Motion to Take Note
My Lords, my Motion is not concerned with the practicalities of decanting the Palace of Westminster, nor with the geographical site selected for relocation. My concern is one of constitutional principle. It is one that must be to the fore in considering relocation. The debate about restoration and renewal tends to focus on the physical health of the Palace of Westminster. My Motion is concerned with the health of our parliamentary system of government.
The design of the Palace of Westminster and its use are a means to an end. The end is an effective system of parliamentary government. Parliament exists to respond to the demands of the Crown, for both supply and legislation. Its power lies in its capacity to say no. That power underpins the functions it has developed to scrutinise demands for legislation and money, and for calling government to account. Those are the key functions of Parliament.
Having two Chambers serves a valuable purpose, but they are two parts of one constitutional entity. Each Chamber effectively plays to its strengths: we cannot emulate the House of Commons, but the House of Commons cannot emulate this House. We enjoy distinct legitimacies: the House of Commons, an electoral legitimacy; this House, a functional legitimacy. We complement one another. This is the key point: that complementarity is cemented by the two Houses being collocated in Westminster. We need one another and we need to be together to be effective in fulfilling our functions.
The interconnection of the two Houses derives as much from what we do informally as what we do formally. What happens in formal space, the Chamber and committee rooms, is core to each House fulfilling its functions, but that activity, while necessary, is not sufficient. It is what happens in preparation for formal proceedings that is fundamental to being effective as bodies of scrutiny and in calling government to account.
We need to meet not only Members of our own House, essential in mobilising support to pursue amendments and raise issues of concern, but Members of the other place. We have to liaise when Bills are going through and to interact for the purposes of lobbying and exchanging information. Political history can be affected by a chance encounter between Members of the two Houses. The opportunity for such interaction has always been there but, if anything, has been enhanced by the building of Portcullis House—its creation changing the geopolitics of the Parliamentary Estate, and the relaxing of rules on who can use refreshment and dining facilities.
We need to be collocated, not only for the benefit of both Houses in fulfilling the essential functions of Parliament, but for the convenience of citizens. We are an open institution. Members of the public can make representations to Members of both Houses. We are a highly pluralistic society, with citizens getting together to form charities and a range of other interest groups. The number of such groups has grown markedly in recent decades. Those groups seek to influence Parliament, not only by sending briefings electronically but by coming to Westminster to speak to Members in both Houses.
Moving one Chamber to another part of the country does not bring that Chamber closer to the people; it detaches it from those organisations that seek to put their case. They will most likely remain London-based in order to lobby the House of Commons and government. Arranging to see Members of both Houses will be costly and time-consuming and more likely undertaken by the better-resourced organisations. If the two Houses are not collocated, the opportunity for personal interaction between Members of both Houses is lost.
Separating us physically cannot be substituted by the use of technology or even quick transport links. We need spontaneity and the capacity to move quickly to liaise with one another and with Members of the other place. Meeting virtually, or in hybrid form, makes that difficult, if not impossible. I know some take the view that meeting in hybrid form during lockdown was a success and could be the future of how Parliament operates. Hybrid proceedings were a success technically—and the staff did a fantastic job at short notice—but not a success politically.
Members decanting to different parts of the kingdom during lockdown strengthened the Executive. Members operated as disparate and discrete entities and not as a collective body. We were not able to be agile in engaging with other Members and in challenging Ministers at the Dispatch Box.
As my noble friend Lord True acknowledged on 16 May:
“Those of us who have had experience of a Parliament by Zoom know the importance of personal contact within and across the Houses to the good operation of government and Parliament.”—[Official Report, 16/5/22; col 243.]
Separating the two Chambers empowers government. The suggestion that the House of Lords moves to a different part of the country, with the House of Commons in Westminster, is essentially a power grab by the Executive. I am not making the case against the House of Lords moving; I am making the case against the House of Lords alone moving. If one Chamber moves, the other must as well, and so must the Executive. If Westminster decants, then so too must Whitehall.
There is a perfectly coherent argument that can be made for locating Parliament and the Executive in a purpose-built capital, a Bonn or Brasília, or even an existing city big enough to accommodate such a massive ecosystem. My Motion is silent as to location. The essential point is not where, but who: it has to be Parliament—both Houses—and the Executive.
There are obvious practical problems if the two Houses are miles from one another in meetings of all-party groups and Joint Committees. I suspect others in this debate may address this. Committees can meet virtually but it is not the same as meeting in person. In any event, this is to isolate one feature of intercameral contact. One has to encompass the whole range of interactions between the Members of the two Houses to appreciate the necessity of both Houses being collocated in the same city, and ideally on the same site. Even if we move to the QEII Centre and the Commons to Richmond House, there will be problems—quite significant problems—of communication between Members of both.
Recognising the importance of two Chambers being collocated is not something peculiar to the United Kingdom; it is a global phenomenon. As the briefing by the Library records, of the 81 national bicameral legislatures that exist, all bar three are located in the same city and even one of the exceptions appears to be temporary. All major western democracies with bicameral legislatures have the two Chambers located in the same city. There is a particular value in being located in the same building, or at least on the same estate.
It is crucial that we put on record the need for both Houses to remain collocated and for this to be embraced as a prerequisite for the restoration and renewal programme. We need to ensure that it is confirmed now, given the increasing urgency of both Houses decanting. The decision to move out may be taken out of our hands. The Palace is demonstrably deteriorating before our eyes. We have parts variously closed off or covered by canopies because of falling masonry. We are lucky that no one has been killed or seriously injured and that there has been no major fire. The possibility of a catastrophic failure with an essential utility failing increases year by year. Whenever we move out, be it by design or necessity, we have to move as one entity—that is, Parliament.
Successive Governments have demonstrated limited knowledge of our constitution. They variously advance schemes for change which have been advocated on their individual merits and not within a clear intellectual approach to constitutional change. We need to stop what amount to constitutionally incoherent schemes, made without standing back and understanding where we are going. Ministers need a grasp of core constitutional principles, not least those governing the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. The Government are the creature of the constitution, not the other way round.
I conclude with some questions for my noble friend the Minister. First, a practical question: how much public money has been spent exploring the cost of locating the House of Lords in another city, and who authorised that expenditure? Secondly, what constitutional authorities were consulted by government prior to the Secretary of State’s letter of 13 May? Thirdly, was the Cabinet Office consulted by the levelling-up department before the Secretary of State wrote to the Lord Speaker? Fourthly, what study have the Government undertaken of practice in other nations with bicameral legislatures, and if they have undertaken such a study, what conclusions have they drawn? Finally, does my noble friend accept the constitutional principle that I have enunciated?
This debate is not about some secondary issue; it is about maintaining the health and integrity of our parliamentary system of Government. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend, if I may call him that, because we have known each other since our days as undergraduates at the University of Sheffield. His contribution, as we would expect from someone whose standing on constitutional issues is renowned, has placed the beginning of this debate exactly where it should be in terms of a challenge as to whether those putting forward proposals understand both our constitution and the impact on our democracy. Noble Lords will forgive me for saying just one or two words on the practicalities before I get to the constitutional issues he raised.
It is very easy to dismiss proposals that are thrown up for separating the two Houses and placing the House of Lords in—originally—York, Stoke or somewhere else as being just a piece of mischievous politics, a threat or a piece of intimidation, or the throwing of a bit of red meat to people to say, to coin a phrase from the 1980s, “These are the new enemies within”—literally, within. However, it would be very unwise to take that view. Some of those who have been putting forward the notion of splitting our Parliament have a brain and understand exactly what they are doing but are not mindful of the long-term consequences and the spin-off that would occur in the way our democracy works. Therefore, very briefly, I want to make a contribution that I probably could not have made in the House of Commons because eyes would have glazed over—although, because I never see eyes glazing over, that has never stopped me in the past.
I want just to reflect on the history of the make-up of a functioning democracy, which is relevant today to the debate about asylum seekers or non-admissibles being sent to Rwanda. I touch on that because when a democracy and its representative functions do not operate correctly and effectively, people turn elsewhere within the constitution of a democracy to seek redress. In the case of the Rwandan issue, albeit that the Government have powers from previous legislation to deal with claims outside the country—both in the Nationality and Borders Act on admissibility and in previous legislation—neither House of Parliament has authorised the sending of potential asylum seekers to Rwanda, with all the consequences.
I raise that because, going all the way back to de Tocqueville—my noble friend the mover of this Motion will remember us learning about him all those years ago—he posed the issue of how, when a functioning representative Parliament will not provide redress and is not operating correctly, people will turn elsewhere. That is why Jonathan Sumption, in his profound Reith Lectures, raised the issue again about the way in which we do not push off the rights and the responsibilities of Parliament and the balance between the two parts of Parliament into other parts of our constitutional checks and balances. In particular, we do not push them off into the courts. The courts and the legal system will always take on what Parliament fails to deal with. We saw that with Article 50 and with Prorogation. I do not believe that we want that to become common practice. I do not sign up to the hysteria about the ECHR—the Strasbourg court—but I believe that people should reflect on why we should have to retain the rights that people have built into our constitution through the courts rather than through our Parliament. That brings me to the following.
If our Parliament is split and the two halves are in different locations, and it is not possible, as the noble Lord properly enunciated, for people to make representations, for us to share those representations with the other House, to hear from experts as well as pressure groups, and to draw down on the expertise that exists across our Parliament and within the confines of the hinterland of Parliament, we will not be able to fulfil our functions. I can easily dismiss the splitting of the two Houses: Black Rod leaping on to a train which gets held up at Milton Keynes and taking a bus through to Stoke-on-Trent to knock on a door that has already been opened, the Queen having been held up somewhere on the M6—that is the kind of nonsense we are talking about. Or there are the practicalities of a relocation of 600-odd individuals working directly in this House, not including those who work for Peers. Nobody has thought through the impact on a community in terms of house prices, rents and the knock-on effects —it is a nonsense.
