Palace of Westminster: Restoration and Renewal — [Robert Flello in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 25th January 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda 9:30 am, 25th January 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.

The motion is the formality, but I do not think that by the end of this one and a half hours we will have considered the matter properly. The Government should be tabling a motion so that the whole House and, for that matter, the House of Lords, can do so. It is now 19 and a half weeks since the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster produced its report. At the rate we are going, it will be six months from the delivery of that report to the moment when we start debating it properly and coming to a decision. That is verging on the irresponsible.

I want to lay out the nature of the problem that we have in the building. Many people think it is falling down—it is not falling down, although the Clock Tower does incline a little. The mechanical and electrical engineering systems that keep the place lit, heated, cooled, drained and dry are already well past their use-by date. The risk of a catastrophic failure such as a fire or a flood rises exponentially every five years that we delay. We should be in absolutely no doubt: there will be a fire. There was a fire a fortnight ago and there are regularly fires. People patrol the building 24 hours a day to ensure that we catch those fires.

Some of the high-voltage cables in the building are decaying and doing so deep inside the building in the 98 risers that take services from the basement past all the rooms in the building up to the roof. They are so blocked up with additional services that access to them is virtually impossible. That is why a fire in any one of them could spread very rapidly from floor to floor and take the whole building with it.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend secured this debate. Does he agree that anyone who has any doubts about the problems that we face would do well to go on a tour of the basement and see the wiring, the plumbing and the risers that are key to the risks?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Yes. I have done about 30 of those tours now, with different members of the public, broadcast outlets, newspapers and other Members of Parliament. Everybody has been struck by the fact that 75% of the work that we have to do is on the mechanical and electrical gubbins of the building. This is not about a fancy tarting up of the building—it is about whether the building can function.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

I apologise for being a moment or two late, Mr Flello. On the point about fire, will the hon. Gentleman accept that there are quite a lot of fires and occasions for fires when buildings are closed for repair and renovation? Irrespective of when or how the work is done, doing the work of itself does not make this place infallible. We can have a fire at any time. It is a bogus point.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

It is not a bogus point. One of the problems with the building is that it is not very well compartmentalised, which is why fire could move from one part of the building to another very quickly. That was one of the problems in 1834. Just prior to 1834, Sir John Soane had built a beautiful corridor from the old House of Lords to the old House of Commons Chamber, which took the fire from one to the other. The problem in the building at the moment is that, if we were to have a fire, it could easily spread very quickly across a large part of the estate.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

I remember from my induction being told by the House staff that the reason why the fire spread was nothing to do with the corridor, but to do with the vents over Central Lobby being open for ventilation purposes. That is what caused the draw of the flame.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

We should all read Caroline Shenton’s book and debate that later. The truth of the matter is that everybody was predicting a fire long before 1834 and we did not take any of the action necessary to ensure that we preserved the building. It is only good fortune that we ended up being able to save Westminster Hall, which is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

Another problem new to us in the 20th and 21st century is the substantial amount of asbestos in the building, which simply has to be removed. There have already been several asbestos scares.

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On the subject of asbestos, I walk around the estate all the time seeing the little “a” stickers everywhere. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if we stay in the building over the period of renovation, asbestos is a health hazard for staff and Members?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

There is a very serious point here. Some people are arguing—I will come on to this point later—that we should stay in the building while the work is being done. That incurs a very significant risk to our safety and that of the people who work here. If we were to take the measures necessary to protect people properly while removing asbestos, that would dramatically increase the cost of and the risk to the project and the public.

Water is penetrating much of the stonework and doing lasting damage. Many of the 3,800 bronze windows, which were a wonderful idea when first installed, no longer work properly and have to be refitted.

We should be thoroughly ashamed that disabled access in this building is truly appalling. It is phenomenally difficult to get around the building for someone in a wheelchair or who has physical difficulties. The roundabout routes that many have to take to make an ordinary passage through the building are wrong. We still expect members of the public to queue for more than an hour in the pouring rain, which is not acceptable in the 21st century.

We have to act because this is one of the most important buildings in the world. It is part of a UNESCO world heritage site. The walls of Westminster Hall date from 30 years after the Norman conquest, the ceiling dates from the time of Richard II at the end of the 14th century and the cloisters date from the time of the Tudors. Every single tourist who comes to this country wants to be photographed in front of this building, and every film, Hollywood or otherwise, that wants to show that it is set in the UK or in London shows this building.

The people of this country have a deep affection for the building. One poll—I am very sceptical about polls, but none the less I am going to use this one—showed this week that 57% of the public want us to do the work and 61% think that we should move out to allow it to be done more effectively, more quickly and more cheaply.

Today’s MPs and peers hold this building in trust. It is not ours—we hold it in trust. Our predecessors got it hideously wrong in the 19th century. They kept on delaying necessary work. That delay made the fire in 1834 not only possible but inevitable, and so we lost the Painted Chamber, St Stephen’s Chapel and what was reputedly the most beautiful set of medieval buildings in the world. They then insisted on staying on site while the new building was built around them and constantly complained about the noise and the design. The result was long delays and a massive budget overrun. They started in 1840, but it was not completed until 1870, by which time Barry and Pugin were dead and their sons were battling about the ongoing design issues. If we do the same today, we will not move back in until 2055 at the earliest.

Of course we have to be careful about money, which is why the Joint Committee, which started with a very sceptical point of view on the project, recommended what we believed to be the cheapest and best option, which is a full decant. I say “cheapest” because, however we cut the numbers that have been put together on a very high-level basis for the two Houses, the option of full decant comes in at £900 million less than trying to stay in the building.

The Earl of Lincoln, the first commissioner of works, told MPs in 1844 that

“if I had been employing an architect in the construction of my private residence, I should have a right to fool away as much of my money as I thought fit;
but in the case of a public building, I consider myself acting, to a certain degree, as guardian of the public purse, and to have no right to sanction any expenditure, either for the gratification of any pride, or the indulgence of any fancy I might entertain, as to the proper and efficient construction of the building.”

We should adopt that same attitude today. We should be going for the cheapest option—our constituents would expect that of us—but not a cheap option that does not do the job properly.

Our argument in Committee did not hinge entirely on the money. Three Members in the Chamber were on the Committee—my hon. Friend Mark Tami, and the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). They would agree that, when we started our consideration, we all assumed we would come up with some kind of plan that meant we stayed in the building—a kind of half-and-half solution. We consulted widely, but every single person we asked told us that that was simply not workable. “Not workable, unfeasible, impracticable, foolhardy, risky and dangerous” were the sort of words people used. We should listen to them.

