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Originally published Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 8:31 PM

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Call Westminster Palace for your next occasion

The authorities in Parliament have decided to rent out some of its gorgeous premises to keep the building in shape.


The New York Times

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LONDON — Overindulgence in food and drink has long been one of the hazards of political life for members of Britain’s Parliament. No longer. Abstemiousness seems to be the order of the day.

But while the new sobriety may be good for lawmakers’ family lives, waistlines and general 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 and other gathering spots.

This has prompted an unlikely fundraising effort: The authorities in Parliament have decided to rent out some of its gorgeous premises to keep the building in shape.

In the past, after long hours in Parliament, a stiff drink was considered essential, whether celebratory or consoling. But politicians are toning it down these days, and with fewer lawmakers staying late into the night, authorities are renting out 15 underused dining halls and tearooms to businesses and organizations to raise money.

“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 in an interview.

The authorities at the House of Commons say 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, who sits on the House of Commons Administration Committee. “This is us doing our small bit.”

The committee said it had received a small number of applications since the initiative began in late December. None have been approved, but demand is expected to increase. 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 of the upkeep of historic public sites may now extend even to Buckingham Palace.

Last October, the royal palace, Queen Elizabeth’s London residence, was rented by the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, for a dinner hosted by the Duke of York to entertain the bank’s clients.

On Tuesday, when it was revealed the queen’s household budget had dwindled to about $2.5 million, 87 lawmakers urged the royal household to open the palace to more visitors to help defray maintenance costs.

Westminster Palace, with its gilded neo-Gothic spires and vaults by the River Thames, is best-known for its landmark clock tower, nicknamed Big Ben, and neighboring Westminster Abbey. Technically, the clock tower is Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben is the great bell in the clock. The palace was built on the remains of a medieval palace destroyed by a fire in 1834.

It is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, and for decades it has charged tourists for guided tours. Companies and corporate executives have been able to hold events there if they were sponsored by members of Parliament, but the new initiative formalizes the process, and applications are approved by the committee, not by individual lawmakers. The idea is to remove potential conflicts of interest.

Among the facilities up for rent is the Pugin Room, named after Augustus Pugin, a 19th-century architect best known for reviving the Gothic style in Britain. He designed most of the palace’s interiors, down to the doorknobs.

A chandelier dominates the room, with a portrait of Pugin on one wall. Champagne is on offer, as well as homemade scones and rich fruitcake, giving it “that slightly dissipated-at-the-edges air about it,” said Flynn, the Labour lawmaker.

Major events are celebrated there, but the room is also well-suited for romantic encounters, which are rife in Parliament, he said. One female politician, he said, was known to have converted to Roman Catholicism after meetings with her priest over copious amounts of red wine there.

The Churchill Dining Room features landscapes Winston Churchill painted.

Then there are the Strangers’ Dining Room and the Members’ Dining Room, named to separate visitors from legislators. Both have the air of a great room in a castle, decorated with wooden carvings of game, flowers and fruit against moss-green wallpaper.

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.

“You can sit there and think, ‘Well, Winston Churchill used to sit in that corner, and Aneurin Bevan,’ ” who founded the National Health Service, in the other corner, Flynn said.

Not everyone welcomes the changes. Kevin Brennan, a Labour legislator, said that bankers and financial institutions should be excluded from renting the sites.

“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.

“It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if the bankers were sipping Champagne in the people’s Parliament to raise money because of the damage they caused?” he said, adding: “I believe that is a line we should not cross.”

Peter York, a social commentator, asked: “What next, the JPMorgan Palace of Westminster?”

The concept is “too much like lobbying,” he said in an interview. “If it doesn’t happen in Congress, the global capital of capitalism, it shouldn’t happen here.”

But John Thurso, a Liberal Democrat legislator and a former businessman who sits on the Administration Committee, said the initiative was a way to bring Parliament into the 21st century.

“Being businesslike, both in the way we individually conduct ourselves as members and in the way the House of Commons is run, is important,” he said. “My job today is to make sure that we work in a sober, honest and godly fashion, and I’m doing my best to ensure that.”



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