HL Deb 16 July 2004 vol 663 cc1505-8

Extract from the Joint Report by the House of Commons Accommodation and Works and Administration Committees, Visitor Facilities: Access to Parliament (HC 324)

Conclusions and Recommendations

1. As a result of our deliberations, we believe there is a compelling case for pressing ahead with a new reception and security building on Cromwell Green as a first step to improving facilities for visitors and enhancing security. This forms the central recommendation of our report. (paragraph 8 of the Joint Report)

2. We believe there is a need to attempt to develop unified projects: to provide a better access and welcome for visitors; and to provide information for visitors to explain how Parliament works and its purpose. It is these three elements—access, welcome and information—that should be the aim of any projects to improve visitor facilities. (paragraph 16)

3. The proposed new building would be single storey, with a flat roof at the Cromwell Green level, to minimise its impact on the setting of the Palace. The proposed ramp down from street level would be sited along the west wall of Cromwell Green. (paragraph 21)

4. There are significant benefits to the House of the proposed arrangements. For example, it will enable the unsightly X-ray machines and barriers to be removed from St Stephen's entrance, thus enhancing the view of Westminster Hall. The new building will also have the capacity to accommodate three security screening machines as opposed to the two that are currently available at St Stephen's entrance. This will increase the speed at which visitors will be able to enter Parliament, especially at times when large numbers of visitors arrive at the same time, for example, for mass lobbies or for functions. (paragraph 23)

5. Since we began consideration of these proposals, the level of terrorist threat has, at times, caused the security search of visitors to be moved outside the building into a tent awkwardly situated outside St Stephen's entrance. In our view this reinforces the need for a purpose-built security building outside the main building where such controls can be operated in a way that is comfortable for public and staff alike. (paragraph 24)

6. We believe that, in the mean time, the House, in association with the House of Lords, needs to move ahead with constructing the proposed building and the new access route for the public. This would result in significant improvements in the facilities for visitors and enhance the security of the Palace of Westminster. (paragraph 37)

7. Our visitors are the electors of the present and the future, or those who come from abroad to visit one of the most important and historic sites in the United Kingdom. They deserve a positive approach to their access and welcome. With our proposals, we believe we have begun to demonstrate such a policy, which we hope the House will endorse. (paragraph 38)

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Chairman of Committees for introducing this valuable report to your Lordships today and I declare my interest as a member of the Information Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, who regrets that he is unable to be in his place today, but has asked me to say a few words.

The committee looked at the proposal when a paper was presented to us earlier this year and I am pleased to say that the proposal received unanimous support from the committee. Not only will it enhance security to the Palace, it will also make life much more pleasant for our visitors, be they constituents or tourists, who come to see how Parliament works.

No longer will they have to queue outside in all types of weather, but they will be accommodated in Westminster Hall, which will provide far better access and welcome for them, and they will be able to get information and leaflets to explain how Parliament works. As the report says, there will be significant benefits to the House. To take one example, as my noble friend said, it will enable the unsightly X-ray machines and barriers to be removed from St Stephen's entrance, thus enhancing the view of Westminster Hall.

I warmly welcome this report. It is an essential project and I hope that it will be up and running very soon. After all, it is time that we treated our visitors as human and not animals.

Lord Elton

My Lords1, paragraph 4 of the report, which I, too, welcome, says: Initial estimates for the costs of this project are in the region of £5 million",

of which we will pay 40 per cent. It then says: Subject to approval from the House in principle, more detailed designs and costings will be prepared which will be submitted to the appropriate domestic committees in this House and in the House of Commons". With the example of Portcullis House in mind, should we not perhaps be slightly more precise regarding when the opinion of the House would again be sought, rather than giving an open-ended remit to the committee?

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees to say something about access for disabled people. It so happens that this evening I am hosting an organ recital in St Mary Undercroft, to which disabled access has very recently been installed. I have no doubt that others have used it, but I suspect that wheelchair users who will be coming down this evening may be among the first. I find this matter rather difficult, because wheelchair users are still required somehow to negotiate their way out of Westminster Hall, having gone very much further round than they could ever have gone previously in order to descend the ramp. Would the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees comment on that?

Baroness David

My Lords, perhaps I may ask one question. Will the new facility described in paragraph 4 provide for feeding visitors who come at a time when no restaurant or any other such facilities are available here—on, for example, Wednesday evenings? We very much lack something like that.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, perhaps I may add a word to the encomia that have already been given to the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees. I opened up the map and looked at the plan for Westminster Hall. I noted, and perhaps your Lordships will see, that a dotted line represents the Line of Route. Will there be a ramp, or how will disabled people ascend the stairs in Westminster Hall? It seems that there will be access for them to enter through the shaded areas, because this matter is of interest, not just to Members of the other place but, as my noble friend Lord Brougham said, to our own guests, if we do not make appointments for them or have special arrangements at the Peers' entrance.

Perhaps the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees could also enlighten me regarding the shaded area on the west side of Westminster Hall, which says, "Existing WCs enlarged". I was not aware that there were any there.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, perhaps I may ask one final question. Can we be assured that the design will be exhibited so that all Members of the House can see it before it is finally approved?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, for his welcome for the proposals on behalf of the Information Committee. I can tell him that, as things are at present, and as I think the report states, it is hoped that all the proposals could be in operation by 2006—the year after next.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that we did not want a repeat of Portcullis House. I can well understand that. Obviously, when the more detailed designs are drawn up and the costings made, they will be a matter for the House Committee of this House—the principal committee involved with authorising finance. The report of the House Committee will definitely be put before the House.

The noble Lords, Lord Jenkin and Lord Lyell, both asked about access for disabled people. That will be improved. I refer both noble Lords to page 9 of the House of Commons report, which is more voluminous than ours and deals with that point.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, approves of the new disabled-access lift to the Undercroft. It was opened literally only a few weeks ago and has greatly improved access to that area. At the moment, disabled people cannot enter through St Stephen's entrance at all. They have to make special arrangements to go up by lift. In future, wheelchair-bound people will be able to use the ramp into the Palace through the new security centre into Westminster Hall in the same way as everyone else. There is, of course, a lift from Westminster Hall to the Principal Floor. That is used now and will be the means of access for wheelchair-bound people.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady David, the Jubilee Café on the corner of Westminster Hall will indeed be open, as it is now, for refreshment facilities.

I think that I answered the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, the detailed design will have to be looked at by both domestic committees of this House, to which I have already referred, and it will be reported to this House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.