Access and Facilities (House of Commons)

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): Mrs Riordan, you and I are in an unusual position, in that for several years our roles were normally the other way round, but I am delighted to see you occupying the Chair. I am aware that this morning’s subject of debate is not exactly at the epicentre of colleagues’ consideration, given other events that may be taking place not too far away from the Palace. However, it is important that we have occasional opportunities to discuss matters connected to Parliament’s operation, rather than those that concern the rest of the country. I hope to show that we are concerned, when we consider access to the building, about the convenience of the public—the people we serve.

The report of the Administration Committee on visitor access and facilities was published in May and, as you announced, Mrs Riordan, the House of Commons Commission has responded. We have published its response and I am pleased to say that the main thrust of the Committee’s recommendations has been accepted. We expect that, if all goes well, £3 million should be raised annually by 2014-15, to help towards the annual £224 million cost of running the House. Although we were open to receipt of evidence and comments from colleagues, the response was not overwhelming. The purpose of today’s debate, as I see it, is to air some of the underlying issues relating to visitor access, so that the unfolding of plans may be further informed.

The Committee’s starting point was to recognise that access to the Palace of Westminster for the various purposes pursued by members of the public can sometimes be very difficult—uncomfortable, even—with no shelter from extremes of weather. Public access was probably not a very high consideration when the new Palace was designed and built by Barry and Pugin in the 19th century, when people did not regularly lobby in their thousands. Parliamentary activity was not as extensive as it has become today, with all the Committees of the House and, indeed, the introduction of this Chamber as a parallel source of debating opportunities. There were not more than 500 all-party groups competing for space and attention. Visits to tour the building were not the feature that they have become today. The use of banqueting facilities was very limited and the education service, with its aim of encouraging school visits, had not been founded. Those and other activities have contributed to an ever increasing demand for access. More than 1 million people have visited the Palace in the past year, and the capacity of our entry points, unfortunately, has not kept pace with demand.

Security is obviously a factor. We must protect the building and all the people who may for one reason or another be in it. The need to ramp up security has led to controls on access that severely limit throughput. Worse than that, on occasions contradictory moves have been made in different parts of the administration of the Palace. On the one hand, there is a desire to encourage people to visit Westminster to see proceedings, or to come on school visits for induction to Parliament by the education service, but at the same time, the physical means of entry have not been expanded commensurately. On occasion, decisions have been made not to expand the entry points on the grounds of public expenditure. The consequence has been queuing. People queuing to get into the Palace are a regular sight, which has led to considerable inconvenience not only for them but for the hosts who handle the queues and for those holding functions in the House where visitors are expected.

The second problem is the inefficient handling of tour parties. The Palace is an almost unique visitor attraction, as visitors are taken through one way, then brought back again. It is an extremely unusual circumstance, which was remarked on by those who gave evidence to the Committee. The introduction of visitor assistants is a positive step. Perhaps they are the parliamentary equivalent of the “games makers”, because they give visitors a warm reception. Overall, however, we do not give the visitor the best welcome. We are strangely reticent about advertising the fact that people can come into the Palace for various legitimate reasons. The notices outside Westminster abbey, not far from us, are an example of what might be done—and I hope will be done—to give simple information to visitors about their rights of access.

We identified the fact that the Palace has a double role. It is primarily a working building at the heart of our democracy: that is unquestionably its prime purpose. However, we recognise that whether we like it or not, it is a leading visitor attraction. People see it and understandably want to share the wonderment of what it represents and contains. The twin roles can more easily be separated when Parliament is not in Session. They can become confused when one or other House is sitting. People want access to view proceedings, give evidence to Committees, visit their Member of Parliament and attend receptions and meetings. Also, many Members want to encourage visitors from their constituencies to come on a tour of the Palace—something that is now further limited by the recent decision of the House to change Tuesday sitting times.

 

For all the purposes I have just described, entry to the Palace must be free and, one would like to think, unimpeded, although for the reasons I have set out that is not always so. There should be no barrier to members of the public for those purposes. However, Parliament’s role as a visitor attraction is another matter. We are among the top five historical attractions. We could say that visiting has nothing to do with the operation of Parliament—we could disavow it and very strictly define the occasions on which people enter the Palace—but the Committee’s view was that we should welcome the opportunity to be seen in such a light. We could see nothing undignified about charging people who want to come in purely for the purpose of seeing a major historical attraction. There is undoubtedly a demand for visits, which has been created in all manner of ways, and would be further swollen if people passing by realised that there was an opportunity to come into the building.

