THE UK Government left Scottish ministers and officials in the dark for hours about a terrorist plot to blow up aircraft in mid-flight, newly released cabinet papers have revealed.

The alarming “breakdown in communications” led to First Minister Jack McConnell complaining directly to the Home Secretary about the failure to keep Edinburgh in the loop.

The Scottish Executive’s top official concluded that the August 2006 incident had “exposed some significant misunderstandings of procedure at a senior UK level”.

Then justice minister Cathy Jamieson told the cabinet that “in a different set of circumstances, the few hours in question could have proved critical”. 

Other papers released by National Records of Scotland reveal Scotland’s fire services were unprepared for a terror attack akin to the multiple London bombings of July 2005.

The terror-related communication problems arose early on August 10, 2006, when the UK terrorist threat was raised to highest level, “critical”, indicating an attempted terrorist attack was believed to be imminent. It was downgraded to "severe" four days later.

The move to critical followed the Metropolitan Police foiling a London-based plot to detonate explosives smuggled in hand luggage onto several transatlantic flights from UK airports. 

Then Home Secretary John Reid said it could have caused civilian casualties on an “unprecedented scale”.

Seven men were ultimately found guilty of conspiracy to murder and jailed for between 20 and 40 years. The plot led to the 100ml limit on liquids in hand luggage that still exists today.

Ms Jamison discussed the episode with the Scottish cabinet on August 16, saying she was “extremely impressed” by how Scottish officials responded.

But she was also “concerned about the failure of the UK Government to inform the Executive promptly of the increased terrorist threat level”, which slowed the Executive's response.

She said her officials were due to meet with key Cabinet Office managers the following  week.

The aim was “to reflect on the recent communications failure” and get processes in place to “ensure prompt notification to the Executive and Scottish Ministers” in future.

She said it would also be helpful to "reinforce Scottish Ministers' concerns" over the communications breakdown if the Permanent Secretary wrote to Sir Richard Mottram, the Security and Intelligence Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office.

The First Minister “said that he had spoken to the Deputy Prime Minister [John Prescott] and the Home Secretary on Thursday 10 August, and had registered the Executive's concerns over the communication delays and the potential impact these could have had. 

“He said that Ministers would want to ensure that they were suitably briefed on the situation as it developed, so that any intervention which proved necessary could be made at the earliest appropriate time.”

The Permanent Secretary, Sir John Elvidge, said there had been "further communication failures at the point of downscaling the UK threat level", which was "particularly disappointing".

The complaints appeared to work.

On October 25, the First Minister invited the cabinet to “note the improved liaison with Whitehall in emergency situations”.

Earlier in the year, Ms Jamieson told the cabinet that Scotland’s Fire and Rescue Service had been found wanting on terrorism preparedness.

On January 25, she said that, in light of the 2005 London bombings, she had asked the Chief Inspector of Fire Services to assess the service's ability "to deal with major civil contingencies, such as simultaneous terrorist attacks”. 

He concluded that, despite a skilled workforce and recent investment, " it would not have been able to respond effectively to a similar attack”. 

He said “urgent decisions” were needed on infrastructure, including a new emergency radio system, and merging eight control rooms into three.

Ms Jamieson later backed the ideas, despite fears of a union backlash, but the cabinet delayed a decision on control rooms because of “public perception around safety and service quality” and "industrial relations”.

The move to three control rooms ultimately took another decade, and followed the SNP merging the eight regional fire services into one.