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Palace of Westminster: Visitors

Volume 704: debated on Monday 27 October 2008

asked the Chairman of Committees:

How many visitors there have been to the Palace of Westminster in the past six months; and how that compares with previous years.

My Lords, the number of visitors to the Palace of Westminster from April to September 2008 inclusive was an estimated 515,034. In the same period last year there were 556,823 visitors, and the same six months in 2006 saw 491,592 visitors. Although the overall number of visitors has dropped slightly since the same period last year, there were increases in the number of Parliamentary Education Service visitors and the number of visitors on the summer tours.

My Lords, I thank the Chairman of Committees for that response. Does he agree that it is most important to get young people visiting Parliament and that the expansion of the Parliamentary Education Service and the Lord Speaker’s initiative on visits to schools will enhance that? How many schools have visited Parliament in the past six months?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness about the priority of young people and the work of the education service. I pay tribute to her for the work that she does with the education service, and to the Peers in Schools programme that has been developed recently by the Lord Speaker. It is of great importance and I encourage more Members to consider becoming involved in it.

I cannot give the actual number of schools that have visited, but the total number of young people visiting through the education service has gone up enormously to 29,000 last year from 17,000 the year before, 11,000 the year before that and 9,700 the year before that.

My Lords, has the Lord Chairman read the editorial in this month’s Country Life? I am sure he reads it as regularly and religiously as I do. The piece is entitled “Fortress Westminster” and talks about the deeply unwelcoming image that the Corus steel barriers give to visitors to the Palace of Westminster, and how that discourages visitors from seeing it as a welcoming place. In the context of trying to welcome visitors in, are we stuck with the Corus steel barriers as they are for the foreseeable future or are there any plans to make that space a little more welcoming?

My Lords, it might surprise the noble Lord to learn that I have not read Country Life; it is not my regular reading matter. For the time being, however, the Corus barriers are here to stay.

My Lords, what effort is made to inform parties of visitors about the work of the House, not just of its history? When will the projected education centre come on stream?

My Lords, plans for the education centre have advanced. Noble Lords will be glad to know that it is proposed to be in House of Commons territory; plans have been developed and a site has been identified underneath the Commons Chamber, on the Lower Secretaries’ Floor. That was agreed by the House of Commons Administration Committee in May this year. However, it will take some time before it is built—2012 is the projected date. That is largely because of the need to find places elsewhere for those who currently occupy the space.

My Lords, while we all appreciate that the security arrangements are necessary and keep us secure, are there any negotiations with another place about the timing of functions so that everyone does not arrive between 5.30 and 6.30 in the evening when functions are held at 6pm and 7pm so that there is not a backlog in the queues?

Yes, my Lords, that is a problem particularly—well, entirely—with House of Commons functions: very many of them start at the same time, which causes a serious backlog at the Cromwell Green entrance. It should not apply to your Lordships’ functions, because entrance to those is through Black Rod’s Garden entrance.

My Lords, does the Chairman of Committees agree that the visitor experience would be greatly enhanced if the piece of waste ground opposite Parliament which used to be the Abingdon green were restored to its former state? Is he aware that the Written Answer he gave me on the subject last week was really rather disappointing because we were hoping to hear that work had resumed on the reconstruction of the car park and that the green was going to be restored, as part of that, as a matter of some urgency?

My Lords, I think it is stretching the original Question to say very much about the green opposite; as the noble Lord says, I answered his Question for Written Answer last week. I hope that we will see the recommencement of work very shortly; new contracts are in process and, this being a problem for Westminster Council rather than ourselves, the plans are to complete the work by the middle of next spring.

My Lords, will the Lord Chairman make it part of his brief, or make it someone else’s, to keep an eye on the way in which the function of this House, in parliamentary apparatus, is displayed to the public in the various exhibition items that are put on view? It is my impression, from time to time, that they have been designed and organised by the other place, principally for an exhibition about how it works.

My Lords, there is something in what the noble Lord says. However, we are assured that as far as the educational visits are concerned and especially when the education centre opens, the House of Lords will be given due prominence.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the enormous improvements to the House of Lords website have given young people a lot more information and a lot more encouragement to know about the work of Parliament?

My Lords, as I frequently take visitors around this House and the Commons, I sometimes wonder, looking at the very, very tiny children who come here, how much they will learn about the work done here and about this place. Is there any age limit? I sometimes think that they come here when they are a little too young.