Bishop of Southwark speaks in a debate on the Houses of Parliament

On 16th June 2022, the House of Lords debated the co-location of the Houses of Parliament. The Bishop of Southwark spoke in the debate:

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for securing this debate and bringing to it his distinguished record as a scholar of our constitution and of Parliament. My own contribution to the debate will, I think, chime with much of what we have heard already from noble Lords.

I wish to make a few simple points. First, we are two Houses but one Parliament, a point that has already been made. Secondly, although Covid has taught us much about the flexibility afforded by current technology, as did universal postage, the telegram, and the telephone in their day, it has also taught us a good deal about the importance of physical proximity. Finally, as has been eloquently pointed out, to separate out what was never meant to be put asunder will mean that the role of this House and its usefulness will diminish, and the capability of Parliament with it.

If I may expand further, the Christian faith is profoundly relational, not transactional. It frames the understanding of God’s relationship with humanity and humanity’s relationship with itself. Both are found in the person of Jesus Christ. However, did we not find in lockdown not only the ingenuity and resilience brought by Zoom, bubbles, essential services and immediate family units, but a profound loss? There is a clue in the word “Parliament”, which bids us to parlay and speak to one another—or, indeed, as our Writ of Summons requires of us,

“a certain Parliament to be holden at Our City of Westminster … there to treat and have conference with the Prelates, Great Men, Great Women and Peers of Our Realm”.

Further, although we jealously guard our own House, as the Commons do theirs, each Session, we meet together in this Chamber to hear the gracious Speech. Traditionally, messages and Bills travel the Corridor between the Houses. Peers physically watch debates in the other place, and MPs in this. Indeed, I recall the then Prime Minister sitting here on the steps of the Throne during our debate on Article 50.

There is in physical proximity something which one cannot replicate on Zoom or by email. When Charles II sought to gain an advantage by summoning a Parliament to Oxford, he did not send one Chamber off to Harwich, for example, to gain a further advantage, nor would it have occurred to him to do so, and nor would it have been thought consonant with our constitution for him to try.

Our move from the Palace of Westminster, together with the other place, should be organised with the end in view of the understanding and access of this place by the public, and of greater collaboration and understanding between the two Houses in our parliamentary life. That is the opportunity afforded us and we should take it. However, the Government have made it clear, not least in the Written Answer to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, that they would welcome the Lords participating actively in its policy of levelling up by moving out of London. For that reason, they will not make the Queen Elizabeth II Centre available to your Lordships, despite nearly £11 million already having been spent on the proposal. I have no doubt that the Minister will again say that our decant and location is a matter for us, but it is clear that the Government will not co-operate unless we separate from the Commons.

There are options for a decant in London. Following enemy action in 1941, the Commons temporarily located itself in Church House, Westminster, and Churchill had his office above where the bookshop is now. The UN later met there. The Church itself considered relocating the function of Church House in the late 1980s to Sheffield, and in the 2000s rationalised its estate within Church House, including selling No. 1 Millbank to your Lordships.

I have no bias against any of locations which have been suggested by Ministers, who have yet to propose Kigali as an option, but we should insist, as an irreducible minimum, that both Houses go together, wherever we end up. It shows little understanding of how a bicameral legislature works to divide it. We would see Ministers only on high days and holidays, the press not at all or rarely, and MPs only on special day trips organised by Parliament’s education department. Our scrutiny would be disregarded, our debates ignored. Our interaction with the other place would wither into desuetude. We risk not levelling up but shuffling off.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Young of Cockham (Con): My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I hope that he and his colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, will continue to care for the spiritual health of your Lordships as we remain in the capital. I join others in complimenting my noble friend Lord Norton on his choice of subject, his introductory speech, and his tireless campaign to promote the effective working of your Lordships’ House and, in particular, to prevent us being physically separated against our wishes from our partner down the corridor—a no-fault divorce if there ever was one.

Lord True (Con, Minister of State – Cabinet Office): Let me turn to the core topic of the debate: the case for the collocation of both Houses of Parliament. As many noble Lords have stressed, there are important conventions that have governed the collocation of both Houses and, in turn, these conventions have shaped how this Parliament does its business. There are ceremonial practices predicated on collocation—I agree that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, made a brilliantly amusing speech on this topic—and these are an important aspect of the tradition and inspiration that marks our parliamentary democracy. Her Majesty the Queen opens Parliament and she is not allowed into the House of Commons. She does it from this place but with Members of the House of Commons present at the Bar to hear that statement.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark referred to the action of Charles II taking Parliament to Oxford in 1681. That was to try to frustrate what was probably the second or third Exclusion Bill, to stop his brother acceding to the Crown. It did not work. Removing people from the centre is not necessarily effective, as Charles II found. Per contra, he found that coming and sitting at the fireplace in the House and watching proceedings in person allowed him to exercise more influence, because everything was in the same place at once—but I stray into historical matters.

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