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Windsor Castle

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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12.33 pm

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the serious breach of security at Windsor castle last Saturday evening, 21 June. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has already apologised personally to the royal family and, on behalf of the Government and the House, I too offer my deep regret to Her Majesty and the royal family for the events of Saturday evening.

Yesterday afternoon, I received a six-page report from the commissioner. It is a preliminary report, which I have discussed with the commissioner this morning. A further detailed review has already been set in train. However, it may help the House if I summarise the chronology of events in the report.

At 8 pm, Aaron Barschak appeared at the main entrance of Windsor castle. He was refused entry by the police and, following an impromptu public comic turn, was asked to move on.

At about 10 pm, Mr. Barschak entered the castle grounds at Chapter mews. He climbed a steep bank, scaled a tree and leaped across on to the castle wall. From here, he climbed to the north terrace.

As he advanced along the north terrace, he was challenged by a contractor. By this time he had changed into fancy dress.

Actually, this matter is quite serious.

Mr. Barschak presented as being slightly drunk and said that he was a party guest who had lost his way. The contractor escorted him to one of the side entrances to the castle, where a police officer was on duty. The police officer, who had to remain at his post, asked the contractor to take Mr. Barschak to the main entrance to the party. There was no further challenge from either the police or other staff controlling access to the party. Mr. Barschak was able to get unacceptably close to Prince William.

We do not have confirmation of that.

Having appeared at the prince's side, Mr. Barschak then made his way to the bar, where a member of the castle staff challenged him. He was handed over to the police and subsequently arrested. Following interview and investigation by the police, which is still continuing, Mr. Barschak was released on bail.

I am sure that the House will appreciate that I have to be very careful, in commenting on the incident, to ensure that I do not prejudice any possible police action against Mr. Barschak. Nevertheless, his actions have exposed an appalling failure in the security at Windsor castle, which simply should not have happened. I know that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis agrees with this view.

I am determined that lessons should be learned from this incident. A detailed police inquiry is being conducted by a senior officer, Commander Frank Armstrong of the City of London police. The report of that investigation will determine conclusively what went wrong on the night, and whether disciplinary action needs to be taken. That report will be available within the next four weeks. It is my intention, in consultation with Sir John Stevens, to publish the report.

However, neither the police nor I are awaiting that report before considering what further security measures need to be taken. This is the subject of the most urgent work with the royal household by the Metropolitan police and my officials.

My particular concern is that this very serious breach of security occurred despite there being extensive security and surveillance measures already in place at Windsor castle. Further work has been carried out over the past few months, and more is planned for the autumn. Security at all royal residences remains under constant review, but at this stage we have no reason to believe there were any technical failures at Windsor on Saturday night.

Assistant Commissioner David Veness of the Metropolitan police has made it clear that the events of Saturday night are wholly unacceptable, and I share that view. That is why, within the confines of the inquiry and possible further police action, I have sought today to give the House a picture of those events.

I want to assure the House that we will work with the police and the royal household to ensure that lessons can be learned from this event that can only improve the security of the royal family for the future. I know that the whole House will share that objective.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his statement and for giving me early sight of it, although that conventional courtesy was perhaps less important than usual as we have all read it in the press.

I take this opportunity to repeat in the House what I have already said outside: we are not aiming to decapitate the Home Secretary or anyone else. Our purpose in considering the statement and the events to which it refers should be to learn the lessons and improve the systems of protection rather than to satisfy any political or administrative bloodlust.

It is clear that the system failed. If there was human failure, as the Home Secretary seems to imply, that is not a sufficient explanation, because human beings do fail; the point of systems is to make up for their failings, to ensure that the outcome is good even when things go wrong on the way.

The House, and, I hope, the Government, will not want to focus solely on the immediate lessons and the immediate questions. There are also wider lessons. This episode and the systemic failure that it represents is an important metaphor for wider systemic failure. Faced with the current terrorist threat, Whitehall is doing many of the right things, but it is doing them far too lethargically. I have recently seen a letter from the emergency planning officer of a county council. It is one of a number of similar communications that I have received from emergency planners around the country over the past 18 months.

