§ 5.6 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. You will be aware that the motion on visitor facilities is important because it affects the security of the House and involves large amounts of taxpayers' money. If I am right, we have only 54 minutes to debate the motion. I seek guidance on whether that is long enough to debate such an important issue. would it not be wiser to conduct it at another time in the near future?
§ Mr. Speaker
That is a matter for the House. At 6 o'clock, other Members may want to participate in the debate, but it will stop then and it will be for the House to decide whether to take the matter up again at a later date.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. For the sake of clarity, if someone were on their feet and still participating in the debate at 6 o'clock, are you saying that, sadly, the matter would have to be carried over to another day?
§ Mr. Speaker
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman shows that he has a grasp of these matters. Yes, I would agree with that interpretation.
§ 5.8 pm
§ The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas)
I beg to move,
That this House approves the First Joint Report of the Accommodation and Works Committee and the Administration Committee on Visitor Facilities: Access to Parliament (House of Commons Paper No. 324) and endorses the Committees' proposals for a new reception and security building at the north end of Cromwell Green.
The whole House is left wondering whom the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) thought might still be on their feet at 6 o'clock.
In moving the motion, I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will reflect on the points made in our previous debate. It would be paradoxical, if not ironic, if Members who have opposed the introduction of the security screen in the Strangers Gallery on the ground that it separates the public from the House, were also to oppose this motion, which is about improving the welcome and information given to visitors to the Houses of Parliament.
The primary purpose of the motion is to improve the welcome that we give to visitors. If the motion is accepted, visitors' first contact will be with visitors' service staff, not with security staff. The service staff will ensure that visitors are headed in the right direction, and given information and answers to their questions. In that way, people will be generally welcomed to their Parliament.
§ Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)
Will the service staff be able to direct visitors—who may have travelled some distance—to a toilet facility that they can use right at the outset of their visit?
§ Mr. Woolas
The Government are ever vigilant about what is important for visitors. The point may be light 509 hearted, but it is serious. I am pleased to say that the answer is yes, and that the Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee has paid attention to the matter. The toilet facilities have been improved in the area occupied by what I always used to call the policemen's café but which I believe is now called the Jubilee café.
The necessary security screening will be transferred from its present site at the St. Stephen's entrance. That will be more convenient for visitors and staff, and it will also enhance security, as the screen will be outside the main building, in the new reception centre.
I want to draw to the attention of the House the importance of the new centre in respect of the numbers of visitors already coming to the Palace. I hope that those numbers will rise as the measures being recommended are put in place and as the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to attract more visitors are acted on.
The joint report states that 130,000 people visited the Commons Public Gallery last year. Between 250 and 500 people visit the Gallery in the House of Lords every day. Last year, about 96,000 visitors came on constituency tours, 9,000 in school parties, and 87,000 during the summer opening period.
§ Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab)
We are talking about securing greater access for visitors, so will my hon. Friend look seriously at how access for constituency tours can be increased? People need to be able to see what the House does, but seats are to be taken out of the Gallery. Moreover, the change in working hours means that it is less easy to arrange constituency tours to the House. Will he make a serious commitment to finding ways to allow people at least to walk past and see the business of the House in progress?
§ Mr. Woolas
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The domestic Committees and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House have been looking at the matter, and we will be able to report improvements in the arrangements for constituency visits. I should explain that the Committees' report—for which I hope the House is grateful—is part of a wider strategy of improving information about, and access to, the Palace of Westminster. The proposals should be seen in the context of the work of the Broadcasting Committee to improve webcasting and the televising of Standing Committees and Select Committees. I am sure that the Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), is mindful of that.
