UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1556-vi

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

Administration Committee

Visitor Access and Facilities in the House of Commons

Monday 30 January 2012

Dr Ruth Fox

Evidence heard in Public Questions 261 - 274

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

1.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2.

Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

3.

Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.

4.

Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Administration Committee

on Monday 30 January 2012

Members present:

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Chair)

Rosie Cooper

Thomas Docherty

Graham Evans

Mr Mark Francois

Simon Kirby

Nigel Mills

Tessa Munt

Mr John Spellar

Mark Tami

Mr Dave Watts

Mike Weatherley

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Dr Ruth Fox, Director of the Parliament and Government Programme, Hansard Society, gave evidence.

Q261 Chair: Dr Fox, thank you very much indeed for coming to see us. Can I apologise for the delay in beginning this public session on our access inquiry? We appreciate what you have prepared and we would like to invite you to make any opening remarks. That would be most helpful.

Dr Fox: If I could, Mr Chairman, I thought it might be useful very briefly to say a few words about the Hansard Society. I know you are very familiar with our organisation, having chaired our AGM on a number of occasions, but other Members may be less familiar. The Hansard Society is the UK’s leading independent, nonpartisan political research and education charity. We are part thinktank, part education service provider. We were founded in 1944, and strengthening parliamentary democracy and encouraging greater public engagement in politics has been at the heart of our mission since then, in the belief that democracy and civic society are stronger if citizens are better connected with the institutions and the individuals that represent them in the democratic process. We have long been regarded as Parliament’s critical friend, and one of the areas where we have had most impact in terms of our recommendations over the years has been on the public engagement agenda. Many of the initiatives now in place in the House over the last few years have had some of their origins in the recommendations made by the Society.

Reflecting on the past, we find that all too often visitor-related initiatives have been introduced on an incremental and often piecemeal basis. What has been lacking is an overarching vision that properly recognises and takes account of many of the different and often conflicting requirements on this place. Our latest report, which I know was provided to you in your packs, sets out how we believe Parliament, both independently and in partnership with other stakeholders, might unlock the potential of the parliamentary estate and deliver some of that vision.

I have looked at the previous evidence sessions and I think that we can be of most help to your inquiry in five key areas where we can add value to the work you have already looked at: first, in relation to visitor access and the line of route; secondly, the education centre, because it is clear that a facility for 100,000 pupils on the parliamentary estate is not possible at the moment, and a new approach is needed; thirdly, the World Heritage Site in Parliament Square; fourthly, the issue of stakeholder collaboration-there are other buildings in the Westminster area that are facing many of the same challenges in terms of visitor management that you are. Westminster Abbey and the Supreme Court face similar problems. We have identified a location where we think some sort of visitor centre could be provided. Finally, there is the issue of revenue generation and how that might be used to best effect, in light of the budget cuts but also in light of the need to invest in the heritage and conservation of the building and public engagement, alongside the essential elements of Parliament in terms of its legislative work. Those are the five core areas where we can be most helpful to you.

Q262 Chair: What do you think should be the top priority? You identified five areas of particular interest. Which of those do you think is the most important?

Dr Fox: In part, some of them flow into each other. You cannot solve one without the other. For example, I would say that sorting out the education centre would be a priority, but I do not see how that is going to be sorted out under our plan unless you address the line of route. Some of those issues cannot be sorted out unless you resolve the access at the security entrances. I would see the education centre as a priority in the short to medium term, not least because the House has made it a priority: there is an extant resolution of the House that says that there should be a facility for 100,000 pupils.

Again, I do not think you can necessarily see them as separate. You can sort out access and security issues at the entrances and simply focus on that, and that would be a small step but an important change, in terms of the welcome that visitors receive, rather than having to be stood out in the rain on a Wednesday evening for 45 minutes, waiting to get in because of the queue. That would be important to solve. But the next step then is, if you can sort out the line of route, you can also sort out the education centre location as well, potentially. I would make the education centre my priority, but you need the other incremental steps in place first to enable that to happen.