I want to deal with some of the things that other people have been suggesting. First, something I have heard often, though not so much in the Commons or Parliament, is that we should move to elsewhere in London or outside the capital. I disagree. This is the home of Parliament and should remain the home of Parliament, but there are good reasons beyond the romantic association. If we were to leave the Palace forever, we would still have to do the work to protect it because it is a world heritage site, and we would not save a single penny. If we moved elsewhere in London, we would have to find a space that can accommodate everyone not only in the Palace but on the rest of the parliamentary estate—Portcullis House, Norman Shaw North, Norman Shaw South, Parliament Street, Millbank and all the Lords’ offices—which would be a considerable piece of prime estate to find. If we moved outside London, we would have to move the whole of Government as well, because all Ministers are Members of the Commons or the House of Lords. That option is impracticable and very expensive.

The second thing I hear—this is the most common—is that, if we leave we will never come back. I have been told that by four Members of Parliament today alone. They argue that the Commons should sit in the House of Lords, and the Lords should sit in the Royal Gallery. That is basically the proposal of Sir Edward Leigh—he is not right hon. but he should be, and learned and gallant and all sorts of other things as well. I have discussed the issue with him many times and we can be friendly about it, but there are lots of problems with his proposal.

That proposal would add £900 million to the cost—I have already quoted the point made by the Earl of Lincoln in 1834. Furthermore, public and press access would be very restricted under the hon. Gentleman’s plan, and it would be difficult to have any kind of fully functioning Public Gallery in his scheme, whether for the Commons or the Lords. His plan would rely on keeping a large part of the building open around the work, because of the need for Whips Offices, rooms for Doorkeepers, police officers and Ministers, and—who knows?—some people might even want a Tea Room.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

Not actually on the Tea Room itself, however vital that is. Some Members who may think that proposal a good idea do not realise that there is one system for the plumbing and all the electrics. The House of Lords is a separate House, but it does not have a separate supply system. We would have to build some great structure outside to ensure that one part of the building could carry on working.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Basically, there is one electricity system, one drainage system, one central heating system, one cooling system—the building is a unity. If we want to keep part of it open, especially a whole corridor, we would have to put in temporary services to accommodate everything. That is an expensive and, I would argue, risky business.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but the specific work done by the House authorities on the proposal of the hon. Member for Gainsborough shows precisely that: it would be very expensive. The proposal is theoretically feasible, but it is very expensive.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

I will not give way. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye later, Mr Flello—you have very good eyesight and, well, you have your glasses on anyway.

Another point for hon. Members to think hard about is that if we were sitting down at the other end of the building, the 240 or so MPs who now have offices in the historic Palace would by then have their offices in Richmond House—quite some distance from where people intend us to sit. Most importantly, however, we would either have to walk along a corridor specially created as some kind of bubble for us while work was going on all around, including the removal of asbestos—a risk in itself—or, alternatively, walk outside along the pavement; 650 or 600 MPs walking in a hurry along the pavement at known times of day for votes is a security risk that I would not be prepared to countenance.

For all such reasons, that proposal simply does not wash. The truth is that the Chambers are not hermetically sealed units. They rely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, on services from the rest of the building. Both the Chambers themselves will have to be closed, and the cost of temporary mechanical and electrical services would run into millions of unnecessary taxpayer pounds.

People also ask, “What about Westminster Hall?” Personally, I have a romantic attachment to Westminster Hall: I like the idea of sitting in the Hall where Richard II was removed as King by Henry IV in the shortest ever Parliament, which lasted one day. We could sit back and take inspiration from the angels carved on the ceiling. The Committee looked at the suggestion very seriously, but the problem is that the floor is not as solid as it looks. It is not sitting on the ground; the flagstones actually sit on a pillared grid, which simply could not take the weight of the large construction necessary to sit 600 or 650 MPs, members of the press and public, and all the other paraphernalia of the Chamber. In addition, such a Chamber would have to be heated, and all the advice we had from restorers and people who know about ancient buildings and historic wooden artefacts is that that would pose a risk to the ceiling that simply could not be countenanced. The roof of Westminster Hall is one of the most beautiful and precious things on the whole parliamentary estate, so that is not an option.

Some people have said—one Conservative Member present has said this to me several times: “You did not really look at the option of our staying in at all.” Yes, I am looking at the hon. Gentleman—or he is looking at me—

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

The hon. Member who represents North West Cambridgeshire—I am very grateful to him for helping me.

The truth, however, is that we did look at the option of our staying in, and so did the original report. The IOA, or independent options appraisal, costed and evaluated both a rolling programme and two different versions of staying in the building. That is all part of the original report provided, so it is simply wrong to say that we did not look at the idea of staying in. We looked at it very seriously, but we came to the conclusion— all of us, from different political parties of different persuasions—that it was simply unfeasible, unworkable and impracticable for us to stay in.

Some people have also asked me, “If the work is so urgent, why don’t we get on with it now?” The truth is that we are getting on with work now: the cast-iron roofs are being restored; three years of work is about to start on the Elizabeth Tower, or Big Ben, which will cost £29 million; and last year we spent £49 million on repairs alone. The point is, however, that the mechanical and electrical elements constitute one very large, single project that needs to be well prepared for—we cannot just start tomorrow.

Furthermore, the Palace authorities do not have the requisite capacity or skills. I am not doing them down; they themselves would argue that they do not have the capacity or the skills in-house to manage such an enormous infrastructure project. We need to put a sponsor body in place, with Members of both Houses sitting on it, and some others, to commission a delivery authority with the expertise and technical know-how to do things properly, much as with the Olympics.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Timing is important in this whole thing. If we are to meet the 2023 target start date, we need to set up the delivery authority pretty soon. It will require a statute of this House to do it, so the authorities need to get on with the matter.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we should have started some considerable time ago.

About 10 years ago, when I was deputy Leader of the House for five minutes, we were already arguing that we needed to get this work on the road. The Committee was asked to delay publishing its report until the local government elections were done, until the referendum was done, until we had a new Prime Minister, and so on, and still there has been no debate. We have to get a move on.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the amount that we spend on just patching things up grows every year, and it will continue to grow if we do not bite the bullet now?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition, when all that minor work is going on, which still costs millions of pounds, there is further risk in the building. There is building work going on. Indeed, a few weeks ago, the House of Lords decided that it could not bear the noise that was going on and had to suspend its sitting. I think that if we tried to sit in the building while work was going on, we would do that every single day. I can just see the hon. Member for Gainsborough standing in the Chamber in 15 years’ time—if he gets his way—saying, “I can’t even hear myself think, let alone speak!”

Another thing that has been said is: “What about giving up on the September sittings?” That is quite popular with quite a lot of colleagues, especially when they are asked in September. That was specifically factored into the rolling programme option in the independent options appraisal. It was termed “scenario E1A”, because it would be enabled by longer recesses and what the IOA called an acceptance by MPs of considerable disruption for three decades. That option also assumes that there will be alternative Chambers for use during an unexpected recall of Parliament. It is worth bearing in mind that recalls are a simple fact of life. During the last Parliament alone, we were recalled twice in 2011, twice in 2013 and once in 2014, and of course we were, horribly, recalled last year after Jo Cox’s murder. There will be recalls—that is just a fact.

