I beg to move,
That this House
approves the installation of a permanent security screen between the Chamber and the Strangers' Gallery.
I reiterate that I have agreed that both amendments will be considered.
First, I shall respond to some of the points that have been made. I confirm that copies of an explanatory memorandum are available in the Vote Office; it includes a photograph showing what the new permanent screen would look like, and I think that Members will find it unobtrusive. I assure Mr. Mackay that the vote will genuinely be a free one, and there is no Government policy on the matter.
The orderly business of the House, in the event of a surprise motion such as the one that was moved earlier, is a different matter.
I hope that the Leader of the House is not going to suggest that the piece of paper available from the Vote Office provides a basis for a proper discussion in the House. It contains a description of the visual impact, ventilation and acoustics, and some poor-quality pictures, but it is not fair to suggest that it is a basis on which we can assess the nature of the risk that precipitated advice from the security services and warranted extraordinarily swift action by the Leader of the House and the Commission in advance of a debate in the House. The public need to know that we do not have the information before us. That document is not information.
The hon. Gentleman may not think that the information is adequate, but to say that it is not information is simply incorrect. I think that the pictures are rather good, and show the situation quite clearly.
No, I shall not take any more interventions, as I should like to explain the background. The hon. Gentleman may find that helpful in understanding the seriousness of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Two motions on House business are before us this afternoon. The first deals with security, and the second, which will be moved by my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, deals with the welcome that we give our visitors. For the first time, there will be a proper reception facility that makes our visitors feel at home in their Parliament.
The temporary security screen that Members can see at the front of Strangers Gallery has been installed with the agreement of the House of Commons Commission in the light of clear security advice at the highest level. The House will appreciate that it is difficult to debate that advice in a way that does not endanger our security, but I can give the factors that did not contribute to the decision. The decision was not made to shield the House from the protest shouts that we have experienced from time to time, most recently over Iraq, which can still be heard through the glass. To those who say that the screen is about protecting senior Ministers, I point out that the Prime Minister and other individuals are already subject to extensive security protection.
The installation of the screen is about protecting the whole Chamber—the very centre of our democracy—from terrorist attack. Terrorists use a range of weapons undreamt of a few years ago, many of which are not always apparent or easily detected, and we have to respond to that changed threat. We cherish the accessible relationship that we enjoy with our electors, which is a vital part of our democratic life. Indeed, we are reinforcing it with the better reception facilities that are the subject of the second motion. Over the years, however, we have had to introduce successive security procedures, including searches on entry and, more recently, armed police guards. None of those measures was subject to the formal approval of the House, but the present measure rightly is.
Acting on clear intelligence, which she explained to me, the director general of the Security Service made an unequivocal recommendation that the screen be installed. I felt that I had a duty to bring that matter to you, Mr. Speaker, and to fellow members of the House of Commons Commission. The House would expect no less. Commission members received the same background and recommendations from the director general and considered the matter in great detail and at great length, as did the Serjeant at Arms. Consultations were held on Privy Council terms with senior Members of the House. This was not, I stress, a decision lightly taken.
Guns would already be taken from visitors under the normal security procedures. It is not possible to bring a gun into the Chamber or the House—at least, not without a serious breach of security—as security procedures are in place. We are talking not about guns but about other terrorist threats to our security.
Congress, I believe, and certainly Capitol hill, were recently subject to serious anthrax attack. When the hon. Gentleman hears what I am about to say, he will understand that that is the sort of thing that is involved. He will know that the Dail has a security screen.
That may well be the case, but let us make some progress—[Interruption.]
Order. Let the Leader of the House of the House speak. Members will have an opportunity to rebut his argument later.
I understand that the risk is not so much from guns being brought into the Strangers Gallery but from chemical or biological weapons, as I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree. Can he explain how we would increase security if we cannot stop somebody bringing chemical weapons into the Parliament building? The screen may prevent people from throwing things from the Gallery into the Chamber, but if our security outside the Chamber is not sufficient, it will not prevent them from using them anywhere else in the building. In addition to putting up a security screen what is being done to increase and improve security in the rest of Parliament?
It is to address such matters that, as I shall explain, a major comprehensive security review will shortly be carried out by the security services and the Metropolitan police commissioner. The fact that everything cannot be addressed at the same time does not mean that we should not reduce the risk in the Chamber, the heart of our democracy. I shall explain in a moment how progress has been made on that issue, but first I must make it clear that I did not consult the Prime Minister or the Cabinet on the decision. This was, and still is, a matter for the House, not the Government.
I regret the need for the screen, but I believe that it is necessary and in the best interests of our democracy. To ignore the advice that we received would have been irresponsible, putting at risk not only Members but our staff, visitors and the very functioning of our parliamentary democracy. I congratulate those responsible for installing and overseeing installation of the temporary screen over the Easter recess. Its swift and efficient installation has meant that we have been able to maintain, unbroken, our cherished tradition of public access to our proceedings.
One of my worries about access concerns the increasing difficulty of arranging tours for our constituents, given the changes in sitting hours, which I support. One proposal was to fit a glass window at the back of the Gallery so that it would be easier for people just to walk through. Will the proposals for a screen at the front of the Gallery for security reasons mean that we are no longer able to look at other proposals for increasing access for our constituents so that they can come and view us in the Chamber?
No, not at all. On Monday, I went up to the Gallery to look out from behind the screen and see the view that visitors will have. I pursued with House officials the question of whether it would indeed be possible to return to the matter, and I was satisfied that it would be. Arguably, it would be easier to return to the original proposal, which was considered a year or so ago, but not taken up. My hon. Friend is welcome to pursue the matter, and I am certainly willing to look at it again.
I hope and believe that Members and visitors alike will find the temporary structure unobtrusive. On Monday, I sat in Strangers Gallery behind the screen. The view is clear and the sound very good. Indeed, I am advised that it is better than before. While the screen is functional, however, it cannot be said to be fully in keeping with the architecture of the Chamber, and its permanent replacement will meet much better the concerns of those responsible for our architectural heritage. As I have said, an explanatory memorandum is available in the Vote Office showing clearly what the permanent structure will look like. In the event of a positive vote this afternoon, it is planned that work will take place in summer 2005.
I am interested to learn that my right hon. Friend sat in Strangers Gallery behind the screen this week. Yesterday, a guest of mine attended Prime Minister's questions, and he told me that the sound feed filters out all the extraneous noise that many people enjoy—some of us may be ashamed of it—and which is a feature of the occasion. Has my right hon. Friend considered how we can reflect the atmosphere of the House for people in Strangers Gallery if an acoustic barrier has been created by the screen?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is one of the issues that we will seek to address in the event of a permanent screen being agreed. We needed—I will explain why—to put up a temporary screen quickly, or else we would have advertised the problem before we had provided security protection for the House. I believe that people will understand that.
The Leader of the House mentioned architectural merit. The photographs show a very modern screen. If he wants something that fits the character of the House, should we not go back to the sort of screen that existed before 1948—before the bombing—at the Ladies Gallery end, which was a grille that no one could see through?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is making a serious suggestion. The point of the proposition is to provide a screen that does not impair sight or the experience of being a visitor to the Chamber. I think he will find that it will do that.
I much regret the necessity for the screen, but if that is the advice that we are given, we must follow it. Will the Leader of the House deal with access to the east and west Special Galleries? The present screen covers only the Strangers area, but the Special Galleries are not covered. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could tell us how those areas will still be accessible by Members' guests.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point and seeking clarification. It may be convenient for me to deal with it now. Access to the Special Gallery will still be available to Members, who will be able to seek tickets for two guests from the Serjeant in the normal way. What will be different is that although an application to the Serjeant may still be made in the usual way, Members will be required to testify that guests are known to them personally and that they vouch for the conduct of such guests. In the event of such conduct being unacceptable, Members will have to answer to the House for it. The procedures have been changed, the tickets look rather different, and the extra protection about which the hon. Gentleman sought clarification is operating.
I will take one more question on that point, but I must make progress or Members in all parts of the House will not have the full picture revealed to them in order to debate it.
I assume so. I will take advice on that and come back to the right hon. Gentleman. Since the Speaker is nodding to help me out, I think the right hon. Gentleman has the answer to his question.
Further to that point, can the Leader of the House confirm my information that the only serious breach in the Palace of Westminster took place before the 1979 general election, resulting in the death of the right hon. Member for Abingdon, the late Airey Neave? That involved the misuse of an officially registered security pass to gain access to the Palace of Westminster. Will the Leader of the House give some time in his statement to the procedures that will be tightened up for the issuing of security passes, given that those who receive such passes do not go through the security screen on the perimeter of the Palace of Westminster?
I will, indeed. That will be the subject of the wide-ranging security review that the Speaker has ordered, with my support and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind the hon. Gentleman that 12,900 security passes are issued in the Palace of Westminster, excluding Members and Peers, so it is an issue.
May I make a minor correction, or a major one, to his point? The murder of Airey Neave was not the only breach of security. In 1970, a CS gas canister was thrown into the Chamber, requiring evacuation. We have moved on, as I will explain shortly, to a different level of terrorist threat, which is not necessarily as visible as a CS gas canister. We saw what happened in 1970. The procedures put in place, with airport-type security checks before one can enter the Palace, are intended to prevent such incidents, but we face a different problem in the case of terrorist weapons that are not so visible.
There will be Members who question the value for money of both temporary and permanent structures. The temporary structure has cost £600,000; the proposed permanent structure £1.3 million. I appreciate that that will seem a considerable sum to our constituents, but I believe it is money that must be spent. There are many constraints on carrying out major works in the Palace.
Although the debate focuses on the security of the Chamber, the screen is only one element of heightened security precautions throughout the parliamentary estate. As I said, a thorough review of security is also being carried out by the security services and the Metropolitan police.
I will make a little progress, then I will give way.
We must not forget our responsibility towards everybody who works here. This is a high priority for the House administration, and detailed security advice is being given to all House staff, together with briefings for Members and Members' staff. I stress that the security screen has been installed following the unanimous decision of the House of Commons Commission, with the support of the informal joint committee on security—an all-party decision. This is a House matter, I repeat, not a party or Government matter. The defence of Parliament against terrorist threat is not a party matter, but one that we must all have regard to.
