Keeping the two Houses together is vital for an effective Parliament and government scrutiny
Two years ago, the prospect was floated of the House of Lords moving out of London during the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster.
The Prime Minister suggested York as a venue. The Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove reignited discussion when he wrote to the Lord Speaker on 13 May saying that he would not support the use of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre as a site for the Lords and suggesting alternative locations, including Burnley and Wolverhampton. He said on the basis of no evidence that moving elsewhere, even for a temporary period, “would be widely welcomed”.
Discussion generated by these ex cathedra pronouncements has focused on the merits of particular cities. In so doing, it has missed both the practical problems of relocation and, more fundamentally, the objection of principle.
If the two Houses are separated, the only winner is the executive. It becomes a case of divide and rule
Relocating the House of Lords does not entail simply finding a site for the chamber. It involves a whole ecosystem. Making such a move is not cost free. There is the capital cost (land, buildings – not just the chamber, but offices for members, officials, members’ staff, security, support personnel and media) as well as the running costs, which would be additional to the existing costs of running the Palace of Westminster.
At Westminster, one has the benefit of shared services, such as security and IT. Then there is the cost to civil society in making representations to the second chamber in addition to lobbying departments and the first chamber.
Moving the House would thus be difficult and costly, though not necessarily insuperable. What does create an insuperable barrier is the key constitutional principle that the two Houses should be co-located. This has nothing to do with the merits of a particular city. It is not a case for the two Houses remaining at Westminster. An argument can be made for a purpose-built capital city, such as a Bonn or a Brasilia, or using an existing city as an administrative capital. The point is not in which city the two Houses sit, but that they must be together, located where government sits.
Parliament is one constitutional entity comprising two chambers. Government is answerable to Parliament for its actions, policies and bills. Both Houses need to be where government is in order effectively to scrutinize ministers and their departments. The two Houses need to be located together, not only to fulfil formal and semi-formal tasks through, for instance, joint committees and all-party groups, but also to enable members to meet informally to share information and co-ordinate scrutiny and to mount campaigns.
Sometimes speed and agility are required between the two to challenge and constrain government. If the two Houses are separated, the only winner is the executive. It becomes a case of divide and rule.
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. The problem was especially acute in terms of interaction between members of the two chambers.
If the Lords moves to another city, then so too must both the Commons and Whitehall. The need for both Houses of a legislature to be together is recognised globally. No other western nation with a bicameral legislature puts the two chambers in separate cities.
Having the two Houses together facilitates an effective Parliament. Separating the two empowers the executive.
Lord Norton of Louth is Professor of Government at the University of Hull and a Conservative peer
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