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Thursday, February 01, 2018

Protecting our creaking democracy

I wrote just over three years ago how we need urgent work to modernise the Palace of Westminster. This time though I was not talking about family-friendly hours, electoral systems or any of the other matters that are needed to bring our democracy into the twenty first century. My concern was the condition of the buildings themselves and the danger that a major part of our history might be lost forever without significant work being carried out.

As I wrote then: 'A BBC documentary to be broadcast next month is to highlight that the parlous state of the Houses of Parliament, includes leaking roofs, crumbling walls and plagues of mice, rats, moths and pigeons. In addition there are maintenance issues arising from this disrepair. The Times say that overflowing lavatories and blocked pipes in the House of Commons were left for more than two weeks without being cleaned up and became so bad that staff were sent home ill.'

I am delighted therefore that the House of Commons, against all expectations, voted last night to bite the bullet and agreed to move out so that this work could take place. As the Guardian reports, MPs decided that the risk of a major fire was so great that a total refurbishment costing at least £3.5bn was necessary:

MPs voted by 236 to 220 to support an amendment that saw Conservative and Labour members come together to support a full programme of works that is likely to result in the Commons relocating to a venue in Whitehall from the middle of the next decade.

They backed an amendment from the Labour MP Meg Hillier and rejected two motions in the name of leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom. Neither of those motions would have committed MPs and peers to moving off site. It would be the first time either house had moved out of the Victorian-era palace since the Commons chamber was destroyed by a bomb in 1941. Under the plan, the Commons and Lords would move off site in 2025 for an estimated six years.

The Commons would move to Richmond House, on nearby Whitehall, and the Lords would relocate to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre. The Lords will have to vote on the proposals before they are confirmed, but the upper house is expected to follow the Commons’ lead.

I visited the Canadian Parliament in October 2014 and saw the work that they are carrying out to update their estate. They understood that if these renovations were not carried out sooner rather than later then the problems would get worse and cost more to put right.

This is not just about securing safe conditions for the hundreds of people working on the Parliamentary estate but ensuring that an important part of our history remains open to future generations. And of course reforms are still needed, not least to the way that MPs work.

It is ludicrous that there are not enough seats in the Commons chamber for all the MPs, that it takes 15 minutes for every vote to be completed and that our elected Parliamentarians have to work on mobiles and tablets whilst in the chamber.

Perhaps these works should offer the opportunity of permanent change. Instead of moving back into the House of Commons chamber, it should be reserved only for ceremonial occasions and a more permanent arrangement is made for day-to-day business in a new chamber in which every MP has a designated seat and work station, votes are conducted electronically and agendas and other papers are made available without using paper.

The Canadian Parliament has operated this way for some time, as have Wales and Scotland. Why then are we forcing our elected representatives to govern us from a nineteenth century bear pit when more civilised and efficient alternatives are available? Shouldn't the mother of parliaments now be learning from its offspring?
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