Our Parliamentarians have been saying for years that we have outgrown Gordon House, the seat of the Jamaican Parliament, and that we need to expand or build a new Parliament. Member of Parliament for St. Andrew North Western Derrick Smith has been the latest person to raise the issue, prompted by concerns that the Member of Parliament who represents East Portland, Lynvale Bloomfield, who is recuperating from a hip injury, would have no way to get into Gordon House, as shamefully, access to the building for the disabled continues to be a problem.
Even without visiting the library or the inner rooms, visitors to Parliament would be aware of the inadequacy of the facilities. After a few hugely uncomfortable and inconvenient visits to Gordon House, due to the tiny, cramped press gallery, I have stopped trying to go, and follow developments instead on PBCJ. The visitors’ gallery is nearly as bad.
The history of Gordon House explains, in part, its current inadequacy.
The website of the Jamaican Parliament explains that Jamaica’s first House of Assembly met for the first time on January 20, 1664 in Spanish Town. The Assembly later began to meet in Kingston. In 1872 the government bought a house called Hibbert House, which later came to be known as Headquarters House, to house the legislature. A new building was provided in 1962 and named after George William Gordon, an Assemblyman, now a national hero.
The Oliver Clarke-led Parliamentary Salaries Committee looked at this issue in 2003, as part of their examination of working conditions for Parliamentarians and concluded that:
“priority must be given to the building of a new Parliament”
noting that Gordon House was never intended to become the permanent home of the Houses of Parliament as it had been built as the Council Chamber and Municipal Offices for the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC).
The Committee outlined the following difficulties:
- Inadequate space for the Staff and the Members;
- “Virtually non-existent” research facilities with a “small library over-flowing its confines;”
- Only two conference rooms, one for the Government members and one for the Opposition;
- No private space for MP’s to communicate with their constituents;
- “Extremely small” and inadequate offices for the Prime Minister, the Leader of Government’s Business in the House and the Leader of the Opposition;
- “… no accommodation given in respect of access and equipment for persons with a physical disability”
The Committee also cited the 1972 Ashenheim report which, 30 years earlier, had concluded that the conditions in the Parliament building were:
“in many respects deplorable, due we are told that it was conceived and constructed some twelve years ago as a temporary home for the Legislature.”
The Committee stated forthrightly that:
“It is not too much to say that if such accommodation were provided by a private company for the lowest class of its workers it would have the Trade Unions threatening the most drastic action in default of immediate improvement.”
In 2008, then Governor General Sir Kenneth Hall told the nation in his throne speech that steps were being taken to acquire land around Gordon House for its expansion.
The government’s intention to build a new building for Parliament was reiterated by former Prime Minister Bruce Golding in 2009.
Wouldn’t it be a great birthday present in this, our fiftieth year of Independence, to give ourselves a modern, useful Parliamentary building accessible to all our citizens? The 2003 construction price was estimated at $65 million. So yes, it would be great. But with our continuing high debt burden, the IMF negotiations and associated strictures, with ten places to put every dollar, with ill-equipped schools and hospitals, pothole-ridden roads and an inadequately resourced police force, can we afford to spend this money (in today’s dollars)? Or is it time to accept that this is an investment in our country that we now have to make?