Peter Riddell: While parliament is being refurbished, it’s crucial that ministers stay near Whitehall

Written by Peter Riddell on 29 March 2016 in Opinion

If the House of Commons moves too far away from Whitehall departments, it will make life much harder for both ministers and civil servants

Location is everything in politics – whether within 10 Downing Street or, even more, the closeness between Westminster and Whitehall. That reflects not only the core constitutional principle that the executive is part of the legislature but also the practical necessity that ministers and civil servants need to be near to the Houses of Parliament.

This proximity has been taken for granted for centuries but it has now been put in question by the need to undertake a huge programme of repair and conservation at the Palace of Westminster, starting after the 2020 general election. There are various options but something has to be done to avoid major irreversible damage. And that probably means that MPs and peers will have to leave the mid-19th century buildings for some years. But to where?

This is not just a matter of cost – important though that is – but of the functioning of government. If the House of Commons moved too far away from Whitehall departments, then it will make life much harder for both ministers and civil servants. Suggestions that parliament should move to Manchester, Birmingham or York are ludicrous because either officials and others would have to travel up and back to London at enormous cost – imagine the press headlines – or they would not, and the effectiveness of government would suffer. The answer to the centralisation of British politics is more devolution within the UK and decentralisation within England, both of which are occurring, while committees can, and do, take evidence around the country.

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Our parliamentary system has always rested on physical presence with MPs, however eminent, voting in person. A prime minister has to go through the voting lobbies along with the newest backbencher, in the process allowing MPs to speak to ministers. Because ministers are also MPs, and peers, they have parliamentary responsibilities – something which successive foreign secretaries have always found it hard to explain to their overseas counterparts – as well as executive ones. 

Moreover, easy and ready access is vital for ministers and civil servants to be held accountable by parliament – via urgent questions arranged at short notice, at oral questions and in appearances before select committees. None could easily be achieved if parliament was some way from departments.

As important as the formal meetings are informal contacts between ministers and all others involved in the political process, from backbench MPs to constituents, interest groups and the media. None of these exchanges could be adequately replicated by video conferencing.

Conversely, the risks of separating ministers from their departments are shown in other Westminster model capitals. In Wellington, all ministers work together in what is known as the “Beehive”, rather than in their departments, but at least in New Zealand everything is on a relatively small scale so that everyone knows everyone else. In Canberra, however, the main offices of Australia’s ministers are in the New Parliament Building where they are surrounded by a larger number of mainly politically appointed advisers. Some ministers virtually never go to their departments, which reinforces a distance in every sense between them and officials. The same phenomenon is partly true in Cardiff where ministers spend most of their time in the Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff Bay, rather than in the government offices in the centre of the city near the castle.

In interviews with the Institute for Government, several former ministers complained about a lack of time in their multiple roles, and, in particular, a number wished that they had spent more time with their backbench colleagues at Westminster. These problems would only be worsened if ministers had to travel considerable distances between their departments and wherever the Commons was temporarily re-sited.

One of the clear themes of the Ministers Reflect programme was that many ex-ministers believed civil servants did not really understand their parliamentary duties. 

As Damian Green, the former immigration minister, remarked: parliament is “almost the only medium in which you can lose your job in about half an hour, and a lot of officials don’t get that at all”.

In the IfG’s briefing paper, “Ministers reflect: On Parliament”, Nicola Hughes and Hannah White quote former DfID minister Sir Alan Duncan describing the good working relationship between his parliamentary team and his private office. “If there were votes [in the Commons], the private office would come and sit in my office and get me to sign letters and brief me here,” he said.

That would all become much more difficult, if not impossible, if there was a greater physical separation. Ministers and civil servants work most effectively when they are near parliament, however frustrating they sometimes find the scrutiny and challenge of MPs and peers. 

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Peter Riddell
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Peter Riddell is director of the Institute for Government

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Hugh Neill (not verified)

Submitted on 29 March, 2016 - 13:19
If Government expects we can all go digital, and it is planning to digitalise public services delivery, why is the thought of trying to conduct its own business by more digital means so unconscionable. There is something faintly ludicrous about all this, especially when devolving government is being so much discussed as something with many benefits to offer, and when the benches of House are so often empty of people. In the age of Facebook, Amazon and online grocery shopping I think Government could do with having the oxy-acetylene torch of reality waved in its face. Disraeli, Gladstone and Empire are long dead.

Hugh Neill (not verified)

Submitted on 29 March, 2016 - 13:47
So, Government can digitalise its services, we can meet on facebook or skype of whatever, we can meet partners or network for business online, and we can buy on Amazon and have groceries delivered using online ordering. And yet the thought that Government can conduct (any of) its business other than by sitting in one building in central London is unconscionable. How utterly ludicrous Mr Riddell. The rest of us have to live with change and Government should be leading on it, not cowering behind the crumbling old walls of a Westminster now devoid of Empire or admirers. Where there is a will etc. The refurbishment of Westminster provides an opportunity, and it should be grabbed. Who knows, there might even be fewer days when the 'benches' are left empty.

Charles McDowall (not verified)

Submitted on 30 March, 2016 - 11:07
Let us beg to differ. Moving parliament to the North Midlands, perhaps its old home of Liichfieild, would allow an English Parliament to be built ready for devolution, trial run by MPS.. We have seen substantial efficiency improvements in all sectors of the economy. It is now time to see equivalent change in the centre of power. Parliament needs to reduce from 650 MPs to 200 or perhaps 300 with a similar reduction in numbers of ministers and hangfers on. Ministers and seniors need to adopt the tools of remote working like the rest of the population and industry. We cannot allow 'must be next door' bar stool comments to be core 'strategic government policy'. Where is the 'nudge' or properly 'evidence based policy'? With respect to costs, the fares would be small compared to the reduced cost of officing and housing departments in London and pressure on London living if English departments moved to the midlands. And should CROSSRAIL 2 remove the problem of a midland centric english government accessing its full constituency?

Tim Oakley (not verified)

Submitted on 30 March, 2016 - 12:44
Rather like the French alleged practice of getting all pedestrians crossing roads onto a zebra crossing so they can be knocked over more efficiently than if they were crossing the road randomly.

Gussie Finknottle (not verified)

Submitted on 11 April, 2016 - 08:51
A couple of simple questions - Why does Parliament have to stay in London? How much less expensive would it be to have the Government building in the middle of the UNITED Kingdom? Why is Government not adhering to the Government's IT procurement strategies and policies? Why is the Government not having a 30% reduction in numbers? Why are MPs not subject to their imposed pay restraint? After all - that is what is happening to the Government's employees!

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