From The Sunday Times
Ten members of a suspected Islamist terror cell, said by MI5 to be plotting to blow up a shopping centre and a nightclub in Manchester, had been granted permission by the Home Office to work as security guards in Britain.
The Pakistani students — who were never charged for lack of evidence — were arrested over an alleged plot to bomb Britain last Easter. Police believed they had conducted “hostile reconnaissance” of the Arndale and Trafford shopping centres and the Birdcage nightclub.
It has now emerged that in the months before the alleged plot, the men were given licences to work as security guards by the Security Industry Authority (SIA), a Home Office body that regulates the private security industry.
When arrested, two of the students were working for a cargo firm which had access to secure areas at Manchester airport.
Critics said the case highlights serious flaws in the system for vetting overseas applicants for the permits. Foreign migrants do not need to have their applications counter-signed by a British referee. Officials privately admit they do not even attempt to make checks on applicants’ address histories in Pakistan.
The blunder occurred despite ministers’ promises to tighten up the system two years ago after it emerged that the SIA had allowed more than 7,000 illegal immigrants to work as security guards. One had even been allowed to guard the prime minister’s car.
Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, is writing to Alan Johnson, his Labour counterpart, to demand an explanation. “The fact that security checks on overseas nationals seeking clearance for the security industry are much more lax than for British people just beggars belief. This is clearly a huge hole in our security system,” he said.
“We’re spending huge amounts to protect us from the very real threat of terrorism yet parts of the system ... appear to be creating an open door for abuse and worse.”
Patrick Mercer, chairman of parliament’s counter-terrorism committee, said that without proper address checks and a UK referee, there was no way of knowing whether or not an applicant had spent the past five years in a terrorist training camp.
“Every element of the security industry must be trained properly by the government to be suspicious of all applications for jobs like this,” he said.
It is not known if the men were under MI5 surveillance at the time they applied for SIA permits. But critics say the SIA needs to be far more vigilant, especially about applications from Pakistan. Gordon Brown has repeatedly said that two out of three UK terror plots have been hatched in that country.
The SIA said: “We conduct robust identity, criminality and right-to-work checks on all applicants. We cannot act on hearsay, but do refuse, revoke and suspend licences on the basis of information given by partners such as the police.”