On Thursday 16 June 2022, the House of Lords is due to consider the following motion:

Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative) to move that this House takes note of the case for both Houses of Parliament to continue to be co-located in the same city.

1. Background: The restoration and renewal programme

Recent discussion about the location of the House of Commons and House of Lords has largely been centred around the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. In January 2020, the government suggested that the House of Lords could be moved to York or Birmingham. In July 2020, the prime minister wrote to the restoration and renewal sponsor body and delivery authority to suggest that they examine the case for decant locations outside of London as part of a strategic review that was being conducted of the programme.

The Palace of Westminster requires substantial repair and restoration work. Following years of exploratory investigations, in 2016 a Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster published a report setting out options for the restoration and renewal of the Palace. This report included some consideration of Parliament’s location (see section 4.2 below).

In 2018, the House of Commons agreed a motion approving the next step of work on restoration and renewal. This motion included an endorsement of the joint committee’s recommendation for a full decant of the Palace (that is, a total relocation of staff and members to alternative premises during the works).

In October 2019, the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 provided for a sponsor body to take responsibility for the programme of works. The sponsor body acted in shadow form from July 2018 until April 2020, when it was formally established upon the act receiving royal assent. The sponsor body’s strategic review, which also recommended a full decant of the Palace of Westminster, was published in March 2021. The strategic review’s remit was to consider what had changed since the independent options appraisal in 2014 and the Joint Committee of the Palace of Westminster report in 2016.

Most recently, in February 2022, the House of Commons Commission proposed replacing the sponsor body with a new department of both Houses which would be accountable to the clerks of both Houses and their commissions.

At a joint meeting in March 2022, the commissions of the two Houses agreed a “new approach” to the restoration and renewal programme. The commissions agreed to seek independent advice and assurance on the new approach to the works, as well as on proposals to take forward the commissions’ decision to replace the sponsor body. They said they would seek a revised mandate for the works and changes to the sponsorship function from the two Houses before the summer recess.

2. Location of the Lords: A move out of London?

In January 2020, the Sunday Times reported that the government was looking at moving the House of Lords permanently out of London to York or Birmingham. The newspaper said that the government also wanted the House of Commons to meet outside of London for “several days of debates” in order to “connect Parliament better to the world outside the Westminster village”. The then Conservative Party chair, James Cleverly, told Sky News that the government was looking at “a whole range of options about making sure every part of the UK feels properly connected from politics”.

On 15 July 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote to the chief executives of the sponsor body and the delivery authority to suggest that the restoration and renewal strategic review considered locations outside of London for a full decant of both Houses or a partial decant of either or both Houses. He said that the government was considering the establishment of a ‘government hub’ in York and said York should therefore be considered as a possible location:

There are a number of possible locations, within London, which could be considered, including Richmond house, the QEII Centre and City Hall. However, the review should also consider a possible location outside London. The government is considering establishing a government hub in York and it would therefore make sense to consider this as a potential location. The government does not prejudge any particular outcome.

The sponsor body spoke with the Speakers of both Houses and concluded that this would not be considered as it fell outside of the programme’s scope to do so:

As this is a matter for Parliament, the sponsor body consulted the Speakers of both Houses on the possibility of considering the prime minister’s suggestion before proceeding further. Both Speakers made it clear in their letters of 27 July [2020] that this option should not be considered as part of the review as it fell outside the programme’s scope to do so. As a result, the response to the prime minister on 18 August [2020] confirmed that this option would not be considered as part of the review.

On 19 August 2020, BBC News reported that “the government recently declined to confirm or deny reports that a feasibility study has been carried out in possible sites in the city [of York]”.

On 15 May 2022, the Sunday Times reported on a letter from Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, to the Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, in which Mr Gove said that he would not support the QEII being used as a temporary home for the House of Lords during restoration and renewal. The newspaper wrote that, as the minister with responsibility for the government’s levelling up agenda, Michael Gove said he could not support a plan under which the Lords would “decamp to a temporary home a mere 200 yards from the Palace of Westminster”. The Sunday Times said that Mr Gove’s department owned the freehold to the QEII centre and the arm’s length body which operated it.

In answer to a written question on 24 May 2022 on the government’s assessment of the potential merits of moving the House of Lords to York, the government said:

Decisions on the location of parliament, and how to proceed with the parliamentary restoration and renewal programme, are for parliament.

The government has an aspiration that all parts of the United Kingdom should feel connected to politics and indeed to politicians. Levelling up is a moral, social and economic programme for the whole of government. As part of the place for growth programme, the government has previously engaged with the York Central Partnership and explored whether the space would allow for parliamentary activity, should it be required.

