HC Deb 19 November 2003 vol 413 cc775-85 12.31 pm
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the serious breach of security at Buckingham Palace.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

The House is rightly concerned about the reports in the Daily Mirror today, which involve the security of the royal household, the Queen and the President of the United States. I am, of course, addressing those concerns, but let me begin by setting this matter in context.

The day-to-day critical work of security has been and continues to be carried out with skill and professionalism. The security of the royal family involves a wide range of measures. Physical security and the personal protection provided by the police form a critical part of that process. Clearly, however, the checks on those who work closely alongside the royal family are key, too.

As you would expect, Mr. Speaker, there is a comprehensive system of checking for those who, in the course of their work, have close contact with the Queen, members of the royal family and those visiting them. That process involves both security and criminal checks in addition to the sort of employment checks expected from any employer. Clearly, in these circumstances, that is even more vital. In the case of Ryan Parry, the key security and criminal record checks were carried out robustly and correctly, but the employment checks proved insufficient in this case. The palace has already announced that it is reviewing that aspect of the vetting procedure. The House should also know that as part of the preparations for the visit of President Bush, further robust security and criminal record checks have been carried out on all those staff, both permanent and contractual, working at the palace and beyond.

Nevertheless, I am concerned that the system as a whole needs to be reviewed urgently. The Prime Minister, with the support of the royal household, is therefore asking the Security Commission, which is an independent body responsible for overseeing breaches of security, to conduct a thorough review. I am still in the process of agreeing the precise terms of reference and timetable for its work, but I would want an interim report by the end of the year. I would expect that to cover all aspects of the process of checking those who form part of the royal household.

All of us would wish to ensure that gaps exposed in the protection that we offer are closed as quickly as possible. One of the strengths of our democracy is that such breaches are open to scrutiny, we can learn quickly from them, and nothing is swept under the carpet.

David Davis

I thank the Home Secretary for his answer. I am sure that the whole House will share his concern at another serious breach of security at a royal residence less than six months after the last incident at Windsor castle. On that occasion, the Metropolitan police owned up to a series of one-off blunders. This new incident—in which, at a time of heightened national security, a journalist has been allowed free and unfettered access to virtually all areas of Buckingham palace—is in many ways far more serious.

All the available evidence suggests that this is less a series of blunders than a potentially fatal weakness at the heart of security covering the Head of State. I welcome, in particular, the Home Secretary's announcement of a review by the Security Commission. However, he must explain why the system has failed and, in doing so, must answer a simple question: who does he hold responsible for this serious lapse that has revealed a woeful gap in security at a time of heightened terrorist threat?

After Chilcot's recommendations, security at the palace became the responsibility of the palace, the Metropolitan police and the Home Office, but who is in overall charge? Who is responsible for co-ordination to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks? Has this been reviewed since the security failures at Windsor? In particular, who is responsible for vetting people who work in the royal household? Is it the palace, the Metropolitan police or the Home Office? If, as I suspect, the answer is all three, who is in overall charge of that process, and has there been a review of those procedures since the Windsor fiasco? If not, why not? Moreover, what steps are now being taken urgently to review the status of all staff recruited to the royal household, particularly in the past 12 months?

There has been a huge amount of publicity surrounding President Bush's visit and in the past—most notably, the bombing of the Conservative party conference at Brighton—terrorists have inserted devices far in advance of the actual event. Can the Home Secretary tell us whether there are special arrangements—we do not want to know the details—to prevent similar attacks on visiting Heads of State? Although much attention has been given to security levels over the next two days while President Bush is here, is the Home Secretary satisfied that sufficient attention has been given to the advance arrangements for his visit? As I said, I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement about the Security Commission's inquiry, but can he assure me that the questions that I have asked will be addressed by that commission and that its proposals will be rapidly put into place?

The seriousness of this security lapse cannot be overestimated. Following the incident at Windsor castle, the Home Secretary told the House that we will work with the police and the royal household to ensure that lessons can be learned from this event that can only improve the security of the royal family for the future".—[Official Report, 24 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 868.] Given the undertaking that he gave to the House, does he accept personal responsibility for the events of the past few days and will he act, and act soon, to bring to an end this catalogue of incompetence?

Mr. Blunkett

First, as I said at the Dispatch Box in June, I accept responsibility for ensuring that lapses are correctly dealt with and that reviews are implemented. I will do that with the Security Commission's recommendations that arise out of its review of this incident.

