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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
How secure is the Commons?
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

Commons leader Peter Hain has branded the security culture in the Commons as old fashioned and in need of serious updating.

Security blocks at Palace of Westminster
New security did not stop attack
Until this week, it is something people - particularly journalists - were understandably encouraged not to talk about.

The attack on Tony Blair has changed that and the suitability of the arrangements are now under detailed, sometimes public, scrutiny.

It is certainly the case that visitors to the Palace of Westminster are often struck by the quaint nature of the security arrangements.

They may be met at the public entrance by machine gun wielding police officers, and have to queue to go through airport style metal detectors.

But once inside, the only security they probably see are the be-stockinged, coat-tailed officials who look more like extras from a costume drama than anti-terror officers.

Security vetted

Indeed, visitors often seem to believe these officials are simply part of the tourist attractions on offer and to be gawped at along with Big Ben or Westminster Hall.

And if they are guests of pass holders - who have been security vetted but who can enter without going through any metal detectors - they can accompany them just about anywhere they like.

Commons chamber
Powder was thrown from Peers gallery
There are restrictions on movement, but they often appear to be policed in a random, ineffective way.

And they are not supposed to be allowed to roam the corridors unaccompanied.

That does happen, however, and there have been several instances of guests getting into the nooks and crannies of the Palace before being stopped and checked.

Some of the internal doors have electronic pass-checking machines but they are often out of order or the doors propped open.

Low key

Tabloid newspapers almost routinely get reporters into the building to expose the flaws in the security systems.

So it is all too easy to gain the impression that, once inside the Palace, a terrorist could pretty much go where he liked and do whatever he wanted.

But these impressions would be misleading.

Suicide bombers are a new phenomenon and even the officials in the Palace would probably admit they are struggling to find ways of dealing with that threat.
Much of the security in the Palace is, quite deliberately, low key.

The police officers dotted throughout the place are far more alert than they may often appear and their ability to recognise the faces of MPs and Commons workers - or, more importantly, strangers - is verging on the supernatural.

There are also covert systems - which will remain that way - that visitors and even pass holders are completely unaware of.

What is probably true is that the systems are still mostly geared to the old threat from the IRA.

Suicide bombers are a new phenomenon and even the officials in the Palace would probably admit they are struggling to find ways of dealing with that threat.

Major issues

There have been pretty significant changes over the past couple of years.

There are far more armed officers about, the Palace is surrounded by concrete blocks to stop attacks by vehicles.

And there is an ongoing review into all the security arrangements which has now been given fresh impetus.

But there are several major issues here. First is the fact that all security experts will declare that there is no such thing as absolute security.

If a terrorist is determined and organised enough, he will probably be able to commit an outrage.

Secondly, there has been the understanding that MPs and Peers are "all good chaps" and can be trusted not to do anything daft.

The purple powder incident has proved what many have known for some time, that this simply is not the case. The rules are regularly bent, if not downright ignored.

Over all this is the desire not to turn the Palace into a bunker with the public distanced even further from their MPs and the democratic process.

Undoubtedly there are those who would like to put the entire area under a nuclear-bomb proof bubble, fill it with boiler suited, heavily armed guards equipped with the most high tech kit and keep everyone except MPs, Peers and essential support staff out.

Equally there are those who think were are too ready to live our lives in fear and should refuse to give any further ground to the terrorists through tougher security.

It is now up to the security services and Palace authorities to pick a way through all that.


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