It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. You and I go back some way in our political journeys, having first met back in 1992, when you were still Councillor Streeter. It is safe to say that we also have to look back over a long period of time—decades—as we start to look at the Bill and the maintenance and repair works that need to be done.
Clause 1 defines what the Bill is about: looking to tackle the numerous problems with the Palace of Westminster, including falling masonry, fire risks, water leaks, sewage leaks and toilet closures. We all agree—the Bill’s Second Reading was approved unanimously, without a Division—that the restoration and renewal of this Palace is an urgent and pressing requirement that needs to be progressed. Following the passage of motions on R and R by both Houses in early 2018, the former Leader of the House made swift progress, publishing a draft Bill in October 2018 for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Joint Committee on the draft Bill published its report in March 2019, and we took on board many of its recommendations before introducing this Bill on
This is a short, sensible Bill, which will put in place the necessary governance arrangements with the capacity and capability to oversee and deliver the restoration and renewal of the Palace. The Bill will also put in place a number of financial safeguards to ensure that the R and R programme represents the best value for money for the taxpayer.
Clause 1 outlines the parliamentary building works to which the Bill relates. It sets out what works the Sponsor Body will be responsible for as part of the R and R programme. We know the Sponsor Body will be responsible for the works to restore the Palace, as well as certain works connected with the restoration of the Palace, such as the arrangements for decanting the House of Lords. However, the clause also allows for the scope of the works the Sponsor Body is responsible for to be widened if the House Commissions decide, with the agreement of the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, that it should be. Crucially for many Members, the clause also requires this work to be undertaken with a view to Parliament returning to the Palace of Westminster
“as soon as is reasonably practicable”,
in line with the resolutions passed by both Houses.
For the reasons outlined, I recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
What a great pleasure it is to see you in the Chair today, Sir Gary. I do not wish to delay the Committee much longer, and certainly I do not have time to pay tribute to the fraternity of MPs from Devon, much as I would love to be a part of what is presumably a beautiful county.
Obviously, we very much support the terms of the Bill, and we have already made that clear on Second Reading. Clause 1 sets out the basis and the terms of reference for the Bill. We recognise the intrinsic value of this historic site, and there is no question that there is a long overdue need for restoration and renewal. Indeed, a constituent contacted me over the weekend who had been involved in surveying the building and some of the utilities attached to it 20 years ago. He told me that his report at the time, which obviously was not acted on, indicated that there was an urgent need even then to undertake works. Those works have not taken place and therefore we are where we are now.
The project will clearly cost money; we are talking, after all, about a UNESCO world heritage site, which in part has stood continuously since the middle ages. We cannot reasonably ignore this issue any longer. We support clause 1, and we do not seek to amend it. It lays out clearly the scope of the parliamentary building works, and we would hope to see that progress through to the next stage.
Naturally, one of the concerns about this building—we saw this in Paris, of course—is about what would happen if there was an emergency and the building was badly damaged in the interim. Who, once the Bill becomes law, will be responsible for dealing with remedial works before the restoration commences?
Certainly our intention would be for the Sponsor Body to take responsibility for the full process of the works on the estate, and, again, the way that clause 1 is drafted allows that to be extended if necessary.
The overall push of the Bill is to create the legal mechanism for delivery of the project, and I will be clear that the alternative to not having clause 1 stand part of the Bill, and indeed to not having this Bill, would be that the House Commissions would try to deal with things separately, in a way that would neither deliver value for money nor provide clear accountability.
I think that what the Minister was probably moving towards suggesting is that there is no intention to hand the building over until such time as a full set of plans has been produced, the House has approved a budget and all the rest of it. In other words, that is some considerable way down the line. In the meantime, surely we have to do what patching and mending we still need to do to make sure that our staff are safe and that we can continue to do our work as effectively as possible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely intervention. He is absolutely right that passing the Bill does not hand over the Palace of Westminster immediately to the Sponsor Body. That will happen after a further stage of parliamentary approvals, when we will look to approve estimates and budget plans, and also make choices, bluntly, about what we want to spend and what we want to get from the Sponsor Body. That is when the Sponsor Body will take responsibility for the building, subject to the plans to bring us back to it in due course.
I will make one point, and I know the hon. Member for Rhondda will agree. He talks about our still having to spend money to patch and mend, and, yes, money is still being spent every day. I am very clear that doing nothing is not a choice. The choice is either to do something that might put this building into fit use for the future, or to continue to patch and mend, knowing that we are not mending the building and that it is getting worse every day.
In particular, the potential for a serious fire, or a disastrous fire at the level that we saw at Notre-Dame, cannot now be ruled out. Although the building is life safe—we can make sure that we can keep people safe—we cannot give any great guarantees about what would happen. If anyone takes a visit down to the basement, they only need to look at the many decades of wiring, pipes and other things passing over, plus some of the voids within this building, and the design of it from the Victorian era, to know that that would not be how we would build a fire-safe building today.
With that, I recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.