[Relevant documents: House of Lords Commission and House of Commons Commission, Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster—a new mandate, Joint Report, HC 399; Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body: Main Supply Estimate for 2022-23: Comments from the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission and the Treasury, HC 232; Tenth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Restoration and Renewal of Parliament, HC 49.]
I can inform the House that Mr Speaker has selected both the amendments on the Order Paper: amendment (b), in the name of Dame Andrea Leadsom, and amendment (a), in the name of Thangam Debbonaire. In accordance with the Business of the House (Today) motion, which the House has just agreed, I shall invite each of them to move their amendment formally at the end of the debate. I now call the Leader of the House to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House:
reaffirms its commitment to preserving the Palace of Westminster for future generations and ensuring the safety of all those who work in and visit the Palace, now and in the future; notwithstanding the Resolution of
and in consequence, approves the establishment of a joint department of the two Houses, under the terms of the Parliament (Joint Departments) Act 2007.
May I say at the outset what an honour it is to stand here, in this historic and iconic Chamber, which is recognised around the world. We are truly privileged to represent our constituents here. However, we also have a responsibility to ensure that it is here for future generations, and a responsibility for its upkeep and preservation. We take those responsibilities very seriously. So today, on behalf of the House of Commons Commission, I am asking the House to endorse the report from the House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions—which was unanimously agreed on a cross-party basis—recommending a revised mandate for the Restoration and Renewal programme, and to approve the motion before the House.
The building needs to be repaired; that is not in question. The Commissions are united in recognising that, and we reaffirm our commitment to protecting this historic palace for future generations. The Commissions have worked constructively and across party lines to address Parliament’s shared challenge, and I therefore welcome the signature of the spokesman for the House of Commons Commission, my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker, on the motion.
In that context, the amendment proposed by the shadow Leader of the House, Thangam Debbonaire, is somewhat disappointing, and contrary to the spirit in which work has proceeded so far. I think that the hon. Lady and I have a constructive working relationship, and I hope that we can get back on an even keel and find a way through this. We certainly agree that the need for the work is urgent, that delay in starting it will increase the costs and risks, and that it should be started as soon as possible to—in the words of the Joint Commission—
“ensure the maximum value for money”.
There is definitely no blank cheque available from the taxpayer.
The hon. Lady’s amendment does not really add anything to the report of the Joint Commission; rather, it is at odds with the consensual and productive cross-party approach taken by the Joint Commissions of both Houses. Rebuilding the Palace of Westminster is a huge task and it will require all parliamentarians to take difficult decisions and both Houses to be in agreement. If we are divided or deliberately partisan, our tasks will become near impossible. I hope the hon. Lady will reflect and withdraw her amendment, but I look forward to hearing her words when she gets to her feet. I hope we can work constructively together in the near future to deliver the project.
Nevertheless, the question will no doubt arise: why are we here again? Surely the debates of 2019 finished the issue and we should not be back revisiting it. In fact, we are at a crossroads where decisions are required in a radically different context. In 2018, decisions on the structure of the programme were made at a time when estimates were in the region of £3.5 billion, with a programme to decant for approximately six years. This was the context in which the two Houses agreed the current approach. But in early 2022, the Sponsor Body published its essential schemes options. It estimated the cost to be between £7 billion and £13 billion and that the work would take between 19 and 28 years and require a full decant of the Palace of Westminster for between 12 and 20 years. Those are certainly very different from the figures with which we were presented in the past. The Sponsor Body also concluded that work would probably not begin until 2027 at the very earliest.
This is a very different proposition. A gap has emerged between what is realistic, practical and can be justified to taxpayers, and what is being proposed by the Sponsor Body. These estimates make it difficult to proceed down this path only two years after the pandemic and facing a challenging fiscal context. In 2019 it was thought that an independent body was best placed to act on behalf of Parliament and guide this project, but we must now recognise the flaws in that model. As the independent panel says, the governance structure envisaged in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 was based on certainty: a project flows through a standard business case cycle with clear progress, “unimpeded by the Client”. But Parliament presents a particularly complex environment, and this is a programme spanning multiple Parliaments, so the governance structure must, in the words of the panel, be able to
“anticipate and adapt to changing demands”.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am very critical of what the Commissions have done in this regard because I have a terrible fear that if we just keep on changing the governance structure time after time, we will never move forward until there is some catastrophe in the building. That is precisely what happened in the 19th century, and it looks as if we are going to do it all over again, with politicians meddling in something that should be done for generations. Can he confirm, however, that his motion today will not be contradictory to a full decant of both Houses across eight years, which I know is his personal preference?
I am happy to confirm that to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has taken a great interest in this project. It is important to be clear with the House today that taking the Sponsor Body back in-house and back under the control of the House does not rule out any option. It does not rule out the option of a decant of 20 years. What I am saying to the House is that I do not think that that is a deliverable option. We need to look at some more practical measures, and I will come to that later in my speech. It is difficult to comprehend how we can deliver a project of this magnitude without some form of decant, but I am not an expert and, as the hon. Gentleman says, lots of Members are not experts in this field, so we need the delivery authority, which will have that expertise, to guide us and to come to those decisions very quickly.
The Leader of the House has acknowledged that he is not an expert, and that most of us in this House are not experts on running major projects. The original intention of the Act of Parliament passed by this House, which has been unpicked in private in the Commissions, was that an expert body, the Sponsor Body, would be created to deliver that expertise. That body has now been abolished. He says that it has been brought in-house, but many people have left it. Can he be very precise with the House about exactly what will replace it, and where he thinks that expertise will come from in the Commissions, which in both Houses do not have the inbuilt expertise to deliver this project?
I will come to that, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right. What we need to do is get on with this project and stop dilly-dallying, which is why the direction of travel was not as rapid as the Commissions and I wanted. We were heading for a huge confrontation with this House, because I do not think the plans would have been palatable to Members when we finally got there. There is a shortcut we can take to expedite this process, and I will come to the structure later. I think we can get to a place where we can all agree to tap into the expertise she says we need, and that is what we are trying to establish.
Do we not also need some common sense and realism? Surely the priority is to do those works that are essential to the safety of the building and its occupants. We have to understand the mood of the times and say to the experts that to allow this enormous escalation in the project’s cost, scope and timing is simply not acceptable.
I honestly think we can do both. I think we can get to an understanding and a place where, with expert advice, we can get value for taxpayers’ money, where we can progress this as rapidly as possible and where we can take a more common-sense approach.
The Commissions have taken all these points on board, carefully assessed the options and sought independent advice on the best way forward. The Commissions, with cross-party representation and independent and external members, have taken a unanimous decision that it is necessary to revise the approach to the governance and mandate of the R&R programme.
We need a governance structure that is responsive to the requirements of the parliamentary context, is accountable to Parliament and is better placed to build the necessary consensus. The Commissions have judged that this can be best achieved through an in-house structure. The Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act will remain in place and will continue to provide the statutory underpinning.
The current Sponsor Body will be abolished, and its functions under the Act will be transferred to two corporate officers who will become the statutory duty holders. The Act provides for this flexibility by allowing for the Sponsor Body to be abolished and for its functions to be transferred. The proposed in-house governance structure will consist of two tiers: a client board on which the two Commissions have strategic oversight; and a programme board with external expertise that will be central to resolving critical choices and priorities.
One of the reasons why those of us who sat on the Joint Committee seven years ago—it is sad that so much time has gone by—did not look to do this in-house was that we judged that the expertise did not exist in-house. Although there are some fantastic people working here, I am afraid the House does not have a great track record of delivering projects cost-effectively. Why does my right hon. Friend think this will now somehow change?
That is a little disingenuous. The cast-iron roof project, for example, was delivered in-house and was delivered on time and on budget, which demonstrates that the House authorities do have that ability, but I think they would also recognise that they do not have the expertise, which is why it will be brought in. The programme board will be the structure that has experts who are able to advise and come forward with proposals.
Following on from my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling, it is certainly a fact that the people who will be in the joint department have signed off projects in this House such as the Elizabeth Tower, which has trebled in cost. Can the Leader of the House give the House an absolute guarantee that the expert panel will be in place throughout the project and that the joint department will actually take its advice?
That would require this House to change that model again if that were the case. That expertise will be brought in and accessed, which is what we require; we do require that expertise. My hon. Friend said that he did not think there was a huge track record, but the model on which we were operating was driving us towards a huge cliff edge where we were going to be faced with a bill of the top side of £20 billion and a decant of 20-plus years, which I do not think this House would tolerate or vote for. We would be completely hamstrung. In that circumstance, what I am suggesting, as are the two Commissions, is that in this model we can come forward with some more practical measures and reprioritisation, which I will come to in a moment.
