I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the House of Commons Financial Plan 2019-20 to 2022-23 and draft Estimates for 2019-20.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. This is the first time we have had a debate such as this since 2014, and I think that all members of the Finance Committee feel that it is a shame and a mistake that we have not had one every year. I do not think we are the only people in Parliament who think that the management of the expenditure on the House and the way we do our business in Parliament has for years not been done as efficiently and effectively as it might be. In 2014, the Committee did have a debate of this kind. It took place on the Floor of the House and the expectation was that it would become an annual event. However, because we had general elections in 2015 and 2017, there was no Committee in place to ask for a debate, so we did not have one.
In the end, we are talking about taxpayers’ money here. Personally, I would be very critical of the whole way in which we spend taxpayers’ money in this country, in the sense that we theoretically have debates on estimates, but we never or very rarely have votes on them. We can only cut the amount of money being spent; we cannot reallocate from one estimate to another. To all intents and purposes, we do not really have a budget in this country, but a Budget statement. We do not have a budget in the sense that most other Parliaments in the world—or, for that matter, most local authorities—would understand the word. Therefore, the Finance Committee, which I chair, thinks it important that at least for this bit, which is the money spent on Parliament itself, we show a degree of discretion and try to get to the bottom of some of the key issues facing us.
We all also want to see far better responsibility and accountability for financial decisions made within the two parliamentary estimates that I will talk about. The two estimates, as I am sure you know, Mr Howarth, are the administration estimate and the Members estimate. The Members estimate is now much smaller than the admin estimate. I cannot for the life of me understand why we still have two estimates. I understand that the Government object to binding these two estimates together, but I cannot understand why. The admin estimate is far bigger than the Members estimate, and having the two separate just seems an unnecessary additional administrative burden.
In relation to the admin estimate, which as I said is far larger, the process is iterative. That is to say that as we advance towards the final estimate being laid, we on the Finance Committee provide advice to the House of Commons Commission, and that informs the estimate that is eventually laid. Quite often in that process, we on the Finance Committee have tried to bring decisions earlier, so that the Commission can be better informed and we can have a more strategic look at the whole of our finances. Part of what governs that is that we set a remit for the resource element of the admin estimate. At the moment, that assumes zero real-terms growth. That is partly because we have been making some £15.5 million-worth of savings, which we can then reinvest. Those are not just cuts; they are genuine savings. We are doing more for less money and we can then put the money back into the resource element of the admin budget.
We do have some exceptions and I worry, as Chair of the Committee, that the number of exceptions always grows; it never seems to diminish. For instance, we allow ourselves, quite rightly, an exception from the remit for increased scrutiny of Government. Brexit has led to an extra Select Committee. That has a cost, because there have to be Clerks and there has to be Committee time and there are printing costs and all the rest of it. Indeed, in recent years, the Select Committee process has become one of the most important elements of the way we do our business in Parliament, and consequently there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of work that those Committees are doing. The Liaison Committee, which gathers together the Chairs of all the Select Committees, made a passionate plea for an additional £1.3 million this year, and we think that that is an important additional piece of expenditure.
Yes, but for a completely different reason: I hope that we will be exiting Brexit rather than Brexiting, although I do not think that that is a matter for this debate, Mr Howarth.
The second exception that we make—again, I think that it is difficult to disagree with—relates to security. The physical aspects of security in this building and of Members in their constituencies are obviously important, but as we have seen in the last two years, the cyber-security of the parliamentary estimate is also a vital element of enabling the democratic process to proceed. It is not just Russia but China and, potentially, a whole series of other countries that, as state actors, might be seeking to undermine the cyber-security of this place, and it would be all too easy for other people engaged in espionage to attack it. Of course, there have also been the very sad deaths of Jo Cox and PC Keith Palmer.
I am therefore fully aware that it is important to have an exception from the remit for security, but we need to be very clear that we are getting good value for money and that we are not wasting taxpayers’ money, even when we are dealing with security matters. I have some concerns about the contract with Chubb and the way it has been administered; I think that the Committee will want to look at that in the near future.
One of the largest areas of exception from the remit is, of course, the major strategic programmes that we have in the Palace of Westminster. There are three such programmes. The first is restoration and renewal. Everyone is aware of that—we had a big debate on it. Unfortunately, the delays in delivering it have made it very difficult for us to be clear about exactly when we will be incurring the expenditure. Indeed, the delays in decision making in the House have made it more difficult for the Officers of the House to be able to deliver clear financial decision making.
The second programme is the northern estate programme. That is definitely progressing. We have been involved in looking at some of the suggestions of what there may be, including in relation to the alternative Chamber that will be built, largely on the same basis as the current Commons Chamber but with better disabled access; provision of offices for Members who are being decanted out of this building; and ensuring that the whole of the northern estate within the curtilage is efficiently and effectively used. I passionately support that programme, because I think that at the end of it we will have a legacy for future generations that will improve access for the public to the whole of the parliamentary estate and to the archives.
That is the third programme—the archives accommodation programme. I do not know whether any Members have been into the archives of late, but it is virtually impossible to get there; it is certainly very difficult for any members of the public to get there. The photograph room has never worked since it was first installed, and all the rolled Acts of Parliament, going back to the 14th century, could be far better stored than they are now. They are higgledy-piggledy; they are in time order, but should be far more carefully stored. However, that cannot really happen until such time as we have new provision.
We have also made an exemption—this is new for us—for any decisions made by the House in relation to reports that are being done. The most important example is the Dame Laura Cox report, which has already led to significant public interest, as people want to ensure that Parliament is a safe place for everybody to work and that there is no bullying or harassment. There are costs involved in delivering that review and we are keen to support that, and we will doubtless be keen to support whatever Gemma White QC comes up with, when her review is completed.
In addition, we have allocated £2.4 million for the Sponsor Board, which is up and running in shadow form. I see that one of its members—my right hon. Friend Mark Tami— is here in his less shadowy form; certainly his tie is less shadowy than it might be, as usual. The shadow Sponsor Board is up and running, and we are hopeful that it will be able to engage in its work as fast as possible. As I understand it, it is keen to speed up decisions, rather than delay. At the moment, we are talking about not leaving the Palace in the decant until 2026, but there are people who would like that to be brought forward to 2025 if it is physically possible.
I apologise for missing the opening few minutes. I just want to emphasise the important point about driving things forward. This is not a vanity project: we are doing this work because the building is not safe as it is at the moment.