The Committee felt that a clear distinction should be made, in the way that Westminster abbey makes a distinction—if people wish to attend a service in the abbey, there is of course absolutely no question of charging for access, but if people wish to visit the abbey as a visitor attraction at other times, there is most certainly a charge. We therefore think that we can apply that distinction to the Palace of Westminster. Of course, if we welcome visitors, there will also be a demand from them for refreshment and souvenirs.

We recognise that the whole issue of charging is quite sensitive, but we believe that some clear thinking on the subject is needed. We already charge for commercial tours when Parliament is in recess during the summer and on Saturdays, and for civil ceremonies and banqueting. We are increasingly charging for the specialist tours that have been developed—for example, for examining works of art—and it is thought reasonable to add to such tours opportunities for taking tea or even something more substantial.

However, we touched a nerve with a proposed charge for access to what we are now pleased to call the Elizabeth Tower. A charge for visitors was proposed on no more than a cost-recovery basis, but the House recoiled. Arguably, the Elizabeth Tower is not key to the parliamentary process, so we have blurred the distinction that the Committee felt ought to be maintained. The tower has severely limited capacity and, ironically, the consequence of the debate on charging in the House has been an upsurge in demand. Until then, many people did not realise that such tours were a possibility. It is now difficult to get any slot for visitors from one’s constituency for the rest of this calendar year—opportunities are being soaked up very quickly.

We suggested in our report that the line should be clearly drawn between the Palace as the place of the legislature and as a visitor attraction, and that that distinction ought to be reasonably clear and well defined. We do not feel that we should neglect what is an important source of income that is designed either to help us to reduce the taxpayer’s subsidy or to support the upkeep of this building. It has been reported in the press that the Commission is considering what needs to be done to ensure that the Palace is in a full state of repair, and there will doubtless be announcements about that in due course, but a great deal of work is being done and has to be done to make sure that it operates effectively as the home of Parliament and, indeed, continues to be a place of attraction and beauty for those who wish to visit.

The level of charge that one might apply for visits, whatever the purpose for which visitors are allowed in, is another matter. In evidence to the Committee, we were told that we probably undercharge. One approach is simply to go on cost-recovery; the other is to recognise that we are in a competitive marketplace in relation to visits, so we should consider whether a profit could be made that would contribute to the purposes I have described. I do not think that many people would thank us if, through any kind of neglect or reluctance to spend money, we allowed this building to fall into any measure of disrepair.

As I have mentioned, another source of income connected with visitors to the building is the sale of souvenir gifts, on which we have been half-hearted over the years. If people visit a stately home run by English Heritage, it is impossible for them to escape without going through the gift shop and the cafeteria, and English Heritage freely admits that it makes a great deal of money that way. The public make no complaints about that, because they see it as part of the visitor experience. It has been very difficult to achieve what might be our full potential in that respect in the Palace. Ironically, that is because English Heritage has been especially protective about Westminster Hall, which is the logical place for a souvenir shop. Of course, at one time in its history, Westminster Hall was very commercial, with shops and market stalls, but that was a long time ago.

Undoubtedly, there is a right and a wrong place to put a gift shop. At the moment, it is in St Stephen’s Hall, which is a congestion point, and people do not want to stop there on the tour to decide whether to buy something. People complete the tour in Westminster Hall and a relatively small number go back to the shop, while others go elsewhere, so opportunities are being missed. We are now addressing that, in the hope of increasing revenue and, indeed, of further contributing to people’s pleasure in visiting the Palace. I hope that such a benefit will soon be seen.

Overhanging our whole approach is the question of security. We recognise that a high level of security is needed in respect of all aspects of access to the Palace, but our present entry points are nearly all constrained either through sheer lack of capacity or, as the Committee suspects, in some cases for want of manpower, in that extra security guards mean extra cost. In the Committee’s view, that is not a reasonable ground for holding off improvements to the smoothness of access. At many times, throughput is now very badly hampered. We welcome what the Serjeant at Arms is seeking to do to ease some pressure points, but we think that that can make only a minor contribution to improving the flow. We have made a suggestion about improving the categories for prioritising visitors who should be fast-tracked into the building through the Cromwell Green entrance.