At this point, I should inform the House that, unfortunately, the Chairman of the Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), cannot be here. She is on parliamentary business, but I know that she would have liked to attend the debate.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)
The Minister said that it would be illogical for anyone who opposed the security screen on the ground that we should have greater contact with constituents not to welcome these 510 proposals. However, the previous debate was about whether the security screen was necessary. The Minister's position appears contradictory: he says that it is marvellous to encourage more people to come here, but he said earlier that he wants to take out 30 seats and stop people getting close to the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Woolas
I said that that would be paradoxical and ironic; I did not say that it would be illogical. If the hon. Gentleman were to pursue his argument, I think that it would follow, logically, that he should support the new visitors centre. The argument put by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in favour of the security screen was based on the need for security. Erecting the screen could be seen as an alternative to debarring public entry to the Public Gallery. I do not think that any hon. Member would support that. It is a question of finding a balance between the security advice on safety—in the previous debate, we heard the advice from the Security Service—and encouraging greater access to the Palace. That is a difficult task, which is why I think that the House will welcome the Committee's thorough and comprehensive report.
§ Mr. Woolas
I shall take one more intervention, but then I must move on—this is only a short debate.
§ Andrew Mackinlay
I have a question on a technical point. At the United Nations, screening takes place outside in tents, because if there were a blast it would spread. Thus casualties could be minimised. Cromwell green is in a trough, so how can that be the best or safest place in the event of a suicide bombing? I am genuinely bewildered by the idea that it is safer to be in a trough or a moat. To pick up on a point made in the earlier debate, perhaps we could explore the use of tents—unappealing as they are—on the green in Parliament square.
§ Mr. Woolas
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Perhaps he will be able to see things in the round as I continue my remarks.
The reception centre proposal is to be seen very much as the first stage in a series of improvements. Proposals for a more expansive and comprehensive visitors centre will come later and at that stage proposals for further improvements to security screening—from the proposed change from the St. Stephen's entrance to the new Cromwell green site—will be vetted. My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but the proposal in the Committees' report to move security screening from the historic Westminster Hall so that it is outside the main building will in itself improve the security arrangements.
§ Mr. Woolas
I said that I would take only one more intervention, but the hon. Gentleman seems so keen to intervene that I shall give way to him, but then I want to proceed with my speech.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
I am very supportive of the limited proposals, but I am worried by one thing that the Minister said. It sounded as though the first instalment is part of a continuum and that by voting for it we may be committing ourselves to a much more expensive and expansive visitors centre. Will he assure the House that although this is a first step, it will not necessarily lead to anything more than the current proposals before the House?
§ Mr. Woolas
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what I think was a probing intervention. He is right to ask that question, and I am sure that reading the report will reassure him that we are discussing the first of what I and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House hope will be two stages and that there is no commitment—
§ Mr. Woolas
I am sorry to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman, but I hope that there will be a third stage, too. However, I can reassure the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).
We are grateful to the Accommodation and Works Committee and the Administration Committee for the speed and thoroughness with which they produced the report. We are also grateful to their counterparts in the House of Lords for their helpful co-operation, as this is very much a joint endeavour of the two Houses.
The Government strongly support the Committees' proposals for a new reception and security building on Cromwell green, and my right hon Friend the Leader of the House is personally strongly committed to improving the welcome that we give our visitors. It is regrettable, although unavoidable in the current climate, that our visitors should be subject to security screening on arrival, but that must be done in a manner that is welcoming and unobtrusive. We must remember, and demonstrate, that it is their Parliament, not ours. It is not acceptable that people are left queuing in the rain—as is the case currently—often for long periods. It is also important to provide a decent working environment for our staff.
I shall not speak in detail about the report, as I hope that the Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee will be able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to explain exactly what is proposed. The report is clearly set out and I especially commend to the House the fold-out plan in appendix 1; I am sure that all Members have looked at it. The House will want to know how much the new building will cost.
§ Mr. Woolas
I shall tell the House what the costs are. The report states that initial estimates for the capital costs of the new building and the covered walkwayare in the region of £5 million.The additional staff required will result in increased revenue costs of about £200,000, which will be divided on a 60:40 basis with the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Forth
I hope to go into this in greater detail if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker but, for the sake of completeness, does the Minister accept that paragraph 32 of the report, which says that costsare in the region of —5 million",goes on to say:The final figure is therefore likely to be higher"?Can he give us a clue as to how much higher? He is asking us to sign up to £5 million, but there is an unspecified additional element. Paragraph 34 says that there will bea total increase in revenue costs of £200,000 per annum. Some extra costs would also be incurred".Are we not entitled to be suspicious that we are being sold a pig in a poke?