I have heard one other argument: “We need to put on a good show in times of Brexit. We can’t just meet in a car park.” Let me be absolutely clear: the temporary Chamber will not be some cardboard cut-out. It will be a properly impressive Chamber with full access for the public and the press. Moreover, any half-and-half proposal will delay our full return to the building and keep the scaffolding up for another decade or two.

But there is a much bigger point. The last thing we want as we leave the European Union is to look as if we are hanging around in an old ancestral mansion like a dowager duchess, running with buckets from one dripping ceiling to another. Nor can we risk a catastrophic failure, such as a flood or major fire. That really would give the world the worst possible impression. We want to show the world that we can take tough decisions—that we value our heritage but have a strong, modern, outward-looking vision for the future. What better way is there of showing that than taking this 1,000-year-old building, restoring what is beautiful and historic about it, and renewing it so that it really works for the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th centuries?

As a Labour Member, I think that we should see this as an opportunity. The Committee was advised repeatedly that the workforce in this country does not actually have all the skills to complete this project. After Brexit, we may have even fewer qualified builders. We should see this project as part of our industrial strategy today, and use it to show that this country can deliver a massive infrastructure project on time and on budget. We should train youngsters now in the craft and high-tech engineering skills of the 21st century, so that young people from every single one of our constituencies can work on what is the best-loved building in the world—an icon of British liberty, democracy and the rule of law.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. May I point out to hon. Gentlemen—they are predominantly gentlemen, although there are a few hon. Ladies—that I will begin calling the Front Benchers at about 10.30 am? With that in mind, I call Sir Alan Haselhurst.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Conservative, Saffron Walden 9:54 am, 25th January 2017

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I congratulate Chris Bryant on securing this debate and on his telling opening.

I understand that there is enormous attachment to this home of Parliament. That attachment has led to a drift; for at least 20 years, to my knowledge, people have known that something has to be done and have been thinking about what we should do. Every time someone has been brought in, the report has shocked people and they have said, “We can’t do that,” so things have been left for a while. More experts have then been brought in two years later and said, “It’s worse,” and people have said, “Oh, no, we can’t tackle that.” This problem has been getting steadily away from us. It is to the credit of the current administration and those in the House who support it that work is now being done to come to a decisive conclusion. I believe that some of my colleagues are blinded by their attachment to the place into supposing that the problem is not really all that bad somehow, and we can work around it.

During the last Parliament, when I was Chairman of the Administration Committee, I was privy to some of the work that was going on, and I came rapidly to the conclusion that has been reached in similar circumstances by the Parliaments of Austria, Canada and Finland: if a major exercise of this kind has to be done, the only sensible thing for us to do is to get out of the building and let the work be done. Some 12 months of study were undertaken by our colleagues in the other place and in the House of Commons, and having gone into the detail and consulted independent experts, they are persuaded that that approach is right for us, too. Colleagues can rake over the independent options appraisal—they can look at it and play with the figures and estimates as much as they like—but it is crystal clear that option 3 would take less time than option 2, option 2 would take less time than option 1, and in each case, less time means less cost.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the objections, and I will refer to some of those and perhaps others. I have been told that our leaving would deprive some Members of ever serving in this building. There is in fact now a way around that. The timescale is such that it is possible for the work to bridge two Parliaments, so if that is a real problem, it can be overcome. But the honour and responsibility of being elected as a Member of Parliament lies first in doing the job, not in carrying out the job in a particular place or building.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the argument that if we leave, we will not come back. I have heard level-headed people say, “They won’t let us.” Who are the “they” in all this? We are sovereign. We can decide that. Frankly, it is unthinkable that we would not come back to this Palace at the first opportunity. It has also been said that Westminster Hall might be needed for a major state event. I think that we can rely on the fact that the royal household has been consulted and has not blocked what is recommended.

It has been said that an appalling message would be sent out to the world during Brexit, but I think an even more appalling message would be sent if we soldiered on in this place in difficult conditions and there was a catastrophic failure. That really would make it look as though this country and this Parliament were breaking down.

It is said that too much public money is involved. However much we look at them, the alternatives to option 1 are more expensive, but the fact is that the public are solidly behind us on this matter. They love this place and believe it is an important symbol of our democracy. They have been very understanding, as has the press, so if we are responsible about this, we should not worry on that front.

Another objection—in contrast to some of the others—is: “If there is a risk of catastrophic failure, why are we waiting and not getting on with it?” The reason we are not getting on with it is that people have baulked at doing so every time a report has been produced since the 1990s. There has been delay, delay and delay. The risk is mounting. That is the problem. We will do the work as soon as we can, but there have been difficulties to overcome to make the arrangements for it to be approached logically.

I cannot help feeling that the distrust that has manifested in many parts of the world has also manifested here; people want to kick the establishment at every point and think that experts cannot be trusted, so we must take their advice with a large pinch of salt. Frankly, if I feel ill I want to get the advice of my doctor. If I want to have a legal instrument drawn up I go to a lawyer. If I want help with my accounts I go to an accountant. That is a normal thing to do. It is always possible, of course, to have a second opinion. We have had a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth opinion—and still there are those who distrust those opinions and say, “Oh, well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They are in it for themselves; they will line their pockets.” I do not think that that is fair to the Royal Institute of British Architects or the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which have given unbiased advice to our colleagues on the Committee.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

The right hon. Gentleman has reminded me of a previous employer of mine: when we got legal advice that he did not like he would always say, “Get another lawyer.” That is the argument that some people are putting forward, when they do not like the expert advice they are given.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Conservative, Saffron Walden

I agree; that is the problem. At some point we must make a decision. Continually putting it off is causing the bill to rise and the dislocation to increase.

If the Palace is loved as much as I believe it is by almost every person elected to Parliament—it is certainly loved by the staff who serve us here, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who clamour to come here and take great pleasure from being in the Palace and standing on the Floor of the House of Commons where great names of the past served—it is our duty to put safety before romance. The alternative suggestions magnify risk, perpetuate inconvenience and threaten security. It was when we came back for sittings one September and work was going on in the Committee corridor, with builders all over the place, that intruders got in masquerading as builders. It will be an enormous security threat if we are prepared to have hundreds of workers here at the same time as we try to do business.

