[Relevant document: Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, Main Supply Estimate 2012-22: Comments from the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission and the Treasury, HC 1382.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.
Building works have long been on the minds of those in Westminster—ever since the 8th century, in fact, when St Peter and an accompanying heavenly choir descended from above to suggest to a passing fisherman that a church dedicated to him might be constructed on a site very close to where we stand today. Over the years, the view from that spot of raised ground on a marshy island between the Thames and two branches of the Tyburn has featured more than its fair share of scaffolding—the embankment of the Thames; the small palace of Edward the Confessor transformed into a sprawling complex of buildings; the construction of Westminster Hall; and the building of, first, a monastery and then Westminster Abbey itself, not to mention the creation of the neo-Gothic masterpiece whose preservation we are debating today.
Throughout the centuries, those bustling about Westminster have assented to these works because they recognise the importance of this place at the centre of our national story, and so it continues to this day, as we saw in the recent state opening when Her Majesty set out the Government’s plans to level up from within a building now receiving significant attention once again.
Such has been the zeal with which politicians of recent decades have concentrated on delivering for their constituents, however, that the present Palace of Westminster has been somewhat neglected. The Joint Committee on which I sat concluded in 2016 that the short-term fixes and sticking-plaster solutions that had prevailed in the post-war environment could no longer keep pace with the building’s deterioration. Although it recognised the limitations of the assessments before it at that stage, its recommendations for action were accepted by the House in early 2018.
Some cynics say that nothing has happened since then, but in fact, we have been a veritable hive of activity—not with bees on the roof, but with work to fix the cast-iron tiles that has made considerable progress. The encaustic tile restoration programme has been completed, in the final instance by Mr Speaker himself, who deserves congratulations for the splendour of our encaustic tiles, made in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). Some of these significant projects upon which the building’s future depend have been able to commence and even reach a degree of completion. The risk of a serious fire has been significantly reduced, with real progress towards proper compartmentation and the installation of over 8 miles of piping for the basement’s sprinkler system.
The Elizabeth Tower’s restoration is now nearing completion, and we all look forward to hearing Big Ben’s bongs resound once again. Indeed, they were bonging earlier today, though in a slightly random fashion; we look forward to them bonging the right time, as if we had dialled the speaking clock. The escalating cost of that project underlined the importance of our establishing the right governance structure for a programme of this magnitude. That has been achieved for restoration and renewal through primary legislation diligently piloted through the House by my illustrious predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom).
The Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority set up as a result have been able to start conducting preliminary work, including the first of 100 detailed surveys of the Palace, to help them more fully understand the scale of the challenge before them. As a result, the programme remains on track to begin its main phase as planned—again, so wisely by my predecessor—in the mid-2020s. However, its ultimate approval is a matter for Parliament, and will proceed only if we can achieve the broadest possible consensus across the House.
That is why today’s debate matters, because it fires the starting gun on what amounts to a critical phase for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. The coming months are an important period, during which we, the parliamentarians—the custodians of Westminster’s history, but also those responsible for protecting taxpayers’ interests—make our expectations clear, so that when the fully costed proposals are put before us in early 2023, we are able to approve them full-throatedly, safe in the knowledge that we are doing the right thing for our constituents and for our country in preserving both the cockpit of our democracy and the means of its proper functioning.
My hon. Friend puts her finger on the nub of the issue. The business case will be brought forward in early 2023, and this House will have to approve it. At that stage, we will decide whether the amount being asked for is an amount we feel our constituents can afford.
Earlier this year, the Sponsor Body published its own initial thoughts on how to proceed in its strategic review. That reflected work completed in 2020, before the full extent of the pandemic’s implications for R and R could be appreciated. It recommended that a period of vacation of the Palace remained necessary and that the main temporary facilities for the Commons should continue to be provided on Parliament’s secure northern estate. However, the past 15 months have shown that we are able to function for a time without every facility and, indeed, without a full Chamber. Doing so will always reduce our effectiveness—I am no great fan of remote proceedings, and I am delighted that this Chamber will be back to its bustling norm once restrictions are lifted—but I recognise that during the pandemic we have seen that some of the ancillary services the Joint Committee considered essential to be physically present next to the Chamber have turned out not to be so. It also seems reasonable to consider how technology might be used on a stand-by basis—in case of an emergency recall, for example.
