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LAST month, MPs voted to leave the Palace of Westminster in 2025 so that essential refurbishment works can take place. The building is well known to be falling apart, packed full of asbestos and far from accessible to those with disabilities.
But more than this, the Palace — because, let’s remember that’s what it is — is a Harry Potter-esque warren of aristocratic symbolism. It’s meant to cow politicians from humble backgrounds but fill the Eton attending gentlemen with confidence.
Brilliant stuff for a museum day trip, but the place to hold the seat of a modern democracy? I think not.
Given this, the urgent question that must be asked is whether MPs should come back to the palace or move somewhere new, somewhere not stuck in the past and perhaps somewhere outside London?
Last year some sentimental MPs shed a tear when Big Ben’s bongs fell silent so that renovations could take place on the tower, but I wasn’t one of them.
A Tory MP was so upset she even demanded that the scaffolders, stonemasons, horologists, gilders and painters undertaking the renovation works should have to use ear defenders to let Big Ben’s bongs continue uninterrupted. She was clearly untroubled by concerns about the health and safety of these highly skilled craftspeople.
What a palaver! MPs throwing parliamentary hissy fits and shedding tears over a bell not ringing for a few years.
Given the scale of inequality in Britain after four decades of neoliberalism, I found the distress felt by those MPs unfathomable.
The only thing that came close to making me cry was the staggering cost of Parliament’s renewal. The estimate for refurbishing Big Ben has already doubled from £29 million to £61m. The approximate refurbishment costs of the entire Palace currently stand at a truly eye-watering £3.5 billion!
By way of comparison, the government could build seven new hospitals for the price of refurbishing the Palace.
To make matters worse, big construction projects such as these often far exceed their estimated costs.
Just imagine the potential for unforeseen costs on this world heritage building?
In my view MPs living in a modern democracy should be situated in a modern and accessible building, one that is accessible in every sense. That means catering for those with specific needs and should include some very basic information, such as some clear signage to the toilets.
And culturally too, because the present building is a million miles from a “People’s Parliament.” I wonder how many people who weren’t educated at Eton and Oxbridge would feel comfortable working in the palace?
The archaic symbolism of the place leads some MPs to believe they are all powerful and beyond reproach. In my opinion, the current building is hindering rather than enhancing our democracy and promotes the Westminster bubble mentality.
No wonder so much sleaze has emanated from the corridors of power in the rarefied world of the Houses of Parliament.
Don’t get me wrong, the palace is a wonderful building, it is part of this nation’s history and I enjoy taking parties of schoolchildren on tours of the place. But apart from the hidey-hole where the inspirational suffragette, Emily Davison, hid before the 1911 census the rest of the place is dedicated to venerating aristocratic men.
What kind of lesson do young people take from visiting the Houses of Parliament?
While they can enjoy marvelling at the gothic building, I suspect many are left with the sense that Parliament isn’t a place for them.
So, Parliament is due to decant in 2025, but I’ve heard rumours that Milton Keynes has been considered as a backup emergency option for a temporary location in case a move is required before then.
I understand there are concerns that the refurbishment works might uncover dangerous asbestos before the scheduled decant and that would require an alternative site being found quickly.
I’m not against Milton Keynes as a temporary option, but I would favour a permanent location for a People’s Parliament in the Midlands or the north of the country.
Some people have suggested a Parliament that tours the country rather than having one permanent location, in order to take democracy closer to the public.
All these are ideas should be considered, but first voters need to demand that we put the palace in its rightful place in history as a museum of democracy and move on. But pressure from the old guard to return to the present location is very strong, even though the building will still not be fit for purpose even after £3.5bn has been spent on it.
To take a very basic point, the seating capacity in the House of Commons chamber is about 430, which is 220 short of the 650 MPs returned to Parliament. In other words about 215 on each side of the chamber and for those MPs who do manage to get a seat, there is nowhere to put their papers.
The New Labour landslide in 1997 saw Blair’s Labour Party elect 418 MPs, so they could have occupied nearly every seat on both sides of the chamber, but instead they only had 215 available to them. It was similar situation when Thatcher’s Tories won 397 seats in 1983.
The current situation is a farce and completely unfit for the twenty first century. But I hope that if enough people make their views known, maybe we can drag our Parliament kicking and screaming into a modern democratic era.
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