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MP opposes charges to visit Big Ben

15th March 2012

David Burrowes opposes proposals to charge members of the public to visit the Big Ben Clock Tower.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and I can confirm, having known him since the age of 10, that he has always wanted to be here. He made his case as a 10-year-old, and he does so now with great passion and verve. I rise to support his motion.

No one disputes that Big Ben is iconic; it has featured in our culture on many occasions. Hon. Members will recall “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, in which Richard Hannay was hanging off the second hand. They will recall it featuring in the James Bond film, “Thunderball”. They will remember the extra chime. They might also recall, as my children do, Doctor Who watching the Clock Tower being blown up, and more besides. The sounds of Big Ben also have iconic value. The chimes are broadcast worldwide by the BBC, and “News at Ten” gives us the image.

No one disputes that that is all of great value, and we should not understate that value and importance. Many Members have described speaking to primary school children about Parliament. We talk to them about what happens in this Chamber and in the House of Lords, and soon their eyes start to glaze over. As soon as we mention Big Ben, however, they wake up and come alive. They see it as an important part of Parliament.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Many years ago, when I was 10 years old, I was able to walk up to the front door of No. 10, and I was duly inspired. We have lost the ability to do that, because of the daily threat of terrorism that we face, but surely we do not want to lose the opportunity to visit Big Ben as a result of the accountants.

Mr Burrowes: Absolutely not. It is excellent to hear what inspired and motivated my hon. Friend as a 10-year-old, and we can help to inspire others.

This is not just about primary school children attending this place as a tourist attraction, however. I recently hosted a tour of students from Burma. They were unable to access Big Ben, but they were nevertheless amazed at the direct access that the public have to their Members of Parliament. Obviously, that does not happen in Burma. I want to see that access maintained for primary school children and others. It is important to maintain that relationship, and part of that involves the access to Big Ben that Members of Parliament and officers can provide. That access would be lost under this proposal.

We also need to recognise that this is not just about MPs acting as tour guides; it is about us opening up the doors of our democracy. That involves not only the working part of our Parliament but access to Big Ben. It is part of our heritage, and people having access to Parliament helps them to understand where we have come from as a democracy and where we want to go. Big Ben is very much part of our heritage, and we need to ensure that it is as accessible as possible.

The hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), who is no longer in his place, gave the House some statistics, including the number of people who visit Parliament but do not take the tour of the Clock Tower. My view is that not enough people know about the tour. Those who do know about it grab the opportunity to do it, and we need to make it more accessible, not less.

There are hidden gems that we discover only when we climb those 344 steps inside the Clock Tower. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow for attempting the climb; it has defeated many others. Anyone who goes up the Clock Tower is reminded of our heritage, including our Christian heritage and the relationship between Church and state. Among the hidden gems are the chimes alongside Big Ben, near to which are written these words:

“All through this hour

Lord, be my guide

And by Thy power

No foot shall slide”.

Those who go up there can see those words, near to the chimes that are broadcast worldwide by the BBC each day. They illustrate our recognition of our Christian heritage, which is an important part of our democracy. We would lose that under the proposal, and I hope that our feet here will not slide into the realms of the accountants and others. Let us keep the Clock Tower open so that many more feet can go up and down it, and so that people can recognise our democracy for what it is.

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Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): My hon. Friend rightly talks about the different suggestions as to why Big Ben is called Big Ben. I do not want him to lose sight of part of the argument, which is that Big Ben is not just for Parliament but for the wider populace, and part of popular culture. Indeed, many say that Big Ben was called Big Ben because of Benjamin Caunt, a prize fighter who had a rather large stomach. That shows its attraction to the public and why we must make it as accessible as possible.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend, who has been a friend for many years, is absolutely right. It is clearly not true to say that Big Ben is an adornment and is not part of our democracy. Moreover, those who claim that it is not part of our democracy and then say that we do not charge for tours elsewhere might ask themselves why we charge for tours during the summer and at weekends.

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