Those are the sorts of things that we must collectively think about so that we can be clear what we are asking for. So many of the assumptions made just a few years ago now seem out of date. To decant or not to decant, that was the question. I have no opposition to a full decantation if it were nobler in the mind to suffer it, other than that it, as with the entire programme, needs to represent the best value for money, not a vehicle for a consummation devoutly to be wished. Given the efforts now under way to explore a maintained presence, it may be that we can take arms against a sea of troubles. Yes, we are likely to bear fardels because of the scale of these works, but the idea of Members being marched out of the Palace of Westminster for an entire Parliament or longer now appears more fanciful than it once did.
I am encouraged by the current explorations into whether a maintained presence is possible in the Palace of Westminster during the works and look forward to the conclusion of the Sponsor Body’s explorations in this regard. That is precisely the sort of issue on which it is quite right that guidance is provided by parliamentarians, who need to ensure that during this period our ability to conduct effective scrutiny is not unduly hindered.
The strategic review contains eight so-called stretch objectives, which set out how the works might go beyond the “do minimum” basics. Do we want to install systems that provide the best levels of comfort? Given the pressing priorities elsewhere on public spending, the answer seems obvious to me, but the Sponsor Body cannot proceed unless we spell it out to it. Do we want to meet the legislative, statutory and planning obligations when it comes to questions of sustainability, or do we want to exceed them? Members will be aware that discussions around environmental priorities have already changed since 2018, given the Government’s commitments towards becoming carbon neutral and the impact this change would have on energy inputs.
On the question of disabled access, I hope that we can all agree on a cost-effective approach which provides disabled Members with accessible workplaces and visitors with access to the key democratic parts of this building. On the question of accessibility, the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) has already made clear her commitment to championing accessibility for people with autism. Her contribution on this point is one I welcome and take seriously. It is a good example of the kind of cross-party working which can help us to shape the plans.
There will, of course, be more detailed conversations on that as we consider whether we need disabled access “to all users to all areas of the building”. These can build on the opinions already heard and the information already received from many Members as part of the Sponsor Body’s strategic review. I know the Sponsor Body also wants to consult around issues like a secondary debating chamber within the Palace, for example, or how best Members would like to use the available space. The next phase of this process, involving more formal consultation, will take place over the summer when Members will be invited and encouraged to share their views directly. If I could put in a plea from the Sponsor Body: please do take the opportunity to express your views to it.
As its work progresses, each period of engagement offers the chance to give ever more detailed views as the specific proposals for restoration and renewal are further developed. For this to be useful, Members must be invited to prioritise what matters most, where money must be spent and where it can be saved. Members will need to know the cost and benefits of each aspect of the schemes, so the choices and pay-offs between paying least and getting best value are understood and grasped by all of us. Ideally, each idea would have a clear price tag attached.
The Sponsor Body will be inviting the wider parliamentary community, including Members’ staff and administration staff, to take part in this consultation period, too. But Madam Deputy Speaker, it is the views of Members as the representatives of taxpayers whose voice I want to amplify today. It is, after all, our constituents and our constituents alone who give us a seat in this place and whose views we represent. When we knock on doors at election time, we need to be able to look them in the eye and explain why the public funds devoted to this project are not being spent on local schools or hospitals or other public services. We want to level up the country, not the Palace of Westminster, so we must be clear that we are concentrating on vital works. We do not want
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
Our more modest requirement is merely that our democracy should be able to function properly during the period of the works and thereafter. The building’s primary purpose should not be as a museum or a tourism hotspot or as another Disneyland. It should not be, to misquote a famous advertisement campaign of the Victoria & Albert Museum, “An ace caff with quite a nice parliament attached”.
The United Kingdom’s Parliament is a place of work and has been for centuries; a collective endeavour where our primary shared goal is legislating. That is how we make a difference to the lives of our constituents. We should have the confidence and the pride in our role as lawmakers to explain this and to shape the programme accordingly. So I look forward to hearing the views expressed in this debate today and I hope Members will come forward as more details emerge throughout the year: Members of all parties, of all regions and nations, Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike; newer Members who may still be around throughout the period of the works; and time-honoured Members who understand the value of a give-and-take proper in-person debate in the Chamber, just as much as they do the usefulness of a quiet word with the Minister in the corridors of this building.
During the rest of this year and beyond we will be doing what those before us have done for centuries in Westminster: using the power of this sovereign institution to improve people’s lives. Yet as we do so, we should probably also spare a moment or two to attend to playing our part in shaping Westminster’s long history as the centre of our national life, of our island story. So when, eventually, St Peter returns with his heavenly choir, he will look from his abbey across to a building that he will be able to report back to a carpenter’s son is one that he can be proud of. In that spirit, I look forward to the remainder of this debate with bated breath, and I commend the motion to the House.