We need to try to put the matter into perspective. In this case, we are talking about the failure to undertake the sort of employment checks that I and, I think, the right hon. Gentleman would have expected to happen. We will ensure—the palace has already indicated this—that that will be corrected in future.

It is important to be clear that we have learned the lessons of Windsor. The physical security breaches that occurred there and the intrusion from outside have been dealt with. The Metropolitan police took entire responsibility for that event, and the co-ordination of the different forces and elements involved has been secured. Over the past three months, we have not only learned the lessons but put them into place.

There is clearly an issue when someone seeks to engage in employment. It is not that they are a threat, because the security and criminal records checks had been secured and recognised that this individual, Mr. Parry, was who he said he was, but they had not revealed his previous job. That is a breach and I have said that I believe that it needs to be closed. The palace is responsible—one only has to read the Daily Mirror this morning to see who is responsible for handling personnel matters—and it has indicated that not only is it correcting the reviews that are undertaken, but it is prepared to work with the commission. I mentioned that when responding at the Dispatch Box just now.

I am responsible overall for the security and criminal records checks and the palace has acknowledged that there needs to be a review of the personnel checks. We need to work with the commissioner and SO13 to ensure that such checks are in place in the future.

I shall answer the absolutely fundamental question asked by the right hon. Gentleman: am I satisfied that the preparations made for the President's visit and his stay at Buckingham palace were satisfactory and undertaken in the way in which we would expect? Yes, I am. Am I satisfied that proper checks are now being made regarding employment? Yes, I am. Is it clear that we are able to provide the sort of security for the President's state visit to our country that we would want for ourselves when making such a visit? Yes, it is. I am also clear about asking all those who are demonstrating their right in a democracy to express an alternative view to that of the President of the United States to assist us by ensuring that those who wish to engage in violence or disruption are seen off effectively by collaboration among those who are organising peaceful demonstrations and the police. The police wish to protect the security of not only the President of the United States, but the people of London.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I hope that the Home Secretary acknowledges that such a breach undermines the huge effort of the 14,000 police officers who have been called in to provide security, given that one individual can get such a level of access. Given that press reports suggest that Mr. Parry was able to carry equipment in and out of Buckingham palace, will the Home Secretary confirm whether the palace has in place scanning equipment through which members of staff must pass when they go to work? Will he assure me that the weaknesses that have been exposed in Buckingham palace in the employment of catering or administrative staff could not exist in Downing street or the Palace of Westminster? Finally, does he acknowledge that such breaches do not pose a direct threat only to the royal family because intelligence that may be gathered from such a breach could be more damaging? Who is to say that some groups have not already obtained sensitive information from such a breach that could be used in the future?


On the hon. Gentleman's third question, I make it clear that if people who had not been correctly security checked or who had a criminal record were allowed through the vetting procedure, there would be the kind of risk that he outlined. However, that was not true in this case. There was no doubt about Mr. Parry's identity, where he said he had been or what he said he had done. He acknowledges in this morning's Daily Mirror that all the statements that he made, except that relating to his immediate employment with the newspaper, were correct. That gives the lie to the suggestion that we allowed a terrorist into the palace, and we must be aware of that when we put the matter into perspective.

None of that undermines the key point that people who are vetted and have security clearance must also go through stringent and sensible procedures as precautions against what they might carry into the palace or the Palace of Westminster. I entirely accept that it is right and proper that screening should take place to ensure that people do not abuse their positions. Yes, previous breaches in the House of Commons, including those investigated by the Security Commission, have been dealt with, and procedures were tightened up when necessary. When they were tightened up, Members of the House understandably often became irritated and annoyed with those who increased security and the surveillance of people, including Members of Parliament. I ask people to bear with us when that happens because we do it for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in an imperfect world, events such as these will happen from time to time in all institutions? Does he also agree that vetting at the palace over the years has not been very good anyway? In the years when the Tory Government were in power, a fellow finished up in the Queen's bedroom. There is a question of the Fawcett fellow, George Smith and Burrell. They did not do a very good job of vetting Princess Diana either, did they?

Mr. Blunkett

I thought my hon. Friend's opening point was valid. All hon. Members, from whichever side of the House, will want to ensure that past and present events are treated with appropriate weight and seriousness, that we learn the lessons and that we go forward in a spirit that helps us to sort out security instead of scoring political points.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

What action did the Home Secretary personally take in advance of the President's visit to ensure his safety and that of the Queen? Why did he fail?