However, the constitutional issue is the centrepiece and the core of why it is nonsense. That is why the noble Lord moving this Motion deserves enormous credit. We need to get it on the record that those who meddle with our constitution and our democracy without understanding—or perhaps sometimes understanding but not caring about—the consequences can throw red meat wherever they like, setting up false dichotomies and Aunt Sallys that can then be knocked down. We can abuse the legal profession, but it will be there for people if we do not do our job properly. That is why this Motion is so important.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing this debate.
We should remind ourselves that the Michael Gove initiative to relocate the House of Lords from London was launched on the weekend of 14 and 15 May for the Sunday papers, 10 days after the local elections. I am not sure whether he planned it as a wedge issue to inflame his opponents and firm up his supporters or whether it was a dead cat strategy to divert attention from the disastrous opinion polls and election results which were threatening the Prime Minister. It is this sort of cavalier and short-term approach to public policy which diminishes politicians and politics, and it is surprising that Gove so diminished his reputation for competence and delivery as a Minister. I cannot see the Governments of Callaghan, Thatcher, John Major or Theresa May behaving in this way. I think even the more publicity conscious Governments of Blair, Brown and Cameron would have been circumspect on such a blatant scam. In any event, it is not the Government’s decision as to where we go; it should be Parliament’s.
I have a couple of specific questions for the Minister in addition to the four he has had from the noble Lord, Lord Norton. First, was he or the Leader of the House consulted before Michael Gove sent the letter? To find out a little more about how this Government operate, did he give advice and make representations on our behalf? Did anybody work out the cost of this initiative and whether it could possibly provide value for money, given the already huge cost of R&R? As a personal issue, perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he has worked out how he will undertake his current duties as a Minister while scampering up the railway lines to Birmingham, Sheffield, York or wherever it is to be, at our behest.
I find it slightly ironic that those who were telling us a few years ago about the huge extravagance and duplication of housing the European Parliament in two places are now very keen for Parliament to meet in two locations. Of course, I buy all the arguments that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, expressed and can only say briefly to him and the House, looking at the week I have had, how important those social connections across both Houses are. In fact, I would argue that. even now, the connections are not as strong as they should be; we are operating in two silos. I have been involved with our parliamentary team in the other House this week; I have attended meetings with our MPs and the Chief Whip. I know that my Back-Benchers and Front-Benchers have been in meetings with Ministers throughout the week, and in the coming weeks, I am sure that lots of meetings on the Schools Bill, for example, will have to be had at a very high level, and not just by the Minister in the House of Lords. These contacts and the APPGs are very important in bringing in public opinion and lobbying us, and it would be weakened by being in two locations.
One lesson that came out of Covid, despite all the arguments of those who want to hold on to some of the reforms that we achieved during Covid—which I do, was that what we missed most was social contact between us. Politics is about social contact; it is about gossip and the conversations that take place in the corridors and dining rooms, in our meetings, Select Committee work and so on, and with our colleagues in the other place through the various Joint Committees —of which there should be more—of the two Houses.
Having said that I agree fundamentally with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and there is no point repeating the arguments made by him, I want to comment on three issues which I think underlie this debate and the proposal that Michael Gove made. On levelling up, gimmicks and PR stunts just do not wash. At the moment, we have a daily publicity stunt from the Government, which I am afraid shows their weakness. Until we have a Secretary of State with the energy, enthusiasm and determination of a Michael Heseltine, the levelling-up strategy will not work. It needs a genuine partnership between central government, business, local government, universities and across all government departments. It needs such a dynamic figure to bring it together.
On R&R, we need to get on with it. If a very long gestation period is required to improve implementation, so be it, but we need to vacate this building. It must not be seen as an initiative simply for our benefit; that is, improving our accommodation. It is to protect our heritage and the safety of the building but, most important, it should be about opening up Parliament and encouraging access and ownership for the public, just like the Germans have done in their parliament in Berlin.
We should stop denigrating this institution of the House of Lords without coming up with genuine plans to reform and improve it, however difficult that will be. I am in favour of reform, obviously, but I must accept that gradual reform seems to be the most likely way forward, and we should increase awareness about that. We have to tackle four issues which I do not think are fundamental but which we have been discussing for years: reducing our size, breaking the link with the honours system, introducing a retirement age and ending the hereditary by-elections. That would be a start, and then we could have a longer-term look at how we make this House more representative of the states and the regions. Sadly, the Michael Gove publicity initiative simply will not do.
My interest is well known.
Seriously, first, I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on the way he proposed the Motion. I also congratulate him on the way that, over the years, he has fought, week by week for a long time and consistently, for the importance of this House. His contribution has been extraordinarily important.
After the Great Fire in 1834, there was year after year of delay before work seriously began on a new House. One reason for the delay was the shoal of alternative proposals that were continually made. We seem to be going down exactly the same path again, leading to exactly the same destination of indecision and delay. We should perhaps remind ourselves that the original official consideration of the renewal and restoration position was in 2014. There has never been any dispute about the action needed to be taken—the faults, the omissions, the appalling electrics in this place; the dispute has all been about how it is to be done, with every known solution put forward, the latest, of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said, coming from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
It is worth pausing on that because his proposal comes in two parts. The first is to change—“veto” is a better word—a proposition made by independent committee after independent committee that, if there is to be a total decant as changes are made, the House of Lords should find temporary accommodation in what is now the Queen Elizabeth II Centre. Years after the proposal was made and repeated in debate after debate, the current Secretary of State says that he is not content and will not allow it. Why? Well, one reason is that he has a commercial interest. That small section of the vast Environment department makes an income from running the building as a kind of convention centre.
It reminds me of one of the first decisions I had to make in the Government of Margaret Thatcher when we found that a nationalised body, the NFC, was running a removals company called Pickfords. We dealt with it, as my noble friend on the Front Bench will remember, but what is a public body doing running what is in essence a private-sector undertaking? It is a question that might be asked but, here, the question is even sharper. There is a limited number of venues where the Lords could take up temporary accommodation. It is not up to one Minister to put his department’s interests in front of what could be a national interest, and certainly a parliamentary interest.
We should think very clearly about what is being proposed here. Having set out on his path, the Minister had no option but to propose an alternative, and it appears to be to go for a permanent solution and move the House of Lords to, probably, Stoke-on-Trent. For 31 years, I was a Midlands Member of Parliament. I have nothing against Stoke as a city, although I must say for constituency reasons that I would favour Birmingham or Nottingham. I can see only one argument for such a system: that I would love to be there when the noble Lord, Lord True, goes up to Stoke to explain the hereditary by-election system to the people there. I am sure that they would listen with great interest.
What is proposed does not add up one bit to a levelling-up agenda. The public are not fools. They would see such a move as an empty public relations measure with a range of practical drawbacks, as has been set out in various papers. How would we organise Joint Committee meetings effectively? How would we organise all-party parliamentary group and party-political group meetings? Of course, I have no interest in such things any more, being on the Cross Benches, but there are all sorts of practical reasons that amount to the life of this Parliament, but which have not been considered one little bit. A vast number of questions require answers.
All kinds of public bodies have given their views on the proposal, and they have predominantly been against it. It is not just us in the House of Lords; it is those outside. The argument I found most convincing was put by an independent voice: Mark D’Arcy, a BBC political correspondent whom I think many of us know to be both independent and an objective observer of the House of Lords. He said that Parliament should not be divided by relocation, and that:
“Those moments in the chamber where a minister faltered and opinion crystallised against them are much more elusive if the minister is on a screen rather than standing at the dispatch box.”
I think we all recognise that as being the truth of the situation. He also said that
“question times with online participants are necessarily more scripted and less searching”,
leading to less effective challenging of Ministers. It all adds up to the fact that the major beneficiary of the change being put forward seems to be the Government—not just one Government but all Governments.
My fear is basically this: far from increasing the influence of the second Chamber with government, it will, by the policy of separation, decrease it. Out of the way, out of sight—that is the danger. It will make it much more difficult to hold Ministers to account and the only people who will be happy with that result are Ministers. Let us be clear: Governments, it is reasonably safe to say, do not like independent voices to cast doubt on their policies or oppose their plans—I hope that it is not too controversial to say that; the noble Lord, Lord True, might even agree with that one —especially plans that might have been forced through in the other place by Whips exercising the power of a big majority.
Current Ministers say that restoration of the Parliament building is of course purely a matter for MPs and Back-Bench Lords. One wonders, then, why Ministers such as Mr Rees-Mogg and Mr Gove are so eager to intervene and put their case on the record—and in one case close policy options. We started this process in 2014. A few days ago, eight years after that date, we had a new document, Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: A New Mandate. So we start again.
Basically, my view is this: for goodness’ sake, let us stop messing about. We need to keep to one course. What we do not want is to make this a botched project that shows the world—and make no mistake, the world will be watching our progress on this—how difficult it is for this country to make decisions and stick to them. Above all, we should recognise that we are one Parliament, not two.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for securing this debate and bringing to it his distinguished record as a scholar of our constitution and of Parliament. My own contribution to the debate will, I think, chime with much of what we have heard already from noble Lords.
I wish to make a few simple points. First, we are two Houses but one Parliament, a point that has already been made. Secondly, although Covid has taught us much about the flexibility afforded by current technology, as did universal postage, the telegram, and the telephone in their day, it has also taught us a good deal about the importance of physical proximity. Finally, as has been eloquently pointed out, to separate out what was never meant to be put asunder will mean that the role of this House and its usefulness will diminish, and the capability of Parliament with it.
