HAYES IN THE HOUSE: By MP John Hayes
The Palace of Westminster is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world, symbolic of London and the nation to people across the globe.
Still more than that, it is the very heart of our democracy – the epitome of the long continuity of our institutions and traditions. MPs of all parties are made palpably aware of the seriousness of what they have been chosen to do when they go there, for we tread in the footsteps of giants.
So I felt sad that the House of Commons voted last week that MPs should vacate Parliament completely to allow for restoration work. It is right, of course, to ensure that a building of such aesthetic and historic importance is properly maintained, and doing so will always be a difficult task.
But ever since Westminster Hall was commissioned by King William Rufus in 1097 there have been almost constant works. Geoffrey Chaucer oversaw a major refurbishment as Clerk of the King’s Works in the 14th century and, most famously, Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin were charged with the rebuilding project in the wake of the great fire of 1834.
Improvement is a process not a moment, and has comfortably sat alongside the life and work of the Palace for centuries, yet we are now faced with the absurd prospect of Parliamentary debates taking place in some fantasy pastiche Chamber for donkey’s years.
Some have argued in favour of this extraordinary proposal on cost grounds, but – as the official report into the options admits – we cannot be sure what the costs of the decant, nor the costs of staying put, would be. But surely we know that such huge building projects almost always tend to run over budget and over time. When the Scottish Parliament was first envisaged, for instance, the cost was estimated to be 10 times less than the final bill taxpayers were obliged to pay.
Given that we cannot be persuaded by uncertain cost forecasts, the arguments about people are much more compelling. Those myopically preoccupied with cost have forgotten the interests of the staff of the Palace, some of whom have given their entire working lives to the place.
Many will have little chance to be accommodated by the new arrangements, and we will do them an enormous disservice by casting them aside.
Throughout my 20 years as a Member of Parliament, hundreds of my constituents have come to visit Westminster, including most recently a group from Market Deeping Primary School.
They joined the one million visitors who come each year to learn about Parliament’s history and watch its proceedings. Are they likely to be excited and inspired by an empty, lifeless shell? Are they bound to believe in the strength and value of democracy if it is embodied by a “pop up” replica Chamber?
We owe it to this generation, our ancestors and to those born later not to abandon the Mother of Parliaments.