§ Mr. Woolas
The right hon. Gentleman reminds me of the news reader who asked a news reporter if he could tell the viewers what the next surprise was going to be. The report is honest. It says what the costs are and allows some flexibility, but the Committees of the House, the House authorities and all hon. Members can scrutinise the matter, just as the right hon. Gentleman is always urging us to do. If we were to be as precise as he implies we should be, he would criticise us equally strongly. The report is clear and honest, and I have been as straightforward as possible in explaining the costs.
The House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee will oversee the implementation of the project and monitor expenditure and management closely. I emphasise that the Government regard the reception building very much as the first stage. We hope that we will be able to build consensus on proposals for a proper visitor and education centre, with space for exhibitions interpreting our work, for the reception of school parties, and perhaps for a book and souvenir shop. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, our education unit does great work, but its facilities and resources are extremely limited. I believe strongly that we must do more to welcome and inform the electors of tomorrow. I accept that it may be difficult to find space for those facilities within the confines of the Palace, but I hope that the House authorities will press ahead with an exploration of options nearby.
§ Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)
I would be more persuaded to support the proposal if I thought that the statue of the butcher of Drogheda would be moved. Will it remain or will we hopefully lose it as a result of the proposal?
§ Mr. Woolas
It is not within my power or ability to rewrite history. My hon. Friend's interpretation is colourful, but the Chairman of the House of Commons Advisory Committee on Works of Art, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), would have 513 something to say about his proposal. Instinct and common sense tell me to duck the question and move swiftly on.
§ Mr. Robathan
As this is a special site listed by UNESCO, I do not think that we would be allowed to move the statue without the permission of the United Nations.
§ Mr. Woolas
The hon. Gentleman will be complaining about outside interference in the sovereignty of the House next.
I emphasise that the welcome we give our visitors is an important part of the way in which we engage with the public, but it is only a small part. We need to improve the way in which we engage with the majority of our constituents who never visit us in the Palace of Westminster, perhaps because, as in the case of my constituency, they live some distance away. The way in which our proceedings are broadcast and portrayed by the media, our website and the innovative use of new technologies are extremely important as well. The Modernisation Committee is addressing those wider issues, and I look forward with interest to its findings. We must accept that plans for the next stage—for a proper visitor and education centre—will take some time to develop. Our visitors deserve the best service we can give them. I commend the motion to the House.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
I stress, as I did in the previous debate, that the matter before us is for Members—certainly for those on the Opposition Benches—to determine on a free vote. The fact that I am giving a view from the Dispatch Box does not mean that I expect my right hon. and hon. Friends to support me in the Lobby, should we end up there tonight.
§ Mr. Robathan
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so soon. I should make it clear, in case he did not realise it, that the Government Whips were drawing Members into the Lobby on the last vote.
§ Mr. Heald
You would probably complain, and rightly so, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I were diverted back to our previous proceedings.
I join in the thanks to the Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), and to the Chairman of the Administration Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for 514 Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), for their hard work as Chairmen of the Committees that produced this rare joint report.
§ Mr. Heald
I fully accept that I should give way.
The visitor centre has been mentioned. It is the long-held ambition of some that there should be a fully interpretive visitor centre. The House of Commons Commission vetoed that idea, and the report does not include a visitor centre. Many of us believe that what we do in this place is already interpreted a good deal and that if we want to do something positive, we should encourage our constituents to attend and see the work that we do at first hand.
§ Mr. Forth
My hon. Friend was kind enough to comment on the work of the Committees and particularly of the Chairmen, one of whom, my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), is with us. Sadly, our other colleague is not present. Would it not be a good thing if we were able to carry the debate over rather than rush to a premature vote, not least in order that the Chairman of the Administration Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) could be with us and enlighten us further?
