HC Deb 27 October 1981 vol 10 cc721-4
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The House is aware that at about 4 pm yesterday afternoon a bomb exploded in a Wimpy bar in Oxford Street, killing Mr. Kenneth Howorth, a Metropolitan Police explosives officer. Mr. Howorth had entered the building following an anonymous phone call received by Reuters news agency at 2.50 pm warning that three bombs had been placed in shops in Oxford Street, the other two places being the department stores Debenhams and Bourne's. Subsequently an explosive device was found in Debenhams and made safe. Despite an intensive search, a third device has not been found. The Provisional IRA has said that it was responsible.

The House will wish to express its revulsion at this vicious act. It will also I am sure wish to join in paying tribute to the courage and dedication to duty of Mr Howorth. Our deepest sympathy goes to his widow and family. We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those who, like Mr. Howorth, risk their lives to protect us.

This is the third bombing incident this month in London for which the IRA has said it is responsible. In the first, at Chelsea barracks, two people were killed. The second was the attack on Lieutenant-General Sir Steuart Pringle. The House will wish me to place on record our deepest sympathy with the relatives of the victims of the first attack and our tribute to the courage of Sir Steuart

The emergency services have responded swiftly and efficiently on each of these occasions. I can assure the House that the police are taking all possible steps—as they have done with success in the past—to bring the criminals to justice.

I should like to underline what the police have already said. They need help from the public and, above all, vigilance. Any suspicious objects or actions should be reported to the police immediately.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

We join with the right hon. Gentleman in utterly and unequivocally condemning yesterday's outrage. As all such vicious acts are morally inexcusable, it is perhaps incorrect to draw a distinction between one outrage and another. However, for my part, I feel a particular revulsion at bombs being placed in a position and at a time which are likely to result in the death and injury of schoolchildren.

I add our tribute to the courage and dedication of Mr. Kenneth Howorth. We offer our sympathy to his relatives, and we offer our gratitude to his colleagues who at great risk to themselves continue to protect innocent members of our society. The Opposition also offer their sympathy to Sir Steuart Pringle and to the relatives of Mrs. Nora Field and to Mr. John Breslin, the victims of the Chelsea bombing.

Our hope is that the vigilance of the public and the determination of the police will both prevent future death and injury and bring the people responsible for these three murderous attacks to speedy justice.

Mr Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, because it shows a considerable degree of unity throughout the House, which is of enormous importance in situations such as this. I am particularly grateful for what he said, with which I entirely agree, about the risk to schoolchildren. I am sure that the House wholeheartedly supports his view.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I and members of my party fully share the sympathy that the Home Secretary has extended to the victims of these tragic incidents. I assure him of our full support. The whole House recognises that once again we have been given an example of the selfless duty of those who work in the bomb disposal squad. Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept our assurance that we shall do everything possible to sustain the determination of people on the mainland, when faced with these bomb outrages, to follow the extraordinary example of the people of Northern Ireland who, unfortunately, have experienced similar occurrences for many years?

Mr. Whitelaw

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and I am grateful for his comments. It is worth recalling that since March 1974 Mr. Howorth has been with the Metropolitan Police bomb disposal unit. Before that he worked in Northern Ireland. He gave considerable service to this country in that respect.

Sir Frederick Burden (Gillingham)

We all agree with my right hon. Friend's expressions of sympathy with the widow of this very brave man. However, will he look into the possibility of making a special grant to the wives of men who are killed in such circumstances? They suffer constant and considerable stress because they know of the threat which their husbands face almost every day.

Mr. Whitelaw

Many people will have sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said. His suggestion raises wide issues, and it would be wrong of me to commit myself this afternoon.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

May we take it that the sympathy expressed by the right hon. Gentleman and the House extends to all victims of the Provisional IRA?

Mr. Whitelaw

Most certainly, yes, as the hon. Gentleman would expect.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have constantly risen in their places, but I know they will realise that guillotined business is to follow.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

As it is obviously the wish of both sides of the House properly to debate the matter and to pay tribute to the bravery of those concerned, will my right hon. Friend see whether this week—perhaps by doing away with some of Thursday's business—we can have a half-day debate on the recent run of terrorist bombings in London and the Home Counties?

Mr. Whitelaw

The arrangement of business is a matter for my right hon. friend the Leader of the House. However, if I were to hazard a view, it would be that the House should consider carefully what we gain by debates of that sort and whether we might make the situation more difficult by giving more succour to the terrorists, which is the last thing we intend to do.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Why is it necessary to insist on defusing such devices, thereby risking the lives of brave men, when the only danger is to property?

Mr. Whitlaw

I would have to consider what the hon. Gentleman has said. However I should have thought that there was considerable danger at that moment not only to property but to life. I shall discuss the hon. Gentleman's point with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. But, as I have said, I believe that there was considerable danger to life as well as to property at that time.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the death of Mr. Howorth is a staggering tribute not only to his own bravery but to that of all bomb disposal officers, particularly in Northern Ireland? Without referring to any specific security measures, and bearing in mind the difficulties, can my right hon. Friend say anything which might reassure the public in the main streets and thoroughfares of London as the Christmas shopping season approaches?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the first point, with regard to the Army bomb disposal units, anyone who has had some of the experience that I have had, as many right hon. and hon. Members have, both in Northern Ireland and here, will be the first to recognise the enormous bravery of these officers in many very difficult situations.

On the second point, I believe that our best safeguard against such attacks is vigilance, being very careful and at the same time reporting any suspicious incidents to the police. The other safeguard, of course, is what has been achieved by the police in the past in bringing the people who commit these crimes to justice. It is worth pointing out that at present there are some 69 IRA prisoners in English gaols who have been charged and convicted of serious offences.

The police have had considerable success in the past, and we must be confident that they will succeed again.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

Of course one willingly pays tribute to those who have suffered, whoever they may be. Without denigrating anybody, however, is not it a fact—and I can prove this to the right hon. Gentleman—that one may, as indeed I have, report suspicious circumstances to the police and it is weeks before they do anything?

According to the press photograph, in the recent incident at Victoria, it looked as though the van was on the zig-zag line before a zebra crossing. It should not have remained there for five minutes. I have myself reported vehicles, but nothing is done about it. As we have the largest police force ever, with all the new electronic aids, why cannot the police take action sooner? Why does it take them weeks, if not months, to take action?

Mr. Whitelaw

They can and do take action immediately. If the hon. Gentleman tells me something is a fact, presumably I have to accept it, although I occasionally have my doubts. At the same time, I am perfectly prepared to look into what the hon. Gentleman says if he will give me what he alleges to be facts. Between us we can then ascertain whether they are indeed facts.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Since terrorism has gone on unabated to a large extent in Northern Northern Ireland and to an extent in the United Kingdom the last 12 years, would my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to the experimental reintroduction for a period of the death penalty? I am sure that there would be massive support for it.

Mr. Whitelaw

That is a matter upon which hon. Members have their own individual points of view. Those views have been expressed collectively in this Parliament. I do not think that I have anything further to say on that.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Secretary of State aware that those of us who believe in the need for a thorough reappraisal of policies towards Northern Ireland have no hesitation in condemning these outrages and all the crimes and atrocities of the Provisional IRA and the other terrorist groups operating on the other side of Northern Ireland's political divide?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said, particularly in so far as it shows that there is a united wish in the House to stand up for the people of Northern Ireland and to fulfil our duty to them whatever difficulties may confront us here.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that equally serious hazards at this time are the hoax calls that the police have been receiving? I understand that this morning many hoax calls have had to be dealt with in London. Will he make it clear to the general public that his Department will take very seriously this terrible waste of police time?

Mr. Whitelaw

The making of hoax calls and wasting police time is a specific offence and will certainly be regarded as such. At the same time, if we ask the public to report all suspicious circumstances, Scotland Yard must expect a large number of calls of this kind.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edgehill)

I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of repugnance and the condolences already expressed on both sides of the House. Can the Home Secretary tell us whether there is any evidence yet that those involved in the perpetration of these crimes are part of indigenous cells that have remained dormant in our cities for some years, or whether ports of entry such as Liverpool have been used as bolt holes by the terrorists concerned?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not think that I would serve the best interests of the country by speculating on such matters. I have information, of course, but I think that it would be wrong to speculate.

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