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13 September 2021

From the NS archive: Nationalising parliament

27 February 1960: The truth is that parliamentary government in Britain is reaching crisis point.

By Barbara Castle

“At present the Palace of Westminster is run as though all MPs were gentlemen of private means, with outside research, secretarial and office facilities to draw upon,” wrote Barbara Castle, then Labour MP for Blackburn, in 1960. “The ordinary MP has to fight almost with his bare hands.” At the time, MPs had to provide their own secretaries, and pay for postage and long-distance telephone calls out of their own pocket. Of the 511 backbenchers in the Commons, only 72 had desks for their own personal use. Overcrowding had “induced a mood approaching cannibalism”. Space for kitchen staff was even smaller. The problem, Castle wrote, lay in “the political cowardice of governments afraid to tell the public that its watchdogs require a physical environment which will enable them to do the job”. And so the Labour Party was asking for the democratic control of the Commons – rather than that power lying with the Serjeant-at-Arms. “Without it, the Commons cannot win the battle to equip itself with the most elementary facilities for effective work.”


“This House”, Mr Butler told the Commons when opening a debate on procedure the other day, “should be a centre in which the struggle for power continues healthily to take place.” A Commons with “no surprises, no traps, nothing unexpected, no warfare and no political unpleasantness”, he warned, would not be worthy of the name at all.

Anyone listening to these brave words would have assumed he was about to propose radical reforms for strengthening the role of the individual MP. But the biggest change he went on to recommend was the reduction in the number of parliamentary questions an MP could ask on any one day from three to two. And when Mr Richard Marsh, the lively new member for Greenwich, rose to point out that back-benchers lucky in the ballot for private members’ bills could not even get expert assistance in drafting the measures they wanted to propose (unless, of course, those measures had the approval of the government), Mr Butler had little practical comfort to offer.

The truth is that parliamentary government in Britain is reaching crisis point. “The reputation of the House of Commons in the outside world is far in excess of its merits”, writes Mr Crick. In his Fabian pamphlet, The Reform of the Commons, he puts his finger on the real malaise. Parliament is ceasing to be an efficient critic of the executive, not because the public “is let down by the kind of man who comes to parliament”, but because “it is let down by the use that is made of whoever comes.” It would be a tragedy if parliament were ever to be manned exclusively by lawyers, company directors and Oxbridge dons. Yet at present the Palace of Westminster is run as though all MPs were gentlemen of private means, with outside research, secretarial and office facilities to draw upon. Against the rising power of the executive in government, of which Mr Crick rightly warns us, the ordinary MP has to fight almost with his bare hands.

Most people have now heard (and are tired of hearing) of the basic disabilities under which an MP tries to do his work: the fact that he has to provide his own secretarial assistance, pay his own postage and long-distance telephone calls, entertain constituents out of his own pocket, etc. And most people shrug them away as if they were simply a plea for more money or “amenities”. But, in fact, MPs are crying out for the facilities with which to do their job properly. And in their complaints they batter themselves against the walls of tradition, parsimony and, above all, the political cowardice of governments afraid to tell the public that its watchdogs require a physical environment which will enable them to do the job.

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This environment is no longer provided by the Palace of Westminster. Surrealist glimpses of life with the Commons have been provided in answers to parliamentary questions in the last few weeks. Of the 511 back-bench members of the Commons, 72 have been allocated desks in the Palace for their own exclusive use and another 109 have desks for the use of their secretaries. (The provision of one automatically excludes a member from entitlement to the other.)

Even these inadequate totals have been achieved only at the expense of overcrowding, which compels both members and secretaries to jostle like condemned Irish horses in their allotted space. In one secretaries’ room off Westminster Hall, 19 typing tables have been squashed into an area of 684 square feet, which works out at 36 square feet per table, 11 square feet below the Gower Committee’s recommended statutory minimum. In Room One of the Upper Committee Corridor, 18 MPs who can’t afford secretaries have been allotted desks at the rate of 26 square feet per member. None of these desks has individual telephones or desk lights. MPs with secretaries are allowed half a filing cabinet a head. Some 67 MPs without secretaries have been allocated desks with filing space.

