Windsor Castle (Fire)

– in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 23rd November 1992.

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Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage 4:04 pm, 23rd November 1992

With permission, I should like to make a statement to the House about the tragic fire at Windsor castle.

Shortly before midday on Friday, a fire started in or near the private chapel close to the state apartments. It took hold rapidly. The county fire service arrived within eight minutes and built up to 39 fire appliances and more than 200 firefighters. By late afternoon, the fire had been contained in the north-east corner of the castle. The fire services continued fighting the fire throughout Friday night, and by Saturday morning it had been largely extinguished.

The fire severely damaged several of the state rooms in the north-east corner of the castle, including St. George's hall and the grand reception room. An extremely effective pre-planned salvage operation was carried out to remove pictures, furnishings, carpets and other valuables from threatened rooms.

I visited the castle on Saturday and saw the extent of the damage. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in saying to Her Majesty that we share with her the sadness of the devastation of what is, at one and the same time, her home, a major state building, and a unique asset and attraction of our national heritage.

I would like to pay tribute to the county fire services, to the Windsor castle auxiliary fire service, and to all those who so quickly and efficiently helped to salvage so much from the burning buildings. In very difficult and dangerous circumstances they performed with skill, courage and dedication. There was no loss of life and only limited damage to works of art—one picture, one sideboard, and an antique carpet appear to have been lost. The fire was contained to one area, and the contingency planning was put into effect most successfully.

Investigations into the cause of the fire started almost immediately, and I will receive a complete report in due course. Scaffolding is being erected to stabilise the structure, and temporary roofing will be provided. Surveys will then be carried out to identify what action is needed to restore the buildings, and a full report is expected within a month. Meanwhile, the rubble will be carefully sifted by experts from English Heritage and elsewhere, working in close co-operation with the royal household, to provide essential information for authentic restoration work. It will then be possible to estimate the scale and cost of the restoration work, and to plan for it. Those of the state apartments that have not been damaged will be open to the public as soon as feasible.

Windsor castle is the property of the state, and it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that resources are provided to maintain it in a manner commensurate with its status, and its role on occasions of state. Therefore, I have no hesitation in saying that resources will be provided to restore that most precious and well loved part of our national heritage.

Once preliminary examinations of the circumstances of the fire have been completed and considered, I shall want to decide in consultation with the royal household that further investigations are necessary.

Windsor castle is a world famous symbol of this country. I believe that it is our duty to ensure that the damage is repaired as soon as possible.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Opposition share the profound sense of loss at the destruction of such a valuable part of our national heritage in the Windsor castle fire. However, we regret the failure of the Minister to set up a public inquiry into the causes of the fire and the lessons to be learned. We echo the tributes to the impressive work undertaken by the firefighters of the Berkshire fire service and others involved in the rescue operation. They displayed great courage in extremely difficult circumstances. All of us owe a great debt of gratitude to them. However, Opposition Members have several serious concerns about the safety arrangements and fire precautions at Windsor. Those questions were not fully dealt with by the Minister.

Sir John Garlick's report following the fire at Hampton court recommended more effective fire drills held jointly between the local fire brigade and Hampton court palace staff. Was that recommendation implemented in the case of Windsor castle? How many fire drills have there been involving castle staff and the Berkshire fire service, and what were the dates of those drills? If the Secretary of State does not have that information today, will he let me have it tomorrow? On the same basis, can the House be informed whether British standard 5839—the code of practice for the installation and servicing of fire-related equipment, including the use of a logbook—was implemented at Windsor castle during the period before the fire?

Why did the Property Services Agency, as part of its preparation for privatisation, transfer responsibility for fire protection at royal buildings to the royal household two years ago? Does the Secretary of State agree that if, as he said, they are buildings of the nation and part of the nation's heritage, the nation should be responsible for fire protection?

Can the Secretary of State say why the Government closed the Crown Suppliers, which was responsible for providing expert advice on fire protection? Can he inform the House who is left within the Government to provide expert advice to Government Departments and to the royal family on anti-inflammable materials? Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether it is true that the royal household refused English Heritage access to survey parts of the castle that have been rewired and structurally altered in the past few years?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Windsor castle's 12 part-time firemen were made redundant under a cost-cutting exercise five years ago? Does he agree that the fire could have been dealt with much more effectively in the crucial first few minutes of the blaze if that force had still been in place? Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on suggestions that there was considerable ambiguity about the respective roles of the royal household, the PSA, the internal fire prevention services and the Berkshire fire brigade—an ambiguity which delayed the firefighting exercise?

