[Relevant documents: Forty-fifth Report of the Public Accounts Committee of Session 2016-17, Delivering Restoration and Renewal, HC 1005, Thirteenth Report of the Treasury Committee of Session 2016-17, Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: Preliminary Report, HC 1097.]
We now come to the debate on restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. Before I ask the Leader of the House to open the debate, it might be helpful if I explain the meaning of what is on the Order Paper and the implications of particular votes, so that there is clarity at the outset and no one is under any misapprehension.
Motions 5, 6 and 7 on the Order Paper will be debated together. I inform the House that I have selected the amendments that are listed on the Order Paper. I will shortly invite the Leader of the House to move motion 5 on Restoration and Renewal (Report of the Joint Committee). Debate may continue for up to three hours. At the end of the debate on motion 5, it is expected that the Leader of the House will move formally the Restoration and Renewal (No. 1) motion. I will then call Members to move the selected amendments for decision without any further debate.
If the Restoration and Renewal (No. 1) motion is not agreed to, I expect the Leader of the House to move formally the Restoration and Renewal (No. 2) motion. I will then call Members to move the selected amendments for decision without further debate. If the Restoration and Renewal (No. 1) motion is agreed to, the Restoration and Renewal (No. 2) motion will fall and neither it nor the amendments to it will be moved.
I think that, among my perspicacious and highly intelligent colleagues, there is no need for puzzlement. It is all pretty clear if they look at the Order Paper, but if any right hon. or hon. Member proclaims ignorance of the meaning of these matters, that Member can always beetle along to the Chair at a suitable moment and seek enlightenment. I am sure, however, that they are all far too sagacious to require that.
I beg to move motion 5,
That this House has considered the report of the Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster (HL Paper 41, HC 659 of Session 2016-17).
With this we shall consider the following:
Motion 6—Restoration and Renewal (No. 1)—
That this House–
(1) affirms its commitment to the historic Palace of Westminster and its unique status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Royal Palace and home of our Houses of Parliament;
(2) takes note of the report of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster 'Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster', HL Paper 41, HC 659;
(3) accepts that there is a clear and pressing need to repair the services in the Palace of Westminster in a comprehensive and strategic manner to prevent catastrophic failure in this Parliament, whilst acknowledging the demand and burden on public expenditure and fiscal constraints at a time of prudence and restraint;
(4) accepts in principle that action should be taken and funding should be limited to facilitate essential work to the services in this Parliament;
(5) agrees to review before the end of the Parliament the need for comprehensive works to take place.
Motion 7—Restoration and Renewal (No. 2)—
That this House–
(1) affirms its commitment to the historic Palace of Westminster as the permanent home of both Houses of Parliament;
(2) takes note of the report of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster 'Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster', HL Paper 41, HC 659;
(3) agrees that there is a clear and pressing need to repair the services in the Palace of Westminster in a comprehensive and strategic manner to prevent catastrophic failure; including steps to safeguard the safety of visitors, schoolchildren, staff and members;
(4) notes that works in the Palace should commence as early as possible in the next decade;
(5) authorises necessary preliminary work required to avoid unnecessary delay, without prejudice to a parliamentary decision on the preferred option;
(6) endorses the Joint Committee’s recommendation that a Sponsor Board and Delivery Authority be established by legislation to commission and oversee the work required, and the establishment of a joint Commission to lay estimates;
(7) agrees that steps be taken now to establish a shadow Sponsor Board and shadow Delivery Authority, and to ensure that its members have a range of relevant expertise;
(8) instructs the shadow Sponsor Board and Delivery Authority to undertake a sufficiently thorough and detailed analysis of the three options of full decant, partial decant and retaining a parliamentary foothold in the Palace during a full decant; to decide whether each option properly balances costs and benefits, and whether or not the identified risks can be satisfactorily mitigated; to prepare a business case for the preferred option for the approval of both Houses of Parliament; and thereafter to proceed to the design phase;
(9) instructs the shadow Sponsor Board and Delivery Authority to apply high standards of cost-effectiveness and demonstrate value for money, and to include measures to ensure: the repair and replacement of mechanical and electrical services, fire safety improvement works, the removal of asbestos, repairs to the external and internal fabric of the Palace, the removal of unnecessary and unsightly accretions to the Palace, the improvement of visitor access including the provision of new educational and other facilities for visitors and full access for people with disabilities;
(10) instructs the shadow Sponsor Board and Delivery Authority to ensure the security of Members, Peers, staff, and visitors both during and after the work;
(11) affirms that in any event the delivery option must ensure that both Houses will return to their historic Chambers after any essential period of temporary absence.
This debate arguably should have taken place about 40 years ago, so I can say that I am delighted that here we are today, finally discussing the future of the Palace of Westminster. There are difficult decisions to make on how we best protect one of the world’s most iconic buildings for future generations, but we must address those decisions head on.
In any mention of this topic, I am sure the House would like to join me in first paying tribute to the excellent work done by the Joint Committee on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and the right hon. Baroness Stowell of Beeston. A number of members of that Committee are present in the Chamber today, and the House owes them, along with the restoration and renewal programme team and our engineers, a debt of gratitude. Their work, and that of our colleagues in the other place, has laid the foundations for the House to take an informed decision on this important issue.
The Palace of Westminster is the seat of our democracy, an iconic, world-famous building—and it is in dire need of repair. Both motions and all amendments on the Order Paper recognise the need for that work. Anyone who has read the report of the Joint Committee will be aware of the two core difficulties we face. The first is one that none of us can shy away from: the costs associated with a programme of works of this magnitude will be significant. While it is our responsibility to safeguard this UNESCO world heritage site, it is equally our responsibility to ensure value for taxpayers’ money. We have been clear that there can be no blank cheque for this work, and value for taxpayers’ money will frame the choices we make today.
The second issue is the state of disrepair within this building. The issue is not a structural one. As the Clerk of the House noted in his evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, the building is believed to be
“beautifully built and structurally sound.”
The problem, rather, is the services infrastructure that supports the ever-increasing and shifting demands of Parliament—and it is under considerable strain.
Since 1850, we have developed the hotch-potch of pipework and wiring to such an extent that our essential services are now aging faster than it is possible to repair them. Much of the building is supported by infrastructure that is still in place decades after the substantial rebuild of the Palace following the second world war.
In truth, work is going on the whole time, whether we are sitting or not, to manage essential repairs. Of course, the engineers are able to get on with more work when we are not here, but the reality is that we have to take a serious decision today about the future for generations to come, as opposed to the patch and mend that has been going on not just for a couple of years, but for 40 years and more.
It sounds as if it is a free vote, and all Members are free to make the choice they wish to make.
There are some critical risks in the Palace of Westminster. First, the lack of fire compartmentation increases the risk of fire, meaning that 24-hour fire patrols are necessary to keep us safe. Over the past 10 years, 60 incidents have had the potential to cause a serious fire. Secondly, there is a huge amount of asbestos packed into the walls that needs to be carefully and expensively removed to enable repairs. Thirdly, many pipes and cables are decades past their lifespan, with some now being impossible to access. The likelihood of a major failure grows the longer the systems are left unaddressed.
As a doctor, I know that asbestos is dangerous when it is exposed, not when it is hidden and packed in walls. To what extent does asbestos hidden and packed in the walls, where it is not disturbed, act as quite good fireproofing for the building?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that I am really not qualified to answer, but I agree that the health risk is in moving and removing asbestos.
As Leader of the House, I work closely with the Clerk, the Director General and others who are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of those in this building to ensure that risks are minimised. There are more than 7,500 people working in Parliament, and we welcome 1 million visitors each year, including many schoolchildren. Nevertheless, keeping everyone safe is becoming a growing challenge with each passing year.
That is one point that I must confess I fail to understand. We hear the Armageddon scenario that we are going to be washed away in slurry, burnt to death or electrocuted, and yet we have thousands of visitors from the public in this place every day. I see no signs to say, “Welcome to the death trap.”
My hon. Friend raises the core issue. We make every effort on the House Commission and through the House authorities, the Clerks, the Director General and the engineers to keep this place safe. We have all the certificates required to evidence that we keep this place safe. The point is that it gets harder to achieve that safety with every year that passes. That is the key point that we are seeking to resolve.
Would it be wise to have thousands of visitors coming into a building where the walls have been opened and asbestos is floating around in the atmosphere? What recourse will members of the public have should they get illnesses as a result, given that there is supposedly Crown immunity in this building?
As I have made clear, that would not be allowed to happen. We take every step possible to minimise risks. We do not take risks with people’s health and safety. We do not wish to do that. The point I am making is that with every year that passes, it gets more difficult to manage.
What is the next step? Just as the need for works is pressing, so too is the need to be sure that we are acting in the right way, with the right planning and design capabilities in place. The way forward on R and R must be supported by the House. At the same time, we have to be able to justify to our constituents and to taxpayers that we are doing what is necessary to safeguard the Palace of Westminster and that we have thoroughly examined the costs.
I have listened carefully to Members, and I thank all those who have come to drop-in sessions, explored the basements and toured the Palace with the R and R team. I have reflected on all the amendments proposed to the motions I tabled the week before last. Today, there are very clear options before the House.
I turn first to motion No. 1. This motion recognises that, given the scale of the challenge ahead of us, Members must first consider the vast cost associated with any programme of work. With competing demands on our public services, and calls for capital investment in other areas, Parliament will want to think carefully about the impact this will have on the taxpayer, and may ultimately choose to limit spending on the Palace to essential repairs. The case for further work to be done is, however, compelling, and it is important that we do not impede future progress in any decision made today. So this first option also agrees to reviewing the need for comprehensive works before the next general election.
The full cost of an R and R programme under this scenario would not be incurred until late into the next decade.
Does the Leader of the House accept, after all that she has said up to this point, that there is no cheap option here? If the public think, or if the press think, that we can find a cheap option, they are deluded. There is necessary work that needs to be done, and necessary money that needs to be spent.
The right hon. Lady is quite rightly talking about other people, outside this place, who have a concern and have an interest. When I inquired, at the display table this afternoon, what consultation had taken place with the many thousands of people who work in this building, I was told, “None.” I was told that senior stakeholders were consulted but the workforce were not. What answer does she have? Is it not correct that the people who work here have no voice here this afternoon?
There has been much extensive consultation, formal and informal, over many years, so that is not the case. In fact, reports from the Joint Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Committee, and the recent financial and explanatory memorandums, have all been useful tools for Members and staff of this place, who wish to acquaint themselves further with the issues around cost and complexity. These documents have also made clear the wide range of views on costs and varying approaches to the works.
As someone who served on the R and R Committee, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) that there was consultation, and we were very keen that the staff of the Palace were very much involved in this whole process.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clarification and grateful to him also for his contribution to the Joint Committee.
That brings me to motion No. 2. If the House accepts that it will bear the cost from the taxpayer’s purse, it will be concluding that the work should be undertaken only on the basis of the most robust cost assessments possible. So the second motion seeks to establish an Olympic-style delivery authority, overseen by a sponsor board that will have a majority of members who are parliamentarians. That would produce up-to-date, fully costed proposals for restoration and renewal as soon as possible. The establishment of an Olympic-style delivery authority with external professionals will guard against unacceptable cost and timetable overruns of the sort that we saw with the Elizabeth Tower refurbishment.
If these proposals are to be agreed by the House, can I implore this place to become its own planning authority, so that we are not dependent on the Greater London Authority or Westminster City Council; and not only to be our own planning authority, but to extend that remit to areas such as Parliament Square and even Abingdon Street?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I think part of the role of the delivery authority will be to look at the best combination of cost, respect for our parliamentary democracy and, of course, the right solution for this Palace, which is what this debate is all about.
If motion No. 2 is successful, the sponsor board and delivery authority must consider three options: first, full decant; secondly, partial decant with access to one Chamber at all times; and thirdly, full decant with a parliamentary foothold, allowing for parliamentary access during the works, such as to Westminster Hall and Elizabeth Tower. It is important to note that the second motion before the House today does not commit to a final decision. By asking a delivery authority to further evaluate those three options, parliamentarians and the public can be confident that the delivery authority will take into account the risks, costs and benefits of each approach, as well as accommodating the needs of our parliamentary democracy, before recommending its final, preferred, fully costed option in 12 to 18 months’ time. The motion allows those who support the Joint Committee’s recommendations to see them properly stress-tested.
For the clarification of Members, motion No. 2 differs from amendment (b) to motion No. 1 in two key ways. First, the amendment recommends a single option of full decant. The first problem with this is the lack of decant accommodation available to us under the current plans until 2025. The amendment does not allow us to proceed any quicker with a full programme of work than motion No. 2 allows for. The second problem is the fact that the Joint Committee report itself acknowledged that, while recommending full decant, it had not fully costed that option. Amendment (b) therefore does not settle the issue of value for taxpayers’ money.
But the problem is that neither motion makes a decision, and in the end this place is here to make decisions on behalf of the nation. It is time we got a grip and made a decision. I do not mind what the decision is in the end, but make a decision we must, surely to God.