I completely concur with my right hon. Friend, who has been one of the key people seeking to drive this forward, in his role as a Whip and given his responsibility for Opposition accommodation. He is fully aware of the problems there have been throughout the Palace. The new fire doors are absolutely hideous, but they are essential. I am sure that when we get around to restoration and renewal we will have a version of them that performs the same function, but is more in keeping with the building. Finally, we have allocated £3.3 million of the administration budget to the restoration and renewal customer and client team, which builds the occupation for R and R when it comes online.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which are important to many hon. Members, are funded out of the resource aspect of the administration estimate, as is the History of Parliament Trust. We have tried to be as tough with each of those bodies as possible, to ensure that we are getting good value for money. The only comment I would make about the IPU and the CPA is that in many other Parliaments there is a foreign affairs department with a room to welcome guests from other Parliaments. It keeps a record of who has visited and where MPs have gone on visits. That is available to their foreign office. There is a kind of inventory of all the work that is being done on foreign affairs visits. That does not happen here.
We have a multiplicity of different Committees and all-party parliamentary groups, and all the rest of it. For example, I went to Colombia in September, courtesy of ABColombia. It would have been interesting to have seen which other Members had visited there over the last five years and good to have exchanged information with them before going. Keeping such records is not something that we do but it is one of the things that we should look at for the future.
Other Parliaments often have friendship groups, as they call them, which are serviced by staff from their Parliament, so there is a continuity to the visits and a base in the Parliament where Members can be serviced, and information collected and retained. That simply does not happen in this country.
That is absolutely right. When—if—Brexit happens, it will be all the more important, in relation to other European countries, that Members of this House and the House of Lords will be seen as diplomats or ambassadors on behalf of Parliament. We need to garner the information, ideas and contacts that come through that in the national interest. I worry that we do not do that very well at the moment.
The capital elements of the administration estimate are quite significant. We are talking about £236.8 million. Some of the figures in the report that we have published are slightly different from the figures that we are talking about now, because this is an iterative process. In a sense, the reason for having this debate was to be able to inform those decisions as they go forward to the commission. The two largest elements of this relate to the major ongoing building projects. Of that, £117.4 million relates to the Strategic Estates projects. I think everybody on the Committee would say that we worry about the Strategic Estates. It is not just that the Elizabeth Tower started off at one price and ended up at a completely different price—incidentally, it ended up being a rather different project. With the stone courtyard project, the money we were allocating for all five courtyards has been taken up on one. I am sure that both the Labour party and Conservative party would have moaned about this, but we also decided to close the cloister—one of the most beautiful parts of the Palace—and move all the staff out more than 18 months ago, yet work has still not started on it, even though it desperately needs work.
We were told at the time that those people had to leave because that work was essential and could not wait under any circumstances—it was quite an exercise to find somewhere else for those people—only to see it left empty, apart from some building materials that have been left there.
That is distressing and worrying. Apart from anything else, it is worrying because it is one of the most beautiful parts of the palace, which is hardly used or visited by the public. I hope that when restoration and renewal is complete we will not have destroyed the beautiful work that was done by Henry VII and Henry VIII. That would be a terrible sadness. The delay is down to capacity in the team and physical capacity on the site. It is not down to somebody being negligent in their job, or anything like that, but it is simply down to capacity. If we are unable to get that work done, there is a danger that we will lose one of the most important architectural aspects of the building.
It is not all bad. The cast-iron roofs project has been extraordinarily successful. It is on time and on budget. It is a massively impressive project. It has basically kept two companies in the north of England afloat over the last few years. The encaustic tiles project has been very successful as well. It is great to see the floors now being sorted out. It is also quite interesting to see people in the shop buying the old encaustic tiles that have been lifted up, thereby bringing a little bit of income back into the Palace as well. They are quite good Christmas presents, Mr Howarth. If you feel like buying one, you can buy me one.
All of us on the Committee have a fundamental worry that sometimes, because we have to meet Government pay scales and agreed limits, we end up paying for a lot of consultancy advice. That ends up creating more expense, but because it is sort of off the books, or is not accounted in the same way, somehow it meets some kind of Government requirement. I think this is a false economy. We are desperate to do whatever we can to ensure that we do not continue wasting taxpayers’ money in that way.
I should add that we are spending £88.8 million in the capital element of the administration estimate on the northern estate programme. It has been difficult to know when this money will be spent. That is one reason why it has been difficult to get the finances precisely right this year, because we did not know when we would be starting the work. If political decision-making causes delays, it adds to the cost. If the Minister has any role in making sure that key decisions come at the right time, and that we are not putting off votes, for instance—if she can chivvy the Leader of the House, or whoever makes such decisions—it would be enormously helpful to the finances of Parliament.
The Members estimate relates to Short money, which is available to make sure that Opposition parties can do their job properly. I am glad we won the battle a few years ago to make sure that is adequate. It also pays for the Deputy Speakers’ salaries and for the Exchequer elements of contributions to the pensions fund. It stands at £17.7 million, which is a little bit up from £17.1 million previously.
I will finish with a few general points. We on the Committee feel that we do not manage many of these processes well yet, so there is work to do. One issue about the Elizabeth tower, which I have already referred to, was that not enough investigative work was done before we started to let the contract. We then found out that the cables were not in the place that all the maps said they were, which incurred significant extra cost. We were also probably too optimistic about what it was going to cost. We now have a much better estimate of our optimism bias, although I have a slight worry that if we are too pessimistic, that will simply be an excuse for spending more money than we needed to in the first place. It is a difficult balancing act.
Another issue was that, in the end, the contract for the Elizabeth tower was let when there was no Parliament. Everybody ran around asking, “Who made the decision?”, but the truth is that it was taken somewhere between the Commission, which still existed because it is a statutory body, the Treasury, the Leader of the House and the accounting officer, who is the Clerk of the House. We need to have much greater continuity when we have general elections. To not have a Finance Committee for the best part of six months is a mistake. There is a strong argument for putting the Finance Committee on a statutory footing, as the Commission is, so it can still exist even when there is no Parliament, because financial decisions still have to be made.
I am led by the Committee. It is a serious point that we sometimes obsess about small amounts of money, but, for example, it looks as if the fire safety budget will have gone from £90 million to £160 million, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask who made that decision and at what point a decision was made by a Committee of the House or by the accounting officer. If we cannot match responsibility and accountability, there is a real danger that financial mistakes will be made and significant amounts of money will go in the wrong direction.
I have already made the point, but I want to labour it, that we are too bound by Government pay scales. That has made it difficult to pay the right price to get the job done in one of the most complicated and difficult buildings and in the context of the most complicated and difficult political decision-making processes. Many staff who work here are admirable—they dedicate themselves to their task as much as any Member of Parliament and work many hours beyond what they are required to do—but, all too often, we end up bringing in experts on consultancy rates and paying more than we need to simply because we are trying to meet the Treasury’s rules. That is a mistake.
