relationship.

The prime minister also stressed that he is seeking to build consensus for these proposals. However, a report published today by the House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights states that there is no evidence to justify extending the time terror suspects can be held without charge beyond the current 28-day limit. It also brands as “Kafkaesque” part of the control order system, which restricts the liberty of suspected terrorists the government says it cannot prosecute. The report backs making intercept evidence admissible against suspects and wants more parliamentary scrutiny of terror laws and powers.

BASIC is reviewing UK counter-terrorism policy and will publish our findings in the autumn.

Closure of DESO

In a written ministerial statement on 25 July the prime minister announced changes as to how defence trade should be handled by the UK Government. This included closure by the end of the year of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), the 450-strong Whitehall department within the MoD, which is devoted to helping the defence sector to sell military equipment abroad. Major General Alan Sharman, the head of the Defence Manufacturers\’ Association, said: “This was a complete bombshell. I am amazed”, adding that the arms companies are “absolutely” opposed to the closure and called on ministers to “rethink” the decision.

DESO was set up in 1966 by a Labour Government to lobby foreign governments and organise marketing campaigns for arms firms pursuing contracts. BASIC has argued for closure of DESO (and an end to export credit guarantees for defence exports) because it was part of an unwarranted subsidy of profitable defence companies; resulted in arms exports that undermined human rights; and because of wider concerns about the impact of subsidised arms sales on Britain\’s international reputation and security. The government statement also says that UK Trade and Investment, the Whitehall agency responsible for promoting British exports across all industries, will take charge of promoting arms sales. It is important that the closure of DESO heralds a real change in government policy and not just a re-organisation of the same activities from one agency to another.

BASIC will publish an updated analysis of DESO shortly after the summer parliamentary recess.

Approval of two new aircraft carriers

The construction of two new aircraft carriers, the largest warships to be built in Britain, was approved after nine years of debate in a government announcement on 25 July. The total cost is estimated at

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