HC Deb 13 September 2004 vol 424 cc1089-95 10.15 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement to the House on the incident earlier today at Buckingham Palace. Following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, I authorised a review of external security at the main royal palaces, which was conducted by the Security Service, MI5. The work resulted in an extensive new alarm and camera system outside and inside the palace and the strengthening of the palace perimeter.

As the House will be aware, a separate review of the internal security of the royal households also took place earlier this year, but it is not relevant to today's events. The facts as set out to me tonight by the commissioner and deputy commissioner are as follows. At about 2.20 pm this afternoon, three men erected a ladder outside the palace walls. Their presence directly outside the palace triggered an alarm, and police both inside and outside the building took immediate steps to protect the integrity of the palace. An armed police officer on the other side of the railings confronted the intruders as they approached the colonnade. Within minutes, the external perimeter of the palace had been sealed and armed police had secured the palace from within. One of the men moved quickly along the roof of the colonnade adjacent to Constitution hill. Police officers took the entirely correct decision that that individual was a protester not a terrorist. That judgement was made easier by the fact that no members of the royal family were present. The palace, as the House will know, is open to the public at this time of year. It will also be aware that the Metropolitan police have now arrested the protester and one accomplice.

Sir John Stevens has stated quite clearly tonight that, if the individual had been assessed as a threat, he would have been shot before he could have entered the building. I am also clear that the alarm and camera systems installed over the past three years worked and that the police acted correctly in assessing the threat that he posed. Nevertheless, the speed with which the intruders were able to scale the wall is of concern and the Metropolitan police and my officials are urgently reviewing with the royal household any further measures required. However, it is worth bearing it in mind—this has been true for many years—that the royal family have always wanted the palace to remain accessible to the people of the United Kingdom and tourists from around the world, as it is; they do not want it to become a fortress. I share that view.

We live in a time of a heightened terrorist threat, when our police and security services are fully stretched in protecting our safety and way of life. While today's protest showed that the alarm and camera system worked, the protester could have been killed and the Metropolitan police have once again been diverted from protecting the public from terrorism by the need to deal with a public stunt. I hope that people who support such action will reflect on that and recognise that it is not just themselves they put at risk by their actions. That is why we treat such incidents with the seriousness they deserve. They should be treated seriously, but they need to be put in their proper context as well.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)(Con)

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of the statement and I commend him on coming straight to the House to make it this evening. That at least is exemplary, but it is the only part of this sorry business that is.

This is the fifth or sixth breach of royal palace security since June last year, following security breaches at Buckingham palace, Windsor castle and the Palace of Westminster. At a time when the terrorist threat has never been so real or so great, the latest episode is extremely serious. The Home Secretary said that the security commission report on a previous breach of security at Buckingham palace is not relevant. I beg to differ. I quote: the most likely source of … threat to the Royal Family are from the press and individuals seeking to 'test' security measures or cause embarrassment. But any weakness which can be exploited by these groups can also be exploited by terrorists. After the penetration of Windsor castle by Aaron Barschak dressed as Osama bin Laden, the Home Secretary said: I am determined that lessons should be learned from this incident."—[Official Report, 24 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 868.] Then, five months later, after the breach of Buckingham palace's security, the right hon. Gentleman made a statement to the House in which he said, It is important to be clear that we … learned the lessons of Windsor."—[Official Report, 19 November 2003; Vol. 413, c. 777.] Nevertheless, the Home Secretary admits today that the speed with which the intruder was able to scale the wall is of concern. He does not point out that the intruder got a further 30 m and climbed another wall. The right hon. Gentleman quotes Sir John Stevens saying that if the intruder had been assessed as a terrorist, he would have been shot. Will the Home Secretary tell us how anyone can ever be sure that such an incident is a prank, and not a terrorist masquerading as a prankster? In the terrible logic of these events, the terrorist has only to be lucky once. We have to be lucky every time.

In the hours since the protest, has the Home Secretary been able to establish the following aspects of what went wrong today? Were procedures not followed and the failure therefore operational, or were the recommendations inadequate and the failure therefore one of policy? Does he accept that today's irresponsible action advertises weaknesses in our security and that the long series of security failures could itself encourage terrorist attempts? Will he tell the House tonight how many times Members of this House, the British public and the royal family will have to tolerate such scandalous incompetence?

Mr. Blunkett

I am deeply sorry that the shadow Home Secretary has adopted the tone he has tonight—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. As has already been stated, I always encourage Ministers to come to the House to give statements. This the Home Secretary has done. It does not help when hon. Members barrack a Minister who has been good enough to come to the House.

Mr. Blunkett

The point that I was about to make, Mr. Speaker, is that there is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable role for Opposition parties in holding Ministers to account for their failings. However, an Opposition who aspire to Government have to address issues in the way that they feel they would were they in government. The question raised tonight might have been about whether we had done enough to ensure that the alarm and camera systems worked. The answer to that question is yes, we did so on the recommendation of the Security Service, and we had put new and enhanced measures in place since 2001. I spelled that out. Following the incident at Windsor, having learned the lessons, we massively enhanced the system there.

