Big Ben chime will be silenced for Thatcher funeral


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The Independent Online

Big Ben is to be silenced during Baroness Thatcher's funeral as a mark of respect to the former prime minister, it was announced today.

House of Commons officials said that the last time the chimes of Westminster's Great Clock were halted in this way was for the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, although the bells were silenced for a period in the 1970s by a mechanical breakdown.

The announcement by Commons Speaker John Bercow came as the Ministry of Defence revealed the names of the military pall-bearers who will carry Lady Thatcher's coffin into St Paul's Cathedral for the ceremonial funeral.

Made up of personnel from all three services drawn from units, stations and ships which served in the Falklands War, the eight-strong bearer party includes Scots Guards Lance Sergeant Paul Quayle, whose father fought in the 1982 conflict. Walking behind the coffin will be the party's commander Major Nick Mott and his Warrant Officer brother Bill, both Welsh Guardsmen who served in the Falklands.

More than 700 serving armed forces personnel gathered in central London before dawn for a full-scale rehearsal of the funeral parade.

A Union flag-draped coffin was carried on a horse-drawn gun carriage from St Clement Danes, the church of the Royal Air Force, down the Strand to St Paul's. The procession band played the funeral marches of Chopin, Beethoven and Mendelssohn as it made its way along the deserted streets.

Major Andrew Chatburn, the officer in charge of choreographing the parade, said the rehearsal went "very well".

The run-through was a "vitally important" preparation, familiarising personnel with the duties they will perform on the day and ensuring that any errors in timing are ironed out before Wednesday's event, he said.

Mr Bercow told MPs he had received a number of representations about how Parliament could best mark Lady Thatcher's funeral, following her death aged 87 last week, and had decided that silencing the chimes of the nation's most famous bell was "the most appropriate means of indicating our sentiments".

"I believe there can be a profound dignity and deep respect both expressed in and through silence and I am sure that the House will agree," he said in a statement to the Commons.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who has been overseeing arrangements for the ceremonial funeral, welcomed the move as "a very dignified and respectful gesture on behalf of Parliament".

The Department for Culture announced that all Government departments will fly Union flags and other UK national flags on their buildings at half-mast from dawn to dusk on the day of the funeral. Local authorities are not bound by this request but "may wish to follow it for guidance", said the department.

Left-winger George Galloway will this evening attempt to frustrate plans to cancel Wednesday's session of Prime Minister's Questions and Scottish questions in the Commons so MPs can attend the funeral.

Ministers had hoped a motion tabled by Leader of the House Andrew Lansley to delay the start of business in the Commons until 2.30pm on Wednesday would go through "on the nod".

But the Respect MP has said he will try to block the motion by calling out "object", forcing the Government to set aside time tomorrow to debate the proposal.

With Labour saying it will not object to the timetable motion, it is still almost certain to be passed on Tuesday, but Mr Galloway is expected to use any debate as an opportunity to voice dissent at the honours being shown to Lady Thatcher.

Mr Galloway described the former PM as a "wicked woman" and said there had been a "tidal wave of guff" since her death.

"We've already had the recall of Parliament with MPs being paid up to £3,700 to fly back from the Caribbean holiday that they were on and then fly back to start their holiday again," he told BBC2's Daily Politics.

"Now they want cancel Prime Minister's Questions, it's absurd."

He added: "There are millions of people in this country hate the very word Thatcher and Thatcherism, which continues to this day."

David Cameron's official spokesman declined to comment on Mr Galloway's planned intervention, saying: "There has been agreement through the usual channels that the usual order of business for the House on Wednesday should be altered. It has been agreed across the parties. The Prime Minister's view is that that is the right thing to do."

Amid reports that the funeral could cost taxpayers up to £10 million, the spokesman confirmed that ministers do not plan to release its estimate of the sums involved until after the event.

"When it comes to costs, it would be considered pretty extraordinary by many people here in the UK and abroad if we did not mark her passing in the manner that we are doing," he added.