UK Politics

John Bercow says MPs would back temporary move during Parliament repairs

Houses of Parliament Image copyright PA

Commons Speaker John Bercow has said he thinks MPs would agree to temporarily move out of Parliament while £4bn repairs are carried out.

But he said they should only agree to move if a temporary, "pop-up" Commons chamber is constructed nearby and within Parliament's security cordon.

The cordon covers a number of government buildings in Whitehall.

Otherwise, Mr Bercow said in a Q&A session, politicians could be locked out of Parliament for many years.

A parliamentary committee is finalising controversial proposals to rehouse both the Commons and the Lords for up to six years while the ageing building is thoroughly renovated.

A decision is due within months and the move could take place after the 2020 general election.

'Incentive'

The alternative: a much slower process of repairs could take place while MPs and peers continue working in the Palace of Westminster - but this could take more than 30 years to complete and cost nearly £6bn, 50% more.

In a question and answer session with the audience after a wide-ranging informal interview at St James Theatre in central London, Mr Bercow said it was important that MPs should be persuaded to abandon the decaying Victorian Palace of Westminster while the overhaul takes place.

He thought they would agree, on one condition: "We should preserve a 'pop-up chamber' on the Parliamentary estate, so that there is an incentive for those doing the work of restoration and refurbishment to do it to time."

Possible secure sites being discussed for such a temporary debating chamber for MPs include the Richmond House headquarters of the Department of Health in Whitehall, and the medieval monolithic splendour of Westminster Hall, the oldest part of Westminster, where monarchs lie in state and the trials were held of Charles I, and Thomas More.

It is thought other options such as adapting parts of the Treasury or the Foreign Office have been ruled out. Peers would also have to abandon Westminster and a temporary House of Lords could be housed in the QE II conference centre opposite Westminster Abbey.

The Commons Speaker, Mr Bercow, explained why he thought it was necessary to build a temporary debating chamber for MPs.

"If we were simply to go, in every respect, away from the House and to preserve nothing on the Parliamentary estate, it seems to me - on the principle of the doctrine of the occupied field - the contractors are occupying the field and we could be out for a long time. "

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Bercow also:

  • Scathingly denounced much of the UK tabloid press as what he called the "more downmarket, low-grade, fifth-rate scribblers on newspapers - if they could be called such - that might be thought to be racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, comic cartoon strips"
  • Confessed he was "very, very deeply ashamed" of being a member of what he called the "racist, anti-immigration, anti-Semitic" Monday Club in the 1980s
  • Performed humorous impressions of various MPs, including "the late, great Tony Benn" and entertained the audience by reciting from memory long comic poems and quotations
  • Confided that he had not lost any sleep after cutting off David Cameron in full flow at PMQs
  • Explained how he had managed to stay in the Speaker's chair for nearly 11 and a half hours on the day of the Syria debate. Contrary to rumour, there was no commode concealed in the Speaker's chair any more - he had just avoided drinking any coffee or orange juice at breakfast, and only taken the occasional sip of water as the debate wore on

He also described how he could still represent his constituents despite his role as a neutral Speaker by summoning a Cabinet minister to see him in Speaker's House.

They apparently have to come to him, not the other way round. And woe betide the minister who displeases the Speaker: he or she faces a summons for what Mr Bercow's private secretary describes frostily as "a meeting without coffee".