The relatively small staff team of the Sponsor Body will be brought in-house as a Joint Department, accountable to the Corporate Officers, delivering the strategic case and working in tandem with Strategic Estates. Let me emphasise that the Delivery Authority’s role will remain unchanged; that valuable expertise and experience will remain in place. The senior leadership of the Delivery Authority will continue and, following recent discussions, I am confident and positive about their ability to work within the new governance structure.
On the staff team and the Sponsor Body, will the Leader of the House give a commitment that all of the staff team will be brought in-house and that that will be done speedily so that they do not find themselves in the limbo they are currently in?
They are currently planned to TUPE across, and they will be taken across. Some of them have already left, but it is important to understand that the real expertise is within the Delivery Authority. We have secured the use of those individuals and they are busy on other projects within the House.
There is a need, highlighted in the Public Accounts Committee’s report—one that the Commissions absolutely recognise and have sought to address in their report—for the programme to enable long-term decision making. The Commissions’ report recommends that an end-state vision should be developed. Having a clear end goal in sight allows granular decisions to follow, and Parliament will have to accept compromises and take some difficult decisions in setting that long-term direction. But we cannot anticipate all the needs or events of the future. Opportunities for periodic review allow the programme to adapt to changing fiscal, societal and political contexts. Neither can we override parliamentary sovereignty. It is just realistic to recognise that there must be opportunities for future Parliaments to review decisions.
The House is further being asked to endorse a revised approach to the works, one that puts safety first. Parliament must be guided by rigorous value-for-money considerations. In these economic times, financial responsibility must be our watchword. As I said earlier, there is no blank cheque from the taxpayer.
The Leader of the House keeps talking about how every Parliament has to be able to reform and change the system, but that is just like procurement in the Ministry of Defence; we just keep changing the specification of the tank and it gets more and more expensive, because we never move forward. That is the real danger that a lot of us are worrying about, which is why we wanted to have an arm’s-length organisation. The membership of the Commissions does not even stay the same. I am guessing it might change when he is no longer Leader of the House, perhaps on
The hon. Gentleman is wrong, in that we are changing the structures but he has to recognise that if this project is to take 25 years to deliver to its final conclusion, it is entirely possible that the circumstances in 25 years’ time will not be the same as they are today. It is clearly possible to imagine a circumstance, in fairly recent times, where the internet did not exist, and clearly that technology was not considered when we were adapting and changing the House—that has had to be built in. I do not know, as I do not have a crystal ball, what technology may be required in the future. We need to have the flexibility of foot to be able to accommodate any of those future changes.
Is it not the case that this project may never end, because as things go on breaking and evolving, we will be doing this forever. Therefore my right hon. Friend is right to take it in-house, and to keep the bills low, because my constituents want the potholes in their roads repaired and they want a hospital. They are very happy with this but they are not as bothered about this place as they are about their own? So is not this just going to be an endless process, which we need to manage on an ongoing basis?
Where my hon. Friend is right is that it is a little bit like the Forth Bridge, in that there will always be something that will need to be maintained, protected or made safe. In the short term, we need to prioritise those things. There are four areas that the Commissions want to prioritise; I hope the House will agree that they are all very important priorities. No. 1 is fire and safety; that is absolutely fundamental to what we should be driving towards. Building services are second, then asbestos, and then building fabric conservation. I hope Members will agree that those are indeed urgent priorities for us to focus on.
On the point of fire safety, could the Leader of the House confirm that the tens of millions of pounds—£140 million or so—that has been spent on the fire safety system to date protects those of us who may be working or in the building at the time, so that we could escape; but it does not protect the building? Would he also confirm that he is aware of, and understands, the responsibilities that UNESCO places on the Government of the day to make sure that this world heritage site does survive?
Of course; it is absolutely vital. I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that actually Notre Dame burned down—a terrible disaster—because workmen were in there. They had actually decanted, and it was the workmen who were working in there that finally burnt down Notre Dame. So we do have a responsibility to make sure not only that people are safe, but that the building is here for hundreds of years to come. I think we can achieve that by making those our four most important priorities.
For the medium and long term, the Commissions’ report sets out the parameters of how to deliver the works, above all advocating better integration of all the various safety, repair and renewal works that are taking place across the palace. That approach could allow decisions to be brought to Parliament quicker, work to start faster, and priorities to be flexed where required.
Turning to the next steps, the motion before the House is to endorse the recommendations of the Joint Commission and agree the change to the response function and the revised mandate to the works. Secondary legislation will be required to give effect to some of these decisions. So over the next year options will be reviewed, and a strategic case will be presented to the House in 2023. It is important for Members to understand that the House is not being asked for a decision on decant or costs today. Members will be consulted, and will have opportunities to engage with the decision making, and the House will need to take future decisions on these issues at a later date. In the meantime, the Commissions have endorsed a pragmatic approach that will allow work to be undertaken in the interim.
This is a critically important point. The Leader of the House has said that an outline business case will be presented, with options, in 2023. Following that, can he tell the House when a contract to start the work is likely to take place—that it is likely to take place in this Parliament? That would make it less likely that a following Parliament would alter the decision?
That clearly would be the ambition—to try and get on with that as soon as possible, but there is lots of other work that we can get on with in the meantime. For example, there is a plan to renovate the Victoria Tower at the other end of this building. That was going to be left until the restoration and renewal project was fully under way, but under this model we shall be able to get on with that much more quickly, and make sure that that masonry is secure and in place for future generations.
Let me turn to amendment (b) tabled by Chris Bryant and others. To be clear, the House is not being asked for a decision on decant today: the extent to which the House should move is ultimately for Members to consider. The report does not make a recommendation on length, the moves or location, nor does anything in the motion or Commissions’ report predetermine any outcome. So we may well end up in the place advocated in amendment (b). However, I am asking the House today not to bind the hands of those who are looking at this—to give them a free hand to go and consider these things in a timely way and to come back with a very firm and clear plan.
The intrusive surveys, which are nearing completion, will offer us a clearer view of the condition of the House. The proposed amendment would further tie our hands and require us to make a decision on the basis of incomplete information and evidence. Let us allow the Delivery Authority to do its job and complete the intrusive survey, then take the decision on decant informed by the evidence in 2023, as originally planned. In my view, the state of the building is such that a period of decant will be required, but unlike some hon. Members, I do not wish to pre-emptively decide on a timeframe.
Many Members will agree with the spirit of this amendment. The Commissioners present will hear what Members say during the debate, and I hope their views will be taken on board as we move forward. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to press the amendment. This is not the time to commit the House or to bind the Commissions’ hands. I hope that we can join together and move forward. The Commissions have unanimously agreed to propose a new way forward, one that allows us to balance our requirements of a working legislature and our responsibility to take decisions appropriate to the economic context in which we find ourselves today. I bring this motion to the House on behalf of the Commissions.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this timely debate on how we will govern the essential programme of works needed to preserve the heart of our democracy for years and generations come.
Only yesterday, the sitting of this House was suspended as water poured in. It is not the first time that business has been disrupted by a potentially unsafe working environment, and while yesterday’s sitting was suspended for only an hour, who knows how long we could be forced out next time? Electrical, plumbing or mechanical failure—there is urgent work to be done, so I am glad that we have the chance to get things moving again today.
Whether it is the weight of history on one’s shoulders as one walks through the 11th-century Westminster Hall, or the beauty of the sunlight beaming across New Palace Yard through the colonnades, the honour of working on a UNESCO world heritage site comes with a duty to be a responsible custodian. It is an honour to work in the Palace of Westminster, with all its architectural, cultural and historical significance. We also have legal and moral obligations to preserve this listed building, which around the world is a symbol of Britain and our democracy. But those who work here need to be able to carry out the functions of a modern-day Parliament, and those who visit here ought to be able to experience the Palace in all its glory, and they must be able to do so safely.
Whether they are working or visiting, everyone on the parliamentary estate must not only be but feel safe—safe from falling masonry, safe from asbestos, safe from a catastrophic failure of the building. I share the fears of my hon. Friend Chris Bryant that we are heading for that catastrophic failure if we do nothing. I recognise the concerns of right hon. and hon. Friends and Members in all parts of the House that that is where we are heading.
When I say everyone, I truly mean it. The estate must also be made more accessible to people with disabilities. Not only does the lack of accessibility make visiting the estate difficult, but it disenfranchises a talented group of people from working in Parliament. Restoration and renewal could provide opportunities to improve access and step-free accessibility, as well as visitor facilities.