Does the Leader of the House agree that this is the appropriate time in the ongoing review of the security of the Palace of Westminster to address once and for all the ownership of Parliament square, and to look to ways of bringing that within the parliamentary estate and the world heritage site? It is my contention and that of others that one cannot properly secure what is inside if one has not secured what is outside.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The matter has been discussed with the Security Service—I myself have discussed it—and it will no doubt form an important part of the review.
I do not know that that will always be the case, but the Security Service did not recommend a screen in the House of Lords. [Interruption.] Let me be frank, as I have been throughout the debate. The hon. Gentleman asked an important question; I will give him an important answer. Security in the House of Lords is being tightened, and the whole parliamentary estate is the subject of the joint review by the security services and Metropolitan police commissioner that are now being undertaken. When I explain the situation, the hon. Gentleman will see why we have taken the course we have, if I may be allowed to complete my points.
I had hoped to address the House in general terms, as I have just done. But the amendments leave me with no alternative but to be much more specific about the consequences if they were passed. The Security Service recommendation for a screen is based on an analysis of the threat vulnerability and the impact of possible chemical or biological attack in the Strangers Gallery. In recent years there have been several indicators that al-Qaeda and associated networks have shown the intent and capability to mount attacks using toxic chemical and biological materials. Using such materials in confined spaces is a good way of maximising impact.
If we want a House open to the public, as I do, we have to follow all reasonable security procedures. No security procedure is infallible—we saw that with the Greenpeace protest only last month. The real issue is reducing risks and taking sensible precautions where we can. If right hon. or hon. Members wish to ignore the unequivocal recommendation and advice of the security services, that is a matter for them, but there will be consequences for all who take that view. There will be consequences not only for Members of this House, but for the Doorkeepers and security staff who serve the Chamber and civil servants in the Box. [Interruption.] We are all subject to the same air system. There will also be consequences for Clerks and visitors to the Gallery. This is a matter not only of self-protection, but of protecting all those in the Chamber, whether or not they are Members.
As to additional security for our visitors, the risk to the people sitting behind the screen is immeasurably heightened by the fact that it is there, rather than otherwise.
If the purpose of an al-Qaeda cell was to throw a phial into the Chamber in Question Time, for example, when those on both Front Benches are present every week at a predictable, advertised time, what would be the point of going into the Strangers Gallery and throwing it among people there? There would be no point at all in doing that, so that is an absurd point, if I may say so.
We are discussing a serious matter, and I do not want the debate to become heated. In talking about chemical and biological agents, did the security services advise the Leader of the House that the problem with such agents, as people have known since attempts were made to use gas in the trenches in the first world war, is dissemination to the target? If somebody dropped a chemical or biological agent down on the Floor of the House, it might or might not kill somebody. Such agents cannot be disseminated easily as they disseminate through air currents, and that is the way in which such things are done.
I do wonder at some of the questions that I have been asked.
Let me spell out in the plainest terms what the consequences would be if the House decided to support the amendment in the name of Mr. Tyler. If an al-Qaeda group managed to throw a phial of anthrax or ricin into the Chamber or, even worse, if a suicide agent released the substance without anybody noticing—we have been advised that that is quite feasible—the particles would immediately begin spreading throughout the Chamber. Because of the way in which air flows work, total contamination could occur within minutes. Decontamination procedures would then be activated. [Interruption.] I have heard the same shouts as everybody else. Everybody—not only Members—would be locked in and decontaminated before being allowed to leave.
It is for hon. Members to decide whether they are prepared to take that risk. I am not, the Speaker is not and the House of Commons Commission is not, and the House must now decide whether it is. I commend the motion to the House.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, members of the House of Commons Commission support the motion moved by the Leader of the House. However, for myself and hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches, this House of Commons matter is subject to the usual free vote, so my views are my own and are to be taken as such.
By far the most important concern of the House of Commons Commission in the relatively short time for which I have been a member has been the safety of this centre of our democracy, the people who work here and visitors to Parliament. We all have a duty to ensure that our free democracy can continue to function as it should by allowing the public proper access, but at the same time we have other duties. It is important that we make it as hard as possible for terrorists to fulfil their objectives, that we protect the thousands of people who work here, and that we do our best to support the reasonable requests of those who do so much to keep us safe.
There is a tension between the needs of security and the openness of a free Parliament, and recent events have made that tension greater. I warmly welcome, and I supported and pressed for, the thoroughgoing review of security throughout the parliamentary estate that is being carried out by the Security Service and the Metropolitan police with the personal backing of the director general and the commissioner, and I hope that it will be completed very quickly.
I am grateful to a number of my hon. Friends who have brought to me wide-ranging security issues relating to this building and the way in which we do our business. They include issues to do with passes and so on. I have written to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the Leader of the House, setting out all the concerns so that they can be taken into account in the review.
All of us in this Chamber and elsewhere are entirely with my hon. Friend in seeking maximum security for people who work here and for our visitors. No one denies that that is correct. What the Leader of the House failed to do, however, is explain even once why on earth that enormously expensive white elephant of a screen improves that situation even one jot. Will my hon. Friend kindly tell us not that we want people to be safer, but why that screen will make them safer?
I think that three factors together pose the great risk, and the screen is a measure—it is a limited one, and it is not the only one that will be needed—that addresses them. First, nowadays, weapons are available that were not previously available, including powders and gases that are not as easy to detect as other weapons on coming into the House. Secondly, whereas for many years terrorists and those who were a threat would act with their own safety taken into account, that is not the case nowadays. There are suicide bombers, and the amount of time available to deal with such a threat is minimal. Thirdly, we are one of the very few Parliaments that has a predictable pattern of behaviour—[Interruption.] We may not be predictable on every issue, but we have an agenda, week after week—
Indeed, but do not mention programming.
Obviously, we have questions to the Prime Minister every week, but there are quite a lot of other occasions that are very predictable. Taking the three factors together, it seems to me that there could be a very high risk. Rather than taking my word for it, let us bear in mind the fact that we were able to cross-examine the head of the Security Service at great length about these issues, as were many senior colleagues in this place. She convinced me that there was a very serious threat, and many colleagues reached the same view.
Before I give way to my right hon. Friend, I say to him that he was offered that opportunity, and I think that it is a great pity that he was not able to take it up.
I was on parliamentary business abroad, so there was a perfectly good reason why I did not attend.
My hon. Friend was uncharacteristically evasive in responding to the perfectly reasonable questions of our hon. Friend Mr. Gray. My hon. Friend Mr. Heald said earlier that we had a huge responsibility—of course we do—to the thousands of people who come here, including staff, but neither he nor the Leader of the House has explained why that wretched screen and its possible successor will help those people. All that they are doing is cutting us off from the people whom we represent, which is quite wrong. Will he now try to have a second go?
I should like, I hope in a pleasant and respectful way, to correct my right hon. Friend on one point: our guests will be able to go into the Galleries in front of the screen. However, hon. Members will be subject to the new regime that has been described by the Leader of the House.
The point that I wish to make about safety in the Strangers Gallery is very straightforward. If a member of a terrorist organisation were looking for a target, they might think that they could aim at a good one by trying to hit the Government, the alternative Government and the outside-chance Government all in one go. The average terrorist would not think it much of a ploy to throw a chemical agent on himself and innocent visitors.
My hon. Friend knows that I support the security measures. The debate is very frank, so I imagine that some of members of the public sitting behind the screen must feel pretty uncomfortable. We have a duty to improve security, and, given the comments of the Leader of the House about the overall review, I hope that resources will not be a problem. Resources to protect the House at weekends and on non-sitting days are already a concern, not least because of the recent incursion on the clock tower. I hope that my hon. Friend will support a thorough review from the Front Bench, so that the people who sit behind the screen do not feel that it is a division of the sheep and the goats.
I could not agree more. My hon. Friend has detailed knowledge of those matters from her time as shadow Leader of the House, and I included points that she raised with me in my letter about the review to Mr. Speaker. We must take all necessary measures to keep this place open to the public, so that they can see their democracy in action, but at the same time we must not give terrorists the opportunity to hit one of the most important political and democratic institutions in the world.
Does my hon. Friend know whether the security review will extend without this Chamber and into the Committee Rooms? The meetings of Select Committees, Statutory Instrument Committees and so forth are not only well advertised but open to members of the public. From time to time, those Rooms contain quite a selection of parliamentarians and staff. What protective measures will be taken in Westminster Hall and all the Committee Rooms in this House, and in Portcullis House?
My hon. Friend reinforces a good point that he made earlier. We must examine not only this Chamber, but every part of the parliamentary estate. His advice about examining vantage points outside the parliamentary estate that may pose a threat is sensible and wise. He has mentioned that point to me before, and I included it in my correspondence with Mr. Speaker and the Leader of the House.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have given way a great deal. I know that many hon. Members want to speak, and I want to give them an opportunity to do so.
We have the screen not because hon. Members want to be protected; it is a response to a clear threat to the principal institution of our democracy. It is not a single response to the threat, and security is rightly being increased elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster and other parliamentary buildings. Even as the review continues, we should make any necessary changes to enhance security.
In a moment.
The Leader of the House mentioned a welcome measure to improve pass security. If one applies to the Serjeant at Arms for a ticket to the Under Gallery and there is space, the Serjeant at Arms requires a signed statement that one knows the guest and that one vouches for them personally, and I also welcome that change.
Does my hon. Friend agree that terrorists act for political reasons? One of the consequences of the screen is that terrorists may affect the outcome of an election—the recent attack in Madrid was carried out for political reasons to make a political impact. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that we should set up physical barriers between the Government and the Opposition, who are potentially the next Government, in an election campaign? If there were physical barriers between the Government and the Opposition, there would be no public meetings, and my hon. Friend is embarking on that route.
This example is slightly different, but it contains many of the same issues: I remember going to Conservative party conferences in the days before heavy security, and it was marvellous to have free interplay with others, which we cannot achieve now. After the 1984 bombing, it was right to introduce security measures, but party conferences still take place. I would be one of the last people to interfere with the traditional operation of our democracy. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House agrees.