I worry that the building swamps the work financially. We are talking about spending dramatic amounts of money on the building, but what is really important here is the scrutiny work that we do, the public coming to understand how we do our democratic business and the engagement with the public. There are major projects that should be slanted much more towards the public.
A classic instance is that, of late, people have regularly queued for an hour or two hours—often standing in the pouring rain—to get into the building to watch democracy in action. We simply have to do better on such projects. I have heard lots of different explanations. Sometimes I am told that it is because one of the security arches is not working, or that people are working to rule because they are fed up with decisions that have been made elsewhere in the Palace—who knows? All I know is that the public feel they are getting a pretty rum deal. They are often late for meetings that they are coming to in Parliament. This should be an open place, not one that is almost impossible to get into.
I certainly agree. After many years of using the Palace, some organisations are questioning whether they will carry on, because of the inability to get people in. After restoration and renewal, we are talking about doubling the number of people who come here, but there is no point having ambitious targets if we cannot get people in safely and more quickly.
As always, my right hon. Friend makes my point better than me, so I am grateful.
Finally, the structure is not quite right. It has been some time since the Commission was put on a statutory basis after the Straw review. The Leader of the House is keen to look at having the Commission elected, which I support; I would have the whole Commission fully elected to do a job. It would then function more like a traditional Select Committee and more like a team. That would be a good way to go forward, rather than the process we have now, in which all the members of the Commission are appointed by their respective party leaders, and then there are two external members, who are often the most informed and independently-minded on all the financial aspects but, bizarrely, are not allowed to vote. That system needs to change.
I have already said “finally”, but I will say it again: finally, if anything I have said has given the impression that I am not respectful of the Clerks or the people who work for the Committee, that would be a complete mistake. Myfanwy Barrett is a wonderful woman who has done a sterling job for many years. It is an enormous sadness to us that she is leaving—but who knows, maybe we will be buying in her consultancy advice later at a much greater price.
I do not want to turn the debate into the Oscars, but I also thank Philip Collins, who has done a magnificent job for us, and Rob Cope, who is our Committee Clerk.
We have done things differently in the last few months. We are keen to make sure that the Commission regularly hears our voice before it makes decisions about key financial matters. In the end, we are spending taxpayers’ money and we should do it better.
I congratulate Chris Bryant on clearly putting forward the case and on bringing the report to the Chamber. We are deeply indebted to him for his knowledge and interest in the House, and for his delivery of speeches. The low number of hon. Members present does not reflect the importance of the debate or of the issue. This is not the most dynamic subject, but it keeps the wheels turning, so we need to at least record our support for what has been proposed. I also put on the record my thanks to every member of the Finance Committee for the tremendous work they have done to produce the report.
I will discuss a few issues that I feel are important, one of which is security. I want to reflect on my own offices and the budget for them, including for security. For a number of years—since 1985 and for two years after I became a Member of Parliament—I ran my own business, and somewhat successfully, in that I made my tax returns and paid my tax every year. It was therefore a successful business. It also paid for my holidays and my mortgage over the years. I fully understand the importance of balancing the books. I also understand that we cannot plan for everything, and the hon. Gentleman’s introductory comments about the report clearly illustrated that things crop up. The courtyard is one example that he referred to, whereby the costs for one thing took up the money that was supposed to look after five, so again we see the problems that occur.
I have been made aware by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority that my staff would benefit from greater security measures in my constituency office, and I was also informed that the costs for that would be met from an additional budget. How it was to be done was very clear. If every MP was faced with a scenario in which they had to implement new security measures, the cost would be great indeed.
I have discussed with my staff which measures we believe to be necessary, and which can be resolved by small changes that make a big difference in increasing safety levels in the office and in operating a clear zero-tolerance policy on verbal abuse of staff. However, most of my staff are ladies and are unafraid of anybody and stand up for themselves. I might be their boss, but I know my place in life and although I give them instructions about what to do, they tell me what they think. There is nothing wrong with that; there is a good, fair and clear exchange on how things are. However, it is my responsibility to address any safety concerns and over the years I have tried to do that; indeed, I believe that I have done that to their satisfaction.
How much more was that the case for this place in dealing with the breach of Westminster Bridge, which was a direct attack on Parliament and which the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned? We all know that; the attack is clear in the minds of those of us who sat imprisoned in the main Chamber during that time. I will advocate day and night for resources for security to ensure that this place is as safe as is possible, not simply for us as MPs but for every staff member in this House, who turn the wheels and ensure that this House operates at a very high level.
For that reason, I believe we must be fully accountable for, and transparent in, expenditure, and the general public must be made to understand that the money to run the parliamentary estate is not spent on giving us all our own butler. The report says:
“The Administration Estimate funds expenditure arising from the general administration of the House of Commons and activities undertaken to meet Parliament’s objectives and associated commercial activities. This includes, for example, the cost of House staff, office accommodation in Westminster, running and maintaining the Parliamentary estate, printing, security, broadcasting, IT and catering.”
All those activities turn the wheels and make this House successful. However, we must be able to address security issues as well.
The other issue I will raise is the House’s decision to support the comprehensive restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, which has resulted in a significant ramping-up of activity over the course of the year. Along with the resource implications of other capital projects, such as the northern estate programme, it has resulted in a net increase of £85.5 million on the 2019-20 baseline that was agreed last year.
We understand the issues, but sometimes we are stuck betwixt two things: improving the House and making sure that it does not decay further, while at the same time making sure that we can still operate in it. That is the big question that the Members of this House have to answer.
The fire doors are an example. I met a lady this morning at nine o’clock for an interview that I was doing. We went through the fire doors and she said, “When did these come into place?” The hon. Member for Rhondda referred to them as well. They are not the most attractive, to be honest, but they are effective; they have a job to do and they clearly do it. The safety of those in this House is very important. The House of Commons is crumbling in parts, including its stonework, plumbing, electrics and much else, but at the same time we must ensure that we can continue to operate in this House.
If we are to save this wonderful piece of history, and my opinion is that we must secure this massive attraction and physical bastion of democracy—or at least that was my opinion until last night’s antics, which have thrown everything into question about whether we are truly democratic in this House. However, that is not the debate for today—although what happened last night does annoy every one of us, and if people are not annoyed, there is something wrong. That is all I can say. However, that is another debate for another time.
It is my belief that we should withhold the voluntary divorce payment to Europe and take care of our own pressing needs in this place. Again, that is just my suggestion for this debate and how I feel.