I am astonished that some colleagues seem keen to work here while unquantified amounts of asbestos are removed, intrusive noise is unabated and an army of workers operates in our midst, and while any one of several vital services could fail at any moment. I am not surprised that some colleagues recoil from a total decant, but we must look at things in a hard-headed, not emotional, way. We must do the right thing and choose the option to which the evidence overwhelmingly points, and which has persuaded our colleagues on the Committee. I believe that it will then be all the sooner that the Palace, which we see as the symbol of parliamentary democracy, can be restored to its full glory and effectiveness and serve the nation and people for a century, or centuries, more.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North 10:02 am, 25th January 2017

I am sure that Sir Alan Haselhurst will not misunderstand when I say that neither he nor I will be likely to sit in the reconstructed Chamber. It can safely be said of both of us that we are not speaking out of personal self-interest.

In a debate in November 2012, I urged that work should be undertaken so that we can be prepared from 2020 onwards, so I have some form on this. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Bryant on making a very good speech outlining, as did the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden, why the work is essential. I hope that whether we agree to option 1, 2 or 3—and there is bound to be division not only today but when the matter is debated in the Chamber—we will agree on one thing. I hope that even Simon Hoare who intervened earlier will agree on this: the work is essential. I fear, as I said in the Chamber four years ago, that we will find ways and means of delaying the decision—because of finance, because there are other problems that the Government or Parliament must deal with, because it is not possible to reach a decision along the lines that so many of us want. The decision I want is simple: that from 2020 the work will begin, either through a total decant—I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda that that would be right—or otherwise. However, the Parliament elected in 2020, if that is when we have a general election, would sit in a different place.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

May I just clarify something? No one doubts—I certainly do not—the scale of the work that needs to be done, the need for it, or the underlying urgency. We question the means of delivery of the works.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I do not disagree, obviously. The hon. Gentleman clearly accepts that the work needs to be done. One reason for today’s debate is to look at ways of delivery; but obviously there must be a major debate in the Chamber.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned the possibility of a meltdown of mechanical and electrical services. It is all in the report, and I am sure we have all read it. In many instances the cables and pipes are surrounded by dangerous asbestos. The report says that much of the building is riddled with asbestos. As to water penetration, we know from experience that when there is heavy rain there is flooding in parts of the building. We have seen it with our own eyes, let alone what the report states about the situation.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

The key issue about asbestos, with which the hon. Gentleman rightly says the building is riddled, is that we do not know where it is. When there is drilling, or when things are taken out, the starting presumption must be that there is asbestos there. That would add massively to the cost of working in a fully occupied building.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

My hon. Friend certainly makes a powerful case for a full decant.

It should not be forgotten that, as has been mentioned, every year the cost of maintaining the building goes up. The figure given in the report for 2014-15—the latest figures, unless the Deputy Leader of the House has further information—is nearly £50 million. That is public money that is essential just so that the building can be in some kind of working condition. I agree that full decanting is essential. I understand why some feel that for historical and ceremonial reasons, and so that people can come to this building, there is a case for partial decanting, but in practice and when we consider the amount of work involved on what would be a huge building site, how on earth could we continue to debate in the present Commons or Lords Chambers, or the Robing Room? Imagine the constant pleas to the Speaker or Lord Speaker: “It is impossible to hear. Can the work stop for a while?” and the rest of it. It is not practical—and I do not understand how anyone could argue otherwise—to work with the constant noise and disruption and constant changes of location between the two Chambers. That is not the way to proceed, even if it was done after the 1834 fire. I think we have made some progress since then.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells

I am the chairman of the all-party group on the events industry; is the hon. Gentleman aware that the delay in making a decision is having an impact on event and conference bookings at the Queen Elizabeth II centre, and that, more generally, the cost of a decant in which the conference centre was used for the Lords would have an impact of hundreds of millions of pounds on the wider Westminster economy that comes with all those conferences and events?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.

I am speaking in the debate because I want to urge that a decision be reached as quickly as possible. It has been said in some parts of the media that the work is for ourselves. It is not: we come and go; we are tenants. Neither is it for our staff, the officers or anyone else working in the building. That is not why the work should be undertaken, despite the cost. It is for the democratic process. It is for British democracy to have its traditional home, which is recognised throughout the world. We should take pride in the building, and we should take pride in the fact that British democracy is recognised in the way it is, especially in countries in which, unfortunately, the rule of law and civil liberties are totally absent. That is why it is so essential that a decision is taken in the very near future. I want to see a building fit for purpose, a place that ensures the continuation of the democratic process and the rule of law.

Of course, we could go elsewhere. Parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom certainly does not depend on one particular building—it would be farcical if it did—but this is our traditional home, and hopefully will be for future generations. That is why it is so important that what the report outlines should be seriously considered and a decision should be reached in the near future.

When the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons responds, I hope he has the authority to say that a major debate will take place on the subject this year—in the first part of 2017. The House itself can then reach a decision on option 1, 2 or 3. Whatever it may be, at least the decision will be reached that work should commence following the 2020 general election.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds 10:11 am, 25th January 2017

I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr Flello. As one of the few chartered surveyors in the House and as a member of the Finance Committee for more than 10 years, I have been heavily involved with this matter from well before the inception of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, and all the way through to date. The Palace of Westminster is an iconic symbol of this nation. It is absolutely symbolic of everything the UK stands for. In many ways, the strength of our democracy is upheld by the strength of our Parliament encased in these buildings. As politicians, we have an absolute duty to the people of this country and to future parliamentarians to maintain it properly and get this whole thing right.

Much has been said in the debate, so I will be brief. Over the course of our history, including following the damage caused by the burning of Parliament in 1834 and 14 separate bombings during the blitz in 1940, only piecemeal repairs have been carried out. It is surprising to say the least, considering Great Britain’s prowess for engineering thoroughness, maintenance and ability, that no comprehensive record has been kept of what work has or has not been done on the building.

I will briefly outline what is wrong in layman’s terms. When any system or service has failed in the past, there has been simply a “make do and mend” response—a pipe added here or a wire added there. The high pressure steam heating system is encased in asbestos insulation, which has remained well beyond its designed lifespan and original capacity. It could burst and produce asbestos fibre at any minute. The main sewage pump needs replacing, as does the electricity supply, which is liable to major failure. It is unacceptable that Parliament could be plunged into darkness at any minute during great occasions, such as the Queen’s Speech during the state opening of Parliament. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that this work needs to be done.

The timing of the restoration and renewal works is crucial. As a chartered surveyor, my view is that the entire building must be cleared so that all of the asbestos can be removed in one go, and as Chris Bryant said, so that all of the services—water, electricity, sewage, internet and so on—can be renewed and separated in one concerted action. Doing that piecemeal or by partial decant is completely impractical.

Other concerns have been raised, first that Parliament will never return. Frankly, after an expenditure of £3.5 billion, that would be a national scandal. The second concern is what will happen to MPs who are here for only one term. The delivery authority will have to ensure that the Chamber is open for at least part of any Parliament. The third concern is the legislative status of the temporary Chamber in Richmond House. For goodness’ sake, surely we can design something that is worthy of this Parliament? If that cannot be done in Richmond House, let us put it in the Foreign Office or the Treasury. That problem can surely be overcome.

