Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"Lock the Doors!"

A key moment in the ceremonial of the State Opening of Parliament is the slamming of the door to the Chamber of the House of Commons in the face of the Queen's messenger, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. This, as every schoolchild knows, symbolises the Commons asserting their independence from arbitrary arrest, after Charles I tried to arrest five MPs in the Chamber before the Civil War. On that occasion, Speaker Lenthall famously refused to tell the King where they were. This symbolism had a particular resonance this year, following the arrest of Damian Green last week and the ransacking of his Commons office by police.

The person giving the order to "Shut the Doors!" today was the Serjeant at Arms, who since January has been Jill Pay, the first female holder of the post. She gave an interesting interview to the BBC before the State Opening, which has just been shown this morning, describing her job as being to control access to the building, but ensure all of those who need to gain access 'can carry out the purpose of their visit'. What has angered MPs on all sides of the House is that this seems to have been extended to include Metropolitan Police officers wishing to search an MP's Parliamentary Office. Ms Pay's role in this decision, and that of the Speaker, are not yet clear, but if they needed reminding of the constitutional violation which this disturbing episode represents, the slamming of the door is an image which they would do well to remember.

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