Guest Speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst former MP, discussing the Renewal of Parliament
The Chamber was immensely fortunate and grateful to welcome Sir Alan Haselhurst, former Member of Parliament, to our March quarterly business lunch the 11th in the series. As you know the Chamber aims with its quarterly lunches to keep you, the local businesses, up to speed with the important, relevant and pressing regional and national matters. The Chamber couldn’t have asked for a better speaker than Sir Alan.
The Committee hope you find these lunches both useful and enjoyable and if any Members have ideas or suggestions for speakers, the Committee would be delighted to hear from you.
As many of you will know Sir Alan was a Member of Parliament for some 44 years, representing Saffron Walden for 40 of those years. During his time in Parliament he gained great insight and exposure to many areas of political and business life and sat on many Parliamentary Committees as well as being the Deputy Speaker for a time. Sir Alan kindly joined us to discuss the renewal of Parliament both on a philosophical level and also the physical repair required.
Sir Alan thanked the Chamber for having him, he joked especially after he let the Chamber down last year when he sent a deputy to discuss the West Anglia Taskforce. Sir Alan apologised and advised he had been sent to Australia on urgent business.
Sir Alan is still on the Taskforce but he feels we are probably all bored of trains by now and so wished to discuss a topic close to his heart, the renewal of Parliament. He advised he would discuss the history and evolution of Parliament and move on to how it is coping with the modern world.
Sir Alan informed us that Parliament has always been a Royal Palace and from the 12th Century the Monarch would summon significant people of the realm to come and account for their actions or pay homage. In the 1260s Parliament began, loosely speaking, as we know it today and for some 400 years thereafter there was the tussle between Crown and Parliament. In 1689 the Bill of Rights was enshrined, establishing the constitutional Monarchy. During the following Centuries we have seen an expansion of the franchise and female suffrage. Even today there are debates about extending the right to vote to 16 year olds.
Parliament generally, Sir Alan feels, has always strived to develop but joked the Lords moves at a more glacial pace. Despite the passage of time Parliament is still confrontational, with the opposition sitting opposite the government of the day and it is still a tad historic requiring voting in person.
Members and Constituencies
Sir Alan explained that over the years the relationship between an MP and their Constituency has improved. He recounted a letter from some 200 years ago where an MP responded to a constituent in quite condescending terms and openly admitted to having bought the seat, amongst other now questionable statements. Even up until the 1960’s there was still seen to be a disconnect between MP’s and their constituents, the most some could hope for being a ceremonial annual visit rather than active day to day work in the community.
This has changed, with MP’s now seeing themselves as some form of social service, helping their constituents as much as they can. This can lead to conflict with local bodies and frustration from constituents due to the fact MP’s are not able to get involved in some local decision making.
Being an MP has turned into a full time profession and no longer just the domain of land owners or wealthy industrialist. This has led to more life experience seeping into Parliament. Sir Alan noted other interests are increasingly frowned upon, with the assumption they could lead to possible conflicts of interest, but there is a very real issue that if you ask professionals to come into power how are they to stay involved and up to date with their profession, as they may well need to go back to it after 5 years in Parliament. This is a difficult question with no real answer.
In 1731, during the Walpole Government, there were requests for a new Parliament but due to financial constraints it never got off the ground. A theme that sounds current today. The fire that burnt down the old Palace down forced everyone’s hand. There was a competition to design the current building, to be in a Gothic or Elizabethan style, with some 97 entrants. As we know the Charles Barry design succeeding, but not without issue. A theme that would be current today was the intolerable supervision of Parliament itself, with a makeshift chamber being established onsite, continuing to convene during the construction work.
Parliament experienced some damage during the War, but since then no real work has been carried out other than some extensions and rather unsightly “temporary porta cabins” hidden in various courtyards. The decision on the renovation of Parliament has been delayed and delayed; instead the Parliamentary estate has grown with the acquisition of other buildings.
The issue came to a head due to various pressures:
- The frailty of the building and the difficulties in maintaining it. Not helped by the fact the original designer left no plans to aid the modern facilities staff.
- General day to day issues such as the requests for offices and space for staff, demands of a modern parliament, I.T. and issues surrounding security. Sir Alan noted that nowadays MP’s have a budget of around £150,000 for staff and the like, so this naturally leads to more people in the building.
- Finally Parliament is a UNESCO world heritage site and Listed Building. This makes it not only a huge tourist attraction for some 1 million people a year but also necessitates careful management. The physical location of Parliament is also an issue, surrounded by a busy main road.
Sir Alan noted if you look at it from a dispassionate point of view Parliament does need work, however whenever this has been discussed there has been great amounts of passion. Without doubt MP’s have been burying their heads in the sand, not wanting to believe the issues were quite as real as they were, even if you ignore no one wanting to deal with the costs involved and the practicalities of both chambers agreeing on the way forward. There has also been a concern that once you move out, you may never get back in.
An independent appraisal was carried out that gave three options:
- A rolling programme of repairs to last 25-40 years at a cost in the region of £5.6 billion.
- A two phase plan where one Chamber would vacate at a time. This would take 9-14 years and cost in the region of £4.4 billion.
- Full de-camp, taking 5-8 years and costing in the region of £3.5 billion.
Parliamentary debate was put off but a couple of weeks ago a vote did happen and the third option was approved but works cannot commence until 2025 as the proposed relocation site for Parliament, Richmond House, needs to be made ready to take the Commons. The Lords will move to St Elizabeth House, the convention centre opposite Parliament, it is deemed their security is not as much of a concern.
Sir Alan quipped that there hasn’t actually been a huge amount of outcry in relation to the costs required for the renewal of Parliament. He noted there was more outcry over the partly £300 million renovations required for Buckingham Palace. He believed this is down to some very clever PR with recent TV programmes allowing cameras in to show the issues at hand and the general sentiment amongst the public of it being the seat of democracy and something to be hugely proud of.