In the letter, that senior official tells us:
"In respect of measures to assist in dealing with … the chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear threat … the time this is taking to implement across the country is a cause for concern".
Is not the real lesson, the biggest lesson of this latest lamentable episode, that, as I have been saying for more than a year, the required sense of urgency is missing? Is not this latest episode a wake-up call?

It is all very well—indeed, it is very well—for the Home Secretary to ask for a report from the commissioner after the episode, but can he tell us whether he asked for reports on the progressive improvement of royal security in each of the last 18 months? I suspect that the Home Secretary and his colleagues would regard that question as naive. I suspect they think that I do not understand how busy he is; but the point is that I do understand how busy he is.

The Home Secretary is too busy—too busy to wake up each morning and to go to bed each evening worrying exclusively about the systems of civil protection in this country. Given the present level of threat, constantly emphasised by the right hon. Gentleman and by the Prime Minister, and recently re-emphasised by the head of MI5, and given the current deficiencies in our systems of civil protection, all too glaringly illustrated by the recent episode, we need a heavyweight political figure who can spend morning, noon and night worrying about those matters, and harassing the various agencies.

Before the Home Secretary retorts that a new Department will not help, let me restate, as I have on numerous occasions over the past 18 months, that I do not believe that a new Department is required. What is required is, rather, a centre of energy in the form of a senior Minister, spending his or her whole time energising those responsible for civil protection in Britain.

Such a Minister could be located within the Cabinet Office or within the Home Office itself, a Department which, I remind the Home Secretary—[Interruption.]—and the Chief Whip, who is muttering from a sedentary position—[HoN. MEMBERS: "As usual".] For three long months, under their aegis, the Department did not even have a Minister with part-time responsibility for those matters.

Will the Home Secretary, for our safety and for his peace of mind, take the opportunity of this episode to consider afresh what is genuinely intended as a constructive way forward?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that there is no bloodlust. We all share the view that, if lessons are to be learned, we should move quickly to put things right. We also share his view that systemic failure occurred on this occasion.

I have already made it clear that the technology that was put in place did not fail, so there was clearly a failure in the systems for checking; there was human error and a failure to respond to particular indications of intrusion and to ensure that after the initial checks had been made, continuing identity checks were made in the castle itself. All those lessons will be learned.

Let me deal with the substantive issue—what the right hon. Gentleman described as a metaphor. Were the emergency planning officers right to believe that, if it has taken time to deal with the very substantive chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threat and if undue time has been taken to put in place the tens of millions of pounds that we are now spending to counteract that threat, there is a read-over to this event and therefore that urgency of action was the cause of the failure as well as not having a security tsar in the Cabinet, separate from the Minister responsible for counter-terrorism and policing, including MI5, S013 and S014 and the wider special branch? That is the issue that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this afternoon.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether we have we taken steps over 18 months to secure the royal family. Yes, we have. At every royal palace, major work has been and continues to be undertaken, including at Windsor castle. When the report comes out, the steps taken, the technology available and the surveillance already in place will be spelt out, along with the detailed investigation of the failures. [Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House rightly, almost perceptively, says from a sedentary position that it did not work. Well, self-evidently, it did not work; otherwise, I would not be reporting to the House.

Self-evidently, no matter how busy I have been, I was not there on Saturday night to oversee the events, even though, as Prince Andrew said to me last night, I would have been very welcome. I was attending an event that the shadow Home Secretary also attended. However, if I had been very welcome—let us get this clear—I would not have been operationally responsible for what took place at Windsor, not just because it would not have been correct for me to do so, but because Opposition Members have been berating me for the past two years for taking any step to have any operational responsibility for police activity. They can only have it one way: either I am operationally responsible, or a security tsar would be; or the police are operationally responsible, so long as we as a Government have put in place the resources, the available support and the mechanisms to ensure that they do their job properly.