3. How many bicameral chambers are co-located?

There are 192 national parliaments listed in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) Parline database. Of these, 111 are unicameral and 81 are bicameral.

Of the 81 bicameral parliaments, three have addresses for their two chambers in different cities (as recorded in the database). These are Côte d’Ivoire, Burundi and the Philippines. The Philippines’ House of Representatives is located in Quezon City and the Senate is located in Pasay City. Both are located in the Metropolitan Manilla region (approximately 12.5 miles apart). Burundi moved its political capital from Bujumbura to Gitega in 2019 (with the former remaining the economic capital). The move would take place over three years and the Senate was the first institution to move (the Parline database records the National Assembly’s address currently as Bujumbura).

4. Commentary on co-location

The government’s suggestion that the House of Lords could be located outside of London has generated a range of responses.

4.1 Recent discussion in the House of Lords

On 16 May 2022, a private notice question was asked by Lord Forsyth (Conservative) about the government’s consideration of the location of the House of Lords during restoration and renewal.

Lord True, minister of state at the Cabinet Office, said that issues of decant and the locations of the chambers were “a matter for Parliament”. He also went on to state that “as far as government property is concerned, obviously that is a matter for the secretary of state”.

Several members raised concerns about the House of Lords and the House of Commons being in different locations. For example, Lord Carlile of Berriew (Crossbench) said this “would be a very adverse and unconstitutional act”. He indicated that were Parliament to move out of London he believed it should be both Houses together. Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Labour) described the location of the Lords as “a really important constitutional issue” and referred to the state opening of Parliament with the Queen’s speech delivered from the Lords but with members of the Commons present. She also said that the Lords needed ministers to be close by. Lord True referred to remote participation acknowledging that “those of us who have had experience of a Parliament by Zoom know the importance of personal contact within and across the Houses to the good operation of government and Parliament”.

Other members also suggested that moving the House of Lords could have benefits. For example, Lord Austin of Dudley (Non-affiliated) argued “there is a case for looking at whether Parliament’s deliberations can take place elsewhere in the country and for moving large parts of government to the regions”. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour) said that, whilst he agreed with many comments, the suggestion of the Lords moving “might make those members who live in London, particularly those on the front bench, realise the practical difficulties and problems of those of us who do not live in London”.

Lord True said that he understood that the Commons and Lords commissions were seeking to hold debates in both Houses on the restoration and renewal programme before the summer recess.

On 16 May 2022, the Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, wrote to members of the House of Lords following Michael Gove’s letter. BBC News reported that Lord McFall described separating the Commons and Lords geographically as “highly questionable” and that the legislative role of the Lords was “indivisible” from the Commons. The BBC also reported that Lord McFall agreed that politics could be too London-centric, but saying that “I don’t believe moving locations in and of itself would address these concerns”.

4.2 Consideration of co-location by the restoration and renewal programme

The Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster’s 2016 report on restoration and renewal considered the co-location of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The joint committee said that during informal conversations it had with members of both Houses, co-location was considered to be a “very important factor” in deciding where both Houses could decant to. The committee said that whilst both Houses were independent, there were a lot of links that would be detrimental to lose. It argued that some things could be adapted, for example the physical exchange of messages and bills between the Houses, but it also argued that some interactions could not be replicated if the Houses were not co-located. These included:

  • joint committee meetings
  • all-party parliamentary groups
  • party political group meetings
  • civil society events held for members of both Houses

The joint committee said it was “clear that the two Houses of Parliament and government need to be located close to each other”. It concluded that temporary accommodation for both Houses during restoration and renewal should be located as close to the Palace of Westminster as possible. The committee expressed concern that accommodation “a long way from Whitehall” would “significantly” increase the cost and complexity of the programme and “introduce numerous challenges for the smooth operation of both Parliament and government”.

4.3 Academic and other responses

A number of academics and other commentators have responded to the suggestion of the Lords being moved out of London and being located elsewhere from the House of Commons.

In an article from February 2020, Professor of British and Comparative Politics and Director of the Constitution Unit at UCL Meg Russell described moving the House of Lords to the north of England as a new idea in the wider context of Lords reform. She described the objective as similar to that of reforming the Lords as a ‘chamber of the nations and regions’, in that it would seek to achieve “a kind of territorial rebalancing, and linking other parts of the UK more closely into parliamentary arrangements”. Outside of the “short-term upheaval” of moving the House of Lords, Meg Russell argued there were good reasons why almost all bicameral parliaments had both chambers located in the same city:

First, if ministers and government officials are to be held accountable to both chambers (for example answering questions and piloting bills, as happens on a daily basis in the Lords), geographical proximity is important. Second, a great deal of informal politics is done in the corridors at Westminster. If MPs and peers were separated, conflict between the two chambers would likely become much more frequent.