I think no one is likely to disagree with anything I have said, which is similar to much of what the Leader of the House said, so Members could be forgiven for wondering why we are here—why we are where we are in the restoration and renewal of the Palace. In 2018, the Commons and the Lords agreed that work was pressing and rightly concluded that it should be undertaken by a statutory sponsor body and delivery authority. Subsequently, as my amendment highlights—it pains me to have to say this, but I do have to and I notified the right hon. Gentleman that I would—the former Leader of the House of Commons, Mr Rees-Mogg, worked to undermine progress and spent time wrangling with experts instead of working with them to secure the future of the building. We must follow the evidence and the advice of experts. I did think that the Government could have learnt by now that ignoring experts is just not advisable. I am afraid to say that in my view there is a political dimension. The Leader of the House asked me not to make it a party political matter. I am afraid to say that there is a huge aspect that is. It is on certain members of the Government that we are here. The right hon. Member for North East Somerset just kept changing the goal posts. I have seen that happen. That is typical of the whole Government.
However, today’s motion, much as I might regret that we are here, is purely about the governance structure of the works. As shadow Leader and therefore member of the House of Commons Commission, I was part of the Joint Commission that took this decision, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I will support the motion. I do so not because I am happy with how we got here—I am very much not—but because it seems to me that we are running out of other options. I do not want to undermine the skill and undoubted dedication of the people involved in the Sponsor Body, but for whatever reason—there is a range of reasons—confidence had been lost over emerging costs and so on. The Independent Expert Panel reviewed the situation and has concluded that the current model is unlikely to be viable.
My hon. Friend talks about costs and we have heard about spiralling costs. The Sponsor Body has been honest about what the costs are. One of the biggest problems in this place is that we come up with figures—the Queen Elizabeth Tower being a classic example—that are totally unrealistic. We have to be honest that this project will cost a lot of money.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. We do not have to be expert builders to see that this is going to cost money and it is going to take time. I see no alternative to both Houses having to move out for a period of time, as yet undetermined.
I also say in response to my right hon. Friend that this shows the critical role of the Commons Finance Committee, the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, chaired so ably by my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, and the Public Accounts Committee, which has done such excellent work. Members of the PAC are here today and are very knowledgeable and skilled at exactly that sort of line by line scrutiny. We would need that whoever was commissioning the works—whether it was the Sponsor Body, and both Committees have paid close attention to the current structure, or any future structure.
In 2015, I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee, ably chaired by my hon. Friend Dame Meg Hillier. On that basis, I went to see the works and the operations of this building. It is still remarkable to me that we keep the entire thing going. My hon. Friend, the shadow Leader of the House, mentioned people who work here and their expertise. Is she confident that account has been taken of their judgment about the way they can continue to operate the building while this procrastination goes on and that we can support them in the difficult work that they do?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is right to raise it and to pay tribute to the work of the Public Accounts Committee. Am I confident? I am not currently confident or certain of where we are at the moment in terms of delivering anything in the way that we wanted to, but I am confident that we need to do it. Having spoken to the Delivery Authority, I am confident that it views this as doable, and it is the authority that will be carrying out the work. Having reviewed the situation, the Independent Expert Panel noted:
“in principle the existing governance model could be made to work, but that lost confidence and momentum means that retaining the current model is unlikely to work.”
What it has also said, which might speak to my hon. Friend’s question, is that the recommendation of bringing the Sponsor Body function in-house should be viewed as a pragmatic measure to cover what is needed for the next 12 to 24 months—the decision phase if you like. It has also recommended that that pragmatism should not preclude alternative future options. We need to see this as part of a process to get us to the decision. Regrettable though it may be, and I do regret it, that we are where we are, this appears to be a compromise way of moving forward, with best value for money, safety and time.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about the Public Accounts Committee. To be clear, the role of that Committee is no substitute for the role of a proper sponsor or client function that keeps a close eye on the cost on a day-to-day basis. We look at things retrospectively, although we may make recommendations. Nor are we, as the Public Accounts Committee, expert enough to deliver this process. She talks about our report. Our report said that we regretted that decisions were made secretively and in private on a decision that was before the House and an Act of Parliament of this House. Does she have any comment about how we got from that Act of Parliament to where we are today?
I completely support what my hon. Friend says. Why are we here? I have already mentioned my own view on why we are here, at least partly. We need to note here that the Sponsor Body was repeatedly asked, as if we had had a referendum—goodness me—and asked people to keep voting on it until they came up with the answer that was wanted. It is very difficult to avoid looking at some of what has happened over the past couple of years and coming to the conclusion that there were people who were just going to keep asking until they got a different answer and, eventually, when they got a different answer, they said, “I don’t like that answer.”
That is problematic. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is not the duty of the Public Accounts Committee to scrutinise the day-to-day spending of this body, whether it is in-house or external. It will need a very strong programme board, which will need expertise. There will also have to be extremely tight accounting measures.
I do not yet know exactly who will be on the programme board. I urge all those right hon. and hon. Members who have not just an interest—interest alone is not enough—but actual skill in this area, and ideally some of those who have history, having sat on so many Committees, as my right hon. Friend Mark Tami and Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown have, to consider whether they should be part of the programme board. I certainly urge them to think about it.
Doing nothing is not an option. There is no doubt that large-scale work is needed. Asbestos, leaks, wires, plumbing nobody knows the function of, a building at risk of fire and flood—my hon. Friend Dame Meg Hillier is quite right that the fire remediation works mean that we are protected, but the building is not—this work has to happen. It is testament to the hard-working House staff and to contractors that we thankfully have not yet witnessed a catastrophic failure of the building, as has been seen in others around the world, but at some stage that hard work will not be enough.
I want that on record. We must make sure that we are not the Parliament that delayed, at the cost of this magnificent building with its magnificent history. The parliamentary estate is in desperate need, and it is important that the restoration and renewal process works well with Parliament’s maintenance teams, who do such a good job. We have therefore no choice but to find a way out.
I note the amendment in the name of my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda and for Hackney South and Shoreditch and other right hon. and hon. Members, who are incredibly knowledgeable. I agree with their desire for urgency and that everything must be done to avoid unnecessary delay, cost and risk. I particularly pay further tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch for the work she has done on the Public Accounts Committee. I reiterate that in its recent report, the Committee encouraged further scrutiny. Value for taxpayers is important.
Before I close, I also recognise my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East, who in his role as Chair of the Finance Committee and the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission has been invaluable, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside. Many hon. Members have sat on the Committees for many years, but I do believe he may be the only one to have sat on pretty much all of them for a significant amount of time. His incredible wealth of knowledge seems to me to be unmatched.
However, having made my points, I will not test the House’s patience by pushing the amendment in my name to a vote. I will end by saying that we are the generation who have been given the honour, the privilege and, yes, we could say the burden of sorting this problem out. I think it is an honour and a privilege. Some of us will not see the end of it—either we will be no more, or we will be no more Members of Parliament. That is just where we are. We are the generation who decided to put it off no longer. We must go on record as having done everything we can to get the process moving, to preserve and enhance the Palace of Westminster so that it can go on as a safe, thriving and accessible workplace for many, many more centuries to come.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is new to this. I recognise that both as a friend and a thoughtful politician he is approaching this in the way he judges the most sensible, so I do not want him to take any of the comments from me or from other Members tonight as being about him, but it is about seven years of failure, in my view.
We are standing in what is, for all of us, the office, but it is also a global landmark. We have all seen how—thank goodness, in the wake of the pandemic—the streets outside are full of tourists again. People come here to be photographed alongside the Elizabeth Tower and see this building as a symbol of the United Kingdom. The reality is that it is a world heritage site. People who question whether we should spend money on updating, restoring and protecting it, and say that we should move to a new building elsewhere, miss the point that we have a legal duty, whatever we do as a democracy, to restore this building and protect it for the future.
Back in 2015, Chris Bryant and I, and others, including Mark Tami, sat on a Joint Committee of both Houses saying, “What are we going to do about the problem?” It is a very real and acute problem. When I became Leader of the House in 2015, about four days later, we very nearly had to relocate out of this building because up there in the vents the engineers found asbestos. Had they discovered that that asbestos had been disturbed—fortunately it had not; it had remained unmoved for decades—we would have had no choice but to close the Chamber for months and months.
That kind of risk is with us every day of every week. Thangam Debbonaire referred to the leak yesterday. Thank goodness it was a small problem. But we saw what happened at Notre Dame. Yes, the Leader of the House is right that it was down to a workman in the building doing the wrong thing, but we have workmen right across this building all the time, and it can happen. We saw what happened at Clandon Park. The thing that really brought it home to me at the time of the Joint Committee was when Kingsway caught fire—a road caught fire—because of electrical problems underneath its surface, and it burned for about two days.
