UK Parliament urged to upgrade 'on-the-cheap' security for MPs

Authorities criticised for failing to provide close protection amid soaring tensions linked to Gaza-Israel war

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22: An armed police officer stands guard near Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament on March 22, 2017 in London, England. A police officer has been stabbed near to the British Parliament and the alleged assailant shot by armed police. Scotland Yard report they have been called to an incident on Westminster Bridge where several people have been injured by a car. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
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British Parliament authorities are becoming increasingly reliant on private security operations to boost the protection of MPs but industry insiders are casting doubt over the quality of the measures being provided.

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat told parliament on Thursday that police support would be expanded so each MP would have “a dedicated named officer contact on security matters”.

He indicated private security firms would also be used. “Working closely with parliament and the police, we will provide access to private security for members who face the highest risk,” he said. “I take the safety and security of all members of this House extremely seriously.”

With fears heightened over MPs security following protests over the Israel-Gaza war, the UK government has announced a boost of £31 million ($40 million) in funds for politicians’ protection.

Safety concerns are mounting, with three British female MPs being given bodyguards after being subjected to severe threats.

A close-protection source suggested to The National that the parliamentary authorities had so far taken “a bit of sticking plaster” approach. He said a full-scale review of the 650 members was needed, with a “dedicated risk assessment against each individual MP to understand what the threats against them are”.

Another source said he had raised fears with parliament that it was opting for "doormen" instead of trained bodyguards to protect politicians.

“They are trying to get MPs’ security on the cheap, because door supervisors would probably cost you £20 an hour for three or four hours, whereas close-protection operators would cost a daily rate of £450 to £650,” a leading UK security company boss told The National.

A leader of a firm specialising in close protection, the source said the most recent tender was put out to private security companies in 2022. After participating in the bidding process, he feared parliament “had no real knowledge of the sector” as it operated to ensure its clients' safety.

“They were talking about putting security guards or door supervisors on MPs’ surgeries who do not have the training to fulfil the requirement that was laid out,” he said. “What they were trying to do was get it on the cheap.”

“Any security at surgeries or events that MPs attend should be provided by close-protection operators [CPOs], not security guards or door supervisors, because of the extra training and greater awareness and skill-set they have,” the security chief said.

CPOs are capable of conducting a “dynamic risk assessment” in which they carry out reconnaissance for escape routes, alternative pick-up points and self-defence, he added.

In a statement to The National, parliament said: “We do not routinely comment on security matters, though there have been a number of significant changes in the approach to MPs' security in recent years and we do not recognise or agree with the claims outlined regarding funding.”

It said there was a dedicated Members’ Security Support Service that provided personal security advice and MPs received “regular updates on security matters both on and off the estate”.

It also worked closely with the Metropolitan Police and regional forces “to ensure MPs are kept as safe as possible and are able to perform their duties”.

The Israel-Gaza war has inflamed an already polarised society, with regular mass protests in London and other cities, focusing largely on the high Palestinian death toll.

A growing number of MPs are becoming increasingly worried when they leave the parliamentary estate for their London flats.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign group has vowed to continue organising mass protests against Israel’s campaign in Gaza, despite Home Secretary James Cleverly claiming they had “made their point”.

The group’s director Ben Jamal said “we will be continuing to conduct regular protests” but confirmed organisers would review holding further marches if there was a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Another issue for civilian British bodyguards is that by law they are not allowed to carry defensive weapons.

There are calls for the legislation to be changed to allow them to have either pepper spray or extending batons for self-defence.

“It’s about breaking that initial contact," said the bodyguard chief. "They're not there to subdue the attacker, they're there to get the principal [threat] away from the throat.

He added that while “absolutely no one advocated” the use of firearms or Tasers, bodyguards are allowed to wear stab vests or body armour.

It is also difficult for MPs to reach the threshold required for professional armed officers from the Royalty and Specialist Protection group. With several royals and cabinet ministers needing round-the-clock protection, there are not enough police to protect all MPs.

However, a study was undertaken several years ago to examine if private security could be used to look after former high-profile politicians who have retired but was not followed up.

Updated: February 29, 2024, 8:10 PM