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s perspective on this, but the reality is that we have to look at the best value for taxpayers’ money, not simply at the one proposal made by the Joint Committee, which it acknowledged it had not fully costed. To quote the Joint Committee report:
“We recognise that there is still work to be completed in order to validate our conclusions.”
The costs allocated were not budgets for the programme, and there are real concerns around value for taxpayers’ money arising from the hon. Gentleman’s amendment.
The right hon. Lady is seeking to say that her motions suggest better value for the taxpayer, but if we make a decision with three options that have to be fully worked up and costed, that will mean a considerable cost in time and taxpayers’ money. However, making a decision now, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, will mean that we can get on with it, set the path forward and get value for taxpayers.
I am sorry, but I must absolutely disagree with the hon. Lady. The problem with going for the one solution that she suggests is that the Joint Committee itself made it clear that it had not fully costed the options or even considered the options for fully decanting both Houses. She is also wrong, as is the amendment, on the grounds of the capability for full decant. If Members consider the challenge of decanting from this place, what exactly are they proposing? The planning that will go into fully decanting potentially 7,500 people—the works of art, the furniture, the books—will take a considerable amount of time in itself. That has to be properly planned, properly costed and properly evaluated, so the option for partial decant could, potentially, be a better, more valued option for the taxpayer than the proposal for full decant.
The delivery authority that my right hon. Friend has described will, she said, contain a majority of parliamentarians. For the sake of clarity, can she tell the House whether the parliamentarians will be allowed to vote, or will all kinds of other people be able to vote on our future too?
The sponsor body will, in effect, be the client of the delivery authority. The delivery authority will be made up of professionals who have expertise in a project of this size and the historical expertise we would need to be able to look at how best to resolve the problem. Parliamentary involvement in the sponsor body will ensure that the views of parliamentarians are taken into account at all points, until the delivery authority comes back to both Houses for a final vote.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way—she is getting a lot of requests. On the subject of decanting, and just for the record—I will speak to this later—the House should know that until very recently there was a contract with Church House, under which, should we have needed to decant at short notice in an emergency, which can happen at any time, Church House had always stood ready to accommodate Parliament, as it did during the second world war.
My right hon. Friend raises a very important point about an emergency decant from this place. The security advice is that it is not safe these days for MPs to be coming in and out of the secure parliamentary state, so that would rule out a decant option off the estate. Secondly, and very importantly, on the day before the recess I attended—as I think you did, Mr Speaker—the emergency decant preparations done by the House in the event of the sudden need to move from this place, so those preparations are going ahead. However, what we are talking about here is about being out of this place for a significant length of time, so options such as Church House would simply not be suitable.
I am very grateful to the Lord President of the Council for giving way. I was on the restoration and renewal Committee, and the conclusion that we came to, preliminarily favouring a complete decant, was based on the assumption that a temporary Chamber could be put up in Richmond House. We now understand that the measurements we were given which led to that conclusion were wrong, and that Richmond House would have to be pulled down completely. That is a completely different cost basis, and I for one would not have come to that conclusion had we known the true picture.
My hon. Friend raises another key point, which is that the options for decant have recently been examined by the House Commission, with all the various options for refurbishing the northern estate, which many hon. and right hon. Members will know is also in dire need of refurbishment and work on the mechanical and electrical facilities. My hon. Friend is exactly right to point out that, in terms of Richmond House, and having costed the different alternatives, it now becomes clear that to knock down all but the grade I listed facade and to rebuild the building behind it is, in fact, the one solution that has the same cost estimates attached to it as all the various temporary solutions. Yet that project—rebuilding Richmond House—would give a permanent legacy, with better Committee Rooms, more accommodation for staff in this place and a proper business contingency Chamber, as well as offering a solution for the decant.
I am going to make some progress, and then I will take some more interventions.
Crucially, the approval of an arm’s length sponsor board and delivery authority allows the project to be led by those with the necessary skills and the experience of delivering large-scale projects. On behalf of Parliament, the sponsor board will oversee the work of the delivery authority. As it will be crucial for Members’ views to inform and shape the programme as it develops, parliamentarians will have a majority of members on the board. In short, motion No. 2 invites the House to make a clear statement about the need to act with urgency, but it also ensures that a rigorous and professional business case will be drawn up that will provide confidence to Members and to the public.
I will just continue for a moment.
If the second motion is carried today, the final recommendation, fully costed, of the sponsor board and delivery authority will come back to this House in 12 to 18 months for a vote. Following that vote, the House-approved business case would immediately progress to the design phase.
The Palace of Westminster will, in all cases, remain the home of our Parliament. That has always been the plan. To make it absolutely clear to all hon. and right hon. Members, full or partial decant will not take place until 2025 at the earliest.
The Leader of the House is completely right that we do not yet have anything like enough information to evaluate which option the House should now pursue. I was predisposed to support the decant proposal, but I regret to tell the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), that I took my name off her amendment, having done some preparation for this debate. I do not think we begin to have the information, but setting up the delivery authority is a no-brainer for a project of this scale and nature.
I say a huge thank you to my right hon. Friend and her team for all their excellent work, but does she not agree that the time for talking is over? We have to grasp this do the right thing. I cannot believe I am going to say this, but in this instance, in supporting amendment (b), absolutely everybody vote leave.
I thank my right hon. Friend for joining that sentiment. I point out that in terms of progress of work, neither motion 2 nor amendment (b) is suggesting any faster progress. As I set out, the difference between them is that amendment (b) offers only one solution. The motion 2 offers the opportunity to discuss the best combination of value for taxpayers’ money as well as solutions for parliamentarians.
Leaving aside for a second the merits and demerits of supporting the project or not, the Leader of the House and others have stressed the desperate urgency for this work to be carried out. Why on earth, then, have the Government prevaricated and wasted 18 months in getting this debate to the Floor of this House, before even getting it to the House of Lords?
There has been no waste of time. There has been consultation, and work has been ongoing to make some vital repairs. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that the cast-iron roofs are being repaired—[Interruption.] No, he must appreciate that there is a need to consult, look at different options and make the right assessment. This decision could, and probably should, have been taken 40 years ago. I do not accept his accusation that there has been any prevarication, and certainly not on my watch.
On the subject of value for money, does the Leader of the House share my concern that, actually, a decant has already happened? The essential maintenance work that is due to happen around the cloisters, which are heavily damaged, for which offices have already been evacuated, has been brought to a halt, with expensive equipment shoring up the stonework of this place. No date for getting on with it has yet been set. That is a huge waste of money and does not bode well for getting on with the more substantive project we are discussing today.
My hon. Friend makes two important points. One is that we do need to get on with it, and the second concerns the importance of planning for this. It is vital that we get good value for taxpayers’ money. Roughly, the projections show that we will be spending £90 million a year, of which roughly half will be throwaway once we get on with R and R, and the other half will be work that needs to be done anyway and will not be throwaway. They are the sorts of numbers we are looking at. We do need to get on and take a decision, but we must fully cost the best value for taxpayers’ money.
I have listened closely to the very real concerns expressed by colleagues—that in some way we might be forced out, never to return to this place. Both of today’s motions are intended to make it explicit that this is not, and will not be, the case. To put the matter beyond doubt, and recognising the depth of concerns from some colleagues, I am happy to confirm today that were the House to agree that we must take action now, the commitment to returning to the Palace will be enshrined in the legislation that the Government will subsequently introduce to set up the sponsor body and delivery authority. It will be on the face of the Bill, putting the matter beyond doubt.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify something? If we adopt the idea of a delivery authority—I take the point my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) made about it being, in many ways, a no-brainer—will it not mean that in 18 months we get a simple “take it or leave it” decision? We will either accept what the delivery authority says or reject it completely. Would it not be better if the delivery authority did the proper costings he rightly said were needed so that we could then make an informed choice?
My hon. Friend is exactly right: that is what the delivery authority would do. It would look at the best combination of options—value for taxpayers’ money along with the right solutions for the restoration and renewal of the Palace—and come back, in 12 to 18 months, with its recommended option, which would then be put to the House for a final “take it or leave it” vote.
I do not think it is frustration. I think my right hon. Friend may have misunderstood a point I made in my lengthy question. Is it not the case that we will not be able to choose from a number of options put forward by the delivery authority, but will have either to accept its recommendation or to start from square one, which would not be satisfactory?
Nevertheless, Mr Speaker, I am delighted to answer my hon. Friend, because it is an important point. The whole purpose of the sponsor board having a majority of parliamentarians on it is to ensure that throughout the deliberations of the delivery authority it can take soundings from parliamentarians, and it will be the sponsor board and the delivery authority that will finally decide on the best combination outcome to put to both Houses for a final vote.
I have set out the options before the House. This is a matter for Parliament, rather than the Government, and for my party—and, I think, for all parties—it will be a free vote.
I am very grateful. It is on a point of clarification and information of general interest. In the costings for the grander scheme—where we leave these premises—how much of the cost is for essential replacements and renewals, and how much is for the nice-to-have additions and changes?
My right hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. About 75% of the cost of the works to the Palace of Westminster is for work that is non-cosmetic—it will be dealing with mechanical and engineering works, the fire risks, and so on—but aimed at preserving essential services for future generations. We have a duty to do it. This is not about carpets and curtains, but about profound and essential services, for the largest part.
I will not give way any more.
The Government do not have a position on this and will respect the views of the House, but as a Member myself I would like to take a moment to share my own position on this very important subject. When I became Leader of the House, I took on the restoration and renewal project with a healthy degree of scepticism. I, like many, felt that the case for a major restoration programme had probably been overstated, that the Palace looked fine and that we could continue to patch and mend as we went along, as we have done for many decades. However, during my seven months in the job, I have, as they say, gone on a journey. I have lived and breathed this topic. I have visited the basement and seen for myself what our engineers are up against.
Should a catastrophic failure happen in this place, I want to look back to this moment and know that I chose to protect the Palace for future generations. I want to be clear that we do everything we can to minimise the risks this building faces, but we must recognise that as time passes without comprehensive action those risks only increase. My role has brought me close to the heart of these issues, and I am not the only Leader of the House to have arrived at this view: both of my predecessors, my right hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) and for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), share my desire to take action. Today I will be voting to take action. I will be voting for motion No. 2.
I thank the Leader of the House for her comprehensive speech about this very important issue. I was pleased to learn that the two motions tabled in her name are amendable; I had previously thought that they were not. I agree with her that we need to take action immediately, and I feel that amendment (b) to motion No. 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), will enable us to make an immediate decision.
I want to deal with three main issues. The first is the issue of the reports that have been published. A Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons was appointed by both Houses in July 2015. It took evidence, and a report was published on 8 September 2016. The Committee deliberated, and reached the conclusion that there should be a full decant of Parliament because that was the most cost-effective option. The Committee proposed that there should be a shadow delivery authority, a sponsor board, and updated costings. A second report was published by the Public Accounts Committee on 10 March 2017. The PAC endorsed the Joint Committee’s recommendation. In particular, it said that the feasibility of a full decant must be demonstrated clearly and beyond reasonable doubt, with a comprehensive risk analysis, before a final decision was made. Both reports were produced on a cross-party basis, and I thank the Committee members in both Houses for all their deliberation and hard work.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, whichever option we choose, it is important that we do not break the 1,000-year link between the governance of the country and this site, and that we should therefore have a debating Chamber on this site while the restoration works continue?
I will come to the issue of what will happen about a debating Chamber on this site, but I am afraid I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the link might be broken through factors beyond our control. We would be forced to leave if there were a fire, or any other act of God.
I thank the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), who did try to find time for a debate. As I said earlier, the PAC’s report was published in March—I emphasise that date—and I then had a conversation with the right hon. Gentleman, who was very keen to get the debate going, but what we had not realised was that the hills were alive with the sound of a general election. As a result of the election, the response to the report was not made by the Government.
Will the hon. Lady confirm my understanding—this is really in response to what was said by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—that we cannot bind our successor Parliaments, whether in legislation or by other means, to abide by any measure that we pass? It can be revoked, and it can be changed. Is that also the hon. Lady’s understanding? Many of those who take my position on the issue fear very much that were we to leave this place, 101 reasons would be found for why we could not return.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we cannot bind future Parliaments, but I disagree with his other point. I think that when he has heard the rest of what I have to say, he will recognise that that is not the case.
The second issue is that there are new threats. Security, as well as safety, is now a key factor. While work is taking place in Norman Shaw North, Norman Shaw South and Derby Gate under the northern estates programme, all the security considerations will be taken into account. We know what happened at Westminster on 22 March. Our friend and protector PC Keith Palmer died; we were in lockdown. For all sorts of reasons, we need a contingency Chamber. The northern estates programme is on to that; discussions are ongoing with Westminster Council and they have been quite productive. Since the Department of Health and Social Care has now moved out into Victoria Street, it may well be possible to use the space behind the façade of Richmond Terrace, and that could very well be our contingency Chamber; it will become the contingency Chamber when we move back to the House.
Does the shadow Leader agree that amendment (b) guarantees that all Members will return to this site under paragraph (8)? That is essential for anyone who loves the history of this site; they recognise that coming back here is important, but if they really care about the historic nature of this site, we will make sure it is maintained for future generations by properly restoring this building.
