The Ladies in the Lords

In a building built for men, where's a baroness to relieve herself? And who gets the rare Art Deco loos?
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Indy Politics

As parliamentary leak inquiries go, this one is more pressing than most. It concerns not the passing of secret documents in plain manila envelopes to journalists in belted raincoats, or the disclosure of confidential cabinet conversations but the infinitely more urgent matter of "facilities" for ladies in the House of Lords.

The issue has become so pressing that it requires the attention of Britain's premier heritage body, a posse of conservationists and a firm of award-winning architectural consultants.

The scarcity of ladies' loos in the House of Lords, which has forced women peers to rush from debates to use the Commons facilities, is the subject of an official investigation that will report this month.

Consultants have been asked to report on lavatorial provision in the Lords, and where extra cubicles required by the 130 women peers should be located. But the issue is fraught with problems.

Not only are the Houses of Parliament Grade I listed, but the loos in the Lords are some of the most ornate and historic in England and cannot be easily adapted.

One of the bathrooms being considered for conversion contains a rare original lavatory by the Victorian master plumber Thomas Crapper. At least one of them is a rare example of Art Deco design, with urinals dating back to the 1930s. Its quality is said to be second only to the Art Deco bathrooms in the Savoy.

English Heritage has been brought in to adjudicate and will be consulted on the final decision, after Donald Insall Associates, a firm of conservation architects that helped restore Windsor Castle, reports its initial conclusions later this month.

A spokesman for English Heritage said: "A feasibility study is being carried out by the Parliamentary Estates to reassess toilet requirements and provision throughout the building, and we will be consulted on any proposed changes in due course."

Women peers, who first entered the House in 1958, have been complaining for years about the lack of lavatories in the Lords, designed in the 19th century for men.

In an effort to meet their needs, the parliamentary authorities have converted men's bathrooms and concealed the urinals.

But the conversion has angered some conservationists. They have called for them to be "liberated" and returned to their original use, replete with urinals.

"It was a gentlemen's suite. That is what it was designed for. I hope it will be restored as a gentlemen's suite," said one senior figure involved in the project.

But women peers contend that retaining the magnificent loo, located two minutes from the House of Lords chamber, is crucial - particularly after long debates. Baroness d'Souza, a crossbench peer, said if the lavatory was returned to men "there is no question that there would be a shortage" of loos.

"Why do the men want it? Because it is near the chamber," she said.