Many of us, and I hope all of us, love this place. I share that love, obviously, with the Leader of the House—this place, its history, its architecture and what it means to be working in the home of our democracy, one of our greatest traditions and most successful exports. Today, we get our first chance to debate the restoration and renewal of the Palace since a major review recommended that the full decant—moving everybody off the estate for a short period—is required. We will debate whether that is short or long enough, but it is indeed required—for cost as well as for safety and effectiveness.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, this is a place of work, but it is a place of work in which we are the custodians of a world heritage site, a world heritage site that has seeping sewage, asbestos, and pipes and wires going who knows where, doing who knows what, and where there is flood and fire risk. That needs fixing urgently, and we can no longer rely on luck. The public care deeply about this place. The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention our accountability to the taxpayers; they want us to spend the money wisely, and they deserve to have this monument to democracy preserved as a place of business in a way that they may continue to be part of, scrutinising our proceedings in this place safely and accessibly.
The House of Commons Commission, before I became a member of it, asked the sponsor body to investigate works for “a continued presence” on the estate. However, the review has already recommended that the best and most cost-effective thing is to continue with a full decant. We cannot carry on like this, endlessly going backwards and forwards, with debates and reviews, endlessly revisiting decisions that have been taken. I declare right now, if it is not already obvious, that I am firmly in the camp that many MPs, staff, trade unions and specialists are in, which is the “let’s get on with it” camp.
I know what it is like—I understand right hon. and hon. Members who worry about missing this place. I know what it is like to miss it and, like all of us, at some point to wonder whether we will even return to it after an election. We all come to this place knowing that we could leave at short notice, and we all want to make the most of it while we are here. Only those with a heart of stone could fail to be moved by the magnificence of Westminster Hall—a millennium of history, a cathedral to democratic representation and civic engagement, from the throwing of ordure in the civil war to, yes, the gift shop and caff. There is, too, the wonderful art of the “New Dawn” stained glass, celebrating women’s suffrage. I get that people are in love with this building—I am, too.
I will never forget my first experience of this Palace, as a young campaigner wanting to change the law on domestic violence, sitting right up there in the visitors’ Gallery till the early hours of the morning, watching the debate on a law that I had helped to shape and hearing a Labour Front Bencher—from this Dispatch Box—propose amendments that I had campaigned and provided the evidence for. I felt in awe of what happens when democratically elected representatives—not just the campaigners—are convinced of an argument sufficiently to change the law of the land in ways that benefit millions of people.
After being taken for tea in what I now realise must have been the cafeteria, the late noble Lord Russell, with whom we had been working, took my colleague and me back through the Palace to his car to give us a lift to the station. As we turned a corner, I heard what I still swear was Shirley Bassey singing. I cannot prove that but, if any hon. Members were here in 1996, on Third Reading of the Family Law Act 1996, I will be grateful if they could not disabuse me of that special memory and tell me that, actually, it was they who were singing “Goldfinger” at 3 o’clock in the morning. My heart stopped as I saw for the first time the Gothic temple that is Central Lobby and heard that voice.
I never tire of skipping up the majestic staircase from Members’ Cloakroom to Members’ Lobby, thinking of Members in times past who had to do their casework on their briefcases at one of the side seats. The Library is where I have done some of my best work for my constituents, researching their problems, finding solutions and, of course, gazing at the river outside. Make the most of it. Enjoy the Library, make friends with the Members’ staircase and marvel at Westminster Hall, but please do not let us be selfish and mess this up by blocking what is needed to preserve this place as a place of democracy, either by insisting on keeping a presence—thereby introducing delays, further expense and possible risks to safety—or by endlessly delaying it. The work need doing, and doing urgently, if we are to hand over this place and its history to the next generation.
When surveyed, the British people say that they want us to look after Westminster. They support restoration and renewal. Yes, it is a tourist site. The Leader of the House is correct to say that that is not its only significance, but it matters to people so much that they care about it, even if they do not visit. We are its custodians, but the taxpayer, the British people, and their children and grand- children to come, own it. It is theirs. The right hon. Gentleman talks about Members needing to know the price tag, and I completely agree. On behalf our constituents, we have to know that price tag, but we must also know the price of not doing certain works, and of not doing them in a timely manner. In my experience, the price of such things does not tend to go down by delay, and we must understand those counterfactuals.