The hon. Gentleman sums it up perfectly, and I cannot add anything more to that.
The governance of the project is another major area of concern. There will be a sponsor body and a delivery authority. We had a very helpful seminar, which we might be able to set up for Members. It looked at the two successful projects of Crossrail and the 2012 Olympics and how the sponsor body and the delivery authority were set up and operated; we on the House of Commons Governance Committee, which I sat on, heard from Sir David Higgins on how he operated with those two bodies. He said he spent time building up the relationship and the two bodies acted in concert. As Members will know, Baroness Jowell was, when a Member of this House, successful in ensuring the delivery of a very successful Olympics. I know the situation now is slightly different as we do not have an end-date as we did with the Olympics, but Sir David Higgins made it very clear that so long as the professionals, who will be on the delivery authority, have a Gantt chart—I did not know what it meant then, but I do now—so there is a timeframe and the costs are allocated, there should not be any need for any overrun.
What does the hon. Lady say to the argument that if Members were still somewhere in this place, they would be able to have far greater oversight of the works in progress, which would incentivise the building works, because if we decant that incentive goes away?
As with everything, we do delegate things to people—we do delegate things to professionals. I am pretty sure it would be impossible for 650 Members to have their say on how this place operates. That is why we have the delivery authority and the sponsor body.
Does the hon. Lady understand the concern I raised with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House: if we leave it to the delivery authority, with just a few Members on it, and we end up with a take-it-or-leave-it decision to make, the final decision will in effect be made by the delivery authority, and not really by this House? I used to build radio stations and did a re-equip of Broadcasting House and other things, so I have some small experience in this, and in reality there will be choices to be made. Of course we want the data from the delivery authority, but this House should finally make the choice between a number of alternatives, not just have a take-it-or-leave-it one.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me his resumé. Perhaps he is suggesting that he should be on the sponsor body. Actually, it is the delivery authority, which has the experts on it, that will be accountable to the sponsor body. The sponsor body will have Members on it, and they will be the custodians and guardians of the project.
The two biggest projects in this country in the past few years have been the Olympic games, which involved a complicated build and had to be delivered on time, and Crossrail. As the hon. Lady rightly says, Sir David Higgins was involved in both those projects, and they were both delivered on time and to budget. We have got better at this, and following that particular procedure is by far the best way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) asked about the delivery authority and who will make the decisions. It is clear that that authority will make many critical decisions and, as the hon. Lady says, it will contain experts. Will those experts be voting members? Will they take key decisions? Or will it just be the parliamentarians who will be voting members on the authority?
The delivery authority, with its experts, will carry out the day-to-day work. They are the experts in every aspect. Members here have other jobs to do, and they will be on the sponsor body. However, the delivery authority will be accountable to the sponsor body. As I have explained, Sir David Higgins is an absolute expert at this, and he ensured that both the projects that have just been mentioned were successful.
May I just finish addressing some of the issues that have been raised?
Some Members have asked whether we could move one Chamber at a time. Anyone who has visited the basement, as many Members have, will have seen all the wires and pipes. When the new technology was put in place, it was a patchwork effect. For example, the wi-fi was just slapped on, alongside the pipes. Those systems run along the whole building. Fires and floods do not respect any boundaries between the House of Lords in the House of Commons; for them, this is just one building, so if work has to be done, it has to be done to the whole building.
I took part in the basement tour yesterday. It was made clear to us that a significant amount of the asbestos had been removed over the past few years, adequately and safely, while we remained here and while members of the public were able to use the building safely. Does that not illustrate the fact that significant repairs can be carried out while we are here, safe and well protected?
The asbestos is just one aspect of this. We are talking about much more than that. We are talking about electrical cables, water pipes and all sorts of things including the telecoms system, so it goes well beyond just the asbestos. May I just say for the record that the place is safe? We would not allow people into the building unless the accounting officer was convinced that members of the public and parliamentarians were safe. That has nothing to do with the fact that the work needs to be done, but please do not let us give everyone the impression that this is not a safe place.
Turning to costs, the Public Accounts Committee has said that weak governance would increase costs and that good governance would cover that. The Committee recommended that the National Audit Office should have a role in this, and the Committee and the NAO will work to ensure that best value for money is achieved. As I have said, the delivery authority will be accountable to the sponsor body, which will have Members on it.
That is absolutely right. As we have seen from Crossrail and from the Elizabeth Tower project, we never know what we are going to find. The Elizabeth Tower had structural issues, which was why the costs increased. With Crossrail, they actually found bodies. We do not know what they are going to find under here. There might be the odd monarch or two, or perhaps the odd Member or two following the basement visit. Who knows?
Yes, Boris’s mummy. [Laughter.] Not another Johnson! Although people say something similar about me, too.
Blacklisting has been mentioned, and some Members referred to a certain company that may have been involved with the Elizabeth Tower project. That would be a matter for the delivery authority, but things clearly need to be tightened up because blacklisting is against the law. The project will obviously require specialists, but fewer and fewer companies offer such skills, so we need to consider the heritage issues.
I declare an interest in that I am chair of the all-party parliamentary Crossrail group. Artefacts may be found and important discoveries may be made when the work is done, so can we ensure, just as with Crossrail, that the work is not done in such a way that will destroy the historic things that could be added to the displays about the heritage of our Parliament?
I absolutely agree. I have a daughter who studied archaeology, so I know about that. I also have a friend who is an engineer on Crossrail who got very cross with the archaeologists, but this is about our heritage and it is important that we protect it.
Another question that arose was, “What will our constituents say?” Well, this work is necessary for safety, and everyone agrees about that. We need to do the work now and it cannot be delayed, because any delay will just increase the costs. We will also be investing in skills for the future.
I had the opportunity to go to Canada, where exactly the same is being done. A chamber is being built in the courtyard, and it is extremely impressive. However, the Canadians also have a long-term vision and a plan that came from looking at the work that must be done to Government buildings over the next 10 years, which is something that we should certainly consider.
The shadow Leader of the House mentions the work taking place at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa and the temporary chamber that is being built in one of its courtyards. If there is to be a full decant of this place, does she agree that a temporary chamber should be built within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster to ensure that there is parliamentary footprint on this historic site, even just once a year?
That is where some of the misinformation has arisen. We may be leaving this building, but we are not leaving the parliamentary estate. We will be around. We are going to be here.
I do not know whether Members have seen the helpful memorandum by the accounting officer on the costings for options 1 and 2, but I hope that further costings will be drawn up if any amendment is passed.
In conclusion, we have a duty to protect this beautiful heritage building in which we all work. We have the chance to upskill people and to showcase our skilled workforce to the rest of the world. We can train the engineers of the future and encourage more women and girls into this area. There are 11-year-olds today who could be the apprentices working on this building, and they would be able to say to their children and grandchildren, “I worked on Parliament.” We can make Parliament truly accessible for people with disabilities. What a legacy it would be if we could move the education centre, the lease on which will be running out, to the contingency chamber. We will have more meeting rooms and an up-to-date, compliant building. We could leave behind a great legacy in skills and in civic pride. We will be able to do our work here safely and securely on behalf of our constituents in their Parliament.
I am aware that we are already one hour into this three-hour debate and that there are lists upon lists of people who want to speak, so I will not take interventions and will be as succinct as possible.
This building is probably more important to me than to many here, because I come from an ethnic minority Commonwealth background and was brought up looking at the photographs of this fantastic building. It is a real honour to be here, so it was a shock when I became aware of the disaster that lurks around us, below us and above us. I believe we need a full decant because of the nature of the building’s infrastructure.
Most Members will be aware that the House has a basement, which has a long passageway that runs the length of the building. There are 86 vertical chimneys running from that passageway and they were originally designed for ventilation. That of course means a fire could travel laterally and vertically extremely quickly. At present, the chimneys carry a mass of electrical services of varying age, many of them clearly defective. We have gas pipes, air conditioning conduits, steam pipes, telephone systems, communications fibres and, of course, a hugely overloaded sewerage system, which I understand the Leader of the House discovered to her mishap—possibly through her shoes—when she visited.
The infrastructure serves the whole building from end to end, moving up through the chimneys, and there is a small duplication in the roof. In the days before the dangers of asbestos were known, that dangerous material was literally and liberally splashed everywhere by brushes from buckets, but asbestos can be dealt with. The infrastructure dangers are other than asbestos.
The sewerage system consists of two large steel tanks that collect from a very large pipe that runs the whole length of the building. The system was put in place in 1888 and it is just waiting to repeat the bursts we have already had. If those bursts go over some of the equipment and infrastructure, the disaster will stare us in the face.
We try to make not only the sewerage system but all the other systems fit our demands. This means that we are pushing on a door that is solidly locked. We have to take the infrastructure out. Despite the suggestion, it is not likely that we will find bodies because we will be repairing and renovating the infrastructure, not the structure of the building. We will not be digging down to look for Guy Fawkes or one of his relations.
The point we have to understand is that the longer we wait, the risk of a catastrophic collapse of services nears upon us. If my memory is correct, the risk is rated such that by 2020 we will have a 50:50 chance of a catastrophic collapse of our services. That does not just mean fire; it also means a collapse of our electricity or gas services, for example. About a dozen fires broke out last year. It has been asked, “Why wait?” I support amendment (b) to motion No. 1—the amendment tabled by the Chair and deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—because we need to assess the situation. We should not wait, but we have to assess before we go any further.
All the connected infrastructure needs to be removed and replaced. I am disappointed by the two motions. Motion No. 1 would kick the whole problem into the long grass and, to a major degree, so would motion No. 2. Both motions would mean extra expenditure when we are staring a full decant in the face. The thought that we could take out the infrastructure in half the building is engineeringly ludicrous. While we did that, we would have a long delay and more expense, and the other half of the infrastructure would continue to deteriorate while we sat and stared at the problem in the first half of the building.
Amendment (b) to motion No. 1, in essence, takes the Joint Committee’s recommendations on repair and renovation. As has been said, it is a bicameral, cross-party report. Many members of the Joint Committee were as cynical as anyone, including me, when they went in but, after the evidence, their conclusions were unanimous and conclusive. They took extensive advice from many who should and do understand the problems and solutions, and that is in the report and its conclusions.
I hesitate to use the word “experts” because it has become traditional to sneer at experts but, as a part-time dentist, if I have a patient with a very severe condition such as cancer, they want to see an expert. This building has a very severe and potentially fatal condition, so we need to take notice of the experts. Any method other than a full decant will vastly increase the costs, the time taken to do the works and the risk of disaster, and that risk is getting worse day by day, as I have said.
The security risk from a partial decant is obvious if one pauses to think about it. I have read the letters and papers from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). His amendment entails a partial decant. That has been rejected by the Joint Committee, by the Public Accounts Committee and by many, many other—if I dare use the word—experts. The approach the amendment sets out will, in essence, double the time for works, double the costs, increase the security risk, and increase the risk of fire and of a complete breakdown of the services in the other half. The thought of cutting a sewerage system—or the electrics or any of the other works—in half does not make sense because of the nature of the building. I am sorry to say this, but I would not give my hon. Friend—I hope he remains a friend—a LEGO set to play with.
I did say I would be as succinct as possible, so let me just say that it would be a severe derogation of our duty to not move expeditiously, and I urge support for the amendment standing in the name of the Chair and Deputy Chair of the PAC and of many others, including myself.
Of all the things this House can do to endear itself to our constituents, spending billions of pounds on renovating our place of work is not one of them. In these days of austerity and tightening of belts, and with the impending economic disaster of Brexit coming our way, I would bet this would be near the bottom or at the very bottom of the public’s concerns. The sums involved are simply eye-watering—£3.6 billion rising to £5.7 billion, and that is before all the unforeseen difficulties and the additions that hon. Members will certainly want to factor in. So it is no surprise whatsoever that people are making an estimation that this could come in at a cool £10 billion to £12 billion.
As with so many things that fundamentally impact on my constituents, I thought I would ask a few of them what they thought about these proposals. It was no surprise that they were not seen all that favourably. Mrs McLeod from Pitlochry just said curtly:
“You must be joking”
Mr Morrison from Errol said:
“In these days of food banks and austerity I am sickened that they are even thinking about this”.
Mr Mac Donald from Kinloch Rannoch just casually inquired:
“why are you even still in that place, it’s time to come home to your own Parliament here”,
a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly concur.
I will make a bit of progress and give way in a moment.
Surprisingly, no one in my less-than-scientific survey of a few people in Perth and North Perthshire thought there were any admirable qualities in spending billions on a parliamentarians’ palace. I am pretty certain that, even if I went looking for anyone who thought there were, I would not find any in my constituency.
Let me compare and contrast what is happening in this Chamber with what has just been happening in the Scottish Parliament, where we are setting out our budgets. We are allocating billions of pounds to socially useful programmes that will enable our citizenry. What are we doing here? We are talking about spending billions of pounds on a royal palace to accommodate Members of Parliament. Nothing could distinguish better the priorities of these two Parliaments.
I do, however, accept that we have an issue. [Hon. Members: “ Oh really!”] Yes. Because of the decades of prevarication and indecision, this building is practically falling down. The failure of successive Government to face up to their responsibility in looking after this place means we now have a building that could, as people have said, face a catastrophic failure at any time.
The mechanical and electrical engineering systems are already well past their use-by date and the risk of that catastrophic failure rises exponentially every five years. Some of the high-voltage cables in the building are decaying, and fire is an ever-present risk, only compounded by just how easily any fire would spread. Most worryingly, as we have heard from the Deputy Leader of the House and the Leader of the House, there is a substantial amount of asbestos in the building. Mice and other vermin are a common feature, and I have heard that some staff even have names for the mice that they frequently acquaint with on a daily basis. It is not a robin we need in this House, but a flipping big eagle to pick up some of the huge mice that kick about this place. The Palace of Westminster is simply falling down.
The most important aspect that we have to consider is our responsibility for the staff who work in this place. This is a workplace for thousands of people, and we are putting them at significant risk by staying here.
I sympathise with some of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but it is simply untrue to say that this building is falling down. It is not. There is work that needs to be done, not least to protect staff and give them a proper place to work in, and to provide decent disabled access, but if we simply let either motion go through, we will be committing more money than if we vote for the amendment in the name of the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. That is what I fear.
I have an elegant solution to the difficulties and travails of this House, which is to consider making this beautiful building a tourist attraction for people from all around the world. There are immense development opportunities in this UNESCO world heritage building. Let us design and create a Parliament for the 21st century—one that will be useful for 21st-century parliamentarians—rather than try to shoehorn all this activity into a mock-gothic Victorian tourist attraction. That is what the hon. Gentleman should support this evening, not billions of pounds being spent on some parliamentarians’ palace.
No, I want to make some progress.
We have a duty of care to the staff and for their wellbeing and safety. It is therefore disappointing that the motion seeks, once again, to kick any future works into touch and to delay the decision. The simple fact is that the decision should have been made a decade ago, not kicked into touch for another Parliament to deal with. The whole story of resolving our difficulties in this House is littered with prevarication and indecision. We will not support any measure that leaves our staff here for a minute longer than is absolutely necessary. We are not prepared to have them continue to be put at risk.
It will not come as any surprise to you, Mr Speaker, or any other Member to hear that I, as a Scottish National party Member, do not share the dewy-eyed affection and nostalgia that some Conservative Members feel towards the Palace. I love this building—it is fantastic. It is one of the truly iconic buildings in the world, and it is a real pleasure and privilege to see this place as I walk into it, but I have to concede that I could probably discharge my responsibilities as a Member of Parliament from somewhere else. I think I would just about manage. On the distant date when all these works may be completed, I and my Scottish colleagues will be well gone from this place. We will be sitting in our own independent Parliament in Scotland, considering the issues that all normal states have to deal with. Probably, when all this is concluded, the first colony on Mars will be thinking about independence.
When I look at this building, its stunning architecture and the condition it is in, I see it as a sad metaphor for Brexitised Britain: dilapidated, falling to bits around our ears, generally unloved and in need of a lot of attention and support. Does not that just sum up where this nation is?
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. I will enjoy a refreshing cup of Irn Bru with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) any time, but on his substantive point, I assure him that I cannot wait to get away from this place and for my nation to take control of all its own affairs.
Yet again, there is a cunning plan in place, because a precedent has been set. If I, for whatever reason that I cannot foresee, was less than successful in the next election, defeated Members for Perth and North Perthshire are simply given a peerage in the House of Lords.
We have proposed a sensible approach to the current issues facing this House. There is nothing wrong with considering a new-build Parliament off site. It is deeply disappointing and depressing that when that was sensibly presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) to the Joint Committee, it was rejected out of hand and did not even get the time of day as a proposal. Is that not absolutely shocking? It was a failure of true diligence of this House to consider all available options—just rejected immediately. It would have been a solution. Just imagine developers lining up to get a share of this place, a UNESCO site; just imagine what they could do. We are trying to shoehorn a Parliament into this mock Gothic building. We need a 21st-century Parliament designed with all the features that we require as 21st-century parliamentarians to do our job, and that cannot be achieved on this site without decades of work and billions and billions of pounds.
That brings me to amendment (b) to motion No. 2. This is really, really important. For goodness’ sake let us at least end the useless tradition that actively eats into our productivity as Members of Parliament and restore electronic voting in whatever approach we pursue. [Interruption.] Another proposal that has gone down particularly well with my Conservative friends! We waste days of parliamentary time just stuck in the packed voting Lobby, waiting to make that simple binary choice of yes or no.
I am conscious that I am probably one of the few Members who have taken part in the debate so far who was actually only elected in 2017, but one thing that struck me when I got here was going to the education centre and the bemused look on the children’s faces when I explained to them that to vote in this place, I have to walk through doors, yet in the education centre, the kids get to vote by electronic keypads.
As my hon. Friend will remember, only two weeks ago, we wasted up to two hours on voting in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. We could have been debating, legislating or taking up issues on behalf of our constituents. WebRoots Democracy came up with a report today that said that one month—one month—was lost on voting in the Parliament between 2010 and 2015, at the cost of £3.5 million in Members’ time. This nonsense has to end.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is presupposing that a month was lost in voting in the House of Commons. Do you have any information as to how much of that month was taken up by voting on SNP amendments?
That is not a matter on which I have taxed my mind, and I do not think that I am required to do so, but I have known the right hon. Gentleman since we first jousted together in 1983 at a half-yearly Federation of Conservative Students conference, and I knew his puckish grin then and I know it now. He has made his own point in his own way and we will leave it there.
It is a puckish grin with which I am also familiar. All I want to do is to assist hon. Members: help us in our campaign to reclaim our time so that we can properly spend the time debating and looking after our constituents—[Interruption.] Yes, take back control, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) says.
I do not know how much of a blessing it is to Front Benchers when hon. Members get backstage and buttonhole them. And this is what we get—the shrieks of, “Oh, we need to meet up with our ministerial colleagues in the Lobby.” But that prerogative is exclusively the right of Conservative Members. I do not detect many Government Ministers, as we spend most of our time voting with Labour, and I am pretty damned certain that no Labour Members have encountered a Government Minister in their Lobby over the course of these years. The Conservative Members may have that right, but it is a right that is not open to the rest of us.
I will help Conservatives Members with this one: we could have electronic voting that we would have to do in the vicinity of the Chamber. We would all have to come here and we would get some sort of device, because the technological solution would be to press a button that is handed out to us. We would all be here, so if hon. Members wanted to speak to Ministers or talk to the Leader of the House about a particular issue, they could just go up to them and say, “Hello, Leader of the House. Can I have a word with you please?” None of that would be stopped.
A number of solutions have been designed in Parliaments around the world. In some Parliaments, that solution may include desks. What I am suggesting is a technological solution, whereby we would come to the Chamber and press a button to vote. We could vote on anybody’s proposal and time would not be wasted.
According to the Public Whip website, in the last full five-year Parliament, the hon. Gentleman voted in only 49.9% of votes. Does he want an electronic system so that he can boost his own record without doing any real work?
I do not know quite what the hon. Gentleman misses when it comes to these sorts of issues. I vote for issues that are reserved here in this Parliament and this House. Conservative Members are trying to stop me from voting, through English votes for English laws, so we are in a situation where these particular difficulties exist in the House.
The whole trend of EVEL legislation is to ensure that we do not vote on those particular issues; they have put in mechanisms to stop us doing that.
I will conclude, although I know that the House has very much enjoyed the alternative view on the issue. I want this House to move on in where we work and in how we do our work. But I have a sneaking suspicion, from my 17 years in this House, that neither of these things will be delivered any time soon.
I will be brief because I want to concentrate on only one aspect of the debate, which is safety. I know that there are important issues to be discussed about costs, timing, and whether we have a full or partial move. For the record, I support those who say that we must be clear that Parliament should stay in the Palace of Westminster in the long term. But before we consider these long-term issues, we need to look at what is happening here, today and every day. What is happening is that we are asking not only ourselves and our staff, but also thousands of visitors, to come to a building that is not safe.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Parliament is a death trap, but it would not be a wild exaggeration. Anyone who has taken the tour of the basement will have seen the full horror of the current arrangements. We have already heard about the regular fires that break out. I think the Leader of the House said that there have been 60 over the past 10 years, and 12 in the past year alone. Chunks of masonry have fallen off high parts of the building. We are lucky that no one has been killed so far because of this. It is not remotely conceivable that people would be allowed to work here if this were a normal building, let alone that thousands of tourists would be allowed to visit it.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s tour of the basement, did he happen to give any consideration to the working conditions of the individuals who are tasked with undertaking repairs in the basement areas? Having seen the basement myself, it seems incredibly unsafe and unfair to expect them to continue in those conditions.
I agree with the hon. Lady. The wider point about safety was put very starkly by the recently retired Black Rod, David Leakey, who said:
“There could be a major fire, there could be loss of life.”
The one thing we know—the one unarguable fact we know—is that the more we delay, the more likely some horrific outcome becomes.
We need to be clear about who statistically is most likely to be affected. It is not us. There are about 1,500 legislators in the two Houses. There are 15,000 people who have passes to come into this building. About 1 million people visit every year. The Education Service has more than 100,000 visitors a year, most of them, of course, children. It cannot be right to increase the risk of catastrophe for those people by continuing to delay.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the ways we can protect ourselves and our staff and visitors is by engaging with the fire safety training module on the intranet? It is good for us, our staff and our visitors, but fewer than 20% of Members undertake the training.
I am glad to have given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to make that public service announcement.
I want to address directly one of the arguments that has been used to advocate delay and continuing to muddle through in the way that we have done for too long. The argument is that in the wake of the terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower, we cannot be seen to be spending large sums of money on this place. I would turn that argument absolutely on its head. Having seen the appalling effects of a fire in a building that had inadequate protection, I think it would be the height of irresponsibility not to take action to make safe a building that we know is barely safe now and that is getting more dangerous every year.
I did the underground tour as well. It was very frightening to see the gas pipes alongside the electrical wiring, but the most frightening thing I saw was the sheets of metal sitting above that wiring. They were full of water that was dripping down through the building and were there to stop the wires getting soaking wet. Given that we work in such conditions, how can we not make urgent efforts to get the work done in this building?
The hon. Lady’s point illustrates the general one that those who have spent most time and effort looking at the conditions of this House, either on various Committees or, indeed, inside Government, are the ones who are most keen to take early and decisive action. No one’s conscience should be comfortable with the potential consequences of delay and inaction in these circumstances.
I have great sympathy with and support for the Leader of the House, who has been energetic and active in bringing this matter before us. I agree with those who say that this should conceivably have been dealt with 10 years ago, but I assure the House that the Leader of the House has been very energetic in bringing it before us and we should be grateful to her.
The conclusion I draw is simple: get on with it—just get on with it. In the spirit of that conclusion, I will support amendment (b) to motion No. 1, as that is the best way to minimise the chance of a disaster happening as a result of inaction—a disaster that would reflect appallingly on this House.
I confess to being one of those who holds this building in enormous esteem. There are bits of it I do not particularly like, but I have to say that the experience of walking through Westminster Hall, looking up at the angels, carved in probably the 14th century and supporting the roof, is one of the great joys that I would want every single one of my constituents to be able to experience at some point. It is against that background that I care passionately about what we do.
It is not just that we enjoy being here and fought to be here, because we wanted to come into this building and change the world and this country in the way we think is right according to our particular light; it is that we know we are trustees of this building for future generations. The best political generations in our history are the ones that have taken that responsibility the most seriously. In the early 19th century, they did not do it well and it led to a massive fire in 1834, which destroyed ancient paintings and buildings that had been here since the 13th century and before. My terrible fear is that if we do not take our job as trustees seriously now, regardless of party political advantage or, I say to my SNP friends, of ideological interest, we truly risk losing one of the great treasures of this country.
The problems have already been laid out. As the Chair of the Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), said, there is a single 130-year-old drain that could burst at any time. There is a high-pressure steam heating system next to high-voltage electricity cables, with wires that are decaying into flammable dust every day, next to gas pipes, phone cables, broadband cables and running water, all wrapped in asbestos.
To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) about asbestos, about two years ago the Clerk had to ring the Leader of the House to say that part of the central heating system had burst through some of the asbestos around the cabling, which was immediately next to the air conditioning system of the Chamber of the House of Commons. There was a real danger that he would have to close the Chamber and Parliament indefinitely until that was sorted out. The real problem is that we have a central heating system that is elderly, at high pressure and could burst at any time. It normally takes us about two and a half weeks to switch it on because of the fear of its doing that. That is the real problem about asbestos in the building.
My point was that we are told that these wires and cables are in tall stacks, which are full of asbestos. We are also told that they are going to burn, but they are clad in asbestos. My point was about the assessment that has been made of the fire protection provided by that asbestos, which we know to be one of the most non-flammable products.
This is the problem. In many of the spaces we are talking about, which are effectively very narrow chimneys, there is very little room, because they were intended to be ventilation shafts, in essence, but are now so full of generations of heating, electricity and other kinds of cabling that it is impossible to get in there to check. It is even impossible to get in there to check the extent to which the cabling has decayed.