Many others in this House feel the same way. I did not sit on the Committee but, as Members will know, I take an interest in the things that happen in this House. I take an interest in the report that the hon. Member for Rhondda has put forward and I am also interested in all the thoughts and ideas put forward by all the members of the Committee.
To conclude, I support this report and its recommendations, as well as the thought and effort that went into bringing it forward. There is a need for enough funds for it to be implemented, but there must also be enough funds to ensure that all of us, at every level and in every Department in this House, economise in every way, when that is possible. I am an Ulster Scot. Some people say that every pound is a prisoner. Maybe it is; I do not know, but we are thrifty. We are careful about how we spend our money. When it comes to looking after the money for this place, we must economise where possible, and do what we expect everyone out there to do, who are doing it every day—stretch the pound until it squeals.
As always, Mr Howarth, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I came to Westminster Hall today hoping to be presented with a long-service award; I think that I have been on the Finance Committee since the 2005 Parliament. Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who is not here today, has been an assiduous member of that Committee and I think that he has been on it, too, for most of that time. Collectively, we have quite a good memory as to how things used to happen, and I will come back to that in a minute.
It is absolutely right that we should have this debate. As said by the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, there has been a gap in having a debate to which all Members can contribute. Next year, we can hopefully go back to having the debate on the Floor of the House, with an amendable motion, hopefully to get more interest from colleagues. That is where we set off and it would be helpful again in the future. The problems around renovation and restoration, including the decision making on it and the complexity that programme has introduced to the budget process, have somewhat handicapped us this year, but I hope we can get back to that arrangement in the future.
I also echo what the Chair of the Committee said when he asked why we need two estimates. When Members estimates dealt with all Members’ expenditure—their expenses, as they are often referred to—one could perhaps understand why there was a need for two estimates. Now, however, that work is carried out by IPSA and the Members estimate is such a small amount that it needs to be absorbed, so that we can get away from the need for two separate sets of accounts.
The Chair has also gone through some of the issues that the Committee has been dealing with, but thinking back to when I joined the Committee in the 2005 to 2010 Parliament, what is remarkable now is that we actually have a budget. Believe it or not, we did not have one then. If I said that the finances of the House were run worse than those of the most inefficient district council, I would be exaggerating—I would say the most inefficient town council. It was that bad.
Money got spent, nobody properly accounted for it and there was no proper monitoring. What we have now is a budget agreed each year, which is clear. We monitor against the budget; we have a forward plan; we have a framework for the budget, including criteria in which we lay down what is acceptable in terms of increases for future years, based on inflation, plus any exemptions that are brought forward, such as the Brexit Committee, increased scrutiny or security; and we have an efficiency programme as well.
There have also been efforts to raise extra income, which have been successful in many respects, through catering. We have also tried to bear down on costs. I think that we will have the lowest ever subsidy for catering this year and that is entirely reasonable. We put some subsidy in, because the catering by and large is used by the staff who work in this place, and any reasonable and responsible employer would provide that degree of subsidy for people who do not have a choice about where they eat, particularly at lunchtime.
We should recognise that all those things are a great improvement. By and large, I am pretty comfortable that we are in a good place with the revenue budget. There will be arguments, challenges and disagreements about particular amounts of money, the exemptions to expenditure control and whether efficiencies are going quickly enough, and it is absolutely right that we bear down and put extra pressure on those issues. By and large, however, I think we are in a reasonable place, and can justifiably say, and be content with the fact, that the budget is well managed and scrutinised.
On the capital programme, the situation is not quite as rosy. We can go through a number of the examples that have been highlighted. All the time, we have the challenge of getting to grips with exactly what is going on with some major projects. Hopefully, we now have systems in place that are learning lessons from past mistakes, but we can go around and see the evidence, can’t we? At some stage, there is a story to be told about the Portcullis House roof. I have always said that if someone wanted a page in The Mail on Sunday on that roof, they would probably get at least two pages and a colour supplement to match. It is not right yet, is it? It will be even more interesting when we come to replace it. How will it be replaced? It needs replacing at some point. That fundamental issue was not thought of when the roof was designed and constructed. No one here now is to blame, but there are clearly lessons to be learned.
On the Elizabeth Tower, hopefully lessons are being learned. Ultimately, the work probably needed to be done. It is probably the right project, and what is being done now is value for money, but how we got here is not a good example. We have the fire safety work. Again, it needed to be done, but how we got to the sum is not a good example of financial control. There are the problems with the stonework, and the contracts that have now been suspended, following all the difficulties that have been experienced. Then there is the contract for the sprinkler systems that went with the fire safety. There, again, is a story about how a project was designed and controlled. It does not make happy reading. There are lessons to be learned.
On the other side, we simply must accept that there will always be difficulties and challenges when dealing with this type of building. The very fact that every time we set off on a project it is almost certainly a one-off—it will not have been done for many years, and hundreds in some cases—and we will find things we did not expect. The unexpected will always happen. We are in a listed historic building with lots of construction workers around, and Members of Parliament and the public want security. It will never be easy to do construction work in this place. That is a reality, so it will probably never be possible to absolutely nail down the cost of a project right at the beginning and to know where we will get to at the end. We will find new issues and challenges and it will be difficult, but there are lessons we must learn, and be shown to learn, if we are to retain the confidence that public money is being properly spent.
I echo the comments of the Chair of the Finance Committee about the issue of paying staff properly for this sort of work—I have gone on about it ad nauseam, I know. It is a problem. The reality is that in certain areas—construction and IT systems—we are competing with the private sector in London. There is great pressure for those services and we end up bringing in contractors and agency staff and paying more than we would if we appointed people to the House service. In the end, it is a matter of being more flexible about the rules within which we have to operate, regarding the comparison between our pay grades and those of the civil service. That is a challenge we must recognise, and the unions have brought it to our attention. That is not in any way to denigrate the other people who work in the House—exactly the opposite. The Chair of the Finance Committee is absolutely right that we should give them great credit for the service they give us, right across the field, and for their dedication to working for the House, for us and for democracy. That should be put on record.
There have been comments about R and R and the northern estate and I will not go into what has already been said, but I am concerned about the considerable complications of the shadow R and R arrangements. The little draft diagrams about decision making under the arrangements are very challenging indeed. I also sit on the Members Estimate Audit Committee, and the other day I asked the National Audit Office whether, if there were a problem with the shadow R and R arrangements, it could be certain, as our auditor, of identifying where responsibility and accountability lay. I think it would be hard pushed to do that. It has gone away to consider it, but it is a worry, and we are heading for problems if we set up a system in which we cannot point with absolute certainty to where decisions are made and accountability rests. Everyone always blames everyone else when something goes wrong, so there is a challenge there that we ought to think about. I do not know how to get around it, because until we get to the final stage of the statutory arrangements it is very difficult indeed, but the shorter the period of shadow arrangement the better, and the less chance of things going wrong.
