This week most of the world has been struck by the remarkable sight of the Canadian Sergeant-At-Arms walking around in his traditional regalia with a gun, having personally fought off a terrorist attack. Although the attack was a dreadful moment for Canada, there was undoubtedly a great sense of pride at the skill and professionalism of a man that most people will have assumed was employed purely for show.
The attack reminded us that the Serjeant-At-Arms is an important role in the British Parliament. He too is the head of security, tasked with protecting our democracy from all manner of threats. Unlike Canada, we made a decision a few years ago that we did not need to choose a former soldier or police officer. Instead our Serjeant is picked for his (or her) ability to run things like facilities management, and office cleaning.
We reasoned that we did not need someone with a background in security, indeed the current Serjeant is a postman. The old system of picking a former army officer was casually abandoned because it was deemed unnecessary. But if Canada needs a proper head of security, then perhaps we should be asking ourselves if we do too.
Moreover the security in our parliament is really rather confusing, it is mostly supplied by P division of the Metropolitan Police. These are the Parliamentary guard and they are backed up by the D division, the diplomatic firearms officers. Unfortunately officers of the crown are not allowed in the House of Commons or Lords when they are sitting so the police cannot go into certain areas of the Palace.
In these areas there are doorkeepers, under the command of the Serjeant in the Commons and Black Rod in the Lords. Officially they jointly command the police in the rest of the building, but it is unclear how much control they exert.
Black Rod (Lt Gen David Leakey) is a former soldier, but I am assured that in practise he defers to the House of Commons Serjeant on security matters. Once again we are back to the postman: Lawrence Ward.
It is hard to say how well this system works but I wonder how many people would be filled with confidence knowing the man ultimately responsible for all this has no training in security at all. He cannot pick up a gun and fight, but more importantly there is no evidence he knows how to run a major security operation at a building that remains a terrorist target.
The day to day running of parliament is important, post must be sent, computers delivered and passes issued. But are we really sure that it is more important than security? Also why did the authorities take it upon themselves to decide the tradition of having a retire soldier had to be dumped. Were the public consulted, did they agree?
Canada has proved that the tradition of picking someone with a knowledge of security is important. It came about for a reason, and it was ended In Britian because people do not believe a terrorist attack is going to happen to us. But they are wrong, terrorism does happen and we need to be prepared. It paid dividends in Canada, we should sit up and take note.