Is the Secretary of State aware that, according to documents leaked to The Sunday Times, the castle was considering abandoning its computerised alarm system because it was "very labour-intensive"? Is it not the case that, as the consequences of cost cutting, high-pressure water-jet pumps were replaced by inferior pumps less capable of fighting a major blaze?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give more details of the safety conditions imposed on the private contractors involved in rewiring the area around Windsor chapel? Were contractors undertaking electrical work in that part of the building where the fire started? English Heritage, the National Trust and most national museums have banned hot work except with stringent safeguards. Can the Secretary of State say whether such safeguards were in force at Windsor?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will include within the remit of any inquiry clarification of what is public and what is private property on the Windsor estate—what is ours, what is theirs, and whether there are any grey areas?

The Garlick report on the Hampton court fire concluded: Perhaps the most important lesson of the Hampton Court Palace fire … is that the preservation of our national heritage requires that the best material contribution from science and technology is matched by a corresponding commitment to securing the best organisation and use of human resources. The whole country is asking whether we learned those lessons.

Several of my hon. Friends as well as members of the public raised the question of who should pay. The right hon. Gentleman has already pledged this afternoon that the total cost will be paid out of the public purse. While there is a great deal of public sympathy for the monarch, there is also legitimate public concern that the total cost of repair should not be paid exclusively by the taxpayer. Has the right hon. Gentleman ruled out a contribution from the royal family, and would he welcome such a contribution if it were offered?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

The hon. Lady has asked me a series of questions. I am grateful for the sympathy that she expressed at the outset.

The hon. Lady asked about the inquiry. I did say that, as soon as we had received the preliminary report, I would discuss with the royal household whether there were further matters that we should investigate. She also asked about fire service drills. If that is a matter of particular importance to her, I shall let her know the dates of drills; but they occur on a regular basis. One of the most recent rehearsals was carried out in the Brunswick tower, which was affected by the fire.

Although the part of the castle that was affected by the fire is not subject to fire regulations, it is the royal household's policy to comply with them. It is, however, in the nature of such ancient buildings that it is not possible to carry out all the regulations that are laid down for modern buildings without destroying some of the historic fabric. I understand that the regulations are being complied with in the castle as far as that is feasible; indeed, fire precaution measures exceed the guidance set out in them.

The hon. Lady asked a number of questions relating to the part-time fire service. The changes made in 1991 have brought about a positive improvement in part-time arrangements. The complications were reduced when a central Government Department and the Property Services Agency, as well as the royal household, became involved. It is, I think, universally agreed that the previous arrangements were unsatisfactory, and that the present ones are much better.

The hon. Lady asked about the denial of access to English Heritage. The rewiring which occasioned the issue did not involve significant renovation work, and English Heritage experts were not needed; they have, however, been fully involved in renovation of the round tower. The hon. Lady also asked about cuts. The castle-based fire service has increased its full-time staff from five to six. She mentioned 12 part-timers: I acknowledge that that figure has fallen to nine, but if volunteer part-timers came forward, they would willingly be accepted.

It was suggested that there had been delay owing to ambiguity. On Saturday, I spent a long time with the relevant officer in the Berkshire fire service. He was clear that the arrangements—for which there had been preparation—had worked extremely well. The castle fire service was used for its specific purposes, providing guidance and, in particular, identifying the order in which objects should be removed.

The hon. Lady asked where the distinction lay between public and private property. Responsibility for the fabric of the castle rests with the Government, as it has done since 1831, before the introduction of the great Reform Bill. The contents of the castle constitute a royal collection, and responsibility for them therefore rests with the Queen. Let me stress to the hon. Lady, in terms of the question that she asked—

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

She asked about hot-work certificates.

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I shall come back to that.

The hon. Lady asked specifically about public and private property. The state apartments, where the fire occurred, were not Her Majesty's private apartments, and were, therefore, essentially public. Not all of them are open to the public all the time, but they are state rooms in which state functions occur.

As for the question that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) just prompted me about, when we have received the report on the origins of the fire, we shall he able to go into the practical details.

