Parliament's secret £600k 'pop up' chamber

Posted On: 
21st December 2017

Parliament officials have undertaken a top secret exercise to build a £600,000 'pop up' chamber, amid fears over the safety of the Palace of Westminster. Robert Orchard reports. 

200 volunteers held a mock sitting this afternoon in a temporary chamber to test its full capability

A top secret week-long exercise to construct a full-size alternative House of Commons or Lords chamber in a building near Parliament has just been completed this afternoon, to simulate what might happen if one or both chambers at Westminster suddenly became unusable due to a fire, a flood or some other emergency.

The exercise – which is expected to cost around £600,000 – has simulated the entire relocation of one of the Houses of Parliament after what was imagined to be a “catastrophic failure” that would have put one or other of the existing chambers out of action for several weeks – possibly months.

The alternative, ‘pop-up’ chamber, designed to seat some 300 MPs or peers, has been constructed in just four days and comes complete with voting lobbies, sound system, IT services, press and broadcasting facilities, security measures, even catering. The ambitious contingency planning exercise – the first of its kind on this scale – ended this afternoon with 200 volunteers drawn from parliamentary staff holding a mock sitting of the Commons or Lords in the new temporary chamber to test its full capability, including sound, recording, broadcast and votes. For security reasons, the venue has not been identified.

No MPs or peers were involved in this test sitting, though a select group of senior parliamentary figures from both Houses, including the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, and the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, have been invited to view the temporary chamber and observe the mock session… which used real parliamentary speeches from Hansard for added realism. With Parliament winding down on the last sitting day before the Christmas recess, however, most MPs and peers will be unable to view the results of the exercise in person. Access has been strictly limited due to concerns about members’ security. A very small group of parliamentary press organisations and broadcasters have been briefed and involved in the work on this ambitious contingency plan.

The exercise began last weekend with parliamentary leaders and top officials briefed on the need to move out of one or both of the chambers due to a major structural emergency. It was agreed there could be some chamber-sharing with the other House, but the pressure of legislation meant that there had to be another chamber set up very rapidly nearby. The go-ahead was given last Sunday to activate the contingency plan and contractors, who had been briefed and prepared for such an emergency, were instructed to begin work on transporting all the materials required to the chosen alternative indoor site, and commence building and securing not just the temporary chamber itself but also the rig, the lighting the sound the broadcasting capability, the IT capability, connectivity, the division lobbies, the chamber support services, the catering. Part of their brief was also to construct a Grand Committee room where some meetings could take place.

In a press statement, the Parliamentary authorities said that the exercise was intended to test its planning procedures to ensure ‘business continuity’. “An alternative chamber was re-created to test how well parliamentary business could continue in the event that one or both chambers in the Palace of Westminster could not be used.” The basic version of the plan – involving what’s described as “an austere replica” chamber – enables the relocation and continuity of Parliamentary business for an initial period of up to 10 weeks.

Defending the £600,000 cost of the exercise, a parliamentary spokesman said: “The costs break down approximately into 50% for the hire of the central London venue for 6 days, and 50% for the construction of a fully operational Chamber with division lobbies and committee rooms, plus the provision of vital supporting functions.  It also includes the cost of dismantling. To ensure value for money for the taxpayer, we carried out external benchmarking not only on venue hire costs, but also on construction costs and sound and broadcasting equipment costs.”

 The Parliamentary authorities stress that the venue chosen to construct the temporary ‘pop-up’ chamber is just one of the places an alternative chamber could be situated. They say it could be erected in any venue with  the appropriate space. The structure and fittings have all been stored in readiness for immediate deployment so that Parliament can guarantee availability and early activation. A team of evaluators has been working all week to learn lessons from the rehearsal which will be incorporated into future contingency planning.

Those in charge of the exercise stress that it is not directly related to the long-term Restoration and Renewal project for repairing and updating the dilapidated Palace of Westminster, and that the temporary chamber that has been built will be dismantled in the coming days. The are also at pains to make clear that the exercise is not being undertaken because of any known threat to Parliament but because, they say, it is good business practice to have such contingency plans in place at all times to ensure Parliament could continue to function in any emergency.

 The senior official responsible for business resilience and continuity planning in the House of Lords is Black Rod, General David Leakey. He said: “Like all responsible organisations, we need to road test our business continuity plans, in order to ensure that Parliament can maintain critical and core parliamentary business and activities.

“We have been re-developing plans for a short-notice forced relocation of a chamber, together with essential supporting facilities and staff, to a number of venues, including venues local to the Palace of Westminster. These plans, which would be activated in the event of a fire, flood or other emergency, were tested today.”

One figure central to the planning commented that the venue chosen for the exercise  was just one possible option in the Westminster area. “If London was ever a problem, we would have to relocate outside London, so you then have to look at the national risk register and say ‘what would be the problem if, for example, the Thames Barrier didn't work and this part of London flooded - where would we go?’  We have thought about this and we do have a plan: we have our pop-up chamber all ready in a flat pack to transport to another part of the country if necessary.”