I understand from the Sponsor Body that we will have clearer information by September and October, but we can already assess some of that from the assessments made so far, and from the evidence of our own eyes, ears and noses. There is leaking sewage. Who here in the summer of 2019 could forget that delicate scent, as they walked down the corridor to the Library? There are wires and plumbing that nobody knows the function of. There is asbestos, flooding, fires—please let us not say, “Well, we’ve managed to avoid disaster so far.” We have been a whisker away too many times, and eventually our luck will run out.
As hon. Members may—or may not—know, in 2016 the Joint Committee recommended a full decant as the safest, quickest, and most cost-effective way of fixing all that. Yes, we have learned a lot in the past year, including that we can be swift enough at moving to different arrangements, and then moving back. In 2018, that decant was endorsed in the Joint Committee’s full report, which also made the case for the Sponsor Body to act as client on our behalf—quite right too; politicians interfering as clients can be incredibly unhelpful—and the Delivery Authority to carry out the work.
Also in 2018, this House rejected the options of a rolling programme or partial decant. We voted for that. We made our views known, and in 2019 we voted for the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. That Act established the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, which came into existence last year. The Sponsor Body was asked to review the full decant, and consider the potential for continued presence in this House throughout the works. It published its recommendations recently, and it strongly recommended that we continue with a full decant on the grounds of value for money, safety, and speed.
If we attempt to maintain a continued presence in this building while building works go on around us, I invite all hon. Members to consider what that would be like. Will the right hon. Gentleman really tell the builders to keep the noise down? If he were to get builders into his own home, and commission them to work on every single part of it, sorting out sewers, wiring, lighting, and removing dangerous materials, would he tell them that he also wants to continue living in the middle of it? What contractor would take on that job?
Yes, I could not put it better myself. It would be interesting to know whether the Leader of the House intends to come in here in a high-vis jacket and a hard hat. Will he expect his staff to do the same? He said that we need to maintain our work without being unduly hindered, but we would be hindered on a building site.
Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day—surely a day to take stock and to reflect on what that means for restoration and renewal. If any hon. Members have accompanied a constituent in a wheelchair around this place, they will have experienced, as I have, the acute, painful embarrassment of realising that the democracy we prize is on show for them only via a very awkward, pre-booked route, if that.
If Members have been here with partially sighted constituents, they may have noticed poor lighting and hidden hazards around the building. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for recognising my commitment to autism awareness, which is at least in part inspired by our much missed colleague, Cheryl Gillan—surely no Member here has not been on her training course—and any Member aware of that issue will know what a challenge this place is for many autistic people, and that making it good for autistic people, and for those with disabilities, makes it better for us all.
Disabled people make up 10% of the population—our voters. They have a right to be here. They have a right to scrutinise us. They have a right to be unimpeded witnesses to democracy. Are we really saying that they should not have that?
Our staff and the thousands of other staff who work on the parliamentary estate are dedicated public servants. They are patriots; they love this country and the democratic institution of Parliament. They come to this place each day to serve it and the people of this country. They deserve our gratitude, and like so many public servants, they deserve a pay rise, especially those who kept coming into the building throughout the pandemic, although that is not the subject of the debate. They surely deserve safe working conditions.
A full decant will ensure that staff have the safest possible conditions in which to work while the works are done and when they are over. Remaining on the estate will mean that those who are required to be here—although that may be a smaller group than once thought, some will be—will not have safe working conditions while that work is going on. It will put them in an intolerable position. It will mean delays. It will mean risks. It will mean that those staff required to be on the estate will have to tolerate all of that.
Many of those staff will outlast many of us, but they will not have had a say or a vote. They may have been consulted, but that is not the same as what we have. We have decision-making powers that we need to take seriously on behalf of our staff, parliamentary staff and our constituents. We have had our say, we have taken a vote and we need to honour that commitment. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to imagine himself saying to the Doorkeepers, cleaners and Clerks that some of them will be required to work on a building site, which will remain a fire risk and where asbestos is being removed. I wonder if he will ask his own staff to do that.
Please let us get on with this. The right hon. Gentleman mentions the value of quiet words with Ministers in corridors. He must know that other corridors exist. Ears of Ministers can be bent in corridors far and wide. Some of us may not be MPs by the time the work is done—if we get a move on, some of us might be—but it is not about us. It is about the British people, their love of democracy and the rule of law and their right of safe access to bear witness to the lawmaking done in their name. It is about making sure that our staff and the entire parliamentary staff have a safe place to work as soon as possible, without working in risky situations in between. It is about the public of the future. If we mess this up and it ends up costing us more through delay and removing essential parts of the works, they will rightly blame us for putting off what should not have been put off, for fudging what should have been done with clarity and for failing to avert a disaster that could and should have been avoided.
