PRIME MINISTER – TERRORISM RISKS – 18 December 2002

Dr Julian Lewis: What his latest estimate is of the risk of terrorist attack by al-Qaeda against the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: As I made clear a few weeks ago, barely a day goes by without some new piece of intelligence coming via our security and intelligence services about a threat to UK interests. Although we have had some significant success in damaging al-Qaeda's capabilities since 11 September and have thwarted a number of attacks, the terrorist threat against the UK and UK interests remains real and serious.]

[SUPPLEMENTARY:] Have not the attacks in Bali and Mombasa shown that al-Qaeda specialises in multiple, simultaneous attacks? Given that al-Qaeda cells are believed to be in place in Britain, was not it unwise for the Home Office to withdraw last month the serious warning that it rightly gave of the sort of attacks that we could expect here in the UK? Was not it a mistake to think that it was wrong to spell out the threats in detail because the British people might panic? The British people need to be warned of what they might expect, and I do not think that they will panic if they are told the truth.

The Prime Minister: Of course it is important that people are told, but it is also important that we make a balanced assessment of how much information we give and what we say along with it. It is not just a question of the information; it is the judgment we make as to the weight that can be attached to it. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, a few weeks ago, there were stories in the newspapers about a possible poison attack on the tube. There was no specific evidence of such an attack, yet the information ended up causing, I think, unnecessary concern among people. It is a difficult balance to strike and we do our level best to get the balance right. However, it is important to realise that intelligence and information comes to us the whole time. If we published all of it, we would cause unnecessary alarm, so we must sift it and make a judgment. I believe that the judgments that we have made so far have been right and the circumstances in which that information was withdrawn were explained at the time.