I will address the fourth concern for a minute or two. A lot of concerns have been raised, including by me, about the cost and delivery of this enormous project. I have done a little bit of research, and the nearest comparable project I could find was the demolition of Chelsea barracks, which cost £3 billion. That was a third smaller than this place, which covers 73,000 square metres. It is therefore likely that the cost of this project will be well in excess of £3 billion. That cost is well-substantiated by Deloitte in its report.

The report is excellent on financial grounds, but the problem is that the report has not scoped the work properly, so I do not know how it can be completely costed. That is why a shadow delivery authority needs to properly scope the work, consult parliamentarians on what is needed in this place and come up with realistic costings. However, Deloitte makes the important point that, for every year of delay, we add £60 million to £85 million to the cost of the project.

The only option is a full decant and a continuous, unbroken period of restoration and renewal. It is our responsibility to get on with this work, so that future generations and parliamentarians do not make the same mistakes as previous generations. Indeed, we are in grave danger of making the same mistakes ourselves if we go for a partial or continuous repair option—options one and two in the report.

The public support the project. We need to appoint a shadow delivery authority as soon as possible to scope the work, consult parliamentarians on what facilities they want in place—as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, the disabled access is appalling and it is a scandal that we have such poor facilities for our guests—produce proper costings and report back to Parliament. The work must then be enshrined in statute, so that a statutory delivery authority can begin to get on with the work as early as possible in the next Parliament.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 10:16 am, 25th January 2017

I welcome the debate and that, at last, the matter is before the House. I urge the Government and the Deputy Leader of the House to drive this matter, get behind it, get it on to the Floor of the House and ensure that a decision is taken as urgently and expeditiously as possible.

The public and, indeed, Members are right to feel confused. I feel a little bit confused because people who are leavers in another debate are coming to me and saying they wish to remain, and remainers from that same debate coming to me and saying they wish to leave. Let us be absolutely clear: we need to leave the House as urgently and expeditiously as possible to allow the work to commence, so that we can come back to a new and better Palace that serves generations to come.

What are we? We are parliamentarians. Let us be the generation of parliamentarians that gets this right. Let us not have it said of our generation that we missed the opportunity, or that we could have got it right but we failed like the generations before us. We have it in our grasp. Let us seize this moment and seize it right. We must take those decisions, drive this matter, and ensure that we at last put in place a board, with parliamentarians on it, and the finance to deliver the project once and for all. We have a duty to do this. We would be derelict in that duty if we failed. Future generations have a right to come to a wonderful Palace of Westminster, as it has been for 1,000 years before, to see what has happened and what will continue happen in this place.

Chris Bryant is absolutely right that there is no cheap option. Let us not kid ourselves that there is a way around this, or a way of doing it cheaper. There is not. This is a multibillion pound project whichever way we cut it. The sooner we get on with it, the better for future generations. I served on the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, and I arrived there a traditionalist and as somebody who was going to do his darnedest to ensure we stayed in this building. It is not possible. All of the evidence is compelling, and it suggests that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb—that the House will have either a catastrophic flood or a catastrophic fire. How would we feel waking up one morning to that news? Where would fingers be pointing that morning? Now is the time to act and get this right.

It is a financial fantasy to think that we can do this in some other way. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to speak to the powers that be, to encourage the Government to get on with this matter and to get it in front of the House. It is important for the House to realise more than 8,000 incidents since 2008 have been recorded as significant. Sixty of them could have brought it to a pile of rubble. Are we prepared to wait for one of those incidents to be catastrophic? I say, “No.” I say, “Let’s get on with it expeditiously.”

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 10:20 am, 25th January 2017

I agree with Chris Bryant that the Government need to get on with this and that we need a proper debate on the Floor of the House. It is not acceptable—this is not the fault of the hon. Gentleman—that we now have only 10 minutes, if my hon. Friend Mr Vara is called now, to hear an alternative point of view, and there is an alternative point of view. It is held by people who are just as committed to maintaining safety as anyone else.

I congratulate the Committee. We all love this place and we all want to preserve it for future generations, but there is an alternative point of view. I urge the Government to bring a motion to the Floor of the House. If the building is at such risk and if there is a real danger of fire, we need this debate. We were promised it yesterday, so let us have it in two or three weeks and get on with coming to a decision. We should base the debate on the draft motion provided by the Joint Committee of both Houses on page 100 of its report. I for one will seek to table an amendment to it. We already have scores of names on that amendment and we will have a full debate and the House will make its mind up. Let us get on with it.

My view is well known and my amendment will say that we should start work now. We are already spending £100 million, so we should start work now. We should retain ultimate control, although I accept that no one is suggesting that Members of Parliament should be telling builders, architects and surveyors which part of the building to close at any time. There is doubt about passing too much control to an enabling authority, so we must retain ultimate democratic control.

The third vital point of view, which is held by many Members of Parliament and many peers, is that, as during the second world war, the House of Commons debating Chamber should, at all times, retain a presence in the old Palace of Westminster. The hon. Member for Rhondda briefly alluded to the fact there is an alternative, expert, independent point of view that, instead of building what I would deem to be a folly costing £85 million of a replica chamber in the courtyard of Richmond House, we should, as in the war, use the House of Lords Chamber with a line of route through Westminster Hall and St Stephen’s chapel to the House of Lords Chamber.

The Government have come up with a reply to my proposal and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned, stated it will cost £900 million more. We dispute that. My architect tells me that people persistently miss the point that our option is a total shutdown, not a hybrid of options 2 and E1. The point is that our proposal is a total shutdown of the mechanical and electrical systems with a full strip-down from day one. The temporary services of the Lords and Royal Gallery are just that—temporary, not lash-ups—keeping part of the existing services going. Both the financial impact in section 2.5 most importantly, and the timing in section 2.3, are based on a false premise and exaggerated. The problem is that the writers of the report are not engineers. A properly briefed engineer would pick up that point immediately.

There is an alternative point of view and we will put it during this debate—time is short and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire a chance to say a few words. He will talk primarily about the figure. I want to talk about the 1 million visitors to this place every year. We are talking about those who propose a full decant. By the way, I must repeat that the report says the matter is so urgent, but a full decant would not take place until 2023.

I accept that we are going to move back to this place. I have never used the argument that we will never move back. We will eventually move back, but I do not believe it will be in five years. When we lose control, it could be six years. When I was shown round on a tour of the basement, I was told privately that it would be eight years. It is a long time and we would pass away control.

This is not just about us, but about the 1 million people who visit this iconic place every year. My proposal, which I believe is a sensible compromise—services could be taken into the House of Lords Chamber if necessary from outside, so we could shut down all services in one go if we wanted to—would at least keep Westminster Hall open to the public and keep the debating Chamber.