I have two final points. I first thank the Chair of the Finance Committee for how he has chaired the Committee this year. We perhaps set off with a different idea of who the Chair should be, but I nevertheless thank him for the inclusive way in which he has run the Committee. We have worked together to address some of the issues and I put on record my thanks to him. Also, the Chair right mentioned Myfanwy Barrett, who is leaving us. I have worked with her with various hats on, on the Finance Committee, as a pension trustee on the House of Commons Members’ fund, and on the Audit Committee, and she appears at all these meetings to give us very appropriate and sound advice. I talked initially about how we used to do finance in this place and how we now have proper systems in place, and much of the credit for that goes to Myfanwy. She has changed the system and brought us into line, with proper arrangements with which appropriately to run the finances of this place. We can all be pleased about that. I am sorry she is going, but I wish her well and thank her for what she has done for us. No doubt there will be opportunities to thank her again in Committee, but this is probably the only chance we will get in the wider forum of Parliament, so I would like to put that on record.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
I suspect that members of the Finance Committee will be wondering, “Who on earth is this guy? He isn’t the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts”. I bring the apologies of my hon. Friend Neil Gray, who had hoped to be here but has had to remain in Scotland due to family illness. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all of us here in Westminster when I wish him well.
When I spoke to my hon. Friend last night, he said he was grateful to me for taking on this speaking commitment about “one of the driest Committees in the House”, but I have to say that having sat through the debate, I have often found myself saying, “Be still my beating heart”. I sit on the Procedure Committee, so this is positively exciting—I might speak to my chief Whip to see whether I can get a swap. In all honesty, I am grateful to the Finance Committee for its report, which was very illuminating at one o’clock this morning when I read it. I will touch on that in a moment.
Chris Bryant is absolutely right about the need to be diligent about how we spend taxpayers’ money, and that the scrutiny of the process in the past has been less than satisfactory. Wearing my Procedure Committee hat, I know that there are issues with how Committees are set up—particularly after general elections, when the scrutiny is not there. The public look to us, as Members of Parliament, to lead that scrutiny. It takes several months at a time to get Committees up and running, and that is a very different context from that of the Finance Committee. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record.
The hon. Gentleman was also absolutely right to pay tribute to the Clerks and the House staff, who do a magnificent job—I know he intended to do that, although it came towards the end of his speech. I certainly felt that yesterday, when watching the chief Clerk chairing what was a very volatile day. We really do get our money’s worth out of those guys. The hon. Gentleman was right to place that on the record.
I shall sum up the contributions. Jim Shannon spoke about security and the importance of looking after our staff, not just in our constituency offices but here in the Palace—the staff here are the real heroes of the House. He went on to speak about restoration and renewal, which I will touch on, and he said that perhaps some of the issues could be solved if we withheld our payment from Europe. I am not necessarily sure he will find agreement from me on that.
I was not aware that Mr Betts had been on the Committee since 2005. If my heart is beating very fast from just one debate, goodness knows what that amount of time serving on the Committee does for the soul. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of learning from past mistakes, and had some fairly sage advice in regard to Portcullis House.
That brings me nicely to my own contributions to the debate. I have looked at the front page of the report and seen the draft estimates, or the financial plan to 2022-23. As a Scottish National party Member of Parliament, I make no apology for not intending to be here in 2023. That is not because I plan to lose my seat; it is because Luke Graham and I will be surplus to requirements, because Scotland will be an independent country and we will not need Members of Parliament down here. Perhaps that would be a good way of saving money.
The Minister is in her place; I have a standing engagement with her on Wednesday mornings, as Afzal Khan is trying valiantly to bring through a Bill that would stop the Government from reducing the number of Members from 650 to 600. It is interesting that the report talks about increased scrutiny throughout, whereas the Government are trying to reduce that scrutiny. Page 10 talks about what is probably the biggest elephant in the room: the decision to leave the European Union—well, it is not an elephant in the room, because we are all talking about it. We can clearly see that the implementation of that decision has an impact on the budgets in the report.
There are certain things for which the Scottish National party would clearly support increased budgets, some of which I have touched on, including security and perhaps the independent grievance process. However, I am accountable to my constituents back home, and I find myself talking to them about this place and the eye-watering sums being committed to restoration and renewal. The hon. Member for Rhondda spoke about building a replica Chamber; the fact that we are building a Chamber that looks exactly the same as the current one when that Chamber is so unfit for purpose sends a clear signal to ordinary members of the public.
We are recreating Division Lobbies that we can troop through. People regularly come to this place on tours, and I explain to them how we conduct our votes, walking through corridors—I mean, what an absolute waste of time! It is great that we have invested in the education centre, but the ironic thing is that when the children there cast their votes, they do so using an electronic keypad. How much time is wasted by the fact that we have Clerks sitting in the House for numerous votes as we walk around and around?
I sympathise with some of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman is making, particularly because at the moment, as I understand it, one in 10 Division lists is wrong. The new system is more difficult to use than the old paper system, although I am not arguing in favour of going back to the paper system. I like us gathering in the Lobbies, as it means we have an opportunity to see Ministers and all the rest, but by now we should be able to use our thumbs or our fingerprints to vote in the Division Lobbies, as we do for our phones, and still be counted through by the Tellers.
I have a huge admiration for the hon. Gentleman. He is one of the great custodians of the traditions of this House, and there is a place for respecting those. He has spoken about being in the Lobbies with Ministers as a great thing, but I can think of probably only one occasion when I have been in a Lobby with Ministers. As an Opposition MP, it makes not a jot of difference to me, because I am seldom in a Lobby with a Government Minister.
We have to think about how we are spending money. There has been some chat about the new fire doors that have been put in place; I managed to provoke a degree of ridicule—based on my part, largely—a couple of months ago when I had an interaction with the Chair of the Administration Committee, Sir Paul Beresford, who could not understand what I was saying. The point I was making was about disability access in this place.
We have just spent what was presumably a lot of money on upstanding fire alarms. I gather that the reason for that is the wiring in this place, but now a person cannot turn a corner in the main Palace because of these obstructive upstanding fire alarms. In one respect, we send strong signals about this place being fine for somebody with a disability, yet because we are trying to adhere to the customs of this place we have those ridiculous, massive alarms, which I suspect came at great cost.