§ Mr. Heald
I have full confidence in my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup to put the matter in its proper context and to make the relevant points. However, I agree that it is wrong for important debates to be unreasonably curtailed. If the debate needs longer than the time allowed tonight, I would not disagree that proper time should be given for our deliberations.
Although the Deputy Leader of the House opened the debate by emphasising the importance of welcoming our visitors to Parliament, on which I entirely agree, there is an important security background to this debate, as well as to our earlier debate. The number of visitors to the House is high and rising, and the requirements for effective searching and screening are considerable. These factors have led to long queues in the rain for our visitors, which is not a good idea. In addition, we have had the problem of having to screen visitors outside in the sort of tents to which the hon. Gentleman referred, because St. Stephen's entrance is too narrow to accommodate more than two X-ray screening machines, and because there are times when it is right that the screening should take place outside the main building. One advantage of the proposal in the report is that a proper security screening building would be built, with three bays instead of two. That would allow a much quicker flow through, and such a building would be more suitable in security terms.
§ Andrew Mackinlay
Hon. Members seem to be talking in code. I realise that when we speak about security, we 515 must be sensitive. Perhaps—[Interruption.] The fact is that the Minister—I do not mean this critically—did not answer my point. I would have hoped that somebody would at least pull me aside and tell me why a building of the sort that is proposed will be better in terms of the safety for our staff doing the screening. Allowance must be made for a building exploding outwards. Locating it in a trough could contribute to casualties. In other words, such a building is not the right one; the motive is correct, but the building may be wrong.
§ Mr. Heald
I have not been privy to the detailed security advice of which my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup is no doubt aware in his position as Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee. All I know from my general knowledge is that screening buildings that are used for security purposes usually have thick walls either side and a fairly flimsy roof, as the normal purpose is to get the blast going upwards rather than outwards.
The proposed building is a better security building in terms of screening. Directing members of the public through Westminster Hall rather than the narrow funnel of St. Stephen's entrance should mean that it is possible for long queues to dissipate more rapidly. Although some colleagues take the view that we have to be extremely careful about how we use Westminster Hall—I would certainly not wish it to be used inappropriately—we should bear in mind its history as a building that has been used for the public. I gather that in the early days, one end was used as a court, where there was a throng of prosperous lawyers, and that the other end was a magnet for commerce where shops and trades flourished. That was in about 1340, when the Keeper of the Palace was entitled to rents from those setting up booths or carrying their wares. Pepys was a regular customer in the 17th century, and Betty Martin, a linen draper in the Hall, was one of his many mistresses. In 1666, there were 48 shops, each with a frontage of 8 ft, and all of them had to be removed for coronations. which was apparently very inconvenient. Clearly, we have to respect the dignity of the place, but if it can be put to a use that helps the public, that is a good thing.
On costs, it is difficult to provide buildings in a setting that has been described as a heritage site for the United Nations, partly because they always need to be in keeping. A good job has been done in keeping the proposed building below the level of the wall so that it does not intrude into the architectural profile of the larger building. Furthermore, a security building of this sort is always expensive. My personal view is that the proposal is a moderate and proportional one that I support.
§ Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)
I welcome this opportunity to make a brief contribution to this evening's debate. I am conscious of the time and that many other honourable colleagues wish to participate.
We are considering the joint report of the Select Committee on Accommodation and Works, which I am honoured to chair. I pass on to the House the apologies 516 of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), who is elsewhere on parliamentary duties. She has spent a lot of time working on this issue and would have liked to put her views directly to the House.
Discussions and conclusions between all parties on my Committee continued in joint deliberations with the Select Committee on Administration, and I place on the record the thanks of my Committee to the Administration Committee's Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, for that Committee's swift and positive action in enabling this joint report to be placed before the House. The prompt, constructive and supportive response of their lordships' Committees is equally appreciated.
The Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) have most ably set out the background to the proposal. My Committee restricted its consideration to the format of the proposed building and its position, appearance and capability to function. I am sure that the House will have had an opportunity to read the fairly brief but pretty informative document that we produced. In particular, my Committee is concerned with section 4, which deals with the format of the new reception and security building. Right hon. and hon. Members who have genuine doubts about our report's recommendations—I accept that there are some—should cast their minds back to the marquee that recently adorned St. Stephen's entrance, which has been mentioned, serving as the security clearance point for the Palace. It was unsightly and unwelcoming, and it was not pleasant for staff to work in it, but sadly it was essential for a brief period.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I may not have an opportunity to put questions to other hon. Members later in this debate. Is it also true that we can dispense with the obtrusive, ugly, temporary building on Abingdon green, which is erected to process people for line of route tours during the summer? Am I not right in thinking that this limited proposal, which I accept, would dispose of the need for that temporary building?
§ Derek Conway
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a categorical answer, because the matter falls within the purview of the Administration Committee, which deals with the line of route, rather than my Accommodation and Works Committee. The two buildings have separate functions, however, and the temporary monstrosity that is erected over the summer deals with general applicants for the line of route rather than with those who enter the House on business.
Although my Accommodation and Works Committee wants to make visitors more welcome, it was not for us to second-guess the wisdom or otherwise gainsay the security advice offered to the House. Our remit concerned the positioning of the security clearance zone, and in a choice between that awful tent in front of St. Stephen's entrance and the proposals before the House tonight, the proposals are self-evidently preferable. The land gradients on Cromwell green will enable the current aspect to remain, so the view of the Palace will not change substantially. The new building will not detract from the appearance of the gable end wall, because it will be below eyesight. The new building will be traditional in character and will be in keeping 517 with the overall appearance of the Palace—other hon. Members have already made it clear that the Palace is a unique world heritage site.
As to the new building's function, the long, ramped, undercover lead-in will considerably improve the manner in which queuing takes place. Remarkable progress has been made by the Palace authorities in the past few years to make visiting their lordships and hon. Members less of an initiative and endurance test.
I have sat through the debates on this motion and on the previous motion, and I have discussed the matter in endless Committee meetings. Some hon. Members are concerned whether the House will be less welcoming to the public. I remember travelling on an overnight bus from Tyneside as an 11-year-old with my parents to come through the Palace on what was effectively a museum tour. When the IRA became active, security had to change, and, sadly, such issues keep changing, which is something that nobody likes or wants.
The visitor centre will ensure not only that the security clearance procedure continues to be effective and becomes speedier because of the increased number of routes, but that those waiting to get in do not have stand outside in all the elements. I am fortunate enough to represent a seat that is a dozen miles from the House, but some hon. Members' constituents travel for four or five hours or more, disembark from coaches and stand around waiting for the line of route in our traditional and wonderful British weather. Making this place more accessible and friendly will ease that process.
§ Bob Spink
Has my hon. Friend addressed the question of the drop-off points for coaches? At the moment, people are dropped off just to the west of Victoria Tower before entering Victoria Tower, but under the proposal, they must walk even further to St. Stephen's entrance, which is a point that must be addressed.
§ Derek Conway
The Administration Committee does not intend to change the line of route, and tourists who come to the Palace, particularly during the summer recess, will find that it has not altered. The new building is for those who visit to see Committees of the House, the Chamber and Members of Parliament themselves. The House may change the line of route in future after consultation with their lordships. Such matters develop, and the Minister has made it clear that the proposals before the House are not the end of the story—everyone wants access to this place to be easier and more understandable.
I want to record the thanks of the Administration Committee and the Accommodation and Works Committee to the Officers of the House, our external advisers and our Clerk for the quality of their guidance. A great deal of effort has been put into this project by a small group of experienced officials, and I hope that they accept our appreciation.
This is not the end of the changes that our evolving institution will face. As merely its current guardians, we act not only with caution and great care in our duty to preserve its historical character, but with the responsibility of being an accessible working centre for democracy. I therefore urge the House to endorse our joint report.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Conway), who is a very distinguished Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee.