The shadow Leader of the House is absolutely right: the fire service have always said, as they said back in 2015—it is not just about now—that, if there is a serious incident in this place, they could save the people but they could not save the building. So every day of every week in this building, we live with the risk that we may discover that an asbestos problem or a critical failure of the plumbing system means that we have to move.
The right hon. Gentleman is a fellow person who has been at this for seven years. We have already seen a release of asbestos in Speaker’s House that will lead to a group of people having to be monitored for probably about 40 years to see whether in those terrible circumstances anything actually develops, and that can happen in any part of the building.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We went through all this seven years ago. It is hugely frustrating to me that we are here seven years later still working out what to do about it. I thought that we would have done something by the time we got to 2022.
The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Rhondda will remember me pushing hard to get the northern estate project started so that we could move on and decant quickly. At least the northern estate, or some parts of it, is being done, and we have taken over Richmond House, as we planned at the time, but here we are seven years later still discussing how we are going to do this. It is not about discussing how we are going to do it starting in about a year’s time. I cannot see how we quickly get to a point where the works are actually starting. With every week that goes by, there is the risk that we as Members of Parliament wake up in the morning and discover that we have relocated to Church House indefinitely. We have to accept that.
Is not one of the difficulties that all the alternative places that we would have to go to in an emergency are not safe? Church House is not safe from any kind of bomb attack, and there is no other venue that we could go to. I think the Government have just sold the one other place that we might have gone to. There is nowhere. So this is not only a risk to us and the building; it is also a risk to our democracy.
We have been around the houses on this. We had all the proposals, whether it was “Let’s build some great gin palace on Horse Guards”, “Let’s have some great building taking up the whole width of the River Thames”, or, “Let’s move out of London”, but the logistics of this place mean that Parliament and Government have to be close to each other. In order that Ministers can go to and fro between their Departments and the Front Bench, in order to have interactions between both Houses of Parliament, and in order to have basic levels of security—given the horrendous events that have taken place in recent times, we absolutely have to make that a priority—the reality is that Parliament will not move off the secure estate. It is why we recommended taking over Richmond House, because it was the one place that gives us extra capacity within a secure environment.
The reason I have put my name to this amendment tonight and the reason I am minded to push it to a Division, unless I can achieve an extra bit of assurance from the Leader of the House—I hope he will be able to say a couple of words at the end—is that we have been around the houses on this issue, and we have talked about all the different options. We have explored the issues and challenges, and the Leader of the House is absolutely right that we do not have the expertise in-house. We need the expert advisers. I respect the fact that he will bring in further expert advice to help him, but, at the end of the day, there are only a certain number of ways in which we can do this.
On the Joint Committee, we agreed that doing this bit by bit over a 30-year period does not work, because that would leave too much risk for too long. We explored whether we could do half the building and then the other half, but the problem is that the services are all common to both Houses. There is not a shutter that can be brought down between the Commons and the Lords—the sewerage and plumbing systems work for both, and the risers full of asbestos serve both. There is no simple option that allows us to move into the Lords Chamber while this is done, and so forth. We came to the clear conclusion that a decant was the only realistic option.
Many Members have expressed concerns that if we move out, we will never move back. I do not think we can just move out with an endless timeframe. There has to be a clear mandate for the people who will do the work, and that is the purpose of the amendment. It states that we think the only viable option—I have discussed the fact that we spent a year debating it—is a decant that lasts a maximum of eight years, because no Parliament will accept being asked to write a blank cheque. This is where I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The idea that we could do a 20-year decant is crazy. We cannot do that.
We need to give a clear brief to the Delivery Authority and all those working on the project that we are prepared to countenance a decant that takes us through much of one Parliament and much of the next, but we do not think that any generation of Members of Parliament should be deprived of the opportunity to spend at least a part of their time here participating in debate in this Chamber. Realistically, an eight-year timeframe is the most that is possibly sellable to Members of Parliament. It is, in my view, the only deliverable option. It will cost money, and there is nothing we can do about that, because this is a world heritage site. It is a duty that we just have to perform. If we do not give a clear brief to those who will be deciding the way forward and making recommendations, we will frankly be kicking the can down the road yet again.
I seek my right hon. Friend’s assurance that at the end of this debate, and as this approach goes forward, he will give a clear mandate that we will see what it will cost and what it will take for us to be decanted from here for eight years and then return. If he can assure me that that will be part of the brief and we will all be able to see the outcome, I will be happy not to press the amendment to a Division. However, we spent a year coming to this conclusion, so I am not happy to cast it aside, and I do not think Chris Bryant is either.
We have done an awful lot of work, and we are all deeply frustrated that we have got to this point seven years later. We cannot possibly defend that, and I describe this amendment as the “Bloody hell, get on with it” amendment. We worked out that the decant was the only way forward. When the plans are laid before this House next year, we want to see the eight-year decant and what it entails on the table for Members to consider. If my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is happy to give me that assurance, I am happy not to press the amendment, but I am adamant that we must have that on the table.
This is a historic responsibility for us all. The shadow Leader of the House is absolutely right that we cannot be the Parliament that swept this under the carpet; we have got to get on with it. It is not the fault of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that we are where we are, but we should never have got into this position in the first place. I ask him and all on the Commissions to ensure that we really get on with it at pace. If we do not, one day we will find that we are no longer sitting in this Chamber, but stuck in Church House, thinking, “What on earth are we going to do now?” That would be letting down our democracy and letting down our country.
Order. Before I bring in the SNP spokesperson, colleagues will see that we have at least nine more speakers—I see another Member is now standing—in which case, if I do need to get the Leader of the House back in at the end, it probably requires everyone to take about five minutes. I call Kirsty Blackman.
First, I want to note an interest, in that I am on the sponsor board; I have been the SNP’s delegate to it for a hugely long time now. I must apologise for the fact that I am not my hon. Friend Pete Wishart, who is unfortunately on Committee business and cannot be here, so Members are stuck with me. I will do my best—probably not with quite the flair that he would normally bring to this—to fill his shoes in some way.
I agree with the point that Chris Grayling just made. The fact that we are here—that this position has been reached—is indefensible. The SNP’s position has been that this is an absolutely horrible building to work in. It is dreadful for our staff, it is a grim place to work and it is not a nice working environment. As a result of that, of the colossal amount of money involved and of the fact that we do not want to be here—we are going to be an independent country, and we are going to toddle off and leave yous to it—we suggested that if others were going to do anything with restoration and renewal, they should build a new Parliament. That will cost far less money than anything they could possibly do with this one. For our staff and people who work in this building, and for future MPs and staff who work in this building, it would be a significantly better and safer working environment. However, that was rejected.
We agreed an Act of Parliament—an Act of Parliament —about how this was going to work. The Act said, “Right, we’re going to have a sponsor board and a Sponsor Body, and we’re going to have a delivery board and a Delivery Authority. We’re going to have all of those things, and they are all going to work together in a groove and deliver what the House has said they are going to deliver.” The Sponsor Body, led by the sponsor board, came up with the memorandum of understanding between the Sponsor Body and the House, and that huge and massively detailed document explained exactly how things would work.
It feels as though the House of Commons Commission —although not so much the Lords one—and successive Leaders of the House gave argued at every opportunity about how this was going to work. They have said, “Actually, we don’t really agree with the Act of Parliament. We need to do this differently.” It feels as though those on the Government Front Bench and, at times, other Members on the House of Commons Commission—this must have been the case—have ended up costing more and more by adding on so many extra things, coming up with new stipulations and having us do ridiculous surveys.
One of those surveys was about making this bit of the House into a bubble so that we could continue to work in it, walking here from Portcullis House with hard hats and boots on, which I do not think anybody would have much enjoyed. This would have been a bubble where we could have continued to meet, because key people cannot bear to leave this awful, leaking room that is too small for 650 MPs to sit in. If this is going to happen, and we do not agree that it should, nobody could do it in a more cack-handed way than the way it is being done.
This structure was agreed and set up by the Houses, and at every opportunity the Government and others have tried to dismantle the structure and then complained because it cost too much money. Of course it will continue to cost money if people keep moving the goalposts—if they do not really want disabled access, but they just said that in an Act of Parliament, and if they are going to complain when the Sponsor Body pitches up and says, “This is how much it will cost to have disabled access.” If they do not want it, of course what they to try to deliver is not going to suit the House. The governing structures have not worked because the Commissions want one thing, the pre-2019 Members of Parliament wanted a different thing from the post-2019 MPs, the Speaker wants something different, the Leaders of the House have wanted something different, and the sponsor board and Sponsor Body have been trying to serve all those masters, and it has proved to be impossible.
