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Houses of Parliament: Use of CS Gas

Volume 709: debated on Wednesday 1 April 2009

Private Notice Question

Asked By

To ask the Chairman of Committees what are the implications for the House of Lords of the incident involving the use of CS gas by the police on the evening of 30 March 2009 on the parliamentary estate.

My Lords, the details of the incident on Tuesday involving the use of CS spray are a matter for the House of Commons, not for me. It would be inappropriate for me to discuss them. All Metropolitan Police officers throughout London carry CS spray as part of the equipment designed to give them a range of possible responses to incidents. There is a standard operating procedure prescribing its use. Metropolitan police officers operate under these same guidelines, wherever they are on the parliamentary estate.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees for that Answer, but I asked him quite specifically about the implications for this House, not what happened in another place. Two issues particularly concern this House.

Another place has a screen in the Public Gallery and, of course, we do not. Therefore, we are not as secure as Members of another place from cross-contamination if CS gas is to be used. Should the fact that we do not have a screen now be reviewed?

Whatever the position in another place, a number of Members of this House suffer from severe respiratory disorders of various natures. Again, through cross-contamination, those conditions might be severely exacerbated or even worse. Accordingly, can the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees assure this House that CS gas would only be used in this House in extraordinary circumstances, such as a terrorist incident or where the safety of the public or Members of this House was threatened?

My Lords, on the latter point, I can give the assurance that CS gas would only be used in the most extreme circumstances by the Metropolitan Police. The proof of that is the fact that they have had CS gas on them for 15 years and Tuesday was the first time it had ever been used.

We do not have a screen for the Public Gallery, unlike the House of Commons. That has been looked into in the past. It was considered, and is still considered, impractical and undesirable to put one up there. I take the noble Baroness’s point about noble Lords possibly having more respiratory problems than Members of the House of Commons. CS gas is indeed obviously an unpleasant substance, but the police only deploy it in the severest situations. It is deemed safe—apparently; I take their word for this—for asthmatics. None the less, the welfare of all Members must remain uppermost in our minds. Doubtless, this issue will be given appropriate consideration by the relevant authorities.

My Lords, if CS gas can only be used in the most extreme circumstances, to use the noble Lord’s phrase, why have the media not reported what those extreme circumstances were in the Commons?

My Lords, is it not the case that this matter stands out for possible consultation between another place and your Lordships’ House? Would the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees particularly consider my request for the possibility of consultation between the authorities of the two Houses of Parliament?

My Lords, this matter was considered yesterday by the Joint Committee on Security, whose chairman will meet the Lord Speaker later today to discuss the issue.

My Lords, I was present in the other place when two CS gas canisters were thrown from the Public Gallery. In those days there was nothing to prevent such an action taking place. I was not in the Chamber when it happened; I was in the tea room, but that did not save me from the respiratory effect of CS gas because it entered the air conditioning system. Therefore, I suggest that protection in the form of a barrier between us and the Public Gallery might not be effective in the event of a CS gas attack similar to the one that occurred in the other place.

My Lords, we are discussing the use of CS gas by the police on Monday night, not the throwing of CS gas from the Public Gallery, which is a different matter altogether.

My Lords, although the idea of two journalists wrestling behind the Speaker’s Chair after Mr Eric Pickles’s party is a recipe for a Whitehall farce, at the heart of this there is a very serious matter: we are a vulnerable House and we need protection. I think that the House would be less confident if it thought that the police were not able to carry the kind of equipment needed to defend us. I certainly would not like to ask policemen to undertake that task with rules and restrictions that prevented them defending us and defending themselves.

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right; CS spray is one of a range of tactical options available to police officers confronted by violent people, and one of these people was violent. They have batons, handcuffs and carry CS spray. Ultimately, armed officers can be called to deal with the situation.

My Lords, will the Chairman of Committees look at another aspect of this problem; namely, that none of the three people involved was a Member of either House of Parliament, and, presumably, they were supposed to be accompanied in the Palace of Westminster, which is in a state of severe alert, yet they were free to wander around the corridors unaccompanied?

My Lords, I need to be extremely cautious about commenting on matters that took place in the House of Commons, which are for the House of Commons security authorities to deal with. I know that, were such an incident to take place at this end of the Palace, we would not wish the House of Commons to interfere in what we do.

My Lords, were the officers concerned armed with pepper sprays and, if so, was a considered decision made to use CS gas in preference to those?

My Lords, can the Chairman of Committees confirm that armed police officers were introduced into the Palace of Westminster without any consultation with Members of this House or another place?

My Lords, I do not know the answer to that, but they are not generally deployed within the Palace; they are usually deployed on the perimeter.

Motion agreed.