Backbench Business — House of Commons Administration and Savings Programme

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:09 pm on 8th November 2012.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North 1:09 pm, 8th November 2012

I would like to thank the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee, John Thurso, for his useful introduction to the debate. I do not particularly want to go into the amendments; I will decide accordingly when the time comes and vote one way or the other.

Mention is made in Appendix A of the Committee’s report that by 2015

“The House of Commons will be valued as the central institution in our democracy”.

That is stating the obvious. Whether it is valued or not, or savings are to be made or otherwise, I have always thought that this place is the basis of our country’s democracy; I am unaware of any alternative institution that ensures the democratic process and the rule of law. The appendix also refers to Parliament having

“the accommodation it needs to operate in a modern democracy.”

That subject is my main reason for wanting to speak in this debate.

First, let me say that I entirely accept that savings need to be made. It would be a rather odd situation if we were urging savings everywhere else and ourselves took the view that that would not be appropriate in the Palace of Westminster. That is not necessarily to say, by any means, that I agree with everything that is being suggested.

Aspects of the way in which this place is run and managed sometimes rather surprise me. For instance, I came into my office in late autumn, when there is no necessity for any central heating, and was surprised to find that it was on at full blast and would have been for some days. Obviously, I took appropriate action. I am not suggesting for one moment that central heating should be reduced for those who work day in and day out in this place—Members’ staff, officers, and employees of all kinds—but perhaps some savings could be made in a way that would reduce public expenditure. I certainly would not have liked to pay the heating bill for my office out of my own pocket, nor would I want to claim for my constituency accommodation money that was not justified.

There should be no ambiguity about what I am going to say about cleaning, so let me point out that I am a lifelong trade unionist and a member of the GMB, and I am pleased about that, but, as my hon. Friends will know, I would say it regardless. Conservative Members might take a different view, but be that as it may. On page 18 of the report, there is a recommendation to reduce the number of cleaning staff directly employed by the House and not to renew existing employment contracts. I am concerned about that. Four or five years ago, there was a row about the terms and conditions of service of cleaners not employed by the House of Commons being far inferior to those of cleaners who were directly employed. There was a demonstration, and a lot of pressure applied both inside and outside the House, and the necessary changes were made. The cleaning contract for the House of Commons is with KGB; I am not making that up. Presumably it is not the organisation that became so notorious over 70 years!

When the Leader of the House winds up, I would like him to say whether the same conditions of service for cleaners directly employed by House of Commons apply to those who are on contract with KGB. Is there sickness pay? Is there any pension arrangement? Are their conditions in any way worse than those of directly employed cleaners? I believe that there is no difference in terms of hourly payment, but I am concerned about their conditions of employment.

I now come to my main point. The sum to be saved by 2014-15 is about £20 million, in round terms. However, figures that I have obtained from the Library, and which are in the report, show that spending on the maintenance of the Palace averaged some £30 million in each of the past three years. That, of course, was for both Houses. The contribution made by the House of Commons was, I think, somewhat more than half; in round figures, it was about £54 million, which is a very considerable sum. We know that the maintenance is absolutely essential—it is not done for the sake of it—because this building would not be able to operate on a daily basis if it were not undertaken. That is not in dispute; I am in no way challenging it, and no one else is likely to do so.

Another report, “Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster”, makes alarming reading and shows why the House of Commons must at some stage, I hope in the near future, make a decision on this building. It says that water penetration is widespread throughout the building, including the House of Commons and the House of Lords, that asbestos is equally widespread, that the building’s mechanical and electrical services are very defective, and that in some areas there is a high fire risk. Another area where essential maintenance is needed is the roof of the Palace, which causes the water penetration and so on. We are not debating that report today, but passing reference is made to it in the report before us.

There is no doubt that we all agree on the savings, but are we going to grasp the real issue that this 19th century building is not fit in any way for the 21st century? We must recognise that we can keep on spending the money on maintenance year in and year out, but, inevitably, the upshot will still be that a complete overhaul, with all the absolutely essential work that is necessary, will need to be undertaken. Moreover, it will undoubtedly have to be done with Members and everyone else having been evacuated from the Palace; it cannot be done while people are working here, even in the summer recesses—as we all know, if an emergency arises the House is recalled at a moment’s notice. I hope that it will be possible for a decision to be reached in time for the necessary work to begin in the next Parliament. Having known over the years how reluctant the House of Commons is to reach a decision, I very much doubt that that will occur, but I certainly hope that it will be done by 2020.

I am sure that the Leader of the House has read the report to which I referred and will recognise that I am not exaggerating about the overall work that needs to be done. Although I can sometimes be accused of exaggeration by Conservative Members, I do not believe that I am exaggerating now. Yes, it will cost a lot of money, but, as I have illustrated, we are spending money year after year on essential maintenance work. I agree that there must be savings; for the reasons I have stated, I will not oppose the recommendations in the report. However, the House should, as quickly as possible, reach a decision on the bigger, absolutely essential job of making sure that this Palace is fit for purpose.