If I may expand further, the Christian faith is profoundly relational, not transactional. It frames the understanding of God’s relationship with humanity and humanity’s relationship with itself. Both are found in the person of Jesus Christ. However, did we not find in lockdown not only the ingenuity and resilience brought by Zoom, bubbles, essential services and immediate family units, but a profound loss? There is a clue in the word “Parliament”, which bids us to parlay and speak to one another—or, indeed, as our Writ of Summons requires of us,
“a certain Parliament to be holden at Our City of Westminster ... there to treat and have conference with the Prelates, Great Men, Great Women and Peers of Our Realm”.
Further, although we jealously guard our own House, as the Commons do theirs, each Session, we meet together in this Chamber to hear the gracious Speech. Traditionally, messages and Bills travel the Corridor between the Houses. Peers physically watch debates in the other place, and MPs in this. Indeed, I recall the then Prime Minister sitting here on the steps of the Throne during our debate on Article 50.
There is in physical proximity something which one cannot replicate on Zoom or by email. When Charles II sought to gain an advantage by summoning a Parliament to Oxford, he did not send one Chamber off to Harwich, for example, to gain a further advantage, nor would it have occurred to him to do so, and nor would it have been thought consonant with our constitution for him to try.
Our move from the Palace of Westminster, together with the other place, should be organised with the end in view of the understanding and access of this place by the public, and of greater collaboration and understanding between the two Houses in our parliamentary life. That is the opportunity afforded us and we should take it. However, the Government have made it clear, not least in the Written Answer to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, that they would welcome the Lords participating actively in its policy of levelling up by moving out of London. For that reason, they will not make the Queen Elizabeth II Centre available to your Lordships, despite nearly £11 million already having been spent on the proposal. I have no doubt that the Minister will again say that our decant and location is a matter for us, but it is clear that the Government will not co-operate unless we separate from the Commons.
There are options for a decant in London. Following enemy action in 1941, the Commons temporarily located itself in Church House, Westminster, and Churchill had his office above where the bookshop is now. The UN later met there. The Church itself considered relocating the function of Church House in the late 1980s to Sheffield, and in the 2000s rationalised its estate within Church House, including selling No. 1 Millbank to your Lordships.
I have no bias against any of locations which have been suggested by Ministers, who have yet to propose Kigali as an option, but we should insist, as an irreducible minimum, that both Houses go together, wherever we end up. It shows little understanding of how a bicameral legislature works to divide it. We would see Ministers only on high days and holidays, the press not at all or rarely, and MPs only on special day trips organised by Parliament’s education department. Our scrutiny would be disregarded, our debates ignored. Our interaction with the other place would wither into desuetude. We risk not levelling up but shuffling off.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I hope that he and his colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, will continue to care for the spiritual health of your Lordships as we remain in the capital. I join others in complimenting my noble friend Lord Norton on his choice of subject, his introductory speech, and his tireless campaign to promote the effective working of your Lordships’ House and, in particular, to prevent us being physically separated against our wishes from our partner down the corridor—a no-fault divorce if there ever was one.
The issue of R&R came up at the Members’ forum last week. These are very welcome initiatives and I hope that more will be held. However, it put the issue before us in perspective. Andy Helliwell made it clear that although the issue of where the House of Lords moves to was important, it was not holding up progress on R&R; it was not on the critical path. Therefore, there is time for us to persuade the Government to think again about their proposals.
Although I am complimentary about the Members’ forum, I am less enthusiastic about the Joint Statement from the two commissions, which was published on Tuesday, purporting to set out the next steps on R&R. I read it twice and confess that I was no wiser at the end, and that I was puzzled by the jargon that was used, such as this:
“The Panel recommends that the parameters ‘should be augmented by clear evaluation criteria’ which are designed to support option assessment, and key trade-offs which will need to be made to arrive at a progressively shorter list of possible options for the works. These criteria should take account of longer-term perspectives and link to the programme’s end-state vision and intended outcomes.”
Turning to our future location, in his Written Answer to a Question from me on 30 May asking why the QEII Centre was not suitable, referred to by the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh offered no reason why it was not suitable, but the first and last sentence of his reply were that:
“Levelling Up is central to the Government’s mission and the Government would welcome the House of Lords playing a leading role in that effort…. For this reason, the Secretary of State cannot support the use of the QEII Conference Centre, a location in the heart of Westminster, as a decant location for the House of Lords.”
I have two questions arising from this. Is that a statement of government policy, carrying collective agreement, including that of the Leader of the House and my noble friend the Minister, or was it just the personal view of the current Secretary of State, which might not have gone through the normal process of Whitehall clearance, and which might well be altered if it did?
Secondly, if the Secretary of State has his way, £10 million of abortive expenditure will have been incurred. Which unhappy accounting officer will be hauled before the NAO and the PAC to explain this? If it comes off the Parliament vote, will it be reimbursed by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities? Has there been a direction from the Secretary of State that feasibility work on moving to the QEII Centre should stop?
I notice that it is not proposed that the other place should join us in this exodus. If relocation of your Lordships’ House elsewhere would have a leading role to play in delivering the levelling-up agenda, as the Secretary of State asserts, would not that impetus be magnified several times over if we were to be joined by the other place? Sauce for the ermined goose is surely sauce for the plebian gander. R&R can proceed only with the agreement of both Houses. As we have discovered over the past eight years, getting that agreement is difficult. It is made more difficult, unnecessarily so, if there is a pre-emptive strike on options by one party to the discomfiture of the other. One lesson from the events of last month is that there should be no more of it.
In considering the proposition that we should move out of London while the other place remains here, I am reminded of the sketch in which Peter Cook is holding auditions for the role of Tarzan in a film and Dudley Moore hops on to the stage, clearly, in the words of Peter Cook, a “unidexter”, for the role conventionally played by a biped. Having complimented Dudley Moore on his residual leg, Peter Cook then says:
“I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, neither have you”.
So it would be under the Government’s proposals: the country’s legislative Tarzan—Parliament—would be unable to play its role effectively, shorn of one limb. In the words of Peter Cook, next candidate, please.
My Lords, it is a delight to follow my noble friend, who has so wonderfully ridiculed the nonsense that has brought us to this debate today. Nevertheless, we must take some of the things that the Government are saying seriously, difficult though that might be.
Like others, I congratulate and thank my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I declare my interest as chairman of the group that we founded together at the beginning of this century, the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. We will continue to campaign for common sense and for the two Houses being together, in my case together in Westminster. This is the historic capital of the United Kingdom. I hope that it remains the historic capital of the United Kingdom, despite what certain government Ministers seem to be doing to discomfort those who believe in the United Kingdom.
I believe it is essential, for all the reasons that my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham so hilariously outlined, to keep us together in Westminster. The letter sent on Friday 13 May by Mr Gove is an example of arrogance and, frankly, ignorance that I have not seen equalled in my 52 years in Parliament—an anniversary that I mark on Saturday of this week. Whose business is it where we sit? It is the business of Parliament. Parliament is not the creature of government. Government is the creature of Parliament and the two Houses of Parliament, and that must be remembered. Yet Mr Gove fired off his letter to our Lord Speaker with its estate agent’s blurb at the end about where we could go if we did not like Stoke-on-Trent. He sent a copy the Prime Minister and a copy to the Leader of the House. I would like to know from my noble friend Lord True, who battled manfully with this subject on the Monday after the letter was sent, whether the Prime Minister was consulted. Was the Leader of the House consulted? If they were consulted, did they agree with this extraordinary proposition?
What makes it rather sinister is the answer to which the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham referred, namely the answer given by my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh to my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, which seemed to indicate that it was the policy of the Government that we should be hived off—it is not an issue of levelling up—into geographical obscurity because the Government wanted that to happen as part of their levelling-up agenda. Let us have some coherence and the facts. Is this really a government policy? If it is, it is a sinister policy.
Of course we want Parliament to be close to the people, but the way you do that is the way I have played a part in: you take Select Committees to towns or cities where the specific issues they are considering may be of particular importance, relevance and interest. I had the honour of being chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for a full Parliament. When I took it over, I discovered that in the past it had mainly met at Stormont, and we had some meetings in Stormont, but we went around Northern Ireland to many towns and cities. We even went to Crossmaglen on one occasion because in theory it was a no-go area. I spoke to the chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, who said, “Of course it’s not. You should go and you will go.” The local reaction was very positive, so that sort of thing can happen. There is no reason at all why virtually all the domestic Select Committees of either House—education, health and all the others—should not have sessions in Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and all the other places listed on the estate agent’s blurb that Mr Gove attached to his letter.
Parliament is for the capital city. As my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, made plain, Whitehall and Westminster need to be together. The practical difficulties, not to mention the absurdities of doing things on Zoom with people you can see and talk to here, are manifold. It is important that we have a united Parliament to which the Government are answerable, which is not the creature of that Government, meeting here in Westminster and, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, made plain, having that regular interchange between the two Houses. He gave some very good examples of his activities this week in that regard.
We really must say to the Government: you are meddling in things you have no right to meddle in. If this is just a freelance exercise by the temporary landlord of the QEII Centre, it makes it all the more, frankly, despicable. As my noble friend Lord Young said in his speech, some £11 million has already been spent on preparatory work for the QEII Centre. Where has that come from? How will it be compensated for?
There is another thing. Two or three members of the staff of your Lordships’ House came to me after our first exchange to thank me for what I had said and said, “Haven’t they thought of us?” As they said, many of them have children at school and houses that they have struggled to pay for. Do they really want to be decanted to Stoke, fine city as it is, in the county I had the honour to represent for 40 years? We must have consideration for those who work with us and for us, and my stress is on “with us”. Whether they be our admirable doorkeepers, our librarians, our clerks or whoever they are, they expect to be here and we should fulfil the expectations that they legitimately had when they decided they wanted to work here.
