Commons screen 'to protect MPs'

by JOE MURPHY, Evening Standard

A giant glass screen is being erected in the Commons to protect MPs against biological or chemical attack.

The airtight barrier will completely seal off the public gallery.

It follows a "highly alarming" security briefing which warned of a loophole in security arrangements which were designed to cope mainly with guns and bombs.

The fear, which is being taken seriously by parliamentary officials, is that a single terrorist could throw a bag of dangerous material, such as powdered anthrax spores, during a setpiece occasion when almost the entire Government is seated below the gallery.

Even a hoax attack where nothing more deadly than talcum powder was hurled could cause immense disruption.

"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.

"Some MPs who disapprove of the barrier need to understand that this is a new kind of threat."

The barrier will be in place by the time the Commons returns from the Easter recess. One row of 24 public seats will be removed to make space for the screen which will cost £500,000.

The structure is temporary and is designed to be there for 16 months before a permanent screen takes its place.

Some parliamentarians are against the plan because they dislike the idea of any barrier cutting off the public who pack the gallery on big occasions.

But the threat of an attack either by terrorists or hoaxers is deemed so high that they are expected to go ahead with a permanent screen, which will cost about £2 million, after the next election.

The public gallery has long attracted rowdy protesters and there have been occasional scares in the past.

Three bags of horse manure were hurled in the chamber in 1978, splashing onto MPs as they debated Scottish home rule. More recently, the gallery was cleared when noisy protesters heckled Tony Blair over the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, the Home Office confirmed that everybody in Britain may be sent a booklet on how to cope with a major terrorist attack.

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