We know that there is asbestos in some places, but we do not know whether there is in others, so of course we have to take precautionary measures. That is the problem; we do not know where all the asbestos is. A lot of it will have to come out because we have to remove other things, not because we are specifically removing the asbestos.
There are long corridors with no fire doors. We have 98 risers in the building and miles of inaccessible and narrow wooden tunnels that would act as funnels for a fire that, I tell you now, would speed through the building faster than most of us in the Chamber could run. We do not meet the national fire safety standards that we impose on other buildings in the country, so we have fire wardens patrolling the building 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Remember the fire at Windsor castle? The major problem was that it spread rapidly because there was no compartmentalisation. The only royal palace in the country that has not had compartmentalisation brought in since that date is this one, which is the most visited by the public. It is a nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman is making the measured case that I expected him to, but surely the characteristics he attributes to this building are shared by many great historic buildings. We think of cathedrals, which are widely visited every year and have the same problem with stonework. We think of the great houses that have the same fire risk. Many historic buildings have the same problems. The issue is not those problems, which we of course need to solve; it is how we solve them.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about big houses; I think he is asking me to advertise my book on the history of the aristocracy, which is in all the good bookshops at the moment. I would simply say to him that nearly every one of the major houses that fell into disrepair in the last 100 years did so as the result of a massive fire. I think we should take a lesson from that, which is that we must be very, very cautious in this building. When that fire comes, I would not want to be a Member who had voted against taking direct, clear action now; I truly would not.
It must surely also be a disgrace that this Parliament, which introduced proper legislation to ensure disabled access in every other public building in the land, has the worst disabled access of any public building in the land. It is almost impossible for somebody with mobility difficulties to get up into the Gallery, although the staff try really hard. On top of that, the building is very dark—it is almost impossible for many people who are partially sighted to see their way around—and we should, as a matter of honour, be putting that right.
My hon. Friend mentions fires, as a number of hon. Members have done. We have talked about actual fires. Only a few months ago, in my office there was a smell of burning and soot falling from the grates in my ceiling. I phoned the emergency number, but by the time I had reached the door of my office there were fire wardens in the corridor. That is the reality of preventing fire, and happily, so far, it has been successful.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As several others have already said, this is not primarily about us; it is about the safety of the thousands of people who come to visit the building, the 8,000 who work in it, and the 15,000 who have passes.
The hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) was absolutely right to say that it is crazy that great big scaffolding has been put up in the cloisters to make work possible on one of the most beautiful bits of the Palace, one of the other bits that survived the 1834 fire—the cloisters that were put in by Henry VII and then Henry VIII. The problem is that at the moment we simply do not have the capacity and the capability within the House authorities to get those major pieces of work done in the House. That means that parts of the building are falling apart, water is coming in where it should not, and we are degrading a national asset. That is why it is so important, as the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) said, to set up a proper sponsor body and delivery authority to do this properly—to bring in really high-quality staff and to make sure the work is delivered on time and on budget, as we can do in this country.
In all honesty, motion No. 1, if left unamended, says, broadly speaking, “Let’s not do anything in this Parliament.” It is not the long grass; it is the very, very long grass. I believe that would be an utter dereliction of our duty, which is why Historic England, who are, after all, the Government’s own advisers on the built heritage in this country, have said that if we were to go down that route, they would have to put this building on the at- risk register. That is a profoundly shocking thing for us to be told if we are not going to take action.
Motion No. 2 is mildly better. I am a bit disappointed in the Leader of the House that she is not going any further than that motion, because it also means that we refuse to make a clear decision now. It means that we try to set up a sponsor body and a delivery authority, for which we want to get the best people, without giving them a clear direction of travel. It means that they will be repeating the work that was done by the Joint Committee.
We produced our report 16 months ago and it is only now that we are getting the debate, so my bet is that when this sponsor body reports, with the three options that it has looked at, the Government will not want to table the motions. There will be a general election coming up; there will be some issue that has to be sorted out, and the debate will be another two years after that. I say to hon. Members that if they are thinking of voting for motion No. 2, they will have to make this decision all over again in four years’ time, by which time the risk will have increased—and the cost.
That is why I support amendment (b) to motion No. 1. It implements the unanimous recommendations of the Joint Committee and the Public Accounts Committee; it sets up a sponsor body and a delivery authority; and it takes an in principle decision. It is the only way to take an in principle decision today.
I just want to set the record straight, because the hon. Gentleman is attributing inaccuracies to my remarks. Motion No. 2 will ensure that the best combination of urgent action can be taken in a cost-effective way. The delivery authority will come back to this House with a final preferred solution within 12 to 18 months and with proper costings. As for his proposal to go down just one route, his own Joint Committee acknowledged in its report that it had not done the costings properly.
Well, we disagree, because I know what has happened over the last 10 years. Governments have repeatedly fought shy of bringing motions to the House. I have enormous respect for the Leader of the House. She has worked very hard on this, but as she said to me last week, it may be that somebody else is Leader of the House in future and that person might not be so keen on bringing anything to the House. My guess is that when we get closer to a general election, no Government will want to bring the matter back to the House. Therefore, much as I admire and respect her, I just do not think that her solution is the answer.
I want to say just a few other things. The first is about trying to stay in the building while the work is being done. I appeal to colleagues to think hard about that. We are talking about 10 times as much work happening on a daily basis as is happening now. That is 10 times as many people hammering, drilling, sanding down buildings, moving cabling, bringing in vast amounts of material and all the rest, and 10 times as many portakabins. Earlier today I was on the roof of Westminster Hall, looking at the work being done there. Because people have complained about the noise, the people there are only able to work at night, and guess what that has done to the budget? It has tripled it. When work was being done on the Royal Gallery, the House of Lords said, “We can’t hear ourselves think,” and so decided that the work could be done only at weekends and at night, and guess what? That added £1 million to the work. The truth of the matter is that if we try to stay, we will dramatically increase the cost of the work, and we will be going bananas.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Does he agree that an emergency decant, should for example we discover something horrible in the woodshed—or rather, in the basement—or should something go wrong with clearing the asbestos, would massively increase the costs of us having to find alternative accommodation?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why, incidentally, to those who say, “If we ever move out, they’ll never let us back,” I say, “Who is this magical ‘they’ who’s going to prevent us from coming back in?” The truth is that whether we choose to come back will always be a decision for Parliament. If future generations decide that things should be done differently, good luck to them, but we should not make a decision now that makes it impossible for us to protect this building, because—this is precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman made—the most certain way for us to be permanently excluded is to have a catastrophic failure in the building, such as a fire or a flood.
Before casting their votes tonight, those Members who want to remain should nip into the Library and read sections of “Mr Barry’s War”, in which they will see the absolute chaos when Parliament refused to decant the last time. It was horrendous. It drove Pugin almost mad. We must leave.
I am swaying between the amendment that the hon. Gentleman is promoting and motion No. 2. The reason I am drawn more to the motion No. 2 is that I would like us to have the occasional foothold in this place—the occasional use of the Palace in an extended period. Is there any way that the amendment can achieve that?
“A foothold” is a difficult thing to specify, but some people have said, for instance, that we should keep the Chamber functioning—I guess that is what most people mean. The difficulty with keeping the Chamber running is that the Chamber is not just the Chamber. It is not a hermetically sealed unit; the air conditioning, the heating, the electricity and all the rest of it come from somewhere. The public have to have access through large parts of the building. We would also have to access from somewhere, and it could not just be through some kind of polytunnel. It is actually phenomenally difficult to achieve that.
There was one other option, which was for us to sit in Westminster Hall. I love the idea of sitting in Westminster Hall. The hon. Member for somewhere down in the south-west—the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—and I were joint advocates of that. The problem is that the floor is not solid—there are no solid foundations—and we would have to put something inside the roof, which could destroy it, so there are real problems.
Order. I should point out to the House that Members are free to intervene if the Member on his or her feet wishes to take the intervention, but there are now 80 minutes left. I must, in all courtesy, warn Members that a lot of Members who want to speak will not be called. Some of them are also seeking to intervene, and I am sure they can join the dots.
I have maybe one small paragraph more, Mr Speaker, which is simply to say that I am very fond of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but I disagree with his views on this, because, in the end, they are not in the long-term interests of the Palace of Westminster itself. In particular, the idea of us sitting in Portcullis House, I am afraid, is for the birds. The advice from the security people is that it is simply begging somebody to use the fact that Portcullis House sits on top of the tube station, so I would say to the hon. Gentleman that that is a non-starter.
My final point is that there is only really one proposal on the table that allows us to make a clear decision and to move forward more swiftly, and that is the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier).
I am also very fond of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), but I do disagree with him on one fundamental. What the whole House is united about is our understanding that we need to get on with this job. That is why I have lived and breathed this issue with my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who is sitting on the Front Bench, why we took the motion to the Backbench Business Committee with the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), and why we have constantly encouraged the Government to bring these motions forward.
The work needs to be done, but the question I have to pose is, if this work is so important—if the building is so dangerous—why, in these decant options, are we waiting until 2025? That is the question we have to ask. I ask why the work is not proceeding far faster and at a pace. I ask myself why we still have so few fire doors and why the Library corridor, which is 100 yards long, has no fire door in it. Those are the sort of points we should raise. We are united—I say this to the hon. Member for Rhondda—on the need to take action, but I do ask why, if this work is so urgent, we are waiting until 2025. This whole debate about the decant has muddied the waters. Frankly, the Government should have been taking action years ago. If it is inconvenient to us, so be it. That is the most important point.
When my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire and I first saw the report, we were not saying that we were the experts. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) that nobody suggested we were setting ourselves up as experts. I deliberately went out and consulted experts; I did not just consult my own conscience.
Like everybody else, I love this place, but I am not so important, and we are not so important. What about the 1 million people who visit this place every year? What about the fact that this building is the iconic centre of the nation, particularly as we try and resolve the very difficult questions of Brexit? Do we really want to take the enormous political decision, at this very difficult time for our nation, to move lock, stock and barrel from the iconic centre of the nation?
Members should understand that if we vote for the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)—it is the crucial amendment tonight—we are taking the decision. It is not motion No. 2 tabled by the Leader of the House and it is not asking for further assessment. If we vote for the amendment, we will be taking the decision now, and there will be no going back on it—we will have to move out. Members should not believe that it will be for only five years. They should look at the Canadian Parliament. I predict that we will be out of this building for 10 or even 12 years. The Canadian Parliament, which is building a replica Chamber, is moving out for 12 years. We have to think of our constituents and ask ourselves this question: do we really believe in this at this time of unparalleled austerity? In particular—I have seen Opposition Members make this point many times—do we believe that we should take the decision this evening to spend £5 billion up-front on our own workplace? It is a very difficult decision and a very difficult argument to make to our constituents.
When we started consulting experts, many other issues really got us worried. For instance, not a lot has been said so far about the fact that the decant proposal is to build a replica Chamber. Although we have heard a lot about the Joint Committee, it did not get all its facts right: it wanted to build the replica Chamber in the courtyard of Richmond House, but unfortunately, it was five metres out. That is not a very competent process. Therefore, the Leader of the House was right that we cannot risk voting for the amendment, because there has not been sufficient assessment of the proposals. When it says that this is a unanimous report, it has to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), who was on that Committee. He has now changed his mind—
To be fair to the Leader of the House, as I think we want to, she has been absolutely clear that the proposal is to demolish Richmond House—she has been certain about that—and to build the replica Chamber nearby us. The message we would send to our constituents is simple: not only have MPs voted to leave Parliament, but they have voted to build another building to occupy and another Chamber a stone’s throw away. What a nonsense!
On the original costings of £3.52 billion for the full decant, I was told today in a meeting with the business director of the project that at the time, they assumed that a building was available of the right size and in the right location. In fact—it has not actually been properly costed yet—the estimate is that the new work on Richmond House would cost an additional £550 million.
We are worried, and we are right to be worried, about the costs of the replica Chamber. It has been said to me that it may be necessary at times, if we carry on with this work—nobody is denying that we should proceed with it as fast as possible—that this Chamber may have to leave. I fear that if the replica Chamber is built, we will be out of the Palace of Westminster for up to 10 years. We will be too comfortable, so we have looked for and have consulted on alternatives. We tracked down Sir Michael Hopkins, the architect of Portcullis House. Nobody had raised this idea with him before then—he built the most bomb-proof, the most secure and the most expensive, by metre, building in the country—but the atrium of Portcullis House is exactly the right width, with this Chamber and the Division Lobbies, for an emergency Chamber for a few months. It would not be too comfortable there, but it is possible. Westminster Hall has been mentioned. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), mentioned Church House, which is built to bomb-proof standards. There are alternatives if we have to move out, so get on with it.