I apologise to my rather sensitive hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) for talking through parts of his comments, but I was merely imparting information. I assure him that he can amiably chat, or indeed break wind, throughout the course of my speech, and I will take no offence whatever.
I very much welcome the report. As the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup reminded us, it has taken us years even to refer to those who come here as visitors rather than strangers. When I was first elected in 1983, I was appalled by the way in which we treated our visitors, who were kept outside in long queues in inclement weather. Despite the fact that everyone in the House expressed concern about it, nothing was ever done, so it is about time that it was. It is a pleasure to see that we have very much changed our attitude towards those who come here.
The business of Parliament is not something to be done behind closed doors—nor, in my opinion, behind glass screens. We must welcome visitors who come here, and encourage others to do so—not to gawp at us, but better to understand how the place works. I sat through the previous debate behind that screen. There is a good view, but it is a bit like sitting behind a pillar at a football ground and being unable to see what is happening on the pitch. I understand that the permanent screen is to be somewhat more attractive.
During that debate, many hon. Members referred to this place as the mother of Parliaments. This might sound like nitpicking, but originally it was England, not this place, that was described as the mother of Parliaments. Parliament is an important place, however—not because it is full of MPs, although there are not many of us around tonight, but because it is so central to our democracy. For too long, we have allowed the sneerers, the cynics and the ignorant to belittle this place. The development of democracy in this country is an inspirational story that is by no means complete. However, we cannot just rest on that statement. We need to help people to understand the development of this institution and our history better, and history has to be taught—one cannot simply absorb it by walking around. A visitor centre would be very much part of that teaching process.
The report is a modest step in that direction. I speak as a member of the Accommodation and Works Committee and as Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Works of Art—the two Committees are very much linked. I was encouraged by one of the conclusions in the report's summary:In considering these proposals, we recognise the demands for a large-scale interpretative visitor centre. We support this concept but believe that this is not feasible within the Palace of Westminster, and therefore recommend that suitable accommodation outside the building be sought.That chimes with a proposal that I made to the Works of Art Committee in a position paper in January 2001. I recommended that we should establish a museum of political democracy in the vicinity of Parliament. Such a museum or centre should be purpose-built and adjacent 519 to the Palace: I thought that at the end of the building by the House of Lords and Embankment gardens would be ideal. It should tell the story of how our democracy has developed and how all the individuals and movements inside—and, more significantly, outside—this place have shaped our history over the centuries. The Committee accepted my proposal, and it went to the House of Commons Commission. There is some sympathy for it. It is a long-term project, but entirely appropriate to teaching people our history. We have a great story to tell—we should be proud of it and do far more to encourage people to understand it.
§ Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)
Given how long a project that is described as short term takes to come to fruition in this place, I am worried about the description of the proposal as long term. Will my hon. Friend give some idea of the time scale for the completion of such a long-term project? The celebration of the institution's third centenary in three years might be an appropriate time to ensure that we have such a centre.
§ Mr. Banks
The proposal that I put to the Committee would probably take 10 years, because it is for a purpose-built building in Embankment gardens. One can envisage all sorts of problems with that, but there is no reason not to think big. At times, this country's approach is small-minded and we are mean about funding. We are always trying to find someone else to fund projects. I have spoken to potential donors to such a museum and centre. If we are not prepared to pay for the construction of a museum or centre out of Government taxation, I know that many people in the outside world would be delighted to be associated—and have their money associated with it.
§ Mr. Lazarowicz
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again and clarifying the proposals. I misread the report and believed that the proposed centre outside the building would be an interim facility until we had a visitor centre inside. If it is envisaged that such a visitor and interpretative centre would not be constructed for some years, is there not merit in providing some temporary centre near the House? The Scottish Parliament is an example of a short-term project that is taking a long time, but there is an excellent visitor centre in its temporary facilities. Could not such a facility be established? I do not believe that the proposal provides for it.