For goodness’ sake, let us heed the assessments of the experts, let us allow the Sponsor Body to get on with creating the detailed plans for the outline business case and costing, and let us commission the Delivery Authority as soon as we have those agreed plans. Politicians do not make good project managers for things like this. That is why we voted for the Sponsor Body. We interfere beyond our skills, we change our minds, we have to think about elections. We are not the experts; we are the custodians, and now that we have been given the information, we need to get a move on. Those who come after us will not thank us if we duck it, but they may just recognise that we were the parliamentary generation that put first the British public and our love of history and democracy and got this done.
These Houses of Parliament are falling apart faster than they can be fixed. All the old fire, heating, drainage, mechanical and electrical systems need replacing, ditto the sewage system, which dates back to 1888, and there is asbestos throughout. The cost of maintenance projects and ongoing work has doubled in three years to £127 million a year.
The fire at Notre-Dame in 2019 reminds us of the importance of protecting the world’s most treasured and symbolic historic buildings. Our 150-year-old building has a floor plan the size of 16 football pitches, with 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, three miles of passageways, four floors and 65 different levels. It houses 11,000 historic artefacts. Restoring this place is an enormous undertaking. It is also a duty—a legal duty for us, but a moral duty too, to protect this heritage asset and our liberal democratic institutions.
What it is not is something that will benefit Members here today. We do not yet know quite how long the project will take—that will come in the full plan that will come before the House in early 2023—but we do know that it will be a substantial period of time, completing sometime in the 2030s. MPs average 13 or 14 years’ service, and the average current MP has already done six of those, so the sobering truth is that, though many colleagues here will be around during the most disruptive times of the restoration, most of us will not be here when it is finished. None the less, as the shadow Leader of the House said, it falls to this generation of parliamentarians to ensure that the necessary work gets done and that we secure the future of our Parliament, and the building that houses it, one of the free world’s most iconic.
As MPs, we are answerable to our constituents. This is their Parliament; we are just passing through. Especially at this time of enormous economic and fiscal strain, we are acutely conscious of the need for best value. Given all that had changed since the publication of the independent options appraisal in 2014 and the Joint Committee report in 2016, to which the Leader of the House referred, it was right to look again at the plans. The recent strategic review concluded that vacating the building while works take place remains the best approach in terms of both time and cost, but that we can reduce the length of time away, with more done before MPs and peers leave through a more phased approach and possibly through the use of a cofferdam for access to the works from the river.
On the question of where to relocate during the works, that review looked at—or, in many cases, relooked at—41 different options in 20 different locations. When we talk about relocating, we tend to think first about this debating Chamber, but the footprint just of the Committee rooms, for example, is about four times the size of this debating Chamber and these two Lobbies, let alone the displaced office space. All told, on my rough calculation—colleagues are welcome to check this—the total space used by the Commons in the Palace of Westminster is 47 times the space of this Chamber. It is the combination of the need for a lot of space with the huge premium there is on being within the existing secure perimeter, for all sorts of clear reasons, that points to Richmond House, possibly in combination with other parts of what is known as the Northern Estate, which is better known to colleagues as Norman Shaw North and South and the other buildings in that part of the estate.
There are trade-offs and compromises that could be made to make the decant phase cost less and, in the time to come, we have to focus sharply on those. I stress that we are talking here about a temporary period during the works. Probably the three biggest compromises that could be made to reduce costs are, first, accepting having a slightly smaller Chamber and/or reconfiguring the voting Lobby, because although the Chamber may be a small fraction of the overall space requirement, its dimensions as a single room are a big constraining factor in the relocation; secondly, a willingness, to a degree, to rearrange our Committee business and other business to reduce the amount of space requirement; and thirdly, having fewer MPs’ staff having to be accommodated on the estate itself. Each of those three things—by the way, there will be others—would give more flexibility to the decant and so could make the temporary siting less costly. It will be vital over the coming months to hear further from colleagues on such compromises that could be made to reduce cost.
