On 31st January 2018, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP spoke in the House of Commons during a debate on a report of the Joint Committee about the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. Dame Caroline spoke twice, raising the possibility of adding Church House to the list of buildings which could be used to accommodate Parliament during the restoration of the Palace.
Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way—she is getting a lot of requests. On the subject of decanting, and just for the record—I will speak to this later—the House should know that until very recently there was a contract with Church House, under which, should we have needed to decant at short notice in an emergency, which can happen at any time, Church House had always stood ready to accommodate Parliament, as it did during the second world war.
Andrea Leadsom: My right hon. Friend raises a very important point about an emergency decant from this place. The security advice is that it is not safe these days for MPs to be coming in and out of the secure parliamentary estate, so that would rule out a decant option off the estate. Secondly, and very importantly, on the day before the recess I attended—as I think you did, Mr Speaker—the emergency decant preparations done by the House in the event of the sudden need to move from this place, so those preparations are going ahead. However, what we are talking about here is about being out of this place for a significant length of time, so options such as Church House would simply not be suitable.
Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I rise to speak to amendment (c), and I hope that in so doing I can be helpful to the House in explaining an option for a decant that has historical precedent. This would not be the first time that the Commons and the Lords had met in other places. Westminster Abbey Chapter House has been used, and Church House was used extensively during the second world war. Church House was first used as a contingency Chamber on 7 November 1940, and it was used during three main periods during world war two. In fact, in 1944, both Houses of Parliament were forced to decant to what was then known as the Churchill club, as Church House was sometimes described. I would like to assure Members that the corporation of Church House still stands ready to speak to the Government about once again accommodating Parliament, should the need arise. Many of Churchill’s famous speeches were made in Church House. The then Prime Minister announced the sinking of the Bismarck and the loss of HMS Hood in Church House in 1941, and a plaque can be seen in the Hoare memorial hall, where he made the speech, commemorating that event. Heritage is taken seriously, and any visitor would immediately be aware of the links with Church House.
I will give Members a quick guided tour of what is available at Church House. The main assembly room has exactly the same number of seats as this Chamber, and it was designed with a bombproof roof to increase security after the experience of world war one. The assembly room is set within two sets of exterior walls to address the security needs of the time, and that would address today’s needs, too. Dean’s Yard, with which Members are probably familiar, has a secure entrance with a narrow archway and barrier and contains a quadrangle with no access from outside, around which cars can circulate securely. It would be possible to close the relatively little-used Great College Street and Great Smith Street without great disruption. There are many committee rooms and reception rooms, and Bishop Partridge Hall, which is roughly the same size as the Grand Committee Room, is often used for events—Members may have been there. There is a chapel, a large dining area, catering and, yes, licensed refreshment facilities.
All that is why Church House had a contract with the parliamentary estate until recently to provide a default setting to decant at short notice in times of emergency. It is worth emphasising that it would take less public money to adapt Church House for the needs of one or both Chambers than to construct a replica building. The optics for parliamentarians are therefore strong, because explaining to our constituents, as taxpayers, why we are spending such an amount of money gets a bit easier when we can explain that it has been done before.
To add a little more historical information, Church House has been used for the state opening of Parliament. A simple ceremony was conducted with little of the picturesque tradition that we see in a full state opening, but it was 1939. The King himself made his speech from the throne in Church House, so it has even been used for that purpose.
I simply wanted to provide colleagues with some thoughts on how decanting could be done more quickly. I listened carefully to the Leader of the House, and she said that we would be decanting in 2025—the middle of the next decade—which, in the spirit of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), is not very rapid. Church House would stand ready to help, as it has done before, and there is a strong historical precedent that can be used to explain to taxpayers why it may be an entirely practical solution to address the concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House.