What should we do with the Palace of Westminster?

The Houses of Parliament currently function as the location in which Parliament expresses and exercises its sovereignty. It seems obvious that they no longer fit that function well: archaic logistics, terrible accessibility, lack of office and meeting space, and chambers designed perfectly for the cheap game show otherwise known as PMQs, but not for deliberation or wise governance.

Soon the buildings are to have a very expensive makeover during which time MPs and Lords will have to decamp. Perhaps we should make the decampment permanent. Build a site suitable to house the legislative body of a modern democracy.

Some argue that such a building should be outside London. That is a separate debate. But whether it is in London or not, it then leaves open the question of what we should do with the Palace of Westminster. My suggestion is that we should bear the cost of the refurbishment, and then turn them into the home of an Institute for Democracy.

One of the many lessons of Brexit, whichever way it goes, is that we desperately need a way of re-engaging the mass of citizens with the democratic process. People in every region and in every section of society feel, and are, disenfranchised. We can, and should, argue all we like for reform of the voting system and other formal and administrative tinkering, but it will take more than that to re-enfranchise many ordinary citizens.

An Institute for Democracy can have many functions and many forms. One of the possible forms is the holding of regular citizens’ assemblies, in which people from all over the country are randomly selected for invitation to an assembly which may last for several days, in which they learn about, discuss and debate one of the many issues about the way we are governed. Attendance at the assembly might be treated like jury duty, with the assemblees paid for their expenses and their time, and employers and others required to allow them to attend. The chambers of the two Houses can be retained for the purpose of holding plenary meetings of the assemblies.

This would be, in my mind, the main activity of the Institute, but I can envisage many others. It can hold seminars, conduct research, act as a library and a repository for material and data about democracy. It will still be a tourist attraction, and can also attract income from sponsors, sales and hosting events.

Given the catastrophic effect Brexit has had and is still having on our democratic processes, the Institute needs to be set up and to start to do its work well before the Palace is refurbished. It could start immediately, and hold assemblies in all of the different regions in whatever remains of the UK. I would hope that it would continue to do that, one of the biggest problems about the social and economic shape of
our country being the enormous weight attached to London and the south east. The Palace would form a magnificent centre piece for the Institute, but never its only home.

I suggest that this should become Liberal Democrat policy.

* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at http://acomfortableplace.blogspot.co.uk

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29 Comments

  • An interesting article that raises some important points. An institute for democracy to nurture, encourage and improve democracy is a very good idea. But democracy is not about buildings.

    And I would contend that rather than “the catastrophic effect Brexit has had and is still having on our democratic processes” actually our democracy in many respects has never been stronger but unfortunately that is not saying much for Britain. Democracy dies in apathy and you cannot say that people have not been engaged in Brexit.

    There is far more debate among people and social media gives them a bigger voice – even if discussion should be peaceful and it is often better (though not always!) if it is respectful.

    The issue is not about some central building housing an oligarchy. It is about having more referendums. One idea is to give each citizen a mobile phone device so they can vote quickly and easily in referendums.

    It is about devolution to nations, regions and localities. Above all it is about “politicians” (i.e. everyone!) being community politicians and engaging with local people.

    It is about having true freedom of speech and a US-style First Amendment protection for it.

  • This seems to be a very anglocentric view of the parliamentary system in the UK which includes devolved legislatures for thee of the four nations. The major part of your ‘argument’ would concern, I suggest, one of the four. If the other three want more local powers and ways of working then, as Scotland has shown, there are ways of achieving them. The English alone have no ‘local’ structures apart from a scattering of mayoralities. Scotland, at least, has large measures i’d democracy on its ‘doorstep’.

  • Very important issues are raised by Rob Parsons. The need to have a sensible chamber for debates in parliament, the need to consider the future of the Palace of Westminster, the importance of developing democracy in our country all are important .
    However can I focus on treating a citizen’s Assembly like jury service. Would the expenses paid to jurors really be enough for this? I have done jury service, and it did cause me problems, although there was no loss of income. For many it must be a major problem – especially when the summons is – or was – designed to threaten.
    The last time I was summonsed for service it explained that failure to appear would result in a fine. I wrote and explained I would be too old. They then wrote and said that if I turned up I would be fined.