My final point is that, during the second world war, both Attlee and Churchill made an absolute political decision that the Nazis would not bomb us out of this building. We decided to stay here which is why, despite the massive damage to the building, we kept the debating Chamber of the House of Commons in the House of Lords throughout the second world war. Although the issue is not primarily about sentiment or emotion, this is not an office block. If it were I would agree we should move out, but it is not. It is the centre of the nation and the nation should keep its debating Chamber in this building.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire 10:26 am, 25th January 2017

I wish to take issue with the argument in the Joint Committee’s report that it would cost £3.5 billion to decant and that that would be the cheaper option. I start by pointing to the opening page of the summary, which says in the third paragraph:

“However, there is significantly more work to be done by professionals before budgets can be set, buildings are vacated and works can commence.”

I deeply regret that that caveat is not being emphasised a lot more—indeed, it has not been mentioned by anyone in today’s debate.

It is disingenuous to say that leaving here would cost £3.5 billion and be the cheaper option. That figure does not take account of the fact that some £600 million would be spent until 2023 when the full decant would take place. Nor does it take account of the fact that if we fully decant, there would be rental costs for the offices and space that would be needed outside this building. The figure does not show up in the costing on page 39 of the report. It simply says that professional advice will be required. We are talking about millions and millions of pounds of rental costs that are not accounted for.

There is an issue with security costs. If the peers go to the QEII centre, that will mean additional security. A full decant would require additional space outside the Palace of Westminster. Those security costs have not been factored in either—again, it would be serious millions of pounds. The tourism industry was mentioned. If the QEII building closed, that would affect the conferences normally held there, which attract significant sums of money to the local economy; I have heard that it would affect our local economy by some £200 million. Nearby hotels are worried because they will not be able to let out their rooms to people who go to conferences at the centre. There will be an impact on restaurants and taxis.

Chris Bryant said that if there were a rolling programme of works and we stayed here, that would be £900 million more expensive. I gently suggest that my figures come to a whole lot more than £900 million; had they been factored into the calculations in the report, we might be having a different debate.

The argument that we must move out is simply not the only one in town. Work is being done at Buckingham Palace. It has 100 miles of cables and 20 miles of pipes, yet the work will carry on while Her Majesty stays there with the entire royal household. Work will be done in segments. During the fire at Windsor Castle in 2002, 20% of it was burned down, yet Her Majesty and the royal household continued to operate from there. They did not have to move out.

As for the advice sought from experts, let us be clear: one does not need to be an expert to work out that the work will be easier if everyone leaves the place of work. That is a given, but the point is that this is no ordinary building. It is the seat of Government, and we have to take account of that fact. At the time of Brexit, when we seek to make new friends overseas and secure favourable trade agreements, do we really want to convey the image of a temporary building in the courtyard of another Government building? We have to take into account the soft-sell power of the iconic building that is Parliament. I put it gently to hon. Members that the selling power of this building far exceeds any figures for costs that have been produced here. As we have been told, it is an iconic building.

Furthermore, at a time of austerity when we are writing to our constituents and saying that they cannot have an additional few pounds for whatever they are seeking money for, do we really want to go to the public and say that, nevertheless, we want to spend billions of pounds on our place of work? I do not think that in the present economic climate that is sustainable.

The question that should have been put to the experts is not what the best way of working from here is, because the best answer is obviously that we should all clear out. What they should have been told was, “This is Parliament—the seat of Government. Go away and work out a plan for how we can continue to operate on this eight-acre site.” I can guarantee that they would have come up with a proposal had they been given that option.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 10:31 am, 25th January 2017

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party and with you in the Chair, Mr Flello. I wish all hon. Members present and everyone else a happy Burns day.

It is customary to acknowledge and congratulate those who secure debates in Westminster Hall, but today is slightly different. I cannot merely offer ordinary congratulations to Chris Bryant. After all, he has managed to do what the Government failed to do—bring about a debate on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. As the bard said:

“The best laid schemes o’
Mice an’
Men,

Gang aft agley”.

I will touch on the delay shortly, but in the meantime I tip my hat to the hon. Gentleman, a colleague on the R and R Joint Committee.

Today’s debate has been interesting, and I shall reflect briefly on what has been said. The hon. Member for Rhondda set out very well many of the issues that have arisen following decades of neglect—first by Governments at the time when they were responsible through the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and then by Parliament itself. Cheekily, I will mention the poll this week that the hon. Gentleman cited: 25% of those polled would happily see the place bulldozed. However, I feel that that is more an indictment of its incumbents than of the building itself. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman made a very good speech to set out his case. He did that very well.

Sir Alan Haselhurst, a colleague on the Finance Committee, was absolutely right: being elected is about doing a job, not about doing it in a particular building. He made a very good speech, as did Mr Winnick, who made a very salient point: the work is not for us. We can be sceptical about the project and criticise elements of it, but we must be clear—this work is not for us; we are merely tenants of the building. I say again that at the present time I am campaigning for my eviction—I will leave that one hanging.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, another colleague from the Finance Committee, highlighted the decades-long neglect of the building and its appalling disabled access—he was absolutely right to place that on the record. Ian Paisley, a colleague from the R and R Committee, made a typically witty speech and a very powerful case for his position. That is on the record very strongly.

The hon. Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) put forward their case. I disagree with it, but they have put their points across and I am sure that they will also do so when the matter comes to the Floor of the House, whenever that may be.

For me, today’s debate is not about the rights or wrongs of the project. The hon. Member for Rhondda will, I am sure, acknowledge that despite my early stated scepticism about the project, I did my best to be constructive in my role on the Joint Committee. I helped to secure a public consultation and some significant improving amendments to the text of the report. There is no doubt in my mind that if the two Houses vote for the project to go ahead, the recommended full decant is the best way to proceed.

For me, a sceptic about the project, and for the hon. Member for Rhondda, a champion of the project, the situation is clear: delaying the debate and the vote does not help anyone. I struggle to understand why the Government have been delaying it. First, we were told that there would be a debate and a vote before Christmas; then it was to be yesterday. Are the Government so concerned about the objections being raised by Conservative Members who are coalescing around the idea that somehow MPs could remain in the Palace while the works are going on?

Some hon. Members are worried that if Parliament does not sit in the Palace for a time, it will not return; others are concerned that customs may be replaced. It is an idea built purely on sentiment. The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden called it romance. It is a romance and sentimentality about a building. The idea does not make engineering or financial sense, as was explained so well by the hon. Member for Rhondda. Working around Parliament sitting in the Palace would add considerable time, cost and risk to the project. The savings from not building a temporary Chamber in Richmond House would be outweighed by the added time to get the work done, the added engineering complexity and the considerable added risk. It is now just shy of five months since our report was published. I say to the Government: get on with the debate and get on with the vote.