As far as elections are concerned, we must take the necessary risks in order to go out and do what we do in our democracy, but we should not take unnecessary risks in circumstances that do not really stop us from doing what we do as politicians.
I know that many hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, and I do not want to use all the time.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm in his winding-up speech that, although permission for a permanent screen is being sought, if the security situation changes, that decision is not irrevocable, the Accommodation and Works Committee and the Administration Committee will continue to monitor the situation, and he will take a close, personal interest in the matter?
The threat is immediate, and we need the screen now. We can debate whether the screen should be made permanent, but the amendment does not address that point.
The Leader of the House made the staggering comment that 12,500 people hold passes for this place, excluding Members of Parliament and peers. Those people are subject to minimal security checks when they enter this place, and it would be easy for somebody to steal one of those passes. As a member of the House of Commons Commission, will my hon. Friend raise that point as part of the general security review?
That point is strong and important. Pass security should be tighter, and the matter is being addressed even before the review is completed. I would not choose to change this building unless I thought it necessary, but sadly I do.
I have just returned from the United States, where I visited ground zero in New York earlier this week. The people in New York are not maudlin and looking backwards, and they are getting on with their lives. One of my friends was involved in the Lockerbie disaster, and another was in the World Trade Centre when it was destroyed—my first friend died; my second friend got out of the World Trade Centre. I have visited both the garden of remembrance in Lockerbie and ground zero, but I am not taking a maudlin look back at the events of
When I was in the United States, the big issue was a commission of inquiry to look into how it came about that aeroplanes could be flown into the World Trade Centre, killing 2,800 people, leaving thousands of other people with their lives permanently destroyed, and leaving surviving dependents asking a number of questions. How had this come about? Could it have been prevented? Who knew what? That commission is so important that it obliged the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to come before it to answer questions about what she knew, and in the week ahead the President and Vice-President of the United States will be asked what they knew. The relatives and dependents of those who died, who are there to listen to the proceedings, ask: what could have been done to save our own? It has been argued that a 16-year-old student with hindsight is a greater man than the President of the United States. Today, we are able to ensure that there is no need for hindsight by avoiding an untoward event.
I should like to get on a little.
Of course no one wishes to separate us from our constituents, but we have to take into account the reality of the world in which we live. We know that we are unable to defend every installation in the country, but we are able to seek to defend what we used to call, and should still call, the mother of Parliaments. This is the essence of our democracy, known and recognisable in every country of the world. The objective of global-reach terrorism is to attack and destroy democracy. To have an untoward and unhappy event here, successful or otherwise, would not only taint our democracy, but the principle of democracy throughout the world.
As the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House said, a thorough-going investigation of the entire parliamentary estate will include Committee Rooms, passes and security at every level, and will be taken with the utmost seriousness. Nevertheless, we have to keep our eye on the ball and stay focused. At Pearl harbour, the Americans lost all their combat aircraft because they were lined up so as to defend them against sabotage from Japanese on the island, but they were of course destroyed from the air. This is not about separating ourselves from the people who wish to see us, but about protecting this democracy of ours. We make this major decision in the interests not only of our democracy, but of our successors. No Parliament binds its successors, but the decisions that we make—
This Chamber was destroyed in what was clearly a war. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we should be subject to a biological attack and see our Members and staff destroyed.
That is a remarkable comment. Having been in this House for 22 years, I am struck by the frivolity of some of the questions that were put to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House. I wish to keep this debate on a serious level by discussing how we are able to protect our people, our Members of Parliament and our Government from the kind of attacks that we are seeing worldwide. I could bring a map before you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which shows terrorism with its global reach in all the countries of the world—even in Saudi Arabia, which is not a democracy as we understand it. These terrorists are no respecters of persons. To attack and destroy this House would be a major gain for them and a massive blow to our democracy and to democracies around the world.
In talking about this Chamber, does my hon. Friend envisage that this siege-like situation will continue in perpetuity? He did not cite examples of any other Chambers that have fallen prey to the particular kind of attack that appears to be envisaged here. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for us to consider these measures after the sarin gas attacks on the underground in Japan.
We are talking about the threat of an imminent and serious attack. I make this speech as a member of the House of Commons Commission, where I have met, with other members, the head of our security services and the head of our Metropolitan police. Through the Speaker, we issued an invitation to all Privy Councillors to come and listen to what they had to say.
As for other Parliaments, two weeks ago I was in the National Assembly in Paris: there are the most stringent regulations for getting into that building.
It might happen. I have been in the Dail and saw no difficulty in its proceedings.
We are talking about how, through this investigation and analysis of the parliamentary estate, we protect our democracy, right hon. and hon. Members of Parliament, and staff—everyone in this building.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is not like a bombing in world war two. I have just taken at random an item from my handbag, compliments of Estée Lauder—one of several that I could have picked out. This would not have been removed from me, even with the most detailed screening of my handbag, but it could contain anything sufficient to kill everybody in this Chamber and in the Galleries. As a former member of the Commission of this House, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is its duty to listen to the expert advice that it is given and to implement it.
I take the hon. Lady's point. There is no mechanism or screening procedure that finds chemical and biological weapons. Nothing in this world could have prevented the anthrax being taken into Washington—no such machine is available.
My hon. and learned Friend, who is about to intervene, would face an interesting situation in years to come if there were to be an untoward event in this Chamber followed by a commission of inquiry to ask who was responsible. He would not be the Queen's Counsel on that commission, because he would have to disqualify himself on the grounds of the early-day motion that he has tabled. As the Leader of the House said, it is a matter for each and every one of us to take our responsibilities seriously this afternoon—not to spend our time trying to make various points, but to focus on the matter that is before us.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there are many targets in this place and that many of us are at risk? Our visitors are at risk because they are part of the democratic process, and an attack on them would be an attack on the democratic process. We, too, are at risk; but if we protect ourselves, we increase, by a direct algebraic equation, the risk to them. Those people up there have absolutely none of the protection that we have arrogated to ourselves. That is an extremely offensive way in which to deal with our people.
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that the attacks of global-reach terrorism on democracy are attacks on us all and that we all may be subject to terrorist attack by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have talked about the parliamentary estate and commission of inquiry that we shall hold, with a full investigation of how we can protect people who wish to visit. However, we must consider how we can protect Government and Opposition Members and Members of Parliament generally. We are here to make decisions about how to protect not a future Wembley stadium, but the House—
No one in his right mind wishes anyone to come into the building with anthrax and murder anyone. As I said earlier, a full inquiry will cover the entire parliamentary estate, including the House of Lords. The Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House also made that point.
We must not confuse concepts. We are here today to decide whether there should be a permanent screen—I emphasise again that no Parliament binds its successors—to protect us and our democracy. Of course, I respect and wish to protect members of the public who come here at this time, and there are other means of being in touch with constituents, such as by letter, fax, e-mail and television, which anyone in the country can see.
The hon. Gentleman stated that there is no way that security can spot anthrax and related weapons of mass destruction. If that is the case, terrorists could go to Central Lobby, Portcullis House and elsewhere and use them. The Leader of the House has told us that the air system flows through the House and we would thus all be at risk. Mr. Marshall-Andrews must therefore be right that the only purpose of the screen is to protect us. There is no other sensible reason for it.
We are protecting not us but our democracy, our Government, our Opposition and our image as the mother of Parliaments to which other Parliaments look up and other democracies aspire. We are looking to prevent a victory for terrorism that would be perceived as such worldwide. My hon. and learned Friend Mr. Marshall-Andrews says that the screen is an obstruction to or erosion of the relationship between our constituents and us and a victory for criminal terrorist organisations. He considers raising a screen a victory for terrorism. That is remarkable. What would be a greater victory for terrorism than the sort of untoward event that decimates Parliament, kills many innocent people and leaves grieving widows, widowers and children? How can concepts be confused to such an extent?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's points but some of the interventions suggest that some hon. Members appear to believe that we are holding a debate about protecting Members of Parliament. However, they are not protected when they step outside the Gates. We are debating the protection not of individual Members of Parliament, Ministers or shadow Ministers but of the House when it sits. Which other Assembly meets so regularly, with the Government, the alternative Government and the legislature in one place? Those who go on about protecting Members of Parliament do not even understand the subject of the debate.
I need no lessons from anyone about the way in which Members of Parliament can be exposed. I have been attacked twice in my surgeries. One Member of Parliament was seriously wounded and David Burnside, who made a pertinent point earlier, will remember that a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament was assassinated. Members of Parliament understand the risk. The screen was not put up for my benefit—I never said that it was. It is there to protect our Parliament, our democracy and the concept of democracy. Hon. Members should understand that.
The House should support the motion, reject the amendments and thus make a clear statement that we take terrorism seriously in relation to our Parliament and Members of Parliament, of whatever party, and that we will not provide a hostage to fortune that could be shown throughout the world as an example of the way in which democracy can be denigrated and destroyed.
With this, we may take amendment (b), in line 2, at end add
"until the efficacy of the temporary screen has been assessed and until a comprehensive assessment of the appropriate access of constituents to Parliament has been approved by the House."
Several hon. Members who have contributed, including Sir Stuart Bell, do not appear to have read the modest, cross-party amendments that I move on behalf of senior colleagues.
I have genuine sympathy for the Leader of the House and the Commission because they clearly have a difficult dilemma. We should all recognise that and take seriously the advice that they—and through them, the House—have been given. I accept that there is a dilemma and that a balance must be struck— I hope that all hon. Members accept that. However, I hope that hon. Members also agree that the amendments constitute a reasonable method of dealing with the issue.
The amendments do not say, "Let's take down the temporary screen." That is an illusion that renders the majority of the preceding speech irrelevant to the amendments. The amendments make it clear that, by not agreeing to a permanent screen, we make it conditional on precisely the comprehensive analysis of the position that the Leader of the House and shadow Leader of the House believe to be so important. I am sure that we all agree with that. Clearly, it is absurd to consider in isolation a specific part of the parliamentary estate instead of examining carefully the estate as whole.