Q263 Chair: Do you think we have a public engagement problem?

Dr Fox: In terms of public perception of this place?

Q264 Chair: In terms of how the public perceives us?

Dr Fox: What does "us" mean? Parliament as an institution is sometimes seen a little differently from MPs. If you ask what people think of Parliament, many of them will see Parliament through the prism of you as individual Members. We find that every year in our annual audit of political engagement and the research we conduct every year for that. But then, if I may just reference my notes, two years ago we asked the question, "To what extent do you agree or disagree that the Westminster Parliament is welcoming to the public?" Only 27% either strongly agreed or tended to agree with that. There is an issue in the sense of how this place is perceived in terms of its openness and accessibility, but that is a slightly different question from how Parliament in terms of MPs and their work is seen, and how the public perceive Parliament through that prism. Therefore, there are different lenses, if you like, in the way in which people perceive this place, but I do think there is a problem to varying degrees.

Q265 Chair: Do you think those numbers would improve by stretching a welcome banner over the building, or by removing the portcullis, which some saw as a barrier?

Dr Fox: I did see those reports. I do not think there is anything lost by putting up signs that are welcoming, but I do not think you are going to deliver a significant step change in public perception through that alone. That is window dressing, for want of a better phrase. I do not know what the evidence is for the suggestion that the portcullis image is a problem; I am not aware of that research and I have not seen anything. We conducted focus groups two years ago, as part of our audit research, exploring what people thought about Parliament and what their perceptions were, and that issue did not come up at all. I am not aware of the research and you would have to go back to Dr Drori to get the detail of that.

Q266 Graham Evans: I have a couple of quick points to make in terms of welcoming. We have a mismatch here: if I turn up at this place without a pass I do not get made very welcome by the officers to allow me into this place. The other thing is you have armed policemen strategically placed around with semiautomatic rifles. With the best will in the world, as soon as you walk into this place it is a secure area. A couple of weeks ago there was an interesting programme on the death of Airey Neave, which was in the Members’ car park; he was blown to bits where you walk through those gates, within yards of where the public are walking. As MPs we want our constituents to come down here, and we advertise visits, but you have to bear in mind that people have been killed in this place. We have to have a certain amount of security there, rightly so. How do you expect to be able to change that, bearing in mind we need to be aware of outside threats?

Dr Fox: It is not an issue for the public who arrive here in terms of the fact that you have security people and policemen with guns and so on. That is not necessarily the problem. If you are outside Portcullis House or College Green entrance and you have to wait for 45 minutes in the rain because you cannot get in, and then when you get inside the building you discover that there is only one open security point, and that is the reason why you have been stood out there, that is the problem. People are not daft; they appreciate and understand that this is one of the great target buildings for security, not just in this country but the world. For example, when people come on tours or turn up for democratic participation in the House-whether that is coming to Committees or going in the galleries, whatever it may be-information could be provided to them in terms of information on the website and whatever information is sent to them, that this is what they should expect the experience to be and some explanation of why that is.

In many parts of London we live with heightened security; that has become an accepted part of visiting buildings like this. If you go to the National Gallery, some of our major museums or even St Paul’s Cathedral you have to go through a security check. People are accustomed to that. It is about the information you provide and how it is done. Maybe there is a gap there in terms of the information that the House provides, in terms of that experience expectation that they arrive with, that you could address, but I do not think lowering security is the issue.

Graham Evans: I am just thinking about the welcoming. There is not a single welcome sign, but the moment you walk in there is an armed policeman. It is the contradiction; you cannot fluff things up. In terms of queuing, this Committee has discussed the security arrangements in this place, because we agree those things are perhaps avoidable by investment in more security equipment to allow people to go through.

Q267 Chair: Your report suggests that the tension between the House as a working establishment and a visitor attraction might be resolved by dealing with the visitors off-site. Would you like to elaborate on that?