The new structure that the Leader of the House suggests will have exactly the same problems as the previous one. It will have exactly the same number of people suggesting they are the right person to make all the decisions, and that person is going to change on a regular basis—even if it only changes once in every five years, that is still on a regular basis. Ever more money will be expended while bits of masonry continue to fall off, while asbestos continues to be in this building and while the fire risk continues to be massive for a UNESCO world heritage site. This building is a relic; it is not a suitable, appropriate working environment.
I apologise to the hon. Lady for stopping her in full rant, but does she not appreciate that this is a UNESCO world heritage site and a grade 1 listed building, and whether we are in this Parliament or not, this Parliament has a responsibility to maintain it properly? How does she answer that?
Maintaining this building properly, making it safe and making it so it does not burn down is a very different thing from making it safe so it does not burn down while thousands of people work here. The majority of the fire incidents here are caused by issues with people, as are many of the safety issues. If we take the people out of the equation, it is significantly cheaper to do all that; if we only have disabled access visitor routes, we take away a huge amount of the risk that is created. We could rip out almost all the services that go up and down the vertical risers if we did not need to keep them because we need internet in office T306. Clearly, we would not need internet in office T306 if there was nobody working in this place.
What does the hon. Lady envisage this building would become? Would it just become an empty shell, in which case it would certainly deteriorate quite quickly? What alternative use does she envisage for it?
Honestly, I do not really care: I am going to be out of here, the Scottish National party is going to be out of here, Scotland is not going to have any stake in this building, and the UK without Scotland can decide what it wants to do with the building. It is not my responsibility to make that decision; it is the responsibility of the people who will carry on being here after Scottish independence. I am not trying to dodge the question; I am just not fussed, as it is not my decision. Just as I am not really fussed about what happens with council tax rates in England, it is not my decision to make. It is the hon. Gentleman’s decision to make, and it is for the people who will be here to decide what this building should be used for in the future.
I am testing your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I have spoken for a bit longer than I had intended. I do not think this has been done well; in fact, I do not think it could have been done worse. I do not think what is being proposed is going to fix the issues, and in the meantime our staff, House staff and MPs are all working in a very substandard, dangerous working environment, and that is totally and completely unacceptable.
That was an interesting speech, although I am not sure that Kirsty Blackman carried the rest of the House. This is the iconic centre of the United Kingdom, and it is not surprising that the SNP wants to make it into a museum.
I commend the Leader of the House for the moderate, sensible, open-minded way in which he opened the debate. I suspect that very few people would disagree with anything he said, and most of what the shadow Leader of the House Thangam Debbonaire said was sensible, too. We all agree that we have to just get on with it. There have been too many delays, and—let us be realistic—they will probably still be working around us in 50, 60 or 100 years’ time. That is the way of these old buildings.
I hope we will move on from this endless debate about whether or not we have a decant. I rather resent the fact that those of us who have been arguing the case against a very lengthy decant are accused by others of just wanting to live in a comfortable place. I serve on the Sponsor Body with my hon. Friend Robin Millar. If we had proceeded with its plans, which would have entailed a decant of up to 20 years, that decant would not have started before 2031. I can assure the House that by 2031, I will certainly be retired and quite possibly dead, so it is nothing to do with me. What the Sponsor Body finally came up with might have been a fair evaluation of what it would cost to do a full singing-and-dancing renovation and change of everything, but it was totally unrealistic, and the Commission had to step in.
There will be ways of working creatively around us. I accept that it may well be necessary to have a decant, but we have no idea how long that decant will last. If we get rid of the Daily Mail September sittings and stop sweating the building through the entire summer recess, there may come a point where we will break in July and not come back until the following January, or it may take longer—we have no idea. However, I say with the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling that we should not, I am afraid, accept an amendment that just lays down a set time. We have to look at the evidence. The new Commission will do its work, and will do whatever is necessary.
There has been so much delay, and I think it is very unfair of the hon. Member for Bristol West who leads for the Opposition to blame the Government and the former Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, for that fact. The reason why we have had so much delay is that the Sponsor Body has come up with wildly expensive proposals, the first of which was the demolition of Richmond House. That would have been financially wasteful, with millions of pounds spent on a white elephant permanent replica Chamber; it would have been architecturally destructive, making a mockery of heritage laws; and it could have cost up to £1 billion. That proposal caused an enormous amount of delay, and I think there is a general consensus that it was right for us to do away with it. It has been delay, delay, delay.
The plans for the Palace were not much better. The Sponsor Body was planning on removing 14 lift shafts, and wanted office space for MPs cut by as much as one fifth. The programme was in danger of becoming a vast feeding frenzy for contractors and consultants at the taxpayer’s expense. A lot of those ideas were simply unrealisable, so the plans for the R&R programme that have been put forward have failed. As the Leader of the House said, we need to look at working models that have been successful, such as that used for Elizabeth Tower, which has been beautifully restored—of course, that project went over time and over budget because too little preparatory work was done, but the result is magnificent. The cast-iron roofing that the Leader of the House talked about has been an immense success. It is the largest cast-iron roof in Europe. Each piece has been taken apart, restored or replaced, and put back with meticulous skill, so I do not think it is fair to criticise the estates programme.
One of the problems is that lots of people advocate for having lots more of those individual projects. Something like 32 or 33 projects are going on at the moment, and one of the difficulties with the estate is that it is very tight for space, with nearly every available inch already covered in a portakabin or some kind of contractor’s arrangements. We cannot do many more projects at the same time as the current ones, and the cast-iron roofs would have been done quite a bit quicker if the previous Speaker had not insisted that work stopped whenever he was in his house. That is what is going to happen if we keep on trying to do all the work around the building while we are still in it.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point and we just have to learn to compromise. He mentions Mr Speaker. We should congratulate Mr Speaker on his own creative thinking. The Speaker’s house needed urgent repairs, which meant he had to be accommodated elsewhere. The R&R programme drew up plans costing £20 million, to tear up a Georgian townhouse on the estate and put a lift shaft through it. Mr Speaker and the previous Leader of the House grasped the nettle, visited the site itself, and decided it just needed a lick of paint and some basic work. The right hon. Member for North East Somerset, who is sitting in his place, reported that it cost just 5% of the planned £20 million to get all three empty houses back into use. That is exactly the kind of mentality we need. It requires good decision making, an eye for savings, and cutting out unnecessary embellishments.
Serving on the sponsor body has been informative. The sponsor body’s job is to oversee and scrutinise the delivery authority, but I personally believe that the information provided to the sponsor body has often been mired in the worst kind of management speak. Operations are often totally opaque and lacking in clarity. I believe that our ability to thoroughly scrutinise work has not been fully facilitated. Every time it came across a problem, it reached for the most invasive and most expensive solution. I believe that in the end it was going to provide very bad value for money. Every time we proposed alternatives, ridiculous claims about costing and timescale were thrown back. Inadequate figures were given to us. There was a lack of awareness of MPs’ work. For example, it was suggested that MPs’ staff move to shared open-plan offices. Parliamentary politics requires privacy and discretion, and dealing with constituents’ cases even more so. Often, we deal with very sensitive information. We do not work like other entities and we have to accept that Parliament is a unique place.
In conclusion, I believe that what the Leader of the House is proposing today is a sensible compromise. We are not ruling anything in or anything out. We are going to get on with it. We love this building. We are not going to put ourselves first and we are going to do the absolutely essential work to restore this Barry and Pugin masterpiece. We are not going to make it carbon neutral and fill in atriums and all the courtyards. All that sort of expensive stuff is for the birds. We are going to make this building safe and fireproof, and we will do it, hopefully, with good preparatory work, within time and within budget.
It is a pleasure to follow Sir Edward Leigh. When he and I first arrived in this place, Richmond House was being built. We had the pleasure of seeing it go up and contribute to the parliamentary landscape—the hanging gardens of Babylon, I think it was referred to at the time.
