I was delighted to hear this week that of all of the 650 constituencies, North Wiltshire is number three in the League for the number of visitors to Parliament at 746 people. The only two higher were Westminster and East Ham. Given that North Wiltshire is 2 hours or more from London, it is not bad to be the number one non-London constituency. I have always gone to great lengths to welcome visitors, and I must say that my wife Philippa, is exceedingly diligent in making the arrangements, which can sometimes be complex. Many of the groups will be school, military, Rotary Club, Woman’s Institute or similar visits, and the dates and other arrangements can take a fair bit of juggling. I try to meet as many of them as I possibly can before they go off for a thoroughly professional (and entirely free) tour of both Houses, Westminster Hall and the bits in between. I hope that you will understand that I do NOT provide so much as a cup of tea – I would very quickly become awash with the stuff.
The reason that I have always encouraged these visits is not just so that people can see the magnificent building, the historic sites, our wonderful Chamber. The Palace of Westminster is not a museum, nor a stately home. It is a working building. 7,000 people work there; there are 50 lifts and staircases, 1000 rooms (of which, according to Churchill only two matter- the Chamber and the Smoking Room); and 34 cafeterias, bars and restaurants. It is the throbbing heart of our magnificent democratic system; and it is great to welcome constituents and others to the Palace to see how Parliament works.
That is one of the reasons why I feel uneasy about the current plan to vacate the old Palace by 2025 for it to be restored. I worry that in doing so we will lose that feeling of an historic but working democratic hotbed. I would much rather that the work which is needed were done while the House is sitting, which may also make it less comprehensive and therefore less expensive. There are a number of alternative plans in circulation which would allow the preservation and modest modernisation of the Palace, yet preserving all that is best of it, not least for the many thousands of visitors who go through it every year.
Something of the same applies to the current ‘virtual’ sittings which started this week. Of course I accept the necessity for them. 650 MPs from all parts of Britain cramming together in a room designed for only 350 would of course be crazy. Social distancing is absolutely essential. So I wholly accept that some kind of electronic remote or virtual Parliament is absolutely essential while we are all in lockdown. And I think that it all worked reasonably well. It was very courteous, Sir Keir Starmer had a good first outing, and some difficult questions were asked of the Government. Yet it is just not the same. Very few of the 650 are able to take part in any meaningful way. And the very remoteness, the politeness, the clinical cleanliness of it all removes that hubbub of scrutiny for which Churchill designed the Chamber after it was bombed in the Second World War. So I accept that it has to be like this for now; but I long for a return to a fully functioning (and disease free) House of Commons. A vibrant democracy demands it.