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Feb '19 - 10:57am

    Tom Harney – I would say that your experiences regarding jury service are merely an example of the standard of (in)competence of UK bureaucracy – very poor and very wasteful of resources – and nothing whatsoever to do with the EU – it’s all our own fault.

  • Paul Holmes 4th Feb '19 - 11:24am

    During the 9 years I worked there I was not aware of any shortage of office or meeting space. That was a problem in earlier days but long since solved.

    As for the debating Chamber yes the Commons is too small for all 650 MP’s to sit down at once but it is very rare they would even try. Not least because at any given time around half are elsewhere in the building working in Standing and Select Committees. Not that lazy journalists bother to point that out when scoring cheap shots about attendance.

    Remember that the crowded scenes that tend to be shown on TV (PMQ’s, the start of ‘big’ or ‘controversial’ debates) represent a tiny tiny fraction of the working day in Parliament.

  • “lack of office and meeting space”?
    But wasn’t Portcullis House supposed to address this?

    If there still is an office and meeting space problem then perhaps Sanctuary Buildings is the solution – the Department of Education was due to move to the Old Admiralty Building in 2017, but signed a new 15 year lease last year. Interestingly, the buildings owner has put the offices up for sale; so a temporary arrangement could be made permanent.
    Similarly, if you are to keep Parliament at Westminster then consideration should be given to the need for other government offices in the immediate vicinity, such as the old DoE offices in Tothill St. – currently occupied by the DWP and HSE.

    I suggest that after a general election MP’s are assigned an office via a lottery – to ensure fairness of allocation.

    This leaves the Palace to be used more for debates and committee work ie. work in the public view.

  • Paul Holmes 4th Feb '19 - 1:20pm

    Roland -Portcullis House did meet the problem -which no longer exists.

  • John Marriott 4th Feb '19 - 2:33pm

    Mr Parsons talks about “re-engaging the mass of citizens with the democratic process” fine words from someone who obviously cares; but I have to ask how many of them were ‘engaged’ in the first place? Politics is generally a dirty word in many households. It’s largely ignored for fear of bias in most schools, unlike in Germany, for example, where, from my experience, political parties are positively encouraged to engage with students, even to the extent of being allowed to distribute literature in secondary school playgrounds. Mind you there was the period of 1933 to 1945 to consider.

    As to what to do with the Palace of Westminster, have we no semtex? Seriously though, the idea of setting up a series of ‘citizens’ Assemblies’ around the country smacks of the EU Parliament’s scuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg, something its critics often point to as a massive waste of time and money.

    Call me a cynic if you like, but many people just want to get on with their lives unencumbered by political baggage and who could blame them when they see how many politicians seem incapable of answering a straight question? As many Labour Party spokespersons keep saying; “Let me make it perfectly clear”. And yet, as Joni Mitchell famously sang; “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Does anyone still remember the queues of voters stretching for miles when South Africans first experienced free and fair elections?

    Keep on blogging, Mr Parsons.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 5:03pm

    @Michael 1 I must take issue with the idea that democracy is vibrant. A lot of people voted in the referendum, whch is a good thing, but what has happened since then has been a travesty of democracy. That one deeply flawed vote has been cast as the be all and end all of debate and development. Democracy as a process has died and been replaced by accusations and amplifications of lies.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 5:06pm

    M I Taylor, I take your point. But democracy is hardly more alive in the other nations than in England and I think citizens assemblies have a role to play in every part of the UK. I agree that a lot needs to be done in terms of devolving power and making votes relevant. I see my suggestion as just one part of a whole.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 5:12pm

