SIR BERNARD JENKIN, a Conservative MP, has suggested moving the House of Lords to St Margaret’s, Westminster, as a “cost-saving measure”.
Sir Bernard is the MP for Harwich and North Essex as well as the chairman of the Commons liaison committee. He wrote to the Speaker of the Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, and the Commons’ leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, on 21 July, proposing that the church, based in Parliament Square, be used as a temporary location for peers while the House of Lords is being refurbished.
The move is needed because of the upcoming £4-billion restoration of the Palace of Westminster, scheduled to start in 2025. When the work starts, the peers are currently scheduled to move to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, which faces Westminster Abbey on Broad Sanctuary.
Richmond House, which is also near by, has been earmarked to house MPs temporarilty
This week, however, Sir Bernard outlined further his argument that a more cost-effective and practical solution would be to use St Margaret’s for the House of Lords; public worship recently came to a halt at the church (News, 17 July). He has said that the arrangement could benefit the Church and Westminster Abbey, as well as Parliament.
“As Richmond House is going to be reconfigured to accommodate the House of Commons, it would be more natural to put the House of Lords into St Margaret’s. There’s lots of ground around the church and the east end of Westminster Abbey, including an underground car park,” he said.
He went on to say that “the decision to close St Margaret’s for regular worship and to disband the choir raises questions about ‘Parliament’s church’, which St Margaret’s historically was, until 1846. It was clearly transferred to the Abbey on the basis that it would be available for regular worship.
“The Abbey’s decision to consider St Margaret’s for alternative uses has put St Margaret’s ‘into play’: Parliament can therefore, maybe, relieve the Abbey of another financial obligation. It’s not theft from the Church of England to suggest that it should be moved back under Parliament’s control.”
Sir Bernard also said that the pandemic had put Westminster Abbey under considerable financial strain, and that this, combined with his own interest in church music, had prompted the letter.
“Buildings like the Abbey and St Paul’s rely on income from tourists. There was a limit to how long the Abbey could remain effectively closed to visitors. They are under extraordinary pressures, and it’s extremely worrying. Maybe Parliament can help.
“I’m a trustee of the Parliament choir, which has performed at St Margaret’s, and I’m concerned by how the English choral tradition is facing a crisis. The church couldn’t be used for worship while it was being used by the House of Lords, but I hope in the long term that Parliament will want to see the choral tradition at St Margaret’s sustained. . . It’s a small fraction of what it costs to run Parliament.”
He said that the idea had gained traction among peers: “It may be much, much cheaper for Parliament to take on St Margaret’s than to bother with the conference centre. The idea has generated quite a lot of reaction among peers in the House of Lords — many of them are more attracted to St Margaret’s, not least because the two Houses used to meet in places of worship.”
In a statement this week, Westminster Abbey said: “We have not been consulted about any proposal to use St Margaret’s Church as a temporary home for the House of Lords.
“Westminster Abbey, of which St Margaret’s is a part, values its relationship with the Palace of Westminster and particularly with the lower house.
“St Margaret’s is known as ‘the parish church of the House of Commons’. Dean and Chapter has reiterated its commitment to developing the Abbey’s mission and ministry through St Margaret’s unique location as ‘the Church on Parliament Square’. St Margaret’s will focus on service to Parliament and public life more broadly (both as a place of worship and as a centre of engagement), social and community programmes and Christian formation.
“This does not include acting as a temporary home for the House of Lords.”