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House of Lords: Relocation

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

My Lords, noble Lords will know that, in light of the principle of exclusive cognisance, this is ultimately a decision for a sovereign Parliament.

My Lords, in the words of an exasperated Lord Speaker, “Here we go again.” It is all very well to say that it is a matter for Parliament, but it is the Executive, not Parliament, that keeps this hare running. Government policy was set out in May last year:

“We agree with the Committee that the R&R programme should ensure that the Palace of Westminster is fit to serve as the home of the UK Parliament in the future.”

Has government policy, now in primary legislation, changed? Have Civil Service resources been considering moving your Lordships’ House to York? If so, who authorised it and what is the remit and the costs so far?

My Lords, I can only repeat the position that I have stated: this is a matter which would, in the end, be resolved by Parliament and in Parliament. I say to my noble friend, whom I greatly respect, that, given the circumstances, I think it is reasonable for all of us to examine how every part of Parliament may find itself closer to the people.

My Lords, to press the Minister further, he tells us that it is a decision for Parliament—so all well and good—but what will the consultative process be? Can he give an absolute guarantee, despite the fact that, as he said, we live in challenging times, this will ultimately be a decision for Parliament?

My Lords, this great House is part of a legislature, and in any consideration of its future the exigencies of parliamentary practice and procedure will always have to be considered. The Government will, of course, give careful consideration to ensuring that our Parliament continues to operate effectively.

My Lords, if, as the Minister has just confirmed, the final decision is a matter for Parliament alone, can he explain the justification for the extensive press briefing last week and Michael Gove’s confirmation that this is indeed something the Government are considering? Have there yet been any assessments by the Government of how this will be taken forward? Have there been any studies either of the site in York—which has actually been vacant for some time because they find it very hard to get interest from commercial operators for it—or how this will affect the relationship between the two Houses or between Parliament and Government? If not, why not?

My Lords, I just said that the relationship between the two Houses and parliamentary procedure will obviously be matters for consideration. Noble Lords will know that the R&R process means that the sponsor body has to consider alternative sites for Parliament. This is a matter on which there will be further announcements in due course.

My Lords, I understand the argument about the relationship between the Houses and what may happen; this is about the Executive and the relationship with each House. Do not simple courtesy and constitutional propriety oblige the Executive immediately to consult either House about any proposal to relocate that House?

My Lords, I recommend courtesy by everybody, Executive or otherwise, in dealing with colleagues and with Parliament.

My Lords, the rumour is a persistent one. Does my noble friend agree that our bicameral parliamentary system strengthens the checks and balances of the Executive in Parliament? How would splitting the system and moving to York this House, in which no Government have a majority, improve those checks and balances? Is it not the case that this would not be decentralisation, as has been mooted in the rumours, but would in reality deliver more centralisation into the hands of the Executive in London?

My Lords, I agree that practical working considerations are important. I repeat, however, one of the wider considerations here, which is that the Government’s intention, which was very clear in the manifesto, is to find ways to bring the whole process of government closer to the people. I do not believe that Parliament or, indeed, this House should simply reject that concept or the idea that that matter needs to be reflected on. Constructive proposals and discussion of this are always welcome.

My Lords, Henry VIII sought to placate his rebels with a Parliament in York. Will the Minister say who, this time, they are trying to placate by suggestions of a Parliament in York? It sounds as if he is trying to rid himself of these pesky Lords. He should be careful of what happened to an earlier Henry when that happened. My concern about what the Minister said is that he suggested that this might be being thought of as a temporary home while we move out. That is a dangerous suggestion, if I heard him correctly. Will he again confirm that it is for this House to decide where this House will meet?

Yes, my Lords. I simply referred to the well-known fact of the work of the sponsor body being ongoing. That sponsor body has announced its strategic review of the R&R programme and that is one of the immediate circumstances we face. Again, I return to the general context. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was criticised, but he was absolutely clear in his response on the Marr programme. He said that, as far as the legislature goes, that is obviously a question for the House of Commons and House of Lords. That is the Government’s position.

