1.Lord McFall introduced the seminar reiterating the importance of the restoration and renewal programme to all aspects of the work of the House of Lords, including the current review of select committees. Lord McFall noted Lord Blunkett’s work on the Joint Committee on Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, as well as Baroness Scott of Needham Market’s role as a member of the shadow Sponsor Board.
2.Lord Blunkett explained some key takeaways from the joint committee report including the fact that no figures were included in the report. Lord Blunkett explained that this was because a new assessment would need to be done after all relevant legislation had passed through both Houses, which may well impact the final plan and related costs. He also noted that any and all expenditure must be justified to the general public, as well as ensuring there is a wider understanding of what kind of parliament we are trying to build and how people will be welcomed. Lord Blunkett noted that the process has already been delayed and ensuring communication to the wider public is key.
3.One of the key issues that Lord Blunkett raised was the current focus on the restoration of the Palace of Westminster, rather than the renewal aspect. Whilst at the initial stage it is key to focus on completing the basic job of restoring the Palace to a safe building, after this we must then ask what more needs to be done. Lord Blunkett pointed out that there seems to be a presumption that we will restore the Palace back to what it is now, however this is a building that has developed and changed over a 150-year period. Developments such as visitor requirements, outreach and engagement have changed over time and so the building has with it.
4.When considering the history of Parliament, and how the building has developed to what it is today Lord Blunkett highlighted that when the building was first “finished” it was immediately starting to be changed, particularly in relation to committee accommodation, as the building had not been completed with the future and change in mind. So little thought had been given to the infrastructure needed for committee meetings that early committees had to meet in daylight hours, without heating. Therefore, whilst it is important to maintain the culture and history of the building, we must be creative and imaginative when updating in order to use the building more effectively and for the 21st century.
5.Lord Blunkett noted that this building should not be considered a conclusion of the past, but instead a building for the future, so designs and plans for the building should be designed with this in mind. This includes ensuring that the building is prepared for future technology implementation and not just technology available now, as modernization should not be slowed down.
6.When discussing the impact of restoration and renewal on House of Lords committees Lord Blunkett highlighted the fact that committee hearings involve people from different groups from across the country, and therefore we should not underestimate the daunting nature of coming before a committee to give evidence, particularly for the first time. Therefore, ensuring that the Palace becomes a more welcoming place for the general public is important, and hearing from and understanding the needs of people who may come or have previously given evidence is important. He emphasized the need for the restored parliament to enable full access throughout for people with disabilities, rather than assuming that people with disabilities could simply not go to certain areas in parliament such as the upper committee corridor.
7.Following this, Baroness Scott of Needham Market explained the role of the shadow Sponsor Board, which began its work in September 2018. The role of the Board will be to act as the single client for both Houses in supervising the restoration and renewal of Parliament. The Board’s membership includes seven members of parliament, drawn from the two Houses, and five external members, including its chair.
8.Baroness Scott noted that in due course the Board will be required to present an outline business case on the restoration works to both Houses for approval. This will include consideration of different options, including the related costs and time implications. Baroness Scott highlighted that the democratic renewal and operational changes will need to be led by Parliament itself, with the shadow Sponsor Board offering up options and facilitating change where possible. Whilst future change is important Baroness Scott also noted that there are many changes that could be made and implemented now, and parliament must be open and encouraging of this change. Baroness Scott reiterated that the shadow Sponsor Board is in full listening mode and people should feel free to speak to her or any other board member if they have thoughts or questions. She also noted that the Board will develop its ability to communicate more effectively as time goes on, but as there was a lot of activity it would be important to strike the correct balance.
9.The session was then opened up to comments and questions from members of the House. The following questions and comments were amongst those raised:
(a)Support was offered to the comments from Lord Blunkett and Baroness Scott from members of the House. Members noted that it is important to remember that this is a working building and that the number of visitors is exponential, and all facilities must be developed and built to accommodate this.
(b)Members highlighted the issues surrounding the archives and works of art in the Palace and queried how they would be dealt with during and after restoration and renewal.
Baroness Scott noted that 12% of the space in the building is taken up by the archives, however they are not being stored in the best and most appropriate space, meaning public access is also difficult. She noted that during the restoration works we must ensure everything is kept safe, but that what they come back to must be more appropriate and accessible.
Baroness Scott also noted that the shadow Sponsor Board must communicate with the works of art committee to make sure that the works of art are safe during decant. There may also be an opportunity for works of art to be utilised during this period, for example by making some of the works available for special exhibitions so as many people as possible have the chance to see them.
(c)It was noted that during decant we must not lose the atmosphere and communication opportunities that the current layout afforded to members and staff. This is important culturally, atmospherically, but also practically for joint committees.
Baroness Scott agreed that this matter would require further consideration, particularly as decant will mean that the two Houses are based in separate buildings.
(d)There is disappointment that there has been limited discussion of how to manage disabled access to the House of Parliament. This should be designed in to the process, so it is seen as a necessity, and disability groups should be consulted to make sure it is done properly.
Baroness Scott noted that improving access to the Palace was one of the shadow Sponsor Board’s strategic priorities. However, while important, such decisions may also require trade off, in terms of time and money, as part of wider considerations which the Board would be required to take into account.
Lord Blunkett noted that we must alter our opinion and perspective of what can and cannot be done in order to ensure the most successful project is completed.
10.The session ended with closing remarks from Lord McFall.