*note, I’ve updated this blog and some of the stats in July 2022.
In my little series on the oddities of the Palace of Westminster, I am covering one of the more contentious complaints raised by both Members of Parliaments and the Lords: temperature, or more accurately, the abundance or the lack of it.
The Palace is (not surprisingly) a hard place to heat. A giant stone building with large open spaces. There’s also the issue of the 4,000 windows set in bronze, which have warped over time and now do not close – letting heat in or out. It probably doesn’t help that many of the MEP systems (Mechanical, Electrical & Public Health) are simply out of date. With some of the 11 kilometres of steam piping retained from the 1800’s original system still in operation.
Despite this, the Palace was highly innovative for it’s time. The no longer operational Victorian stack system, which provided ventilation to both chambers from its construction in the mid 1800,’s until the 1940’s is now being widely considered as a model for low-energy sustainable ventilation in public buildings.
Even then, that has not stopped the highest politicians in the United Kingdom’s moaning about the temperature in the same arguments you see in squabbly offices over the thermostat between the one person sat by a radiator in their jumper, and the other whose desk is by the open window. The Daily Hansard is filled with debates (or rather complaints) about the temperature of the two chambers. My favourite of which is this 1980’s debate in the Lords:
“Lord LEATHERLAND: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the fact that on this side of the House it is very cold indeed? We are almost shivering.
Lord MOWBRAY and STOURTON: My Lords, in hot weather some people like to be in a cooled atmosphere.
The Earl of HALSBURY: My Lords, could those responsible adjust the system so as both to conserve fuel and stimulate employment in the textile trade by turning the temperature down in winter and perhaps up a little in summer?
Lord MOWBRAY and STOURTON: My Lords, the whole object of this six-to seven-year programme is to save fuel. Those noble Lords who are scientifically minded may like to know that eventually we shall save some 190,000 therms a year”.
“The House is too cold… or too hot”
Other notable mentions about the temperature of the House include:
The earliest complaint I could find is from 1878, not long after Westminster was completed, the House of Lords complained the air was too hot and stuffy, while in “another place” (the House of Commons) had “superior mechanical means” (i.e ice).
-1933, There was a debate held because Members didn’t like the smell of the fuel being used to heat the House. Coalite being a cheaper, but more sulphurous alternative to coal.
-In another “debate” about the heating in the House, it was announced that overheating in the House often occurred when there is too many votes in a short period. “It’s difficult to avoid a substantial increase in temperature if several Divisions” are called in short succession.
-In the same debate. When asked if there could be more fans in the Palace to deal with overheating, the response was to ask “Chancellor of the Exchequer”:
Mr. Molson: I will see if it is possible to do anything more in the way of fitting additional fans.
Mr. Shinwell: Ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I hope that you will not think me a voyeur, because I am not, but last night I noticed that you were fanning yourself with the Order Paper when you were in the Chair, because obviously it was too hot in the Chamber.
There are plenty of other mentions or complaints about the temperature in either of the two houses. A full list would probably make this blog far too long. It is worth noting that sometime after the 1980’s questions about the temperature of the house moved into the responsibility the relevant select committee.
Who controls Parliament’s thermostat?
This brings us to the question of who actually controls the temperature in Parliament?
A question in 1942 gives us one potential answer. Arthur Molson, Member of Parliament for High Peak, asked who controlled the temperature in the house. As it turned out – probably for good measure – that it wasn’t controlled by any democratically elected member, but rather the Sergeant at Arms. However, it seems they have delegated this task. With the Speaker in 1948 responding to a question over the lack of heating with news that the relevant members of staff had gone on strike, and seemingly nobody else knew how to turn it on. Breaking convention, Members were allowed to wear a coat in the House. In addition, the Speaker was unable to have a bath that morning as a result.
Luckily, the great people at Parliament have been on a massive drive to increase transparency through data. One such data source is provided here (as of 2022 the website seems offline), which gives an hour on hour update on the Palace of Westminster’s energy costs. Unfortunately, due to the way the buildings on the Westminster Estate are heated (a combination of gas & electric) and a lack of individualised metering, it’s difficult to see the direct costs of heating. However in the natural gas bill in 2020/21 came to £554,875. Or £46,239 a month. Considering the drastic increases in energy bills in 2021/22, we can assume this number has skyrocketed since!
And if you’re wondering, it seems the Palace does indeed have a time setting on its thermostat. While there is always a low level of gas usage, it seems they bump up the heating at 4am in the morning, slowly rising until 7am. It’s then kept steady at until 1pm where they start to turn it down for the night.
But there is also another side to the story. Big inefficient buildings are bad for the environment. From the 8th May until the 2nd June 2018, the Westminster Estates carbon impact through natural gas was 175,922 Kg alone. Compared to 88,749Kg Portcullis House in the same period. So I’m sure energy efficiency will be considered when Parliament finally gets renovated in the next few years.
Nevertheless, it’s reassuring that, if anything, the House of Westminster is like any other working environment, except the complaints about the office temperature are public record. But just remember that if the Houses of Parliament took over 100 years to stop arguing over temperature, what hope do you have ?
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