The hon. Member for Clwyd finally asked me whether the lessons of Sir John Garlick's report had been learned. A substantial series of works were put in hand, including those at Windsor castle, as a result of his recommendations. In the context of what the hon. Lady said about who should pay, I have already referred to the Government's responsibility, which goes back over 160 years, for the fabric of the castle. The responsibility for that lies clearly and firmly with the Government.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend , Windsor and Maidenhead

In thanking my right hon. Friend for his full statement, will he bear in mind the fact that my constituents in the royal borough are particularly distressed by the damage caused by fire to the castle? Does he accept that, while the castle is a priceless part of Britain's national heritage, it is to my constituents, and particularly to the good townspeople of Windsor, a familiar friend that they hold in great affection? It is a central part of their lives and their livelihood. I speak not only for myself but also for my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), with whom I share parliamentary representation of the roayl borough. He sits on the Treasury Bench and, as the House understands, cannot speak at this time.

Does my right hon. Friend also agree that various of the royal borough's and county's services, led by the fire service combined with the expertise of the auxiliary service in the castle, were of the highest standard during the terrible events of last weekend?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, just as I was grateful for his presence in the castle on Saturday when we looked at the damage. Of course I link with any remarks those of my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East. My hon. Friend expresses a universal view when he praises the quality and effectiveness of the work done and the co-operation achieved in fighting this disaster.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

May I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, join in the sympathy that has been extended to Her Majesty and in the admiration that has been expressed to the firemen? May I also express our relief that the chairman of English Heritage, Mr. Jocelyn Stevens, has not been able so far to deprive us of the expertise that will enable the rubble to be investigated by English Heritage experts?

The question of the public interest in Windsor castle and all the royal residences goes beyond the fabric of the building, which has been protected by the 1831 Act, to its contents—the works of art and the decorations. The accident of the Queen choosing to reside in a certain part of the castle cannot determine how best those objects have to be protected. A proper and full inventory is needed of buildings that are publicly protected, and also of their contents, so that the public can be assured that they are being properly protected.

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, both of sympathy and of admiration. In the context of what he said about English Heritage, the people who gave advice on the restoration of Hampton Court palace, as well as experts from other parts of the public services and elsewhere, are not the precise people with whom his question was connected in the context of English Heritage's plans. As to the hon. Gentleman's question about an inventory, I understand that what is known as photogammetry has been carried out in all the rooms concerned, and that there is therefore a substantial record against which restoration work can be conducted.

Photo of Mr Toby Jessel Mr Toby Jessel , Twickenham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we on the Benches behind him warmly endorse what he has said, in particular his expression of sympathy to the Queen? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that, when £60 million is divided among a population of 57 million, it come to about £1 a head, or, spread over 10 years, to about lop a head per year; and that I know of no one who would resent paying such a sum to restore a vital part of Britain's heritage that draws an immense number of foreign visitors, which benefits Britain as a whole? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that Hampton Court palace staff rushed to the scene and helped to rescue the paintings?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I am quite certain that the views of sympathy that my hon. Friend expressed are shared throughout the House. He expressed a notional cost fugure, and although I have seen figures quoted in the press, I cannot lend any credence to them, as such preparatory planning has not been done. I am certain that those who came from Hampton Court palace, like everyone else involved, enjoy the gratitude of the nation for the manner in which the works of art were so successfully rescued from the castle.

Photo of Mr Derek Enright Mr Derek Enright , Hemsworth

Since the Secretary of State is quite rightly paying considerable resources to Windsor castle following an accident for which I do not blame the Government, does he agree that, where we lose our heritage as a direct result of the Government's action, the Government equally should pay money? I think in particular of Frickley Colliery Athletic football club and Grimethorpe colliery band, both of which will cease to exist, and which, as the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Mr. Trend) said, are crucial to the communities that they represent.

