211.Since the second half of the 19th century most House of Lords committee meetings have taken place in one of a number of rooms lining the committee corridor in the Palace of Westminster. The corridor spans the length of much of the Palace, and houses 16 large committee rooms overlooking the Thames. Of these, only four are Lords committee rooms, although the House also has three more recently constructed committee rooms on the opposite side of the corridor. Two further rooms are available for use by certain committees: these are the Moses Room (adjacent to the Lords Chamber), which is used for meetings of the Grand Committee and for Private Bill-related committee meetings, and Committee Room G, on the ground floor is used for some private committee meetings (as it is not equipped for evidence taking). Even so, House of Lords committee accommodation has not kept pace with the considerable increase in committee activity over the past 25 years.
212.The main committee rooms in the House of Lords were designed for use by the many committees needed to scrutinise private legislation relating to railways and similar infrastructure projects in the second half of the 19th century. The large, imposing rooms needed to accommodate counsel, witnesses and members of the public, as well as members. Adequate space was needed for the display and storage of plans and maps illustrating the proposed projects. The rooms were never intended to put witnesses at their ease. Furthermore, as public meetings of committees are now all webcast, most members of the public prefer to view committee meetings online. Whilst this facility has helped make committee meetings more accessible, it means that for most meetings the so-called ‘public gallery’ of several rows of chairs is largely empty.
213.The House of Commons is better provided for in terms of both traditional and more modern committee rooms. In addition to its 12 rooms on the main committee corridor, the Commons has a second set of rooms on the upper committee corridor—immediately above the main corridor—as well as modern purpose-built committee rooms on the first floor of Portcullis House. When the House of Commons Commission approved the Final Sketch Plan for Portcullis House in 1993 the plan included four Select Committee rooms and three smaller meeting rooms. The need by the Commons for additional meetings space was the main source of changes to the Final Sketch Plan. When completed in 2000 the space in Portcullis House originally intended for use by around 120 staff of the Clerk’s department had been diverted to create, in addition to the four Select Committee rooms, two large conference rooms and nine, rather than three, smaller meeting rooms, for a total additional cost of £1 million. All this space is well used.
214.Despite the increasing use of Commons rooms for meetings of Joint Committees, and despite the fact that committee meetings take precedence in terms of room bookings, the pressure on House of Lords committee rooms is now great, particularly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which are the main days for committee meetings. There is no dedicated meeting space for witnesses to prepare themselves on arrival, and—most regrettably of all—straightforward means of access or emergency evacuation for people with disabilities.
215.The Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster provides an important opportunity to address this situation. As there is a separate consultation exercise under way we thought it necessary only to note 9 key questions for further consideration:
(1)How many committees need to be accommodated, bearing in mind (i) how often they meet to hear evidence in public; (ii) the number of members involved and (iii) the likely number of committees meeting simultaneously on peak committee days of Tuesday and Wednesday?