Chaos in the Commons as attack on Blair exposes gaps in security

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Gaping holes in security at the Palace of Westminster were exposed yesterday by two protesters who hit the Prime Minister with a flour bomb at the despatch box and caused chaos among MPs.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, will meet the deputy director of MI5 today to carry out an urgent review of security at the Palace. He said: "There has to be a shake-up by the House authorities."

Body searches are expected to be introduced for all visitors to the chamber. But it was a humiliating blow for security chiefs who have tightened security around Parliament since the 11 September attacks, with armed police and barriers to stop suicide bombers.

One minister said: "It was a shambles. There was no order. Nobody seemed to know what to do."

Mr Blair was hit in the back with a purple powder "bomb" contained in a condom at the height of angry clashes with Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, at Prime Minister's Questions.

MPs and ministers feared that two missiles thrown from the spectators' gallery in the Commons were anthrax or sarin, but they failed to carry out proper safety procedures.

As two men from the campaign group, Fathers4Justice, calling for custody rights for their children, were wrestled out of the chamber, the evacuation descended into chaos. Ministers and backbench Labour MPs left the chamber, but that breached new rules to cope with an anthrax attack which require the MPs to stay put.

One minister was seen by a colleague rushing from the chamber, rubbing purple powder off his hand. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, covered up the powder on the front bench with an order paper, as Mr Blair hurriedly left.

The Commons introduced a glass security screen in front of the public gallery during the Easter recess to prevent such an attack. But the protesters were seated in front of the screen in special seats reserved for MPs' guests. The tickets for the seats were auctioned for charity by Lady Golding, a former Labour MP, who later apologised to the Lords.

Mr Hain was warned by MI5 last summer that the House authorities - including the Speaker of the Commons, Michael Martin - were dragging their heels over the security screen. Mr Hain ordered work on the screen to go ahead in spite of reservations by the Speaker's office and last night he promised tougher security measures.

Mr Hain said: "I have been very clear from the moment I was briefed by MI5 last summer that we have to take security more seriously. This incident has demonstrated that more measures are needed and more measures will be instituted."

As he left the chamber, Mr Blair turned to Mr Howard and joked: "I promise you, Michael, I didn't plan this!"

Mr Howard replied: "For once, I believe you."

Mr Blair went straight to his private ministerial room at the back of the chamber, as officials from the Serjeant-at-Arms office tested the powder and found it harmless. The Speaker immediately suspended the sitting. Oliver Heald, the shadow Leader of the House, Mr Hain and the Speaker led a delegation to see Mr Blair in his room and persuaded him that Prime Minister's Questions should not continue after the break.

Mr Blair had planned to turn the embarrassment over Mr Prescott's infamous "Loch Fyne Oyster Bar accord" with Gordon Brown against Mr Howard. Mr Prescott had actually eaten kippers and Mr Blair had planned to say: "Kippers are not the only good thing to come out of Scotland - it has shown the wise judgement of having voted every single Tory out in the last election."

There was astonishment within the security industry at the incident. Scott Lidbetter, chief operating officer of Ozonelink, which supplies anti-terrorism equipment, said: "You cannot think of a higher-profile symbolic building in the whole of London to have a go at. I'm surprised that the security could be so easily bypassed."

He said that although it has been surrounded by a so-called "ring of steel", the Palace of Westminster also remained vulnerable to a suicide bomber detonating a car outside in Parliament Square.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said MI5 would report "as quickly as possible" and the breach would be carefully examined as part of its review. He said: "This event took place from the area where guests of MPs, peers and officials of the House are able to come in. The Security Service will now have to report on how to screen that same area effectively.

"I regret that there will have to be even greater restrictions on the ability of MPs, peers and officials to bring people in."

Last night police said two men had been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage. One of the men was named as Ron Davies, 44, of Worthing, West Sussex, who allegedly threw the flour-filled condoms. It emerged that Mr Davies had challenged Mr Blair about access rights for fathers when the Prime Minister hosted a phone-in radio show on LBC on 13 January as part of the Government's "Big Conversation".

A fellow Fathers4Justice campaigner David Chick, whose six-day crane-top vigil as Spiderman caused traffic chaos, said Mr Davies was a "good man fighting for the cause".

MPs said last night that the group had damaged its cause by the style of its protest. The Deputy Prime Minister said: "I thought Tony handled it very well. It was a pity that it ended Prime Minister's questions. He had a good reply for Howard."