HL Deb 21 July 1998 vol 592 cc707-9

2.48 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they see any early prospect of being able to have the security gates at the entrance to Downing Street removed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, access to Downing Street has been controlled for security reasons for many years. Given the range of possible threats to Downing Street, the gates currently provide the most efficient and cost-effective means of controlling access. If at some time in the future the threats were to diminish sufficiently to allow us to reconsider the status of the gates, we would of course do so.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, up with which, as he will know, at least one former celebrated occupant of No. 10 would not have put. Does he recall that, even in the Second World War, when Britain's very survival was at stake, access to Downing Street was not obstructed? And is he aware that, even when the police went on strike and marched there in 1919, our deeply symbolic open access to Downing Street was not curtailed, and indeed that Lloyd George negotiated with the strike leaders from a window at No. 10?

Again, if security gates are so crucially important at one end of Downing Street, why is comparable provision not equally important at the other end? Finally, is my noble friend aware of the widely-held view that we lost something very special when the existing barrier appeared and of the widely-held concern that the barrier seems now to be increasingly regarded in Whitehall as permanent?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I think that none of your Lordships would wish to have gates at the Whitehall entrance to Downing Street. We would all prefer to go back to the time when the Prime Minister lived in a house which was immediately accessible. Indeed, I cherish a photograph of my youngest son, taken some 30 years ago when he was campaigning for nursery education for all, holding up a balloon outside the door of No. 10. It has taken 31 years for this Government to achieve what he was campaigning for at that time. There is a difference between the front and the back of the building. After all, the back is protected by a considerable flight of steps, which would make access for bombers difficult. But the whole House will sympathise with the views expressed by my noble friend

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the gates may well be needed to hold back the crowds who want to cheer the friendship between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord must have been watching television on 1st May last year.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he should strongly emphasise "not yet"? Is he aware also that there are too many dissident elements now under the umbrella of the so-called "real IRA" operating in the north and the south of Ireland and no doubt lurking in London and other parts of Britain? Therefore I emphasise most strongly that no security fences should be brought down.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend is right. There is a continuing threat from the dissident bodies who rejected the Northern Ireland agreement. Indeed, it is plain that they regard their objective as an attack on the British Cabinet. To that extent my noble friend is unfortunately right.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, regardless of security, the gates add considerable distinction to what is otherwise a slightly dingy little street?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is a personal view, but I do not agree. They are grossly over-elaborate for the rather elegant Georgian buildings in Downing Street and even over-elaborate for the less attractive buildings in Whitehall.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, is my noble friend saying seriously that assassins cannot run upstairs?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, not when they are carrying heavy bombs.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, the Minister says that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, must have been watching television on 1st May last year. I was watching television on 2nd May last year and saw cheering hordes in Downing Street. At that time I thought it signified the fact that the gates were no longer going to be operable. Is it the fact that they are flexible, depending upon whether or not there is something to celebrate?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct; I should have said 2nd May and not 1st May. The gates are flexible in the sense that, if notice is given—for example, if a petition is to be delivered to No. 10 notice can be given to Charing Cross police station—access will be made available to delegations for that purpose, as indeed access was made available on 2nd May last year.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the reason the gates were opened on 2nd May last year was to let the previous occupant out so that the new occupant could get in?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I believe the horrible tradition we have in this country is that the departing Prime Minister leaves by the back door. I do not care much for that tradition either.