23 MAR 2017

THE DAY TERROR CAME TO WESTMINSTER

Simon Hart wrote this account of the events on March 22 for the Western Telegraph:

"At about 2.45 I left an event I was hosting in the Terrace Pavilion to make my way to the Chamber, having heard that a vote was imminent. Normally I would wait in my Portcullis House office until the bell rang as I know I can make the distance across Old Palace Yard in the 8 minutes before the Lobby doors are locked. But time was tight so I thought I would here the Minister Richard Harrington wind up the debate and get in the voting queue a bit earlier than usual. So, as the bell went I slipped out of the Chamber and mingled with a view colleagues and exchanged a bit of gossip – in other words, a normal Wednesday afternoon. But less than 200 yards from where we were it was anything but normal. We had noticed a few moments earlier a colleague urgently seeking out the PM (who had voted just a few moments ahead of me) which although not unique, was a little unusual. Then my friend James Wharton came in and said he had heard a commotion in Old Palace Yard as he raced to vote. He said it "sounded like gun shots followed by shouting and screaming" but he couldn't be sure. Sometimes the mind tends to assume an innocent explanation for unusual noises I find.

Then, our Commons "door keepers" (who were to demonstrate their extraordinary value as the day proceeded) locked all entrances to the Chamber, the voting Lobby and what is known as 'Members Lobby' the area next to the Chamber and where the busts of former PM's and Churchill himself stare down on us. Two blue strobing lights started to flash by the Chamber entrance. We didn't actually know they were there, let alone what they meant. It was only now that the situation began to unfold. I was back in the Chamber waiting for the Whips to declare the result of the vote when Labour colleague David Winnick rose from his place to ask the Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle to 'update the House' on the incident outside. By now Twitter and online news was in full flow but the Palace is an ancient building and, believe it or not, mobile phone reception and wifi isn't overly reliable, especially when several hundred MP's are making simultaneous use of it. All we knew was that an incident had occurred in Old Palace Yard in which we thought a Police Officer may have been hurt and that there had been some kind of related incident on Westminster Bridge. Leader of the House David Lidington updated us as much as he could and the presence of security officials around the House told us all we needed to know – that a terrorist incident was in play, but not the extent of it. At the same moment colleagues back in Members Lobby saw three men running towards the locked doors from the direction of the Library. Assuming they would turn back it was to some alarm that they simply kicked their way through the door. Wearing jeans, tee-shirts, face masks and seriously 'tooled up' it was obvious that these were no ordinary security people. Indeed for a moment it wasn't obviously clear they were "our" security at all.

The House was suspended and all employees, members, guests and officials ordered (firmly) to remain wherever they were until further notice. The Head of Security addressed the Chamber (we had no idea we had one or what he looked like yet here he was addressing MP's..)

By now colleagues and guests were reporting similar scenes from across the vast Parliamentary estate from MI6 in the west to the MoD in the east. All office staff in Portcullis House were being evacuated due to the proximity to Westminster Bridge amid fears of possible further attacks. Rightly security had no idea at this stage if the attacker was alone or part of a coordinated action. It was absolutely clear that the Palace reaction was the result of careful planning and probably years of training. There was no panic, no chaos or raised tempers, just the calm application of a very thorough protocol for what we all realise was ultimately an inevitable occasion.

Either by way of eye witness accounts from friends in offices overlooking the bridge, or journalists whose offices overlook Old Palace Yard itself, the full grim reality was becoming clear to us. As the lockdown ran from minutes to hours so too did the account of what had happened paint a clearer picture of the sequence of events and the extent and severity of casualties. Many of us used what was left of our mobile phone batteries to get messages out to friends and relations. Meetings needed to be cancelled, children collected from school, and families reassured.

Many MP's, myself included, live across Westminster Bridge when we are in London. Every day we pass the throngs of tourists waiting for Big Ben to chime, the buskers, the school kids on trips, film crews and hospital workers commuting to nearby St Thomas'. Knowing that this familiar crowd had been shown no mercy whatsoever was especially chilling. Knowing, as we did by now, that the familiar and comforting presence of an unarmed Officer on the main gate had died at the hands of this person altered the mood of London from bewilderment to universal remorse.

At around 8 pm the lockdown was concluded and the thousands of people who started the day looking forward to what is so often a memorable trip to this great building started to emerge into the eerie silence and calm of Millbank. We were greeted by an army of police officers whose job it was to take a very brief record of who we were and what we may have seen. Despite the loss of a colleague yards from where we were they did so with characteristic patience and good humour. Some were still on duty next morning having not slept for over 24 hours.

This week the House will sit as usual, and Westminster Bridge will be the bustling tourist attraction it always is. And, as normal, two police officers will be on duty at Carriage Gates."

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Simon Hart MP
House of Commons
London
SW1A 0AA

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15, St John St
Whitland
Carmarthenshire
SA34 0AN

Phone:

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