I was speaking about restoration and renewal. I make no apology for the fact that I would be quite happy to see us decanted to a sports centre in Milton Keynes, although I know that, for some people, being on the banks of the Thames and in the big House of Commons is a status symbol.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about decanting to a sports centre in Milton Keynes. Would he be happy with decanting the Scottish Parliament to a sports centre in Glasgow or Perth? Of course, the construction of that building went 10 times over its planned budget. Rather than disrespecting the Parliament of our country—which it still is, unless the hon. Gentleman gets his way—he should focus on scrutiny, to make sure money is spent in the right way so that this Parliament is the most accessible Parliament for all the peoples of the United Kingdom.
I am very happy to stick to your guidance, Mr Howarth, and will not take any gratification from having managed to provoke a PPS into speaking from the Back Benches. The reality is that I would be happy for us to meet in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Liverpool. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire is fond of saying that this is the United Kingdom Parliament, but it seems to me that we are very London-centric, and some of these cost issues arise because we are so determined to be in the absolute centre of London.
I have already mentioned security issues; the hon. Member for Rhondda touched on some concerns, and I would echo some of them. There is clearly a focus on making sure that our security is very strong. I probably feel most secure when I am here in the Palace of Westminster; I feel a lot less secure when I am sitting in Baillieston library—that is not necessarily concern for my security, but for that of the staff who are with me. I am very happy to endorse the security budget.
I did not intend to speak for nine or 10 minutes, but it is possible to go down a rabbit warren on this subject, and it does get quite interesting. I will close by saying that at a time when austerity is not over, and our constituents are struggling with austerity, we need to be mindful about the decisions we make. As a fairly new Member of this House, I am not always convinced that we get value for money. Nevertheless, in all sincerity, I pay tribute to the Finance Committee for carrying out a job that I am sure can be very dry, but is none the less very important.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Much like David Linden, I came rather late to the honour of responding to this debate, and found myself at a late hour on Monday evening doing something completely different than I had planned. However, like him, I have found the debate fascinating, and I thank my hon. Friend Chris Bryant for leading it.
At the outset, I will highlight some areas of success. We often talk about areas of failure when we talk about such topics, but there have been areas of success over the last few years. However, I will first pick up on an area of great concern: the absence of a Finance Committee over a six-month period during an election period. I think that is something that we would like to hear about from the Minister.
As a lifelong NHS bureaucrat, I have had to come to some documents quite late in time. Yesterday evening, when I was given the report, I first turned to the appendix to see whether anything was hidden in there. True to form, in the planning for 2019-20 on page 11, in the high-level planning assumptions, the first thing I read was this:
“The political temperature is high and this may spill over into other areas”.
I trust that the Minister will be able to outline to us how she sees that working over the next couple of years.
I welcome the opportunity to debate these estimates, because as I said, I spent my previous life as an NHS manager, and I am also a former member of the Public Accounts Committee. In our public services and on the Public Accounts Committee, we expect public bodies to behave to the highest standards. We expect them to demonstrate good financial planning, monitoring and accountability, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, also to demonstrate value for money. My hon. Friend Mr Betts is a local government expert. Across the land, we expect our councils to demonstrate value for money, so it is imperative that we do so in this place.
We know that over the next few years Parliament faces a number of significant policy matters and events that will have a bearing on the budget. They include Brexit, restoration and renewal, the refurbishment of the northern estate, the review of the parliamentary archives accommodation, the implementation of the digital strategy, the significant increase in the employers’ pension contribution, pay and reward strategy beyond the current pay deal, enhancing security around the parliamentary estate, and developing cyber-security and technology infrastructure. It is quite a list.
The House debated and voted on restoration and renewal in January, and we would all agree that the Palace of Westminster is in need of restoration and renewal and that a number of issues need to be resolved. We have agreed the decant ahead of the refurbishment work and the work going on with the sponsor body, as we heard earlier. Anyone who has visited the basements and the full extent of this place will know how urgent that work is. A couple of years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting to look at those places. The conditions in which we are expecting people to operate to service this place and make it work are unacceptable. It is vital that that work continues.
Anyone who knows the history of when Mr Barry and Mr Pugin were doing the original work on this place will know that restoration and renewal is a huge project for the country that will elicit great interest, and it needs to be done properly. We have a massive opportunity for skills development, for apprenticeships, for good employment practices and for reviving great skills that have been lost in this country. We need to be an exemplar not only for the country, but for the world in how the work can be done to make this Parliament fit for the 21st and 22nd century, although we may lose the hon. Member for Glasgow East and his colleagues. Jobs and skills can be developed in Bristol, the Rhondda, Sheffield, Northern Ireland and Scotland. There is a massive opportunity for our country, and I would like to see us do that.
We have not discussed this important point in our Committee—it is important for the R and R project—but there will be an enormous shortage of staff, in particular to do some of the craft functions that will be needed around the building. We should be setting up parliamentary building apprenticeships in large numbers and ensuring that there are academies across the country so that every different constituency in the land has some investment in the restoration and renewal project.
I am grateful for that intervention. After I visited a couple of years ago, I did a report in my local newspaper on that very subject. There is great interest in our cities, regions and rural areas in some of the skills that have been lost. We can see when we visit those facilities—I remember seeing it in Sheffield—that in the past people could demonstrate pride in their work and imprint that in this place. It would be magnificent to see young people and older people throughout the country develop those skills and then bring them here to do that work, and there is great interest in that. It is about how we manage that positively but also, critically, demonstrate that we are doing so on a good cost basis and with value for money.
Security and access to the estate are important. Changes to the estate as a result of restoration and renewal and the northern estate programme will require additional resources and security measures. We all have strong memories of the March 2017 attack. A number of security projects have arisen from the Murphy review following that attack. We note that that work is due to be completed by summer 2021, but cyber-security remains a high risk. We know that from last week. The House will continue to face cost pressures from that, but security is critical to the work we do here.
The medium-term financial plan should enable the House service to support Parliament, deliver our specific objectives and demonstrate how the service will become increasingly effective and efficient over time. The strategy is currently being refreshed and the three existing strategic objectives are expected to be expanded to four: facilitating effective scrutiny and debate, involving and inspiring the public, securing Parliament’s future, and valuing every person. Those are important objectives.
The hon. Lady is talking about an important subject, and it is important that it is recorded in the debate. The traditions, history and procedures we have in the House are perhaps unique to this place, but they have been the inspiration for many other democracies across the world. I think Chris Bryant referred to that. It is so important that we retain those things in the House. We are a modern society, but we should also keep our traditions for democracies across the whole world.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I enjoy the traditions, and I agree in large part that they are important, but the evolution of new traditions is also important. I have visited the Scottish Parliament building and the Welsh Assembly this year. I have also been to Stormont twice. It was fairly quiet, but the building is magnificent, as are the others. I take on board the issue about cost, but we should be evolving by learning from all parts of the United Kingdom about how they are operating in a more modern setting. I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda talk about the learning from Parliaments across the world. There has to be a way of preserving some of those traditions while making them work for the later part of the 21st century and into the 22nd century, which none of us will be here for. I hope we can bequeath something good to those who follow.