Dr Fox: That potentially reduces the pressure in terms of the numbers that come through. The reality is the primary function of this building is as a working legislature; that is the primary function. To my mind, visitor numbers and accessibility have to be managed around that. Therefore there are some expectations that need to be managed. But that does not mean you have to say, "Okay, we are shutting the doors and keeping the visitors out". About a million people come through every year, for one reason or another. There is some scope at the margins for increasing the numbers that come through, but only at the margins, with a bit of innovation and creativity in terms of the timetable and how spare capacity in the week might be used for visits. Not everybody, though, would necessarily want to come in. Not everybody has the time to come in. Bear in mind that, by best estimates in 2007, there are about 30 million people who pass through the area for one reason or another each year. By area I mean the Westminster Heritage Site, Parliament Square area. There is an awful lot of movement and footfall that is not coming into this place.

The reality is that neither this place nor Westminster Abbey nor the Supreme Court, at the moment, could really meet the demand that is there. That does not, it seems to me, mean that nothing can be done in terms of engaging with those visitors that do not come into the building. Think about the experience of visiting Parliament Square as a visitor, rather than a Member. What is the experience like, if you want to take photographs of the place, step back and look at the buildings, if you want know what the buildings are, what they do, what the relationship between them is, or if you want to know something of the history of the area? It has some of the most fascinating history, not just the democratic history but the broader national history, of anywhere in this country. Yet nowhere here can you find any information about it outside of this building. There are all sorts of opportunities being lost in terms of interpretation, education and information provision that could be delivered in partnership with the other stakeholders but is not. It would give you opportunities to broaden the public engagement activity without impinging on the primary work of the House. If more could be done outside you would feel less pressure in terms of people wanting to come inside.

Simon Kirby: Can I just say that is a very interesting point and you are absolutely right. A lot of the attraction of the Houses of Parliament is from the outside, and we seem hellbent on rushing into the inside. Clearly the area Parliament occupies has a fascinating history and is of great interest in itself. I am very pleased to hear you articulate that fact.

Q268 Chair: Turning to your recommendation on income generation and the Parliamentary Bookshop becoming a visitor centre, surely the alternative would be to ensure that it is simply the Parliamentary Shop, as opposed to a bookshop. The types of items we are now starting to put in there are more likely to attract the kind of clientele that is in Parliament Square. It has been a theme of this Committee that there is a huge potential to be tapped there.

Dr Fox: Absolutely. To my mind, it is a valuable piece of parliamentary estate and parliamentary retail estate that is underutilised. I say this is as somebody for whom the only form of shop I like is a bookshop, so I would personally miss it, but it is grossly underutilised.

A couple of points: we have not proposed that it should be a visitor centre but more an information centre and retail facility. For example, if you think of it in the context of the suggestions we had about how you might develop guided walks around the area-right down from Trafalgar Square, through Parliament Square to Tate Britain, for example-or if you want to provide information about the sculpture and history of the area, something as basic as a map setting it all out with guided walks would help manage the footfall around the area advantageously. If you wanted that, that would be a location where some of that might be provided. It is not big enough to be a visitor centre, and it is not well located, in the sense that it is behind the colonnade at the moment. We would not recommend it for that, but as an information centre and for the souvenirs, it is absolutely vital.

One of the problems with it now is that it does not operate in accordance with visitor times; my understanding is that it is closed on a Saturday. You have to align the retail-souvenirs, catering and so on-with visitor throughput; it is a huge lost opportunity if it is not, which I do not understand.

Tessa Munt: I also picked up your comments about extending out to the edge of the curtilage, if you like, so you use the colonnade bit inside the shop. That was fantastically useful, as it just gives you a shop front, because it is extraordinary.

Q269 Chair: Turning to a line of route, what is the optimum to be sought after?

