MPs raise concerns about parliamentary security after attack

Rajeev Syal, Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart
Armed police officer stands guard as emergency services gather at Carriage Gates entrance of UK parliament on Wednesday. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Security at the Palace of Westminster is under intense scrutiny, amid concern among MPs about weak points in the perimeter and whether the man involved in Wednesday’s attack could have reached the House of Commons chamber.

A string of MPs identified Carriage Gates, the entrance on Parliament Square used by the attacker, as a vulnerable point as the officers most closely guarding it are not armed and the gate tends to be left open during parliamentary votes.

The attacker, Khalid Masood, is thought to have been shot by a member of the close protection team of Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, whose car happened to have been parked in New Palace Yard because a vote was happening at the time.

Witnesses said the attacker crashed the car he was driving into the estate’s fence before running through, carrying two knives. He fatally attacked PC Keith Palmer, one of the unarmed officers patrolling near the gates, before being gunned down.

Having breached the perimeter of the Palace of Westminster estate at Carriage Gates, there are several routes an intruder could take to the House of Commons chamber area without passing through locked doors accessible by a security pass.

But it would take several minutes and there are a number of points where police officers are stationed along the way.

At the time of the attack, Theresa May was in a voting lobby, which hundreds of MPs were passing through before being shut into the chamber for security. May was extracted from the estate swiftly when news of the attack broke.

Alan Johnson, the Labour former home secretary, said the Carriage Gates were a point of vulnerability, particularly during votes when they were left open to give easy access for ministers.

He said: “When the votes are on, the gates are open so that ministers can drive in from wherever they are in their different departments in Whitehall.”

Johnson agreed with suggestions made by Theresa Villiers, a Conservative former cabinet minister, that there might be a case for arming all police on duty at the Palace of Westminster.

“The armed police are the second line of defence,” he said. “The first line of defence, all too often, are the unarmed police, which we might need to rethink.”

Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, a member of the House of Commons commission and a former deputy leader of the Commons, said: “There is the Carriage Gates issue. That is the weak point within the boundary of the Palace of Westminster.

“I can’t preempt what any review is likely to find but I would be surprised if there weren’t attempts to direct traffic through the Black Rod’s entrance because traffic there is channeled through very heavy barriers.

Police work at Carriage Gates outside parliament on Thursday. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

“It is hard to see how a gate that can be opened to provide access to cars as quickly as Carriage Gates is not always going to create a security risk.”

One senior ministerial source expressed alarm about the fact that the attacker had managed to penetrate the perimeter of the parliamentary estate – and had apparently been shot by a ministerial protection officer.

“What would have happened if it hadn’t been Wednesday in parliament when the prime minister’s in town? How far could he have got? There will have to be significant things that happen as a result of this,” the source said.

However, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, played down the risks that the attacker could have got further into parliament without being brought down by armed police.

She said it was important to avoid kneejerk reactions to incidents such as Wednesday’s attack.

“It doesn’t make me think we need new powers and I would be wary, actually, of making parliament more militarised, because I value the fact that the public still have reasonable access – although much less access than when I began as an MP in the 80s,” she said.

“I wouldn’t want parliament to become more militarised and us more cut off from our constituents.

“There might be something we can do around Carriage Gates, but the truth is it’s very hard to guard against suicide attacks, and that was in effect a suicide attack.

“He would have known that he would have been shot. There are so many armed police milling around.”

The Metropolitan police, the parliamentary authorities and the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for the secure zone, are reviewing security arrangements in light of the incident.

Unarmed officers act as the public face of parliament at the entrance, where imposing iron gates are the symbol of the estate. These officers are not just the first line of defence but are often seen posing for photographs with tourists keen to get a clear view of Big Ben.

Any review will examine procedures at the gates, which are often left unlocked or ajar because they are in such frequent use.

Armed officers are usually several metres behind the unarmed officers, but MPs and ministers can be seen frequently walking to and fro less than 50 metres beyond them, from parliament’s offices and the House of Commons chamber on the other side of New Palace Yard.

The dilemma for the security forces and the parliamentary authorities is how to provide safety without infringing the right of the public to turn up and lobby MPs.

There are already airport-style checks at some parliamentary entrances, including those at St Stephen’s entrance, and at Portcullis House, the new building housing most MPs’ offices. There are no such checks at Carriage Gates.

The former government minister Grant Shapps said: “We will no doubt review arrangements and look again at procedures. It is a difficult balancing act, but safety of police officers and MPs must be the priority.”

Mary Creagh, the Labour MP for Wakefield, told the BBC: “I think we will need to look at security at the Palace [of Westminster] in the wake of this incident, but that is a plan for another day.”

Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, said there would have to be “a complete overhaul of security from top to bottom”.

At present, there is a mix of armed and unarmed police officers as well as security guards protecting more than 5,000 people who work on the estate. There are at least eight separate entrances to parliament; most are protected by secure turnstiles and a mix of armed and unarmed officers.

Parliamentary pass holders – who include MPs, peers, journalists and staff – are allowed to enter the building through the secure turnstiles without bag checks or scanners.

The review may involve Eric Hepburn, the parliamentary security director, who is responsible for security for both houses. He works with the Met, which provides policing for parliament.

Others who might be involved include: John Bercow, the Speaker and the highest authority of the House of Commons; Kamal El-Hajji, the serjeant at arms, who is responsible for keeping order in the Commons; David Beamish, the clerk of the parliaments; and Lord Fowler, the current Lord Speaker.

A parliamentary spokesman said: “Security of members, staff and the visiting public is our highest priority. For parliament to fulfil its democratic function, it is crucial that it remain open and accessible to the public.

“While we cannot comment on the specifics of our security, we work closely with the police, security services and others to ensure that our security measures are effective and meet whatever level of security risk parliament faces. These measures are always, and will continue to be, under constant review.

“As is good practice following any significant incident, the house in conjunction with the police and other bodies will also be carrying out a review of security around this specific incident.

“As this is the subject on an ongoing investigation, we cannot comment further at this time.”

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