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Houses of Parliament: Visitors’ Centre

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress is being made on the provision of a parliamentary visitor and information centre.

My Lords, in 2006, the House of Lords Information Committee and the House of Commons Administration Committee decided to consider how education and visitor facilities could be improved. The viability of a visitors’ centre was considered along with other options. The committees have now indicated that they consider improvements to facilities for educational visitors to be the key priority. The form in which that could be achieved would be a matter for both Houses to consider after the committees have completed their work.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord Chairman for that reply. As he says, an inquiry has taken place jointly between the Information Committee of this House and a House of Commons committee into a parliamentary visitor and information centre. Can the noble Lord confirm that a confidential feasibility study was commissioned and produced before Christmas? If so, will he now make that available to Members of your Lordships' House, so that we can know what has been discussed? Secondly, can he confirm that the Joint Committee is no longer meeting because it has broken up in disagreement? If that is the case, can he assure us that that is not because representatives of this House are lacking in support or enthusiasm for the project?

My Lords, there was never a Joint Committee of both Houses discussing the matter. Both Houses had separate committees, but they met together quite frequently. That was not as such a Joint Committee. I understand that the House of Commons committee will produce a report very shortly, next month. I think that our committee will also produce a report shortly. I cannot comment on the noble Lord’s first question because I do not know about any feasibility study that might have been done. However, as I said in my original Answer, both committees are now in step and are looking at ways of improving educational facilities for both Houses.

My Lords, the Palace of Westminster is a member of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, an organisation of which I have the pleasure and privilege to be chairman. I very much support the thrust of my noble friend’s Question. Having experienced the pleasures of a traffic-free Abingdon Street on the day of the State Opening, I wonder whether any consideration is currently being given to the pedestrianisation of Abingdon Street and the creation of a piazza, for the obvious benefit to security, safety and tourism.

My Lords, no is the short answer to that. I answered a Question on this subject on 7 December last year, and I can only repeat what I said then: the World Squares for All steering group envisages no plans to close Abingdon Street. Closing Abingdon Street to traffic in order to increase security would be in the long-term interests of the House, but there are no plans to do so at the moment.

My Lords, bearing in mind that all sorts of initiatives, such as the one just suggested, have great merit, is it not about time that the two Houses got together and decided where the priorities lie? Over the past 12 months, we have had all sorts of suggestions, and there are all sorts of demands on the fabric of this wonderful building. Is it not time that the two Houses got together to produce a strategy for the whole estate and organised their priorities, with proper budgeting, so that the type of fiasco that appears to be happening over the entrance to the House of Commons, which I understand is now running very late and miles over budget, is prevented in the future?

My Lords, that is exactly what I have been saying. The committees of both Houses have been meeting one another and are about to produce reports that will indicate the way forward. Following that, it will be for them to report to both Houses and no doubt for both Houses to debate the issue and to get costings and so on for what is planned. I do not think that we are far away from some sort of conclusion.

My Lords, in February 2004, two Commons committees jointly produced a report called Visitor Facilities: Access to Parliament, which talked about,

“a large-scale interpretative visitor centre”.

If the Chairman of Committees and the various bodies involved are now talking only about an educational facility, is it not a blow for those who recognise that this city is the main tourist attraction in this country and that this building is the main tourist attraction in this city?

My Lords, there might be some argument about the latter part of the noble Lord’s question. We do, however, need to separate out the educational aspect of this building, for visitors who are here to learn about parliamentary history and so on, from the heritage and tourist attraction of the building. The building is, of course, open during the Summer Recess for tours and so on, but there needs to be a separation of those two aspects of it. In the opinion of the committees, the educational aspect is much the more important.

My Lords, is there a build-up of items that have been offered to both Houses? I know, for instance, that a noble Lord on the other side of the Chamber offered a coat belonging to King Charles I. What is happening to these objects while all the talking goes on about whether there will be a room or a place where items of interest can be shown to the general public? And is anyone aware that Lord Adonis ran at Cheltenham last week and ran very badly? I backed it.

Sadly, my Lords, many of us who would rather have been at Cheltenham last week—I think it was Gold Cup day—were here for matters slightly more closely connected to the future of the House of Lords. On the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, I am aware of the item to which she refers. Although it was considered, it is not as such anything to do with the educational or visitor facilities of this House. There are other items on display which have nothing to do with the possibility of a visitor centre.

My Lords, will the Government please keep in mind that the principal function of the Palace of Westminster is as a Parliament, not as a tourist attraction or anything else?

My Lords, I do not answer for the Government but I am sure that they will have heard the noble Lady’s remarks, with which I wholly agree.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us not only that the centre will be fully accessible for people with physical and sensory disabilities but that the information will be available in accessible formats?