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Parliament: Restoration and Renewal Project

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the letter from the Prime Minister to the Chief Executive of the Sponsor Body and Chief Executive Designate for the Delivery Authority for the Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Project on 15 July, what their proposals are for the relocation of both Houses of Parliament during the restoration of the Palace of Westminster.

My Lords, as I said in my Answer on this last Monday, the location of Parliament is a matter for Parliament. Both Houses will need to review their sitting arrangements as part of restoration and renewal. The Government are keen to ensure that the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster delivers best value for money and asked the sponsor body to advise Parliament on a range of options and consider decant locations outside London in its strategic review. The Government are not prejudging any particular outcome.

My Lords, do the Government remain firmly committed to ensuring that after restoration and renewal is complete, both Houses will continue to sit in the Palace of Westminster as their permanent home? Bearing in mind that only one bicameral legislature in the world, that of the Ivory Coast—we owe that information to the Lord Speaker—has Chambers in different geographical locations, does the Minister accept that it makes no constitutional or economic sense to remove either or both Chambers to any other city within the UK for just a few years?

My Lords, in the original debates on this subject, my noble friend rightly pointed to the heritage nature of this great Palace of Westminster, which I think we all hold dear. Indeed, heritage is one of the aspects referred to in the Prime Minister’s letter. So far as how the Houses will operate when decant—if decant—takes place, that is a matter for them. I would simply say that the broad and generous acres of Yorkshire are not in another continent.

My Lords, any suggestion about a move should have been made to the Speaker and the Lord Speaker, not in a letter to non-parliamentarians. I ask the Minister to remind the Prime Minister that he is not a president but is accountable to Parliament, which needs to be located close by so that the Prime Minister and Ministers can report to Parliament, no matter how much he dislikes having to do so. This is the nature of our democracy, and Parliament will hold him to it.

My Lords, the sponsor body is independent: that was the decision of your Lordships’ House and of the other place. The strategic review was announced in May by the sponsor body and it is for it to progress as it wishes. It is open to every Member of Parliament, not just the Prime Minister, to put forward their views to the sponsor body.

My Lords, I understand that the Prime Minister’s letter proposing that both Houses of Parliament might relocate to York had already been sent when the Minister answered questions on this on 15 July, yet he made no reference to it in any of his replies. Was that because he was not aware of the letter or because he chose not to inform this House that the Commons might also be moved?

On 9 July, in answering questions on the ISC report on Russia, he described suggestions that the Conservative Party had received large sums from Russian donors as “wild charges”. Now that several articles in the quality press and the published ISC report have substantiated that such sums have been accepted by the Conservatives, will he withdraw that reply?

My Lords, I think the second part of the noble Lord’s question is germane to the Question that follows; I am not sure if he has a chance to ask a question on that. The Conservative Party’s donations are declared, permissible and controlled. On the first part of his question, I stand by every word I used last week.

My Lords, I hope our democratic machinery will get a move on in taking a decision about relocation and will take a wholly common-sense view on what is appropriate, which I personally believe is to stay in Westminster. The great cities of this country have an important local leadership role and a role liaising with Westminster, but I do not think it makes any great sense for them to be considered as a location for our Houses of Parliament. The Minister is not necessarily in a position to support that, but I would be interested in his personal views.

My Lords, giving personal views from this Dispatch Box is probably not the wisest thing. On the timescale, again, the sponsor body is independent. It will conduct its review on the timescale it has set out, but I understand that it expects and hopes to report this autumn.

My Lords, the Earl of Devon was first summoned to Shrewsbury, so I am not averse to sitting elsewhere, but I am very concerned about delay. We passed the restoration and renewal Act last autumn with an urgent mandate to get to work immediately to save the Palace. Nowhere in the Act is the sponsor body empowered to second-guess that mandate. Under what authority is the sponsor body conducting its strategic review, and why is it not complying with its obligation to restore this key national heritage?

My Lords, again, the sponsor body is independent. It was obliged under the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act, which your Lordships assented to, to prepare a strategy on this and to consult Members of each House of Parliament. That was published in May and, as I said, I hope and understand that the sponsor body will report in the autumn, but I take note of what the noble Earl said.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl because the situation is now confusing in terms of its accountability. Options seem to be coming out of No. 10 like chaff from an aircraft under missile attack. But given that we are in the season for crackpot ideas and bearing in mind that the furthest point from the sea in our great maritime nation is Coton in the Elms in Derbyshire at 45 miles, and that a large number of cruise ships that are now lying idle may in the future be available at very cheap rates, could not both Houses embark on a ship and operate from it while visiting all parts of our islands? I have raised this idea before on the Floor of the House and the Minister replying said that it would be looked at. Has it?

My Lords, I will have to take advice on the matter in order to respond to the noble Lord. Options coming out like chaff will have varying effects, as he will know. I repeat that this is a matter for the exclusive cognisance of your Lordships’ House and, in the last resort, of the other place.

My Lords, since the origin of the idea to move to York came from No. 10, perhaps we should carry on up to Barnard Castle. In the meantime, the real wake-up call for this House is that for the past 20 years, the Conservative and Labour Benches have frustrated any real and radical reform of this House. I ask the Lord Speaker to call together the leaders of all parties to consider such a programme of radical reform. While I know that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, unless we are willing to reform ourselves, we will certainly be plucked and stuffed by that cabal in No. 10.

My Lords, I always commend an open mind, but unfortunately for the Liberal Democrat party, many of its proposals for reform have fallen on stony ground.

My Lords, in the event that the Government should decide to move this House to another location against its will, would that require primary legislation and would the Minister propose to take such legislation through all its stages in this House?

My Lords, I never answer hypothetical questions. On the factual point, as I have said, this is a matter for the exclusive cognisance of both Houses.

I welcome the statement by my noble friend the Minister that this is finally a matter for Parliament and not one for the Government to order. Knowing the obvious benefits of the two Houses working together in many fields, I hope that the Joint Committee which is investigating this matter recognises the importance of ensuring the closest possible co-location of the two Houses, and that in view of the problems caused by the pandemic, it seems quite unrealistic to try to move Parliament elsewhere in the country because it will be difficult enough to operate it even in our present locations.

My Lords, a number of factors have been raised by noble Lords during our various exchanges of which I have taken careful note, and the considerations that my noble friend has put forward are among those. Indeed, they were alluded to in the Prime Minister’s letter, along with timelines, the effect on the work of Parliament and so on, which were specifically referred to.

12.50 pm

Sitting suspended.