HC Deb 03 November 1953 vol 520 cc137-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kaberry.]

10.0 p.m.

Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)

Before the House adjourns, Mr. Speaker, I hope I may be allowed to deflect your attention from the far-reaching matters covered by Her Majesty's most Gracious Speech to the perhaps less important but, I hope you will find, very attractive question of concerts in Westminster Hall.

The first hint of this possibility came to me on 9th May when looking through a little bundle of notices, instructions and demands relating to the following week's programme which comes to each hon. Member on Saturdays through the usual channels. At the top of a sheet was a notice which said: The Treasury Singers and the Colonial Office Choir are joining in a recital of Coronation Music in Westminster Hall at 12.30 on Thursday, 14th May. The very names lifted me a little from all the cares and distractions of the very workaday world and moved me an inch or two towards fairyland, because previously I had not associated Treasury officials with song, nor had I thought of the Colonial Office civil servants as choristers.

Much to my disappointment, upon reading down through the paper, on which there were a number of other notices of trivial matters, I came to the bottom on that same sheet where it said: The recital by the Treasury Singers and the Colonial Office Choir will NOT now take place on Thursday, 14th May. I felt I had been transferred from fairyland into the "This England" column of the "New Statesman." Judge my great surprise when, having seen on the one sheet of paper first that they would sing on 14th May and then that they would not, in fact, they did. I had the pleasure of being there when they did. I wish I had the power of conveying the feelings of those who were present. I do not suppose that with all the hammer beams, arches and rafters that we have in the ceiling of Westminster Hall, the acoustic properties of the Hall in any way compare with those of the Royal Festival Hall across the river, but there must have been some association of singing with the building where it was taking place which quite carried people away.

I suppose that all good music, wherever it is performed, whether it is the band of the Grenadier Guards or the King's College Chapel on the wireless, always rouses and stimulates some form of emotions, imagination and so on, and to hear music in that place, where monarchs have lain in state and where governors-general have been on trial, and there are other associations with our early history, must have stimulated the thoughts of those present. There was also the fact that the south window of the Hall could well be the west window of the cathedral and that drew one's thoughts and feelings.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Hugh Molson)

Does not the hon. Member mean the east window?

Sir R. Acland

I was thinking of the west, but it could be the east window.

The plain fact of the matter is that all who were present were looking at each other in amazement and saying to each other that they had never heard or experienced anything equal to the singing. Even the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was standing motionless.

I and some of my hon. Friends that evening put on the Order Paper a Motion expressing the thanks of the House to the Treasury Singers and the Colonial Office Choir for singing in Westminster Hall and hoping that they would sing there again in the future. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker), the hon. Member for Maidstone (Sir A. Bossom), the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield), the hon. Member for Garston (Sir V. Raikes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Mr. Ian Winterbottom), a fairly catholic range, put their signatures to the Motion. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to have collected 50 or more signatures, but I felt that six were enough, and anyhow there was not sufficient time available to obtain more.

The Motion ended by hoping that the choirs would sing again, I am sure all the signatories hope that the choirs will sing on future occasions. For myself, I should not want to limit it only to those choirs when there must be other choirs and orchestras which would be willing to perform for us. That raises the question as to how often. Surely, it requires in the future only that we should adopt the words of a former Foreign Secretary—"Let us try it out in practice, and see how we go."

I should think that we might have not fewer than six, and, experimentally, not more than 12, such concerts in the course of a year, but, of course, we must consider the difficulties, and, amongst other things—and perhaps first and foremost—the convenience of hon. Members, for Mr. Speaker is properly concerned with that; and indeed, as he has proposed to us and as we are agreed, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis is to receive instructions that no disorder be allowed in Westminster Hall and no annoyance caused therein and thereabouts. Therefore, it is proper to consider whether these concerts can properly be held, even to the number of six or a dozen a year, without causing inconvenience to hon. Members discharging their duties.

Hon. Members have to enter the Chamber, and many of them like to take the diagonal short cut from the north door of Westminster Hall to the Members' Cloakroom. A few times a year, it would not be too bad if they had to go by the outside passage, which, I believe, is called the Members' Entrance. Then there is the question of secretarial offices alongside Westminster Hall, where some hon. Members go to dictate letters to their secretaries. These rooms have two doors, one of which is close to the north door, and I feel that it would not be impossible to have a little roped-off way in order to allow hon. Members in and out without any inconvenience. As for coming out by the middle door when a concert was in progress, we can get an awful lot of people into Westminster Hall, and still find our way across it. If we had six people standing upon each of those large flagstones, without causing any congestion there would be 2,750 people in the Hall, and it does not seem to me to be an intolerable inconvenience six times a year for hon. Members, having dictated their letters, to come out by way of the roped-off way which is left to them, without any congestion.

Then there is the question of Committee meetings in the Grand Committee Room, and here I must confess we are up against something more substantial. If there were to be a lunch-hour concert—and we could not very well begin a lunch-hour concert later than one o'clock—and if we imagine that the time of the Committee meeting were being extended by a quarter of an hour, so that hon. Members came out to find 2,000 people in the Hall listening to a concert, there might be difficulties.