§ Mr. Banks
Well, it does. If my hon. Friend reads the summary, which is short, it states that the report recommends a temporary facility. I do not know how long temporary is. Perhaps it will be like the screen and remain for many years. The report provides for a temporary solution. I took the point slightly further because the report also mentions a large-scale interpretative visitor centre, for which the proposal does not provide. I believe that it should be our long-term objective and I proposed it previously. We are in a working building, not an arts centre, museum or gallery. However, we are surrounded by so many beautiful works of art that teach us our history that we should do more to bring them to people's attention. We can do that in the context of the current proposals, but we can also have long-term plans.
520 I am delighted that the report highlights the central role of Westminster Hall, which is the architectural gem of the Palace—indeed, it is one of the architectural gems of northern Europe. I found the attitude in the report of English Heritage to Westminster Hall annoying. I should like us to make available reproductions of the paintings, the sculpture and the literature in this place. We are desperately short of facilities. The pathetic facility at the entrance to St. Stephen's Hall, which is often not even open, passes as our only centre where people can buy books, literature and souvenirs of this place. I mean no disrespect to those who run it because it is not their responsibility but ours. After all these years, that is all we can offer. We must be much grander in our thinking about providing the sort of things that we see in museums and art galleries, while bearing in mind the fact that, although we have many works of art, the building is not a museum and art gallery.
§ Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
The hon. Gentleman is right to describe Westminster Hall as an architectural gem. How will it be enhanced by a new, demountable, glazed lobby at its north entrance?
§ Mr. Banks
That is the point! Westminster Hall is an architectural gem, but it has to be used. It was constructed not as an empty space for people to wander round and gawp at, but as a working building. Indeed, the High Court was still in Westminster Hall until the latter part of the 19th century. If the hon. Gentleman reads Pepys's diaries, he will realise that Westminster Hall was in many respects the centre of economic activity—and certainly of social life—in London. Pepys used to buy his shirts and collars there. He used to drink his coffee there. He used to buy food there—
§ Mr. Banks
He probably did that as well. There is an amazing story in his diaries of a naked man running through Westminster Hall, which would no doubt excite some Members, although not me.
Westminster Hall was a working building. For English Heritage to say, "You can't sell things there. You can't put sympathetic structures in there to retail the things that you want to sell" is pathetic. English Heritage is there not to ossify structures but to protect them. We are reclaiming Westminster Hall for its historic purpose. That is the lesson that I would like to put to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). I am grateful that he asked me that question, although I am not grateful for the way in which he has worked me up into responding as I did. It is bad for the old ticker at my age. The report talks about proposed considerable refurbishment of Westminster Hall in 2006, and the visitor centre will add to that work in 2005.
We do not often get the opportunity to discuss the Advisory Committee on Works of Art. The Vice-Chairman is in his place today, and I am grateful for his support. It is good to have the opportunity to mention some of the things that we do. I hope that people appreciate the labels that now help them to learn something about the figures that grace our halls and rooms; there are no longer just anonymous statues or pictures on walls. We have rehung the whole of the 521 Committee Corridor with portraits of Prime Ministers, making it a kind of constitutional corridor. I hope that Members will appreciate the next innovation, which will be to name the Committee Rooms after some of our great, distinguished statesmen.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. I do not think that that is quite covered by the subject that we are discussing.
§ Mr. Banks
But I shall leave it to my hon. Friend.
No, that is not a proposal; it would inappropriate. The place for Baroness Thatcher will be in the Members' Lobby. I speak as someone who is no adoring sycophant, as some Conservative Members are in respect of Baroness Thatcher. They are happy to admit to it. The fact remains, however, that when all the narrow party-political issues have been forgotten, as they always will be—and as we all will be—the one thing that will be remembered is that she was the first woman to be Prime Minister. That makes her unique, and no one can take that away from her. Her place will obviously be in the Members' Lobby, and I hope that that will happen fairly soon.
I want to return to the point that I was making about Westminster Hall before I was sidetracked.
