2018 04 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry

Salisbury Incident 12 March 2018

We publish below Theresa May’s statement on the Salisbury incident with Jeremy Corbyn’s response. Also included are the short comments by ten Labour backbenchers, most of whom are critics of Corbyn’s leadership. All 18 Labour members who spoke supported Theresa May’s accusation that Russia was responsible.

The Prime Minister (Mrs Theresa May) With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the incident in Salisbury and the steps we are taking to investigate what happened and to respond to this reckless and despicable act.

Last week, my right hon. Friends the Foreign and Home Secretaries set out the details of events as they unfolded on Sunday 4 March. I am sure that the whole House will want to pay tribute again to the bravery and professionalism of our emergency services and armed forces in responding to this incident, as well as the doctors and nurses who are now treating those affected. In particular, our thoughts are with Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who remains in a serious but stable condition. In responding to this incident, he exemplified the duty and courage that define our emergency services and in which our whole nation takes the greatest pride.

I want to pay tribute to the fortitude and calmness with which people in Salisbury have responded to these events and to thank all those who have come forward to assist the police with their investigation. The incident has, of course, caused considerable concern across the community. Following the discovery of traces of nerve agent in a Zizzi restaurant and the Mill pub, the chief medical officer issued further precautionary advice, but, as Public Health England has made clear, the risk to public health is low.

I share the impatience of the House and the country at large to bring those responsible to justice and to take the full range of appropriate responses against those who would act against our country in this way. But as a nation that believes in justice and the rule of law, it is essential that we proceed in the right way, led not by speculation but by the evidence. That is why we have given the police the space and time to carry out their investigation properly. Hundreds of officers have been working around the clock, together with experts from our armed forces, to sift and assess all the available evidence, to identify crime scenes and decontamination sites and to follow every possible lead to find those responsible. That investigation continues and we must allow the police to continue with their work.

This morning, I chaired a meeting of the National Security Council in which we considered the information available so far. As is normal, the council was updated on the assessment and intelligence picture, as well as on the state of the investigation. It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok.

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the Government have concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was ​a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

This afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Russian ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and asked him to explain which of the two possibilities it is and to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr Skripal and his daughter. My right hon. Friend has stated to the ambassador that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and he has requested the Russian Government’s response by the end of tomorrow.

This action has happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the second world war that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe. Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbass, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption, which has included meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.

During his recent state of the union address, President Putin showed video graphics of missile launches, flight trajectories and explosions, including the modelling of attacks on the United States with a series of warheads impacting in Florida. The extra-judicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia was given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006, and, of course, Russia used radiological substances in its barbaric assault on Mr Litvinenko. We saw promises to assist the investigation then, but they resulted in denial and obfuscation and the stifling of due process and the rule of law.

Following Mr Litvinenko’s death, we expelled Russian diplomats, suspended security co-operation, broke off bilateral plans on visas, froze the assets of the suspects and put them on international extradition lists, and those measures remain in place. Furthermore, our commitment to collective defence and security through NATO remains as strong as ever in the face of Russian behaviour. Indeed, our armed forces have a leading role in NATO’s enhanced forward presence, with British troops leading a multinational battlegroup in Estonia. We have led the way in securing tough sanctions against the Russian economy, and we have at all stages worked closely with our allies and will continue to do so. We must now stand ready to take much more extensive measures.

On Wednesday, we will consider in detail the response from the Russian state. Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom, and I will come back to this House to set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.

This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals, but an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. We will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil. I commend this statement to the House.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab) I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement on this deeply alarming attack, which raises very serious questions. The whole House condemns the suspected poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury and, of course, we wish them a return to good health. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey a speedy recovery as well. No member of our police force and nobody on the streets of Britain should ever face such an attack—let alone one with chemical weapons.

I thank the Prime Minister for updating the House. The investigation into the shocking events in Salisbury must reach its conclusions. We need to see both the evidence and a full account from the Russian authorities in the light of the emerging evidence to which the Prime Minister referred. For now, can the Prime Minister clarify what level of threat it was believed that Mr Skripal faced at the time of the attack and what security protection, if any, was deemed necessary for him and his daughter?

