Robert Halfon is the Member of Parliament for Harlow. Follow him on Twitter.
Last Friday, I received an email from the Chief Executive of the House of Commons. It stated:
“As part of the Savings Programme, the House of Commons Commission has agreed that Clock Tower tours should be self-financing. In order to cover costs of administering the tours, and enabling these premium tours to continue, there will be an admission charge of £15.00 per visitor. This is in line with the emerging policy that while free democratic access to Parliament is maintained, charges will be made for specialist tours.”
They plan to introduce the fees from this July. If they go ahead, it would cost a family of four as much as £60 to visit Big Ben.
Next to the EU crisis, and public service reform, this may seem like a tiny issue. But it is one that I find deeply unsettling. Symbolism is hugely important in politics. As I said to Speaker Bercow, in a point of order on Monday:
“Are there not other ways of saving money, such as not publishing Hansard and other publications on a daily basis, and publishing them online instead? Will you please look at it again, to make sure that we are a Parliament for the many, not the few?"
I accept that tough choices are necessary, when Britain is faced with austerity. But we should never put at risk one fundamental principle: that ours is a People’s Parliament. Taxpayers pay for it: they should be free to visit it.
The Speaker got it absolutely right, I thought, in his reply when he said that:
“It would of course be unthinkable to charge members of the public for access to the proceedings of the House or its Committees, or indeed to meet their Members of Parliament.”
I agree. But surely this applies to climbing Big Ben as well? Parliament’s clocktower is iconic. A national treasure. Famous around the world. That is why in the coming weeks ahead, I hope to campaign to #KeepBigBenFree. I have tabled an Early Day Motion http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/2781. Please sign up, and Tweet or Facebook about it too.
You can also see a video of my point of order to the Speaker below:
Today I will be asking the Backbench Business Committee – supported by over 30 MPs – for a full debate in the House of Commons on this issue. If they agree, I hope to put the following motion to a vote:
“That this House accepts the need to make financial savings; but considers that we should never put at risk the fundamental principle that ours is a People’s Parliament, and that since taxpayers pay for it, that they should be free to visit it without paying, including the Big Ben clocktower”.