Mr. Blunkett

Other people will make a judgment on that. I do not accept that I failed. As Home Secretary with responsibility for the security service and the police, including SO13, I undertook, as hon. Members would expect, to meet those groups a number of times to go through the measures they were taking, to reassess those over the past 48 hours, to ensure that I was satisfied that the measures they were taking to protect both the President and the people of London were adequate and satisfactory, and to ensure that any lessons from the past had been necessarily learned. I did not surveille the personnel procedures at the palace. I do not think that even the most vehement opponent of mine in the House would have expected me to do so.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Although security is important, is it not also important that people can go about their lawful business? While passing Buckingham palace on my way to the House today, I saw people doing precisely that. Is that not a guarantee of our democracy? We should be very proud that despite all the security precautions, which are obviously necessary, people can go about their everyday business.

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend makes a profound point in terms of both the ability of the household—I made this point in relation to the incident at Windsor—to conduct itself as a family and the ability of people to demonstrate by taking advantage of the freedoms that we built up over the last century. When my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I met the President this morning, there was no doubt whatsoever that the Metropolitan police had rightly allowed those demonstrating to get close enough for the President to hear their messages. If we had not done so, people would have rightly criticised us for being too draconian, as they did with the visit of the President of China. Finding a sensible middle road has to be the way forward if our democracy and freedoms are to be upheld.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

As the Home Secretary has ultimate responsibility for these matters, is he entirely satisfied that everyone working in Buckingham palace and all those who will serve tonight at the state banquet have been properly checked and their previous employment records vouched for? Is he completely satisfied that there is no remaining risk?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes I am.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement of the review. When such incidents occur, as they do from time to time, they nearly always happen not because the system itself is badly designed, but because an individual within the system has failed to carry out his or her proper responsibilities. Will he assure us that the review will look not just at the design of the security systems, but at the methods that will constantly be in place to check how they are carried out in practice?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, I can, but I have to respond to the point that my right hon. Friend's question raises. There will always be the potential for human error. That is a simple fact. I want to ensure that the processes of robust checking and managing, and second checking if necessary, do not end up with us taking action against low-level members of staff instead of ensuring that the systems themselves are robust enough to protect us against such eventualities.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

As the Home Secretary is clearly responsible for the security of both the palace and the Metropolitan police, why did he not come to the House to make a statement? Why was it only through your good offices, Mr. Speaker, that you allowed an urgent question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)? Should not the Home Secretary have lived up to his responsibilities?

Mr. Blunkett

I do not know what point the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make. When I returned from the palace this morning, I found that more than one Member had tabled an urgent question. I was happy to accept the one from the shadow Home Secretary. Is there any point—

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Why did you not volunteer?

Mr. Blunkett

Well, I could have rung the right hon. Gentleman and said, "Would you withdraw your application to the Speaker, and I'll make a statement of my own," but how silly can you get?

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

As it has been reported in the press that Mr. Parry got his job on the basis of a bogus letter of recommendation, will the Home Secretary say whose task it is to check letters of recommendation? Is it for the police or for the palace authorities to do so? Given that Mr. Parry clearly misled his employers, is any action against him being contemplated?

Mr. Blunkett

I have not addressed the latter issue with the Crown Prosecution Service. On the first question, the task is clearly one for those who undertake the personnel policy and review work.

There is a wider issue on which we can learn a valuable lesson. When people use e-mail and fax, it is much more difficult to ascertain the true nature of the individuals with whom one is dealing and the veracity of the statements made, not least the addresses given. The lesson to be learned by all of us is that one should check. It would have been necessary to check with Companies House to determine whether the individual had been working for a company that existed, or whether the company that had responded by fax or e-mail to the request for information only appeared to exist.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

Does the Home Secretary accept that although he was right to point out that on this occasion a terrorist did not get into Buckingham palace, he was wrong to invite us to assume that that could not have happened? Much terrorist activity is committed by people with no criminal record. The right hon. Gentleman needs to reflect further on his answer. He told us that he was willing to take responsibility for the changes that are to take place, but he was careful not to tell us who in the Home Office should take responsibility for the present shambles.

