Britain Couldn't Cope With Sept. 11-Type Attack, Report Says

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

London ( - Britain's emergency services wouldn't be able to cope with a terror attack on the scale of Sept. 11, and a complete review of home security and defense is needed, legislators said Wednesday.

The House of Commons defense select committee said there were "real deficiencies" in the government's plan to beef up security after last year's attacks.

Ambulance and fire crews lack the equipment and training to deal with the aftermath of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack, MPs said. There are also communications problems between emergency services and the military units that might be needed after a massive terror strike.

The report recommended the formation of a national counter-terrorism agency and security reviews for nuclear power plants and seaports.

Currently, anti-terror duties are the responsibility of a variety of British agencies, including the internal and external security services MI5 and MI6 and counter-terrorist officers at London's Scotland Yard.

Committee chairman Bruce George of the ruling Labor Party said there is "still a weakness at the level of coordination."

"We do believe that there has been a lack of grip and direction on the part of central government," George said. "We are concerned that central government has not responded to the scale of the complexity of the challenge posed by international terrorism."

Although the committee rejected the idea of a U.S.-style cabinet-level homeland security department, they said a "strong central authority" was needed to coordinate the work of agencies involved in emergency planning. Also needed, the legislators said, is more funding for security measures.

"Now that there is a real threat of attack on a scale not previously planned for, the government must provide the additional resources needed," the report said.

The Home Office, the department that holds the most responsibility for Britain's homeland security, is also in charge of justice, immigration, and a host of assorted duties. The Territorial Army, a national reserve force that could be called upon in an emergency, is overseen by the Ministry of Defense.

"The government welcomes the fact that that the select committee has examined these issues and we will issue a detailed response at a later date," a Home Office spokesman said.

The spokesman noted the committee highlighted several improvements in home security since Sept. 11, but said the Home Office disagreed with some of the report's findings in the area of civil defence.

The committee has a "lack of familiarity with civil contingency planning issues," the spokesman said, and the department would soon be issuing a rebuttal.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair noted that since Sept. 11, security had been tightened at airports and nuclear plants.

"We have done a lot, we would argue. But equally there is more to be done," the prime minister's official spokesman said. "We have tightened security in relation to aviation, civil nuclear sites and taken steps to cut off terrorist access to funds."

"On the whole we believe that the crisis machinery works well but it is always open to improvement and clearly we will look carefully at this report," the spokesman said.

In response to Conservative questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Blair noted that his administration had boosted intelligence spending and said he would support the appointment of a top government official to handle homeland security.

Britain may also soon be receiving some outside help.

Earlier this month, American officials said U.S. customs officers could be posted at one of the world's largest container ports in Felixstowe, eastern England, as part of a program to police European cargo hubs.

E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.

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