This morning, the Conservative Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs said that he would be “surprised” if the Prime Minister “did not point the finger at the Kremlin”.

The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) also accused the Russian Government of behaving “aggressively” and in “a corrupting way” in this country.

We need to continue seeking a robust dialogue with Russia on all the issues—both domestic and international—currently dividing our countries, rather than simply cutting off contact and letting the tensions and divisions get worse and, potentially, even more dangerous.

We are all familiar with the way in which huge fortunes, often acquired in the most dubious circumstances in Russia and sometimes connected with criminal elements, have ended up sheltering in London and trying to buy political influence in British party politics—“meddling in elections”, as the Prime Minister put it. There have been more than £800,000 of donations to the Conservative party from Russian oligarchs and their associates. If that is the evidence before the Government, they could be taking action to introduce new financial sanctions powers even before the investigation into Salisbury is complete. But instead they are currently resisting Labour’s amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill that could introduce the so-called Magnitsky powers. Will the Prime Minister agree today to back those amendments?

More specifically, when it comes to the Salisbury attack, what actions are the local police taking to identify fellow diners at the Zizzi restaurant and the Mill pub in Salisbury on the day in question and to ensure that they come forward and are checked? What extra resources are being provided to the local police force, which quite understandably has never had to deal with such an incident before?

We know that the national health service is under incredible pressures across the country, but what extra resources have been provided to the NHS hospitals in and around Salisbury, and what training has been given to NHS staff and GPs in identifying the symptoms of a nerve agent attack?

The events in Salisbury on 4 March have appalled the country and need thorough investigation. The local community and public services involved need reassurance and the necessary resources. The action that the Government take once the facts are clear needs to be both decisive and proportionate, and focused on reducing conflict and tensions, rather than increasing them.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the magnificent work of our public services responding to this attack: the NHS staff, the police and security services, the armed forces and the analysts at Porton Down. Let us do everything we can to ensure that this never ever happens again.

The Prime Minister I am sure that everybody in the whole House sends their best wishes to all those who have suffered as a result of this incident and wish for their recovery. In the case of Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, I read a quote that I was not surprised by because I have heard it from so many police officers who have been in dangerous situations before; he said that he was merely doing his job. We are grateful to him and all our police officers and emergency services for doing that. We do not comment on the threats in relation to individual cases, but of course the police and others always look to ensure that we are taking these matters fully into account and taking them very seriously.

In relation to Russia, we have a very simple approach, which is, “Engage but beware.” This shows how right it is that this Government have been cautious in relation to its arrangements with Russia. In my Mansion House speech last November, I set out very clearly the concerns that we have about the activities of Russia. It is a matter that I have discussed with fellow leaders at the European Union Council. We must all be very well aware of the various ways in which Russia is affecting activity across the continent and elsewhere. There can be no question of business as usual with Russia.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of party donations. I will say two things to him. First, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said at the weekend, you should not tar everybody who lives in this country of Russian extraction with the same brush. Secondly, there are rules on party political donations, and I can assure him that my party, and I hope all parties, follow those rules.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about Magnitsky powers. I have been challenged previously on this question. We do already have some of the powers that are being proposed in relation to the Magnitsky law. However, we have already been talking with all parties about the amendment that has been put down, and we will work with others to ensure that we have the maximum possible consensus before the Report stage.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of police capabilities and resources. Not only are Wiltshire police involved in this, but they have support from neighbouring forces, as would normally happen when an incident takes place which requires that extra capability. But crucially, at a very early stage, it was decided that counter-terrorism police should take over the responsibility for this because the counter-terrorism police network has capabilities that are not available to regional forces, and they are indeed in charge in relation to this.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that Wiltshire County Council and Salisbury City Council are working with Public Health England, with the NHS locally and with the police to ensure that there is maximum information available to members of the public—the chief medical officer has herself reassured members of the public that the public health risk is low—and to ensure that the proper arrangements are being put in place to help the police to get on with their inquiries. That is important. The police are still working on investigating this, and we should ensure that they have the time and space to be able to conduct those investigations.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab) I thank the Prime Minister for her statement. It is hard to see any alternative to her grave conclusion that this was either a direct act by the Russian state against our country or the Russian Government have lost control of a dangerous nerve agent. In that context, I hope the whole House will be able to come together behind a firm response from the Government in the interests of our national security and public safety. Can I therefore ask her whether the National Security Council has asked for a review of the 14 other cases that I wrote to the Home Secretary about to see whether any of those should be investigated? Can I also press her on what further action she has taken in preparation for potential UN Security Council resolutions that should be drafted in order to get the widest possible international support?