The argument that the Joint Committee has established beyond peradventure that it is cheaper to have a full decant is not accepted by many experts—I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley. It was not accepted in the Deloitte report, which talked about net cost analysis. The Joint Committee report did not take sufficient cognisance of the cost of the replica, the work of the patch-up, which will have to be done in the coming years and months, the security costs and the VAT costs. All these costs have been factored into the Deloitte report. There is no time to go into detail, but do not accept the facile argument about the two proposals. We have the decant proposal, which would stop 1 million people a year visiting this building and have all the other disadvantages that I have talked about—do not accept that the decant proposal is much cheaper. Many accountants and experts take an alternative view.
Before we proceed to a vote, let us listen to the hon. Member for Ealing North and remember the thousands of employees working in this building. Of course, we want them to be safe, but we also want them to have a job, and what would happen with a full decant? This is urgent. We must get on with the work now, build the fire doors and so on, and let us remember this historical point—the hon. Member for Rhondda has made many historical points, and I will end on this one: when this House of Commons Chamber was destroyed by firebombs in 1941, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, representing the best in their two parties, made a conscious and absolute decision that this House of Commons would not be bombed out of its historic home, and that was why we moved to the Chamber of the House of Lords.
I commissioned an architect, pro bono, who proved conclusively that this would be perfectly possible. He looked at all the wiring issues, the sewage issues, all that we have talked about, and found that it would be perfectly possible. Are we really being told that in this day and age we cannot divert sewerage and electrical wiring? They do it all the time in the private sector. They build pop concert arenas for tens of thousands of people in two or three days, but we are told by the experts that it is impossible to resolve this problem. I return to my historical point: when the chips were down in 1941, Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill decided that this Chamber would not move from this building. I therefore urge colleagues to vote down the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch and vote for motion No. 1. We must get on with the work.
I want to be brief, so I will not take interventions.
It seems a very long time since we had the pleasure of sitting on the R and R Committee—it seems a very long time because it was in fact a very long time ago. We reported in September 2016, and it is now the beginning of 2018, so it has been the best part of 17 or 18 months, in which time the Government have ducked, dived and dodged, and done everything but bring this issue to the House. Finally, they have tabled two motions, the purpose of which, as hon. Members have said, is to kick the can down the road. I really thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), therefore, for tabling her amendment today.
It is crazy that this is a half-day debate. Regardless of hon. Members’ views—whether they are in favour of or against moving out—it is crazy that one of the most important buildings in the country, the home of our democratic institutions, only merits a few hours of debate. When the R and R Committee first met in July 2015, I started with the view that we should stay. We had been here for hundreds of years and I thought we could do the work around us. How difficult could it be? Like other Members have said, the fear that, if we moved out, we would never move back again was certainly doing the rounds.
I changed my mind. I recognised that the only sensible choice was a full decant—not a partial decant and certainly not staying here and somehow muddling through for 30 or 35 years. I came to that decision because I—and, indeed, the whole Committee—looked at the evidence. I know we live in world today where evidence and facts are to be ignored—or if we do not like them, we just create our own or find other ones that suit our case—but we did not do that. By the end, every member of the Committee recognised that remaining in the House was not a sensible option, for a whole host of reasons.
Cost was one of those reasons, but today I want to talk about just two aspects: safety and security. I advise those who have not taken the tour of the basement to do so and to see for themselves what other hon. Members have talked about: the state of the plumbing and electrics, and the constant measures that have to be taken because of the risk of fire.
A very important point is that every year we are spending tens of billions of pounds—[Hon. Members: “Millions.”] I am sorry. We are spending tens of millions of pounds just to patch and make do, and that figure is growing. Sadly, whichever option we choose, much of that work will be ripped out because it is a muddling-through solution. We are not even standing still: the building is getting worse by the day. We are falling further and further behind and we face the real prospect of a catastrophic failure. If a fire started and was funnelled through the 98 or so risers in the building, the effect would be devastating. I think it fair to say that, if someone had to design a building to burn down, this would be a pretty good one to start with.
We hear a great deal about the possibility that Members would be elected and would then not be able to sit in the Chamber, but what about their safety? And what about the safety of the thousands of employees who work in the building? We should be thinking about them when we vote tonight. A lot of work is being done on fire safety, but we must be honest: it is badly behind schedule. If a fire broke out and then took hold, and there were people working on the top floor of the building, what would be their chances of getting out? I know that that sounds dramatic, but we know the facts and we are sitting here talking about, effectively, doing nothing about them—and possibly voting to do nothing about them.
However, as other Members have said, fire is not the only risk. Asbestos is a huge problem. When we know exactly where it is, we may be able to leave it in place, or at least know how to handle it, but we do not know exactly where it is. Large parts of the building may contain asbestos, but we just do not know, so we have to establish precautions. Even if we decided to stay, we would probably be evacuated on a regular basis because a ceiling had come down and asbestos was present.
As we have seen, security is an existing and growing problem for us. Some Members think that we can maintain security while working in a building site, but I do not see how that could work. I have been here long enough to remember—I was sitting on the opposite Benches at the time—when the pro-hunting protesters entered the Chamber. And how did they get into the building? They pretended to be contractors. The threat that we face now is far more severe than that. I think there is no doubt that if we stayed, security would be compromised.
We need to face facts. A full decant in conjunction with the programme of work on the northern estate, utilising Richmond House as a secure zone, is the only sensible option. Of course it is a difficult decision and it does involve a lot of taxpayers’ money, but we are here to make difficult decisions and to defend them if we think that they are right. Nothing will be served by dithering and delay. Let us get on with it and deliver a Parliament that preserves its rich history, but is fit and safe for the 21st century.
There can be a broad measure of agreement that the House needs to be maintained properly. All those who have spoken would acknowledge that work needs to be done, and indeed, that has always been the case. Since William Rufus commissioned the building of Westminster Hall, there have been major refurbishments of the Palace. Geoffrey Chaucer was Clerk of the Works for one of them. After the great fire of 1834—
After the great fire of 1834, there was the major refurbishment—in fact, it was largely a rebuilding of the Palace—that led to the place where we now sit. Buildings of this kind are always hard to maintain and will always require constant maintenance work. This is not a moment; it is a process. It will be an ongoing process whatever decision we take tonight. Let me make my case as quickly as I can—particularly given your advice, Mr Speaker.
I could make this case on cost grounds. Indeed the report produced by the Leader of the House is very honest about that. The report heavily qualifies the estimates therein. It says that there is significantly more work to be done by professionals before budgets can be set and the accounts therefore made certain. We are not absolutely certain what the costs of the decant would be, nor are we absolutely certain what the costs of staying here would be. But what I think we can say, from all of our experience and intuition, is that they are likely to be considerably greater than the provisional costs that we have now. Every building project I have ever known has run over budget and over time.
No, I will not give way, as Mr Speaker has advised me not to, much as I adore my hon. Friend.
The best comparisons we can offer are Portcullis House and the building of the Scottish Parliament. When the Scottish Parliament was first envisaged, the cost was thought to be about £40 million—it cost £400 million. When Portcullis House was first envisaged, the cost was thought to be a fraction of the cost of the eventual outcome and it took years longer than anyone imagined. So do not be persuaded by any argument on costs because I would bet a pound to a penny that those cost estimates will be very way far off the mark when the final accounts are settled.
I could make the argument on the basis of tradition. It is true that traditions matter and this is the heart of our democracy. Imagine the headline that says, “MPs vote to leave Parliament”. What nonsense that is. And imagine what our constituents would think of us and how we would be diminished in their estimation, and rightly so.
So I could make the argument on the basis of tradition. We do tred in the footsteps of giants here. In Richmond House we would be stepping in the footsteps of Stephen Dorrell and Frank Dobson. Much as I admire them both, I do not think either would claim to be giants.
But I am not going to make those arguments. Instead I am going to make the argument on these sole grounds; it is the argument about people. It is about the hundreds of thousands of people who visit this Palace every year and are inspired and enthralled by it. Some of them will end up being Members, as I did after I came here as a schoolboy. It is about my constituents who visited the House today and sat in the Gallery and watched the proceedings of the House. Do they want to go to some alternative? Are they going to be excited and enthralled? Are they going to believe in our democracy when they visit Richmond House with its fantasy duplicate alternative Chamber? Surely not. That is not what people expect of us or of this place and it is vital that they can continue to come here to enjoy that experience.
There is another group of people who are voiceless in this debate: the staff who work in this place, the staff who have given, in many cases, 10, 20, 30 or 40 years’ experience. No one seriously believes that all of those will be accommodated in the new arrangements. We know what would happen. It would start with early retirement and then there would be voluntary redundancy, and then redundancy.
I was not too happy about the mention of early retirement before you called me, Mr Speaker.
I rise to support amendment (a) to motion No. 2. In doing so, I find myself in some slightly strange company: the principal sponsors of the amendment are four aristocratic knights of the realm, the Chair of the Defence Committee and my humble self. That shows that this issue arches across any political divide.
From listening to the debate, it worries me that some are casting this in terms of mods and rockers—traditional, antediluvian tweed-wearing crusty port sippers who want nothing to change whatever, and the young meritocratic thrusters, epitomised by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), whose normally sunny and pleasant disposition has, I suspect, been poisoned by the awful reality of the cost-overrun at Holyrood.
There are two emotions permeating the debate today that we really need to consider. In everything we say and do, we must give credit to the Leader of the House, who has done an extraordinary amount of work on this. In some ways, it must be tempting for her to take this Gordian knot and just slice through it. One of those emotions can be summed up in this way:
“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”.
That was a tribute to our Scottish friends. The second emotion involves recognising that this building is not just a matter of stone, porphyry, marble and stained glass. It is not just a structure; it is a home, a statement and a place of democracy. It stands for something in this nation and beyond, far more than mere bricks and mortar. This is the place where democracy lives. It is so easy to say that we could move elsewhere and that it would still be a Parliament, but it would not be the Palace of Westminster. It would not be the building that has survived fire and bombing—it has survived the most horrendous impacts and we have somehow come through—and it is crucial that that footprint be retained and we maintain our presence in this building.
When the Leader of the House introduced the debate today, she twice used the word “iconic”. It is one of the most overused words in the British language. It is a word that we toss around; we call London taxis iconic. We use the word very promiscuously, but if ever that word had a resonance, a meaning and a reality, it is in respect of this building. This is the iconic building. Let us not even think about the tourists who come here and who would be displaced if we moved to the QEII. Let us not think about those things. Let us just think about what this building means as an icon of representative democracy, where the people’s voices are heard in this building, in this Chamber, in this Palace of Westminster. We cannot lose this. We have fought too hard over generations to maintain and keep it.
Yes, there is work to be done, but is it really beyond the wit of humanity to come up with some kind of compartmentalised, bulkhead system whereby we could do the work in sections? There is only one sewage pipe—I do not want to go into the dreadful scatological details—but surely we could section it off and work on one bit and then another. I am prepared to lay down my liberty and to work in that coprophiliac hell down there if that needs to be done. What needs to be done must be done quickly. Let us all agree on that. Let us also agree that moving to Perth is not an option. But whatever we decide tonight, let us not take lightly the duty and responsibility that weighs on our shoulders to preserve, maintain, keep, endorse and support this place, this home of democracy, this true icon of all that we hold dear.
I rise to speak to amendment (c), and I hope that in so doing I can be helpful to the House in explaining an option for a decant that has historical precedent. This would not be the first time that the Commons and the Lords had met in other places. Westminster Abbey Chapter House has been used, and Church House was used extensively during the second world war. Church House was first used as a contingency Chamber on 7 November 1940, and it was used during three main periods during world war two. In fact, in 1944, both Houses of Parliament were forced to decant to what was then known as the Churchill club, as Church House was sometimes described. I would like to assure Members that the corporation of Church House still stands ready to speak to the Government about once again accommodating Parliament, should the need arise. Many of Churchill’s famous speeches were made in Church House. The then Prime Minister announced the sinking of the Bismarck and the loss of HMS Hood in Church House in 1941, and a plaque can be seen in the Hoare memorial hall, where he made the speech, commemorating that event. Heritage is taken seriously, and any visitor would immediately be aware of the links with Church House.
I will give Members a quick guided tour of what is available at Church House. The main assembly room has exactly the same number of seats as this Chamber, and it was designed with a bombproof roof to increase security after the experience of world war one. The assembly room is set within two sets of exterior walls to address the security needs of the time, and that would address today’s needs, too. Dean’s Yard, with which Members are probably familiar, has a secure entrance with a narrow archway and barrier and contains a quadrangle with no access from outside, around which cars can circulate securely. It would be possible to close the relatively little-used Great College Street and Great Smith Street without great disruption. There are many committee rooms and reception rooms, and Bishop Partridge Hall, which is roughly the same size as the Grand Committee Room, is often used for events—Members may have been there. There is a chapel, a large dining area, catering and, yes, licensed refreshment facilities.
All that is why Church House had a contract with the parliamentary estate until recently to provide a default setting to decant at short notice in times of emergency. It is worth emphasising that it would take less public money to adapt Church House for the needs of one or both Chambers than to construct a replica building. The optics for parliamentarians are therefore strong, because explaining to our constituents, as taxpayers, why we are spending such an amount of money gets a bit easier when we can explain that it has been done before.