But the people who use the Grand Committee Room are Scotsmen and the Opposition, and the Scotsmen do not meet on Monday morning; and fortunately there is in the service of the Palace of Westminster a man who is concerned with the preparation of the Committee Rooms and who has an extremely long memory. I am informed that the Opposition have never held a meeting in the Grand Committee Room on a Monday morning since the General Strike. If these concerts were held on Mondays, therefore, we might reasonably hope to avoid any difficulties in connection with a Committee meeting in that room, but perhaps the concert could be cancelled at short notice the next time we have a general strike.

This leads me to the core of the whole problem. Who is the authority and who has to decide whether we can have these concerts or not? In connection with this, I asked a Question of the Minister of Works on 20th October last to find out whether he was negotiating for any more concerts, and whether we could have one before Christmas. The right hon. Gentleman said: I am considering one request to sing carols in Westminster Hall before Parliament rises for the Christmas Recess. By way of supplementary question, I then asked the right hon. Gentleman: Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the decision regarding the holding of concerts in Westminster Hall rests exclusively with him, or whether, in the event of his being in favour of the proposition, there are some other authorities connected with the building who might overrule him? He replied: As the hon. Baronet knows, it is a very difficult question to answer as to where exactly the responsibility rests. I feel it my duty to consult other authorities connected with the Palace before coming to a decision, and that is what I am now doing."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th October. 1953; Vol. 518, c. 1800.] I am very glad to have this opportunity of raising the matter on the Adjournment, because otherwise I would have been obliged to dispute with the Table and with Mr. Speaker very severely the Ruling of the Table which forbade me to put a Question on the Order Paper, for answer, asking what were these other authorities with whom he had to consult. The Minister of Works has been good enough in private conversation to let me into some of the secrets of the ramifications of the overlapping authority in this matter, and I will only say that I would not deprive the Parliamentary Secretary of the opportunity he has of expounding them to us, because I believe they go back pretty deeply into our history—except to add that when he has finished I think you will join me in saying, "Gilbert, thou should'st have been living at this hour," because this situation is so extraordinary.

At any rate, I will suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary—and I hope he will convey this to his right hon. Friend—that the Minister of Works should consider with his colleagues in the Government whether the present position is a little unsatisfactory. Overlapping authority is never very happy. It means that we could get a situation like this: perhaps we should have a Minister with no aesthetic taste, who hated concerts, but who would excuse himself for refusing to arrange any by passing it off that he was in favour but that somebody else, whom he could not name, was refusing to allow him facilities for giving concerts. Vice versa, another Minister might be very keen on having concerts but he might have to take the can back and carry responsibility for having no concerts, although it was not his fault at all, because somebody else was imposing a veto. I hope that some day we shall straighten that out.

In the meantime, may I appeal to all concerned—the Minister and the other authorities who in the present rather curious situation bear appreciable responsibility for this matter—to be as generous to us in this connection as they reasonably can and at least to try the experiment of letting us have concerts a few more times in the coming months to see how we go and to see whether any inconvenience is caused? I am sure those who attended the concert to which I referred felt that they had experienced a spiritual refreshment in being there—and there are an awful lot of people living within a bowshot of this building who are in desperate need of spiritual refreshment every now and again in the course of their weekly and monthly working lives.

Another point is that we can give this pleasure to so many people free of cost, and in these days when more and more the motto seems to be, "Nothing for nothing and very little for sixpence." what a splendid thing it is to find that there is something which can be valued and which can be given without charging anybody anything.

Lastly, I suggest that the holding of concerts in Westminster Hall is a lovely and a civilised thing to do, and in this very unlovely and barbaric age in which we live, how attractive it will be to do it. I hope that the argument that it has not been done before will not be allowed by anyone to stand in the way.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. A. Blenkinsop (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

I wish to add a word to the plea which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) because I, like many others, enjoyed the very lovely concert that was given in Westminster Hall some months ago. I, too, would be very sorry if we did not have another visit from the same choir and visits from other choirs to the Hall. Many of us think it a tragedy that it is not possible to use Westminster Hall in a positive way on rather more occasions than it is used today.

The setting of Westminster Hall is so wonderful, and many of us feel that it would be suitable for the holding of concerts, not necessarily on regular occasions, which many hon. Members and others could appreciate. This is certainly not an appeal made by any one person, but one in which, I am sure, many hon. Members would join.

I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies he will be able to assure us that there is no desire on his part—as I am sure there is not—to prevent, within reasonable limits, the use of Westminster Hall in this way, that any difficulties which may have arisen in the past have now been got rid of, and that there is now established a clear line of responsibility.

10.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Hugh Molson)

The hon. Baronet the Member for Graves-end (Sir R. Acland) in his very interesting speech has raised two separate matters. He has asked, first, where the jurisdiction over the Hall of Westminster rests, and, secondly, whether my right hon. Friend will grant permission for further mid-day concerts to be held in that Hall.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Works is responsible for the Palace of Westminster in two capacities. First, as Minister of Works, it is his duty to provide and maintain all Government buildings. Secondly, as Keeper of the Old and New Palaces, he has a special responsibility for Westminster Hall, under which he makes regulations to control access, and gives permission for any special use of the Hall.