Mr. Blunkett

First, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that I said that that could never happen. Had the security and criminal record checks not been conducted properly, we would clearly have been open to the potential for the individual—in this case, Ryan Parry—to have links with terrorists or to present the danger of committing terrorist attacks. I would accept that in those circumstances, but not in the present case.

Secondly, I have not accepted that an individual in the Home Office failed in their duties. I have indicated that both the security and the criminal record checks were undertaken correctly, but there are major lessons to be learned and we are learning them. That is why the Security Commission is being engaged in the question of employment checks, even though the only check that should have been carried out but was not was related to the individual's previous job and the veracity of the reference given to Mr. Parry. I think that we shall learn the lessons from that.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I endorse the observations made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), but say to the Home Secretary that there have been concerns not only for the past few hours, but for many days—indeed, many Londoners have been extremely worried by the prospect of armed presidential bodyguards being on the streets of London. We need to know where the buck stops. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give urgent attention to ensuring that we have absolutely clear lines of authority during any future state visit, so that we can fully understand what is going on.

Mr. Blunkett

I reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that those lines are absolutely clear. They rest with the head of SO13 and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

To correct a mis-statement by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), there are not 14,000 police deployed; there are 14,000 shifts. There is a big difference between the two in terms of deployment. Contrary to statements made in the press, authorisation has not been given to hundreds of armed officers from the United States; at any one time, about a dozen are authorised to work with the President. We have relied on the good experience and skill of SO13 and our police to do the job. Lines of responsibility and who is responsible have been and will remain absolutely clear. On that basis, I am secure in the knowledge that every step has been taken to protect the people of London and the President of the United States and his entourage.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Just for a moment, I thought that we had got the answer on where the buck stopped, but I am left in doubt yet again. Will the Home Secretary tell us whether he is ultimately responsible in this respect, or will he continue to say that someone else is? We really deserve an answer.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's reference to the Security Commission, but will he consider widening its terms of reference to the Houses of Parliament? I am not sure that we can be satisfied that our own vetting arrangements are any better than those at Buckingham palace. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir Brian Mawhinney) said, the main threat is probably not from people with a criminal record, but from people without a criminal record. We must be satisfied that anyone who comes to work on these premises and gets a pass is vetted positively, so that we can be sure that we are beyond danger.

Mr. Blunkett

On the latter point, I acknowledged to the Liberal Democrat spokesman that there was a real issue relating to the Palace of Westminster, and I do not intend to repeat myself.

On the first point, I answered accurately a question on the co-ordination of operational activity and security. It ill-behoves Opposition Members, who constantly chide me for interfering with operational responsibilities, to say that I should interfere in that respect. I have said who has responsibility for co-ordination of security and policing, but the political buck stops with me. I made that clear earlier in my statement, and I am absolutely clear that, constitutionally, that is the case. I cannot be operationally responsible when I am not, but I can be politically responsible when I am, and that is what I have enunciated this afternoon.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Given that the Home Secretary has, rightly, accepted that the ultimate responsibility is his, but that there are royal residences and offices in all parts of the United Kingdom, may I take it that one issue that he will take up with the authorities in all those places is that all those who work for the paid members of the royal family, who do a job on behalf of the state, are checked as they go into the building and, if necessary, checked as they come out? Mr. Parry says that he went in and out without anyone checking that he was not carrying something that could have posed a threat. Such checks strike me as a simple measure that should have been in place and certainly should be taken from now on.

Mr. Blunkett

I responded to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) in a similar vein. I agree that there is an issue—that security procedures and vetting in relation to criminal records, no matter how good those procedures are, automatically secure us, and that we do not have to have additional procedures in place, is clearly a flawed presumption. That issue needs to be examined as part of the Security Commission report.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I welcome the statement and the commitment that lessons will be learned. Will the Home Secretary assure us that if the inquiry establishes that there was negligence on the part of a responsible officer, the price will be paid? Will he also assure us that the House will not have to wait for the Security Commission's report as long as we in Northern Ireland have been waiting for a report on the serious breaches of security that occurred at Stormont and Castlereagh?