Notwithstanding the need to vacate, in the next phase, towards the full plan and business case, the programme will also examine the possibility of some continued presence —I think my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred to it as a maintained presence. Essentially, it is the question: could we keep this Chamber operating here during the works, even with other Commons functions being relocated elsewhere within the secure perimeter? If that were possible, my personal view is that it would be very valuable, because it would minimise the disruption to our liberal democratic institutions. But it is clearly not without risk or challenge, given some of the safety considerations, with the flow of large numbers of people, particularly when there is a Division, and as MPs, we must never forget that we are a relatively small minority of the people who work in these buildings. There are also all the other functions that today go with the operation of the Chamber, such as the Table Office, the Vote Office and so on. It is not guaranteed to be possible, but it is important to investigate thoroughly any possibility. We will have to look at the relative cost of it and the timings, as against a full decant and all the practicalities.
The cost of the decant is one thing. A much bigger consideration is the cost of the project itself—the thing we are decanting for. Here, again, there are choices, trade-offs and compromises. As my right hon. Friend said, it is a question of priorities. This project is called restoration and renewal, and clearly there is a balance between those two things. We must restore, but how much renewal is right for taxpayer value in aspects such as visitor access or the education function? In the approach towards the full business case, the programme will be working up a bare minimum option—what is essential to arrest the decay of the buildings—but also conducting value analysis in 14 categories, from logistics operations to environmental and net zero aims to visitor facilities, to see where it may make sense from a value perspective to go beyond that minimum.
Again, it is vital to hear from colleagues on these matters and for us all to consider that they do involve trade-offs. There are many things that we may want to see for the future of the seat of our democracy, but we have to consider their cost, what is essential and what can be done without. It is too easy to say, “We want X, Y and Z, and we want the thing to come in at the lowest possible cost.” Ultimately, this comes down to specifics, not generalities, and making physical trade-offs.
Debates such as this are one way—and an important way—for Members to make their points, and there will be a range of other channels over the next few months for engagement with colleagues on these important questions. Four of us in the House sit on the Sponsor Body board. We will hear shortly from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami). My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) also sits on the board; he apologises for being unable to be here, as he is sitting on a Bill Committee. We are keen to hear from all colleagues on their views.
In the main, it will not be us who will see the end results of restoration and renewal, but many colleagues here today will operate in a time of significant change and disruption, and we need to ensure that MPs are still able properly and fully to serve their constituents and scrutinise Government throughout that time. We need to ensure that this centre of our nation’s democracy and symbol of democracy for the world is restored for future generations. A decision has been dodged repeatedly over the years, and that has made this more expensive today than it would have been. If we dodge it again, it will become more costly again. The most cost-effective thing to do is to act, and now is the time we must ensure that it is done at the best possible value.
As has been noted, I am one of the people on the Sponsor Body board, so I want to make it clear that I have that interest in what is being discussed.
This afternoon is a space for a general debate. We could have been debating the private Member’s Bill on fire and rehire promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). We could have been debating the issue of dawn raids raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). We could have been debating the fact that the EU settlement scheme is only open until 30 June, and our constituents only have that long to apply for settled status. Instead, we are taking part in this ridiculously self-indulgent debate about improving the workplace for MPs. The building is dark, smelly, inaccessible and unsafe; however, I do not believe this is the time to discuss restoration and renewal, particularly when we are coming out of a time when people have been excluded from payments. People have not had money because the Government’s furlough scheme has fallen far short, yet we are talking about spending billions of pounds. This is a huge amount of money and it just seems unbelievably self-indulgent.
Let me look at some of the issues that have been and are likely to be brought up in this debate. I have said already that we are talking about a massive amount of money, but that is true in respect not just of what will be spent when work on the restoration and rebuild actually begins but of what is being spent now. The House of Commons has made decisions and decided the direction in which we should go, yet the Sponsor Body is being pointed in all different directions because of the House of Commons administration cannot make up their minds and are asking us to look at things that were not originally in the brief. I genuinely believe that millions of pounds of public money are being wasted on doing things like looking at a significant foothold in the Chamber. I make no apologies for prejudging that: I do not think it would be sensible to keep the Chamber if the rest of the House of Commons was decanted. I cannot imagine why anybody could possibly think that was a good idea, unless they were looking at this from the point of view of themselves wanting to appear in the Chamber.
I understand the shadow Leader of the House’s point about people really loving the building, but for most people the Chamber is a stuffy place that they see on the TV and certainly have not visited in real life, unless they live somewhere in the south of England—most of my constituents have not been anywhere near the House of Commons. Not everybody has a deep feeling of love for the Chamber and I think the general public could do without it for quite a period of time during a decant. The significant foothold is just a daft route to go down. We have talked about democracy functioning properly; democracy can function properly in a room where people can vote with buttons. That is still a democracy. We do not have to troop through the Lobbies in order for this place to be considered a democracy.