Hon. Members of all parties have made points on behalf of those who visit us, the staff whom the House employs and our staff. The risks that they take are not mentioned on the Order Paper. The screen will not help them. Indeed, if it deflects attention from the genuinely urgent issue of screening people who come into the parliamentary estate, we do them a disservice and put them at greater risk. It is important that those who believe that we must take a comprehensive view of the security of all the buildings understand that the screen could divert attention from what is genuinely important.
I note the serious and logical way in which the hon. Gentleman makes his case. However, if he were standing in my shoes, and the director general of the Security Service had approached him last year to say that her recommendation, based on intelligence, was to erect a screen in the Chamber, would he have said no to her? That is the decision that the House of Commons Commission and I had to make. [Interruption.] It is not a question of doing what we are told but taking serious advice from the director general of MI5, who hourly combats a terrorist threat from al-Qaeda. She said that the best way in which to protect the House was to erect a screen because the Chamber is a target.
The motion relates to a permanent screen. The amendment deals with the way in which we assess the necessity for a permanent screen. "I can do no other", as they say—the temporary screen is a fait accompli. This afternoon, we must decide whether we say yes to a permanent screen without a proper assessment of the present screen's efficacy. That is what is on the Order Paper, and that is the question that I am addressing.
I want specifically to deal with a point that the Leader of the House failed to address when he was asked in what way the temporary screen was inadequate. His only answer was that it was aesthetically inadequate: he did not like the look of it. That is an absurd argument. Indeed, if we are talking about a deterrent, this screen is potentially more effective, because it is a more visible barrier, than what is described in the explanatory memorandum. It is important that we distinguish between saying yea or nay to the temporary screen—[Interruption.] Some hon. Members take a different view on this. After just four days' experience of the temporary screen in the Chamber, we are being asked this afternoon to say yes to a permanent one. There are a number of reasons why I believe that that would be wrong.
The hon. Gentleman has made a specific point on which I might be able to help him. A permanent screen would provide a large number of benefits. They range from non-security issues, such as the fact that it would have non-reflective glass—we would not, therefore, have the effect that we see now from the Chamber—and that it would be less visually intrusive even than this relatively modestly intrusive one, to the fact that it would be more secure. The recommendation from the Security Service was for a permanent screen. The director general said that it was a matter for the House how it handled this decision; she was not seeking to influence that. We took the decision that it was right to have a debate of this kind, but she would have preferred it had we just gone ahead and erected a permanent screen without a debate. She sees even this debate as a risk to the House.
Let us be clear about the seriousness of the situation that we face. I understand and respect the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but he is not addressing the seriousness of the threat to the Chamber, which we were advised on.
I entirely understand the severity of the problems that the Leader of the House and the Commission face. I did not have the exclusive briefing, as I am not a Privy Councillor, but I understand from the briefing that I received that the earliest time at which a permanent screen could be erected would be the summer recess of 2005, at a cost of £1.5 million. Why, after just four days' experience of the temporary screen, are we rushing to take a decision that cannot be implemented for 15 months?
We take this issue seriously, and this is the point of our amendment. For goodness' sake, let us look at the matter sensibly and in a comprehensive way in terms of the risk to all those who come into the parliamentary estate—not just those who come into this Chamber. Let us ensure that the issue is considered in security terms. Two of the three reasons that the Leader of the House has just given for putting up a permanent screen rather than allowing the temporary one to be assessed sensibly are aesthetic; they have nothing to do with security. I want time to think very carefully about the comprehensive security of the whole of the parliamentary estate in the interests of all who come here and work here, rather than just of those who come into this Chamber.
That is yet another reason to get it right.
I want to move to another point, which might seem trivial but it illustrates my argument. I take it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is one occasion on which we must be allowed to refer to the geography, the architecture, of this place. We are not usually allowed to do so. I would ask all hon. Members to look up at the Strangers Gallery for a moment. One hon. Member, who has the same biblical background as I do, referred earlier to sheep and goats. I would refer, perhaps, to first-class and standard visitors. Those who are permitted to sit in front of the screen will be the first-class visitors. They will get a special dispensation because they can be vouched for as reputable. The fact that the permanent screen would be on the same alignment as this temporary screen means not only that we lose 30 seats but that the preferential seats, the first-class seats, would often be unoccupied, while visitors in standard class would be sitting on top of one another.
I invite colleagues to consider these circumstances. A constituent whom an hon. Member does not know terribly well might say, "Please get me two tickets for the Gallery". The hon. Member might think, "Wait a minute, I'm not sure that I know this pair. They are both reputable members of the women's institute, but I don't actually know them. They might be suffragettes. I don't think I'll take the risk. I think I'll put them in standard class." In no time, there will be a new parliamentary expression, "behind the screen", which will mean some of our electors being treated as second-class citizens.
Behind the screen will equal cattle class. Imagine the circumstances! I understand from those who know everything about this place—that is, the Doorkeepers—that the only recent incidents of any significance in the House have taken place at the front of the Gallery. At present, the front of the Gallery tends to contain very distinguished people, including Members of the other place and diplomats, but that is not exclusively the case. So, if the permanent screen is installed on the same alignment as the present one, the checking of who goes into which section of the Gallery will cause difficulties.
I should like to correct the hon. Gentleman. The most recent incident took place behind the screen this afternoon, but we could not hear it because it was behind the screen.
That is a very valid point.
I want to illustrate my argument further, because this checking has already started. This week, hon. Members have had to vouch for visitors in order to get them a seat in front of the screen. My hon. Friend Mr. Willis, who unfortunately cannot be here this afternoon, sought entry for his 80-year-old aunt. Imagine if, after a lifetime's ambition to come to the House, he did not feel able to vouch for her safety in this place. She might, for all I know, be a latter-day suffragette or a dangerous liberal. Who knows? But the way in which this issue is currently approached will not satisfy our constituents that all those who elect us to come here are being treated as equals.
The facilities for Members to show constituents around this place were referred to earlier, and that is an important issue. If we were able to strike a deal that no permanent arrangement would be made until we had better facilities to bring our constituents round and to show them democracy at work, that might be a trade-off that we could accept. The motion as it stands would push through, at speed and with no real experience of the new arrangements, a permanent structure that has all sorts of implications for the perception of this place as a parliamentary democracy open to those who send us here.
The hon. Gentleman makes a number of points with which I have some sympathy. He rightly draws our attention to his amendment, and I would like him to clarify it further. Its effect would be that we could not erect a permanent screen, but it says nothing about dismantling the temporary screen, which would then, de facto, become the permanent screen.
I had to take the advice of the House authorities on this matter. As I understood it, the motion on the Order Paper simply referred to the permanent screen. Strictly speaking, the temporary screen is not on the Order Paper. All that I am saying, in what I think is an entirely logical response to the point made by the Leader of the House, is that the comprehensive reassessment of all the security arrangements of the House should take into account the efficacy of this temporary screen. That seems to be a perfectly common-sense approach, yet it is being dismissed out of hand as though it were irrelevant to the overall comprehensive assessment.
I want to make a practical point. We do not recognise anyone in the Strangers Gallery, on either side of the screen, at the moment. To pluck a figure out of the air, if 14 youngsters from my constituency asked to come here, the chances are that I would ask for tickets for them to sit in front of the screen, without perhaps knowing all 14 of them, because I would not want the embarrassment of putting them the other side of the screen. Is that not the kind of weakness that terrorists look for?
There is real problem if a representative democracy starts to differentiate between one constituent and another. We could get rid of that problem if a scheme were developed to screen off the whole of the Gallery, but I think that our noble Friends from the other end of the building would be worried if they thought that we were suspicious of them.
I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I for one will support his amendment and vote against the motion, if that becomes necessary. May I just ask him how we will be able to test the efficacy of this screen? What test will we apply? If there is no terrorist outrage in the course of the next year, will we say that it is a success, and that therefore we ought to have a permanent one? That is what worries me. We should start on the basis that it will go.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is what is extraordinary about presenting us with a fait accompli. We have nothing on paper to explain precisely why it is there. I think that the Leader of the House wants to intervene, but before I invite him to do so, I shall sum up this point: we are being asked to do something very difficult this afternoon, and there is a genuine dilemma. I want to return to the issue of the security context in which this decision should be taken.
I have intervened on the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions, but it helps the debate to do it in this way. He says that there is a fait accompli. It is the duty of the House authorities, and in this case the House of Commons Commission, to look after the security of the Chamber and the whole Palace. In this exceptional situation, unlike that when we returned after one recess and found armed guards in place, and when there was no debate on the Floor of the House—which made access more difficult for many people—we are having an open debate, and it is not a fait accompli. The hon. Gentleman made a great populist point about first and second-class visitors. It is the case now that a visitor queuing in the street cannot get into the Special Gallery but must sit in the area that is now behind the screen.
Another point that the hon. Gentleman needs to address is that the recommendation from the Security Service was not for a screen going right the way round the Special Gallery and Press Gallery—[Interruption.] It was not, and I shall explain why in a minute. On that logic—
It was a helpful intervention, if I may say so. I wish that the Leader of the House had made those points at the outset. What I find extraordinary is that the argument for a permanent screen has not been developed. A sort of argument has been developed for taking rapid action and producing a temporary screen, but let me come to a much more important point—[Interruption.] I will give way to the Leader of the House. How can I resist?
I apologise, but the reason that I moved the motion in the way that I did was that I relied on the common sense of Members to understand the position. If they wanted me to spell out every detail, I could have done that and answered all these points. It was not in the interests of the security of the House or the Chamber to have done that, but as the hon. Gentleman has required me to do it, I have responded.
Let me take up the point made by the Leader of the House that there was no parliamentary approval for the concrete blocks and armed guards. I regret that, and I think that he agrees, because the Modernisation Committee, which he chairs, has taken a lot of evidence about the fact that our constituents are now greeted in their Parliament with a fortress-like response. There must be some way in which we can mitigate that. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom are our free citizens greeted not by someone who says, "Can I help you? What do you want to see or hear?" but by somebody armed with a weapon.