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that I had a bowl of porridge oats in deference to the bard this morning.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 10:36 am, 25th January 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Flello. So did I. It is very good for us, I understand.

I thank my hon. Friend Chris Bryant and the other members of the Joint Committee, who worked very hard in the lead-up to this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Hon. Members will know what my hon. Friend is like: he is blustering and blarneying and very frustrated about this, so it is great that he has had the opportunity to secure the debate. He is right to do that, because the report was published in September 2016.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been talking to me, and it goes without saying that all hon. Members are concerned about the immediacy and urgency of the work. They are also concerned about costs, and they note that other events and priorities may be occupying the Government’s mind. However, we come to this debate with a background of reports. We have the very good report from the hon. Members who served on the Joint Committee, and the Public Accounts Committee is also considering this matter, although it may not report until March. We also have the Treasury Committee report. Without doubt, whether for engineers, architects or whatever, the costings from September will be different even to the costings now. Mr Vara is right to be concerned about that issue. My view is that the debate will clarify all that. The important issue for our side is that hon. Members have a say. That is the key thing. All these questions and concerns can be aired with new information—against the background of the information from all those reports.

Sir Alan Haselhurst mentioned Canada. I had the opportunity, with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to visit Canada. Quite by chance, we were taken to the mock chamber that the parliamentarians there had and, in the best tradition of “Blue Peter”, I have here one that I made earlier—a picture of it. Obviously, it cannot be read into Hansard, but it does give a nice flavour of what can be done, if hon. Members want to see it later. It is a beautiful chamber. All of us may feel very comfortable debating in this Chamber now, but if we were given a chamber in the Department of Health that had desks, we would realise how good it would be to debate like a proper, modern Parliament and we might even not want to come back to the old Chamber. Canada’s temporary chamber is not just in a courtyard. It is a beautiful building and, engineering-wise, it shows what can be done—a visit to Canada might be in order.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda always reminds me that there are no options; he says, “Don’t tell people there are options. There is only one option.” The main thing is that Members should have a say. I am pleased to hear that some of the work has already been done. I was going to raise the issue of asbestos in the Chamber; again, not sitting in September might be an option to deal with that. The subject of fire has been constantly raised.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. The House has a register of known asbestos, but a large body of evidence suggests that asbestos is riddled throughout the work that has been done. There are 98 risers in this building and all are thought to hold asbestos. The health and safety and fire aspects of why we should decant are compelling to me. The fact is that we are allowing the general public and our staff to work where there is a chance of asbestos and silica dust. If anybody has seen someone die of mesothelioma, they will know that it is not a pretty sight. We have no option, on those grounds alone.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I have to say, gently, that it is the tradition to be in the room at the start of the debate, but I take on board that, particularly given her previous role, she understands the medical reasons— I have a cough today and it is difficult to breathe—and she mentioned the terrible condition of mesothelioma.

I want to knock another myth on the head. Again, I am not an architect or an engineer but Members should understand that although we may be moving out of the building, we will not actually be moving off the estate. We will still be around and will not be leaving the parliamentary estate. I am pleased that the work on the cast-iron roof is also being done.

The Joint Committee was tasked to look at this, and has fulfilled its remit, but Members are right to be concerned about costs. We had the same debate when the Labour Government decided they wanted to put money into the Olympics and there was a lot of chuntering that it was going to be too costly. In the end, sadly, there was a change of Government and we did not get the benefit of how brilliant the Olympics were and how, under the Olympic Delivery Authority, everything was done to time and, to a certain extent, cost. The hiccup, as the Deputy Leader knows, was the security—we finally had to get public service in, rather than G4S. We need to be careful that Members are not excluded from the delivery authority. The key point for me is that Members should decide and the only way they can do that is if we have the debate. The one main thing I would ask the Deputy Leader is that we have the debate as soon as possible, based on the information that the other Committees are looking at.

A building is only a building with people in it. It is nothing without people in it. Whatever we decide to do, and if there is only one option, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda suggests, we need to take that decision. However, we need to take an informed decision because, in the end, MPs are always blamed when things go wrong and, rightly, we will take responsibility for that. We need to do this on an informed basis, with everybody abiding by the result.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 10:43 am, 25th January 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello, and to close this debate. There have been powerful contributions, if I may say so, from all Members who spoke today. I congratulate Chris Bryant on securing the debate and on his service on the Joint Committee. I also commend the service of all the other Members—most of them are here—who served on it. The House owes a debt of gratitude to the members of that Committee for the intensiveness and seriousness of their work. It was, I believe, a year of hard work. I know that the hon. Gentleman in particular enjoys the history of this place and has written about it.

As has already been said, this is one of the most recognisable and renowned buildings in the world. That is in part because of its architecture—the grandeur of Victorian Britain combined with the historical depth and resonance of Westminster Hall. In part, it is because of what this place represents. The United Kingdom Parliament is for everyone in this country, and it is precisely because Parliament and the Palace of Westminster belong to the British people that we as parliamentarians have a responsibility to ensure that it is preserved for future generations. It is also an edifice that sends a powerful message around the world representing, as it does, the strength of democracy. We are ultimately its custodians for generations to come. People love this building, hence, as my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh mentioned, it is visited by nearly 1 million people a year. It is one of the few structures around the world that is recognised the world over. Our generation must accept responsibility for the active steps that are needed to preserve it.

We have reached a point where make-do-and-mend is simply not an option. That approach has already been taken and has led to decades of under-investment, which we are now forced to confront. Much of our infrastructure is well past, and in some cases decades past, its life expectancy for its planned working life. Most of the systems put in place in the post-war refurbishment, which was the last time there was a major renovation, were meant to last only a few decades and have now lasted twice as long. Since then, the backlog of maintenance has steadily grown, in part because those working on the structure cannot be entirely sure where all the pipes and wires lead. It will no doubt surprise some, particularly perhaps those outside this Chamber, to know that in some instances the authorities here have to cut a wire and wait to see who complains that the electricity has gone off, or block a pipe and see where there is a later complaint. We do not know, necessarily, where everything leads.

In a sense, Parliament’s maintenance team have been so good at their work that they have been victims of their own success. Members have tended not to be troubled by the headaches that the team face on a daily basis that are mostly hidden in basements, voids or the vertical risers, which have been referred to and of which there are nearly 100 spread across the building. Often, we see only a small proportion of the true scale of the work that takes place every day to keep this Palace going. Again, that is testament to the dedication with which those workers work in difficult, and sometimes dangerous, conditions, particularly because of the presence of asbestos in so many locations around the building.

Yet the task is steadily becoming too great even for those make-do-and-mend measures and the ongoing renovation measures that have been happening for so long. Decades of under-investment mean that the risk of a major fire, flood or other catastrophic failures increase every year. For example, parts of the sewerage system were installed in 1888 and are still in use. The costs of avoiding the inevitable eventual calamity or major emergency, if we do nothing, are also rising. As Mr Winnick mentioned, we are facing rising ongoing annual maintenance costs, which reached almost £50 million last year.