Whenever there has been an incursion into a palace, lessons have been learned. They were learned twice in 1992, when there were two incidents at the palace. They were learned again in 1994, and again in 1995, when my predecessors had to deal with similar incursions. We will take any action necessary to ensure that, and we will do so with the royal household—because we are dealing with its palaces, not our own property—in a way that is acceptable to it.

The cameras worked, the electronic alarms worked and the armed police were in place and secured the palace inside and out. The police also ensured that the individual could move no further and the accomplice was ordered down at gunpoint from the palisade, but subsequently attempted to escape. All those things worked.

The judgment to which Sir John Stevens referred was whether the police should take pre-emptive action by firing on the individuals concerned. Is that what Opposition Members are advocating? If there are—no matter how good security is, there are and always will be—people who will attempt to breach security, the police have to make a judgment about the level of armed force that they use. They do that day in and day out when any major incident takes place, particularly where there is a threat to life. They did it today, and I commend them for it. The proportionality of their response was in keeping with their judgment. The way they handled the incident ensured that it was dealt with so that people were taken down safely without loss of life or limb.

Someone engaged today in a publicity stunt and it was a foolish, silly thing to do that has harmed a very reasonable cause. Let me make it clear that if anyone in the House believes that they would have had greater wisdom than the security services, the Metropolitan Police, Ministers and my officials, let him or her get up and say so. Let them not criticise what was done, but say what might have happened had the police not acted in the way that they did to secure the palace and the lives of those involved. The police did not overreact in circumstances that would have led to fatality. In that case, I would have been answering very different questions tonight, and I would have been deeply concerned if I had had to do so.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)(LD)

I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement and for coming to the House so quickly after this afternoon's events. This is a serious issue, made worse by the fact that we have faced similar breaches of security in the past. I hope that he understands that this is at best highly embarrassing and at worst could have had terrible consequences.

I agree with the Home Secretary's concerns about the activities of the protesters. Not only do they endanger their own lives but, at a time of heightened terror alert, they make the work of the police even harder.

The Home Secretary welcomed the fact that the alarm and camera systems worked, but they largely concern detection. Should we not have a system in place that makes the perimeter fence itself physically harder to climb in the first place? When the security commission reported earlier in the year, it found that the existing framework for dealing with security for the royal family was considered sound. Is the Home Secretary still confident about that statement?

Can the Home Secretary confirm who has responsibility for security in the royal household grounds? Is it the police, the Home Office or the new royal director of security? Does he acknowledge that with three organisations in charge of royal security, there will always be problems with communication and lines of accountability? Will he confirm how many of the commission's recommendations have been put in place? Will he tell the House whether the agreed annual plan on security at the palace has yet been agreed?

I hope that the Home Secretary will acknowledge that there are only so many times that lessons can be learned and actions promised before the public lose confidence in the security systems that we have at both Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons.

Mr. Blunkett

Of course it is embarrassing when such incidents take place. That is self-evident and it is important to learn from it. The hon. Gentleman mentioned different incidents, and we have to be clear about who is responsible. Inside the Palace of Westminster, it is the House authorities. Inside Buckingham palace, it is the royal family and the new director of security, Brigadier Cook. All the recommendations of the Butler-Sloss commission have been put in place. Security outside the palace and security for the palace itself is the responsibility of the Metropolitan police, and they took that responsibility today, as I spelled out.

The hon. Gentleman asked about securing the outside fence. We are talking about two fences and a wall. A judgment was made, and nobody raised any objection when we put it in place after 11 September 2001, that the external view of the palace and its environment outside should be maintained as reasonably as possible. Of course it is possible to secure any building in the capital by making it impossible for anyone to get anywhere near that building or monument. That does not take a genius. It just takes great lumps of concrete and a terrible environment that ruins the capital city of our country and ensures that people cannot enjoy walking about and seeing monuments and palaces in a reasonable fashion.

The royal family do not want that, and I agree with them. We must therefore ensure proportionally that security protects life, while reasonableness secures an environment in which to live, walk and have our social life—an environment that is not destroyed by the terrorists putting us in such fear that we cannot get anywhere near such buildings, including this building, which is the heart of our democracy. It is that proportionality that all of us seek to maintain.

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

The House will welcome the Home Secretary being with us tonight and his reasonable response. Is it not a fact that for centuries in this country we have lived under the rule of law? No matter what the grievance, we must respect the decisions of the courts. Nothing, therefore, justifies taking the law into one's own hands.

The Home Secretary mentioned proportionality on at least two occasions. While it is right and proper that there be a proportionate response, those who conspire to breach the rule of law should be severely dealt with. Is it not a fact that the conspirators were on television giving interviews for their cause even before their arrest? If we believe in the rule of law, proper sentencing and proper deterrence, will that not deter the publicity stunt?

