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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

11 May 2004 : Column 288

Visitor Facilities

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [22 April],

Question again proposed.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected any of the amendments.

7.36 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I remind colleagues that we were interrupted on 22 April during consideration of the joint report of the Administration Committee and the Accommodation and Works Committee. I had just said how lovely Westminster Hall looked that afternoon. I visited it again today and spent some quiet time there, soaking up the wonderful atmosphere, which I want to refer to again in a few moments.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to acknowledge the enormously difficult task that Mr. Speaker, the Metropolitan police and the Serjeant at Arms have in the field of the security of the House. It is not easy for them to balance all the pressures and constraints, the need for access and openness and the fact that there are 659 different views in this place as to what is the correct level of security, access and so on. We should place that on record. I do so in the knowledge that, very unfairly, the Serjeant at Arms was traduced by a newspaper a few weeks ago. I thought it not only flippant but very unfair to have a go at him, because he and his staff are preoccupied every day with all the difficult and sensitive decisions relating to individual Members of Parliament and the need for oversight, with Black Rod, of the security of the Palace. We should acknowledge that this evening.

I have read and read again the report before us, and I think there is an error here. We are in danger of conflating two separate things: the immediate problem of security and the wider aspirations to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) referred at length on 22 April. [Interruption.] His speech was qualitatively very useful. I share with him the aspiration of making this place much more inviting and open and providing greater opportunities for people to understand its history and perhaps to enjoy an interpretive centre. That is referred to in the paragraph of the report dealing with longer-term objectives. We are confusing two separate issues, and I think that that is a mistake.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman share my puzzlement that we are being asked to go ahead with what is allegedly a security measure at the very time when the Leader of the House has been at great pains to tell us that a comprehensive review of all security is being carried
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out? Does he think it premature, to say the least, to spend £5 million of public money on this project when the security review has not yet been completed?

Andrew Mackinlay: The right hon. Gentleman anticipates the thrust of much that I want to say. Since 22 April, I have thought about the issue on many occasions, and have reconsidered some of the proposed developments and initiatives to explore what alternatives there are. I want to amplify why I think that the proposals are premature. I also beat my breast three times because I confess to the House that, in retrospect, I think that there was a case either for us to have a secret sitting or some other system of deliberation so that some of our ideas and reservations could have been shared in confidence. I say that because there are some issues, even now, on which we would all have views, on which it is probably not wise to canvass in the open.

I know that there was an endeavour to involve and advise as many people as possible about some of the security constraints, both in relation to the previous debate on the screen and to this one. We were told that some 60 Members were approached, largely Privy Councillors; hon. Members will understand how this obsession with Privy Councillors grates with me. In any event, may I suggest that, in addition—but not instead—we use the executive of the 1922 committee, Labour's parliamentary committee and the representative organisations of the other parties to at least expand the consultation? After all, the 1922 committee executive and the Labour party's—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could confine his remarks to the debate under consideration.

Andrew Mackinlay: I will, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my point was that the consultation, which is mentioned in the report, could have been greater. As this issue is not going to go away, I invite the House and the authorities to consider whether in addition to Privy Councillors, the shop stewards—the 1922 committee and the parliamentary committee—might be used.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham) (Lab): Neither the 1922 committee nor the parliamentary Labour party are leak-free zones, as my hon. Friend well knows. I am glad that he has had a rethink about considering matters in closed session. I was the only Labour Member who voted for a closed session, and I was phoned up by a newspaper and asked if it was a mistake. I have perhaps made many mistakes in my life, but that was not one of them.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was trying to explain that we need some way of being able to share our concerns and a closed session is one such way. I have tried to canvass other ideas, as these issues will not go away. I do not want to labour that point.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne) (Con): To try to help the hon. Gentleman and others, I am sure that he will appreciate that I cannot discuss in the Chamber detailed security advice. I can, however, confirm that the proposals have been examined by security specialists, both inside and outside the House, and the best current
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advice is that they would significantly improve on the current arrangements, which I am sure that he will agree are not necessarily satisfactorily, and no problems whatever have been identified with the proposed location.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am coming to that. I do not doubt that there has been consultation with the security and intelligence services and other professional advice. Perhaps I would like occasionally to be included in the circle. If we look at column 508, on 22 April, we see that the Deputy Leader of the House postulated that someone who supported the screen would logically support these motions. I voted for the screen, but I am not persuaded by these recommendations. It does not necessarily follow.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a bits-and-pieces approach towards security is exactly the problem? Agreeing with one measure—incidentally, I did not agree with the screen, as it is another limitation on our interaction with the public—does not necessarily means that one agrees with another. Since this is a strategic issue, does he agree that we need a strategic solution, not something that bolts on one piece after another, perhaps without achieving the objective at all?

Andrew Mackinlay: I agree.

On the technical point, I asked the Deputy Leader of the House a question previously, and I hope that he will reply later. If somebody, heaven forbid, wished to explode a device in the proposed new building, how would that be an appreciable improvement on the existing arrangements, which, without question, endanger staff? I am not an expert, but I understand that explosions blow outwards. If we want a building that will deal with screening, we want one that will allow the thrust of such an explosion to go outwards. I stress that I have not had a reply on this point and the fact is that the building proposed is in a trench. If the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who is a member of the Commission, has an answer, I would be pleased to have it.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): As I said to the hon. Gentleman last time, I cannot go into the detailed security advice and I have not had a great deal of it in respect of this building. I thought that the general point about security screening buildings was that they had thick walls to stop the blast going outwards and make it go upwards.

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