MPs revolt blocks plan to charge for Big Ben access

 

Visitors will continue to see Big Ben for free after MPs blocked a plan to charge tourists £15 for trips up Westminster's famous Clock Tower.

The House of Commons Commission wanted to levy the fee in a bid to make savings across Parliament.

But opponents claimed charging for access to the landmark housing the famous Big Ben bell breached citizens' democratic rights.

A Commons revolt by backbench MPs led to the plan today being scrapped, meaning visits will remain free until at least 2015.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon led the fight to keep Big Ben trips free, and opened today's backbench-led debate on the "fundamentally wrong" proposal.

"It is so wrong to institute charges for people to come and see our heritage and, in essence, impose double taxation as we pay for Parliament anyway," the Harlow MP told the Commons.

"I have a romantic belief in Parliament; I still genuinely believe this is the best Parliament in the world even with all the problems we face.

"We have to make our Parliament a very special place and encourage people to come.

"I hugely worry this place is becoming a place rather than a Parliament for the people, a place that is a theme park advertising weddings, bar mitzvahs and engagement parties or big corporate entertainment shows."

After a two-hour debate, Liberal Democrat John Thurso, who represents the House of Commission, withdrew his plan saying the "commission would ensure there was no charge for the Clock Tower during the course of this Parliament".

The current Parliament is due to end in 2015, with future MPs able to charge for guided tours if they want.

Leader of the House Sir George Young and his Labour shadow Angela Eagle did not object to the plan for charging visitors to pay £15 to climb the 334 steps to see the famous bell struck.

Sir George told MPs: "I have to say the ability to climb the Clock Tower isn't essential to the enhancement of our democracy, to an insight into the way the political system works.

"There is a difference between access to the Clock Tower and access to the chamber."

Ms Eagle said: "It is important to remember this about access to the Clock Tower. It is not about access to this building in its working sense as a Parliament."

Estimates suggested up to 10,000 people a year would pay the levy, generating £150,000 for Parliamentary funds, which would cover the £112,000 cost of providing tours up the tower next to the Thames.

But Mr Halfon feared it was a "double taxation" that should be avoided.

His spokesman later told the Press Association the MP was "delighted".

The spokesman said: "Robert has fought for this for many months and he is glad the commission has seen sense and agreed that Big Ben is an essential part of our parliament.

"This should be a people's parliament, not a parliament for the rich.

"This decision will preserve that."

PA

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