Home Office : Commons statement by the Home Secretary on Operation Pathway

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Commons statement by the Home Secretary on Operation Pathway

Source: Home Office | April 22, 2009

Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, makes Commons statement on the recent arrest of 12 men in the north-west of England under the Terrorism Act 2000.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the 12 arrests which took place in the north-west of England on 8 April under the Terrorism Act 2000.

Those arrests are part of an ongoing and fast-moving police investigation. I am sure that hon. Members will understand, therefore, why I cannot go into detail on the investigation or the individuals involved.

On Wednesday 8 April, the north-west counter-terrorism unit, working with Merseyside police, Greater Manchester police and Lancashire constabulary, arrested 12 men under the Terrorism Act. Of those 12 individuals, 11 remain in custody and have had their detention extended to 22 April. Ten of the individuals are Pakistani nationals and one is a British citizen. The 12th individual, who is believed to be an Afghan, has been transferred to immigration detention. In addition to the arrests, a number of premises have been searched.

The arrests were pre-planned as the result of an ongoing joint police and Security Service investigation. The decision to take action was an operational matter for the police and the Security Service, but the Prime Minister and I were kept fully informed of developments. The priority at all times has been to act to maintain public safety.

The House will also be aware that during the course of Wednesday 8 April, photographs were taken of Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick as he was going to a meeting in Downing street. Mr. Quick was carrying papers that contained sensitive operational detail about the investigation and some of that detail was visible in the photographs. As a result, a decision was made by the police to bring forward the arrests to a few hours earlier than had been originally planned. The fact that these papers were inadvertently made public did not make any difference to the decision to carry out arrests—it simply changed the timing by a matter of hours. Assistant Commissioner Quick offered his resignation to the Metropolitan Police Authority on the following day and it was accepted. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his work on counter-terrorism and for his many years of service. He has made an enormous personal contribution to making our country a safer place.

I am sure the House will want to join me in thanking all the police forces involved in this operation. They are to be commended for the professional manner in which they carried out the arrests. I would also like to express my thanks to members of the public in the communities most immediately affected by these arrests, including those at educational institutions, for their patience and measured response to events. The police, with support from local authorities and elected representatives, are working closely with local communities to discuss issues or concerns linked to the operation.

Last month, the Government published our revised strategy to counter the threat to this country and to our interests overseas from international terrorism. A key theme in that strategy, Contest, is the need to co-ordinate our work with our international partners. The Prime Minister has already made it very clear that we need to continue to enhance co-operation on counter-terrorism with Pakistan. He has spoken to President Zardari and they have agreed that our two countries must continue to work together as closely as possible to counter this threat.

We are working with the Government of Pakistan to bolster their efforts to build civic society, tackle violent extremism and help build resilience in Pakistani society against radicalisation—just as we seek to do here in the UK. That work includes support for the modernisation of Pakistan’s security apparatus, support for governance and the rule of law, and work to undermine extremist ideology. Our counter-terrorism programme with Pakistan is worth approximately £10 million a year and is our largest such programme. In addition, to help the Government of Pakistan reduce poverty, the UK has doubled its aid programme to £480 million during 2008-11.

The House will understand that I do not wish to compromise an ongoing investigation by discussing the specifics of the case. However, there has been some speculation that the investigation raises wider questions about the criteria for obtaining student visas and about the issuing of licences by the Security Industry Authority. I would like to clarify the position on both those points.

We are currently delivering the biggest reform of border security and the immigration system for a generation. Last year, we completed the roll-out of biometric visas across the world. Fingerprints are checked against counter-terrorism and crime databases, as well as UK Border Agency records. In posts that we have classified as high risk, such as Pakistan, we have a risk-management network that helps to ensure that the right visa decisions are made, for example by working with local authorities to ensure that the qualifications of prospective students are independently verified.

The impact of those changes is demonstrated in the increased refusal rate for visa applications from Pakistan nationals. Under tier 4 of the points-based system, educational institutions that wish to bring in international students for more than six months must now be accredited by an independent body and licensed by the UK Border Agency. There will for some time be a number of students who have continuing leave under the old system. Many of them will be studying at colleges now on the PBS register, but some will not. Over half these students with existing leave will see their leave expire within 12 months; the vast majority within two years; and almost all within three years. Any student who does not bring themselves within the new PBS regime or leave the country when their leave expires will be subject to appropriate enforcement action.

Before the PBS was in place, about 4,000 institutions brought in international students. Now, under the PBS, there are about 1,500 institutions registered to do so. I have asked UKBA to prioritise enforcement activity on institutions: first, on those which applied but have not made it on to the PBS register; and subsequently on the remaining colleges that have brought in international students in the past, but have not applied for a PBS licence. Where there is evidence of criminal activity, we will prosecute. Where colleges have decided that the requirements of our new, tougher regime are too onerous, we will not allow them to bring in international students.

On the issue of Security Industry Authority licences, applicants have to satisfy a number of criteria before a licence can be issued. In particular, nobody is awarded a licence without a criminal record check and without having their right to work in the UK confirmed. I have asked the SIA to conduct an urgent review to look at whether the existing processes need to be strengthened, at the extent to which students, particularly foreign students, apply for SIA licences and, importantly, at whether that has implications for the security checks conducted by the SIA and the advice provided to employers.

The threat level to the United Kingdom from international terrorism is still assessed as “severe”. A terrorist attack is considered highly likely, so I would like to repeat my thanks to the police and the security agencies for their work in relation to this investigation, and for everything that they do to protect this country and the people who live in it from the threat of terrorist attacks. I commend this statement to the House.