Who is in charge of the Palace of Westminster? Big Ben and parliamentary governance

8 Sep 2017
Big Ben's Great Bell, Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament

The summer's row over the temporary silencing of Big Ben highlights confused and opaque decision-making structures governing the Palace of Westminster. This bodes ill for the stalled Restoration and Renewal (R&R) project.

Dr Alexandra Meakin, Lecturer in British Politics, University of Leeds
Lecturer in British Politics, University of Leeds

Dr Alexandra Meakin

Dr Alexandra Meakin
Lecturer in British Politics, University of Leeds

Before joining the University of Leeds in 2021 Alexandra was a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Manchester. Her doctoral research, conducted at the University of Sheffield, was on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster and parliamentary governance. Prior to entering academia, Alex worked for over a decade in Westminster, for select committees in the House of Commons and for MPs.

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At midday on 21 August, the MP for Ealing North, Stephen Pound, shed a tear in the shadow of the Elizabeth Tower as Big Ben chimed for the last time until 2021 (barring Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve). The vigil in the Palace of Westminster took place as the media proclaimed the symbolic importance of the Great Bell, and expressed concern about the extinguishing of the 'democracy lamp' due to the repairs to the Tower. Throughout the press coverage there was a common theme in the reaction statements from politicians of both Houses and different parties: no-one was clear who, if anyone, had approved the temporary silencing of the bongs. This raises a larger question: who is in charge of the Palace of Westminster?

Answering this question is not straightforward. The Government largely has control over the scheduling of parliamentary business, certainly in the House of Commons (although this is somewhat complicated by the current absence of a Government majority in either chamber). But the internal governance of Parliament is seen as a matter for Parliament itself.

As the name suggests, the Palace of Westminster was built as, and remains, a Royal Palace, and it partly remains under the management of the Lord Great Chamberlain (on behalf of the Monarch).

The rest of the Palace is divided between the Lords and the Commons. There have been huge strides made in recent years in working bi-camerally on issues such as IT and security, but, for the most part, the two Houses retain separate decision-making structures.

For the Elizabeth Tower repairs, these structures have seemed to involve four separate committees in approving the work: the Commons Administration Committee, the Commons Finance Committee, the (now defunct) Lords Administration and Works Committee, and the House of Commons Commission.

Members who were on these different committees at the time have lined up to disavow their roles in the Big Ben decision-making process. James Gray, a member of the Commons Administration Committee, was reported as telling the Daily Telegraph that 'there was never time to read through complex structural reports' the Committee had to consider. The Chair of the Administration Committee, Sir Paul Beresford, has said that he was not informed that the chimes would stop for four years. Speaker Bercow’s office has said that while final approval was given by the House of Commons Commission, this was after the earlier approval of the other three committees, and the Commission 'did not have input into if/when the bongs would stop or, more widely, the nature of the works'. Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the Commons and a member of the House of Commons Commission, held urgent talks with the Speaker about the decision. The Chair of a fifth committee (the House of Lords Commission), Lord Speaker Lord Fowler, has said that it was not given the chance to approve or reject the works, or any information about the silencing of the bell, despite the Lords funding part of the work. The decision-making structure for the internal governance of the Palace of Westminster appears to be anything but clear.

For this reason, clarifying how the Big Ben decision was made is not easy. For understandable - and necessary - reasons (often the security of the estate or commercial confidentiality), the agendas and minutes of these multiple committees can be opaque. It is less understandable, however, that it can be difficult even to access these redacted publications. For example, although the House of Lords Commission commits to publishing the decisions from each meeting the following day, the 'Decisions' paper from the 28 March 2017 meeting was published nearly four months later, on 17 July (when the Commission bulk-published papers for meetings going back to September 2016). A trawl of agendas, decision papers and bulletins sheds little light on who knew what, and when, about the Elizabeth Tower repairs. For example, the 2 November 2015 minutes of the Lords Administration and Works Committee state: 'The Committee agreed to the refurbishment of the Elizabeth Tower in the terms expressed in option 5, including visitor enhancements', where the specifics of Option 5 are (presumably) contained in an unpublished reserved paper.

These papers do not contradict the MPs’ claims: there is no explicit mention that Big Ben will not chime for four years. This is not to say, however, that the MPs and Peers did not sign off on the specifics of the work: it is simply not clear from the papers.

But the implication of the comments from James Gray, Paul Beresford and the Speaker’s spokesperson is clear: parliamentary staff made the decision without input from parliamentarians. Other MPs were more explicit: Robert Halfon tweeted that the chimes were stopped 'at [the] stroke of [a] bureaucrat’s pen'. (Apart from anything else, this is concerning as, like civil servants, parliamentary staff are impartial and not able to defend themselves publicly.) The level of autonomy given to the specialist engineers and project managers working on the Elizabeth Tower is unclear. It may be that the silencing of the bongs went beyond what was agreed by the various committees. It is perhaps more likely that the confused decision-making structure resulted in grey areas of authority.

The furore over Big Ben suggests a difficult future for the multi-billion-pound megaproject to repair the dilapidated infrastructure of the Palace of Westminster: the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) programme.

To bypass the differing committees and commissions across both Houses, a two-tier structure was proposed for the R&R project: an arm’s-length Delivery Authority, to be overseen by a Sponsor Board, acting as a single client, on behalf of Parliament. The Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster described how this structure would work in its report on the R&R programme, published a year ago on 8 September 2016:

Such a client would need to be precise in defining the scope and objectives of the Programme but, having authorised the delivery partner to proceed, would need to let the partner deliver the Programme without undue interference. (para 256)

This governance structure is yet to be established, however, as the R&R project is in limbo. There has been no parliamentary debate on the recommendations of the Joint Committee, let alone the legislative time required to establish the Parliamentary Delivery Authority and Sponsor Board. Until a proper governance structure is in place, the R&R project remains vulnerable to potential micro-management by 650 MPs and 800 Peers, as demonstrated in the Elizabeth Tower repairs.

As for Big Ben, following the intervention of the Prime Minister, the House of Commons Commission is due to reconsider the chiming of the bongs at its September meeting. The House of Lords Commission also plans to discuss the issue at its September meeting. This could lead to a scenario in which the two Commissions disagree on the programme of work on the Elizabeth Tower.

As Lord Norton has highlighted, therefore, there is no one person who can speak on behalf of Parliament. The answer to the question 'who controls the Palace of Westminster?' remains unclear.

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