Since I have been sent back to take part in these events again, I find there is a collection of people who serve the public interest loyally, hard and well, and that the more we discuss it among ourselves, the closer we get to very similar conclusions. I will cut straight to the chase, Madam Deputy Speaker, so that other people can get into the debate. My views are very similar to those of the Leader of the House, and I have sympathy with the motion he has tabled. I also see a lot in both amendments. The Government do deserve chiding—let me put it nicely—as my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire did in a pretty gutsy way. The contents of the other amendment make points that, mostly, I agree with and think are probably the right way to go. It is possible that we are getting the worst of both worlds for ourselves: that we will have a political involvement that is not enough or does not satisfy us all, and still have sufficient specialist oversight and interest for there to be tensions between the two. I hope that that does not happen. The best way of avoiding that is to make sure that there is a climate of openness, rather than of caution or—I would even go as far as to say— concealment. It would be better to know that we had a shared problem up front rather than to be presented with it afterwards, particularly on the costings.
Not only have you served on the House of Commons Finance Committee, Dame Rosie, but you chaired it, so time after time, you will have had instances where you have been told at the end of a programme what the cost looks like. It might have been more helpful to know what the true costs looked like at the beginning of the programme. That has happened too often with the Commons Finance Committee for it to be endured. We must have a proper, realistic sense of what is going on, rather than an estimate that those who propose it hope will endure over time.
I am happy to report that the House of Lords has a similar Finance Committee to us—it has had it, I think, for five years—and that it had its first joint meeting with the Commons Finance Committee last week. It examined in some detail the Elizabeth Tower project, which has been the subject of some comment and high overspend. It went through that in some detail. Everything that we would expect to be said about lessons learned was said. We have heard it before. But this is my core point: this has to stick. Lessons have to be learned. Projections have to be realistic.
In two or perhaps three years’ time, we will face a decision about the cost of the decant and the substantial rise in public expenditure that will accompany the costs of running the new building, as well as the costs of continuing the work on the old one. I am still convinced that this is the correct way to proceed, if we can, but we have to know what we are in for. It seems that we should do our bit to look at what else we are spending money on, whether we are getting value for money, whether there are ways to bring the costs down and whether expenditure could be better managed over a longer period. We cannot demand that everything is treated as a priority and just say, “We want this project, but we also want that project.” We must try to get our house in order and do what we can to have the twin objectives that the Leader of the House spelled out. They are reasonable objectives, I think, to proceed on cautiously, learning the lessons of what has not gone terribly well before.
Also, we should pat ourselves on the back for things that have gone right. Everybody says how nice the Elizabeth Tower looks. The work on the Victoria Tower is proceeding at pace. The determination is to make sure that the masonry does not fall off on top of people. Unfortunately, the buildings continue to be corroded by acid rain and pollution, so we will never be without a maintenance programme. Eternal vigilance will have to be our watchword, certainly for the foreseeable future, on prosaic matters such as fires and damage. It is comforting to know that people can be got out, but we want to save the building as well, which is exactly where we started. I urge the proposers of the amendments not to push them to a vote at this time—I think their points have been well made—and to support the Leader of the House on the main motion.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye in this debate. May I say straightaway that although the Leader of the House has come in for criticism today, he has only been Leader of the House for a short time? He is having to answer for the mistakes of the past, but he now has a huge weight on his shoulders because he can rescue the project, get it on the right path and get work started, for all the many reasons that we have heard today. I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a chartered surveyor. I was able to articulate my views more fully in my Westminster Hall debate last Thursday.
This debate could not be more timely, given yesterday’s water leak in the Chamber. That was the second time in not many years that we have had a leak in the Chamber; the previous leak was in the Press Gallery. Small fires are reported virtually every month in this place, and it is only because of the diligence and hard work of the staff who patrol on a virtually 24-hour fire watch that nothing more serious has happened. There was also an asbestos leak in Speaker’s House last year, with an impact on more than 100 construction workers.
As I said to Kirsty Blackman, we are obliged to protect and preserve this UNESCO world heritage site—a grade I listed building with more than 900 years of political history—for our country. I fear that we are leaving the building at risk of a much larger failure than a leak in the roof, which would inevitably involve our having to move out of Parliament and would leave us all looking rather stupid for not having taken major action more quickly.
The project’s cost is estimated by several experts as approximately £10 billion—somewhere between the £8.77 billion cost of the Olympics and the £18.25 billion cost of Crossrail. It is a vast and complex project. I know such projects only too well from my role as deputy Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and a member of the Finance Committee. I am glad that the Chairs of those Committees, Dame Meg Hillier and Mr Brown, are present; they both do a splendid job. On almost a weekly basis, we see large Government projects that end up costing hundreds of millions of pounds more than anticipated. The Ajax defence vehicle project, for example, has already cost £3.2 billion, has not delivered a single workable vehicle and is more than 10 years late. My fear is that the restoration and renewal project could go the same way. Governance on such large projects is paramount to ensuring that they are delivered on time and on budget.
When the Sponsor Body gave figures to the Commissions, the cheapest plan involved a full decant of the Palace of Westminster for between 10 and 20 years, with work costing in the region of £7 billion to £13 billion. The suggestion it came up with that would have taken the longest was for the project to be done on a continuous basis, with the Houses remaining in both Chambers. That option would have cost a staggering £11 billion to £22 billion and would have taken somewhere in the region of 46 to 70 years. The Commissions took fright and decided that the Sponsor Body should be immediately abolished and replaced with a joint department of both Houses.
The problem with that is exactly the one that has happened in past projects. The Elizabeth Tower, which has ended up costing almost three times what was estimated; the purchase of parliamentary buildings, which have cost more than £100 million each and a great deal to exit—all these projects have been overseen by the present in-house incumbents. What is to suggest that R&R would be managed any differently? What is to suggest that it would not end up costing billions of pounds more and taking many years longer than it needs to?
In contemplation of the new joint department of the two Houses, an expert panel has been appointed. As I have said, it should be enshrined in statute so that it can continue to give advice. The new budget should not be subsumed into the main vote on the House of Commons; it should be entirely separate, so that this House can monitor it properly and see how much the cost is on an ongoing basis, in a similar way to the quarterly reports that we get from HS2.
I should warn the House that during a Public Accounts Committee hearing in March, the chief executive, David Goldstone—who knows a thing or two, having managed the Olympic project—was questioned about what the continued presence assessment had found in relation to the building. He said:
“The conclusion it came to is that, in effect, it is technically possible to do it but, consistent with all previous work on this subject, it would take an enormously longer time, would cost an awful lot more and”— this is the key point; these are his words, not mine—
“would create extraordinary risks in relation to health and safety and fire safety…The risk of disruption is very significant as well.”
If we take all that advice into account, it should be possible to come up with some well-informed costings and outlines of a plan of operation showing how long we need to decant, whether the whole project can be done as one, and whether, if it cannot, it can be done in two halves so that parliamentarians can stay in one House or the other.
I think there is a real and evident danger that the proposed joint department, which will in effect be the “client”, will not give clear instructions to the Delivery Authority. There will always be the temptation for it to be constantly involved in mission creeps, adding the latest bells and whistles to the project, but, beyond that, it will be continually changing its mind. The Leader of the House presaged exactly that possibility this evening in his speech, and how is that compatible with what he said about wanting to provide the very best value for money?
We in the Public Accounts Committee know full well that big projects do go wrong when the client changes its mind. There is a big risk of that with the new joint department, because the composition of the House will change after each general election, as, no doubt, will the composition of the Commissions. There is therefore a real risk that the Commissions will change their mind and want to alter the remit yet again.
We owe it to the next generation to grip this problem today and sort it out once and for all, otherwise the next generation will not thank us.
It is four and a half years since we reached our decision and I think it has been said that it is seven years since we started the whole process, and where are we? Nowhere. We are back where we started.
I should say that I am a member of the Sponsor Body—until we abolish it, that is. I believe it has carried out the task that it was set. The fact that certain individuals do not like the recommendation for a full decant is not the fault of the Sponsor Body. If the House wants to change the remit or scope of the project, that is fine, but let us not blame the Sponsor Body. Let us at least have the good grace to be honest about that, and let us not make up stories such as “restoration and renewal being responsible for the relocation of the Speaker”, because that simply is not true: it had absolutely nothing to do with R and R.
As a number of Members have pointed out, we should not forget why we chose the structure that we did choose, learning from the Olympics and recognising that this place would change. In the event of a project which, however it is carried out, will continue for many years, Members will change, Governments will change and there will be different views, but what we recognised at the time was that that should not be allowed to undermine this project—which is exactly what has happened. The project has been derailed by a constant stream of new asks, all with one aim: to delay. We have heard suggestions that the House of Lords should move to York, or, more recently, to Wolverhampton, Stoke, Burnley, Edinburgh, Sunderland or Plymouth. I am sure that they are all fine places, but those suggestions were not realistic.