The Prime Minister The right hon. Lady is absolutely right about the need for a clear response from the whole House, and everybody in the House should be in no doubt of the nature of what has happened and that we should respond robustly to it. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has responded to her letter in relation to those 14 other cases. I think the focus at the moment should be on ensuring that resources are put into this criminal investigation, so that the police are able to do their work with the maximum time and space.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab) May I commend the Prime Minister for today making the sort of resolute and realistic statement about the Kremlin that many of us have been looking for in this House for some time? Will she invite the heroic and brave Bill Browder, who has done more than any other single individual to uncover the Kremlin’s methods, to give her a full briefing about what he knows of Putin’s cronies’ money-laundering exploits in London and the British political figures who have been corrupted by Kremlin money? Will she also make sure that the whole of the Government machinery is now giving full co-operation to Robert Mueller’s inquiry in the United States, because of what he has already uncovered about what the Russians have been doing here?

The Prime Minister We have already been clear, in relation to the Mueller inquiry, that we will of course respond to appropriate requests. I am told that the other individual to which the right hon. Gentleman referred has actually already met the Security Minister, and has therefore been able to brief him on what he knows.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op) Can I also commend the Prime Minister for her remarks? The last time we had a clear, defined, state-sponsored act of terrorism was in 2006, and she has referred to that. Can she have conversations with her predecessor, Tony Blair, who was Prime Minister at that time, about some of the issues that arose subsequent to the actions we took because it is clear that the Russians will retaliate and we will then be in a tit-for-tat process? They think we will back down. We have to say, resolutely and strongly, that we are not backing down. This is an act of terrorism and all Members of Parliament should stand together.

The Prime Minister The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When we take action, we must ensure that it is action that we will continue to follow through. As I said in my statement, many of the actions taken in response to the Litvinenko murder are actually still in place in relation to our relations with the Russian state. Nobody should be in any doubt, however, of the likelihood of an impact from the Russian state in attempting to suggest, as it did in that case, that the information we put out is incorrect. The inquiry, which followed significantly later, very firmly put the responsibility for Litvinenko’s murder at the door of the Russian state and, indeed, of President Putin.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab) The evidence that the Prime Minister has provided today makes it absolutely clear that the onus is on the Russian state to explain how this nerve agent entered our country. I thank her for her answer to my colleague, the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is absolutely essential that we can, where possible, ensure that the public are aware of the Russian threat. Does she also agree that our inquiry should be able to understand the pressures on our intelligence and security services, and how best they are supported to do the job they have to do?

The Prime Minister Of course, it is for the ISC itself to determine the breadth of the inquiries it undertakes within the remit that it has been set by this House and by Government. Extra resources are being put into the security and intelligence agencies because we have recognised the increasing challenges and threats that we need to address. That is why significant resources are going into the single intelligence account.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) I do not suppose there is a single Member who is surprised that President Putin would resort to violence, because he has done it so many times before: 334 killed in the Beslan massacre; 170 killed unnecessarily in the Moscow theatre siege; 299 killed on flight MH17, the aeroplane brought down by the Russians; countless journalists and countless people who stood up to him as political opponents in other countries around the world murdered by him; and, yes, Sergei Magnitsky. I hear what the Prime Minister says, but may I just ask—this is the 29th time I have asked this question—whether we can ensure that, at the end of this process, nobody involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, or in the corruption that he unveiled, will be allowed into this country? For that matter, can we just stop Russia Today broadcasting its propaganda in this country?