Let me return to the substantive point. It is time that people in the House understood the significance of the comprehensive analysis of all the security issues. I understand what the Leader of the House says about that. What I object to is the piecemeal approach. There is no evidence that the screen will assist in the security of all those who work in this building. That is extremely important. For example, I asked the Leader of the House just a few weeks ago what steps are being taken to deal with the large number of lost identity passes for entry into Departments of State, and whether there was a similar situation in this building. I received no answer. In my view, as others Members have said, that is a far more serious security risk to us, our staff, our visitors and all the people who work in this building. I hope that a serious attempt is being made to deal with that issue, because it is much more serious than anything that is happening in the Gallery. We are told that there are 12,500 passes, excluding those of Members of the two Houses. I hope that there is some more effective scrutiny, not just of the way in which they are brought in and out of the House, but of their issue and of what happens when they are lost.
We must also think carefully about other parts of the parliamentary estate. Let me give one example. Twice yearly, the Prime Minister appears in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House in front of the Liaison Committee of senior Members of the House, with the public a few feet away. What security is there—I do not want the Leader of the House to tell me, as it would be much better if he did not. That illustrates, however, that it is extremely important to take a holistic view about the way in which our democracy works. Of course, there must be a balance between access, transparency, visibility and security. To pretend that the most sensitive area is in this Chamber suggests to me that we are more worried about people shouting than about weapons, which would be an extremely unfortunate signal to give.
As a footnote—this is not the most important issue—we should consider value for money. As we have already heard, £600,000 has been spent on the temporary screen. Why not just see whether it is sufficient? There is no rush, despite what we have been told. The cost will be £1.5 million if the motion is passed this afternoon, for a screen still on that alignment, and still with many of the difficulties that I have mentioned.
If the amendments, which link together, are accepted, we would for the moment decline to give an okay to an expensive, elaborate scheme, which has not been worked through or considered in terms of alternatives, until we had considered holistically the security situation and thought a bit more about what we, as the representatives of the public and our constituents, should do to make sure that Parliament is still as accessible and visible as we can make it.
I am about to finish.
My concern is the security of all who work in and visit these buildings, not just this Chamber. By prioritising a permanent screen, we are going in the wrong direction.
If I start by mentioning that I am in my 40th year in the House, it is not in order to suggest that my value judgments are any better than anyone else's, but, I hope, to state that my love of the values and traditions of this House are no less than anyone else's here today. That is the position from which I start. There is no way in which I would have contemplated such a change as has been suggested if I thought that it could be avoided.
One simple fact must be addressed. At Prime Minister's questions, the Government, the alternative Government, and two thirds of the House of Commons, could be eliminated, all in one attack. What a target that is for a terrorist. What a temptation. We must face up to that. I was here at the time of the CS riot gas attack, and was sitting just opposite the letter stand. Barbara Castle was speaking, the gas canister arrived at her left foot, and within seconds—such was the dissemination, as was mentioned earlier—we were all coughing, spluttering and having to dive out of the Chamber. Twice, to my recollection, possibly three times, we tried unsuccessfully to get back into the Chamber, and it took hours to clear the Chamber and make it habitable for Members of Parliament.
Let me make this simple point. A very small quantity of one of the toxic biochemical agents available today, if released into the air conditioning circulating system of this Chamber, would be less immediate but far more devastating in its effect on Parliament.
An erroneous point was made, namely that when the Chamber was destroyed by a bomb during the war, that did not destroy democracy. No, it did not, because it did not destroy Members of Parliament. It did not destroy the Government, and it did not destroy the Opposition. It merely destroyed the place where we met—so Parliament met somewhere else.
We constitute a sitting invitation to a terrorist, and for that reason alone I have changed my mind completely. When screens were first suggested, at the time of the CS gas attack—Sir Patrick Cormack will remember this—we decided against them, but the circumstances are vastly different now.
Apart from the fact that the screen does nothing whatever to protect the ventilation system—[Interruption.] Perhaps, rather than sitting there and threatening us with the security services, the Leader of the House should have told us all this. The canister episode pre-dated the extensive screening facilities that we now have. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman—the Leader of the House may be able to respond if he cannot—that a metal canister containing CS gas or some more toxic material would in all probability be caught by the current security arrangements, which did not exist in the days of Barbara Castle.
As part of the arrangements for the temporary screen, the ventilation system for the Chamber and for the Gallery behind the screen is already separate.
As for the other point made by Mr. Howarth, screening arrangements were introduced because they would detect something the size of a CS gas canister; but, as Mrs. Browning pointed out, we do not necessarily comprehend the sheer toxicity of the substances now available. Only minute quantities need to circulate. They might not kill us there and then, unless we were lucky, but they might well do so within the next couple of days, which would have the same effect: the Government would be gone, the Opposition would be gone, and two thirds of the House of Commons would be gone.
Obviously we should not stray into the technical details of how an attack might take place. So far, however, Members have spoken only about the air conditioning as a way of disseminating whatever might be introduced into the Chamber. I should like to know how fast the contents of a container that landed on the floor and opened in the middle of the Chamber could be absorbed into the air conditioning and so on. It seems to me that a device would be necessary to expel the contents of a phial, and that would be picked up by the security arrangements unless there was a lapse in security. It would have to be large enough to be picked up in order to be effective in a Chamber this size, which is not a small room. We are not talking about a substance that would be introduced into the water or air conditioning systems; we are talking about something that would be thrown down from the Gallery, and would not be picked up by security. I hope someone will tell me whether I am being a bit of a fantasist.
If the screen were not there and a substance or canister were thrown on to the floor, would not the authorities have to lock us all in the Chamber? Whatever had been thrown might be communicable, and until it had been analysed and tested, we would all—if the substance were fatal—be doomed to die. That is the reality of modern weapons of this kind. The security services would recommend the procedure that I have described, and the House authorities would have to carry it out.
A weapon need not be described as such merely because it contains some substance. It is a weapon if it contains a delivery system. Chucking a phial into the Chamber does not constitute a delivery system. We should concentrate on the real threat rather than engaging in general talk about chemical and biological weapons. We have done that in the past.
That is the purpose of the screen—to stop things being thrown or ejected, or released in the Gallery so that the air conditioning can deal with the distribution.
It has been said that the screen is unfair for two reasons. The first is that people in the Gallery are likely to be the victims, rather than the Government being eliminated. Let me make a different point. A terrorist works on the basis of a target's vulnerability. While we are vulnerable, we are a target; when we are not vulnerable, the terrorist will look for an alternative target. He is unlikely to launch an attack on the other side of the screen, knowing that it will not affect those on this side—or, at any rate, is less likely to do so.
As for the red herring that the Chamber should not be protected until the whole House is protected, that is nonsense in terms of priorities. We must do what we can in the order in which things can be done effectively. We could get this done in weeks. That is why the obscenity up there was put up: we knew that it would take 18 months to provide an alternative.
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Marshall-Andrews: how do we judge efficacy? If nothing has happened after 18 months, do we conclude that the measure was effective or that it was not necessary? We could select either answer. The decision must be made here and now—and, to my mind, the decision here and now must be, and I hope will be, in favour of a permanent screen.
I am delighted to follow Mr. Williams. I think I am the only other Member present who, like him, was in the Chamber when the CS gas canister was thrown. The situation was precisely as he described it. I was also here, as he may have been, when manure was thrown and when red ink was thrown. After each of those occurrences, some Members said that we needed a screen. I, like the right hon. Gentleman, was one of those who persistently and continually said "No, we do not." Being here—being in public life, and accepting our vocation—means having to take risks, in the Chamber and outside.
I was a member of the Commission—along with my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth—when we heard the first request for a screen, about 15 months ago. A security Committee of the House, with Members from all parties, said that we should consider it. My right hon. Friends and I argued robustly against it, as did Sir Stuart Bell. I do not think I am betraying any secrets when I say that the Commission was unanimously sceptical and unconvinced by the evidence given to us.
I yield to no one in my affection for this House. I love this place, and I love this Chamber. One of my great regrets is that the Chamber has seen much of its life depart from it over recent years, but that is another issue. I believe that it is absolutely crucial that this Chamber should be available to any citizen of this country, or indeed to any visitor to this country, who wants to come to listen. It is very important that we should have adequate screening processes, so that people are not put at risk.
Only the other day, I was walking out through St. Stephen's entrance. Someone had one of those pepper-shakers. The police—those who serve us so very well in this place and have not yet been mentioned in this debate—apprehended that chap, and he was not going to come in. It is right and proper that we should have the most careful surveillance of those who want to come to listen to our proceedings. However, when the evidence was brought to the Commission earlier this year by the head of the security services and subsequently by the Metropolitan police commissioner, I was very reluctantly persuaded that the screen is a price that we have to pay for the tragic times in which we live. It is a price that we have to pay if we are to continue to allow people to queue on the pavement and to come in to listen. I believe that it is a reasonable price.
There has been much rather frivolous talk about second-class visitors and all the rest of it. We have different categories of visitor now. We have the diplomats, visiting heads of state and visiting parliamentary delegations; there is a row of seats up there for them. We have Members of the other place, who have special seats, just as there are special seats in the House of Lords for us. We have those who are known to us—family, friends, constituents whom we know and for whom we can vouch. However, when the people who have the security of this country in their care tell us—as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, I heard this, too—about the sleepers, they say, "We are not worried about the ones who have a record. We are worried about the ones who have no record and who are waiting their time to perpetrate some act, be it to come in with a bomb and detonate themselves, or to come in with a phial of chemicals or whatever," as my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning so graphically illustrated. We have to protect this place and ourselves because we, however imperfectly, are the embodiment of the democracy of this nation.
It was a spurious analogy to talk about the bomb in 1941. Of course, democracy is far more important than the building, much as I love the building. The building was destroyed. This Chamber was destroyed. We went to Church house briefly. We then moved into the Chamber of the House of Lords, and the Lords moved into the Robing room. For almost 10 years, that is how we conducted our proceedings. If we had a physical attack, we would be able to do something similar now. I hope and believe that there are contingency plans, so that we can do precisely that, but what we are talking about here is someone coming and putting into the Chamber substances that could have the devastating effect that has already been described.