The Old Palace was, of course, Westminster Palace, and it has had a Keeper certainly since the reign of Richard I, and probably since that of Edward the Confessor. There has been a Keeper of the New Palace of Whitehall since the reign of Henry VIII. The two offices were merged in 1667. In 1846, Mr Charles Gore, a Junior Commissioner of Her Majesty's Woods, was appointed Keeper of the Old and New Palaces by Letters Patent. When he resigned the office in 1883, it was permanently vested by a Treasury Minute in the First Commissioner of Works for the time being. It is under that Minute that my right hon. Friend is now the Keeper of the Old and New Palaces.

The Lord Great Chamberlain is an hereditary Great Officer of State who has general authority over the Palace of Westminster. This authority applies always to the part of the Palace which is occupied by the House of Lords and to the part which is occupied by the House of Commons when this House is not sitting. But this authority, as I have said, does not extend to Westminster Hall. The only time when the Lord Great Chamberlain has a special authority over Westminster Hall is at Coronation time, in order to make arrangements for the Coronation banquet.

This view has not always been accepted in the past by former Lord Great Chamberlains, who have not always been as courteous and as friendly as my right hon. Friend has always found the present holder of that high office. For example, in 1872 the Deputy Lord Great Chamberlain of the time granted a licence to some individual to put up a fruit stall in Westminster Hall. Mr. Gore, who was then the Keeper, protested, and the Deputy Lord Great Chamberlain agreed that he could not claim any control over the normal user of the Hall. He made that admission provided that in return it was acknowledged that he had this special right at the time of a Coronation. Mr. Gore accepted this settlement and the Lord Great Chamberlain withdrew his licence for the erection of the fruit stall. Custom and usage from that time onwards have confirmed this settlement in a number of small cases with which I need not trouble the House.

The final authority upon this subject is to be found in a letter dated 11th June, 1923, sent by Lord Lincolnshire, the Lord Great Chamberlain of the time, to the First Commissioner of Works of that day. He writes: It is good news to hear that you intend to have a function with regard to the roof restoration of Westminster Hall. The Hall is not in the Palace and is under your jurisdiction. The request to the Sovereign should go out in your name. If I may say so, I think your proposals admirable and if I personally can be of any service please command me. Having now explained that the exclusive legal right to the control of Westminster Hall rests with my right hon. Friend, except at Coronation times, I come to the second matter which has been raised by the hon. Baronet—the question of concerts being held there. Two concerts were held there at the time of the Coronation this last summer. My right hon. Friend thought it would be courteous and proper, before giving permission for special use of the Hall, to consult you, Mr. Speaker, as representing this House. When you were consulted on this occasion you pointed out that a concert could be disturbing if it took place while the House was sitting, or if a Standing Committee were deliberating in the Grand Committee Room; it would also be somewhat obstructive to hon. Members having business in the Fees Office or the Secretarial rooms off Westminster Hall. The hon. Baronet referred to that, although I do not think he attached very much importance to it. Similarly, as the Lord Great Chamberlain has jurisdiction over admittance to the Palace, it seemed courteous to consult him so that he could say whether he felt that allowing concerts to be held there would unduly obstruct parties of visitors being conducted round the Palace.

When my right hon. Friend referred, in the supplementary answer to the hon. Baronet on 20th October, to his duty to consult other authorities connected with the Palace before coming to a decision, he did not mean that he was under any legal obligation. He merely felt that there was a duty to show a spirit of good neighbourliness to those exercising jurisdiction over adjoining premises.

My right hon. Friend feels that permission for holding concerts should only be given sparingly, and that concerts should always be consonant with the historic character of the Hall, and its modern use as the scene for the Lying-in-State of our Sovereigns. My right hon. Friend has now given permission for the Board of Trade Choir to sing carols there before Christmas, but in view of the considerations which you, Mr. Speaker, advanced, he has made it a condition that the concert must take place after this House has adjourned for the Christmas Recess. That is the only application which he has received so far, and I want to make it quite plain that in any case it is not his intention to grant any other application, at any rate until after Christmas.

He has naturally been influenced in his decision by the Motion on the Order Paper that was put down by the hon. Baronet and a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, expressing their appreciation of the concert given in the Hall by the Treasury and Colonial Office Choir in the summer, and I hope that hon. Members will also attend and enjoy the concert which will be given by the Board of Trade Choir, probably on 17th December. I hope that the answer that I have given is satisfactory to the hon. Baronet and the House.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I am sure we are very gratified to know that there is to be one more concert, but I confess that the Parliamentary Secretary's answer to the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) do not seem to me conclusive. I think the case for concerts on Mondays, a case made with great eloquence and ingenuity by my hon. Friend, deserves further consideration by the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend, and I hope that consideration may be given.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes past Ten o'Clock.