KIMIKO DE FREYTAS-TAMURA
Overindulgence in food and drink has long been one of the hazards of political life for members of Britain’s Parliament. But no longer. Abstemiousness seems to be the order of the day.
But while the new sobriety may be good for lawmakers’ family and health, it has cut the revenues that support the 19th-century Palace of Westminster, home to the House of Lords and the House of Commons, not to speak of numerous watering holes.
This has prompted an unlikely fundraising effort: The authorities at Parliament have decided to rent out some of its premises.
With fewer lawmakers staying late into the night, the authorities are renting out 15 underused dining halls and tearooms.
Companies and corporate executives have been able to hold events there if sponsored by members of Parliament, but the new initiative formalises the process.
“There are more members of Parliament leading a monastic lifestyle at the moment,” said Paul Flynn, a veteran Labour Party legislator and the author of a tongue-in-cheek self-help book for new members. “They’re so consumed with guilt and scandal that they become neurotic about behaving properly, so they have a cup of Coke at night, read some evening press and then go to their chaste beds,” he said.
The palace needs at least $65 million a year just for maintenance, and it is already licensed to hold weddings.
Legislators “can’t be demanding greater efficiency from the public at a time of austerity if Parliament itself is immune to seeking the same”, said Thomas Docherty, another Labour lawmaker.
The committee said it had received a small number of applications since the initiative began in late December. None has been approved yet. Room charges range from $1,650 to nearly $15,000 for a full day, or from $450 to $7,500 for an evening. Discounts are available for charities.
The unelected House of Lords has no similar plans. But the decision to unburden taxpayers may now extend even to Buckingham Palace. Last October, the royal palace was rented by the chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, for a dinner hosted by the Duke of York to entertain the bank’s clients.
Westminster Palace, with its gilded neo-Gothic spires and vaults by the River Thames, is best known for the Big Ben and neighbouring Westminster Abbey. The palace was built on the remains of a medieval palace. It is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
Among the facilities up for rent is the Pugin Room, named after Augustus Pugin, an architect who designed most of the palace’s interiors, down to the doorknobs.
The Churchill Dining Room features landscapes Churchill painted. Then there are the Strangers’ Dining Room and Members’ Dining Room, named to separate visitors from legislators.
Guests can be treated to House of Commons Champagne at $65 a bottle and a menu featuring slow-braised cinnamon lamb shank, pan-fried supreme of Gressingham duck and sticky ginger and Guinness spongecake.
Not everyone welcomes the changes. Kevin Brennan, a Labour legislator, said that bankers and financial institutions should be excluded. “We have managed to survive as a Parliament for several hundreds of years without having to hire ourselves out to the very commercial interests, in some cases, who have caused the austerity,” he said in a November debate.