Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland until I return to the Murcia region of Spain in the Autumn for a month or so
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Wednesday, 19 May 2004

PMQs in House of Commons disrupted by a powder paint bomb

I must have returned to my car and switched on the radio only a few moments after this happened, so of course I didn't see it live myself. However, I usually record (boring, I know, but there it is) the whole of the 'Daily Politics' on BBC2 on Wednesdays for later viewing in case I have to miss it. I've now watched the recording and all one could see was that Tony Blair, the PM, John Prescott and Gordon Brown were all startled and looked up to their right, then what seemed to be coloured 'smoke' seemed to billow around Gordon Brown. Later slow-motion replays showed very clearly that purple powder of some kind was spreading out rapidly from what looked like a more compact body of flying material.

It seemed to be clear very rapidly that the powder, thankfully, was not toxic in any way, but of course Speaker Michael Martin immediately suspended the Sitting and MPs quickly left the Chamber (but read further on, for comments about this); there was no panic of any kind. HoC rules severely limit what the camera may show from the Chamber and forbid broadcast of any untoward incident so the camera coverage from inside was suspended immediately and we had to rely on eye-witness accounts from various MPs once they were outside. It was later suggested that had the attack been more severe, for example with some kind of biological or nerve weapon, then the correct action would have been to lock the HoC doors, to prevent the contamination from spreading.

Just recently a security screen was installed in the HoC, around most of the gallery areas accessible to non-members, to guard against just this type of incident. However, a small part of the Public Gallery, the three front rows, is not within the screen and it was from this unprotected area that the missiles were thrown. The area is intended for VIPs and guests of MPs and Peers who are supposed to vouch personally for those who receive their tickets, and it had been assumed that such people could never be involved in unparliamentary behaviour.

The attack, and one of the powder paint bombs apparently hit the back of the Prime Minister, was carried out by supporters of a protest group called 'Fathers 4 Justice' and it is reported that two men aged 50 and 36 have been arrested. This group aims to support fathers who suffer after marital disputes, for example by being denied access to their children by the mother. In other words, and very fortunately, it was not what we had all feared - a 'terrorist' attack. It is reported that 'Father-of-two Ron Davies, from Worthing, Sussex, threw the flour-filled condom from an area of the gallery reserved for MPs' and Peers' guests and notable visitors as a second, unnamed, activist held up a poster'.

Now for the investigation into what occurred. It seems that the two were holding tickets made available to Labour peer Baroness Golding, who had (we learn from BBC News24) allowed the tickets to be auctioned at a charity event. It seems she was not aware who had actually won the tickets

Also, according to a later report on BBC News24 (just a few moments ago), it seems that it is quite common for MPs and Peers to allow their ticket allocations to be auctioned at various charity events.

Labour peer Baroness Golding said in a statement that the two protesters were guests of hers. I have just watched her a short while ago making a statement of apology in the House of Lords.

In the immediate aftermath there was speculation, obviously, that it was a terrorist attack, then when it was realised it might be something else a recognition that the material thrown could easily have been dangeorus. What it is, though, is a 'wake-up' call. What to do for the future?

Initially, one assumed that the security screen would have to be extended to cover the whole of the Public Gallery, even though that goes against everything I believe about the vital importance of accessibility for the public to their elected representatives. Indeed there was considerable opposition to the installation of the existing security screen just a short time ago. It would be a pity if the actions of a few people were to result in a major change to the way our democracy functions, but if safety is really an issue, then there would probably be no alternative but to either ban the public completely, or to extend the security screen.

Now that we know the background to what happened, however, I would be reluctant to go down that path. What does need to happen, though, is that MPs and Peers must be made to understand that their personal responsibility for those they invite into the Chamber has real meaning and the consequences for them if they fail to exercise proper control over what happens to their ticket allocations will be severe with no room for prevarication or excuses later.

Undoubtedly, and allied with this, a far greater emphasis will need to be placed on physically checking those wo are invited into the Chamber (to either the general Public Gallery or to the VIP area) and their possessions, to ensure that no items which could potentially be used as a weapon are introduced into the Chamber. Also there needs to be rigorous training and regular practises to ensure that what is done in an emergency makes sense from a security perspective.

The unfortunate reality is that the 'solution' of closing the Public Gallery completely, or of closing the whole area behind a security screen, will be one of those chosen. Whatever merits 'Fathers 4 Justice' may have, they have done a grave disservice to our democracy today.

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