More time was wasted by the suggestion that we should not decant at all. I challenge any Member to come up with any report or any figures that suggest that it is cheaper to stay here than to move out. We need to be honest about that. Then we had the Richmond House debacle. Those who were opposed to a decant seized on Richmond House: they became great defenders of it, which, surprisingly, very few of them had seemed to be previously. Why was that? Because they saw Richmond House as a convenient vehicle for more dither and delay.
So what is the plan now? It is to get rid of the Sponsor Body and bring the function in-house, creating some new department and some hotchpotch of a new governance structure.
In all honesty, we are being asked to rubber-stamp a decision that has already been made. That is the reality of the situation. Parliament decided something, but that does not matter because behind closed doors, the two Commissions have decided to do something completely different. That is the reality of the situation. We can dress it up as much as we like but that is effectively what has happened.
As a number of Members have mentioned, we do not have a great record on doing things internally. I know that the cast iron roofs are always wheeled out as a great example, but the Elizabeth Tower has been mentioned, and Derby Gate is another project that went massively over cost and time. One of my favourites—not one of the biggest projects—was the Cromwell Green security entrance, which I think was condemned after 10 years because of leaks, with water pouring through when it is raining. So we have to be honest: we are not very good at doing this. We do not have the experience or the expertise to manage such projects. I am not blaming the people in-house; it is not their fault, but we sometimes set them tasks that they are unable to do because they do not have that expertise. That is why we drew up the model that we did, but if we go down the road that we are going down, we are going to repeat those mistakes.
One thing I will challenge, which I have heard being put about, is that one of the failings of the Sponsor Body was that it did not consult Members. Actually, there have been loads of consultations and loads of individual consultations. I have had the pleasure, or misfortune, of chairing numerous meetings where one, two or three people—and sometimes no people—would turn up. Maybe that was me; maybe it was just the fact that I was chairing them and nobody wanted to go. But this is the nature of politicians. We moan and groan about people not consulting us, but we do not take up the consultation when it is available. So I think that is a really unfair criticism of the Sponsor Body, because a lot of people worked extremely hard to make sure that Members had the opportunity to express their views.
Just to link that to the hon. Member’s earlier point, does he think there is much point in consulting all the Members when the House of Commons Commissioners are going to make a decision anyway that might be totally different from what Members have said?
That is a very fair point. As I said, the decision has effectively been made.
Let us be honest: it is not about the cost; it is not about the time it will take; and it is certainly not about the people who actually work in here. So what is it about? It is about people who want to stay in here, come what may, with some fantasy vision that we can somehow live in a little bubble in here, that we can stay put, come what may, while everyone works around us, and that we can come up with some costings and then say, “We don’t like that costing so we are going to halve it or quarter it”, and somehow the project can be done for that amount. We are ignoring the reality, and just because the Sponsor Body gave us that reality, we do not like it. The Leader of the House does not like it, so he says we are going to come up with something else and do it on a cheaper basis. It is as if we did not look at these things seven years ago. But this is where we are. As I said, I do not really know why we are having this debate, because the decision was made behind closed doors some time ago. That is a very sad state of affairs, and the House will rue this decision.
This is a very disappointing debate because, as other hon. Members have said, we have been going round and round this issue for far too long. I think we need to slay some myths here. Value for money is one thing, but it does not mean cheap. There is no way that the work can be done to this building—minimally or maximally—on the cheap. It will cost billions of pounds. There is no getting away from that. This is a UNESCO world heritage site, and under the rules of UNESCO, that responsibility falls on the Treasury or the finance department of the country responsible, which in this case is Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Government of the day.
There is huge risk in this building. Only in recent weeks we have had masonry falling down, and yesterday we had the leak. It is only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt. I know that former Leaders of the House have worried about this a great deal, and not surprisingly. We are a group of people who aspire to run the country, and the Conservative party is deciding who will be its leader and the next Prime Minister. We all want to be in a position to make decisions, yet on this issue everyone seems to hope or believe they will not be standing when the music stops and that, somehow, the problem will be someone else’s.
This is a time for decisions. These delays are ongoing and repeated. The Joint Committee’s report was not debated until about a year after it was published, and there was a further delay as the votes on the report kept being put off. I vividly remember the date,
Then there were endless delays in funding the Sponsor Body’s work to develop the business case. Money was eked out, a bit at a time, so there was never really enough to get on with the job and do the very detailed work that needed to be done. We know it might mean getting the mechanical and engineering in place, two floors below the basement, to run this building. It might mean stripping out asbestos between the Committee corridors. They are the things that make this place dangerous. The required decisions have been endlessly delayed.
I want to slay another myth about the money. The Leader of the House cited the £3.5 billion figure that was originally mooted, and £4 billion has been mentioned at different times. This was never the figure for all the work to the building; it was an indicative figure, based on work by Deloitte that looked at the options and modelled certain works. The figure was an order of magnitude and was never for the full work on the building. It said, “If you take this approach, this approach or this approach, this is the scale we are looking at.” Unfortunately, that figure has repeatedly been embedded as though it were a fact.
The House asked the Sponsor Body to come up with what needed to be done to the building and how much it would cost. The answer came back that it would cost £7 billion to £13 billion, with a full decant for up to 20 years. The Commissions did not like that answer, as my right hon. Friend Mark Tami said. There is no point asking the experts to do the work and then ignoring what they have to say. This place does not have the experts to do the work the Sponsor Body did. Nobody is perfect, and I am not saying that every decision of the Sponsor Body was absolutely right and on the nail, but it did what it was told to do and came back with the numbers, and it was told that they were too high.
The Leader of the House talked about shortcuts to expedite the process. He said, “We can do both, get value for money and progress as rapidly as possible. We need a common-sense approach.” I do not have a problem with a common-sense approach, but I do not think it is possible to have a common-sense approach that halves or changes the costs for something on which we have already set the parameters for what we want to do. I cannot see how that can be delivered.
We will create two corporate officers and a client board made up of the two Commissions. I have to confess that I was surprised when a senior member of one of the Commissions—I will say no more, so as not to identify them—approached me in the last week to say, “We will need your help to do this job, because we are not sure we have the ability to do it.” As I said before, I may chair the Public Accounts Committee, ably helped by Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who is the deputy Chair, my hon. Friend Nick Smith and others, but we are not experts in running major projects. We scrutinise, which is a different thing. We need to make sure we have that expertise in place, so I hope the Leader of the House can tell us how he will ensure there is real expertise on the Commissions because, let us be honest, they are made up of members who rotate very fast and do not necessarily have any understanding or experience of running a major project, and do not necessarily know which questions to ask.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds highlighted some of the issues we see in Government, but we also regularly see non-executive members of boards who do not take their role seriously, who do not do it properly, who do not get on top of the subject and who do not always call out things that need to be called out. That needs to be built in so that we have clearly focused non-executives from both outside and inside the House to deliver that and make sure the programme board has that expertise.
I am really concerned today. We need a long-term decision to be made on this. Parliament will face these difficult decisions—I am quoting the Leader of the House back at himself—but he also talked about future Parliaments revising this. If we start fiddling around, as we have already done, and delay progress considerably, we will be in a very bad place.
It is outrageous that the very body that legislates and passed an Act of Parliament to set up this structure has dismantled that in a secret, mineral-water-filled room. The minute from that meeting revealed so little about what the discussion was. Reports of it suggest that there was not a serious discussion about the real consequences. That is not a model for democracy, yet it was the mother of Parliaments that made that decision in that very underhand and secretive way. That is one of the most disappointing things about the whole saga.
Our words will echo down the halls of history if we see this building burn down and we were the people who let it happen. The hand of history is here. I believe that six generations of the family of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds have been here. He stands up for the future of this place, as we all should do. We need to see real action now.
I will be quick, Madam Deputy Speaker. My contribution tonight is born of seven years of frustration at making so little progress with this project. In 2018, I voted for the decant, as I thought it was the simplest thing to do. I also thought we would go to Richmond House, because that was the safest place for us to stay in and it was close to the Departments of State in Whitehall. I really thought it was very straightforward and I hoped we would make good progress.
Tonight, I support amendments (a) and (b). I support amendment (a) not because I think in policy the Government have stopped progress on this, but because Ministers have stymied progress on this important project. I support amendment (b) because we need new machinery and new energy to take this forward. I also support it because, although we need occasional reviews and challenge for experts, most of all we should provide the way forward through this.
Like my right hon. Friend Mark Tami, I think we need full transparency on cost. We need to go into this with our eyes open, but see it as an investment in our country’s history and in this great place. Most of all, I want to crack on, as we have delayed progress for far too long.