The Prime Minister The hon. Gentleman has asked me the question about the Magnitsky issue on many occasions in this House, both when I was Home Secretary and subsequently. We already have a number of powers that enable us to take action against individuals to prevent them from coming into this country, but we are looking seriously at the amendments. As I said, we want to ensure we have maximum consensus on this issue. On further action the Government might take, I will return to the House at the earliest possible opportunity, once we have a response from the Russian state, to update the House on the further measures we will take.

Mr Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op) I say to the Prime Minister that there should be unity across the House on what I feel is the proportionate and sensible approach that she has taken to analysing what has been happening and to coming back to report to the House. I also say that there are certain circumstances, as she knows, where we take party political differences of opinion, but when our country is potentially under attack, that is just not appropriate.

The Prime Minister I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tone that he has adopted. He is absolutely right: this is a question of the national interest. It is a question of the interest of our country and what another state may have done on British soil to people living here in the United Kingdom. That matter should concern all of us and be above party politics.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) Now we have all agreed that Russia is a clear and present danger, will the Prime Minister agree that we have to be fully organised to meet that danger? If we walk out into London tonight, we see Russian mafia and Russian security people swaggering about our capital city—all over Europe we see them. What they do not like is sanctions that bite. Will she come back to this House on an early occasion with a firm list of new sanctions that we can take against Russia?

The Prime Minister The hon. Gentleman is asking me to refer to a particular measure. As I said in my statement and in answer to a number of questions, we will consider the response from the Russian state. Should there be no credible response, we will determine and conclude that the action amounts to unlawful use of force by the Russian state in the United Kingdom, and I will return with further measures.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab) In the light of her comments, which I commend, does the Prime Minister agree that there is no place for hon. Members on either side of the House appearing on Russia Today? It is a propaganda mouthpiece for the Russian state with which no democratic politician should engage, and they should think twice before doing so. We should not be engaging with and giving credibility to such a media outlet.

The Prime Minister We should all be wary and careful in looking at media outlets that any Member chooses to appear on. As I said, the issue of Russia Today is of concern to Members across the House, and I will make a further statement in the House after we have had the Russian state response.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op) I have absolutely no doubt that the only way to deal with Putin’s regime in Russia is robustly, decisively and together as a Parliament and a country. I also add my voice to those talking about the repression of the Russian people, not least in Chechnya, where Putin continues to back the brutal regime of Ramzan Kadyrov and his attacks on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. On Russia Today, can I urge the Prime Minister to speak with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to look at reviewing Russia Today’s broadcasting licence and to speak to the House authorities about blocking its broadcasts in this building? Why should we be watching its propaganda in this Parliament?

The Prime Minister As I said in response to a number of questions, we will look at the response from the Russian state but I will come back to the House at the earliest opportunity to look at the range of measures that could be necessary. In relation to the House authorities, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that would be a matter not for me, but for the House authorities.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op) The level of resilience voiced by the Prime Minister today has been many years in coming, but it is hugely welcome—indeed, it would put our national security at significant risk if we were led by anyone who did not understand the gravity of the threat that Russia poses to this nation. She mentioned our NATO allies and that she will come forward with measures on Wednesday. Will she confirm that our NATO allies and the potential for a collective response is in her thinking?

The Prime Minister I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is absolutely right: it is imperative that in this country we recognise the nature of the threat and actions Russia has taken through a wide range of means. I am also clear that. as we consider what further actions need to be taken. we must ensure they are robust, clearly defend our values here in the UK and send a clear message to those who would seek to undermine them.


Note: John Woodcock, Mike Gapes and Stephen Doughty were among the main signatories of an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts Russia’s culpability and uncritically supports Theresa May’s position. It is clearly another attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. Other Labour signatories to the motion who spoke in the debate were Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie and Phil Wilson. At 19 March there were 48 names attached to the motion: 35 Labour, 8 Liberal Democrats, 3 SNP, 1 Conservative and 1 DUP.