    David Raw, can I suggest that you read the main article with a bit more care then. I do not mention Select Committees because I do not need to. I do not envisage Citizens Assemblies taking over the role of Parliament. I see them as deliberative bodies, not as decision making bodies. And the whole purpose is to be as unlike Question Time as possible. An Assembly is an educative and conversational process, in which people have the chance to spend time learning about the topic under discussion, consulting and questioning experts, devising options with fellow citizens, and debating the issues in respectful ways. They will not be wound up beforehand, ike Fiona Bruce’s audience.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 5:16pm

    Tom Harney, my own one exerience of jury service was equally dispiriting. I shoud clarify: I do not mean attendance at an Assembly to be compulsory. I would hope that it should become so much a part of our democratic fabric and so valued that people would jump at the chance of attending. My comparison with jury service was intended to be on the other side of the equation – while attendance would not be compulsory, if a person chose to accept the invitation, then obligations would fall on others to encourage that, e.g.employers would be expected to allow time, and would be compensated for attendant costs, as well as the citizen being paid a fee and expenses.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 5:19pm

    Roland, Paul – perhaps my view of the issue of space is exaggerated. My experience of being there a few times was of rabbit warrens of corridors, and rooms of inapproriate sizes for their functions. But, even if the space problem has been solved, it is only one of the issues about the Palace’s suitability for Parliament.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 5:23pm

    Michael 1 “But democracy is not about buildings.” Absolutely, which is the reason for my penultimate sentence.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 5:25pm

    Steve Trevethan I like your ideas very much.

    (But what does TYFTA mean?)

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 5:30pm

    John Marriott “many people just want to get on with their lives unencumbered by political baggage and who could blame them”. I agree. But I see that as an issue that needs a response, not a given that we have to live with.

    Some people will always feel like that, come what may – probably too suckered by buying enthusiastically into consumerist capitalism. But many people feel like that because they are routinely made to feel powerless, and, given the opportunity, they can blossom. The Citizens Assemblies are intended to give that opportunity to as many people as possible.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 7:29pm

    David Raw no, the whole point is that they are not for the chattering classes. People don’t buy tickets to go, they are selected by lot, and the selection will include people from all regions of the UK. There will no doubt be some chatterers there, but there will be people from all walks of life and all classes. When they are properly conducted (which is why we need an Institute to conduct them), such assemblies work extremely well to engage people and give them food for thought about all aspects of their lives.

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Feb '19 - 9:37pm

    @ Rob Parsons TYFYC [Thank You For Your Comment.]
    TYFTA = Thank You For The Article.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Feb '19 - 10:06pm

    Steve – Oh, nice. Thank you 🙂

  • @Rob Parsons

    ” I must take issue with the idea that democracy is vibrant… That one deeply flawed vote has been cast as the be all and end all of debate”

    I agree. And I made the point in my comment that we should have more referendums. (Part of the problem with Europe is that we didn’t in the past and it became the elephant in the room that the “political class” for want of a better word ignored – understandable but always ultimately a mistake).

    Clearly just as holding one general election does not mean that we ban all future general elections – the same has to apply for referendums. And you need mechanisms whereby a sufficiently large number of people can petition for a referendum on a particular subject.

    And I also made the point that to say that democracy in Britain is probably stronger than it has been is unfortunately not saying much. We need all the reforms that the Lib Dems advocate – fair votes, community politics, devolution etc.

    But I was trying to make the point that many say that “division, argument and debate” even in robust terms is bad and a sign of a “broken” democracy. These are normally the people that say that apathy and falling turnouts are also bad! That we have rising turnouts and debate and engagement is a sign IMHO that the life blood of democracy is coursing through the veins of the body politic. Even if Liberal Democrat surgery is advised!

  • Nonconformalist – I didn’t mention the EU in my post.

  • Nononformistradical 5th Feb '19 - 8:39am

    @Tom Harney
    “I didn’t mention the EU in my post”

    I wasn’t implying that you did – it’s merely that all too many people find it convenient to blame the EU for the UK’s problems instead of taking a good hard look at ourselves and the way society ‘functions’ here.

