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Buckingham Palace

12.31 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the serious breach of security at Buckingham Palace.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): The House is rightly concerned about the reports in the Daily Mirror today, which involve the security of the royal household, the Queen and the President of the United States. I am, of course, addressing those concerns, but let me begin by setting this matter in context.

The day-to-day critical work of security has been and continues to be carried out with skill and professionalism. The security of the royal family involves a wide range of measures. Physical security and the personal protection provided by the police form a critical part of that process. Clearly, however, the checks on those who work closely alongside the royal family are key, too.

As you would expect, Mr. Speaker, there is a comprehensive system of checking for those who, in the course of their work, have close contact with the Queen, members of the royal family and those visiting them. That process involves both security and criminal checks in addition to the sort of employment checks expected from any employer. Clearly, in these circumstances, that is even more vital. In the case of Ryan Parry, the key security and criminal record checks were carried out robustly and correctly, but the employment checks proved insufficient in this case. The palace has already announced that it is reviewing that aspect of the vetting procedure. The House should also know that as part of the preparations for the visit of President Bush, further robust security and criminal record checks have been carried out on all those staff, both permanent and contractual, working at the palace and beyond.

Nevertheless, I am concerned that the system as a whole needs to be reviewed urgently. The Prime Minister, with the support of the royal household, is therefore asking the Security Commission, which is an independent body responsible for overseeing breaches of security, to conduct a thorough review. I am still in the process of agreeing the precise terms of reference and timetable for its work, but I would want an interim report by the end of the year. I would expect that to cover all aspects of the process of checking those who form part of the royal household.

All of us would wish to ensure that gaps exposed in the protection that we offer are closed as quickly as possible. One of the strengths of our democracy is that such breaches are open to scrutiny, we can learn quickly from them, and nothing is swept under the carpet.

David Davis: I thank the Home Secretary for his answer. I am sure that the whole House will share his concern at another serious breach of security at a royal residence less than six months after the last incident at Windsor castle. On that occasion, the Metropolitan police owned up to a series of one-off blunders. This new incident—in which, at a time of heightened national

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security, a journalist has been allowed free and unfettered access to virtually all areas of Buckingham palace—is in many ways far more serious.

All the available evidence suggests that this is less a series of blunders than a potentially fatal weakness at the heart of security covering the Head of State. I welcome, in particular, the Home Secretary's announcement of a review by the Security Commission. However, he must explain why the system has failed and, in doing so, must answer a simple question: who does he hold responsible for this serious lapse that has revealed a woeful gap in security at a time of heightened terrorist threat?

After Chilcot's recommendations, security at the palace became the responsibility of the palace, the Metropolitan police and the Home Office, but who is in overall charge? Who is responsible for co-ordination to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks? Has this been reviewed since the security failures at Windsor? In particular, who is responsible for vetting people who work in the royal household? Is it the palace, the Metropolitan police or the Home Office? If, as I suspect, the answer is all three, who is in overall charge of that process, and has there been a review of those procedures since the Windsor fiasco? If not, why not? Moreover, what steps are now being taken urgently to review the status of all staff recruited to the royal household, particularly in the past 12 months?

There has been a huge amount of publicity surrounding President Bush's visit and in the past—most notably, the bombing of the Conservative party conference at Brighton—terrorists have inserted devices far in advance of the actual event. Can the Home Secretary tell us whether there are special arrangements—we do not want to know the details—to prevent similar attacks on visiting Heads of State? Although much attention has been given to security levels over the next two days while President Bush is here, is the Home Secretary satisfied that sufficient attention has been given to the advance arrangements for his visit? As I said, I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement about the Security Commission's inquiry, but can he assure me that the questions that I have asked will be addressed by that commission and that its proposals will be rapidly put into place?

The seriousness of this security lapse cannot be overestimated. Following the incident at Windsor castle, the Home Secretary told the House that

Given the undertaking that he gave to the House, does he accept personal responsibility for the events of the past few days and will he act, and act soon, to bring to an end this catalogue of incompetence?

Mr. Blunkett: First, as I said at the Dispatch Box in June, I accept responsibility for ensuring that lapses are correctly dealt with and that reviews are implemented. I will do that with the Security Commission's recommendations that arise out of its review of this incident.

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We need to try to put the matter into perspective. In this case, we are talking about the failure to undertake the sort of employment checks that I and, I think, the right hon. Gentleman would have expected to happen. We will ensure—the palace has already indicated this—that that will be corrected in future.

It is important to be clear that we have learned the lessons of Windsor. The physical security breaches that occurred there and the intrusion from outside have been dealt with. The Metropolitan police took entire responsibility for that event, and the co-ordination of the different forces and elements involved has been secured. Over the past three months, we have not only learned the lessons but put them into place.

There is clearly an issue when someone seeks to engage in employment. It is not that they are a threat, because the security and criminal records checks had been secured and recognised that this individual, Mr. Parry, was who he said he was, but they had not revealed his previous job. That is a breach and I have said that I believe that it needs to be closed. The palace is responsible—one only has to read the Daily Mirror this morning to see who is responsible for handling personnel matters—and it has indicated that not only is it correcting the reviews that are undertaken, but it is prepared to work with the commission. I mentioned that when responding at the Dispatch Box just now.

I am responsible overall for the security and criminal records checks and the palace has acknowledged that there needs to be a review of the personnel checks. We need to work with the commissioner and SO13 to ensure that such checks are in place in the future.

I shall answer the absolutely fundamental question asked by the right hon. Gentleman: am I satisfied that the preparations made for the President's visit and his stay at Buckingham palace were satisfactory and undertaken in the way in which we would expect? Yes, I am. Am I satisfied that proper checks are now being made regarding employment? Yes, I am. Is it clear that we are able to provide the sort of security for the President's state visit to our country that we would want for ourselves when making such a visit? Yes, it is. I am also clear about asking all those who are demonstrating their right in a democracy to express an alternative view to that of the President of the United States to assist us by ensuring that those who wish to engage in violence or disruption are seen off effectively by collaboration among those who are organising peaceful demonstrations and the police. The police wish to protect the security of not only the President of the United States, but the people of London.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I hope that the Home Secretary acknowledges that such a breach undermines the huge effort of the 14,000 police officers who have been called in to provide security, given that one individual can get such a level of access. Given that press reports suggest that Mr. Parry was able to carry equipment in and out of Buckingham palace, will the Home Secretary confirm whether the palace has in place scanning equipment through which members of staff must pass when they go to work? Will he assure me that the weaknesses that have been exposed in Buckingham

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palace in the employment of catering or administrative staff could not exist in Downing street or the Palace of Westminster? Finally, does he acknowledge that such breaches do not pose a direct threat only to the royal family because intelligence that may be gathered from such a breach could be more damaging? Who is to say that some groups have not already obtained sensitive information from such a breach that could be used in the future?

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