Dr Fox: I do not much care whether it goes from the Lords to the Commons or the Commons to the Lords, but it should go one way. My preference of the two, given that you have Cromwell Green set up as the secure entrance, is that, in terms of a long-term vision, the ideal would be people would come into Cromwell Green, into Westminster Hall. You start there on your tour, with the foundations of the building, this magnificent hall. You move through from Commons to Lords to the Royal Rooms, and you could build your tour around the procedural process: Commons to Lords to Royal Assent, if that is the preferred route you take. There are ways, both historically and in terms of legislative procedure, that that is rational.

But the reality is, to make that happen, people have to exit at the Lords end. A solution has to be found to get people out of the building at that end. To my mind, the best route, as we set out in our report, is that you would exit through the Lords, into Victoria Tower Gardens and into a facility there that provides the catering and retail and so on, and you have some kind of facility there. It can be done, because we have seen it done at other royal parks, such as the facility in St James’s Park. It can be done sensitively and in keeping with the area. You exit there, and all your end-of-route visitor facilities are provided.

The advantage of that is it frees up what you do with the Jubilee Café, that is at the beginning of the current tour when you enter the building. Would that be needed? This is where resolving the line of route helps you resolve the education centre problem, at least in the short to medium term, in that there is nowhere on the parliamentary estate at the moment where anyone has been able to find a satisfactory single location that can accommodate 100,000 pupils per year. We have to face the fact that that just does not exist on the site at the moment. You need a short-to-medium-term interim measure to improve provision and try to reduce the movement of pupils in other parts of the House.

The Education Service needs some kind of permanent facility. They deliver excellent services, but it would be so much better if they had a permanent facility. The combination there in Westminster Hall of the Jubilee Café, redesigned and refurbished, combined with the IPU room, the CPA room and the W meeting rooms-there are some negatives attached with all of that in terms of meeting space, I recognise, but they are relatively small in number and limited in impact. You could take out that area and redesign it as your short-to-medium-term education centre, with a view to improving the facilities that the Education Service has at the moment, and look longer-term to provision, which we would link to a proper, fullscale visitor centre in collaboration with other partners.

Chair: In the context of that answer, I had better place on the record the fact that I am the chairman of the UK branch of the CPA, and I might have views about that.

Q270 Tessa Munt: Part of the evidence we had last week was about the logic of moving visitors from the Lords to the Commons end to look at the precedents of the Commons now and that historical shift of power. I wondered about your thoughts about whether education should take place at the beginning or the end of the tour, and therefore, if one was to bring people in through the Lords end, whether in fact you might have something as your education centre in Victoria Tower Gardens. I am agnostic on this, but it would be interesting to know what your thoughts were about keeping the café-or maybe moving that into Westminster Hall so people can see it-for their end-of-tour experience and starting off with education there, or maybe bringing young people and those involved in education visits in through the Lords and then finishing with something educational at the end. Do we start or finish with education?

Dr Fox: In all honesty, I am probably not the best person to ask about that. I do not deal with the education groups and the small groups. I am not terribly well qualified to comment on that. I am fairly agnostic, like you, about whether it begins or ends in the Commons or the Lords-you can make good arguments for both directions-but just treating it as line of route misses an opportunity to resolve the education centre problem. I do wonder whether you could do much with the Jubilee Café in terms of moving it into Westminster Hall. There are all sorts of issues that would arise; I can see English Heritage, for example, not being terribly supportive. There are all sorts of heritage and conservation issues that would perhaps come into play with that.

You would need to think about how big the facility is at the beginning and in terms of Victoria Tower Gardens, and whether that could be accommodated. I suppose the advantage that I can see to our approach is that if you had a more general visitor facility in Victoria Tower Gardens at the end, because it is joined to the parliamentary estate, but not on it and part of it you could use it at other times, such as during the evenings. We reference in the report-we did not come up with the phrase; Foster + Partners originally came up with the concept-this "People’s Terrace" idea, and that you would use a facility more than just during the official tour hours, many of which finish at five o’clock. There are times in the evenings when you could use it for other things. You would be more limited in scope in terms of what you could use an education facility for at other times than you would in a more general visitor facility. It depends on what you want to prioritise, what it costs and what the capacity is.

