'Bomb equipment' smuggled into Commons despite extra security

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Indy Politics

Security at the Palace of Westminster faced further scrutiny yesterday after a reporter working undercover smuggled fake bomb-making equipment into the building.

The security lapse came amid a state of heightened security in the aftermath of the security breach less than 24 hours earlier in which eight protesters stormed the chamber of the House of Commons.

The Cabinet had earlier agreed to put Scotland Yard in charge of security as record numbers of police and security staff patrolled the Palace of Westminster. Armed officers were posted outside the chamber. Extra Commons staff, who had leave cancelled, were posted to all checkpoints.

However, this did not prevent Anthony France, a reporter from The Sun, who obtained full access to the House of Commons after being employed as a waiter, to bring in false bomb-making equipment.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, who ordered an immediate investigation, said: "This confirms all my worst fears and is why I have so determinedly pushed for much tighter security and modern professional procedures in the House of Commons. It's not just government ministers at risk but the 14,000 other people who work in the Palace of Westminster who are at risk in this modern age of suicide bombers."

Earlier, it was announced that the Serjeant-at-Arms, who heads the so-called "men in tights", will be replaced by a director of security with expertise in counter-terrorism. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, wants to outlaw demonstrations in Parliament Square, with one option to revive a lapsed law banning demos while the House is sitting.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said after yesterday's cabinet meeting that there was "deep concern" about the unprecedented breach of security.

Ministers believe that the failings exposed this week show that a shake-up is needed. One said last night: "What happened gives us one last chance to sort this out. We are lucky to get it."

Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said there needed to be "one person in control of security at the Palace of Westminster". Sir John pointed out the current arrangements meant that police officers could not go into the Chamber without the say-so of the Serjeant-at-Arms.

Final decisions will be taken after a report in two weeks by MI5 and the Metropolitan Police. Surveillance cameras are expected to be fitted to all parts of the Palace of Westminster and armed police given access to all parts of the building, with tougher barriers between areas open to the public and the passholders, whose numbers will be reduced from 14,000. The unit of 150 armed guards from Scotland Yard who protect Parliament is expected to be increased by up to another 100.

Sittings of Parliament in September, introduced last year, look certain to be scrapped because building work takes place then. The protesters who stormed the Chamber wore builders' hard hats when they entered the Commons.

The proposed director of security would take his orders from the police and security services while being formally accountable to MPs and peers. He would be responsible for security in both the Commons and Lords, which are currently run as separate empires.

Meanwhile, the authorities believe that the protesters may have been aided by a member of Commons staff, a journalist or an MP's assistant.

Disguised as contractors, they had used a forged letter from two MPs inviting them to a site meeting to gain entrance to the building and passed through the security scanners. The fact that the letter named a parliamentary group which does not exist was missed at three security checkpoints.

One of the key questions is how the men knew that a security door, which normally needs a swipe card to open, was malfunctioning and could be shoved open.

A Liberal Democrat MP, Paul Keetch, said a constituent had alerted two police officers after he spotted a hunt supporter heading to the Commons disguised as a contractor.

Meanwhile, some Labour backbenchers were directing recriminations towards the BBC, which received a tip-off about the stunt but did not act on it or pass it on to police.