Met and authorities to examine arrangements following terror attack with focus on Carriage Gates entrance
Police officers stand guard on Victoria Embankment following
Wednesday’s attack at parliament
The Metropolitan police and parliamentary authorities are examining security arrangements at Westminster after Wednesday’s terror attack.
Announcing the review, the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said it was extremely difficult to prevent “lone wolf” attacks involving just a car and knife.
He also said it was important to look again at any potential weak spots on the parliamentary estate. Focus will fall on Carriage Gates, the entrance that opens on to Parliament Square, usually used by vehicles bearing ministers and their staff.
Witnesses said the attacker crashed his car into the estate’s fence before running through Carriage Gates carrying two knives. He is said to have fatally attacked PC Keith Palmer, one of the unarmed officers patrolling near the gates, before being gunned down by armed officers.
Unarmed officers such as Palmer act as the public face of parliament at the entrance whose imposing iron gates are the symbol of the estate. They are often seen posing for pictures with tourists keen to take photographs with a clear view of Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben.
Speaking before Theresa May addressed the House of Commons, Fallon stressed that the officer had ensured that the terrorist was unable to breach the security of the House of Commons and that it was important to keep parliament as open as possible.
Fallon leaves Downing Street after a briefing with the prime minister on Thursday
“Parliament cannot be hermetically sealed. People are coming and going all the time,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, pointing out that MPs had been called at that time for a vote in the chamber so people were coming and going through the main gates in cars or on foot.
“Obviously, this is something that will be reviewed by the house authorities,” he added, arguing that Londoners were getting back to work as they took the attack “on the chin”.
“Let me emphasise today, although there is intense security around the Palace of Westminster, London is going to work this morning. I passed schoolchildren going to school, there are school trips going ahead, parliament itself will resume at the normal time at half-past nine. London is getting back to work – London has seen this before and is taking it on the chin,” he said.
Any review will examine procedures at the gates, which are often left unlocked or ajar because they are in frequent use.
Armed officers are usually seen several yards behind the unarmed officers. But just 50 yards beyond them on the other side of New Palace Yard, the green space adjacent to Big Ben, MPs and ministers can be seen frequently walking to and fro between parliament’s offices and the House of Commons chamber.
The dilemma for security forces and the parliamentary authorities has been the same since the building was first established on the banks of the Thames in the 11th century: how to provide safety for democratic institutions without infringing the historic right of the public to turn up and lobby their constituency MP.
There are already airport-style checks at some parliamentary entrances, including those at St Stephen’s Gate and Portcullis House, the building housing most MPs’ offices. There are no such checks at Carriage Gates.
MPs have long been aware that security at Carriage Gates could be better. The authorities have recently been working on something called the “New Palace Yard security enhancement project”, which will include replacing temporary galvanised barriers at the entrance with a stronger vehicle barrier.
A business case was meant to be approved in February and work is due to start by the end of the year, after planning permission is obtained from Westminster council.
Alan Johnson, the Labour former home secretary, said the Carriage Gates were a point of vulnerability for the Palace of Westminster, particularly during votes when they were left open to give easy access for ministers.
He said: “When the votes are on, the gates are open so that ministers can drive in from wherever they are in their different departments in Whitehall.”
Johnson agreed with suggestions made by Theresa Villiers in the House of Commons that there might be a case for arming all police on duty at the Palace of Westminster.
“The armed police are the second line of defence. The first line of defence, all too often, are the unarmed police, which we might need to rethink,” he said.
Some MPs and peers have called for a broader review of security arrangements and questioned whether an armed presence should now be placed at the front of the Palace of Westminster.
Grant Shapps, the former minister and MP for Welwyn Hatfield, told the Guardian: “We will no doubt review arrangements, and look again at procedures. It is a difficult balancing act, but the safety of police officers and MPs must be the priority.”
Others want the authorities to review the procedures and methods of communication following Monday’s attacks.
There was confusion inside Portcullis House for around 20 minutes after the initial gunshots. Several hundred people – including the Tory MP Nicky Morgan and Labour frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth – gathered at the back of the atrium amid conflicting advice from police about whether to stay put or try to find an office to shelter in.
Passholders were eventually sent to a building of MPs’ offices that had been searched, Norman Shaw North, where they were told to go into parliamentary offices and shut the doors.
But there were too many people for the available room, leaving corridors packed, as rumours flew around that police were still searching for a suspect on the loose.
Some peers complained that they were told that there was gunfire and they should move away from their rooms into a corridor, but were not then given any information from the authorities for two hours.
Security concerns are always a feature of Westminster life. Jess Phillips, the chair of the women’s parliamentary Labour party (PLP), said the group had met the deputy speaker Lindsay Hoyle and the head of security in parliament a day before the attack to talk about safety.
“The feeling in the room was very much that we felt safe on the estate – we had more concerns about random attacks in our constituency. During the attack the very next day the security was tested and the feeling of all the MPs inside and outside the building was that still we felt safe,” she said.
Phillips described the “calm, professional but forceful way the doorkeepers, security staff and police handled the situation” to keep staff, MPs and visiting schools and guests safe.
“Today we will attend a statement to honour Keith Palmer, but to honour him and the sacrifice he made for us we will keep going to our constituency meetings and parliamentary debates.”
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said on the Today programme that a full assessment of whether security in Westminster was working needed to be left to the police and security experts, “but certainly I think they prevented someone who wanted to attack parliament from doing so. This is the kind of event that they had planned and prepared for, and did immense work and showed immense professionalism as a result. I think it’s for the experts to do the review of the security and not for MPs to second guess at this stage.”
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