Protecting our democracy

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The Independent Online

Parliament must not seal itself off from the outside world. Such an over-reaction to this week's events would be in no one's interest. The ability of the public to lobby its MPs and visit the legislative heart of our democracy should not be sacrificed in the name of greater security.

Parliament must not seal itself off from the outside world. Such an over-reaction to this week's events would be in no one's interest. The ability of the public to lobby its MPs and visit the legislative heart of our democracy should not be sacrificed in the name of greater security.

Nevertheless, it is naive to claim that the present security arrangements are satisfactory. The Leader of the Commons, Peter Hain, yesterday claimed to have been informed by the security services that al-Qa'ida operatives have been "focusing" on Parliament in recent years. In this context, Wednesday's security breach by the hooligan hunters, although harmless enough in itself, poses a sobering question: when a handful of protesters can get on to the floor of the Commons with relative ease, is there reason to believe that a terrorist would find it any more difficult?

Security in the Houses of Parliament is only marginally more sophisticated than might be found at a gentleman's club in nearby Pall Mall, and certainly worse than most government departments. Responsibility is vested in a Serjeant-at-Arms, resplendent in his 15th-century garb of office and whose staff is made up of retired guardsmen. While this ramshackle system, which has evolved in a typically haphazard British way over the years, no doubt contributes to the charm of the palace, it is patently ill-suited to its role in the modern world.

The House must appoint a director of security, and do away with the present overlapping jurisdictions. There must also be a clearly defined security cordon around the palace. Staffing levels need to be reviewed; do 14,000 people really need Commons security passes? And the recruitment practices of the firms supplying catering and cleaning staff to the palace are plainly deficient, as The Sun newspaper has demonstrated by sending one of its reporters to work there on bogus references.

Perfect security is, no doubt, impossible, especially in an age when terrorists are ready to slaughter thousands on the altar of their fanaticism. But there is no reason why Parliament should not enjoy the same level of protection as an international airport at least. And improving security need not make Parliament inaccessible.

The days of the open house are over but, with the right precautions, our democracy can survive this new era of insecurity intact.

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