Therefore, for every possible reason, this is a not a realistic proposition. I hope my noble friend will be able to confirm that there has not been thorough government consideration and approval of this. I hope he can, but if there has been, there is another battle on our hands. If there has not been, Mr Gove should concentrate on the things for which he is statutorily responsible and should not meddle from constitutional ignorance—because you could make this proposition only from constitutional ignorance—in this great matter of what Parliament is, where it should be and how the two Houses are bound together in a bicameral legislature of which we all are proud and of which we wish to be prouder.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for giving us this chance to debate the importance of the collocation of both Houses of Parliament and for his brilliant opening speech.
My contribution to today’s debate is in two parts: first, an illustration from my diary of parliamentary engagements that demonstrate the interconnectedness of the two Houses; and secondly, a commentary on the Secretary of State for Levelling Up’s suggestion for the relocation of the Lords. I make this second point from my perspective of representing your Lordships’ House on the restoration and renewal sponsor body.
First, this is my personal illustration of the extensive connectedness of the two Houses. This was the subject of a note I sent to the Lord Speaker when thanking him for his response to Secretary of State Michael Gove’s suggestion of a move for the Lords to the Midlands or the north of England. On that day of writing—16 May —I attended the following meetings that involved both Peers and MPs: a lunchtime presentation in the Lords by the International Energy Association’s chief executive —I am president of the Sustainable Energy Association; a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Park Homes chaired by Sir Christopher Chope MP—I piloted the Mobile Homes Act 2013 through your Lordships’ House; the AGM of the adult social care APPG chaired by Damian Green MP, of which I am a vice-chair; and a reception in the Churchill Room for the National Custom and Self Build Association, hosted by Richard Bacon MP and attended by Michael Gove—I piloted the Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act through the House of Lords in 2015.
The following day, I attended a breakfast meeting for Peers and MPs of the Industry and Parliament Trust on tackling the housing crisis, then a meeting of the Lords Select Committee on the Built Environment. Although this is a Lords committee, from time to time it requires the presence of government Ministers from the Commons, who clearly need to be close at hand. On this day I also attended the AGMs of both the Land Value Capture APPG and the Fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency APPG, attended by Peers and MPs. In the evening I hosted an event on the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824, attended by Members of both Houses.
Over these two fairly typical days, I was involved in eight meetings that brought together Members of both Houses, plus a session of a Lords Select Committee that periodically needs the attendance of a government Minister from the Commons. I think everyone accepts that holding all these joint meetings online, not in person, would hugely diminish their value, yet obviously this intertwining of face-to-face engagements of Members of both Houses in events, meetings and discussions could not possibly happen if the Lords and Commons were not located in accommodation very close to each other.
Moving to my second contribution in support of the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, perhaps I could offer a more direct commentary on the proposition from the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, on moving the upper House to a city elsewhere. Alongside the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Deighton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, I am a board member of the Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body and I have the responsibility of reporting to your Lordships’ House on behalf of the board as a whole. Any opinions I express today are entirely my own, not those of the board, but there are some points to share on the current position that affect any decant of the Lords to an alternative location outside the Palace of Westminster.
The two House commissions have agreed the principles of a new approach to saving the Palace, which involves taking the sponsorship role in-house and providing a range of different options for restoration and renewal. To interpret the House commissions’ report for the noble Lord, Lord Young, and others, I think the new proposals incorporate the following changes.
The R&R programme, as initially envisaged and as set out in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, will not now proceed. In place of a comprehensive programme of major works, the delivery authority is being asked to bring forward a selection of more modest ideas—an incremental approach to the works—which probably means a series of consecutive minor upgrades. This is fundamentally different from the previous strategy.
The proposed presentation of a comprehensive, costed business case for a vote by both Houses, scheduled for the summer of next year, is put back. The plans for decanting both Houses so that extensive works could proceed have not been progressed for several months. I detect no progress in persuading MPs of the necessity to move out to facilitate the mammoth task of upgrading the basement’s frightening tangle of sewerage pipes, electrical cables, et cetera, and I see no prospect for many years of Members of either House or both decanting anywhere voluntarily.
Despite governance performance deemed exemplary, the sponsor body established to oversee the process is to be disbanded as soon as possible. Meanwhile, our excellent chief executive will leave next month, and three other senior employees have already gone.
The changes will require legislation to amend the 2019 Act and the views of both Houses will be sought, perhaps before the Summer Recess. Whatever emerges from those debates, the issue of relocating the House of Lords to another venue, whether near or far, has been delayed indefinitely.
Some see this as a victory for those who were keen to kick the can way down the road and avoid facing the public with a large bill and troubling Members with a requirement to decant. Others see the new arrangements as preventing a train crash next year when the full R&R programme might well have been derailed by the House of Commons refusing to approve the business case for it and the consequent decant. Others see the changes leading to greater disruption, greater cost and a longer timescale for a programme that, in the end, will have to return to the necessity of a full-scale decant.
However matters turn out in the long term—it may now seem that the decant venue issue has receded—I fear that the unanswerable case made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, may still be of urgent interest if the changes now proposed lead to greater risks of a major fire, falling masonry, asbestos poisoning or other serious incident. In concluding, I echo noble colleagues in expressing deep appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I look forward to debating, in the next few weeks, the proposed changes to the R&R legislation.
My Lords, the title of this debate reminded me of Dr Johnson’s remarks at the auction of Thrale’s brewery, when he commented:
“We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich, beyond the dreams of avarice.”
In a similar way, this debate is not about the minutiae, architectural detail and geographical aspects of the location of Parliament. As we have heard from all sides of the House, it is about other things, which we are discussing today. For that reason, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on leading this debate. When discussing constitutional or legal matters, even in a semi-abstract way, there is a danger of emulating the great early Church council’s debates about the Trinity. In many respects they simply missed the wider point, and I want to try to avoid that error.
Unashamedly, I am a disciple—albeit a heterodox one—of the great English 17th-century common lawyers, and a proud, direct patrilineal descendent of one of the heroes of the 17th-century Parliament. Not for me the “Thorough” government of Strafford and his acolytes.
Parliament now is a single entity of two distinct parts, and that cannot be changed without our consent. These two parts are discrete, but they alone together are the source of parliamentary authority. It is my contention that, for this to work properly, they must be juxtaposed, and also juxtaposed with the Administration they hold to account, all of which is set in a framework of law. Propinquity is essential.
I say that because for 10 years I had the privilege of being a Member of the European Parliament, something that may now be a bit unfashionable. I was working in a parliamentary institution that was permanently on the move. It does not work well, and serious business is much harder to conduct—not impossible; much harder. Direct personal contact is important.
The events surrounding Brexit have led to ideas circulating about a revisionist version of our constitutional arrangements which, even if correct, do not alter the fact that much—indeed most—of Parliament’s time and activities deal with matters not defined in referendum questions and electoral manifestos. To use a contemporary word, they require curating. They generally relate not to the big picture—the what—but to the how. These are matters of detail, sometimes of micromanagement, and there is a wide range of all kinds of things that need resolution—and this is ignoring events that take place that change the world we live in. In any event, referenda and general elections are conducted within the framework of law. We do not simply grant the victor universal and arbitrary powers.
Disagreement about these things is our proper business, and it seems to me that government has no business to complain about that, even if on occasions it is sometimes fully entitled to be irritated, if not actually angry. While the Government are entitled to get their own business, there is a considerable proper scope surrounding timescale and detail, and it is our constitutional role to play a full part in that.
As I said, I was a Member of the European Parliament. I think that remainers and Brexiteers can agree that one of the problems with the relationship between MPs and MEPs was the lack of knowing and understanding each other—something that, when we have it, leads to greater personal respect. No Act of Parliament can make one person be in two places at the same time. As a number of Members have said, it is crucial that that is avoided.
I frequently comment that the 100 yards between this Chamber and the other place is the longest 100 yards in the country, and that divide seems to be getting longer. That is because we are at a time when those who are, if I may put it this way, the controllers of the other place seem to be adopting ever more frequently the motto, “We are the masters now.” It does not seem that there is much place in their thinking for checks and balances; rather, there is an urge for de facto or even de jure unicameralism controlled by the Executive.
Echoing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, I remember that the late Lord Kingsland commented to me on occasion that when Parliament and the House of Commons stop safeguarding citizens’ rights then the courts will step in. You have only to look at the newspapers these days to see that the courts are quite busy.
In any event, as has been said by others, matters of location must be for Parliament, not the Government, who make the rather touching assumption that we will be welcomed with open arms wherever they might decide to send us. Is that actually so? I have wondered about that. It is government policy that the long-term storage of nuclear waste will take place only if the local community endorses it, and perhaps the same principle applies here. Indeed, as other noble Lords have commented, if there is a need for some other part of Parliament to go elsewhere then why not the other place?
I return to the overriding main issue, which is that unless the second Chamber, however it may be composed, is in proximity to the first Chamber, the standards of parliamentary governance that everyone in this country is entitled to expect will be endangered. That is likely to lead towards unicameralism controlled by the Administration, which is inimical to our traditions, the rule of law and our freedoms, which, taken as a whole, are a crucial and central part of Britishness.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Norton for initiating this debate. In my nine years in this House, I have attended his group fairly regularly and benefited from his wisdom and that of my noble friend Lord Cormack. Unfortunately, we have not managed to achieve much in these years, although that is not for the want of trying, but one of the things that we seem to have achieved, which my noble friend Lord True is probably not too happy about, is that from time to time we have debates where not a single person supports what the Government want to do.
I must say that I am disappointed that our own Front Bench is not represented here today. I am pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and the Liberal representation, but I am sorry that our own Conservative Front Bench have not been here for any part of this debate.
Yes, but I am talking about our representative in the Cabinet, who I would like to think was out there defending us. I want to hear a statement from someone who supposedly represents us in No. 10 saying what their take is on all this and what they intend to do in order to carry out the wishes of this House.
