HC Deb 17 June 1974 vol 875 cc37-44
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

Just before 8.30 this morning a bomb, which is estimated as weighing 15–20 lb., exploded near the north end of Westminster Hall. Six minutes' warning was given by a telephone call to the Press Association, and officers from New Scotland Yard were already in the precincts when the explosion took place. But the warning related to the House of Commons and was quite unspecific.

It is too early to say how much damage was done but most of it results not directly from the bomb but from a fractured gas main. Some damage was done to the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall and to the staff canteen. More serious damage was done to two Members' desk room and two secretaries' typing rooms in the Westminster Hall Annexe.

Unfortunately five members of the staff of the House and one fireman were injured. One of the members of the staff is being treated in hospital for a broken leg. I know that the whole House would wish me to offer her our best wishes for a speedy recovery and to express our very great sympathy with all those who were injured.

Police investigations are being continued, but it is not yet clear how the explosive device was placed in position.

I am sure that the whole House would wish me to conclude by paying a warm tribute to all those involved, and especially the firemen, for the splendid work they have done.

Mr. Heath

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement about today's explosion. I am sure that not only Parliament but the whole country will be horrified at an explosion of that kind, which has affected our oldest and greatest hall, one so much connected with British traditions and British history.

I join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our sympathy with the member of the staff who was hurt. It must have been an unnerving experience for all the staff who were here when the incident occurred, and we should like to express our gratitude to them for what they did, particularly the police and the firemen. I have taken the opportunity to look at the damage and have spoken to members of both services. I wholeheartedly join in the tribute the right hon. Gentleman paid to what they did on the spot.

May I add, as one of the Members who have lost all their constituency correspondence as a result of the fire, that I hope my constituents will show a certain understanding in the coming weeks if they do not receive replies to their letters or answers to invitations which they have extended.

When the inquiries which presumably are now being made are completed, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House their result with regard to the cause of the incident?

Secondly, the incident raises again the whole question of the security of the Palace of Westminster. As the House is aware, there was a complete review in the last Parliament of the circumstances and the subject we have just been discussing. There is the same conflict between the need to maintain the utmost security and at the same time to give as free movement as possible in the Palace. Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to have another review, so that we may examine again the balance of these two conflicting interests as they affect security at Westminster?

Mr. Short

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's first point, the Services Committee is meeting tomorrow. I discussed the matter this morning with its Chairman, with the Deputy Serjeant at Arms and with you, Mr. Speaker. We are agreed that the incident raises the whole question of security in the House and in the precincts. I do not think that it will ever be possible to devise a completely foolproof security system for these premises, which are entered by about 2,000 people every day—large numbers of workmen, large numbers of temporary staff and so on. Nevertheless, we must review the whole of our security procedures, because of the incident, and that process will begin tomorrow.

Mr. Thorpe

The Leader of the House will be aware that many of us have now been able to see at first hand the courage and efficiency of the fire service and the other auxiliary services, upon which we have had to rely in this country on similar occasions very often in recent months. Is he aware that it is right that we should place on record our great gratitude to them, as well as our sympathy with those who have been injured?

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, does he agree that the police investigations must essentially be of a criminal investigatory nature, and that, arising from what the Leader of the Opposition said, there is the other separate but equally important point of security?

Secondly, although this question goes somewhat wider of his statement, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, whatever may have been the objective of this lunatic measure, it should if anything strengthen the determination of the House to route out terrorism and also strengthen our resolve to see that a solution for Northern Ireland should be on the basis of fairness, and that the House will not be bombed into a decision, but will negotiate peacefully with men of peace?

Mr. Short

The investigation will certainly be of the kind the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman that if the purpose of the explosion was to intimidate the House, it will be counter-productive and will make us all the more determined to find the right solution to the problem of Ireland.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that this morning's incident and the incident which took place over the weekend will in no way detract from the general public's right of free access to this Parliament in the pursuit of legitimate purposes? Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his earlier decision not to take the chair of the Services Committee? Is he now aware that the responsibility that that committee has for the security of this building and this Parliament demands the presence in the chair of the Lord President of the Council? Will my right hon. Friend now accept that responsibility?

Mr. Short

We have in the chair of the Services Committee one of the most senior and respected Members of the House.

Mr. Wellbeloved

That is no substitute for a Cabinet Minister.

Mr. Short

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is doing his job extremely well. There is close liaison between my right hon. Friend and myself.

I am shocked to find that many hon. Members have not yet set an example by obtaining a photographed pass. I hope very much that after this morning's incident all hon. Members will obtain a pass. Unfortunately the time is coming when the House must consider whether it should pass a resolution to ensure that all hon. Members have a pass. Apart from hon. Members, every person who works in the House is obliged to have a pass. Secretaries have photographed passes. The passes used by civil servants and workmen do not contain photographs. The question of passes is one of the security issues which the Services committee must consider urgently. I appeal once more to all hon. Members to set an example.

Mr. Cormack

When the inquiry is completed, will the right hon. Gentleman consider arranging a debate on the security of public buildings? This morning's incident should make us all concerned about every public building. Further, will he consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department with a view to our debating at an early stage the correct penalties for terrorism and acts of this sort?

Mr. Short

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has already raised the matter of a specific investigation. When I have any information I shall pass it on to the House. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has heard the hon. Gentleman's point on the wider aspect of the security of public buildings.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

I do not wish to embarrass my right hon. Friend, but does he realise how lax are our security arrangements? For example, is he aware of a situation last Thursday? I had my wife and two guests at the House. My wife took our two guests to the Crypt, going through Westminster Hall and into the Crypt, and no one was there to challenge them. I was unable to take them because of my infirmity. They walked into the Crypt and back again. My wife could have put a bomb into the Crypt quite easily. Will my right hon. Friend do something to tighten security arrangements even before the review?