§ Mr. Robathan
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for missing the beginning of his speech, but I was dying for a cup of tea. He has not mentioned, as he should, the fact that the area by Cromwell green, where it is proposed to build a visitor centre, is part of a UNESCO world heritage site. What does UNESCO say about this? Is it not a very important site?
§ Mr. Banks
Of course it is, and these things have to be balanced. I want to finish my speech, because it would be selfish to talk right through to 6 o'clock, so I shall deal with the point quickly. Yes, it is a world heritage site. Therefore, to allow Parliament square to be inhabited by 522 a permanent encampment is, in my opinion, wrong. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] No, hang on a minute! I am one of the people who voted against the Government on Iraq and I have no reason whatever to regret doing so. In fact, I am encouraged by the fact that events have subsequently—although tragically, in many ways—proved correct some of the points that I and others made. I did not want that to happen, but that is how it has turned out. I therefore support the stand of the gentleman who is encamped on Parliament square, but he is desecrating a world heritage site. By all means, let us protest, and walk past, but not set up a permanent site there. The Countryside Alliance also did that.
We in this place do not have power over what goes on in an area that is clearly vital to the setting of the Palace. The Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee knows that I have proposed to his Committee, with the support of others, that we take powers over the whole of the environment of the Palace, including Parliament square and Abingdon green. We should take the decisions, because the peripheral area is crucial to an appreciation of the architectural and aesthetic significance of this site. I say that not because I oppose the political objectives of the guy in Parliament square, but because it does not do us any good, and it is about time that we took the power to do something about it—if Westminster cannot or will not.
Given the proposed refurbishment in Westminster Hall in 2006, and more of a problem in 2005 because of the temporary visitor centre, I want to put it on record that the Commission has agreed to a major exhibition in Westminster Hall to commemorate the abolition of slavery. I would not want that to be lost. The proposition is expensive and taking a lot of time to get together, but it will be a tragedy if we find that we cannot get access to Westminster Hall. The exhibition will be in conjunction with the national maritime museum. I hope that the Government will take that into account, and I know that the Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee will do so. With that caveat, I very much welcome the report
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)
Briefly, I want to make one supportive comment on the report and one cautionary comment.
The supportive comment is that it is about time that we understood that people come into this building for two quite different purposes. The extent to which we can signpost people in a sensible pro-active way in relation to those different purposes is important. I respect the work done by the Accommodation and Works Committee; this is a fascinating, mock-Gothic Victorian building. It is also an art gallery of some distinction. Yes, there are people who want to come to see a bit of history. Great! We ought to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. A far more important objective is to make the building more visible, transparent and open to people who want to see their representatives in a working parliamentary democracy. The report helps us in that. It is important that people are able to come into the building and know which way they are going, and it co-ordinates the response that we have been seeking from the Modernisation Committee in relation to those two specific purposes, which are quite different.
523 My cautionary comment is about the extent to which we are going far beyond the present proposal with the suggestion of a visitor centre, which has just been mentioned. I have huge misgivings about that, not just on cost and time grounds and in terms of impact on the architectural environment—I worked in an architect's office and for the Royal Institute of British Architects for some years. Incidentally, I am also said to be a direct descendant of Oliver Cromwell, and I very much deprecated the comments about my ancestor.
This is the important point: we should try to look forward, but it would be a far better investment of limited resources to make sure that everybody in the country has electronic access to the work of Parliament. It is not an either/or situation, but it should be seen in terms of priority. My constituents in Cornwall, if they are lucky in their schooldays, may make a brief visit to the Houses of Parliament, but that will not be anything like as useful to them as making sure that electronic access to the work of this place is improved, which we can do much more quickly. I recommend strongly to the Deputy Leader of the House and the Government that we give priority to that, and that we do not worry too much about these extravagant, long-term plans for a visitor centre.
§ Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab)
Bearing in mind that we have only a few seconds left, I want to say that Westminster Hall is delightful this afternoon. It is uncluttered, and darkness is its greatest beauty—the proposed enhanced lighting will not improve it at all. I leave that thought with the House, and if there is a future debate—
§ It being Six o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.