I spent even longer than my noble friend Lord Inglewood in the European Parliament; I was there for 25 years. For 10 of them, I had a very obscure job that involved me going around Europe to all the member states looking at their administrative arrangements for liaison back to the Parliament. That meant that in the course of those 10 years, on a cycle, every two years I visited every Parliament in the EU, the number of which of course expanded slightly during my 10 years. I noticed that all of them saw the necessity, where they had a second Chamber—and not all of them did—for it to be collocated with the other Chamber, generally in a building where they were connected at some point to each other, not dissimilar to this building. In one case, Germany, there is a clear distinction between the roles of the lower and upper House, but even there they are in the same city.
Another point that always struck me was that the seat of government is exactly that. It is not just the Parliament; it normally contains the seat of the Supreme Court and the seat of most of the major public bodies—just as London has the Local Government Association, for instance. The capital is the place where policy is debated, discussed and made. That is why, in my view, it is important that all parts of the democratic machine are located within that capital complex. That is the common way in which things happen.
As my noble friend Lord Cormack has mentioned, that does not mean that committees cannot travel. To take another European Parliament example, most committees went twice a year to another city somewhere within the EU for a meeting. Part of the job of the rather boring committee that I sat on was to make sure that they did not both end up in the same place, or that you did not get two committees in the same town at the same time, but they did travel around so that is possible.
However, we found in Strasbourg, as my noble friend has already mentioned, that getting people together was extraordinarily difficult because everyone was travelling there. Getting meetings of the Commission, the Parliament and the lobbyists who came down was extremely difficult and it did not function properly, largely because it was not cohesive or in the same city. Indeed, in the early days the European Commission made very little attempt to get there at all, and that was one of the big early rows about the Commission reporting to the European Parliament. I mention that because the essence of a Parliament has to be that all the different constituent parts, not just the Chambers but the other parts of the democratic structure, have to be located largely within the same geographical area.
Turning to some very local matters, some of which have been mentioned, every week within this place we have debates on Bills, and sitting in the Box are the civil servants. Where are they going to be? Are they going to be shipped off to our new home? No, they are going to be working in Whitehall, but then presumably they are going to be asked to travel. The noble Lord, Lord Best, has mentioned a number of all-party parliamentary groups; I doubt that a week goes by without virtually every Member sitting in this House being in an all-party group somewhere or other with Members of the House of Commons. That is part of what makes this place work.
Although “lobbyist” is a dirty word in many voices, that function is also very useful. Instead of talking about lobbyists, I could talk about my useful relations with the TUC, which of course is based in London and can tell me about what is going on in the TU movement, or the various trade unions that I am in contact with and sometimes mention in this House. Most of their head offices are in London and their officers can pop in here for a cup of tea, or I can drop in and see them. I have my reservations about lobbyists, particularly some of them, but one of their jobs is to impart information. A few weeks ago, when I was moving an amendment with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on the Health and Care Bill, we both made extensive use of consultation with lobbyists who we could get hold of. They came to see us and, together with senior civil servants who were prepared to come to meetings, we were able to draft a very useful clause.
In conclusion, I have only one question for the Minister. Is money still being spent on looking at the QEII Centre or has that stopped, and was there a contract? Will that contract be published and, if it is, will we see who in Michael Gove’s department initiated it? It appears that the Levelling-Up Secretary has cancelled a contract which his department must have negotiated, and presumably there is some sort of paper trail. I ask the Minister to pass the buck and say “Look: my House of Parliament—the House of Lords—wants to know what the background is to this contract. How did it get let, who has been representing you on it, how much have you spent, is it still running and what are you up to?” I would like that one question to be reflected forward. I join everybody else in roundly condemning Michael Gove’s plan and wondering whether it will have any support at all.
My Lords, I first welcome, as everybody else has done, the opportunity to contribute to this debate, so ably opened by my noble friend Lord Norton. I am speaking on behalf of not only myself but my noble friend Lady Fookes, who has other commitments and therefore cannot be present today.
I intend to keep my comments short, as I do not believe in repetition and many of the points that I would have chosen to make have been made by others earlier in the debate. I particularly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on what we are watching. This is one proposal, but it can be seen as part of a progress over 20 or 25 years by Governments of all political persuasions—I am not making a political point—towards unicameralism and the dominance of Cabinet. Effectively, it is Cabinet dictatorship—making an announcement without apparently consulting anybody.
In his expert contribution, the noble Lord, Lord Best, really put his finger on it. Although the announcement affects the House of Lords, it was actually made because we cannot get agreement from the House of Commons. It is the Members of Parliament who will not agree to whatever proposal there is. He cited, much more authoritatively than I could ever do, the precise circumstances. We have to recognise, as I say, that we have a combination of the progress of government towards unicameralism—the Executive controlling circumstances—and an inability to get agreement from the House of Commons. Over the years I have been a fan of Michael Gove; I am just somewhat less of a fan than previously because of this announcement.
To pick up a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on the operation of the QEII Centre, my understanding is that the centre is still part of government —specifically because this issue of decanting the House of Lords had been identified, and the best solution was to retain the QEII Centre as part of the government estate. We could therefore move seamlessly to that building. I say to Michael Gove: please have sense and lift what seems, to be honest, an ill-considered and expensive decision, as others have identified, attempting to block us from moving across the road.
One issue touched on in passing by a number of noble Lords is the consultation with staff. Attention has been paid in detail throughout to the question of consulting us and consultation in government, but there is actually a legal obligation to consult employees. Where you have set numbers of employees, the process of consultation becomes ever clearer. We have several hundred people employed here yet, as far as I am aware, no aspect of that legal process has been undertaken. My one specific question to the Minister would therefore be: when, whether and how are the staff to be consulted and the Government’s legal obligations to be met?
I will cite just two examples from my experience—other noble Lords have done likewise—in the last few days. First, this Monday I had a meeting with the Minister from the Commons responsible for elections. It worked far better because I was able to go to the government department in Marsham Street and Kemi Badenoch could bring together all the officials concerned. I had that meeting because I have a Private Member’s Bill in the Lords, which will ultimately have to go to the Commons if it gets approval, and the best way of achieving the progress of that legislation was to have a meeting of minds—of Ministers and civil servants with a Member of the Lords.
One of the officials was online; of course, the presupposition is that that is precisely what would happen if we were to be located wherever we are to be located. Unfortunately, the link broke, so the only person who could not participate was one of the most senior officials on election matters because the system had failed. Out of that meeting, however, came an agreement that we needed two more meetings involving different people, including the Electoral Commission, which of course is based in London. What is to happen if I and others are based somewhere else? Are we all to come down or whatever? As I say, two meetings were agreed to and the best way for them to take place is on a face-to-face basis because you can expedite matters so much more quickly, as others have said.
I would like to refer to one other example: the events of today. Earlier today, there was an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt. Michael Ellis, who was answering in the other place, did not have the letter available to him that was being sent from one place to another. But in a matter of hours, that Urgent Question is to be repeated in this place. How are the communications supposed to take place? Are the civil servants who are briefing at the other end the same civil servants? Would they therefore have to trek up to wherever we are, or is everything to be done virtually again? At the end of parliamentary Sessions, will there be the same exchange of paperwork where we adjourn for a number of hours while amendments are considered in one place? The Urgent Question on the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, this morning is a classic example of how there is a need for everybody to be reasonably proximate to each other.
It is unfortunate that we should be having this debate because it is so unnecessary. It is a reflection of a frame of mind. I conclude with one observation because, like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I am not against moving to another city, but we have to do it together. In a previous life—I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, left a few minutes ago, as she would have been involved in this process—I was chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association. I was convinced that it was better if we moved around the country to provide the facilities to consult the brewers of Scotland, or the south-west. The people who objected most strongly were the brewers from the regions. If I said that we would meet in Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow, the brewers from Lowestoft, Lewes and Cornwall would say, “How are we supposed to get there?” One of the great failings of this country is that in our communications network everything is centred towards London. We have to recognise that. You cannot do things easily, if you want to be a national operation, in some of the regional centres. I think it is a sad day that we have this debate and I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said at the commencement.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for instituting this debate. I join the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for the work that they do on the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. There is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, today made a devastating case as to why the effectiveness of not only this House but Parliament would be greatly damaged if the House of Lords was no longer collocated with the House of Commons.
It is not the first time that I have felt some sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord True, in having to defend the indefensible. I have no doubt that he will do it with his usual skill and good humour, but I feel the discomfort that might have been felt by a citizen of ancient Rome sitting in the Colosseum waiting for a poor Christian to face a lion—or in this case, a pride of Lions. It is an impossible case to make.
However, I do the Government the compliment of believing that they are serious about the levelling-up agenda. So although I share the indignation that many of your Lordships have expressed about the Government’s handling of this issue, we are right to discuss seriously the pros and cons of the suggestion that the House of Lords should be moved outside London and separated from the House of Commons.
I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, that a main fault of our parliamentary system as it works today is that the House of Lords is already too separate from the House of Commons. This would inevitably be made worse by moving the House to a separate location. I have always believed that the basic construct of our Parliament is a good one. The House of Commons is rightly the main battleground between the political parties, but its Members are understandably preoccupied by the need to get re-elected and by looking after the demands of their constituents, which are inevitably increasing these days. The fact is—and we are all aware of this—that the House of Commons does not give sufficient time to the scrutiny of legislation. The House of Lords, consisting of appointed people with a wide range of experience and expertise, is able to fill that gap, as well as being able, through our Select Committees, to provide well-informed and authoritative reports on issues of the day.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that, if our system works perfectly, the two Houses complement each other. It should be a dream partnership, but we all know that, sadly, in practice it does not work that way—although I contend that, beneath the surface, it works more effectively than is often recognised.
