THE House of Commons authorities are trying to cut costs and maximise income but many of the MPs and staff who work at Westminster fear the whole purpose of Parliament is being downgraded into a tourist attraction.
No longer is the priority, it would seem, an effective legislative body allowing MPs to serve constituents; now it is all about the cost basis and revenue stream from income-generators like leasing rooms for expensive lunches by lobbyists. There is a real risk they are turning the Mother of Parliaments into a tourist resort to rival Madame Tussauds or the London Eye.
I accept that the Houses of Parliament must be a nightmare to manage. It employs a vast number of people in a wide variety of roles encompassing catering, security, administration, and library services, let alone the 650 MPs and nearly 1,000 Lords.
It meets intensively and at varying hours and the number of sitting days in a session fluctuates from as high as 295 to as low as 139. Even on the days that Parliament is not sitting, many MPs and peers are still pushing forward projects, holding meetings and making use of the Estate.
MPs, peers, staff and the Press all need to be fed. Members of Parliament need office space, protected from security threats, given access to a wide array of resources online and off, while the great Victorian Gothic buildings must be kept open for the public.
Westminster is the centre of national debate. You can’t get democracy on the cheap, but the authorities have instituted a drive for efficiency savings that have had severe consequences for the staff at Westminster. Many have been told to reapply for their jobs, while others have been forced to serve for long periods on temporary contracts. Worse still, over 150 employees now appear to be on zero-hours contracts with no holiday pay, no sick pay, and no guaranteed hours.
At the same time more and more services are being outsourced. There are even rumours that the Metropolitan Police will be replaced as our security service by G4S who, not incidentally, are well known for using zero-hours contracts.
From the tragic to the farcical, the cleaning contracts for Portcullis House are now held by a company called KGB! Apart from a few senior staff, these cost-cutting and outsourcing measures have instilled a feeling of low morale that persists throughout the parliamentary estate.
These measures not only hinder the functioning of Parliament but also damage its reputation. As this country’s supreme legislative body and one of the world’s oldest parliaments, we should be setting an example as an employer.
We should value our staff by training them properly, paying them a reasonable amount, rewarding them for their service, and offering them long-term contracts with decent prospects of advancement. It is in everyone’s interest to do this because a properly functioning Parliament requires dedicated and well-trained staff at every level.
Moving over to the other side of the ledger, in search of higher revenue the House of Commons Commission is apparently planning to open up Parliament as a venue for corporate entertainment. Private companies will be allowed to rent out the buildings as a place to take guests, rather like the Shard, Somerset House or a day at Ascot.
I find the prospect of prioritising wealthy clients over the responsibility of Parliamentarians to hold events and the right of members of the public to see the estate deeply objectionable.
Parliament has dramatically improved its openness to visitors, as tourists and as students, and the education service has been transformed in recent years and we are justifiably proud of this. Our Parliament should be open and welcoming to its citizens and to those who wish to see and learn how this great democracy works. Although providing this service does not come cheap, some things are more important than the bottom line. Neither the work of Parliamentarians, nor the right of citizens to see the place where their laws are made, should be compromised for profit: we should not be putting any part of our democracy up for sale.
Our Parliament is the central focus of our political and democratic life. It is an historic building of great importance to the citizens of Britain and is held in trust for them. To attempt to run our democratic hub as though it was a commercial enterprise is plain wrong and must be stopped. Our brilliant staff deserve respect and fair treatment, which any good employer would be expected to provide.
Parliament is not an adjunct to the London Eye or London Dungeons, nor is it a Disneyland on the Thames; it is the heart of British democracy and must be treated as such.
*Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield.