Rural yobs end Westminster freedom

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the ramifications of the hunt supporters' invasion of the Palace of Westminster.IT may seem funny to the general public – the poor dears in the House of Commons, the beating heart of our democracy, can't even defend themselves from a few determined rural thugs demonstrating against plans to ban hunting and coursing.

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the ramifications of the hunt supporters' invasion of the Palace of Westminster.

IT may seem funny to the general public – the poor dears in the House of Commons, the beating heart of our democracy, can't even defend themselves from a few determined rural thugs demonstrating against plans to ban hunting and coursing.

But what if the hunt supporters who invaded the Commons on Wednesday afternoon has been terrorists, armed to the teeth with guns, hand grenades, and knives?

What if MPs had turned up in force, rather than just 30 or so, to debate a subject they are all supposed to be passionately interested in?

Forget the cause – whether you support or loath hunting, there can be no excuse whatsoever for this attack.

It was utter nonsense and arrogance of Anthony Wakeham, father of the point-to-point rider Richard Wakeham – one of the protesters who got into the chamber – to proclaim: "The people in the countryside have got no option now. We are being governed by people we can no longer trust. They are abusing our trust."

Most Read

If democracy means anything, elected MPs have the right to pass legislation. If it is unpopular, they are accountable to their electors at the ballot box.

That's our system. We have given it to the rest of the world.

Over the years, there's been plenty of legislation with which I don't agree. The raid on pension funds is a case in point, but it would be pointless for me to don a funny tee-short and to get involved in a punch up.

Rural dwellers make a virtue of being law abiding. And peaceful protests are one thing – the Countryside Alliance marches over hunting showed the strength of feeling over the issue.

But direct action is anarchy and just as wrong if carried out by the countryside lobby as it is by the "great unwashed" of the left.

The protests in Westminster Square got out of hand as well on Wednesday, and the police seemed remarkably heavy handed. But nerves are stretched over fears that terrorists could strike at any moment.

Protecting Westminster, and MPs, peers and staff, is not easy. Guy Fawkes found his way in, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated there in 1812, and the IRA blew up Airey Neave and his car in 1979.

The war on terrorism immediately after 9-11 saw a heightened security net thrown around the building, with armed police on patrol. The war in Iraq caused anti-tank barriers to be erected between Parliament and Westminster Abbey and a glass screen to be located in the public gallery.

But that didn't stop protesters this year scaling Big Ben or showering Tony Blair with purple flour.

Throw into the equation breaches of security at Buckingham Palace – arguably, for most members of the public, far more serious than incidents in the Commons – and we have one of the world's oldest democracies unable to defend the very institutions of the state.

Apologists for the hunt protesters will no doubt say they were not armed and as they had no intention of injuring anyone, it was a legitimate protest.

It was nothing of the sort.

They had inside help, that's for sure. Was it an MP, a member of his or her staff, an official of the Commons or a journalist from a paper determined to ridicule Parliament?

An internal investigation is underway to identify a parliamentary pass-holder who is believed to have guided the men towards the Commons chamber.

Now consider this. I have a security pass for the Commons, which means I do not have to pass through airport style bomb and weapons checks.

For the past two weeks, I could have entered Westminster each day with a sub machine gun in my brief case and not been stopped. I could have had a cache hidden away and on Wednesday, ensured the protestors were armed and if they had entered the Commons chamber four hours earlier, they would have taken out the entire Cabinet and hundreds of MPs from all parties.

As Parliament is an arm of our system of government > but not of the elected Government > it is responsible for its own security, in con junction with the Metropolitan Police.

Peter Hain, Leader of the Commons, made it clear that it was time for Westminster to have "modernised security procedures." His comments may have sounded the death knell for the "men in tights" – the corps of doorkeepers in 18th-century outfits who currently guard the entrances to the Commons, made up largely of retired military men under the command of the Serjeant-at-Arms.

Although MPs do not want to be cut off from their electors, I suspect the right of every citizen to walk into Parliament's Central Lobby will have to end.

Even that most hated of all institutions, the European Parliament, has better security than Westminster. How humiliating.

BY 356 votes to 166, the Bill to ban fox and stag hunting and hare coursing in England and Wales was approved by MPs and yesterday it arrived in the House of Lords.

The Hunting Bill had its formal first reading in the Lords, but will not receive a full debate until October, after the three-week parliamentary break for the party conference season.

MPs had rejected the Government's proposal for a two-year delay in implementing the ban on fox-hunting to allow rural communities time to adapt to the new situation.

Instead, they voted to deny huntsmen a further season's sport by setting a date of July 31 2006 for it to come into effect in England and Wales. If it becomes law, the ban on hare-coursing will come into effect just three months after the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Although there is a clear majority in favour of keeping hunting in the Upper House, the Government has left no doubt that any attempt to derail the Bill will be quashed by the invocation of the Parliament Act.

The Act allows the Commons to overrule the Lords if it rejects a piece of legislation approved by the Commons in two successive sessions and ministers have said it will be a matter for it would be a matter for MPs to decide in a free vote in the Commons whether to invoke the Act.

It is by no means certain that the Lords will force a constitutional confrontation to protect hunting and coursing. They may bluster, but when it comes down the crunch, the majority of peers may decide not to push the destruct button.

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael urged peers not to attempt to obstruct the Bill, saying: "I hope the House of Lords will engage with it and amend it as they see fit and send it back to us."

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter