Airtight barrier protects MPs from attack
WORK to increase security at the House of Commons began yesterday with the addition of a glass screen to protect MPs from attacks.
The airtight barrier has been designed to seal off completely the public gallery amid fears of an anthrax attack during a high-profile Commons debate.
The decision to erect it, bringing to an end the tradition of granting voters exceptional access to MPs, was taken after a "highly alarming" security briefing which warned of a loophole in security arrangements which are mainly concerned with preventing bombings or shootings.
The fear is that a terrorist could spray lethal chemical substances, such as anthrax spores, from the public gallery during a major set-piece event when almost the entire government is present.
While the prospect of such an attack appears slim, the Commons authorities have been warned to take the risk seriously and act now to prevent it from happening.
Even a hoax attack when nothing more deadly than talcum powder might be hurled could cause a major disruption among MPs.
"You can envisage a situation where the entire Cabinet has to be held in the Commons for decontamination for hours while the government virtually stops business," said a senior source. "There is no excuse for not being vigilant."
The barrier is due to be in place by the time MPs return to the Commons from their Easter recess in a fortnight.
One row of 24 public seats will be removed to make space for the screen which will cost 500,000 to produce.
The structure is only semi-permanent and it is envisaged it will be in place for less than two years while a permanent screen, costing 2 million, is produced to take its place.
The introduction of the screen underlines just how seriously the Commons authorities take the terror threat and adds further authority to reports that MI5 want a massive security wall built all around the Westminster parliament buildings.
The security services have won a long-running battle to radically increase security at the Houses of Parliament after officials conceded such steps were "the reality of 21st-century democracy".
The measures being considered include removing the iron railings from outside Westminster and replacing them with a huge concrete wall topped with razor wire.
The Houses of Parliament are seen as a soft target by MI5, which has argued for years with English Heritage for additional security protection to be incorporated to protect MPs from terrorist outrages.
The embarrassing breach last month by two anti-war protesters who scaled Big Ben has added fresh impetus to the argument.
It is understood the armed police who already patrol exposed areas of the Westminster complex will soon operate a shoot-to-kill policy if the buildings are breached.
A spokesman for Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, has said that any decision to substantially increase security would be taken by the police and the parliament.
However, he added: "You always have to strike a balance between prudent precaution and ensuring that people can go about their day-to-day business.
"I think the public understand that and that is the reality of 21st-century democracy."
Tests are also being carried out to ensure the fire service, ambulance and police can all access Westminster rapidly in the event of a terror attack on parliament.
At the weekend a major exercise was carried out to test procedures that are planned to be put into action in the event of a strike by terrorists.
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