Mother of Parliaments Is under Pressure to Expand Its Horizons

By Jones, George | Management Today, November 1990 | Go to article overview

Mother of Parliaments Is under Pressure to Expand Its Horizons


Jones, George, Management Today


In the Palace of Westminster overcrowding has reached phenomenal proportions and the building which is being refurbished to ease the strain is behind schedule. Can Parliament get its house in order?

It would be the Government's most audacious privatisation so far -- contracting out the management of the Mother of Parliaments. While only a distant gleam in the eye of Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Leader of the Commons, it is an indication of his determination to bring the day-to-day running of the Palace of Westminster into the 20th century as the millennium approaches.

Howe has embarked on the most far-reaching reforms of the Commons procedures for decades, seeking to make life more bearable not only for 650 MPs but for the thousands of other people who work within the confines of Westminster.

It all goes back to Howe's abrupt move from the Foreign Office in the July 1989 Cabinet reshuffle. After 10 years, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Foreign Secretary -- dealing with Princes and Presidents and being whisked around the world in luxury -- he found himself brought down to earth with a bump: responsible for the day-to-day worries of MPs, whether it was catering, lack of stationery or office facilities.

By all accounts, Howe was appalled by the contrast with the palatial surroundings of the Foreign Office -- particularly by the crowded conditions in which MPs work.

For years MPs have been protesting about how little privacy they have to deal with their correspondence. A recent report pointed out that many MPs sharing a room have only 60 sq. ft of space each, |compared to the 250 sq. ft that comparatively junior officials in the Civil Service can expect'.

It is not a new complaint. The building was first said to have been overcrowded in 1852, the year of its opening. In the 1960s, as a new backbencher, the Labour MP Tam Dalyell achieved early notoriety, when finding himself without a room, he conducted a survey of wasted Commons accommodation and reported that he had found, |a man in his underpants in 590 sq. ft of prime space, pressing his trousers'.

He recalls later overhearing two distinguished |knights of the shires' pointing him out and saying: |That's the fellah who found the man pressing trousers in his underpants'. The absurdity of the encounter reached the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan who, passing Tam in the corridor a month later, looked up and said: |Dalyell, was he pressing his trousers to Royal Scots Grey standard?'

The place is still a rabbit warren. Under the House of Lords there is a full scale rifle range -- hardly an essential feature for a modern Parliament. This summer, during refurbishment work, reporters who had worked 20 years at Westminster discovered for the first time another lift providing a way up to their rooms.

Currently 500 backbenchers have access to only 150 single rooms. The objective, set in 1987, of offering every MP a room of their own by 1995, has long since been given up as unrealistic.

Howe has decided that a serious effort must be made to improve conditions and has appointed Sir Robin Ibbs, Mrs Thatcher's former adviser on Government efficiency, to draw up a report on improving the running of the Commons. …

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