I was struck by the shadow Leader of the House’s comments about accessibility. I agree that there is a massive issue with accessibility in the building. If I were in charge and able to wave a magic wand and change things in the building, one thing that I would change is the accessibility, but I want to be clear that it is not just about people who visit the building or members of staff; we are failing in the number of disabled MPs we have and we are never going to be able to encourage more disabled people to stand for Parliament unless we can say, “Yes, you can actually get to the Chamber—or wherever it is you need to be—in time for a vote.” We need to very be clear that that is important. If we are looking at having any kind of significant foothold, or whatever it is called, during a period of decant, we need to make sure that disabled MPs can still access wherever the significant foothold is supposed to be. I do not imagine we could do that for people with significant physical disabilities that mean that they cannot get to places. People will not want to walk through a building site filled with asbestos to get to the Chamber.
Other than the money and accessibility, the other hugely important thing that needs to be taken into account is the need to be environmentally friendly. We cannot just say, “Well, we don’t have very much money for this so we are going to put carbon neutrality down the agenda for refurbishing the House of Commons.” This place talks so often about wanting to be a leader and to model good behaviour; if we cannot ensure that the building is as carbon-neutral as possible, we will fail to meet our climate change obligations and to ensure that future generations are not further harmed by climate change.
There are a few ways of doing things that could require a much smaller area for a decant. For example, post the Scottish independence referendum we will have 59 fewer MPs, so you will not have to worry about us, but we could also take the opportunity to get rid of 850 people in the House of Lords—well, not get rid of them but get rid of the House of Lords and the positions that they hold. That is an outdated institution that is taking up space, and it will cost a significant amount of money coming out of the public purse to pay for the refurbishment of the building that the House of Lords exists in, which is an institution that a significant majority of Scots do not support.
I was concerned when I saw the call list for today’s debate. I have talked already about the fact that this debate is self-indulgent. We have 16 Conservative Members wanting to stand up and talk in this debate, and only six Opposition Members. If we had a debate on one of the things that desperately matter to our constituents, we would have had far more people wanting to contribute.
At the time when I was put on the Sponsor Body, people wanted to contribute because that was when they thought it was a good idea to lay out their very important views on this matter, but we can always just respond to the consultations, rather than taking the opportunity to eat into time in the Chamber.
I think this is an unbelievable amount of public money. I am hugely concerned by the amount being spent, even now, looking at different things, such as the decant options. We should be putting the public purse and the spend up there, along with accessibility and environmental friendliness. That is what we should be considering. We should not be considering whether we get to sit in a certain big green chair during this interim period. That should not be the most important thing, because it is absolutely unnecessary for democracy to function.
September 2016, January 2018, July 2020, and here we are again today. Members of the public might think that everything that can possibly be said about restoration and renewal has already been said. They might also think that we should just get on with it. I am frankly amazed that we are rehashing this debate yet again and that some are trying to draw a different conclusion.
We debated restoration and renewal at great length in 2018, and we even achieved Royal Assent for the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. This House and the other place decided to accept the findings from the Joint Committee, set up in 2014, that the best value for taxpayers’ money is achieved by a full decant from this Palace.
To try to carry out the project while colleagues continue to work here would, according to every assessment, cost the taxpayer significantly more—potentially up to seven times as much over several decades. A recent NAO report has stated that the ongoing maintenance work to patch and mend has doubled in just three years to more than £125 million a year. We are spending £2 million a week just to keep this building going.
It appears that there are those who would prefer to stay in these beautiful palace surroundings rather than save money for the taxpayer, but my direct question to them—they know who they are—is: why pretend that staying in the Palace is the cheaper option when all the evidence points to the contrary?
Established back in 2014, which is now seven years ago, the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster concluded in 2016—now five years ago—that the Palace faced
“an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore.”
The report referred to the pre-feasibility study concluding that there was
“a clear and pressing need to tackle the backlog of work”
and observed that the
“longer the essential work is left, the greater the risk becomes that the building might suffer a sudden, catastrophic failure”.
The independent expert advice that it received pointed to one clear conclusion:
“a full decant of the Palace of Westminster is the best delivery option”.
