Big Brother's blind spot: The baby Abbie affair has thrown up awkward questions about security in our public buildings

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The Independent Online
SECURITY in many public buildings is so lax that strangers can walk in off the streets and enter the most sensitive of areas.

A week after the kidnapping of baby Abbie Humphreys from a Nottingham hospital, an Independent on Sunday investigation reveals that security in schools, hospitals, universities and hotels falls far short of the advanced measures taken to protect private businesses. A reporter was able to walk unchallenged into a university laboratory containing a radioactive source and at a hospital gained access to the area where drugs were kept.

The snatching of four-hour-old Abbie from the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham last week was not the first time this year that security failed to protect children. In March a schoolgirl was killed in a Middlesbrough classroom in front of her friends, and last month six Northern Ireland pupils were burnt after a man entered an A-level exam room with an improvised flamethrower.

Video cameras installed at many buildings are supposed to alert security staff to intruders. But of 15 sites in London and Leeds - schools, hospitals, hotels, universities and businesses - the IoS visited this week, our reporter was challenged on entry in only six - five businesses and a private hospital.

In the two universities visited it was easy to walk into science departments, one containing an open radioactive source which should only be entered under supervision. In St James's Hospital - the Leeds hospital made famous by the television programme Jimmy's - it was possible to enter the pharmacy department, with only open doors leading to the dispensary's supply of drugs. And at Leeds Grammar School two security guards let a reporter and a photographer pass without question.

Most of the people responsible for security in the places visited admitted that there was a limit to the protection they could give in a public building, and it was a question of balancing freedom of movement with security.

Walter Easey, chairman of the Board of Governors at Victory Primary School, Southwark, and honorary police adviser to the Association of London Authorities, explained that many organisations' security measures are limited by what can be afforded.

'Events have shown that any lunatic can walk into a school and kill children,' he said. 'Since 1979, 19,000 psychiatric beds have been closed. That means that 19,000 people declared at risk to themselves or the public are on the streets. We take the measures we can afford to but it's difficult.'

The Victory School, with 160 pupils aged between three and 11, has entryphones installed to stop intruders. Mr Easey is reluctant to add further measures - partly because he does not want to frighten children unnecessarily but also because the expense is too great: 'We are spending money on security which comes out of the school budget, restricting what we spend on education,' he said.

James Tye, director-general of the British Safety Council, believes our public buildings are not safe enough. 'About 30 years ago it would be unheard of for any parent to come storming into a school,' he said. 'As schools become more liberal, security is less good.'

His solution is to introduce photo identity cards for everyone. 'If I were Virginia Bottomley I would set up a task force of high-level security people to look at what can be done for hospitals,' he added.

Public safety is a growing priority in many town centres. Last week Liverpool became the latest city to have surveillance cameras installed. Twenty cameras, which will be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, have been put up in the pedestrian precinct. They cost an estimated pounds 360,000 a year to install and another pounds 25,000 to run.

'The problem itself is not crime, but fear of crime,' said Tim Johnson, the assistant city- centre manager.

In Liverpool, guidelines on the use of cameras were drawn up with the local police. But the civil rights organisation Liberty says this is not enough to ensure people's privacy is not infringed.

'Security cameras need to be governed by proper statutory regulations,' said Atiya Lockwood of Liberty. 'We interviewed an ex-security guard who said that when they got bored they used to train the cameras on bedroom windows.

'We want to push for a right to privacy in this country. We must decide who has access to the tapes, who monitors them, when they are destroyed, and what training security guards receive.'

Leading article, page 18

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