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I do not know precisely where responsibility lies—[Interruption.] No, people should not become excited. I genuinely recognise the significance of what the hon. Gentleman said, and it is one of the considerations that I have been putting my mind to in the context of potential closures.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , South Staffordshire

Does my right hon. Friend accept that those who have been deeply distressed by the fire over the weekend have been almost as distressed by some of the mean-spirited comments that have been made following it? Will he emphasise that we are dealing with an official residence where people are entertained in the name of this country by our head of state, who represents much better value than most presidents, and that it is just as legitimate to spend money on this as it would be if a misfortune happened at Chequers, whoever was the occupant at the time?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the treasures of the royal collection cannot be sold and are available to the public, who see them in their thousands, if not millions, every year? Does he further agree that we can be encouraged not only by the wonderful efforts of the firefighters in rescuing so many treasures but by the fact that we know from Hampton Court that we have brilliant British craftsmen who will be able to restore the building to its former glory?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's admirable common sense, and I hope that his comments will inform the argument about the issue, because he is quite right about the essence of the castle and its contents. I entirely share the admiration that he expressed about our craftsmen.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , East Londonderry

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I wish to be associated with the Secretary of State's expression of sympathy to the sovereign, but who is ultimately responsible for the decision not to insure such buildings, and did the premium saved cover the cost of the damage?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's initial expression of sympathy. It is a long-established principle of Governments, of all parties and colours, that we do not insure such buildings, and I should be surprised if the Treasury had not done a calculation showing that it is a more economical way of proceeding.

Photo of Mr Richard Tracey Mr Richard Tracey , Surbiton

This fire was undoubtedly a tragedy and a disaster for the nation. My right hon. Friend will recall that, following the similarly awful fire at Hampton Court, Ministers at the Department of the Environment, then responsible for that building, called for an extensive report on the precautions that should be taken for the future. I refer to the report by Sir John Garlick.

My right hon. Friend has said that the lessons of the Hampton Court fire and the report on it have been duly noted. Can he assure the House that the Government have provided the necessary financial means to carry out the lessons of the report?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I should perhaps have clarified earlier the fact that the lessons have been not only learned but acted on. My hon. Friend will recall from his time at the Department of the Environment the scale of the assistance given to Hampton Court palace. The programme mounted in Windsor and elsewhere has been on a larger scale still, some of it devoted to rewiring and related issues and some of it to fire precautions.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley

I have not lost one second's sleep over this tragedy—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame".] No lives were lost, and that is what is most important.

How can we suddenly find any amount of money—perhaps as much as £60 million—when in the same week most local authorities may be capped, when cardboard city still exists, when houses are falling apart and when people are being dispossessed? How can the right hon. Gentleman justify that?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I mentioned earlier the cost involved. How this matter will be funded will depend partly on what is required. I do not expect the likely amount to be easily absorbable in the budget of my Department, but I shall discuss that with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary when I have had an estimate of the costs. Clearly, restoration in cases like this involves work spread over a number of years.

Photo of Mr John Wheeler Mr John Wheeler , Westminster North

My right hon. Friend confirmed that Windsor castle has been the responsibility of the Government since 1831. Will he also confirm that it has been open to the public throughout the 19th century and into this century, and that substantial overseas earnings are gained by its being open for tourism? Will he also confirm that Her Majesty is personally responsible for the maintenance of the royal collection, which has been greatly added to during the course of this reign, and that she will pay a large sum of money for the restoration of any damaged works in the collection?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

My hon. Friend's last point was entirely correct. As for the castle being open to the public, the range of media bids that I have received from other parts of the world is an indication of how much the rest of the world regards Windsor castle as a symbol of the nation.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson , Hampstead and Highgate

The Minister will recall making a statement to this House on 26 October regarding the redirection and concentration of budget resources for English Heritage. On that day, such redirection and concentration meant that 180 historic sites were deemed no longer within its remit. How is it that, in less than a month, the Government have found sufficient funds to underwrite, apparently, the entire reconstruction work necessary after the great fire of Windsor? Where has the money come from? Would it have been spent on other aspects of English Heritage's remit if the fire had not occurred?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

On the date in question, I answered a private notice question: I did not make a statement. The hon. Lady's question about that is not wholly germane to today's statement. Since then, discussions have continued on the nature of the negotiations that will occur with bodies that will perhaps be prepared to take over such sites. I told the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) a moment ago that I still have to discuss funding with my hon. Friend the Chief Secretary.

Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Cambridge South West

Is my right hon. Friend aware that most sensible people will reject the mean and Pecksniffian attitude of the Opposition? If Windsor castle is not part of our national heritage, it is hard to know what is. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the overwhelming majority of people, apart from a few readers of The Sun like the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), would gladly contribute to the restoration?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his robust Dickensian adjectives, and I share his view of the attitude of the country.