Of course, we cannot protect ourselves in all places and at all times but the fact that we cannot do everything is no excuse for doing nothing. I was persuaded by the head of the security services and others that the course that we are taking is the right one because a specific threat has been identified. Almost uniquely within the free world, the Executive and legislature of this great country come together at predictable and predetermined times. That presents a target.
Of course, that happens not just at Prime Minister's Question Time, although that is the weekly predictable time. This very week, we have had two other occasions, which were rightly widely canvassed on the radio, television and in the media, when the Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box, made a statement surrounded by his colleagues, with all my senior colleagues in front of him and the Chamber crowded. That happens in this Parliament but does not happen in others. It does not, for example, happen in Congress because there is a separation of powers and the Executive do not sit in the legislature or go regularly to the legislature. Having had this specific threat pointed out and this real threat underlined, I believe that the Commission would have been in grave dereliction of its duty had it not taken the action that it took.
I say to colleagues on both sides of the House, and I hope that I will not be castigated by my colleagues on the Commission for this, that my first reaction was to say that we should do this immediately, having been convinced. Then we discussed it among ourselves and decided that it was right to share that knowledge a little more widely. That was why Mr. Speaker wrote not just to Privy Councillors but to Whips of minority parties—Mr. Beggs was there and spoke eloquently at the meeting—and to one or two others. They came, and they listened. Of course, there was not unanimity but there was an overwhelming view that this was deeply regrettable but absolutely necessary.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, who is making a very eloquent speech, but he has introduced into the debate something that as far as I am concerned has not been mentioned before: a specific threat—I am quoting, I think, exactly what he said—to this Chamber of something being thrown into the Chamber.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course it is not a point of order. I am making a point that is entirely relevant to the debate and therefore it is important that colleagues should know about that. I believe that we have a duty to consider something else, and it came to me during the debate. I have been slightly distressed by some of the comments, including sotto voce comments, that I have heard. I respect everyone who is a robust defender of parliamentary democracy. I have dedicated my life to that and hope that I will do so until the end of my days. However, what we need to do—I will talk to the Leader of the House and my colleagues on the Commission about this—is probably to arrange a series of briefings for Members of the House, so that they may share some of the information that we have been given on a strictly confidential basis. It would be the right thing for us to do, because that would dispel some of the manifest ignorance that is present here today.
I certainly do not wish to introduce any further note of dissent into the debate but some of us remember being told before that there was an immediate or imminent threat, not to this House but to this nation, and some of us feel that we were misled. However, the point of my intervention is to ask my hon. Friend whether he would give me reasons for voting against the amendment, which so far no one has done.
I am delighted to give those reasons. I say in passing that I do not accept the thrust of what my hon. Friend sought to say in the first part of his intervention, because I believe that what we were told we were told in good faith. However, I am not going to rehearse all the arguments. I believe that what was done last year was entirely justified, but that is my personal view. As for the amendment, the answer in effect is partly that given by the Leader of the House and partly that given by me in my intervention on Mr. Tyler. While I will not particularise, the screen we have is not wholly as effective as a permanent screen would be. I do not rate the aesthetic considerations as paramount, but I believe that they are real. However, I am concerned about security, not aesthetics. Secondly, having been persuaded that we live in such perilous times that the most comprehensive review of security in this place is necessary and is going on—we must not forget the context in which we are discussing this matter—the sooner we can have the maximum protection, the better.
The permanent screen will give maximum protection. It will take between 15 and 18 months for it to be ordered, fabricated and erected, and the only time in the next two years when we can do that without further extensions of parliamentary recesses—we have just had such an extension, for that purpose—will be in the long summer recess of 2005. We therefore need the approval of this House, and I beg colleagues in all parts of the House, if they care about this place and access to it by anybody on the street who wants to come and listen, to support the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader today.
There are some strange misconceptions in this debate; it is almost surreal. If it were the case that were it not for the screen, we would all be murdered, there might be something in it—but that is not so. All the screen does is protect us from the people sitting behind it—not from those in front of it or in Central Lobby, or from the serried ranks of journalists. If I were a terrorist—or the kind of sleeping infiltrator whose entire life was dedicated to annihilating or subverting our democracy and traditions—with the wherewithal to get my hands on a little phial of lethal anthrax, I should probably also have the initiative to write to my Member of Parliament, whom I had taken the trouble to get to know a little, and ask him to get me a seat in front of the screen.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a difference, even these days, between someone who queues up and comes in off the street and a member of the parliamentary Lobby?
It is true that I can tell the difference between a member of the public—indeed, a member of the human race—and a member of the parliamentary Lobby. The point remains; I do not think that the screen is likely to be a significant deterrent to a resourceful terrorist. What it does is to send out all the wrong signals about us, our Parliament and our democracy to the people whom we are supposed to represent.
If my hon. Friend does not think that the screen will be a serious deterrent, why does he think that MI5 recommended it to us?
The screen tells us that the head of MI5 and her minions are no doubt excellently cognisant of the evil machinations of terrorists and that, although she understands terrorism very well, she perhaps does not understand Parliament particularly well. Anyone who understood Parliament would not put a screen half way up the Strangers Gallery, because they would know that any resourceful terrorist would just go in front of it.
The Leader of the House shakes his head. I do not in any way impugn the motives or the sincerity of the Commission, the Leader of the House or any of the people who have made the decision. I just do not agree with them.
The one time that the Leader of the House and his able sidekick were nodding vigorously was when Sir Patrick Cormack said that just because we cannot do everything is not a reason for doing nothing. That is a good point—one in politics generally that I make all the time. On this occasion, however, it is better to say that there is no point doing something that is foolish. Doing something foolish is not better than doing nothing.
I have a couple more random points. Several speeches, the preponderance of which have been in favour of the screen, in a Chamber that is clearly more hostile because of it, have mentioned the peculiarity of the concentration and predictability of the timetable in this Parliament, compared with others. That is just not true. I was in the Assemblée Nationale, I think at the same time as my hon. Friend Sir Stuart Bell, where we watched Government question time. The President was not there, but the Prime Minister and the whole Cabinet were, and there was certainly no screen, although that event was perfectly predictable. Most Parliaments are quite predictable; there is nothing particularly unique about this place in that sense.
That thing—that screen—sends a signal to our constituents that we are frightened. It says to Mr. Terrorist, "I am frightened of you. You have made me change my ways. You have put a barrier between my Parliament and my people." It says, "You are winning, Mr. Terrorist. I am running, I am hiding." British democracy should not hide from terrorists; that is not the way. The screen is based on a misconception. By having it, we are telling people that they can come in and bring their anthrax, and that if they get a ticket, they can go into the Gallery with it. We are telling people that they are welcome to swing their anthrax around Central Lobby, and that if they can get an invitation to lunch with a Member in the Strangers Dining Room and lob a bit of chemical weaponry around there, that is no problem. The only place where there will be no point in their taking their anthrax is up there where the screen is. What is the point of that?
On the logic of my hon. Friend's argument that we are frightened, he would not have armed police guards or concrete bollards outside, or airport-type security here. He would have no security at all. My point to him is that this move is about reducing risk. The Security Service advice was about reducing risk, for the good reasons that Sir Patrick Cormack and my right hon. Friend Mr. Williams explained.
No, that is not true, because the screen does not work. All that it is, is a symbol. It is a physical barrier symbolising something that is metaphorically very important. It is telling people, "You can't come in. You can't turn up and walk into the same Room as your Member of Parliament, feel what they feel, see what they see and hear what they hear", and that is wrong.
My final point, although I am conscious that the motion and amendment do not really allow for the full expression of this, is that hon. Members are wrong when they suggest that we should give the screen time. We all know what happens to temporary structures that are erected, especially when evaluation is impossible, as several hon. Members have said. We do not want to give the screen time. We need to get rid of it before we get used to it.
I want to echo several of the points that have been made, and make one or two further ones, if I may. I immediately pick up on what Mr. Simon has just said. It is obvious that different Members have different views on the signals sent out, and that there are genuinely different interpretations of the signal question. I do not think that the argument is conclusive either way, although I tend to agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said.
We could embark on rather pompous statements about our great democracy and the mother of Parliaments and so on, although we are rather over-prone to those in this place. There are other great democracies around the world. The great democracy in the United States does not, to my knowledge, involve having screens in Congress, even though the President of the United States makes a predicted state of the union address in Congress every year. The Australian Parliament—arguably the most vigorous of Parliaments, of which I wish I were a Member, because it is like this place used to be in the old days—has most of the Government there every day answering questions, but I am not aware that there is a screen in Canberra, either. The arguments about signals and comparisons with other Parliaments are very balanced, and are not conclusive one way or the other.
Another point concerns the two categories of visitor. Of course it is right to say that there have always been different categories of visitors—or, as we charmingly call them, strangers—to this House, but as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington said, the screen makes that obvious. It cries out that there will be at least two very different categories of people: the favoured, who are here courtesy of a Member of Parliament; and the others, who have yet to be able to persuade an MP that they have an intimate relationship with them and can be vouched for. That is the key difference between the fait accompli that we have been presented with, and which we are being asked to make permanent, and the previous situation. That is why having the screen is a significant step.
We should also consider a point that has been touched on only briefly, and which was raised in the now notorious meeting of the great, the good and the not so good; I, too, was there. Why do we assume that the Press Gallery is so secure that we need do nothing about it? I asked this question in that meeting and I ask it again: how certain can we be that nobody who could present a threat to this House will ever get into the Press Gallery? I remain to be convinced, to put it mildly.
I am not sure that I can convince the right hon. Gentleman about anything, but I shall at least answer his question. As he knows, in order to be issued with a pass, members of the Press Gallery are subject to the normal required vetting procedures. A number of trainee journalists sometimes enter the Chamber. They will be subject to more rigorous checks, in line with the checks to which others are subjected in other Galleries.