The investment plan sets out the bicameral plans for investment in strategic programmes, estates and digital. As we have heard, the bulk of that work is split into three areas: work on the Elizabeth Tower and fire safety, which is something we all would welcome; work on the northern estate; and the restoration and renewal programme, which we have talked about. I echo the comments made previously. It is important that that work is transparent and that we understand how it is happening. I am slightly alarmed to hear some of the comments about how projects are managed and the difficulty the Committee has had in following some of the decision making and the finances. These are substantial projects and we need to be assured that they are being well planned and monitored and are value for money. I agree that discussion at least annually is valuable. I would be interested to hear from the Minister as to why that could not happen.
On the Public Accounts Committee, we visited the Major Projects Authority, which is part of the Cabinet Office, as the Minister will be well aware. The learning and understanding of how to manage major projects is great within parts of government. There needs to be a way of taking the learning from places such as the Major Projects Authority and the work going on in the Cabinet Office and making it applicable to the work of this place. It is not acceptable that we ask other people, other public bodies and spenders of taxpayers’ money to operate in one way and then we operate in another. Although I am late to it, I am slightly alarmed that that does not seem to be happening. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East said about looking at the role of National Audit Office. Its reports on decision making and accountability are very clear and easy to follow. If the NAO cannot find its way through it, something is clearly wrong.
In concluding, I thank all the staff who are involved in all aspects of the work to make this place operate. I thank members of the Finance Committee for publishing this report, for the important work they do behind the scenes, which most of us perhaps do not see, and for their diligence in bringing that work before us this morning. The Opposition support the recommendations of the Finance Committee and welcome the chance to debate and scrutinise this report.
I am sure that this cannot make up the full set of all those who were reading this report late last night in preparation for this morning’s debate. I thank hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions today, and I am pleased to be here to participate in this important debate on the House of Commons financial plan and draft estimates.
I apologise straight away that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is not here. By rights, she should be responding to this debate. I am happy to be here in her place, and I know she spoke last week to Chris Bryant, the Chair of the Finance Committee, to explain that she would not be able to be here today. She would like me to convey her apologies again this morning. She will be following the debate very closely through Hansard, and I will ensure that key points are brought to her attention.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this Westminster Hall debate. I pay tribute to his hard work in chairing the Finance Committee and his dedication to the work on the finances for this place. I also thank him for his work with the Government in the cross-cutting parts of the draft estimates where work needs to be done in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. As a member of the House of Commons Commission, she has asked me to thank the Finance Committee for its report, which represents the Committee’s provisional advice to the Commission, and the Members Estimate Committee for the 2019-20 to 2022-23 medium-term financial plan and the 2019-20 Administration and Members estimates. I am absolutely sure that she and all other members of the Commission and of the Estimate Committee will want carefully to consider the points made by Members today. I am also sure that they will want to carefully consider the thanks that have been expressed to the staff of the Committee and connected teams.
The Government continue to support a well-run House of Commons and share its drive to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the service. A high quality service in support of Members’ duties is integral to the success and strength of our democracy and supporting processes. It is vital that all of us—Members and their staff, staff of the House, and the public—see that this House is committed to the delivery of a service that is both first class and excellent value for money. Today’s debate invites the House to consider those issues.
The purpose of the debate is to give Members the opportunity to comment on the advice before it is finalised, as the hon. Member for Rhondda set out in his opening statement. This annual debate on the draft estimates began in the previous Parliament and took place in 2012, 2013 and 2014 in the main Chamber: a point made by Mr Betts. It subsequently fell into abeyance and so this is the first debate of its type in this Parliament. I know that the Chair of the Finance Committee submitted this as a Backbench Business debate, so we are here in Westminster Hall, but I hear the point about how it ought to be held in the Chamber. Perhaps that can be considered for the future. The fact that we are having this debate is to be welcomed because it allows the issues to be properly looked at in addition to the work of the Committees involved.
I want to thank Karin Smyth, David Linden, who spoke on behalf of Neil Gray, and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Sheffield South East for their contributions, in addition to the Chair of the Committee for setting out the issues.
A question was asked about why the two estimates are separate. It derives from legislation, so it could be regarded as a shared responsibility between the House and the Executive. It was argued that the two estimates could be combined, and there might be value in doing so. I understand that trying to merge them was the subject of a private Member’s Bill in 2016, when points were made on both sides of the argument. However, there was a desire from the Treasury to be able to continue to offer the right level of scrutiny and support to the House of Commons to be able to manage the expenditure, which would not be possible if the two estimates were merged. I am happy to ask colleagues to look further at those issues, which are not in my current brief.
How and to where will the Minister report back? It seems nonsensical. I cannot see why scrutiny should be any weaker if there is one estimate rather than two.
Indeed. I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to come back to the Chair of the Committee on that point so that it can be made clear.
On the question about the statutory footing of the Finance Committee compared with that which the House of Commons Commission enjoys, the Commission’s statutory footing gives it the authority that it needs to make the decisions that we ask of it, whereas the Finance and Administration Committees are advisory bodies. Clearly, there would need to be some consultation across the House to be able properly to scope such a decision to put those two advisory bodies on to a statutory footing. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is keen to see a more democratic governance structure, which goes back to a point that was also made during the debate. I think she will listen carefully to the points made today and will wish to come back to the Chair of the Committee on that point about the statutory footing.
I kind of get that the Finance Committee is advisory, as is the Administration Committee, but the only gritty examination of the finances is done by my Committee. I previously sat on the Commission and it simply does not have the time to devote to finances because it deals with hundreds of other issues, so it would be in our long-term interests to change that pattern. Also indicative is the fact that not a single member of the Commission is here today. I have no beef with either the shadow Leader of the House or the Leader of the House. I know they are busy in shadow Cabinet and Government Cabinet. I fully understand that, but it is not great when not a single member of the Commission is here.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting those points on the record today. It is helpful that this debate has taken place so that that can be done. I will absolutely make sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House responds and discusses the issues with him so that they get proper scrutiny.
On the question of how frequently the Committee has been able to meet and how frequently the debate has been able to take place, there is a general point about how quickly Select Committees can be set up in any new Parliament, and of course the Government wish to see that done as quickly as possible and would support promptness in that setting up. Again, I shall ask my right hon. Friend to look at that point.