Q271 Chair: Should we have any truck with English Heritage?

Dr Fox: You do not have much choice. They have an important role in relation to this place, and in relation to the World Heritage Site. We did talk to the people at English Heritage who deal with the World Heritage Site status issues. I found them much more open to ideas and partnership than I would have expected, given what I had heard about them and what I had been told about them by other partners in the World Heritage Site Steering Group. I was very surprised at how open to ideas they were. They have strong views about certain locations and what is acceptable at certain locations, but they recognise the problems that this House and Parliament face in relation to management of numbers. For their part, they would respond and say that they are intensely frustrated, as part of the Westminster World Heritage Site Steering Group, with the lack of progress that is made with anything. Some partners undoubtedly blame English Heritage for that. They undoubtedly have their own view on the reasons why there is very little progress.

To give you one example, Mr Chairman: this is the Westminster World Heritage Site Steering Group Management Plan, which is supposed to manage the area. It was first written in 2007; it has about 28 recommendations in it. Almost none of them have been implemented. The Steering Group is just hopeless: utterly dysfunctional. Parliament is one of the partners in that, but not the only one: the Parliamentary Estates Directorate represents this place on that group. English Heritage would say that part of the problem in terms of taking an agenda forward for the area is the lack of leadership and the lack of functionality within that group. What I would say to this Committee is you have an opportunity in terms of setting a lead and a tone that that group is up for review. This management plan is to be reviewed in 2012/13. You are only one player in this, but you are a very important player. In terms of the tone and the sense of direction and vision you set out and would like to see, and the kinds of changes that could be made to that steering group and to the management plan, you could make quite a bit of difference in terms of breaking through the deadlock on some of these issues.

Q272 Graham Evans: How many recommendations did you say?

Dr Fox: It is about 28 in total.

Q273 Graham Evans: Could you just give us an example of what one is and why it has not happened?

Dr Fox: If I can get to the exact recommendations in here, one of them-just in a very general sense-is that there should be interpretation in and around the Heritage Site area. Bear in mind, the Westminster World Heritage Site is Parliament; the Abbey; it encompasses the Jewel Tower and the Dean’s Yard area of Westminster School. It does not include Parliament Square, to be clear on that. One of the issues was about interpretation. Nothing has happened on that.

The group only meets once a year; it is chaired by Westminster City Council. The biggest issue in terms of the functionality is the disputes between the political players-and it is not a partisan point; it is an issue about views on who ought to be running that part of London, and there are differing views within parties as well as between parties on that. The protest issue has become the focus of so much activity that a lot of other things have fallen by the wayside. Part of it is also who is in charge, who coordinates, who makes things happen. There is no clear organisational structure to it: it is just a collection of people who meet once a year, discuss and move on. We have recommended that there are other ways in which World Heritage Sites are managed better that could be looked at.

Q274 Chair: Would the Hansard Society robustly defend us if we recommended and the authorities approved the idea of spending quite a great deal of money on a proper visitor centre and education centre to the southern end of the building?

Dr Fox: Yes. My research team are on record as recommending it in the report. I did an interview with one of your colleagues, Phillip Lee last week on the PM programme, and I talked about the need for a visitor centre. The more you can work in collaboration with stakeholders as well helps you offset the risk in terms of media criticism and so on. There are others who would also support you in it, and the people with whom we engaged in discussions, who are identified at the back of our report-Historic Royal Palaces, Tate Britain-could all see an advantageous approach to more interpretation, more information and more visitor provision externally to the site that would link in to their facilities. Historic Royal Palaces have an interest in the Banqueting House and the Jewel Tower; Tate Britain would like to see more visitors who get to Parliament Square and never get south; they would like to see more footfall going down through Millbank. There will be others who will be prepared to speak up as well.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed. It has been very helpful evidence and we appreciate your time.

Prepared 7th February 2012