POLITICS
15/03/2012 12:36 GMT

Big Ben Tours To Remain Free After MPs Force Climb Down

Sightseers wishing to climb the 334 steps of Big Ben's tower will be able to do so free of charge for at least another three years, after MPs voted against charging them £15.

House of Commons authorities 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 by Tory MP Robert Halfon forced the the House of Commons Commission to back down on plans.

"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 on Thursday.

"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 commission, withdrew his plan saying the "commission would ensure there was no charge for the Clock Tower during the course of this Parliament".

Labour MP Kevin Brennan said he was worried that the charge would mean only the rich would be able to visit and have "swanky champagne parties" while poorer constituents would be charged to look round their own 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 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."