The country comes to town

Bloody clashes outside Parliament as pro-hunt protesters break into Commons chamber to disrupt MPs' debate
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Indy Politics

A security clampdown at the Houses of Parliament was under way last night after five supporters of hunting invaded the Commons chamber.

A security clampdown at the Houses of Parliament was under way last night after five supporters of hunting invaded the Commons chamber.

On a day of highly charged emotions, there were violent clashes between police and pro-hunt demonstrators outside Parliament which left 17 members of the public and two police officers injured. MPs voted last night to ban hunting with hounds by 356 votes to 166. Later, a compromise move, to delay the fox-hunting ban to July 2006, was backed by 342 votes to 15. The amendment, tabled by Tony Banks, followed protests from Labour MPs that the Government's original proposal for a two-year transition period for hunts was too long.

The House of Lords will now face the dilemma of whether to support the 18-month delay to allow hunts time to find homes for horses and jobs for huntsmen. But if peers oppose the delay, they will face the prospect of a ban coming into force as early as February next year, when it becomes law.

Inquiries into the incident in the Commons chamber were focusing on the theory that the protesters were helped by a researcher working for an unnamed Tory MP. Last night Michael Martin, the Speaker, told MPs that the intruders had been carrying a forged letter inviting them to a select committee meeting and that they had been helped by a Commons passholder.

The campaigners are suspected of disguising themselves as workmen ­ building work has left Westminster in chaos ­ or wearing suits, which were later found discarded.

Eight men, aged between 21 and 42, five of whom made it all the way into the chamber, were arrested last night on suspicion of uttering a forged instrument, burglary with intent to commit criminal damage and violent disorder.

Armed police were guarding the entrances to the Commons chamber last night afterfive men wearing pro-hunt T-shirts rushed on to the floor during the debate on the Bill. The men shouted that they were carrying out a "peaceful protest".

They stood at the despatch box, shouting and gesturing at Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, before doorkeepers bundled them out. The sitting was suspended for 30 minutes and, when it resumed, the Public Gallery was closed.

The ease with which the men got into the chamber alarmed MPs, who pointed out that the protesters could have been terrorists. The corridor from which they entered the chamber is close to the Commons offices of cabinet ministers, including Tony Blair.

It was the third major breach at Westminster in six months. Two men scaled Big Ben in a protest over the Iraq war in March, and in May flour bombs were thrown at Mr Blair during Prime Minister's Questions.

Extra police are being drafted into Westminster today and leave for security officers was being cancelled. Ministers and MPs predicted the Metropolitan Police would take over responsibility for security from the Serjeant-at-Arms. "The men in tights can no longer be in charge; their time is now up," said one senior MP.

A review by MI5 and the Metropolitan Police, due to report this month, is already expected to lead to an experienced director of security being appointed for both the Commons and Lords. Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, who held urgent talks with Mr Martin and Serjeant-at-Arms Sir Michael Cummins, said he had underlined to them "how deadly serious" the "unacceptable" incident could have been. "We need to tighten Commons security ... Parliament simply must have modernised security procedures," he said.

Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, who was in the chamber, said: "This incident must give encouragement to the average terrorist." Gerald Howarth, the Tory MP for Aldershot, said: "For them to be able to get into the chamber shows they knew the geography of the place."

There were demands from MPs for a ban on protests in Parliament Square. Eleven people were arrested after clashes with police on the square.

The breach of security in the Commons interrupted a heated debate, where tempers flared. Tory and Labour MPs clashed over the Government's decision to push the Bill through the Commons in one day. Six Tory MPs, including Ann Widdecombe, voted in favour of a ban on hunting and three Labour MPs, including Kate Hoey, voted against a ban.

The Bill is expected to move to the House of Lords for its first reading today. If the Lords fail to pass it by the time the current parliamentary session ends next month, the Government has said it will use the Parliament Act to force it through.

But Tory MPs claimed the use of this device to overrule the House of Lords was undemocratic. Mr Michael warned peers not to block the Bill, which had the overwhelming backing of elected MPs. "It is not an appropriate issue on which the House of Lords should provoke the Parliament Act," he said.

Elliott Morley, the Environment and Animal Welfare minister, said it was "wrong to suggest" a ban was "an attack on rural society". But he drew roars of protest when he argued that people who hunt are responsible for "inflicting prolonged pain and stress on animals for no other reason than for the entertainment of their tormentors". Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, urged the Government to "get on with the job ­ tell the House of Lords to go to hell."

The BBC admitted last night that it had been tipped off about the planned storming of the Commons 24 hours earlier. The corporation issued a statement defending its decision not to contact the authorities but refused to comment further. "A BBC journalist was contacted by someone they had never met before," it said in a statement.

"The decision not to take it further was taken at an operational level and in any prospect no violence was threatened.

"Indeed, the sources made it clear that no violence would be used. It was not clear to those handling the information that the demonstration would in fact definitely take place."