Believe it or not, there is nowhere in the House of Lords where backbenchers can hold press conferences! We used to be able to use any of the Committee Rooms, but in March 2010 the House agreed that only Committee Room G could be used for this purpose.
Two years later, an obscure Committee which deals with matters such as charging for tours of Big Ben and the use of electric hand dyers decreed that press conferences should be exiled to a small room in a building five minutes’ walk from the House. No consultation was held with backbenchers in arriving at this decision.
This Committee forgot to obtain the approval of the House, but officials tried without success to enforce their ruling all the same. When they suddenly realised this irregularity they tabled a motion to correct the omission on December 17 2012, and won the vote handsomely because the establishment came together on both sides. The Labour Party had a Whip on the vote **, without which it would probably have been lost, though it wasn’t a party-political matter.
In the debate, there had been no answer to the case made for the retention of the single remaining committee room in the Palace of Westminster in which press conferences were allowed. It was said that somehow the media would imagine that views expressed would be seen by the media as being those of the House, though no evidence this had ever happened was cited. No evidence was given, either, that problems had arisen in the Commons, where press conferences can be held in a dozen rooms.
It was said that undesirable characters would be allowed to air their opinions, and the example given was that of Geert Wilders, the Dutch extremist, who showed an Islamophobic film in the Lords. Wilders is always careful to say that he hates Islam, not Muslims, and however unreal the distinction may be, it is not unlawful. There might have been public order grounds for banning his entry to the UK, but the Home Secretary tried that and was overruled by the courts.
Some press conferences on international issues are held to allow oppressed people who are silenced in their own countries to reach an audience. Holding such meetings in the Palace of Westminster does enhance their prestige with journalists, the very object of the exercise.
It has to be said, too, that Members of both Houses are not keen on trundling over to an outbuilding for meetings. Their days are full enough as it is, and if there are votes it is risky. For the disabled, that remoteness probably means an absolute barrier to attendance in practice.
At the very end of the debate on December 17, after the vote, the Chairman of Committees withdrew the motion, saying that consideration would be given to allowing the use of a room in Millbank House, almost as far away and no larger than the one already available in an outbuilding.
It was not clear how that could be done within the rules of procedure, but the effect was that the status quo remains until a further motion is brought before the House. When that happens, there will be a further attempt to counter officialdom’s attempt to control Members’ rights and stifle freedom of expression.
** Correction: I inferred, since most Labour peers voted to exile press conferences from the main Parliament building, that the Labour Party had a Whip on, but the Opposition Chief Whip assured me they had a free vote.
* Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, is a working peer, and Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group. He blogs here.