Every day as I come into work I see the building rising like a kind of rectangular Roman Colosseum. Nobody asked me if I wanted it. But if they had, I would have said: Yes, yes, yes.
I would have said yes not because I hope to wallow in its allegedly self-indulgent luxuries: its oak and leather tables and chairs and its "worktops with solid English oak edge lippings". This is not a building for my use. Indeed, I may never set foot in it, since my own office is in the House of Commons building.
My office is in one of the gimcrack limpets that have been added to the main building over the years, part of a patchwork of excrescences that make the inner recesses of the Commons look hideous. Such annexes are far less cost-effective than a brand-new, purpose-built building. They often require periodic refurbishment or updating at vast expense, which attracts no comment.
Unfortunately, governments of both parties have shied away from erecting a modern, efficient, dignified new building. The Tory government of 1973 planned to erect a new parliamentary building. It would have cost £30m in 1970s money. The Tories dragged their feet. When they lost power, the succeeding Labour government of 1975 chickened out, citing economic difficulties.
All around Westminster, unsatisfactory buildings have been conscripted into use and converted at great expense. The former New Scotland Yard is now an MPs' den. Other buildings in Millbank and adjacent to Church House have been dragged into service, although it is too often impossible to convert them satisfactorily. So we have blundered on for a quarter of a century. Now at last – or at any rate in 2001 – the new building will be ready, blast-proof bronze cladding and all.
Presumably, it would be all right if the new parliamentary building was a pre-fab furnished with plywood and cheap plastic
Other countries are proud to provide handsome and dignified homes for their parliaments, the hub and symbol of their democracy. Australia, with less than a third of our population, has built a marvellous new parliamentary headquarters in Canberra. In Brisbane, the Queensland government has added a new wing to the building that houses a few dozen members representing less than three-and-a-half million people. It contains bedroom suites for all MPs representing constituencies outside Brisbane – oh, and a swimming pool, too.
Israel, with a population little more than that of Queensland, has built a veritable Parliamentary Palace in Jerusalem. And of course, in London parliament meets in an actual palace, the Palace of Westminster. Visitors marvel at this huge, pseudo-Gothic extravaganza. It is a source of national pride and its bell-tower, erroneously known as Big Ben (which is the bell itself), is a symbol of our nation throughout the world.
If the present response to the building of Portcullis House had been prevalent a century and a half ago, there would never have been a Palace of Westminster or a Big Ben. The palace occupies an enormous prime site, taking up more space than pretty well any other building in central London. Yet, despite its echoing corridors and lofty committee rooms, it is totally unsuitable for today's parliament.
It was built at a time when the Commons was a part-time pastime for gentlemen – no ladies. Being a constituency MP was not part of the job description. Victorian MPs drifted in, had rows, enjoyed dinner and drifted away again. In 1999, MPs are expected to look after their constituencies as though they were social workers. They are expected to deal with hundreds of letters a week from constituents and pressure groups. They are given an inadequate grant to employ staff and equip offices in a primitive building that is utterly unsuitable as a modern workplace – and which sometimes violates health and safety legislation.
They are expected to do a full-time job in an inappropriate environment and are then attacked for not doing it properly. Presumably, it would be all right if the new building was a pre-fab furnished with plywood and cheap plastic.
The Right Honourable Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee.