In conversation with Patrick Mercer MP – part one

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.

Screen Shot 2012-12-06 at 19.04.57For this blog – and indeed the next one – I’m going to depart from my usual format. The reason for this is because I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with someone whose opinions about the subject of security are based on vast amounts of first hand knowledge and expertise.

Patrick Mercer, MPPatrick Mercer is a former colonel in the army and currently the Conservative MP for Newark. As a frequent commentator on all manner of defence and security issues, he is never afraid to ‘tell it like it is’ and his experience in high office provides riveting insight into some of the tough decisions that have to be made to protect us all.

Rather than simply abridge what Patrick had to say during our meeting I’ve decided to transcribe our conversation so that the correct context for his answers is maintained. Needless to say, we covered a lot of ground, so here’s part one – part two will follow in my next blog.

PW: You were shadow minister for homeland security between 2003 and 2007 and I believe you expressed alarm at the time over the incoherent approach towards preparation for a terrorist attack. Of course, 7/7 occurred shortly afterwards, so I wonder whether you consider that we as a country are better prepared now and what more, if anything, could be done?

PM: I think that we are better prepared, although I have to say that I think this is more by luck than judgement.

Our enemies said as far back as 2003 that they were preparing to carry out terrorist attacks on the UK mainland. When I took over the shadow ministerial role one of my most immediate concerns was the absence of a joined up approach for dealing with any such situation.

For instance, the emergency services couldn’t speak to each other on the same radio system – something that was subsequently a major issue during the events of 7/7. It was even more frightening to come to the conclusion that a similar situation could occur again – and did two weeks later when a further attack failed.

In my view the threat from Islamic, Irish and even ‘lone wolf’ based attacks has never been higher and although communication between the various intelligence services has improved, we are still lacking the type of coherent approach to preventing assaults on locations such as transport hubs and sports stadia. These have all been explicitly referred to as targets, so we should be doing much more to protect them.

PW: You introduced the Householder Protection Bill in February 2005 and I remember it met with considerable public support at the time. Can you see the main points of the bill being introduced at some point in the future?

PM: I’m delighted to say that the secretary of state for justice, Chris Grayling, has taken the bull by the horns on this issue and I hope to see this bill passed into legislation in the autumn.

Put simply, it will mean that if an intruder breaks into your home, you will be able to use any level of force to protect yourself and others as long as it is not ‘grossly disproportionate’. I’m often asked what this means and in order to give an example, if an intruder has a knife, then using a knife against them would not be considered ‘over the top’.

Would it work? Most people are familiar with Tony Martin, who was sent to prison after he shot dead a burglar in his home and wounded one other. The ‘other’, a person by the name of Brendon Fearon, is a constituent of mine and I have met and talked to him about the Householder Protection Bill. When I asked him whether it would deter him from doing anything similar again, he replied ‘most definitely’.

PW: I am interested in your time as a defence correspondent for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and as a journalist with the Daily Telegraph. To what extent did your military background inform this role – was it a help, or could it at times be a hindrance?

PM: It was both. I reported on the Kosovo War that lasted from February 1998 until June 1999 and also the Eritrean–Ethiopian War that took place from May 1998 to June 2000.

My military experience gave me a valuable insight into the machinery and technology used in war but I had to be careful not to overcomplicate the technical issues for the readers. However, this aspect was incredibly important and played a massive role in what transpired – so finding the right balance could sometimes be difficult.

On a similar note, my military knowledge meant that I could identify that a single battalion was sometimes made out of several smaller battalions due to the cuts in the armed forces – something that wasn’t altogether apparent to other reporters and often went unmentioned.

Bringing things up-to-date, I think this is still an issue. I am concerned that the current defence cuts will make the country difficult to defend and make any expeditionary missions very hard to carry out in any meaningful way.

In my next blog Patrick explains how we can better protect our national infrastructure, identifies the strengths and skills of ex-servicemen and women, and discusses the repercussions of the London 2012 security fiasco.

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