The issue of moving the House of Lords out of London has again reared its head with Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove writing to the Lord Speaker telling him that his Department, which holds the lease on the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, will not make the Centre available for use by the Lords during the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) of the Palace of Westminster.
I have previously written on the proposal to move the House out of London. I did an interview on the subject last week for GB News. Also, as the Guido Fawkes website recorded, Michael Gove appeared last week before the Association of Conservative Peers, writing that ‘Guido’s mole reports Lords Norton, Geddes, King, Taylor, and Hayward all raised concerns’. To say ‘raised concerns’ is uncharacteristically diplomat.
The principal problem is not relocation as such. Moving has significant practical problems. It is not a case of simply moving the chamber, as many appear rather glibly to assume. It entails a whole ecosystem of committee rooms, offices for members, chamber and support staff (clerks, specialist advisers, administrative officers, attendants), and members’ staff as well as support services. It is often overlooked just how many thousands of people work in the Palace of Westminster. There is also the issue of where will all the organisations that work with and seek to influence Parliament – charities, firms, professional bodies – locate themselves as well as the challenge of creating a transport hub that matches London in enabling the public to visit.
Leaving aside such practical issues, the principal objection is not to relocation as such, but to separating the two chambers. Parliament is where it is because Government is where it is. The two Houses have to work closely together to scrutinise Government and call it to account. It is not just a case of the formal relations between the two Houses, but the extensive and often informal contact between members of the two Houses. Separate the two so that this contact largely ceases and you empower the executive. What is being advanced here is essentially a power grab by Government.
The consequences of members not being able to interact, and interact quickly, with one another was demonstrated during the pandemic when members were dispersed around the country. Meeting virtually and then in hybrid form was a success technically, but a major constraint politically. There was none of the extensive daily interaction between members that ensured they exchanged information and reacted promptly to ministers’ statements and actions. The problem was especially acute in terms of interaction between members of the two chambers. I virtually had no contact with MPs during that period. Normally, I regularly have meetings with them and gain a lot simply by virtue of serendipity, often bumping into them when walking over to, or when in, Portcullis House. I have written on the significance of the use of informal space in the legislature. How members use it can have a notable impact on policies as well as the future of ministers and political leaders. We need to protect such space and for its use by members of both Houses.
There is a case for moving if it entails both Houses and Government moving, creating in effect a purpose-built capital akin to Bonn or Brasilia, but not separating the chambers. Moving the Lords engages not a dislike of this city or that city, but a fundamental constitutional objection.