To add a little more historical information, Church House has been used for the state opening of Parliament. A simple ceremony was conducted with little of the picturesque tradition that we see in a full state opening, but it was 1939. The King himself made his speech from the throne in Church House, so it has even been used for that purpose.
I simply wanted to provide colleagues with some thoughts on how decanting could be done more quickly. I listened carefully to the Leader of the House, and she said that we would be decanting in 2025—the middle of the next decade—which, in the spirit of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), is not very rapid. Church House would stand ready to help, as it has done before, and there is a strong historical precedent that can be used to explain to taxpayers why it may be an entirely practical solution to address the concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
It is a pleasure to follow so many erudite speeches, particularly that of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). He is a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and I have enormous respect for him, but I was puzzled to hear him say that he wanted quick action, but also that he did not want to make a decision tonight. He and I share a healthy scepticism of experts—someone does not get to chair the PAC without being able to challenge experts—and that is why the Committee considered the work of the Joint Committee of this House to assure ourselves and help to assure the House that its work was robust and thorough.
It is no accident that the Deputy Chair of that Committee, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), 13 Select Committee Chairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) back my amendment (b) to motion No. 1. We regularly consider large projects and how they are managed. We routinely and regularly criticise Departments for their poor procurement, poor project management and poor contracting, and it is important that we get all that right. It is also important that we bottom out what we are trying to achieve right at the very beginning and that we work through the figures. We know that the Joint Committee did not draw up full and detailed costings, which would take a long time to get right, but its figures were robustly reached and were orders of magnitude of the cost. However, the costings are still pegged to 2014 prices, so let us not use them as though they are the actual figures. That is why further work needs to be done. It cannot be done unless we make a very clear decision tonight. That does not mean kicking it into the long grass; it means making a firm decision about the options. That is why I propose a decant, because we know that moving the project quickly, specifying it well and doing it over a short period of time will be a lot cheaper.
My concern is that the figures are not, in fact, robust—they are out by 16.5 feet in the proposals for Richmond House. We had hundreds of pages of consultants’ reports, and this key fact is wrong. If that key fact is wrong, how many other facts are wrong?
My Committee’s work did not particularly look at that aspect. We were looking at the refurbishment side. The hon. Gentleman sat on the Joint Committee and agreed its report. The National Audit Office assessed the robustness of the methodology used in that report—it did not do a full analysis, because such assurance is a very long job—and it assured us that the work was thorough and credible.
There was a sampling of some of the examples we have heard from other hon. Members tonight, and the costs were considered in order to extrapolate the indicative cost figure—the order of magnitude. The work of the Joint Committee was robust and thorough, as far as it could go, but until Members of this House make a decision, we cannot go into the full detail of the figures. That is why we need to make a decision.
The Palace of Westminster is, of course, a world heritage site, which means it comes under UNESCO rules. I have been in touch with Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO’s assistant director general for culture—I have copied our correspondence to the UK permanent delegation—and under UNESCO rules the UK Treasury is responsible for funding this building and making sure it is preserved as a world heritage site.
By December 2018 the Government have to provide information to UNESCO about their plans for this building, and in 2019—incidentally the year that we are expected to leave the European Union—we will also be on the world stage because UNESCO’s committee will consider the Government’s decisions and proposals and assess whether they are acceptable and will do enough to preserve this world heritage site.
As other hon. Members have said, it is not about us. It is about members of the public and the staff who work here, but this is also an internationally iconic building. Are we really saying that we are unable to make a decision tonight to ensure that we work up full costings and a full programme of work so that we can get on with the job, as the Public Accounts Committee concluded?
I have also seen correspondence from David Orr and Jennifer Wood, the external members of the Palace of Westminster restoration and renewal programme board, who wrote to David Natzler, the Clerk of the House, in March 2017 and last week to reiterate their “serious concerns” about the “continuing delay” in holding debates on this issue, so I congratulate the Leader of the House on ensuring that we had this debate today. They also say that
“the idea that the debates…will not be a Decision in Principle but instead would give approval to a shadow Sponsor Board and shadow Delivery Authority and commission them to study further options before bringing the matter back to Parliament”
is a matter of concern. They say that one of the motions
“envisages only essential work doing this Parliament followed by a further review before 2022 to consider the need for comprehensive works…We are dismayed by these developments and seriously concerned about the level of risk that is being tolerated.”
We have heard about the risks and safety issues, and it is a real concern to me that we must move forward. We cannot keep putting this into the long grass. We have to make a decision.
Let us be clear: we are a group of people who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, aspire to run the country. In doing that, we have to make decisions. We need to make a decision tonight about this building. Of course it is going to cost money but, let us face it, it is not as if the Treasury is going to give that money to something in my constituency—we cannot see such things as equivalents.
This building is at risk unless we make a decision. Let us move forward and get the full costings and the full programme of works so that we can get on with the job.
There is good news in this debate, which is that there seems to be universal agreement, from Members in all parts of the House, that where urgent work needs doing to guarantee the future safety of those who work in this place and those who visit, we should press on with it. Indeed, there is a strong feeling that there is a need for greater urgency in such work. From most things that I have read and heard, it seems that rewiring is a very urgent priority, as that is where the worst fire risk seems to come from. Substantial pipe work may also need doing, where pipes need replacing or re-routing as part of a safety plan. These things can all be done through compartmentalising—taking things in stages and linking up as appropriate. We know we can work alongside builders and maintenance companies, because we are doing that all the time. I pay tribute to those who are working on the Elizabeth Tower at the moment. They are getting on with their work in a way that is not disruptive of our work at all. They must be working in confined and difficult circumstances, but they have so far done it in a way that is entirely compatible with the work of Parliament. So I hope that the Leader of the House would take away the sense that urgent work for the safety of people here in future and for the safety of the very fabric of the building might be accelerated, with options looked at so that we can press on with it in a timely and sensible way.
I find myself having more difficulties about the much bigger scheme being launched any time soon. As we have heard, quite big elements of it have not been properly thought through or costed, which makes taking a decision in principle a bit more difficult. I find myself in that interesting position where many parliamentarians find themselves: having been entirely of the leave faith on the referendum issue, now, showing flexibility and how I am always influenced by the facts, I find myself firmly in the remain camp on this parliamentary discussion.
Let us first address the issue of decanting to an alternative Chamber, which we would have to build. We hear there are problems with the site for one of the potential alternatives. I just do not think our constituents would understand our spending a very large sum on producing a temporary replica of this Chamber for a limited number of years—we are told it will be a short period, but some of us think it will be for rather longer—when there are so many other priorities. My constituents want us to spend more on health and social care, the military and so forth, and I agree with them.
I am grateful for that correction, and I did understand that, but the public are saying that this is really only going to be used for a few years because we will come back to use the main Chamber, and this is a very expensive investment in contingency, particularly as one hopes the contingency never occurs. We know from history that there are other ways of dealing with a disaster contingency, as unfortunately people had to do during the second world war. We would cross that bridge in the awful event that we needed to do so, but investing a lot of money in such a protection would be a strange thing to do—I rest my case. I do not think my constituents would regard that as something they would want their taxpayers’ money spent on at the moment. I agree with them that we need to spend a bit more on health and social care. Those would clearly be the priorities if we had this extra money to spend.
Finally, let me say that I agree with those who think there is something very special about this place and something important about it for our democracy. This is the mother of Parliaments and this building does have great resonance around the world, being associated with the long history of freedom, and the development of the power of voice and vote for all adults in our country. It would be strange indeed to be turning our back on that for a period, particularly when we are going through a big constitutional and political change in order to implement the wishes of the British people as expressed in the referendum. Particularly during this period, it is important that our visitors can come to be reminded of our national story and why we are where we are. All those of us who seek to represent people should be daily reminded of that national story when we come here—
No, as I am conscious of time.
We need to be reminded of that story as we go past the memorial to suffragettes, as we go past the statues and paintings of those who made such a contribution to past political battles and debates, and of those who were part of the story of wresting control from the monarch and establishing the right of many more people to vote and have their voice heard through Members of Parliament. That proud history makes this more than an iconic building, more than a world heritage site; it is a living part of our democracy. Our interaction with it and our presence on this grand political stage is the very essence of our democracy. I do not want us to move away for a few years at this critical moment in our national story.
It is good to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), but I wonder how many times people have said in this place, “This is a critical time of national importance, and therefore we should do nothing.” I am sure those words have rung in many people’s ears.
I declare an interest: after the 1840 fire, the stone for the building we now sit in was brought from my constituency. Quarried near a village called Anston, it came via the Chesterfield canal. This icon we have lived in for all this time is something that the people of my constituency like and enjoy, and they—especially children at local schools—are very proud of where it came from. Most of those who, like me, worked in industry and have looked at the health and safety issues here say, “You need to sort that out, Kevin. It’s not as it should be.”
This place is changing quite rapidly. I have been here longer than most, but for the last few weeks, for the first time, I have had workmen outside my office window. There would be nothing surprising about that, except that my office is at the very top of the building, above Speaker’s House, overlooking the Thames. As everyone here knows, work on the roof has been going on for quite a long time now, because of the state the roof is in. When I came to the Chamber today, along the corridor by the Hansard offices to a lift that brings me down to Members’ Lobby, I saw some steel props holding up the roof. It looks a bit like my workplace before I came into Parliament—Maltby colliery. There are some yellow covers, but the props are pinned on the carpet and holding the roof up in the corridor—such are the needs that this House has.
Many hon. Members have talked about the money, so let me look in this excellent publication answering Members’ frequently asked questions about the restoration and renewal programme. We have been—I have three decades’ experience of this—in a position of patch and mend in this place. The publication states:
“Nearly £60 million was spent on essential work to the Palace during 2015/16, £49 million was spent the year before that, and the backlog of essential repairs”
“estimated at more than £1 billion in 2012”.
“in turn, the risk of system failure, is growing significantly over time. By 2020, some 40% of the mechanical and electrical plant…will be at an unacceptably high risk of failure. By 2025, it will be more than 50%.”
I worked with my hands before I came here, and I would not want to be responsible for some of the kit I have seen when looking around. When I worked underground as an electrician, I was responsible for keeping equipment in proper order so it would not blow up, probably taking hundreds of lives with it. Some of the work here needs to be sorted out, and sorted out quickly.
I listened to the talk about cost, and I looked at the 2014 figures for the three options we have. The cost given for the rolling programme, taking place over 25 to 40 years, is £5.67 billion; for the two-phase approach, taking between 9 and 14 years, £4.42 billion; and for the full decant, single-phase approach, £3.52 billion.
No, because other people want to speak.
Last night, the HS2 Bill was debated in this Chamber. In 2010, it was estimated that it would cost £32.7 billion, and then it went up to £55.7 billion. In 2016, the National Audit Office said it had a running cost overrun of some £7 billion, and most people on the Conservative Benches voted in favour of it. I can tell the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who is no longer in his place, about the cost overrun on most things—you know about them if you get somebody in to build an extension on your building. They cannot put in a bathroom without cost overruns. It is about time that this House took the right decision and sorted itself out. Of course we love this iconic place, but we will not like it if we cannot sit in it because of emergencies that may come along. I shall be supporting amendment (b) to motion No. 1 in the Division Lobby tonight.
I want to go back to this 16 and a half feet—16ft 5in to be precise. When we sat on the Committee, we looked at and studied the report from Deloitte, we took evidence from experts, we sat for hours and we came to a conclusion based on the possibility that an inexpensive temporary Chamber could be put in Richmond House. That was fundamental to what we concluded. It turns out that that was wrong—that actually the measurements were out and therefore it would not work. That seems to me to undermine all that we tried to do. If the people responsible could not even measure a courtyard, how could they possibly get the figures right on the overall proposals that were being made? I regret that the work that we did and the conclusions that we drew have been fatally undermined by the fact that the figures we were provided with on an essential basis for our conclusion were wrong.
I will not on this occasion because time is so limited. I do apologise. I always like to give way, but I think that I had better not on this occasion.
That troubles me. The other thing that troubled me throughout the Committee process was that we never looked at the figures on the basis of a discounted cash flow, and so the assumption that was made was that a pound spent in 40 years’ time had exactly the same value as a pound spent tomorrow. That is incorrect. A pound spent in 40 years’ time obviously has a lesser value. When we consulted the Comptroller and Auditor General about that, he said in evidence that that was not how Government projects were done: Government projects look at the economic return that one gets on the expenditure, and not on the discounted value of money that one may spend in future. However, this is not a project that reveals a return; it is not an investment in that sense, but a cost. Therefore we need to look at the discounted cost, at which point the remaining in becomes the cheapest option by a considerable margin. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) may shout no, but that is what the figures show when we apply a sensible discount rate.
The other thing that has concerned me throughout this process is that we are being too precious and we are assuming that we will not accept any modest inconvenience. The hon. Member for Rhondda said that costs go up because work has to be done at night. We have to accept that, in this process of saving this building and ensuring that we are here, there may be some modest inconvenience to Members of Parliament. Are we really so precious that there must never even be the slightest sound of a hammer bashing a nail into a piece of wood? Are our ears so sensitive that we cannot bear that strain upon them?
