Select Committee on Administration First Report

1  Background

1. Both Houses of Parliament have recognised for some time the importance of providing better facilities for visitors to the Palace of Westminster. For example, the strategic plan of the House of Commons Commission includes an aim "to improve public understanding and knowledge of the House's work and to increase accessibility, subject to the requirements of security".[1] This objective led the House authorities to undertake an examination of existing facilities for visitors and explore options for improving the current arrangements.

2. We strongly support this objective. As the Modernisation Committee noted in its 2001-02 Report, "the House of Commons belongs to the British people who elect it and who pay for it".[2] Furthermore, we note the concerns of many, reiterated recently in comments by the Hansard Society, that "across the UK there are many people who are keen to be more closely involved in Parliament's work but who are not currently engaged".[3] During a period of concern about declining turnouts at elections, we believe that improving facilities for visitors is an important part of engaging members of the public with the parliamentary process.

3. Our Committees have therefore supported proposals which have encouraged members of the public to visit the Houses of Parliament, while recognising that the Palace of Westminster is primarily a place of work and public access should not impinge on that work. For example, the Administration Committee published two Reports during the 1997 Parliament which set out proposals for opening the visitor tour route during the summer recess.[4] Following two successful trial openings in the summers of 2000 and 2001, the House of Commons approved the permanent opening of the visitor tour route on 31 January 2002. We believe the summer openings, and the establishment of the Central Tours Office in November 2002 to support summer opening and Members' tours throughout the year, have improved the arrangements for visitors and have increased the accessibility of the Palace of Westminster.

4. Nevertheless, as we set out in section 3, the facilities for visitors within the Palace of Westminster remain unsatisfactory. While there have been some improvements in recent years, there has been no unified attempt to provide better access and welcome for visitors, and to provide information for visitors to explain Parliament's role and how it works. This led the Modernisation Committee and the House of Commons Commission to support the concept of an interpretative visitor centre. A senior group of officials examined the feasibility of this idea and commissioned two reports by consultants.

5. However, when the consultants' detailed proposals were put to committees, including ourselves, in early 2003, they met heavy resistance. Although new handling arrangements for visitors were largely welcomed, elements of the plan for an exhibition area were criticised. Most controversial was the proposed use of accommodation off Westminster Hall. This is currently occupied by the UK Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (British Group), and is seen as crucial to their work. Even with this space incorporated into the proposed scheme, the visitor centre would have needed further space, such as the construction of an extension on Cromwell Green.

6. The lack of support for this full-scale interpretative visitor centre led the Commission, in agreement with the Lords House Committee, to decide that a reassessment of the scheme was necessary. The work already undertaken by consultants would be used by a group of senior officials of both Houses who would assist committees in examining:

·  what improved arrangements should be made for access to the building, suited to different types of visitors and consistent with the requirements of security;

·  what range of facilities might be provided for the reception, information and education of visitors to Parliament; and

·  how excessive pressure on visitor facilities and interference with the working of Parliament could be avoided.

7. We have considered the revised proposals put forward by officials and we are grateful for their work. We have also consulted the Administration and Works Committee and the Information Committee in the House of Lords. We have taken account of their comments in this report, and are pleased that both of those Committees have given their general support to these proposals. This Report sets out our conclusions.

8. As a result of our deliberations, we believe there is a compelling case for pressing ahead with a new reception and security building on Cromwell Green as a first step to improving facilities for visitors and enhancing security. This forms the central recommendation of our Report. We recognise that this proposal would not provide the facilities envisaged in a full-scale visitor centre but we believe that such a facility is not feasible within the Palace of Westminster. We therefore recommend that progress should be made in those areas where facilities can be enhanced without interfering with the workings of Parliament, and on which a consensus is achievable.

9. In section 2 of this Report we examine the numbers and type of visitors to the Palace of Westminster. We go on to examine the current arrangements for welcoming these visitors and the shortcomings of these arrangements. In section 4 we set out the proposals for a new reception and security building. Finally, we consider the issues which should be key to the development of proposals for a full-scale interpretative visitor centre which we believe should remain an aim of both Houses of Parliament.

1   The House of Lords strategic plan contains a similarly worded objective. Back

2   Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, Modernisation of the House of Commons: a reform programme, Second Report HC 1168-I 2001-02 5 September 2002, para 17 Back

3   Hansard Society, Connecting Communities Interim Report, December 2003, p 8 Back

4   Administration Committee, Proposal to re-open the Line of Route during the Summer Adjournment, First Report HC 394 1998-99; and Administration Committee, Revised framework for the re-opening of the Line of Route during the Summer Adjournment, First Report HC 198 1999-2000 Back

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