The building we are standing in today is more than a building; it is a symbol recognised the world over. Politics aside, it is a great privilege to work here. It is a beautiful and historic landmark and, as we have heard, a UNESCO world heritage site. I would like to thank the building for making a timely demonstration in this Chamber yesterday, in preparation for today’s debate; I think its point has been heard, although the water leak has now, thankfully, cleaned up.
That attachment to this place on the part of many Members has made planning for restoration difficult. It is not hard to see why many colleagues would not want to relocate for so long; so much of British life has been dominated by Westminster, and so a small and convenient world has built around us. Departments are a stone’s throw away, along with media headquarters, businesses and charities. There is not much that is so far out of reach that we could not run back in time for a vote if the Division bell rings. Around that point, there is lots to unpack: the centralisation of British politics; and the view of a distant and far removed from reality “Westminster bubble”. We will each have our own views on that, and certainly employment in such an exciting and meaningful profession should be spread further across the UK. However, that is a broader discussion and I would like to use my time to speak specifically about the Palace and the works themselves.
Every day we are here, we see groups of schoolchildren excited for the tour. Families, both from the UK and from farther afield, come in their droves too, as do our constituents. This place is iconic—a must-see for tourists from all over the world.
This is an old building, but actually for the most part it is not as old as some might think. After almost the entire palace was destroyed in 1834, a public competition was held for architectural designs for its replacement. It was actually political reasoning that led to the gothic-inspired choice, designed by Charles Barry, that led to the building we see today. It is interesting to know that the neoclassical style that was popular at the time was seen as symbolic of republicanism and revolution, so the preferred options were designs of gothic and Elizabethan influence.
The palace is old enough, though, that the place needs a little sprucing up. Construction started in 1840 and most of the site was completed in 1860. That puts various parts of the building at around 160 to 180 years old. There is no doubt about it—we need to invest in some changes, and we have known that for a long time. This is about not just a cosmetic facelift but the preservation of history, and most importantly the safety of everyone that works here or visits. We have heard about Notre Dame; that brings into sharp focus the absolute necessity for fire safety in a building such as this. Of course, it is something that has been on the minds of many colleagues recently, in a slightly different context, too. Fire suppression systems must be a priority, and I know that for those working closely on the project it absolutely is.
I was lucky enough to join one of the tours put on by the restoration and renewal team last month, to see parts of the palace that we often pass by without thinking about them too much, like the art painted directly on to the stonework on the staircase up to the Committee corridor. That art has considerable historic significance, but it cannot just be lifted off the wall and put away while the works are carried out. Accounting for all these moving parts, the quirks and character of the building, will require a strong strategy. Naturally, the costs involved in bringing the building up to the necessary standards are huge; the restoration and renewal body puts the numbers at between £7 billion and £13 billion.
It is vital that the costs are necessary and deliver value for public money. Restoration works must happen, yes, and they have been in the works for a very long time. A lot has changed in the wider country in that time, though, and many of our constituents are facing astronomical rises to their living costs. We have a duty to ensure that the cost of this project is scrutinised and that taxpayer money is not wasted when it could be better used elsewhere.
The majority view of the public, according to quantitative quarterly public polling, is that they care deeply about this place and want to see it restored. The strength of that feeling might vary regionally or across parts of the four nations—I do not know—but it shows that largely, constituents are interested in protecting our heritage. That polling also found that 70% to 80% of the public felt that an important benefit of the restoration was the jobs that it would create. While the jobs themselves might not be political, they would be protecting our political institution, the cornerstone of our democracy, and the prosperity that creates must be shared equitably.
I mentioned the need for a strategy, and want to say now that I believe that a decant of Members, peers and staff is probably the most efficient way forward. I hope that we will see some more detailed and convincing proposals on that in the near future, to carry out these works as swiftly as possible and without costly delays charged to the taxpayer. That may mean that everyone needs to move out for the duration. We cannot expect our staff, or the staff of the House, to work in a building that could potentially be a hazard, literally crumbling before our eyes. So the quicker colleagues all move out, the quicker colleagues can all move back in and the quicker the Palace can be restored to its former glory.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to conclude by thanking all hon. Members who have taken part in this interesting and at times robust debate. I hope we can find a way forward through consensus. I hope hon. Members will recognise that we have much in common. We all want to achieve the same aims: we all want to protect this fantastic building, we all want to save taxpayers as much money as possible and we all want to do it as quickly as can be delivered. I think that the way forward that we are now suggesting does allow for all those things to happen.
Let me respond to some of the comments made in the debate. Reference was made to the Speaker’s House restoration, which is an example of how projects can be done “piecemeal”. That project was done completely independently, and during the course of the work, there have been innovations. For example, all the light fittings in the Speaker’s apartments are now completely sealed and airtight, so that in future it will be possible to change the a light fitting for another type without disturbing the asbestos above it. I think that is a huge step forward, because those who work on that part of the building in the future will be safe and taxpayers’ money will be saved. That leap forward in technology is an example of how we can make progress efficiently and save taxpayers’ money.
There is a clear brief to the Delivery Authority to get on with the job. I know that my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling and my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown share my passion for getting on with this project, which is why their names appear on the Order Paper with that of Chris Bryant. To be absolutely clear, it is not possible for me to stand here at the Dispatch Box and guarantee that the House will have a vote on an eight-year decant. What I can say is that the members of the Delivery Authority and the Commissions have heard this debate and I will make sure that an eight-year decant is one of the proposals they consider very seriously.
The concept outlined by my right hon. and hon. Friends of turning the telescope around and saying, “This is the time available. What can be delivered in that time?” is an interesting one. We may well be able to pursue it and look at what it is possible to achieve. Clearly, there is a sliding scale. I am told it is technically possible to deliver restoration and renewal without decanting from the House of Commons, but the timescale and the cost to the taxpayer would be enormous. We can consider all those matters as we move forward.
I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom, who is no longer in her place. She met me on a number of occasions to assist in the decision-making process and has been of great value to the thinking behind the way forward.
Dame Meg Hillier, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said there is not enough expertise on the House of Commons Commission. I can assure her that there will not be expertise on the House of Commons Commission; the expertise will be on the programme board, which will advise the Commission. While the Commissioners, of whom I am one, may not be experts, we will recruit and secure expertise on the programme board to give the Commission professional advice, which I hope the Commissioners will follow. I am sure they will.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way at such a late stage. One of my concerns is that the Commission has been rather spooked by numbers that, in major project terms, are not extraordinary. It is costing £2 million a week just to do the maintenance and basic repairs to this place. We need to see figures for what it will cost to do that on an ongoing basis versus what the cost would be to do it in one hit. The public are not fools; if we kick the can down the road so that it costs more overall, they will see through that.
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to that. One of the fundamental problems is that, because restoration and renewal was on the horizon, what was happening was that a piece of masonry, for example, would become unsafe; a scaffold would be erected to retrieve that piece of masonry, and the subsequent decision-making process would end in, “Well, there’s no need to do anything too dramatic here, because it will be swept up with restoration and renewal in the future.”
Under this new system, instead of putting the scaffold up and bodging it—for want of a better expression—we will be able to get up there and mend it properly once for the next 50 years, rather than waiting for restoration and renewal to come and sweep the project up. The Victoria Tower is a really good example. It was being delayed because restoration and renewal was on the horizon, but we will now be able to bring that project forward, get on with it and do it properly for once in a generation. We will be able to crack on with it in the short term. There is a way to save money for the taxpayer, expedite some of these repairs and make sure that the process happens in a more timely way.
I am happy to accept my right hon. Friend’s assurances that he will press ahead and ask the Delivery Authority to set out for us what that eight years would entail. However, I hope that he has taken from this debate tonight a sense that those of us on both sides of the House who have been involved in this programme over many years—he has come to this relatively fresh—have a clear sense of the need for urgency. Can I ask him to come back to this House with options really very quickly? Otherwise, he will find a lot more pressure coming from Members on both sides of the House.
That message has been well and truly received, and I am grateful for the contributions that have reinforced it.
We have heard about the depth of affection that working in this building brings, and we have heard about Members’ affection for it. I know that everyone who has been critical in a friendly way this evening has done so with the best of intentions and the best of motivations. I pay tribute to those who have taken part in the debate. We have a huge responsibility to protect this building for future generations to make sure that, in another 300 years, it stands here as proudly as it has done through two world wars, as a beacon of parliamentary democracy for the nation. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House:
reaffirms its commitment to preserving the Palace of Westminster for future generations and ensuring the safety of all those who work in and visit the Palace, now and in the future; notwithstanding the Resolution of
and in consequence, approves the establishment of a joint department of the two Houses, under the terms of the Parliament (Joint Departments) Act 2007.