Let me finish making this point, since the Leader of the House has raised it. That said, I do not want to dwell on it, because it relates to the point, which Mr. Tyler rightly dwelt on, about the overall comprehensive security review. I want reassurance in this regard: I want to be told that when passes are issued for free entry into this place, we are absolutely certain of the identity of the person concerned, and of the fact that they are not a security threat. I am not certain that that is so. In fact, I have reason to believe that, until fairly recently, the information given on the application form was scanty to say the least, that references were never taken up, and that proper security vetting was never done. So I am not happy about passes issued for the Press Gallery or more generally.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the press have become very adept at sneaking all sorts of impostors into places such as airport loading areas and perhaps even Buckingham palace? Does that not show that such actions could pose a very significant security threat to Members in this Chamber?
Yes, and in a sense I wish that we saw more people in the Press Gallery more frequently; looking at it now, it is no security threat whatever. [Laughter.] The point is a serious one. We have become obsessed with the temporary screen—and rightly so, as it is the only point at issue today—yet the rest of the Chamber's surroundings remain gapingly open.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is much confusion, in that many Members misunderstand the difference in security terms between a general threat and a specific one? It would help the conduct of our debate if we explained the difference between a general threat—those of us who voted for the war received a visit from our local police, who pointed out that there was a general threat—and the specific threat that many of us experience in Northern Ireland. The latter is designated as coming from a defined source—a terrorist organisation—and is directed at the individual. It would help to inform this debate if the Leader of the House defined whether we are talking about a specific threat to the House, or a general one from worldwide terrorism. There is total confusion on the subject.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. It is because, tragically, of the experience that our Northern Ireland colleagues have had and continue to have of such difficulties, that they should be listened to carefully on this and related issues. It would be salutary if we heard more—I hope from my hon. Friend—about Northern Ireland's experience over the years of the different forms of parliamentary chambers there.
That brings me to the role of the Security Service. I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends would like to elaborate on that, if they can catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not as convinced as I suppose I should be that, because someone even as eminent as the head of our Security Service comes here to give the House advice, that settles the matter. That is not how it should work. Under our governmental system, I thought that officers, officials and advisers advised and Ministers—in this case, Members—disposed. That is how it should work. Of course we should take full account of the advice given to us from the highest levels of our Security Service—indeed, we should take it very seriously. In the end, however, we are the ones who have to strike the balance between the demands of democracy, incorporating the symbolism of what we do, and the advice given by security people.
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right that the decision is a matter for the House. The Leader of the House said in opening the debate—this might help David Burnside—that the Security Service made an "unequivocal" recommendation to raise the screen. That is the basis on which the screen was raised and it explains why we are having this debate. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
I am not disposed at this stage to go into the details of that argument, which I shall leave to others, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point and hope that it was helpful in the context in which it was raised.
I shall touch briefly on the extravagant claim—we have now effectively disposed of it—that the screen would protect, as someone said, "thousands" of our staff. We have established through our useful debate that the screen will provide protection only for Members of Parliament and those who work for us in the Chamber. There are a small number of such colleagues, as I shall call them. They are the only people for whom the screen will provide protection and, in a way, that diverts the attention of potential terrorists to the rest of the parliamentary estate. Let us not hear any more talk from those who have supported the proposal and set this thing up that the screen somehow gives protection to all parliamentary colleagues and staff. It does nothing of the kind, and it may even have a counter-effect.
To help the right hon. Gentleman, whose point of view I respect, I should say that the director general provided evidence, based on intelligence, that there was a threat to the House—
Let me finish. That intelligence led the director general to make a specific recommendation that the best way of combating that threat was to erect a permanent screen. My hon. Friend Sir Stuart Bell and other members of the Commission will be able to confirm that. That was the director general's recommendation. I could have spelled it out in greater detail at the beginning of the debate, but that would not have been in the best interests of the security of the House. It is all about reducing risk, not eliminating it.
No, we cannot have that from the Leader of the House. We moved the motion for the House to sit in private precisely to give the Leader of the House the opportunity to provide those details to the House. He led his troops against that move, claiming that he would be able to tell us everything necessary for the debate. He cannot have it both ways; that really will not do. It is unfair of him to say that. He should come clean with us, with all the risk that that entails. As my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth spelled out in a point of order, the Leader of the House cannot now hide behind the fact that providing details would be wrong. We gave him the opportunity to do so.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman did not mean it when he spoke about coming clean with the House. I have been more open and frank with the House than members of the Commission would ideally have wanted. Am I to produce documents shown to me, or transcripts of conversations—including much probing—between the director general of MI5, myself and members of the Commission? Given the seriousness of the threat to Britain's security—which has resulted in arrests up and down the country—and to the Chamber, I do not believe that that would be a responsible course to take.
I listened closely to the exchanges between my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth and the Leader of the House. I decided to vote against the House sitting in private, because of the assurances that I thought we had received from the right hon. Gentleman. I was misled and, if I had my time again, I would support my hon. Friend's motion.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Would that procedures allowed us to have another go at going into a private sitting. Sadly, we are faced with yet another of the procedural boondoggles so often visited on us, and we cannot do that any more. We are therefore stuck, as it were, with debating the matter in public.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we face a difficulty in this debate? One hon. Member thought that the screen's sole purpose was to prevent attacks involving firearms. It is clear from the debate so far that some hon. Members have more information than others—members of the Commission obviously do. I am not a Privy Councillor, and have not been briefed. Nevertheless, any hon. Member who has been subject to a security threat will accept that, if the debate is to be held in open session, uniform information must be given to everyone beforehand.
My hon. Friend is right. I hoped that I would not have to say this, but she forces me to: I was a member of the Commission and, as my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack pointed out, I was privy to the original discussion of this matter. Apparently, things have changed since then, although I am not sure that they have changed that much. I was also present at the very secret meeting when very senior and important hon. Members were told a little more. Not all of us know all of the information, but we are talking about the possibility that people could enter the parliamentary estate with chemical or biological agents concealed about their persons that are impossible to detect by normal methods. Such people could therefore get those substances into the building and, by implication, into the Strangers Gallery. They could then distribute the materials to our disadvantage—or, indeed, death. That is the argument, as I understand it.
The proposition is that the screen will deal with that threat. As we are all being very frank and open this afternoon, I shall adopt the same approach and say that there is a gap at the bottom of the screen through which someone could easily distribute one of the agents that I have described. The screen's effectiveness is therefore extremely doubtful.
I assure my right hon. Friend that I took up the point about gaps in the screen. I was told that there is none, and that other measures have been taken to ensure that what he fears cannot happen.
Well, "other measures being taken"—we have all heard that one before. That may not convince the House, but the sad truth is that we remain very vulnerable, in other parts of the parliamentary estate that are not privileged in having a screen, to people releasing agents of the sort that I have described.
Any head of MI5 is going to cover his or her back and say that all possible measures have been taken. That is understandable, and I do not blame the present head of MI5 for saying that. The security conditions are very difficult but, if there is a definite threat that a person in the Strangers Gallery might lob something into the Chamber, I am willing to go along with having that ghastly screen. However, those responsible for security may merely have scratched their heads and decided that they needed to do everything that they possibly could. The screen is one thing, but would my right hon. Friend agree with sitting in a bunker underground, for example?
My hon. Friend has put his finger on the distinction between officials and elected representatives. Officials have a proper role to play, and they are obviously playing it, but our role is very different. We have to assess the advice given by officials, and then put it in the context of our relationship with our electors and the democratic system overall.
I want to say something about money. We have become very prone to be liberal about spending taxpayers' money.
In fact, there are few, if any, mechanisms to protect the taxpayer from us. We are supposed to protect the taxpayer from the Government, but protecting the taxpayer from us is a much more difficult proposition and the body that does that, or is supposed to, is the very body that has put up the screen. It has already spent a lot of our money and wants to spend even more—
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was horrified when I saw how much had already been spent and what will be spent if the proposal goes through: more than £1 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. Many of my constituents live near this place and many actually work here; few of them will be protected by the screen. In my area, we cannot find a community police officer because all the policemen have been moved from Lambeth to protect the Palace of Westminster. Is it not just as right to provide protection for my constituents? Instead, we have this pathetic knee-jerk reaction, which simply plays into the hands of terrorists?
I am sure that the hon. Lady speaks for many, if not most, of her constituents if they are as fully aware of what is going as I hope they will be tomorrow—after we have rejected the motion, ideally. We are talking not only about the money for the existing screen—that has been spent already—but about the further money proposed for the permanent screen. Indeed, were we to reach the next item on the Order Paper, there is a proposal to spend another £5 million or so. Many Members may not be aware that lurking behind that is an even more grandiose scheme for a Disney theme park approach for visitors to this place—the cost of which, when I last saw it, was £15 million.
I mention those figures because we have an alarming tendency to spend taxpayers' money even more liberally, in proportional terms, than the Government, and that is pretty difficult to achieve. I hope that, as Members examine this and the following motion, they will consider carefully what we are spending on ourselves on behalf of the taxpayer.
My final point reinforces the comments of the hon. Member for North Cornwall, in whose name the amendments were tabled—my name is on them, too. The amendments were intended to give the House the opportunity to pause for consideration, and I hope that it will look carefully at them and agree to them. For the moment, we can do nothing about the temporary screen, but I hope that the amendments will give the House the opportunity not only to consider the efficacy of that screen—not to regard it as permanent in any way and perhaps to return to the subject in the future—but to defer commitment to the greater expenditure on the permanent screen until we have had a much better chance to assess what such a screen means and what it can and, more importantly, cannot do. That was the intention in tabling the amendments. They give the House a much better opportunity than simply—
I shall treat that intervention with the respect that it deserves.
This debate is a very important occasion. It is one on which we are given an opportunity to consider our role, our relationship to security—both specifically and more generally—and the matter of messages and symbols. It is in that context that I hope the House will agree to the amendments, which will give us an opportunity to return to the issue when we are better informed and when we have made a much better assessment of where we are going and why we want to go there.