Two major problems persist. One is trying to separate what one might call the urgent visitor—the person who has an appointment with a Member of Parliament or has a commitment to give evidence to a Select Committee—from the rest. It is quite wrong that such people should be held up and, in practice, it is quite difficult physically to separate on the ground the genuinely urgent visitors, who need to be in the building by a certain time, from everyone else. We have proposed a restoration of the cabin that was previously stationed adjacent to the St Stephen’s entrance, which would allow a proper and more physical separation and, at the same time, ease the pressures on the Cromwell Green entrance.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for securing this debate and for the way in which he is explaining the work of the Committee in such great detail. I want to emphasise the point that he has just made. Many people come to the Palace for good reason, including helping parliamentarians in their duties in all-party parliamentary groups. Meeting rooms are often changed at short notice. I have seen the most terrible scenes of people, who are giving their time freely, who are often professionals and who have come from all over the country to participate in the work of Parliament, scurrying around the building because they have been delayed on entry and then find that the Committee Rooms are changed at the last minute. I wholeheartedly agree that urgent measures must be taken so that people who are visiting Parliament for business purposes can get on with their work in a timely way.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: My hon. Friend, who is a valued member of the Committee, makes an excellent point. It is a real problem and a source of embarrassment for many Members of Parliament that visitors can be messed around to such an extent.

The second problem is the line of route for visitors. In accordance with telling the story of Parliament, visitors would traditionally begin at the House of Lords’ end of the building and exit through Westminster Hall. Since the introduction of the Cromwell Green entrance, the route has been reversed and visitors are now brought into Westminster Hall first. I repeat what I said earlier: we have the unusual circumstance of having to escort them, at varying pace, right the way through the building, which causes congestion and sometimes leads to confusion. I remember taking a party through the House. When we got to the House of Lords’ end, we found that we were missing someone. That was simply because not everyone keeps the same pace. Despite politely saying, “We must go through, but you will see all this on the way back” people may be suspicious of that and will naturally gaze up in admiration at what they are seeing, and that delays them, which is a general inconvenience to the group. It lets time slip. The professional guides, who are possibly contracted to do two tours for members of the public in the morning, find that their schedule is also held up and the next lot of visitors who have arrived on time are kept waiting until they are free after the first tour. I am happy to say that I am involved in informal discussions with the House of Lords to see how we can tackle this matter and improve the whole visitor experience. I hope something fruitful will come out of those discussions in the not too distant future.

Let me say a brief word about the longer term. Most people would surely agree that a good job is being done by our education service, the information office and parliamentary outreach to engage the public. As elected representatives of the people, we should delight in that fact and recognise that we need to get more people to come here for an understanding of what parliamentary democracy is all about if belief in parliamentary democracy is to be sustained. We worry about people abstaining from voting in elections and so on, but perhaps that is because they do not fully appreciate Parliament’s potential. We should do all that we can to bring Parliament’s role to people’s attention. Nothing is better than for people to come here and learn about what happens and that may light their own ambition to come here in due time as an elected representative.

There is a strong case for magnifying the efforts of the education service, the information office and parliamentary outreach to introduce young people to an understanding of parliamentary democracy through greater access. However, the education service has no proper home within the Palace. It was in 2007 that both the House of Commons and the House of Lords agreed that there should be a proper base for the education service, but it has not yet been achieved.

If we look at what is done in other Parliaments, we will see that we could do better by our citizens if we had a proper visitor centre where a warm welcome could be afforded and a proper introduction to parliament made. Both these functions—the education service and the visitor centre—could be combined in a purpose-built facility, but we have fought shy of the expenditure that would necessarily be involved. We owe it to the public to be bolder in our approach. It is a longer-term aspiration, but it is something that will allow us to look the public in the eye and say, “This is not a matter of aggrandising the position or the comfort of Members of Parliament. This is for you, and you have a right to get the best out of the Parliament that is here.” We should make it clear that they are welcome and when they come here we should handle them in a way that is informative and makes the whole experience something that they will remember for a long time.

We need to be courageous in our approach, and the whole question of access and the reception of visitors deserves much greater attention. I hope that the deliberations of the Administration Committee and the report that we have produced, plus the welcome that it has had from the House of Commons Commission, will alert colleagues to what our priorities should be. We need to move forward in a way that understands the clear distinction that we have tried to emphasise in our report that yes, we are first and foremost a place of parliamentary legislative business, but secondly, that we are seen as the mother of Parliaments and the home of parliamentary democracy, and it is a home to which we should want to welcome people as much as we can.