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Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021

I beg to move,

That, under the provisions of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, Tommy Sheppard having resigned as a Parliamentary member of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, Kirsty Blackman be appointed to the Body in his place.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to this motion, which has been put before the House at a critical moment for the restoration and renewal project. The appointment of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) to the Sponsor Body comes as the officials charged with delivering the works are beginning to draw up more detailed proposals, which will ultimately be put to the House for approval.

During this process, hon. Members will, if today’s motion is agreed to, be asked their views on all manner of questions —questions such as: should we put a glass roof on this or that courtyard; or, should we go above and beyond our statutory obligations; or should we spend £1.5 billion on a temporary Chamber? Sometimes it will be up to us, as Members of Parliament, to say, “No, thank you.” That is why the work of Members sitting on the Sponsor Body is so important, because the input of those directly accountable to taxpayers should make a real difference to what is eventually brought forward.

The Sponsor Body and the delivery authority will not be spending the coming months drawing up their plans to advance this project in isolation. Indeed, they have already begun engaging with Members to understand their views. This summer, Members will have the opportunity to put forward opinions on the initial work directly, with further opportunities continuing later in the year and into 2022. I strongly encourage hon. and right hon. Members to take up this opportunity. At the same time, the Sponsor Body and the delivery authority will proceed with their work, while listening carefully to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North as well as to other Members from the major parties on the Sponsor Body, who will, together, helpfully scrutinise and shape the activity. This was a task that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) had been approaching with his customary aplomb. Indeed, I am delighted to see the third party taking such an interest in the long-term future of the Palace of Westminster, and I am glad to see that are its Members are here. This is great contribution to our nation.

What is at stake here does not rest on party membership or whether one sits on the Government or the Opposition Benches; what matters is our responsibility to our constituents. We as Members are the ones who will have to look taxpayers in the eye and explain why we are spending public money on the facilities and buildings of Westminster rather than elsewhere on public services used by millions. Yes, the Palace of Westminster must be saved for future generations, but in aiming to achieve that goal we must seek to build the broadest possible consensus across the House, which means preparing a programme of works that prioritises what is vital, not gold plating. I am confident that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North will play her part, through her discussions with fellow parliamentarians, so that we can arrive at a sensible outline business case that allows the programme to proceed on schedule. That is the outcome we all want to achieve, and I am sure the hon. Lady will help realise it. On that basis, I commend this motion to the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for outlining the work that is going to be undertaken on the Sponsor Body, I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for all the work he has done, and I wish the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) well in her future work.

I strongly welcome the appointment of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) to the Sponsor Body board, and note and appreciate the work of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). On the Sponsor Body board, we work as parliamentarians on a cross-party and both Houses basis, joining outside experts in overseeing and scrutinising the work of the Sponsor Body, which in turn is there to act on Parliament’s behalf to ensure that the project is done in the public interest and, crucially, at the best value for taxpayer money. As parliamentary members, we can also act as a channel between colleagues here and the restoration and renewal programme. Of course, we are Parliament’s representatives on the restoration and renewal Sponsor Body, not the Sponsor Body’s representatives in Parliament.

We do not yet know exactly how long this project is going to take in total—that will come in the full plan, which will be presented to this House—but we do know it will be a substantial period of time. In recent history, MPs have averaged 13 or 14 years of service, and the average current MP has already done six. So even on a rather optimistic view of our own electoral future fortunes, most of us are not going to be here when this is finished. But it is to this generation of parliamentarians that it falls to ensure that the necessary work gets done and that we secure the future of our Parliament and the building that houses it. There has just been a strategic review of the project and the approach, and work progresses now towards the full costed plan that will come before this House in early 2023. It is important work and this is an important phase, and I am keen to welcome the hon. Member for Aberdeen North to the Sponsor Body board.

I know that my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) will be a great asset to the Sponsor Body, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for his contributions previously. Like my colleagues in the Scottish National party, I recognise the essential nature of the renovation work being undertaken, but we are not fixing the Palace while the sun shines, so I commend all action to minimise costs and ensure that every penny is spent wisely. The oversight from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North will be helpful in that regard, and I have no doubt that procurement will be done with greater transparency, fairness and oversight than has perhaps characterised other more recent procurement exercises. I also look forward to seeing the restoration of trust in these processes. It is a pity that delay has led to increasing expense on the project. However, we need to make sure that every penny is accounted for. The SNP certainly will not stand in the way of any revamp. Indeed, we plan to play our part by cutting costs to the best of our ability, by vacating these premises on a permanent basis, as soon as Scotland gains our independence.

I am speaking in support of this motion, and I welcome the appointment of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) to the Sponsor Body. It is important that Members of all parties are properly represented on the board, and I fully expect her to represent the House to the highest standards. It is vital that MPs sit on the board of the Sponsor Body to carry out their duties to scrutinise R and R. Although the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 established an independent Sponsor Body to carry out the R and R project, which is an essential part of the legislation to streamline the project, it is essential that there is a mechanism to ensure that the House’s views are heard. We are the guardians of the taxpayer’s money, and R and R will involve vast sums of public cash. It is right that the project is completed, but it is essential that Members are in a position to scrutinise the way it is spent in line with the Act, which of course stipulates the importance of value for money. As a comparison, the cost of a new school is between £20 million and £30 million, and R and R may cost well into the billions.

As the Chancellor has made so very clear, the public finances are in a difficult state, and the Budget was a reminder of the huge efforts we need to make to ensure that the budget is balanced and our nation’s books are in good health. It is only right that we find ways of economising with R and R, and that means prioritising fire safety, making sure that our No. 1 focus is on stopping the Palace succumbing to the same fate as Notre-Dame. I commend the House for the progress on the fire safety works so far, with thousands of new sprinklers and many miles of piping in between them.

It is clear that the terms of debate on R and R have moved on significantly since the Act was passed, and of course the make-up of the House has changed since then. Some of the lessons we have learned from the hybrid system can be applied to R and R, and it is right for Members to raise this with the Sponsor Body. We know that the hybrid proceedings are a poor second best, but surely they are a very important temporary option that can be used in restoration and renewal if it means saving hundreds of millions or billions of pounds in construction costs and minimising the need for a full and lengthy decant.

This appointment comes at a critical time in the R and R process. The future of the project is becoming more apparent before us, and Members must be able to engage. The programme is on track to commence the main phase of works in the mid-2020s, which is why it is so important that the broadest possible consensus is achieved across the House. I welcome the appointment of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, and I hope that all Members agree that she will do an excellent job in holding R and R to account.

There is not a great deal to say beyond what has already been said, other than to record my thanks to all those who have spoken in the debate for their support. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) and I look forward to debating the question of Scottish independence at every other possible opportunity, wheedling it in to every debate however far from the subject matter at hand it happens to be.

I am grateful for the support of the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), my shadow, and for the work of the members of the Sponsor Body, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy), who made very important points about how they seek to carry out their role. I think my right hon. Friend’s point about representing the House of Commons to the Sponsor Body rather than the Sponsor Body to the House of Commons is absolutely fundamental.

I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who served with great distinction. He continues to serve in this House with considerable distinction, and he was also my opposite number for a time, which he did with great charm and elan. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.