Mr. Short

I am sure that my hon. Friend's wife is very well known to the police in the Palace of Westminster.

Mr. Tuck

But no one was there.

Mr. Short

Hon. Members also have some responsibility in this matter.

Mr. Rathbone

May I join my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in condemning this destructive fire? Not only did I lose all my constituency correspondence but also I lost all my political notes and papers. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will at least bring his own pressure to bear to create other amenities so that we shall be able to start again the service to constituents which has inevitably been interrupted.

Does the right hon. Gentleman join his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department in condemning all those who are only too quick to condone violence of this sort and to encourage illegal acts when it happens to suit their political ends? It is acts and circumstances such as this morning's incident which place our democracy very much in jeopardy. It is a dramatic reminder to the British people that we cannot allow the destruction of any of our freedoms by their abuse.

Mr. Short

I understand that the Deputy Chief Whip has already started to make alternative arrangements for hon. Members and secretaries who were affected by this morning's incident. There is nothing that we can do about the loss of constituency correspondence. If the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has lost some invitations, I shall send him one or two to compensate.

Mr. Ford

Has my right hon. Friend any idea when hon. Members might be able to re-enter their rooms in Westminster Hall? Does he agree that the interests of security in this building might be served considerably by reducing the turnover of employees within it by paying realistic remuneration and by building a body of police within the Palace whose career structure would lie within the Palace rather than with the Metropolitan Police?

Mr. Short

My hon. Friend's last point is obviously not one for me, but I agree about staff remuneration, particularly as applied to the catering staff. Of course, this matter is closely linked with the way in which we pay our catering staff. At present, we have to rely heavily on casual labour in the catering department. No doubt that is one of the matters that the Services Committee will consider.

Mr. David Price

I must declare a personal interest. Like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I have lost all my papers and my typewriter. Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that we should not be too sorry for ourselves today? What has happened in the Palace of Westminster is what has been a daily event in Northern Ireland for the past three years.

Mr. Dalyell

Before jumping to the conclusion that this morning's incident is related to Northern Ireland; let us question whether that is to be the automatic assumption. If so, should we not ask ourselves the rather serious question whether we should jump automatically to such a conclusion?

Mr. Short

I did not jump to the conclusion. I said "if it was related to Northern Ireland", but the nature of the warning raises the presumption that it was originated by the IRA.

Mr. Money

Will the right hon. Gentleman express the thanks of those hon. Members who have their desks in the annexe of Westminster Hall to the firemen and the police for the salvage work that they have already done Further, is the right hon. Gentleman able to reassure the House about the structural position of the roof of the historic 700-year old Westminster Hall? Further, will he tell the House how soon, in the light of the savage attack on "The Adoration of the Magi", he expects his hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts to report on the safety of works of art in general?

Mr. Short

I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's last point. I associate myself with his first point. I am full of admiration for the work that the police and the firemen have done today. I visited the scene this morning and agree with what the hon. Gentleman said. The fact that it should happen to perhaps the most historic ceiling in Britain is a great tragedy. I do not know how long the firemen will take. I understand that there are small fires which might take quite a long time to extinguish. No doubt that will be done as quickly as possible, along with the necessary repairs.

I understand that the cinema was to have taken place tonight in the Grand Committee Room. It will now take place in Room 3A in the House of Lords.

Mr. Ashton

Will my right hon. Friend check the proximity of the underground car park to the gas mains and ensure that they are not easily accessible to people wishing to cause this sort of damage? Several hon. Members have expressed perturbation in the past two years about bringing in brief cases and the search that takes place, while lorries piled high with building materials—and many of them are from building firms of, shall we say, Irish origin—are allowed to come and go in the car park just as they please?

Mr. Short

That is the sort of matter which must be considered in the review of security. I know that the chairman of the Services Committee will have heard what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Tugendhat

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is the first point of order that I have raised in four years. I do so with some diffidence but with a feeling of friendship towards the Chair.

We have had two statements within a week about demonstrations in the middle of London. One of those demonstrations took place in my constituency and the other just outside it. Both matters were of great concern. On both occasions I attempted to catch your eye. I think that I am right in saying that on neither occasion was there called a Conservative Member from the central London area. I appreciate the difficulties which you have, Mr. Speaker, in maintaining a balance. None the less, I feel that these matters are of great interest to the people of central London and that Conservative Members from the area perhaps have some entitlement to be heard.

Mr. Speaker

I will bear in mind the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Arthur Latham

On a further point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise with you the responsibility of the Chair arising out of the exchanges which have just taken place concerning security. At the beginning of each Session, you claim certain rights and privileges for the House, and the House itself passes Sessional Orders. Two points arise. One is the freedom of access of Members to the Palace of Westminster, and the other is the right of access of a Member's constituents. Furthermore, I think that I am right in saying that this could also be a matter for the Chair in so far as the Serjeant at Arms in some respects is responsible to you.

I wish to ask whether you, as custodian of the rights of Members, will scrutinise personally any security arrangements which are likely to impinge upon those rights, and whether you will see to it that hon. Members are both consulted and informed about the arrangements and are not confronted with arbitrary decisions over which they seem to have no control and about which they have no information, to the embarrassment of themselves and their constituents.

Mr. Speaker

I think the position is clear. The Services Committee is an advisory committee to me. If action is taken on its recommendations, it must be by my authority, but I prefer that the House itself should exercise that authority. These are basically matters for the House and it is for the House to resolve what should or should not be done. But if, in an emergency, I have to take immediate decisions, I do so upon the advice of the Services Committee, if possible.

Mr. Latham

But you will inform us, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

I or the Leader of the House will certainly inform the House of what measures have been taken.