Let me deal with the final issue. If there had been a security tsar in the Cabinet and I had been sitting next to him while he made this statement, would it have changed the situation? Would it have avoided the event? Would we be more secure? Would it have helped or hindered to have taken out of the hands of the Home Secretary responsibility for the general issue, but not the responsibility to hold to account the operational special branch and policing mechanisms, including S014, which is responsible for royal security? Would it have made a difference if a separate person was answering those questions, or badgering me or the police about what they are doing separately from the duty that I would have to carry out in being in charge and accountable for MI5 and special branch? The answer is patently no. If someone else were trying to do my job for me separately, and answering for me separately while I sat next to him, the accountable lines of responsibility would be muddled. The police, including the commissioner, would not be clear to whom they were accountable and the discussions this morning would inevitably have been with both of us and the report would have to come to both of us.

In the end, these are the questions that have to be answered: did we do our bit of the job correctly? Have other people done their jobs correctly? Whom do we hold to account for the failures? How do we learn the lessons? It does not matter what silly party politics are made of this; those are the questions. We will have the answers within a month and, if someone else energising himself by rushing around triple checking the arrangements put in place and ensuring that personal and systemic failures do not occur would make any difference, I would recommend to the Prime Minister that it be done, but we have either overall charge of the system, or operational responsibility. We cannot have both.

Happily, the uninvited guest at the castle on Saturday night was clearly social and self-promotional rather than antisocial and considerably worse, for which we are grateful. I am not going to ask the Home Secretary about civil defence, as it seems to me that that is a matter for another day. I have a couple of straightforward questions.

Can the Home Secretary confirm that the opportunity will be taken of the event on Saturday night to review the security of all the key institutions of state: the homes and offices of the key members of the royal family, the Parliaments and Governments of the United Kingdom, and the courts of the United Kingdom, all of which need to be secure and safe? Can he confirm that the one crucial thing that appears to have failed on Saturday night, and that clearly failed 20 years ago, is that the perimeter boundaries were not adequately policed, either in person or technologically? Surely that is easy to do technologically, which is the priority in all the key institutions to which I have referred. Lastly, to get the lines of accountability right—he is right to say that he does not have, as he should not have, direct accountability—when the royal family are outside London, who are in charge; is it the diplomatic and royal protection force of the Metropolitan police or the local territorial police? In cases such as this, which of those two takes responsibility or do they share it?

I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman has posed his questions. On the latter point, the local force has responsibility outside the perimeter. That is very clear, and that was the case with Thames Valley police outside the perimeter of Windsor castle. The Metropolitan police royal protection branch has responsibility inside the grounds, in conjunction with the royal family and their staff. It is important to bear in mind that we are talking about a family and decisions taken by them in relation to the level of surveillance and the avoidance of intrusion, particularly when there are invited guests and it is a family event. People have spoken in the past 48 hours as if the royal family should have no say in this and should have expected a degree of intrusion, which would have been unacceptable to them.

On the two other questions raised by the hon. Gentleman, it is absolutely imperative that we have the proper level of security elsewhere, and Members are aware that we have been doing that both at No. 10 Downing street and around the Palace of Westminster over recent months. It is critical that we learn the lessons. I ought to make it clear to the House that there was and is electronic surveillance of the highest order. There is a suggestion, as there was a moment or two ago, that some of us are so busy that we do not have a clue about what is going on or about the necessary use of technology or surveillance. We are talking about whether that technology was used effectively, whether the indications from it were picked up, and whether they were acted on. That is why this important detailed review by Commander Armstrong will have to deliver to us not just the answers to the immediate questions but the way forward in making sure that the failures do not happen again.