  • Rob Parsons 5th Feb '19 - 10:10am

    Michael 1, I think you make your point much better the second time 🙂 and I agree with much of what you say. But I do not think that our current situation is of properly robust democratic argument and debate. There is far too much heat and not nearly enough light in the way we are currently conducting our politics. There are many reasons for that, not least the interest of the primarily right wing media, and the extremists on both sides in promulgating such murky methods of political communication. And then the failure of other media to call out lies and misinformation wherever they find it – which is more or less everywhere.

    The fact that so many people are noticing is not necessarily a sign of engagement. I think that probably a lot of them are disgustedly eating popcorn rather than actually engaging in the debate. But the fact that so may people are noticing is perhaps something that we could capitalise on to start having some genuine democratic debates.

  • @Rob Parsons

    Thanks for your further comment.

    There is quite a lot to unpack in it. Of course TV and newspapers want eyeballs and an academic paper is not the way to get it – so yes they want controversy, excitement and heat etc.

    In every generation people have said how outrageous and disrespectful comment is – Gillray’s caricatures, Spitting Image, Robin Day on ITN asking a minister a searching question rather than “is there anything that you would like to tell the nation.” All the way back to the first “social media” of the first (London) penny post in 1680 – accused of spreading liberal sedition.

    I would venture that today social media does give people a greater voice and it is good that people can verbally attack people who set themselves up to control and sometimes ruin their lives – not Sue Lawley saying if you are very good and put on a nice suit and don’t swear, the minister will deign to patronise you with a non-answer. And it gives non-professionals the opportunity to spread their views and “broadcast”. Politics is not some academic study. It is about people’s everyday lives – the NHS not providing treatment, a child’s live ruined with rotten education, money forcibly taken off people in taxes, people sent to their deaths in wars, people denied job by poor economic situation because of – immigrants, Labour ineptitude regulating the banks, the coalition, Brexit, the EU – take your pick. People should be angry, fearful, hopeful, excited, pleased etc. about these things.

    Politics for me is not how to count an STV election – important though that might be but these things. When I write a focus leaflet it is about the hospital ward that is closing, more money for the local school etc. Sadly the Remain campaign was not about people’s lives whereas Leave was.

    There has been a lot of “heated” (and I think even illuminating) debate in the past 40 years – the miners strike, poll tax, the Iraq war, Thatcherism, Socialism. But the new engagement in social media and around referendums such as the Scottish and Brexit referendums is to be welcomed. And social media is vastly – if not wholly – excellent force in that.

    For 400 years, the “old media” have rubbished “new media” but actually the history of those 400 years is one of increasing and vast – if still imperfect – democratisation, debate and empowerment of the people.

  • Rob Parsons 6th Feb '19 - 2:23pm

    Michael 1, I think I now disagree with you more than I agree with you 🙂

    I think the issue here is that we disagree about the fundamental nature of the tools we are using.

    You’re right to say that political communication has always been robust. But usually, somewhere amidst the robustness, is the possibility of the truth emerging. Robin Day’s robust questioning was designed to winkle out truths that politicians did not want to have aired. Today we have politicians routinley lying on traditional media and not being challenged. The 2016 referendum was probably the low point. There were failures on all sides – the Leave campaign lied egregiously, the Remain campaign was feeble, and the media utterly failed in their duty to expose the Leave campaign’s lies, in fact going to the extent of amplifying them rather than challenging them.

    In that circumstance we have to consider careully the role played by social media. Yes, social media can be a tool for giving a voice to those who have no voice, and for making societies more democratic. But they cannot be relied upon to do that. Social media are tools, nothing more nothing less. The tools will be used by all sides for their own purposes. Currently, IMO, those who use social media for spreading lies are in the ascendancy. That is not surprising – they are determined, well funded, and, while they are by no means united, they share largely complementary goals.

    Yes, social media can be a force for democracy and enlightened discussion. that is how I and many other people use them. But to outweigh the forces of darkness we are going to have to work extremely hard.

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