I, along with the hon. Member for Rhondda, was extremely keen that we should sit in Westminster Hall, because Westminster Hall is not part of the main restoration and renewal project; it is outside it. The argument that we got against Westminster Hall was the most negative naysaying approach that we could have had—that the roof put up by Richard II would fall upon our heads if we had a little bit of heating in there. The naysayers wanted to put us in a glass pod—a temperature-controlled pod to ensure that we were kept at the perfect temperature, boiled to the right level in Fahrenheit or centigrade, whichever you prefer. This is a building that has survived for 800 years, not a hot air heating system. Once they said it was a glass pod, the glass pod was then too heavy for the floor. Whatever way we look at it, they were naysayers. It seems to me that we could have sat there in our overcoats, as that would have solved the problem in the winter. And in the summer, some hon. Members more racy than I am might have felt it possible to take off their jackets. It seems to me that there is an easy, affordable solution whereby we maintain a Chamber in our historic residence. That is what we should do and that is what we should vote for.
May I first congratulate the officials of the House on all the work that they have done on the various aspects of R and R? We think that it has been first class. It has been detailed and considered. Anything that my hon. Friends or I say today is in no way a criticism of the professional way in which the House staff have gone about their work. That includes the recent issuing of the client advisory services contracts not least to ensure that the building is safe for the thousands of staff and visitors who are here every single day, and to minimise the risk of catastrophic failure. As it is a House matter, it may well be that this House concludes that an expensive restoration of this royal palace, in whatever guise, is the right thing to do because some argue that this is the historic home of the UK Parliament. If that is the decision, although I may not agree with it, I will certainly respect it.
My criticism of the motions before us today and the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) is twofold. First, it is flawed that we are not even prepared to consider, on cost-effective grounds, the delivery of a new Parliament on a new site. My second criticism is that we are prepared to proceed without taking this once in a 160 or 170-year opportunity genuinely to modernise the way we work.
On my first point, the Leader of the House has outlined a delivery body to investigate the three options before us: a full decant, a partial decant, and a full decant while retaining a foothold. Motion No. 2 clearly includes a cost-benefit analysis of each option. But if we are to agree to the creation of a delivery body with a sponsor board doing a cost-benefit analysis of these three options, surely we should do the same cost-benefit analysis of the delivery of a new Parliament on a new site.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that has been repeated a number of times in this debate, which is that all three options—in his case, four—should be worked up. It costs a lot of money to work up options to the level that Members are asking. We need to consider that, which is one of the reasons why I am proposing a clear decision tonight.
I respect that the hon. Lady is proposing a clear decision. The problem is that the decision that she is proposing and the other options on the table explicitly exclude even an analysis of what we believe would be the most cost-effective grounds.
Under any of the other motions before us, we would end up in the ludicrous position of agreeing to proceed on the basis of a decision to rule out that which might be the most cost-effective option. At the same time, we are expected to allow a delivery body to reinvestigate three options or proceed with a single one, when those options were priced in 2014. Those costs may now be wildly inaccurate. We will be abandoning the opportunity that a new Parliament building might offer.
Depending on the option chosen by the delivery body mentioned in the motion of the Leader of the House, and given that the timescale for completion could be anywhere from eight to 40 years, we may also be in a position—although we cannot be certain—in which what appears to be a sensible or cost-effective decision today looks absolutely bonkers in a few years’ time when the floor is up, the roof is off and people look behind the oak panelling. In short, to prohibit the delivery body from even doing a cost-benefit analysis of a new Parliament building is short-sighted. This is important because when the new build option was ruled out in 2012, it was after a pre-feasibility study had been completed, and that study suggested that a new parliamentary building might cost £800 million. I understand that updating those figures for inflation, using the tender price index from 2012, and applying a 22% optimism bias would still give an updated net capital investment figure of £1.4 billion. That figure may be completely wrong—it may be double, treble or quadruple that—but for goodness’ sake, if the starting point is lower than all the other options, surely we are duty bound to have the delivery body investigate it.
On the second point of concern, namely that of modernisation, I very much support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). We simply must have seats for every single Member in both the temporary and permanent Chambers. The only argument I have ever heard against the modernisation proposal—we heard it earlier today—is that Members can accost a Minister if they happen to be in the same voting Lobby. I have never had any difficulty contacting a Minister or their Parliamentary Private Secretary if the situation is urgent, and I have never once heard that criticism raised by those in the Scottish Parliament, where electronic voting is the norm.
My hon. Friend made some fun of this issue earlier, but let me add a little weight to it. The 10 votes we had on 17 January took a combined total of 1,200 man, woman or people hours—two hours per MP—which is time that could have been far better used. In the Scottish Parliament, those votes would have taken 10 minutes.
Given that neither of the motions in the name of the Leader of the House or the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch accommodates our ambitions, we are unable to support any of them.
I want to start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for tabling the motions and for the very able way in which she opened the debate and put the arguments so very clearly.
Nobody wants to leave this House—of course we do not—but we do have a duty and an obligation to future generations to make sure that it is looked after and repaired properly. That is the most important thing.
I hope that the delivery body will look at working on this site 24/7. This is an island site: there is no reason why it cannot be worked 24/7. As I understand it, the proposals that would take seven or eight years are based on working a normal week. This is an island site with no neighbours. I fully agree with the point made earlier—I was going to suggest it myself—that we should give ourselves planning permission on this site. We should be able to deliver that. As a world heritage site, there will be certain obligations, and that is absolutely right. That is why I am much more optimistic that this project can be done quicker than the previously proposed timescales.
During my period as Secretary of State for Transport, I was very fortunate to see some remarkable projects in this country, one of which was London Bridge station, which has just been completed. It was awful that people had to suffer the development of London Bridge, but we can now see that it is a great example of English engineering and people doing a job. However, it would have been done much more cheaply and much quickly if we could have closed it. The fact is that when we operate in buildings at the same time as engineering work is being done to them, the work takes longer and it is more expensive.
Some colleagues say we can segment the work and do it in sections. I would like to know how many of them have done the basement tour. I suggest that they go and work there for six months—actually, I think six hours would probably be enough for them to realise that the conditions are absolutely intolerable for people to work in.
I have reservations about the proposal to build a completely new Chamber. If we are sensible about this, the simple fact is that, if we give two and a half years, and no longer, to do this work, there is no reason why we could not find alternative accommodation. The House sits approximately 146 days a year. It is not always as full as this. In fact, quite often it is a lot emptier. I very much doubt that we would need an exact mirror of the Chamber for the emergency period.
I would rather not, because I know that other Members want to speak, and time is rather tight.
Those are some of my suggestions about the way forward. We should set the delivery body up and move forward, and that body should be instructed to look at doing it a lot more quickly and efficiently; 24/7 working would suffice. That would mean we would be out of this place for a lot less time. On the basis that we have to get on with this job and have been delaying it for far too long, I will tonight support amendment (b).
On behalf of the House Commission, I would like to set out briefly for the House the background to the northern estates programme and its link to the proposed restoration and renewal of the Palace.
The northern estates programme covers Norman Shaw North and South, 1 Parliament Street and Derby Gate, where works are due to start later this year. Those buildings house around a third of Members and our staff. The Norman Shaw buildings were brought into use as offices for Members and their staff in the 1970s and now require major works, as does 1 Parliament Street. The Commission gave its approval to a major programme of refurbishment and renovation of the northern estate at the end of 2015, following scrutiny by the Administration and Finance Committees. The plans approved were to do the minimum necessary.
The plan at the time was to decant Members from the northern estate to 7 Millbank, do the works on the northern estate and then return Members to the northern estate. However, during 2014-15, security advice hardened against the use of 7 Millbank for Members. At the same time, Ministers were persuaded to pass Richmond House to Parliament. We finally got the keys to that three weeks or so ago.
The plan changed, and this time it was to decant northern estate Members into Richmond House after some improvements. It also became clear from the Joint Committee report that the courtyard of Richmond House, which has been referred to a number of times, was the only viable location within the secure perimeter for an interim Chamber.
Now a much more ambitious programme of works is being planned on and around Richmond House. It involves construction of what is, in essence, a replica Chamber for use during R and R that can be used as a contingency Chamber in the longer term, as agreed by the Commission in September. It also involves construction of immediate surrounds of Lobbies, business offices and so on, as well as Committee rooms and the necessary decant space for the third of Members and their staff whose offices are in the Palace.
Subject to the outcome of today’s debate, we will probably sequence the main work on the rest of the northern estate, decanting one building at a time while we prepare the Richmond House block. The costs are substantial, with very roughly half attributable to the need to restore the old northern estate and half to a decant to enable restoration and renewal of the Palace. In return, we will have a contingency Chamber that can have many functions and a legacy building that can play a vital part in our education and outreach efforts, as well as providing space that should, in time, enable us to end our reliance on expensive leased office space for hundreds of parliamentary staff.
Those were words from the Commission. I would now like to say a few words of my own. We must get on with this, and that is why I support amendment (b). I have been involved as Deputy Leader of the House, in a ministerial capacity, from 2012 to 2015 and then on the House of Commons Commission, and I am afraid there has been much delay and procrastination on this. I agree that the Leader of the House has grasped this and is moving forward, but there has been much delay. The excuses for why we cannot proceed have been multiple.
This is an opportunity to create a Parliament fit for the 21st century. I agree with the earlier point on electronic voting and also that we should have a horseshoe Chamber in which every Member of Parliament has a seat, which most people in most environments would expect to be the norm. We need a fully accessible Parliament for visitors and Members of Parliament. It is not right that Members of either House who are in a wheelchair cannot in some cases even get into the Chamber and certainly cannot sit, for instance, with their own party. That is something that needs to be addressed as well.
Finally, we have an opportunity to create an exemplar environmental building, incorporating state-of-the-art retrofitted environmental measures, built to the best environmental standards and minimising the environmental impact of the building—by transferring waste and building supplies up and down the river, for example.
I fully support the delivery authority and board model that is proposed. That model was very successful in delivering the Olympics, partly because all the parties were bound together and agreed to proceed with that project. I hope that we might reach the point where we agree to do the same in relation to the renewal of the mother of all Parliaments.
The problem with today’s debate, and the reason I will be supporting motion No. 1 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, is that in many ways we are being asked to take a bit of a punt and a bit of a guess. What I like about the motion is paragraphs (4) and (5), which amendment (b) seeks to amend, because I honestly do not believe that we have enough facts before us. We should have been given a plan set around a timeframe, showing how and when certain components could be delivered.
We are told on principle that we must all just leave, and that it will cost billions. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) pointed out, some of the facts in the report are not correct. But regardless of that, when I was listening to the speech by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), I noticed that the project has become a shopping list to which we can add new items. The cost goes up and up. Even in the words of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, only 75% of the projected costs are for the necessary work. So at a time when there is tightness on the public purse, it appears that we are bringing in a shopping list of things that we may not need. I find that very hard to defend to my constituents. I have rightly told them, and will carry on doing so, that the Government have a responsibility to live within their means, but now it seems that with our own buildings, money is no object.
I will be supporting motion No. 1, but I would like to see more detail, especially with regard to paragraph (4)—
“funding should be limited to facilitate essential work”.
Because there is that other aspect of this debate, and for all the Members who say that there is absolutely no way that we would not return to this Chamber, there has been movement. The SNP has now made it quite clear that it does not think we should come back, and we have just heard that the Liberal Democrats think we should change the way we do our democracy—that we should have a horseshoe, and that we should sit at desks. We are a debating Chamber. We do not sit here and read things into the record, like they do in the United States Congress; we debate. This afternoon, I have sat through this debate and it has been excellent; I respect all the points that have been made. At times this afternoon I was wondering where I might be going tonight, but I have listened very carefully, and the arguments I have heard tonight in this great Chamber have led me to believe that at this moment in time, motion No. 1 is the one to support, because we need more details about exactly how the work will be carried out, when, and at what cost, and that process needs to be developed and brought forward in a more sensible way.
None of us in here would like to create a situation where the health and safety and wellbeing of the people who work here would be seriously put at threat. But one cannot on the one hand argue that we must move because there is a 50:50 chance that a fire will occur by 2020, which could kill everyone on the top floor, and then say, “But we would not leave until 2025.” We have heard that in the second world war, this Chamber was bombed and we moved to another area. Well, we could go from the invasion of Poland to the moment Adolf Hitler shot himself, and we would still wait another year before we left the Chamber. So if the urgency for health and safety reasons is that great, why are we not doing anything until 2025?
Many points have been made. I absolutely agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) said about working 24/7. That absolutely should be mandated, to get on with this work, but I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House also to look at the parliamentary timetable and what we do in those two weeks in September. Can they be redistributed in the year? Could that be the tour of the United Kingdom that many people are suggesting? Three months at 24/7 over the next seven years would give us quite a lot of time to get a lot of the work done—including the total decant out there.
I want to see a lot more robust detail laid out, and motion No. 1, in the name of my right hon. Friend, allows that to happen. We are taking action today: we are having this debate. It has fleshed out a lot of the arguments, and there has been movement on both sides, but I feel that the time has come for us to have things laid out more clearly and more succinctly.