We are all relieved that nothing terrible happened at Windsor. What is the cost, however, of policing these royal events? We are not talking about any old royal event, but a fancy dress party. If football clubs in north-east Lancashire or agricultural shows in my constituency are charged for the cost of policing such events, is it not right that the royal family or invited guests to royal fancy dress dos reimburse the police for the extra cost of this additional security?

Arrangements are in place to deal with what falls as a private cost and what falls to the public purse in terms of security for those in the public eye. What I say to my hon. Friend is that we must have a sense of proportion. It is nice for a young man to have a 21st birthday party and to be able to do so in safety.

While this was clearly a serious incident with potentially disastrous consequences, I put it to the Home Secretary that my constituents who live near Windsor, who have a great affection for the royal family, have always enjoyed a close informality, as was seen last week with the Garter parade, which has ensured a close relationship between the local population and the royal family. While probably introducing new security measures, I urge him not to do so in a way that means that the royal family and the public do not have close contact. If that happens, as with Members of Parliament at Westminster, the terrorists win.

It is precisely because of the wish of the royal family to maintain that informality, for the reasons that have just been enunciated, that the lighter-touch approach was agreed. Because in this country we have an agreement with the individual rather than one imposed by the security forces, as happens elsewhere, including across the Atlantic, there is a choice for those of us who have security, including the royal family, in relation to the level and intensity of that security. Many choose to ensure that they can continue living something of a life. That is a very important point. The events of Saturday night mean, inevitably, as there will rightly be a public demand for it, a tightening, but that must be with the agreement of the royal family, and it is at a cost to all of us in terms of the way that we live our lives.

In looking at measures to ensure that the security lapses on Saturday night do not happen again, will the Home Secretary assure the House and my constituents—who today are facing up to the fact that there is not a single ward officer in Lambeth, as they have all been sent up to guard President Putin—that in relation to any extra resources that go into security and terrorism, London boroughs that have many officers taken away on a day-to-day basis are given extra officers? There must be a balance to that, because if it is to go on for some time, it will affect the well-being of ordinary constituents who do not want their privacy invaded by burglaries.

As we have said on numerous occasions to my hon. Friend and others, that is precisely the reason why we have put £62 million extra into the Metropolitan police this year, that several hundred community support officers have been employed to ensure that displacement does not take place, and that we have ensured that the 200 officers who have been displaced, as I said at the last Home Office questions, do not disproportionately affect other boroughs. These are big issues, and all of us need to ensure that the displacement factor does not affect general policing.

Will the Home Secretary acknowledge the potential catastrophic consequences of what could have taken place last Saturday had the intruder been a suicide bomber rather than a comedian? Will he therefore ensure that a thorough and urgent review of security takes place in all royal palaces, not just Windsor castle, and including the Palace of Westminster?

Of course, the review of royal palaces has already taken place. The measures that I was mentioning a moment ago have already been put in place. The review by Commander Armstrong will deal with the failure to be able to use the measures already available and any lessons learned in terms of additional measures that might be required, including here. As was mentioned earlier, as hon. Members and bearing in mind the operation of the House, we must balance security for ourselves against the access that the public rightly demand and the availability and visibility of those whom they hold to account.

My right hon. Friend will be fully aware that everyone in the country wishes him well in his duties, particularly with regard to security. I am delighted that he is so up to date with electronic information and the methods used in security today. He is certainly aware, however, that the report could show that there was no human error or failing, and that the system was just not knitted together well enough. That could happen on any occasion. Security is not just about putting extra bodies in place: it is about utilisation and the experience and training that those officers receive. When he reads the report, will he please take note of the fact that in this country we have a long tradition of civil liberties, and that more security could easily mean more repression? Will he ensure that we continue to enjoy our civil liberties and the quality of life that we have had for centuries?

That balance is absolutely crucial. I want to make it clear that I have already acknowledged, as the Commissioner has acknowledged, that there was substantial failure and that it was not a simple matter of people not lining up the individual reaction with the technology. Those failures will be revealed. I have indicated that we will publish the report and do something about it, and then people will be aware of whether other changes will be needed consequent on that report.