Mr. Blunkett

I note the hon. Gentleman's final point. On his first point, I have already established—it is important to understand this—that the procedures and systems and those operating them will form part of the commission's review with the support of the royal household. Wherever a flaw is found, it will be for those employing the individuals concerned to make the decisions. Because the royal household is involved as part of the procedure, I shall say no more in that respect this afternoon. Under our constitution, the matter is delicate, and despite the requests made on some occasions for the Home Secretary to raise his power and on others to diminish it, I do not intend to get involved in a wrangle about managerial responsibilities. That will have to be defined later.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Does the Home Secretary agree that it is clearly in the national interest that security lapses should be discovered and remedied? Does he share my concern that there appear to be a growing number of stunts on airport, aircraft and VIP security, which appear to be motivated as much by generating publicity and increased circulation than by the desire to improve security? If it transpires that the reporter in question misled, in any way, those to whom he was giving information, in order to gain access to the palace, will the Home Secretary invite the police to make investigations to ascertain whether a crime was committed?

Mr. Blunkett

I think that that would form part of the review. I think also that the Crown Prosecution Service, as it does on these occasions, will have to take a view. At this moment, I am more interested in ensuring that we get this right than I am in looking behind the motives of the Daily Mirror.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

The Home Secretary has mentioned his desire to protect the right of people to protest peacefully, and mention has been made of the Palace of Westminster. Will he confirm that it was not security considerations surrounding the Palace of Westminster that prevented an invitation from being sent to President Bush inviting him to address both Houses of Parliament? Alternatively, was it fear of peaceful demonstrations by some of his colleagues?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. That question is outside the scope of the statement.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Will the Home Secretary explain the inconsistency between the haphazard checks made on a bogus employee in the royal palace and the draconian checks that are made on voluntary organisations such as school governing bodies? For example, I and my school governor colleagues were required to bring our passports to school to demonstrate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That, too, is outside the scope of the statement.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Following on from the good points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), will the Home Secretary say whether the procedures that we have in this Palace are better or worse than those at Buckingham palace?

Mr. Blunkett

I have made it clear that both in terms of security checks and criminal records checks, the palace and the security service SO13 have undertaken their work perfectly reasonably. The issue for those employed in the Palace of Westminster rests not only with the House authorities but with us as employers. I ask the hon. Gentleman and others who have made similar points to check their own personal activity as well as pointing the finger at other people's.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does the Home Secretary not understand that the simple fact is that someone who should not have gained access to such a private place as Buckingham palace did gain access? Does he not understand the sense of grievance and anger that we feel when double standards appear to apply? Voluntary organisations, such as Hereford and Worcester Dyslexia Association, have to jump through hoops backwards to get people whom they know and trust into employment, yet the Home Secretary cannot safeguard the security of the Queen and the President of the United States of America.

Mr. Blunkett

This silly, worked-up, artificial point shows a failure to grasp that Ryan Parry was put through the same Criminal Records Bureau procedure. I have repeated that, I think, 14 times this afternoon, but when people wish to be deaf, they are deaf.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

This is the second time in the past six months that the Home Secretary has had to come to the House to explain away a serious breach involving royal palaces. Nothing that he has said today would lead us to suppose that he will offer his resignation, as the late Lord Whitelaw did after a similar break-in at Buckingham palace in the early 1980s, but I hope that he will take this opportunity to offer a public apology to Her Majesty for embarrassing her, with her visitor from the United States.

That having been said, if the Home Secretary is to investigate the background to Mr. Ryan Parry and the evidence that he produced, will he extend that investigation to the editor of the Daily Mirror and make that part and parcel of any investigation into this new break-in?

Mr. Blunkett

I made it clear in July that I did not think that Willie Whitelaw should have offered his resignation. I did not think that he was responsible for somebody getting into the Queen's bedroom. That is a silly point to make this afternoon. If I were responsible for a failure, I would carry the can for it. I have already said that to a number of Conservative Members, who are desperate to make a party political point out of this matter. If I am not responsible, I will not. If Her Majesty felt that I, or my colleagues, had let her down in any way, I am sure that she would have said so to me this morning when I was given the grace and pleasure of meeting her.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)

I have been listening carefully to the Home Secretary's answers. I would appreciate it if he could confirm that there will also be a review of security procedures for the granting of a pass for this Palace.

Mr. Blunkett

I have dealt with this point four times now, and I am happy to continue to do so. Although hon. Members often get aggrieved and irritated at the time that it takes for security clearance and the difficulties they themselves sometimes have in getting through without having to present their passes, I am convinced, as is the hon. Gentleman, that we need to keep up our levels of security.