The starting point, which I know from long experience in the Civil Service, is that all Governments regard the whole of Parliament as an inconvenient but necessary fact of life. As far as the Executive are concerned, Parliament, like the courts, is an institution which prevents or makes it difficult for Governments to do some of the things that they want to. From the Executive’s point of view, Parliament has to be manoeuvred around, appeased, cajoled, persuaded or just driven. A Government with a good majority, reinforced by their extensive powers of patronage, generally get their measures through the House of Commons, but they cannot count on doing so in the House of Lords, where they have no overall majority. It is true that the Government can use their majority in the Commons to overturn amendments passed here, but, nevertheless, the House of Lords is an irritant to the Executive. On our side, there is also frustration. We in the House of Lords often feel that the Executive in the other place overturn our amendments without sufficient consideration and without much respect for the painstaking debate and discussion which has taken place here.
Yet below the surface, Parliament perhaps works better than even we who are Members of it perceive. It partly does so because of the easy and informal access that Members of this House have to Government Front-Benchers responsible for taking legislation through the House, and to the channels of communication that those Front-Benchers provide to the departments sponsoring legislation. I know from experience that the noble Lord, Lord True, is a good example of that. That is the means, rather than debate in the Chamber, whereby improvements to legislation are very often made. As others have said, we have valuable Joint Committees with the House of Commons and some joint pre-legislative scrutiny, although not as much as many of us would like.
Apart from the practical difficulties that would arise from putting the House of Lords in a different location from the House of Commons—and those have been well described today—the benefits of collocation often unseen by the general public would be lost to our parliamentary system if the House of Lords was moved to a different location.
Of course, our parliamentary system could work better; it needs improvement and some major reform. But I am convinced that the working of Parliament as a whole would be made worse, not better, by moving the Lords to a location different from the House of Commons. That, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, is an important constitutional point. I do not believe that there will be sufficient advantage to the levelling-up agenda to offset that damage to our national life.
My Lords, it is bad enough to be the last speaker from the Back-Benches, but it is much worse to follow the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who normally lays down the law on most things and we have to follow what he says. I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who has given a very clear and convincing case for why both Houses of Parliament should be in the same place.
Since most things have been said, I will make my remarks in three sections. First, we in Parliament have made a mess of the problem of moving and restoring Parliament. I have never been fond of crowded parliamentary Chambers. I do not know why we, as one of the oldest Parliaments in the business, tolerate crowded Parliaments with no room to move around. When you go to the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament, you see how parliamentarians should be treated, whereas we treat our parliamentarians as deserving to be in overcrowded rooms.
Rather than restoring Westminster, we should basically move out and have another parliamentary building. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, wants this place alone to be Parliament, but I have seen better parliamentary buildings. At least in those I could have the same comfortable seat every day and a desk, et cetera —but we do not believe in that.
Restoration has not been a great success. I remember speaking in a debate in 2018, during which the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, recalled that he had raised this question in the Commons in 2007, so we were already 11 years behind. Of course, in 2018 we were told that moving out by 2025 was urgent because of all sorts of dangers—but it cannot be urgent if you are going to move out in 2025. We did not take seriously the problems involved in repairing the Palace of Westminster, and we are still not. Obviously, the House of Commons does not want to move out, so we are caught in a dilemma.
This has made the issue of where to put Parliament a public football. I remember York being mentioned, as of course Stoke-on-Trent now is. This leads to the question of separating the Parliaments. Michael Gove, who has been much mentioned, is obviously a very clever man. He proposed Stoke-on-Trent, perhaps not knowing that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, lives there; if you go to his town, he will probably get the by-elections Bill passed.
However, the problem is clearly that, of all of the Parliaments in my 31 years here, this one and this Government like the House of Lords the least. There is a serious air of antagonism, with the House of Lords being a troublesome obstacle to a Government who have one of the highest ruling-party majorities. They have strong feelings about how to reshape our constitution and how to change this country into global Britain or whatever. Also, we have had three Conservative Prime Ministers in just the last six years. So things are troublesome over there, and I think that they want one obstacle—the House of Lords—to be removed.
As many Members have said, we discuss legislation in greater detail than the Commons do, and we reject or amend many of their clauses, giving them hard work to do to reject our changes. Therefore, they would rather we were somewhere else, to make their lives simpler. Of course, I quite agree that that is not feasible, but from early on we should have tried to find another location or build one anew. We have had a lot of time. I wrote to someone on the committee just before the pandemic to say that we should start building a new construction for both Parliaments right away, so that we would be able to move in—but that did not happen.
So here we are, strongly disliked by the other place, and we have to firmly say, “We shall not be moved”. I remember the old civil rights song that I used to sing, “We Shall Not Be Moved”. But I point out one thing to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who said that the Houses of Parliament should
“continue to be co-located in the same city”.
Yes, of course they should be in the same city—but he has not said what country. There is a secret plan, which the right reverend Prelate saw through, and it is Kigali. As a devoted Daily Mail reader, I know Kigali is a wonderful place, and the hotels are absolutely marvellous, so if we were transported there, we would be envied by everybody. Of course, Rwanda is a very nice place, and part of the Commonwealth. The prospect is that we should all go to Kigali. Would not that be fun?
My Lords, when you have the job of summing up for your party in a debate like this, you think, “Do I have an original point?” You put one or two up there, and it is like watching ducks go down at a fairground—that has gone, that has gone, that has gone. But the basic point about this is that a bizarre statement was made out of the blue, which none of us was ready for, and all of us think is vaguely ridiculous. So we have a starting point; then we come down to the points behind it. One is the ongoing farce that is restoration and renewal.
Certain people think that, when you make a speech in the House of Commons—and remember that we are talking about the people there, the commons, housed together in one place, with royal authority—if you do not do it in Westminster, somehow, no matter what you say on what subject, it does not count. And it has to be not just in Westminster, but that bit of Westminster, which is, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said, possibly the longest hundred yards in the world. That is patently absurd. If you say it in a Parliament that works together, it is still valid, but what you say on a subject must be more important.
So, does it really matter if we say it somewhere else? Not really—but then you get into the practical difficulties. As the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, pointed out, it is very difficult to travel anywhere other than London in the United Kingdom, because of the Victorian infrastructure. That is true, so we have to ask whether we can go elsewhere. I have been to Canberra, and it is a nice place. I have not been to Kigali but, as I pointed out when we discussed this before, there is a tradition of suggesting somewhere you like as a new basis for Parliament, and Kigali is a new one. I suggested Norwich because of the number of pubs there. That was inspired by the fact that Michael Gove’s comment was the sort that usually comes up halfway through the third round in a pub, that should be forgotten by the end of the fourth, and certainly not remembered the next morning. We are just putting forward a series of ideas because we are frightened of moving.
I have a small bet with a couple of people—it is actually quite a big bet if you count the number of times I have made it—that we will leave this building only when we are driven out by overflowing sewage or a fire, because somebody will always say, “No, we can’t possibly leave.” It will always be inconvenient. We have the Civil Service here and everything else. So once you have identified somewhere you can go that minimises that inconvenience, you seize on it. Then you are told that it is minorly inconvenient to a bit of government. There is an idea that it is covering up a bit of bad news or something else to discuss. I think that probably only we are really that interested; I think that is something that comes across here.
We have this odd situation where the practical work of Parliament can carry on somewhere else. It has to be close to the Civil Service in Whitehall, and because we are not going to move everybody else, we carry on there. If we move out and go somewhere else, we really should go as a block, because walking distance matters, for all the reasons that have been stated. We have all been on Zoom meetings. When Zoom meetings become real you can suddenly discuss new issues, the nuance comes out and you get what is coming out. There is nodding going on here; I will leave it at that. All the committee meetings we had on Zoom were never as quick or as efficient as when we met face to face. Zoom may be a lot better—or Teams; hey, let us not be brand specific—but it is never going to be as good. It may cover up things and be a way forward, but the final decision generally requires a degree of interaction, especially for a large group. We have to get on and do this.
If we allow ourselves to be used as a football and do not extract a price from those who are doing the kicking of that football, we will get into a ridiculous state of affairs where we get used as an excuse. It has been stated that the House of Commons and the House of Lords have a love/hate relationship: they both love themselves and hate each other. We cannot allow this to go on. The House of Lords’ function is to annoy the Executive at times. Anyone who wants to look at this function should have been on the Schools Bill. Any Whip sitting down there would have looked with a degree of dread on their faces as they saw the Benches, where I think the last three Ministers who had looked after education quietly patted their stilettos as the incumbent tried to defend Henry VIII powers. It was something for the connoisseurs.
We have a situation where the House of Lords has to be here to be effective. We have to be close enough to act, but do we have to sit in these particular Chambers? Probably not, though it would be nice to come back. Let us face it, it is a grade 1 listed building and nobody is in a busting hurry to take it on and do anything else with it. I believe all the museums in London were asked, “Hey, would you like the place?” and all said, “Thanks, no.” It is not exactly built for exhibition galleries, let us face it.
We have arguments here which are covering up the major issue, which is the fact that a few people in Parliament, predominantly in the House of Commons although they have some allies here, do not want to leave, so they say, “Let’s come up with another bizarre idea. Let’s throw it out there.” I do not know, is it a conspiracy? Has somebody bought train ticket options for the future, to make sure the entire place travels more often? Other forms of transport are available. That is the only reason I can think of for why this would work.
When the Minister replies to this debate, I hope he will make it quite clear that everybody in Whitehall knows just how happy we are with this suggestion, and how the tone in which it was done has annoyed us even more. Ultimately, are they aware that if we stick our heels in, we can just say we are not going? If that is something that is being said in the corridors of power—or, at the other end, the green corridors—then we will be okay and we will not have this ridiculous situation, because all the work that is done by the informal structures here, the all-party groups, the outreach, et cetera, will become almost impossible. We will become a little codicil in the background. Government will not have that effective check of us saying, “Wait a minute, listen”, which they need every now and again. I have just given noble Lords one example of a Bill that needed it. They have to take on board the fact that Parliament works better as a whole—or will the House of Commons fundamentally change and do all our work on legislation? I do not know. If they want to make a fundamental set of changes, why do they not make a proposal first?
