Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Second Report


17. The House of Commons belongs to the British people who elect it and who pay for it. However it inhabits a building that long predates the mass franchise and was not designed in the expectation that large numbers of the public would either have the right or the wish to visit their elected Members.

18. We welcome recent steps to improve our service to the visiting public, such as the refreshment facility supplied by the Jubilee Cafeteria. We also applaud the decision of the House of Commons Commission to put the provision of guides for visiting groups on a formal basis with common standards of training. We hope that this will place as much emphasis on the role of Parliament in our democracy as on the history and architecture of the building.

19. We strongly welcome the current feasibility study into a long overdue Visitor Centre and look forward to commenting on its proposals. In the meantime we record our unanimous view that such an interpretative centre should focus on the function of Parliament as a working institution at the heart of our representative democracy, and not just Westminster as an interesting building with a lot of history. We believe that such a Visitor Centre will have failed if it does not excite the enthusiasm of younger visitors and to do so it must harness the latest technologies of interactive display. Nor should the Visitor Centre be conceived in isolation as a service to the random visitor. We would hope that it would be an integral part of an expanded programme of educational outreach in which a visit to Parliament would be part of wider school projects on our constitution. The advent of citizenship education this autumn both provides an opportunity and imposes an obligation on Parliament to assist the next generation of voters in a better understanding of Parliament.

20. The creation of a Visitor Centre will have substantial implications for the line of route. It will also make more valuable a visit to Parliament when one or both Houses are sitting when the present line of route is necessarily curtailed. We are aware that other parliaments are more successful in enabling members of the public to visit their building while the chamber is in session. For instance, Australia has provided a glass fronted gallery which is included in the tour of the precinct and enables conducted groups to see the chamber at work and to hear an explanation from guides in a way that is not possible in the public gallery. There could be even greater educational value to a visit to the Commons in session than to an empty Chamber. We recommend that the Board of Management prepare a revised line of route which would include a facility for conducted tours to see the Commons in session, in a manner which avoided disruption to the Chamber. A similar visit to Westminster Hall might also be incorporated in the revised line of route.

21. At the present time the line of route is entirely closed on Thursday mornings. We appreciate the importance of security considerations, but believe that an hour should be a satisfactory period for a security sweep of the Chamber before the sitting of the House. We recommend that in the event of an 11.30 am start to the Commons day, the line of route should be open from 9.00 am to 10.30 am from Tuesday to Thursday.

22. The Palace of Westminster has been one of the fastest growing visitor attractions in recent years. It is therefore curious that it remains closed to the public throughout the weekend when it is not otherwise in use. Twenty million members of the public live within convenient commuting distance of central London and many million more of our constituents pass through London at holiday time. We recommend that the House of Commons Commission should pursue their consideration of opening the line of route on a Saturday to a favourable conclusion.

23. However much we improve access to the premises, most members of the public will never visit it in person and will depend on television for their impression of Parliament. It is therefore important that the House makes maximum use of the TV media to convey a sense of the Commons as a working environment and a forum of serious and challenging debate. There will always be a balance to be struck in responsible control over access to parliamentary proceedings, but we welcome the recent decisions of the Administration Committee. These will permit interviews with Members at locations within the precincts which will enable viewers to get a glimpse of the bustle of the Commons at work, such as on the Committee Corridor. We hope that it will prove similarly possible to achieve a better balance in the coverage of proceedings in the Chamber. One witness from the BBC complained that the present arrangements are like trying to convey the sense of a football match under rules which only permit the player with the ball to appear on camera.

24. The new communication technologies open up unprecedented opportunities for remote access. There already have been successful exercises by parliamentary bodies to harness the Internet for public consultation. For instance, in the past Parliament the then Social Security Committee carried out a very successful survey on the views of claimants of the Working Families Tax Credit, and the All Party Group on Domestic Violence set up a website for victims which received over a thousand responses. The Government's current Consultation Paper on e-democracy, In the Service of Democracy,[2] sets out how the new technologies can widen participation in our democracy. We support the recommendation of the Information Committee that Parliament should make more use of ICT to increase the accessibility and transparency of Parliament.[3] We recommend that Select Committees and other parliamentary bodies step up their use of ICT to increase e-participation by the public in the parliamentary process. We welcome the pilot study in webcasting of Select Committee hearings and hope that as capacity expands it may provide more routine access by the public to committee proceedings.

2   Ref. 02/8085, Office of the e-Envoy, Cabinet Office, 15 July 2002. Back

3   First Report from the Information Committee, Digital Technology: Working for Parliament and the Public, HC 1065. Back

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