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Assault in the corridors of power: now can we talk seriously about rebuilding Westminster?

Oh, this is just how we do things. PA/Dan Kitwood

Assault in the corridors of power: now can we talk seriously about rebuilding Westminster?

Now that we’ve heard claims that women and men working within and around the Palace of Westminster have experienced rape, sexual assault and harassment, from (primarily) men in power acting seemingly without fear of the consequences, it’s time to start looking for solutions to this apparently endemic problem.

While the immediate priority is to ensure an independent and robust reporting mechanism, we also need to look at the wider culture of Parliament. That includes working hours, the unwritten institutional norms and – crucially – the physical fabric of the building.

Parliamentarians from all sides have committed to make Westminster a safe place to work and visit in the wake of these revelations. The SNP’s Pete Wishart argued that we are at a “watershed moment for the House – an opportunity for an institutional shift, whereby the historical culture of this House can be tackled positively”.

This historical culture, in the words of Professor Joni Lovenduski, is one of “institutionalised traditional masculinity […] embedded, ubiquitous and unremarked [upon]” within the House of Commons.

This is intrinsically linked to the palace itself. From the design of the building to the artwork on the walls, all contributing to the “intimidating” environment described by new MP Laura Pidcock in her 2017 maiden speech:

This building is intimidating. It reeks of the establishment and of power; its systems are confusing – some may say archaic – and it was built at a time when my class and my sex would have been denied a place within it because we were deemed unworthy. I believe that the intimidating nature of this place is not accidental.

The effect goes beyond MPs and staff. In 2014 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in Parliament reported how visitors experienced the Palace of Westminster:

Witnesses discussed visible symbols of an unconscious bias within the Parliamentary estate, one describing a very masculine world: “You see pictures of men on the walls; you see statues of men lining the corridors; you see men everywhere”.

Changing the culture in Westminster won’t be easy, but it isn’t impossible. And a separate parliamentary crisis offers the perfect opportunity to do so: the antiquated infrastructure and crumbling stonework of the Palace of Westminster.

Bricks and mortar

The perilous state of the Palace is a major concern: the building is at risk of a major fire or flood which will leave it uninhabitable. Rebuilding plans have been discussed for the past decade, but the substantial cost (estimated to be between £3.5 billion and £6 billion) and the likelihood of MPs and peers having to leave the building for up to a decade, have delayed any action.

The rebuilding plans go beyond just fixing the bricks and mortar. One of the programme’s objectives is delivering a parliament that is fit for the 21st century. That means grappling with the question of how the legislature’s design and architecture shapes the culture within.

To determine what a parliament for the 21st century should look like requires us to consider how the palace embeds and maintains existing power dynamics and affects how its inhabitants behave. It means a discussion about how to balance the heritage of the palace – a listed building – with the needs of a working, modern legislature. It means thinking about whether the style of the building – a cross between a public school and a cathedral – is welcoming to the public or if the House of Commons chamber layout promotes a particular type of adversarial politics. It means addressing the fact that many people feel excluded from the palace, due to the appalling disability access, or simply the atmosphere inside. It means a proper debate about changing the culture within parliament.

Designed for confrontation. PA

There is no sign, however, of these debates taking place. The government has recently announced a 12 to 18-month delay in the rebuilding programme. This is to enable further analysis on different building options – work which looks set to continue the dominant approach restoration to date, focusing on the management of a major construction project and not the opportunities for changing the culture within the palace.

Winston Churchill’s declaration, following the destruction of the Commons by a Luftwaffe bomb, that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”, is often quoted. Less frequently do we hear the response of the MP for Norfolk South Western, Captain Somerset de Chair, that: “That is very true, but do they shape us so very well?”.

Parliament is finally having a long-overdue debate about how to eliminate harassment and bullying behaviours within the Palace of Westminster. Perhaps this debate should also include the role of the palace itself in embedding a culture in which such behaviour is acceptable.