Unless we get some coherent strategy on this that stops people filling out a news sheet at the drop of a hat, we are going to carry on having this debate. If the price of that is saying, “Yes, we will move”, or, “No, we won’t”—I do not think anyone is brave enough to say the second of those—we are going to carry on with this. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and I hope that we do not have to do this again.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing a topic that has huge constitutional and political implications, as he indicated, but also for uniting your Lordships’ House around a common theme. This has been an interesting debate, with different experiences brought to bear on the constitutional issues before us. It is relevant that taking part in this debate we have six Members who have served in both Houses of Parliament and who want both Houses to work well together, as others do.
The relocation of Parliament is not a new concept; the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred to this. There is nothing wrong in considering Parliament, or Parliament and government, moving to a different location. The noble Lord referred to when the Economist, in 1962, mooted—partly as a joke, it has to be said—that the whole of Parliament be relocated to what would be a new and exciting city, Brazilia, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Many years earlier the same proposal was made for a new Yorkshire city named Elizabetha. But none of that came to pass, I suspect largely because of the necessity of keeping much of the business of government and Parliament together to work as a cohesive unit. The logistics and costs of that change would require huge organisational and financial commitments that would dwarf even the most enthusiastic, and highest, estimates of R&R.
What is new is the proposal to divide Parliament. When this was first mentioned and the Prime Minister said he wanted to send the House of Lords to York, it was regarded as a bit of a joke. There is a problem with political jokes. We used to say they get elected; now we say they become policy. It took a while for the penny to drop. The Government were actually serious about this: that part of Parliament be moved out of London. I assume that the plan is that the House of Commons would remain in London, presumably in this building forever, not even decanting for the restoration and renewal project.
Where I depart from the noble Lords who have spoken largely about the R&R project is not in my criticism of how long it has taken. I do not think this is about the restoration and renewal project. I have a vision of the Prime Minister at the Cabinet table in Downing Street. The Leader of the House of Lords goes in and says, “Prime Minister, we’ve just been defeated three times tonight in votes in the House of Lords.” The Prime Minister ruffles his hair, puts his head in his hands and he says, “Who will rid me of this turbulent Chamber?” Thus, the plan was born.
The restoration and renewal programme was an opportunity for the Government to look at this, not the reason for doing so. The justification had to follow that. We have not seen any substantial impact assessment or proper analysis of the constitutional arrangements. We have not seen impact assessments of the financial plans that would be involved. It is just something that has been plucked out of thin air. James Cleverly told us this would be a permanent move to make sure that
“every part of the UK feels properly connected to politics”.
What connects people to politics is not geography; it is what people say and do, and the promises they keep. It is how politicians behave and how they engage. That is where the connection lies.
Michael Gove said that moving the Lords out of London is part of a levelling-up programme. Surely we could do better for those areas that need support than creating a new infrastructure to temporarily support the work of part of the Houses of Parliament.
I think the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Young, made the same powerful point about the ability of citizens to engage with parliamentarians of both Houses. We have also heard a lot about the ability of parliamentarians from both Houses to engage with each other. If we removed that, it would not enhance our democracy in any way; it would actually diminish our democracy and engagement. I have to say, if it looks and sounds like another expensive gimmick, it probably is another expensive gimmick, and we have had quite a few from this Government.
I will pick up on a point about hybrid and remote proceedings. A senior parliamentarian at the other end of the building said to me, “The House of Lords has done so well working remotely, or hybrid, that they can carry on and we can stay in the building”. I think this House did extremely well in remote and hybrid proceedings through necessity, not through choice. I doubt that any of us would go back to that through choice. Those of us who sometimes spent more hours than was good for our physical or mental health in front of screens watching our discussions and debates know that they were a series of comments not connected to somebody who spoke earlier, while somebody else went off and had a cup of tea or their dinner and came back again. It was not a debate or an engagement; it was transactional. Hybrid and remote proceedings are very good for transactional processes, but they are not good for debate. I am quite appalled that anyone would consider that an option.
I have no problem with moving out of this building— I have been advocating for it for some time now—but any change in how Parliament works has to be based on improving and enhancing democracy. It should not be about making life easier for the Government. Alternatively, the Government are trying to cloak this issue in an almost Trojan horse of House of Lords reform, but it is this House that has approached the Government for reform time and again, largely about the size of your Lordships’ House, but all we see is another long list of more Peers sent by the Government. It is the Government who have refused to look at reform with us, saying that we have to do all reforms or none. There are lots of things we could do to reform your Lordships’ House—but in the interests of making our work better and doing our work better.
Parliament works best when the relationship between both Houses is respectful and both understand the roles of each other. I think the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, made the point originally that we do not understand each other enough. Moving us to different parts of the country will make that process even more difficult.
The original speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and enhanced by others, made a powerful case for the constitutional implications of collocation being the best way forward. My noble friend Lord Blunkett entertained us all with examples of how some of the formal proceedings would be quite ridiculous at opposite ends of the country. But aside from those proceedings, what about Joint Committees looking at legislation? What about the work we do discussing policy with our colleagues in the House of Commons? I think half my steps every day are from walking down the Corridor. It may be the longest hundred yards, but there is a lot of engagement in that hundred yards between Members of this House and the other place. There are also the informal arrangements we have, such as all-party groups and policy discussions. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, gave an excellent example of how legislation was working better because of the engagement he was having with Ministers at the other end of the building and with civil servants.
I can find no constitutional parliamentary democracy in the world where two Houses do not collocate. There are examples in the Library briefing, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, gave: Burundi, the Philippines and the Ivory Coast. In Burundi, this is only temporary while there is a move to a different city to separate the financial and the political—and there might be some highly political reasons for that—but, nevertheless, these countries all have presidential systems. The Prime Minister might have in the back of his mind that he quite likes a presidential system, but it is only countries with presidential systems that do not collocate their Parliaments.
I feel that this debate has been born out of the frustration that this House dares to challenge. We challenge within the parameters of the constitution and the work we do. We do not push it again and again and take it too far, but we reserve the right to ask the House of Commons to think again on an issue. I will be honest: there was never a golden age where Prime Ministers and Cabinets said, “Come on, House of Lords—tell us where we’ve got it wrong”. That just does not happen, but this Government have taken it to a completely different level that we have never seen before in the history of this country. We have seen that with the BBC: after the BBC challenged them, it was in trouble. We all saw Nadine Dorries at the Select Committee where she thought that Channel 4 was publicly funded—and the Government do not like it, so it has to be sold off. We have also seen it with the judiciary. If you oppose the Government, be prepared to be cut off at the knees, because they do not like any challenge at all. This Government fear challenge and loathe scrutiny. I fear it is no longer a Conservative Party but a very populist party that is in government in this country.
Today, we heard very practical, common-sense reasons in the interests of democracy, scrutiny and good government —for any Government—why collocation is the best way to run a bicameral system. The noble Lord, Lord True, has been asked a number of questions today and I look forward to his answers; he gets the sticky wicket quite often, I have to say. If the answers are not satisfactory, the Government have to listen. Nobody in your Lordships’ House has said today, “We must never move. We don’t want to be anywhere else.” All we have said is that if we are serious about the bicameral parliamentary system, there has to be collocation of both Houses in the same town, at least.
My Lords, my father said that the greatest cricket innings he ever saw was played by Sir Jack Hobbs on a sticky wicket. I am afraid I am no Sir Jack Hobbs, but I will try to answer the debate. I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who opened with a characteristically informed and thoughtful contribution whose spirit has been echoed with unanimity throughout the debate. I always wait for the radical moment with the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Desai. He wanted to build a new central Parliament with more space for everybody and more desks, but even he, in his radicalism, was clear that collocation was desirable.
Let me try to respond. I take up what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said: it may be the Colosseum—I confess that I am a Christian—but I do not particularly feel in the face of lions. I hope your Lordships will hear that I am a lamb that is ready to lie down with some of the things roared out by the lions today.
I have, as usual, enjoyed the great depth of constitutional understanding and deep knowledge of history demonstrated today. I will start by making a fundamental point on the constitutional position and functioning of the House of Lords, which underpins many of the questions in the debate today. It is a point I have made before at this Dispatch Box and it is this: by the principle of exclusive cognisance, any decision of its location is a matter for this House itself to decide on. The Government—I speak at this Dispatch Box as a government Minister—recognise and respect that position. I have made this point in previous debates, but I welcome the opportunity to put it on record again.
Let me turn to the core topic of the debate: the case for the collocation of both Houses of Parliament. As many noble Lords have stressed, there are important conventions that have governed the collocation of both Houses and, in turn, these conventions have shaped how this Parliament does its business. There are ceremonial practices predicated on collocation—I agree that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, made a brilliantly amusing speech on this topic—and these are an important aspect of the tradition and inspiration that marks our parliamentary democracy. Her Majesty the Queen opens Parliament and she is not allowed into the House of Commons. She does it from this place but with Members of the House of Commons present at the Bar to hear that statement.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark referred to the action of Charles II taking Parliament to Oxford in 1681. That was to try to frustrate what was probably the second or third Exclusion Bill, to stop his brother acceding to the Crown. It did not work. Removing people from the centre is not necessarily effective, as Charles II found. Per contra, he found that coming and sitting at the fireplace in the House and watching proceedings in person allowed him to exercise more influence, because everything was in the same place at once—but I stray into historical matters.
Let me come to the practical day-to-day arrangements. I further agree with what so many have said that proper accountability and scrutiny requires that Ministers are close to Parliament. Many noble Lords have made the very pertinent point that close engagement and regular interaction with the other place facilitates better working relationships. In fact, as we have heard from many in today’s debate, one of the clear lessons of the pandemic was that although virtual working is possible, there is real value in having personal, face-to-face engagement. I have greatly benefitted, both as a Minister and as a Member of the House, from being physically present in the House, and, as a Minister, from hearing the views of noble Lords in the margins of proper debates, in the kind of daily engagement that takes place. My worst experience since I have had the honour of being a Member of your Lordships’ House was sitting at my kitchen table during the lockdown, trying to answer questions from your Lordships, with somebody screaming in my ear that there was too much light coming in from the right. I pay tribute to the work done to make the hybrid and remote House work, but a Minister’s first duty is to be here at this Dispatch Box.
Furthermore, if we consider elements of the legislative process, particularly perhaps when there is disagreement between the Houses in ping-pong, it facilitates effective working and communication if the two Houses are in close proximity. I well remember when I was private secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, in the days of the Labour Governments of Mr Blair and Mr Brown, that when there was a difference, Cabinet Ministers, including the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, would come in person and talk to colleagues in the Opposition about difficult issues between the two Houses. I cannot speak for the quality of the language that was always used, but the physically present conversations helped progress business.
In summary, this 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. Those are the points that your Lordships have made and I agree with all of them.
A number of noble Lords referred to restoration and renewal, opened by my noble friend Lord Fowler. Obviously, this is really a matter for Parliament and not for a government Minister to respond to, but let me address some of the points made. As noble Lords will be aware, the joint commission has now published its report and it is currently planned—and this is a matter for your Lordships—to seek a revised mandate from both Houses before the Summer Recess. Parliament is now reflecting on the future of the R&R programme. As noble Lords have noted, the question of decant will now have to be reviewed, but such broader questions are for consideration at a later date and are not part of the decisions of the joint commission that will be put to the House before recess. My noble friend Lord Hayward asked whether staff in this House would be consulted. The joint commission recognises the need for staff consultation, and its report sets out its intention to consult staff on the next stages of the R&R programme.
My noble friend Lord Balfe asked specific questions relating to the QEII Centre contract. I will come back to the question about consultation on this, but in relation to the contract I recommend that the noble Lord raises this with the House authorities, as they would be more properly able to answer it. The £11 million mentioned in the Times is from the R&R budget, which is managed by Parliament.
Both commissions on R&R were concerned, as my noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to, by the proposals brought forward by the sponsor body, which deviated substantially from the initial estimates relating to cost and schedule. The independent assurance panel made it clear that the current model is unlikely to be viable.
On bringing the scheme in-house, the commission’s proposals are intended to ensure that necessary work can be started sooner and better meet the needs of the parliamentary community. There is the prospect of bringing certain projects forward more quickly than current projections. My right honourable friend the former leader of the House, when on the Commons commission, helped encourage the House authorities to conduct more work in the House ahead of timetable, including the northern estates project.
On restoration and renewal, let me be clear and repeat that this is a parliamentary programme and decisions on how to proceed are for Parliament. However, I hope we can agree that it is in the interests of the Palace of Westminster and the British taxpayer if both government and Parliament work together.
Behind the debate has been the question of Parliament moving outside London. I am not advocating that Parliament should move outside London; I have responded on the importance of collocation. My noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Balfe both referred to the fact that the Companion to the Standing Orders allows for Select Committees to be given the power to
“adjourn from place to place.”
Certainly, we wish the proceedings and activities of Parliament to be more open to people around the country. However, it is already possible for a Select Committee which ordinarily meets in Westminster to sit and hear evidence outside the precincts of the House, and this happens. When I had the privilege to chair a Select Committee of your Lordships we met in what will soon be, I am pleased to say, the city of Doncaster, and we were very well informed by that. Arrangements are possible, though practical arrangements and questions of benefit and economic cost have to be weighed. These are considerations for your Lordships to weigh. These are decisions for the House.
Reference has of course been made to the letter which was written by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Having read it, I understand that he said that he would welcome the House of Lords playing a role in the levelling-up agenda and suggested a number of cities as illustrative options. I have said how in one respect, through Select Committees, the House of Lords and the other place can be more open to other parts of the country, and we are already. As the debate today has shown—I welcomed the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, on this—your Lordships’ House is carefully considering in this context the Government’s priority of levelling up, and balancing that with other priorities, which must include how best to further an effective and efficient Parliament, holding the Government to account, and the interests of the Palace of Westminster. I repeat that the questions of decant and location are decisions for a sovereign Parliament.
I asked my noble friend specifically, as did other noble Lords, whether the letter of Friday 13 May was consulted on with the Prime Minister and the Leader of this House, and also whether, following the answers of my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh, it is government policy that we ought to move. My noble friend is giving an excellent reply that seems to indicate a lot of sympathy with what has been said across this House today, but it would be helpful to have on the record what consultation there was before that letter was sent and before those answers were given.
My Lords, I am coming on to consultation, as I indicated I would. I will make every effort to get to that and I will get there, because I acknowledge that I was asked that.
I was asked about York specifically. As your Lordships will be aware, there are already civil servants based there through the Places for Growth programme. This is part of levelling up. The Cabinet Office continues to support the relocation of civil servants, including senior grades, out of London, which includes to York—indeed, I have been there on ministerial visits. In this context, the Government had previously engaged with the York Central partnership and, as part of that, explored whether the space would allow for parliamentary activity should it be required, but this is not a current activity.
On consultation, my noble friend Lord Cormack again asked directly, in relation to the letter that was published, whether I, as responsible Minister in the Cabinet Office or otherwise, was consulted. The answer is that I was not. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is considering all options for levelling up, which is a key government policy. I have the utmost respect for this House. I recognise the strength of feeling on this matter; I will refer that feeling to the appropriate quarter. I am committed to keeping your Lordships updated on this, and I know that the Leader of the House will play a full and important role here. Let me reassure my noble friends and others that if I can be of any further service to your Lordships on this question, I will be happy to do so.
I have not asked the Leader of the House personally, but if the noble Lord looks at the record, he will find that it is not my habit either to brief newspapers or, frankly, to read them. I sound a bit like the judge who did not know who the Beatles were, but I have slightly better things to do. The day after this report appeared, I was before your Lordships’ House and I think I made the position very clear for the Government. I have made the position clear again for the Government—the whole Government. Who said what to whom at any time I cannot answer but, as the responsible Minister, I have given the House a very clear response.
I am sure Hansard will record that intervention.
The commercial organisation of the QEII Centre is, as my noble friends Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Cormack referred to, a matter for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but the question of where the Lords should decant to if and when it decants is a matter for your Lordships’ House. I note the questions that your Lordships asked about potential wasted expenditure on the QEII Centre, but of course no final decisions on decant and location have as yet been taken by this House in relation to R&R. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Best: the question of decant has indeed receded and the programme itself is being reshaped. Again, it is for your Lordships’ House to manage spending relating to this House and to consider factors to ensure value for money for the taxpayer. On the other hand, the Department for Levelling Up considers the commercial value of the QEII Centre and the benefits of its revenue to the Exchequer. Any decision by any authority should take into account the interests of the taxpayer.
I conclude by once more setting out very clearly the Government’s position on the questions raised on collocation. The Government recognise that the House of Lords has a key role in scrutinising the Executive and as a revising Chamber. One of the most valued aspects of the House is the expertise and experience that Members are able to bring to the role of scrutinising and reviewing legislation, and the question of where your Lordships’ House is based is important, as noble Lords have said today, in the way it impacts on how we can do our job. We have heard a number of considerations to weigh in the balance, and this is a central consideration in maintaining the effectiveness of Parliament. Indeed, the interests of the Government in this question are the same as those of so many of your Lordships who have spoken: that any approaches to the location or operational changes to the House should not impact on its capacity to undertake its work as a scrutinising Parliament and hold Her Majesty’s Government to account and, further, that any decisions carefully weigh the best interests of the taxpayer, the economic interests of the country and, of course, the demands of the renewal of the Palace.
When your Lordships come to take a decision on restoration and renewal—as I say, it is not an executive decision—and any potential decision on decant, I know that they will carefully weigh and balance a number of priorities such as I have described. The Government stand ready to support your Lordships’ decision-making and will always welcome constructive discussion. I have heard the points made by your Lordships in today’s debate very clearly. As a proud parliamentarian, I understand the significance of easy access between the two Houses. I am at the service of your Lordships’ House to answer any further questions that noble Lords may have on this issue in future.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to everyone who spoke in the debate. It has been an extremely powerful and extraordinarily important occasion. We have heard some excellent speeches, given added weight by the authority of those making them.
At a time when Parliament is getting a really bad press, we need to be looking at ways of strengthening the institution, not weakening it. I was particularly struck by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that we should be looking at ways in which we can further strengthen the connections between the two Houses. There is a lot we can do. We are stronger together. There are a lot of institutional ways in which we can do this. I am a great advocate of pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny. We can make great advances there with a combination of the two Chambers together.
As I say, we are stronger together. We are clearly weaker when we are separate; that has been a clear message in this debate. In that respect, I know that my noble friend Lord True will be a strong advocate in reporting that back to the Government. Throughout the debate, there has been a clear message. My noble friend has come as close as he can to saying, “I’m on your side”. I know that he will be faithful in reporting what has been a uniform voice in this House.
Part of the problem, however, is that he cannot report back to a member of the Cabinet with a distinct responsibility for constitutional issues. When I put down a Question asking
“which Cabinet minister has overall responsibility for constitutional issues”,
my noble friend replied:
“The Prime Minister has overall responsibility”.
The Prime Minister has a range of responsibilities that occupy his time and is not renowned for being a constitutional theorist. Ministers need a grasp of the principles that underpin our constitution, not least those that govern the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. My noble friend Lord True clearly has that grasp but he is the one Minister to have some responsibility for the constitution; there is nobody senior with that designated task, which is one of the limitations that we face. In speaking on behalf of the House, my noble friend may have an uphill struggle, but he will have the support of the whole House in getting that message over.