In a previous life I spent a great deal of time guarding Windsor castle, so I know its perimeter quite well. It is a huge tourist attraction, as well as a major building with a large perimeter, that is set in a beautiful home park that is also open to the public. The Home Secretary has already spoken about balance. Will he reaffirm the fact that we do not want to see our royal family behind rolls of razor wire? Given the serious lapse of security, will he confirm that the best weapon is the vigilance of the general public? That is partly a question of educating the general public that some clown in a dress is not just a gatecrasher and could, in fact, be a serious threat to the royal family and, indeed, our whole democracy.

I think we have already acknowledged that. In the final analysis of Saturday night, apart from the failures that we have indicated existed, the difficulty was that it was a fancy-dress party. That is a lesson if ever there was one.

The last decade has seen a continued expansion of the role and responsibilities of private security firms. Will the inquiry that the Home Secretary announced examine in particular the way in which they carried out their duties, which are often considered to be down to a price, not up to a standard? Will he be able to tell the nation that no obsession with out-sourcing has imperilled the security of the royal family?

I can absolutely give an assurance on that because there was not a failure by private security companies. Contractors dealing with power and other provisions were involved, which are entirely different from companies responsible for security.

The Home Secretary outlined a serious security breach but, at the same time, the situation was almost like comic opera or something from the Ali G show. He outlined the operational responsibilities of the Metropolitan police, but will he tell the House his exact responsibility as Home Secretary? He gave the impression that it was rather an administrative responsibility relating to the allocation of resources.

I did not suggest that there was an administrative failure. There was a clear failure on the ground of people doing the job expected, as I am sure the review will conclude. However, it will do so by taking account of highly complicated issues such as the role of individuals, the use of technology and communications that took place on the night. There will be an important learning curve.

The Home Secretary's role is to ensure that resources are available and that the right questions are asked prior to the installation of further security and surveillance measures at the royal palaces. Any failure at a political level will be reported in the review and I shall happily take the rap for anything for which I can duly be expected to carry responsibility, bearing in mind the case that previous Home Secretaries were directly responsible for the Metropolitan police, which has not been the case for the past six years.

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand my concern about suggestions in the press that heads must roll over the incident? Does he agree that officers should be required to resign only if it can be said sensibly that they were personally guilty of real culpability or default, and that simply seeking a scalp would be wholly inappropriate and unjust?

I made it clear that there should be no scapegoats and I said to Sir John Stevens this morning that it was very important that no one—especially at a lowly level—should lose their job because of wider failures to do and manage the job better higher up the hierarchy.

In light of this seriously embarrassing failure, has the Home Secretary reviewed the security arrangements for President Putin's visit to this country this week? Furthermore, what impact does he expect the breach of security at Windsor castle to have on the proposed visit by President Bush later in the year? Does he expect the Americans to revisit their plans for the President to stay at the castle in the light of the Home Secretary's inability to provide adequate security?

I have discussed the Putin visit this week with David Veness—some of us obviously have a personal interest in the security this afternoon because we will be at the event. Despite the pressures on me, I am entirely on board with this. I promise that if there is a fancy-dress ball when President Bush is at Windsor, we shall take every step to avoid anyone kissing him.

The Home Secretary has alluded to this point, but surely one of the extra challenges facing the police and royal protection officers on the night was the large number of extra contractors, caterers, waiters and waitresses who were employed in the place of existing household staff. Does he agree that one of the lessons to be learned is that, whenever possible, royal household staff rather than outside contractors should be used to carry out such functions?

The answer is yes, but it is entirely a matter for the royal household. I said earlier that unlike other countries we do not impose activities on individuals—including members of the royal family—that they are not prepared to accept even in the interests of security. We have to negotiate such matters on all occasions. The same is true when people are used for other contracted arrangements for such parties.