There is a canard abroad. I have heard it whispered that those of us who bitterly oppose this thing do so because we wish, in some way, those on the Front Bench to be put at greater risk. Nothing could be further from the truth, Mr. Speaker. Indeed, I can reveal to you that one of the reasons that I habitually attempt to take this particular seat during Prime Minister's questions is so that I can, if necessary, suddenly interpose my own body between the Prime Minister and the public or indeed the Press Gallery—[Interruption.]—and even the Leader of the House.
Important points are involved. First, I fundamentally and truthfully believe that such a measure will, in the long run, increase the risk for Members in the House. If the motion is passed and there is a permanent screen, that will be a small victory. It will not be a victory for the Serjeant at Arms, with whom I have considerable sympathy, or for the security services, with which I have infinitely less sympathy after the events of last year, or for the Metropolitan police commissioner, for whom I have a great liking and admiration. It will be a victory for the grim list of organisations appended to the Terrorism Act 2000, including Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, al-Qaeda and so on, which will have the enormous satisfaction of knowing that simply through their existence and the threats that they say they pose they will, to adopt a note of pomposity, have turned the mother of Parliaments into a Lilliputian assembly that, they would perceive, is cowering behind a wall of glass. Those are criminal organisations, and should be treated as such—they should never be endowed with the status of warriors. They should not be treated as warriors but with contempt.
I do not remember speaking well of Baroness Thatcher in the House before, but I shall do so now. When she was bombed, only hours afterwards she was at the Conservative party conference carrying on with the democratic process. We should remember that indomitable spirit of politics, because we are sending a message—to utter another pomposity—not just to our constituents but to every terrorist organisation that is hoping to undermine and destroy our democratic way of life through the threat that they pose.
Secondly, this building does not belong to Members of Parliament. It is a royal palace but it is also, in the best sense, the people's palace. They come here not because of sufferance or invitation from us but as of right. They have a right to be here, not as voyeurs or listeners, but to participate in the process. Of course, they cannot speak while they are here, but their very presence alters the warp and weft of what we do. When the House laughs, as its does, fortunately, on occasion, that laughter is echoed by the people who sit there and are with us. When the place is sad or solemn, that sadness and solemnity is felt not just down here but throughout the Chamber. Any interference with that is a gross distortion and intervention with the body politic—they will know it, and we will know it. There could not be a stronger metaphor for the alienation of people from politics than what we are proposing to put up.
Of course, there is risk, but we are here to take risks. We are not here simply to soak up the many benefits and privileges associated with being a Member. We are here to bear and share the risks that our people bear and share. What rights have we over, for instance, those who preside over public order or public matters? What about the thousands of judges—I do not hold a special brief for them—or the counsel who appear before them? What about the thousands of jurors who go into a jury box every single day in public courts—institutions that, the Leader of the House will not mind me reminding him, are the among the most noble in the country. Those jurors are at risk, but are we going to put glass screens up in the public gallery in all our courts, thereby changing their very nature and the way in which they operate?
We must accept the risk and, although the Leader of the House gave the notion short shrift, I am unapologetic in arguing that our action will increase the risk to people behind the screen. They are at as much risk as us, and if we isolate ourselves by an absolute action we will increase the risk to them.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, apart from Parliament, nothing is more important than our courts being able to function and being open to scrutiny from the public? He knows as well as I do that where courts are thought to be at risk for various reasons, security measures are taken. He will have been to Winchester and seen them.
On occasions. I have some experience of courts. I know of no plans to put up glass screens between the court and the public gallery. On occasion we put up screens, and it is one of the ways that we deal effectively with terrorist cases—on occasion. That is why I accept from the Leader of the House that a temporary screen in the Chamber may—I do not know—have been necessary, but a permanent screen is certainly not necessary.
The hon. and learned Gentleman, as always, makes an eloquent speech, but he is advancing a spurious argument. There may be occasions when it is necessary to take proper protective measures in court, but there is a weekly occasion to which a number of us have referred when the whole of the Executive and most of the Legislature are assembled here.
I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have enormous respect. If we are speaking about the ability to foresee events of a strategic nature, the courts are no better and no worse off than we are. Massive trials involving terrorists are well publicised. We know when they are to take place. Terrorists know when they are to take place. I have never been in a position where screens have been erected between the public gallery and a court in those circumstances—never. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, his argument will not wash.
The problem is that it will be perceived outside, with a great deal of justification, that we are protecting ourselves—I take the hon. Gentleman's argument that this is democracy, but what will be perceived is that we are protecting ourselves and letting the rest go hang. We must bear the risk, and we must be seen to share it with others and with our constituents.
We take risks when we hold our surgeries. I have no more intention of holding my surgeries behind glass than I have of sitting in the Chamber behind glass, because my constituents have a right to see me not through a glass darkly—that may improve the situation in some respects—but face to face, both in those circumstances and here. If we vote for a permanent screen we will be contributing not to national security, but to national neurosis. There will be no end to it. I very much hope that the amendments will be passed, in which case the substantive motion will fall, but if they are not, I hope the substantive motion will be defeated in due course.
I should like to take up a point raised by David Burnside, who made a distinction between a defined threat and a specific threat. I should like to pursue that into the difference between a threat and a vulnerability.
We have not been told whether there is a defined, specific threat to the House. That is probably not that relevant. One week there may be a defined threat, and the next week that threat may have diminished. One week there may be none, and the next week a defined threat may be heard about. By the time a defined, specific threat is discovered, however, it may be too late to do anything about it.
One thing that no hon. Member has questioned in the debate so far is that the House, and the Chamber particularly, is vulnerable. It is obviously vulnerable. Nobody has questioned that. It is not just a potential target for terrorism—it is an easy potential target. It is not just an easy potential target—it is an attractive, easy potential target, and not just for terrorists. It is a target for hoaxers as well. That could be just as disruptive to the life of this country as real terrorism, and just as bad in publicity terms for the terrorist threat. If a powder or a gas or a liquid were released into the Chamber, it would be impossible to tell for a long time precisely what was contained in it.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Mr. Challen made an important intervention on Mr. Williams in respect of the specific threat to which my right hon. Friend refers. I suspect that what the Leader of the House is really trying to tell us is that the issue is not guns, but toxic threats.
Only under pressure.
Will my right hon. Friend please explain to the House how some of these toxic materials can be brought into this Chamber and disseminated in such a way as to cause the kind of mayhem that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West threatened us with? It is my understanding that some extremely dangerous items are around, but unless the substances can be propelled into the atmosphere, they will not do the damage that we are being frightened into believing faces us.
My hon. Friend has an expertise in these matters that I do not have, but the advice of the director general of the Security Service is clearly quite specific. It is that that threat does exist and that there is a risk not only of these weapons being brought into the Chamber, but of their being disseminated in a way that would cause serious damage. I am personally prepared to accept that advice.
If this Chamber is vulnerable, the question is: what should we do about it? We have been advised that we can reduce the vulnerability by putting up a screen more permanent than the one up there above us. I accept that that is not the answer to all the problems that we face or all the threats and vulnerabilities in the rest of this Palace, but it is an answer to some of the problems that we face.
The alternative, of course, is to do nothing, and to accept the vulnerability of this Chamber. That has its attractions. It has the attraction of continuing the accessibility, in one sense, of the constituents who come to see us by having them within the same broad Chamber as we are. But to reject the clear and firm advice of the director general of the Security Service on this issue runs the risk of courting the accusation of bravado.
I am reminded a bit of the incident of Neil Kinnock. When the Security Service advised that we should put up gates at the entrance to Downing street, Neil Kinnock pledged the Labour party to removing the gates as soon as it got into office. We have had a Labour Government now for seven years, and this is one of those many things on which they have, I am afraid, failed to deliver. There used to be a time when one could walk down Downing street and there were no crowd barriers or gates, and when Harold Wilson could be photographed at the door of No. 10. Those times are gone. There used to be a time when one could come into this House and there would be no searching and no screens. Those times are gone. Actually, those crowd barriers, gates, searches and screens, and the queues that they create for all the members of the public who try to get into this House, are the barriers that currently exist between ourselves and our constituents.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very eloquent and compelling speech, for which I am grateful. Some hon. Members seemed to suffer a memory loss, however, and I wish to remind the House of what I said in my opening speech, and I relied on the director general of MI5 when I said it. As I said, if an al-Qaeda group managed to throw a phial of anthrax or ricin into the Chamber or, maybe even worse, if a suicide agent released the substance without anybody noticing, which we have been advised is quite feasible, the particles would immediately begin spreading throughout the Chamber because of the way in which the air flows work. Within minutes, total contamination could occur. I remind the House that that is what I said earlier.
That is advice that I think we should be foolish to reject.
We might wish that the security-free days of old were back, but I think that it would be very foolish for us to pretend out of bravado that they are back. They are not back; they are gone, and I suspect that they are gone for good.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I thought, when I was elected to Parliament, that all Members were treated equally. You have often said that yourself. How is it, then, that some Members have clearly had more briefings and more intelligence, and know more about whether there is a direct threat to the Chamber or to the House, whereas I, as a Member of Parliament representing my constituents, have not had all these briefings? How am I supposed to vote on this issue when I do not have the information that some more privileged Members have? I represent my constituents just as much as they represent theirs.
Order. That includes Mr. Forth. I would say to the hon. Lady that she was a Minister at one time and was therefore privy to information that I did not have. She did not disclose it to me. Some hon. Members who took part in this debate were and still are members of the Security Committee and therefore have access to security information. I have told the House that I took soundings before the debate and I invited Privy Councillors to come to the meeting, which was attended by about 60 right hon. Members. To their credit, not one individual leaked any information to the media. I had the very sensitive problem of security to worry about. I will give information to the House as openly as I can, but the hon. Lady will understand that, where security is concerned, I hear of things that I have to keep to myself or to a very few people, because of the sensitivity of the matter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that I sought to move that the House sit in private because I was concerned that the Leader of the House would not be able to share with those of us who are not members of the Commission particularly sensitive information, which we might have been able to discuss if the House had met in private. The Leader of the House assured us that we would be able to have such discussions, then opened his speech by saying that he could not disclose such information. Indeed, throughout the debate, he said that he could not share such information fully with Members because of its sensitivity. I submit that he has not played a fair game with hon. Members on this matter.
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.