I read with some sense of shock that the building that houses the Commons and the Lords, the Palace of Westminster, is so riddled with asbestos and other faults that Parliament might have to relocate for 5 years while it is rebuilt – or even move to an entirely new building in London or elsewhere. I had not noticed the leaks and other defects that some have suffered from. On the contrary, every single time I go in there I feel a renewed sense of obligation to try and live up to the image that the Palace projects. It is grand; it is gothic; it does not nod to modernity; it is infused in its artwork and architecture with a sense of domination. All over I know, but it is redolent of the time when Britain had an empire and ruled the world. It gives continued work to some of our best craftsmen, who can be seen retouching the paintings, the carvings and the gilt. The Palace lacks sufficient offices for all its inhabitants, and it does not make the best use of modern technology. For example, there are useful screens around the place indicating what debate is taking place, who is speaking and what amendment is under discussion. But so much more could be usefully displayed on screen using modern technology, for example, the wording that is under consideration, the actual question being asked and so on. Visitors often express surprise that we do not vote electronically from a distance, but have to be physically present in the corridors. That is right in my opinion. To allow voting from a distance would be a temptation to miss the debate and not familiarise oneself with the issues. And it is most instructive to wait in the queue to vote and see who else is sharing the same corridor and have a chat with other peers that one does not already know. A new building, whether at Westminster or elsewhere, would have to have more rooms, secretarial facilities and the latest digital aids placed by the seat of each MP and peer.
That surely could be achieved in the existing building. The thought of a modern concrete block replacing it elsewhere in London – or out of London – fills me with fear. I believe that work and study are very much affected by the beauty of the surroundings in which they are carried out. No modern architecture could compete with the Palace, designed by Sir Charles Barry, and no modern construction would awake the same sense of obligation and respect. And London would be bereft of one of its greatest sights. Westminster Hall is still there after 800 years, the original home of the courts and Parliament. It is convenient for the Abbey, 10 Downing St and Buckingham Palace, not to mention the government offices lining Whitehall. Yes, there are mice. I have seen them in the Peers’ Guest Room, and adopted the nonchalant attitude that seems to be de rigueur when they appear. It is best to avoid the nuts that are left on the tables there, just in case.