There are two remaining points to deal with. One is that of Government pay scales being too restrictive to allow work to be done properly. I suspect that that sits in the discussions that need to take place on restoration and renewal rather than in this debate. Once again I will ensure that my right hon. Friend hears what has been said today. As a general point on the pay scales, they exist to try to get consistency across the public sector and value for money for the taxpayer, which are well understood and respected points. However, I hear what has been said today about the specialisms sometimes required in the work that needs to be done within restoration and renewal.
The hon. Member for Bristol South was very kind to acknowledge the good work done by the Major Projects Authority. I thank her for that and will pass it on to colleagues in my Department. She suggested that expertise could be shared and I will be happy to see what can be done on that.
On some other areas more generally that I know the Leader of the House would want me to touch on, the first is restoration and renewal. The Finance Committee’s report explains that the primary reason for the difference between this year’s and last year’s MTFP is because of the House’s decision earlier this year to support comprehensive restoration and renewal of the Palace. I know that the Leader of the House has been determined to get on with that job, and the Government published the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill in October, to give effect to the resolutions passed earlier this year.
The Bill will facilitate Parliament’s decision to set up a sponsor board and delivery authority to progress the comprehensive programme of works. It has been developed in close consultation with the House authorities and will, I hope, put in place the rigorous and transparent governance structure that we need to drive that work forward, while ensuring that we focus on value for money for the taxpayer. There cannot be a blank cheque for the work; the Government and Parliament agree that it must represent good value for money. We look forward to the report from the Joint Committee that is currently considering the draft Bill.
Following the work taken forward on a cross-party basis and led by the Leader of the House on bullying and harassment, the Government strongly welcome the provisions made, which are represented in the report, to support the introduction of the new independent complaints and grievance scheme. That is important to ensure better training, new human resources support and, crucially, the two new independent helplines and investigative services that underpin the new behaviour code. That is essential to ensure that we are supporting those who experience bullying or harassment, and to change the culture here in Westminster for the good, and for good.
I thank colleagues who have contributed to the debate, and emphasise just how useful it is for members of the commission and the Members Estimate Committee. Present or otherwise, I am sure that they will look at the debate carefully in Hansard. We can all agree that ensuring responsible and sustainable delivery of services for the House, while allowing for efficiency and value for money, is essential. I again thank the hon. Member for Rhondda, and I will ensure, as I have already undertaken, that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is made aware of today’s contributions.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed. I will respond to a few points, but first I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Betts; since my back was patted, I want to pat his too. The Finance Committee is not necessarily the Committee that one expects to join when one arrives in Parliament, but ensuring that we properly scrutinise our finances is one of the most important things that we do as MPs. It is not something that the House of Lords can do; we are there to do it, and we are therefore an important Committee. I am grateful for the longevity of my hon. Friend’s service. That always makes him grimace, because he thinks that I am paying tribute to him beyond the grave.
No, not quite. Anyway, I am grateful.
I will respond to some of the earlier comments about R&R, or whether we should value this building or go off to a park in Milton Keynes—people always choose Milton Keynes. The problem with the argument for moving out of here and going somewhere else entirely is that because our system has the Executive within the Parliament we would effectively have to take the whole of Government with us as well.
I know that people argue, as I have myself sometimes, that Britain is far too London-centric, and that too much of the economy is focused on London and the south-east. However, the truth is that moving the whole of Government out of London to some other place, building some massive building, buying an enormous site and then providing accommodation for all those people would be more expensive than staying here, not least because this is a world heritage site. It is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. We would still have to maintain it, even if we were going to hand it over to someone else anyway.
There would therefore be no cost saving. There may be political arguments, which I do not share, about the Union from David Linden, and about other elements. However, in the end I do not think that there is any real alternative that is financially advantageous to the taxpayer that involves moving us out of the Palace in the long run. The hon. Gentleman also said that we will build a Chamber exactly like the one we have at present. There may be many good reasons for changing the way in which we do our business, but restoration and renewal is not one of them.
If we want to make changes, that is perfectly within the will of the House, but it is up to the House to make those decisions, rather than to have them foisted upon us because of some kind of building project. As I understand it, the Clerks are already working on IT so that we will be able to vote in the Division Lobbies with our thumbprints or fingerprints, instead of having to walk through and tell them our names and all the rest of it.
As for the main substance of today’s debate, it is important that we scrutinise the finances of the House. They are not the biggest numbers in all Government expenditure, but they are very significant numbers, and over the next few years they will grow rapidly. One of the concerns of our Committee is that there is not much transparency about where decisions are made and whether they have been good decisions. As we move into the process of restoration and renewal, there is a danger that, if there is an extended period with a shadow Sponsor Board and a shadow delivery authority, where decisions are actually being made on very dramatic amounts of money will be even more opaque.
For instance, major decisions are being made on the northern estate project, which at the moment is not part of the restoration and renewal project, regarding the design, how many floors there should be, and what planning applications we should be submitting. Those decisions are currently being made somewhere between the Finance Committee, the accounting officer, and the commission. The shadow sponsor body will start to make key decisions, but, because it will not have statutory effect until the law is brought in, those decisions will have to be ratified by the Finance Committee advising the commission.
If that period goes on for too long, there is a danger that we will end up with bad decisions, uncertain outcomes and uncertain delivery of the project and the finances. The Government can make a material difference to that by introducing the legislation. We have it in draft form at the moment, and we are delighted that that has sped up a bit, thanks to the Leader of the House. However, we need to ensure that in the next Session we get on with passing that legislation as fast as possible.
The one caveat I add is that we should consider very carefully the fact that until 2004 the Palace, like all other royal palaces, was its own planning authority. Since 2004, we have not been our own planning authority, and we are subject to the planning decisions of Westminster City Council. We have a very good working relationship with the council at the moment, but in essence the project will completely dwarf its whole planning department. To all intents and purposes, we will be paying for a new planning department foisted on Westminster City Council. There is an argument for us saying, “Frankly, we should just have it in house, rather than being subject to Westminster City Council.”
I say that because one of the key decisions that is yet to be made concerns the lighting in Westminster Hall; I think that battle has been going on with the planning authorities for the best part of 12 years. That is why we still have hideous arc lamps on the side, on chunks of scaffolding poles, in one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. If we are unable to make timely decisions, we will end up making more expensive decisions. We need at least to examine whether we should make ourselves our own planning authority.
I am enormously grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate and, in particular, to Myfanwy and her team, who are admirable.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the House of Commons Financial Plan 2019-20 to 2022-23 and draft Estimates for 2019-20.