Mr. Blunkett

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about the rule of law. The individuals and their group do a reasonable cause great ill. I agree that action needs to be clear and decisive. I have made it clear that the biggest threat to those individuals was the potential for a misjudgement to be made about their intentions. Had that happened, one or more of them might well be dead tonight. To those who think about carrying out similar stunts in future, I say that the more the tension rises and the greater the cry for action, the more likely it is that those who seek to protect us and the royal family will make a judgment at that moment that could lead to loss of life. That is why the incident was so serious.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)(Con)

What action did the Home Secretary personally take to ensure that this sort of thing did not happen?

Mr. Blunkett

I have held regular meetings with the Metropolitan police. Last week, I held a meeting with Sir Ian Blair, the deputy commissioner, and with the head of SO 13 precisely to review progress in respect of the royal palaces. Had I not been holding regular meetings, and had I not been holding to account last week those who have operational responsibility, I would have been much more sheepish in entering the House for a statement this evening.

Tom Levitt (High Peak)(Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who seek to publicise what appears to be a responsible cause in such an irresponsible and high-risk manner do that political cause no good at all, not least when seeking to influence Members of the House? In fact, their actions today will have a negative effect on the cause that they were seeking to promote.

Mr. Blunkett

I very much regret that that will be the case. Any judgment about the responsibility of those who seek to act as role models for their own children and to promote a decent, genuine cause concerning the rights of fathers must be that these people do tremendous harm to themselves and to their cause. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)(Con)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that he should not be making a statement tonight, because it only gives publicity to people whose views we do not respect? Does he also understand that, when he discusses shooting individuals, he should make it plain that one should consider that course of action only if the threat to third parties is urgent and immediate, which was clearly not present in this case?

Mr. Blunkett

If you will forgive my introducing a lighter note, Mr. Speaker, I have just won a pound, because I bet someone earlier this evening that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would make such an intervention. If I had not made a statement tonight, an urgent question would undoubtedly have been tabled tomorrow, and the question why I was not holding myself to account to the House would have been raised.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right on his substantive point, which is why the armed police officers present made a judgment. Police officers make a judgment on whether people who are armed or who threaten to take life in some other way are likely to carry out that threat, which is why the police officers involved today made that judgment.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)

In a perverse way, the activities of a number of individuals—whether they tried to get into Windsor castle, the Palace of Westminster or, indeed, Buckingham palace—have highlighted weaknesses within those palaces' security systems. To pick up one point that the Home Secretary touched on, is he satisfied that the obvious overlapping authority, rather than seamless authority, between those palaces and the Metropolitan police should continue, or, like a number of hon. Members, does he think that one individual should be appointed with the authority to deal with security both inside and outside all royal palaces?

Mr. Blunkett

This is my difficulty in answering that question how I want to: this House, not me, determines the line between security inside and outside the Palace of Westminster. In Buckingham palace—this is, of course, true of other palaces—the decision where the line between the royal household's authority and the Metropolitan police's authority lies is for the royal household. Following the Butler-Sloss report, we agreed a particular approach to the running of the royal household and the internal appointment of a director. It was agreed then that a clear division should be made, by which the Metropolitan police continued to act and to have authority on the palace's external protection. It is not for this House or me to determine tonight any change in that direction, but we must constantly examine whether we can ensure that the meeting of those two different franchises works effectively, and that is our challenge.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)(Con)

What information has the Home Secretary got for us tonight on the third man who was directly involved in the incident? Will he tell the House how many royal security breaches are allowable before a ministerial resignation is appropriate?

Mr. Blunkett

Obviously not two, otherwise the current Leader of the Opposition would have resigned in 1995. The question is very silly and unworthy of what has been a perfectly reasonable process of questioning and accountability. It is not difficult for the police to identify the third individual involved—after all, television cameras were mysteriously present from the beginning of the incident. Even though the level of apprehending those who commit crimes ill our country is less desirable than I would wish, I am sure that we will have him by tomorrow.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)(Con)

Does the Home Secretary think that it has been a satisfactory and efficient use of taxpayers' money for him to authorise the spending of hundreds of thousands of pounds on new cameras and alarm systems if the response to those systems is inadequate to prevent intruders from gaining access to the roof and then on to the front of the palace? What is the point of such equipment if the response is too slow?

Mr. Blunkett

The first armed officer's response was rapid. One of the individuals, who was dressed as Robin, gave an interview describing how he was ordered down and was told that he would be shot if he did not do so. That particular individual was apprehended almost immediately. [Interruption.]

Well, I described in my statement how the danger was sealed off inside the palace and externally. In my view, that is a rapid response. The issue that we have addressed tonight is whether we can put anything in place to distance people around the palace from being able to mount the colonnade in future. That must be discussed with the royal family because of its impact on the palace.

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