When referring to the use of the ‘corridors of Westminster’ for informal politics, Meg Russell referenced an article by Lord Norton. Lord Norton, professor of government at the University of Hull, wrote about the importance of informal spaces in legislatures in an article in the journal Parliamentary Affairs in 2018.

Lord Norton defined an informal space as one in which members of a legislature “gather and converse, but where the gathering is not formally scheduled, has no set agenda, is not minuted, and there is no-one presiding formally over proceedings”. He argued that there had been limited study on the use of space for informal gatherings of members. Lord Norton argued that informal space was important for a range of processes:

The use of informal space, we argue, is important to the legislature for the process of institutionalisation and, to members, for socialisation into the institution, for information exchange, for lobbying, and for mobilising political support. Institutionalisation and the socialisation of members underpin the stability of the legislature. Information exchange and lobbying can impact on ministerial actions and outcomes of public policy. Mobilising political support can determine who holds office. These are hardly insubstantial consequences.

Lord Norton said that restoration and renewal would result in changes to informal spaces but “the consequences have yet to be fully assessed, not least for informal discourse between members of both Houses”.

More recently, in a chapter for the Study of Parliament Group’s January 2021 paper on ‘Parliaments and the pandemic’, Lord Norton referred to the government’s suggestion of moving the Lords to York. He said he did not believe there was a clear benefit and that there were potential negatives around informal and formal meetings:

There appeared no obvious benefit to separating the two Houses, not least in reducing the opportunity for members of the two Houses to meet informally, or indeed formally and semi-formally through joint committees and all-party groups, and to making it difficult for members of the public and civil society to engage with the House, York not having the accessibility of the capital.

In an article from January 2020, the Institute for Government (IfG) said that there was “an argument to be made” for the House of Lords moving away from Westminster, but “losing the practical advantages of being just a few hundred steps away from the House of Commons—and most government departments—needs serious consideration”.

The IfG set out two arguments from the government for relocating the Lords. Firstly, to save costs, “as fewer London-based peers are likely to claim their £300-a-day attendance allowance”, although the IfG stated that costs were likely to be more complicated in the short-term. Secondly, as a symbolic move to “fit with the government’s desire to ‘level up’ parts of the UK—and to solidify its position with voters in traditional Labour areas who moved to the Conservatives at the election”. The IfG said such a move would “clearly have significant symbolic importance” but it would also “raise huge questions” about the work of the House and its ability to fulfil its functions. The IfG described these questions as “not necessarily insurmountable”, but they would “require serious thought”. The IfG identified a number of considerations:

  • Relocating staff. The IfG argued that consultation would be needed and there could be an effect on the House of Lords’ ability to retain and recruit staff in the future. It also raised the question of existing bicameral staff, such as those in the Parliamentary Digital Service and Parliamentary Archives.
  • Procedural considerations. The IfG asked how events such as state opening would work. Although accepting that such events were “rare”, it said there were also more regular issues that would need to be addressed. For example, the availability of ministers to answer questions in the House or the impact on civil servants working on legislation.
  • Work of committees. The IfG suggested that Lords committees could find it more difficult to get officials based in London to attend as witnesses. Joint committees may also be unable to meet as regularly.

The IfG argued that these questions would need to be “properly addressed” for the Lords to fulfil its role in scrutinising government and holding it to account. However, it said that these questions were not impossible to answer and that “the government might decide that the value of moving a key part of the UK constitutional system outside of London outweighs some of the challenges that it throws up”.

Mark D’Arcy, the BBC’s political correspondent, has argued that scrutiny suffered when Parliament was physically separated from government. He asserted that one of the lessons learnt from the pandemic was that virtual proceedings “gave ministers a much easier ride”:

Those moments in the chamber where a minister faltered and opinion crystallised against them are much more elusive if the minister is on a screen rather than standing at the dispatch box.

Mr D’Arcy also argued that questions with online participants were more scripted and less searching by necessity which led to less effective challenging of ministers.

The Electoral Reform Society has argued that moving the House of Lords to another city, such as York, would be “virtue signalling” without wider reform.

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Cover image by Dominika Gregusova on Pexels.