Does the Minister agree that, whether temporarily or permanently, it is better, in a bicameral system, as the noble Lord, Lord Lang, alluded to, for the two Houses to be placed together? In terms of reaching the people, would he also commend the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme to bring civic duties and understanding to schools as a good way of communicating? By the way, when this was last talked about here, the incoming Archbishop of York offered his garden, which is extensive, as a place. May I humbly suggest that there is a nearer alternative in Birmingham?

I am not going to interpose my body between Birmingham and York. The right reverend Prelate is correct that outreach is important. To give an example, I had the honour of chairing your Lordships’ Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision; I took evidence in Doncaster, which was illuminating and helpful. The broader context of this debate and discussion, in so far as it has started, is that the Government intend to take parts of the central Civil Service out of London. We intend to bring the process of government closer to the people. We in this House should not shut ourselves away from considering how we can do that. The right reverend Prelate referred to a very good ongoing practice.

My Lords, given the various attempts by No. 10 to emasculate the scrutiny work of your Lordships’ House, can we take it that this proposal to banish us to York is simply a threat to cut off the House from MPs, Ministers, Cabinet, civil servants and the rest, and to weaken our constitutional role? Would it not be much less disruptive to send the whole Cabinet Office to York? That would not need a lengthy parliamentary process and would, in the words of the Minister, bring government closer to the public. Has the Leader of the House made any representations on this to Messrs Johnson, Gove and Cummings?

My Lords, I have put on record what my right honourable friend Michael Gove said. The noble Lord speaks from outside this Chamber, which is perfectly reasonable. In this current emergency, your Lordships have been scattered to the four corners of the kingdom. There has been no parallel since 1665 when the House took itself to Oxford to avoid the plague. Speaking as a Minister, I do not feel either today or on other occasions that the intense and proper scrutiny from your Lordships has been weakened. I reject any contention that this Government want at any time to weaken parliamentary scrutiny.

Does the Minister agree that the proposed move would be a constitutional emasculation and a gesture of disrespect, and would work only if the Commons moved as well? In terms of spreading governance to the north, this is not likely to work any better than the BBC’s partial move to Salford. If it happened, the move would result only in far more virtual working. Moreover, since the Writ of Summons from the Queen commands noble Lords to meet in Westminster, does the Minister realise that any move will involve the royal prerogative and legislation, drawing the Crown into this? I hope the Minister agrees that the response of the House should be to press on with reform. Does he agree that this House, given the virtues of virtual working, could contribute to a quicker and cheaper refurbishment not by moving anywhere but by offering to work virtually during the refurbishment period?

My Lords, I and the Government welcome any constructive suggestions from Members of your Lordships’ House on how to achieve these objectives. The experience of virtual working will have been read and noted by all of us in different ways and with different implications. I return to the fact that this is a House of Parliament—it needs to be treated with respect and to have the last say.

My Lords, this whole issue has developed into something of a media circus. Does the Minister agree that serious consideration must be given to the number of noble Lords who have to travel from all parts of the United Kingdom, and that London therefore remains by far the best and most convenient location? What consideration will be given to such Members?

My Lords, there is no doubt that, as discussion of this type of proposition goes forward, many factors will be brought into play and adduced. My noble friend makes a perfectly reasonable point about transport.

I call the next speaker, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon. We are unable to hear the noble and learned Lord. I call the next speaker, Lord Singh of Wimbledon.

My Lords, York is seen as something of an outer Mongolia by the general public, who view the House of Lords as an outdated institution. The reality is that it is packed with experts in every field of life. Does the Minister agree that we need to be more proactive in publicising what we do in our essential scrutinising and amending of legislation and the work of our committees?

I strongly with the noble Lord. Indeed, he echoed something said by the right reverend Prelate earlier. That is important. I revere this House and the work it does, but it should not present itself as being in a state of shock horror at the idea that some of its proceedings and activities might take place outside London.

My Lords, moving the House of Lords to York will not bring Parliament closer to the people. Could my noble friend answer my noble friend Lord Young’s question? Has Civil Service time, and hence public funds, been devoted to considering a move of the House of Lords?

My Lords, I am not in a position to answer that question. However, I will provide information to both the noble Lord, Lord Young, and my noble friend.