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that English Heritage has proposed that royal immunity from planning legislation and public inspection should be removed from unoccupied palaces? Should not that arrangement be extended to occupied palaces? Is it not a fair share of responsibility that the Government should be responsible for repair to the fabric of the palace, as it is a heritage property, and that the Queen, as I understand it, will be responsible for restoration and treatment of any paintings or artefacts that need treatment?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

In answer to an earlier question, I made it clear that the royal household went beyond the guidance for fire regulations, even though the royal household is not specifically and directly responsible for them. Similar considerations apply in terms of other regulations. The hon. Gentleman's concluding question was entirely accurate.

Photo of Mr John Gorst Mr John Gorst , Hendon North

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lessons and warnings to be absorbed from this episode go beyond royal palaces? Does he also agree that, at a time of recession, many national treasures, not necessarily in public ownership, are also at risk as a result of people cutting protection and care and maintenance? Does he accept that it is part of his responsibilities to ensure that no existing or potential national treasures are at risk from fire and similar irreparable damage?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I must take issue with my hon. Friend's phrase about cutting care and maintenance, which implied that that had been the case in this instance. I assure my hon. Friend that that was not the case, but of course I share his view about the care that we should extend to national treasures.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Is it altogether wise for the Secretary of State to give undertakings to anyone until he has received the surveyor's report? Is it not accepted by structural engineers that ancient walls are destabilished when they are subjected to intense heat? Might not each Norman stone have to be dismantled and reconstructed, and would not £60 million be only a starting price for such work? Does the Secretary of State recollect that he attended the Adjournment debate on Pitchford hall, and that there are many other calls on English Heritage? It might turn out that some of our heritage, like Linlithgow palace, might have to remain in ruins and the cost of repair he absolutely disproportionate.

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

I have been careful in all my answers to say that I have no precise indication at the moment of what the cost will be, and the determination of how we resolve that must await the figures. I acknowledge the possibility behind the hon. Gentleman's question, because he will know what had to be done with individual timbers at Hampton Court palace. On the other hand, I have to say—I agree that this is not an informed statement—after touring the castle on Saturday, that those from the fire service themselves said that, because of the building's quality, it was less likely that the walls would have to be dismantled than might be the case in more modern walls.

Photo of Mr Barry Field Mr Barry Field , Isle of Wight

My right hon. Friend is aware that the Isle of Wight enjoys a very special relationship with the royal family, not least because of Osborne house, which houses one of the foremost collections relating to our government of India. In due course, will my right hon. Friend find time to write to me to confirm that the fire precautions in the royal palace are adequate and up to date?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

My hon. Friend is quite right to bring Osborne house to my attention. My Department has a particular responsibility for the house and I will gladly write to him. I am due to write to him on other matters in relation to the House in any event.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

The most important fact is that no life was lost. Did the Secretary of State consult the Prime Minister, the royal family, their advisers or anybody else before he decided to sign a blank cheque on our behalf and at our expense? If not, why not? Does he accept that the argument that the taxpayer should pay the bill rather lends support to the argument that the royal family should pay taxes just like everybody else?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, I was asked at Windsor on Saturday a specific question: "Who will pay?" I enunciated the statutory responsibility of my Department for royal palaces. The hon. Gentleman's second question is for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Photo of Mr Robert Banks Mr Robert Banks , Harrogate

Will my right hon. Friend take heart from the remarkable restoration of York minster? Will he ensure that we employ the nation's finest craftsmen and builders to put the building right? Will he ensure also that visitors can see the restoration as it is being undertaken?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

Of course I assure my hon. Friend of the quality of craftsmen whom we will use. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the Under-Secretary of State, will he visiting York next week, and there will be a further opportunity for consultation.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher , Stoke-on-Trent Central

Is not the Secretary of State trying to have it both ways, in saying that Windsor castle and the royal collection are part of the national heritage for which we should have national collective responsibility, even though ownership of the royal collection is not with the nation? Will he now enter into discussions with the royal household formally to transfer ownership of the royal collections into the public domain, so that all of them are open to the public and so that responsibility for them lies with the Museums and Galleries Commission and with himself?

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Secretary of State for National Heritage

All those who have visited Windsor in the past have been impressed with the scale of that part of the royal collection which is available on show. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that those parts of the royal collection which are on public show are moved around from time to time. I repeat that responsibility for the royal collection is not that of the Government but that of Her Majesty the Queen.