One MP tells me he keeps his papers in a tin box salvaged from the old press gallery when the former Chamber of the Commons was destroyed in the blitz. The remaining MPs ballot for lockers lining the walls of the corridors in which they stuff their white papers, blue books and letters from constituents. They do their writing in the Commons library.

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Overcrowding in the Palace has induced a mood approaching cannibalism. Successive committees have combed the accommodation to see whether Peter could be robbed to house Paul. Officers of the House, whose duties may keep them very late, struggle to defend their accommodation against MPs who know that, if they, too, are stranded overnight, they will have nowhere to sleep. Jealous eyes are cast on Mr Speaker’s library by MPs grossly overcrowded in their own. The conditions of the staff are still primitive.

Down on the terrace floor of the Commons, for example, 40 women members of the kitchen staff wash, change and rest during their hours of duty from 11 am to 10 pm in three tiny rooms, taking turns to stretch out in the four armchairs. In the seven small writing rooms at the back of the press gallery, 94 parliamentary correspondents struggle to produce a coherent digest of the day’s debates in conditions even worse than those which plague MPs. The staff who feed them take their afternoon rest in the press dining room. The cook and eight washers-up change in one cramped room.

It is against this background that Labour’s motion on accommodation, tabled this week, must be read. For the past 17 years at least, the inadequacy of the provision for the House of Commons has been glaringly obvious. Successive committees produced only palliatives which did nothing to meet the real needs of the post-war parliaments, in which 630 MPs come to Westminster with a full-time job of work to do. And so, in 1953, the Commons set up yet another Select Committee on Accommodation, this time fortunately under the chairmanship of the late Dick Stokes. He, ably abetted by his committee, got down to fundamentals for the first time. While tackling certain details which called for “early improvement”, the committee made clear “the need for constant effective review and ultimately for a more radical solution”, if MPs were ever to enjoy standards of accommodation enjoyed by MPs elsewhere in the Commonwealth, let alone in the United States. And in their view there was only one way to achieve this – to make MPs the masters in their own home.

To lovers of tradition there is no doubt something satisfyingly quaint in the fact that parliament meets in a royal palace administered by a hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain in the Crown’s name. But to modern MPs this form of control smacks too much of the days when the interests of the Lords were dominant in the Palace and the faithful Commons held their humble deliberations across the road. They live in fear that, when the new building plans materialise, they may be pushed across the road again: at any rate for their office and secretarial facilities.

Nor does the present machinery give MPs effective control over their own fate. When the Commons is sitting, the control of the Commons wing is vested in the Serjeant-at-Arms, acting for Mr Speaker. At the weekends and during recess, control reverts to the Lord Great Chamberlain. Even when the House is sitting, the control of the Commons over its own premises is confused and indirect. The allocation of accommodation is carried out by the Deputy Serjeant-at-Arms, who cannot be questioned in the House. The improvement of that accommodation is a matter for the Minister of Works, and the cost of it is carried upon his vote. Yet the Commons as a whole has no say in preparing estimates that have to filter through the minister to a parsimonious Treasury.

It is for that reason that none of the more fundamental changes recommended by The Stokes Committee have been carried out. The committee complained about the “disproportionate amount of space devoted to other users of the Palace”. But some of those users are in the area allocated to the House of Lords, over which the Commons has no control. The committee called for structural improvements in the Commons library – vetoed by the Treasury. It also called in vain for extensive building projects to extend the Palace. Above all, it called for the setting up of a House of Commons Commission, which should take over responsibility for the pay, pensions and terms of service of all officers and officials employed in the Commons, a responsibility at present nominally discharged by a body of Commissioners set up in 1812. The Commission would also advise Mr Speaker on the drawing up of the Commons estimate: the allocation of accommodation; the library and other facilities necessary to enable members to discharge their duties properly. And it would make an annual report which parliament could debate.

This, then, is the first essential step towards the democratic control of the Commons affairs for which the Labour Party is now asking. But it is asking, too, for the second step which the Stokes Committee suggested the Commission itself should take as soon as it is set up: namely, the drawing up of proposals for the unified control by parliament of the Palace as a whole. This can never be achieved as long as the ultimate responsibility lies in the hands of a hereditary officer, however courteous. Yet without it, the Commons cannot win the battle to equip itself with the most elementary facilities for effective work. This time the Opposition, at any rate, will not be content with less.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).