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. With the greatest respect to the , you really cannot come into a debate while the wind-ups are taking place and expect to take part.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

We need to cover the issue that the ongoing maintenance cost the taxpayer £50 million last year. All told, some 40% of the mechanical and engineering systems will be at an unacceptably high risk of failure by 2020, and five years after that the figure will have risen to 50%. In other words, we are just eight years away from being in a situation in which half the Palace’s systems are so dilapidated that they could cause a major emergency that stops Parliament’s work and forces our evacuation without warning, perhaps overnight. For all those reasons, it is clear that we cannot pass the buck any longer.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

The Minister has emphasised how urgent it is that we get the work done. Does he therefore agree that the work should commence immediately, rather than waiting for six years, as page 91 of the report says? It states that a full decant will take place in six years’ time.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is fair to point out, as was mentioned, that a great deal of work is ongoing while Parliament sits, including, for example, repairs to the roof and other essential items of maintenance. That is a monumental undertaking, and a great deal of work undoubtedly needs to be done in order to set that into train.

We have heard what the Joint Committee has recommended: that a full decant is the cheapest, quickest and lowest-risk option. It also proposes the establishment of a delivery authority, overseen by a sponsor board, which would first be established in shadow form to draw up budgets and a business case, before a final vote in both Houses to approve the plans.

The Government have undertaken to provide time for a full debate and vote in due course on the Committee’s report. The hon. Member for Rhondda will recollect from his duties in this place that time is always at a premium for business managers, particularly so the moment.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

That is all very well, but to be honest, “in due course” is the kind of phrase that weasels use. It means that someone does not really intend to do something in any expeditious way. Nearly 20 weeks have now passed. We have been told that, every year we delay, the project costs an extra £85 million. The finger will be pointing at the Minister if something goes wrong, as he has just described—so get on with it man!

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Shall we put it this way? It will happen if not in due course, then as soon as is reasonably practicable.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am not sure about weasels, but this sounds like a sketch from “Yes, Minister”—Sir Humphrey Appleby’s next line would be “at the appropriate juncture”. My hon. Friend Chris Bryant said that each year we delay costs £85 million. We have heard how the public support the decant and improvements to the House, but the longer we delay, there is a risk that we will lose public support, so I encourage the Minister to get on with it. He seems to be putting forward a case for a full decant, which many of us support, but we need to get on with it.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

What we decide to do is a matter for the House. I reiterate that we aim to bring the matter to a vote as soon as possible. We have to take the time—and have taken the time—to consider very carefully the details of the proposed recommendations and their implications. It is not simply a question of reading a report that has taken a year to prepare. We want to consider those recommendations and their implications carefully. We have taken advice on a range of technical and governance issues made by the Joint Committee report by, for example, consulting with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. It is only right, too, that Members consider the report of the Joint Committee carefully. I urge all of them to read it in full if they have not done so already.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

The House rises for the Easter recess on 30 March. Is there a reasonable chance that we will have the debate before then?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

We aim to bring the matter to a vote as soon as is reasonably practicable. As has been made clear this morning, in recent weeks colleagues have suggested a number of alternative proposals, some of which the House authorities have commissioned additional research on. Those also need to be considered, and that includes the proposals made by my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, which have been analysed in detail. A copy of the House’s report will be placed in the Library later today and is available electronically now.

The House authorities have been keen to engage with Members, most recently through two well-attended drop-in sessions—we organised those—with the programme team. Members are also encouraged to arrange to be taken on a tour of the basement areas. It is not compulsory to go with the hon. Member for Rhondda—

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

But it is available.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

I have listened carefully to the Minister’s speech. With great candour and great respect, I say to him that I think he is making excuses on the Government’s behalf. We need to have this debate and to establish a shadow authority as soon as possible, so that the work can be scoped and costed accurately, and we know how to move forward.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend knows that time is always a precious commodity in this House. Business managers are always under time pressure, now more than ever, but the matter is being given very careful consideration.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

The Minister is being generous with his limited time. He said that alternative proposals are being considered by officials. Given that the report took a considerable amount of time to produce, has huge caveats in it and says that professional advice is still needed for costing purposes, I put on record that, whatever decisions the officials come to, it is assumed that they will have the usual caveats and that we will not be able to rely on those figures to the extent that it is hoped.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Once an initial decision has been taken in response to the Joint Committee’s recommendations, focus will shift to the details of developing plans for how the work should be done. However, it is hard for detailed scrutiny to take place now because line-by-line budgets have not been prepared, and cannot be yet. That can happen only when the delivery authority has completed its necessary preparation work.

The Joint Committee was clear that it could not provide detailed budgets. Only establishing a shadow delivery authority will allow a true picture of the costs to emerge, before Members of Parliament and peers of the realm have the final say. The Committee’s headline figures for the cost of the three options under consideration range from £3.52 billion to £5.67 billion—a difference of £2.15 billion—but everyone following the debate should be clear that those are preliminary estimates and not guaranteed costs.

Whatever the differences in approach, clearly no one disputes that we must act to preserve this historic building. On that we have no choice. As part of a UNESCO world heritage site, the Palace simply cannot be allowed to fall into terminal disrepair. Doing nothing is not an option. What happens is up to the House, and ultimately it will be for Members of both Houses to decide on the right way forward. The large sums of money involved and the importance of this building to our nation’s prestige mean great care is needed when weighing up the options.

It is clear from the speeches we have heard that the responsibility of getting the decision right as custodians of this place weighs heavily on all Members of the House. The Government, for our part, will work with Parliament to ensure that whatever is decided is delivered in the right way to preserve this place for the country and for future generations.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda 10:58 am, 25th January 2017

It has been enlightening to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. We have heard very good speeches. I particularly congratulate Sir Alan Haselhurst on his very important contribution.

I take a completely different lesson from the fire at Windsor than Mr Vara. I take the lesson that there will be a fire in this building. It could take a wing or the whole of the building down, which is why we need to act. Sir Edward Leigh talked about sitting in the House of Lords. He should listen to Winston Churchill, who said in 1943 that there would be a real problem with the House of Commons sitting in the House of Lords, because the Division Lobbies were not big enough. During the war only 20 or 30 Members sat in the House of Lords or in the House of Commons every day, so their experience was completely different.

The most important thing we have to do is take issue with the Government, because the Minister made a wonderful speech on why we should do what the Joint Committee advised, then issued a whole load of waffly platitudes, as though he was speaking on Her Majesty’s behalf. They were excuses for doing nothing, as Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said. We have to get on with it. We must have the debate so that we can hear the opposing views and thrash it all out, and it should be before the February recess. Let us just get on with it so that we can make a decision.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).