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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?
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Whatever had been thrown might be communicable, and until it had been analysed and tested, we would allif the substance were fatalbe 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.
Mr. Challen: 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.
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 sideor, 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 the Member for Medway (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 nowand, to my mind, the decision here and now must be, and I hope will be, in favour of a permanent screen.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con):
I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (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
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screen. I, like the right hon. Gentleman, was one of those who persistently and continually said "No, we do not." Being herebeing in public life, and accepting our vocationmeans having to take risks, in the Chamber and outside.
I was a member of the Commissionalong with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (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 the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (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 policethose who serve us so very well in this place and have not yet been mentioned in this debateapprehended 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 usfamily, 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 usas a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, I heard this, tooabout 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 the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (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.
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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 partiesthe hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) was there and spoke eloquently at the meetingand 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.
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