“Impending crisis”, “clear and pressing need”—we cannot responsibly ignore it, but we are ignoring it, are we not, Madam Deputy Speaker? My question for the Leader of the House is: why is the one clear conclusion from the independent expert evidence that he himself heard when he was a member of the Joint Committee now being disregarded? Why is the clear decision of this House and the other place in 2018 now being watered down? To suggest that previous debates proposed profligate expenditure is utter nonsense, so going round this circular procrastination serves only the purpose of the procrastinators.
My right hon. Friend has described at length the excellent work that has been undertaken to install fire breaks and sprinkler systems, but, as he knows only too well, there are other potential catastrophes that would require an immediate and potentially multi-year evacuation of the entire Palace. Those could happen today, tomorrow, over the weekend. Such catastrophes could include an asbestos leak from anywhere in the basement or the many chimneys that rise up through the Palace. It could include a major collapse of stonework. My right hon. Friend will be aware of recent cases of falling masonry. I am pleased to say that so far there has been no damage to human life, but he will know that our right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General did fall victim to a stone gargoyle crashing through his car windscreen while in the car park. Masonry has also fallen on to a path that is regularly used by members of the public and colleagues.
Other disasters that could befall this world famous building—today, tomorrow, over the weekend—include major failures in the electricals, sewerage, gas and water installations that make up the bulk of the spaghetti of wiring and pipework in the basement. Much of it is now well beyond the patch and mend approach being taken to the work at a cost of two million quid a week. In today’s debate, we should surely be considering the design of the basement itself. I know that those Members who want to stay in the Palace make the case that the mechanical and engineering works that make up the vast bulk of the restoration can be done in bits and pieces, so that they can therefore move between this Chamber and the other place without any incremental cost or difficulty. But you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Leader of the House and many colleagues right across the House know full well that the basement runs the entire length of the Palace. To shut off one part of it while MPs can occupy another would be vastly expensive, time consuming and incredibly complicated.
As MPs, we all know how tough it has been for so many throughout the pandemic. It is totally understandable that many colleagues feel nervous about actively voting to spend any money on restoring the Palace. For many, it is easier to kick the can down the road, ignoring the rising costs and risks to the Palace in order to avoid facing up to having to pass an outline business case that would approve the cost of restoration and renewal. However, all colleagues should be aware that there is a significant upside to the restoration of this UNESCO world heritage site: the fantastic opportunity for UK businesses, for UK crafts—old and new—and for apprenticeships right across our country.
The work carried out here will become a showcase for the best of British for future generations. Not only that, but engagement by the R and R Sponsor Body has identified that 75% of the public want to see this place restored. They might not know what goes on here or they might loathe what goes on here, but they do not want us to let it sink into disrepair, or to see that the most famous and iconic building in the world is lost due to our mismanagement and failure to act.
There is one more factor to consider. Quite apart from the fundamental issue of saving the taxpayer money by volunteering to move out while the restoration takes place, there is also the need to provide proper contingency arrangements for our democracy that any 21st century Parliament needs to have in place. Democracy has not been functioning well during the pandemic. The Leader of the House has himself admitted that Ministers have had an easier ride, while the majority of MPs are absent from the House. We are all agreed that healthy scrutiny of the Government is dependent on MPs and peers being present to provide tricky interventions and, yes, the opposition that makes for a functioning democracy. A hybrid Parliament such as we have seen during the pandemic is no solution to the multi-year restoration that is needed.
Even once the restoration is completed, there will always be the risk that an unforeseen future event requires temporary evacuation from the Palace, so the Palace of Westminster needs a permanent contingency arrangement. Of course a temporary arrangement does exist, and I know we do not talk about it, but this would not be adequate for more than a couple of weeks, which is simply not good enough. It therefore seems extraordinary to me that MPs refusing to decant will not only cost far more but will also mean that we never have a proper contingency plan for the future of our democratic institutions. If, as is likely, the Sponsor Body does end up promoting a full decant to a converted rather than a rebuilt Richmond House, this would offer the right compromise. It would enable our democracy to function properly while the critical work goes ahead in the Palace. In addition, the legacy value of having a permanent contingency arrangement in Richmond House would ensure the safety and security of all who work and visit here for generations to come.
I will leave hon. Members with a quote from a 30-year-old resident of Northern Ireland taken from the R and R public engagement strategy:
“It would be embarrassing if people around the world could see the state the building has gotten into. It is supposed to be a symbol for democracy around the world.”
Let me start by saying that I agree totally with the words of the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who is very knowledgeable on this subject. I recommend that Members watch her presentation to the Institute for Government, which was also very good.
I remind the House that it is nearly three and a half years since we voted in favour of a full decant and the establishment of the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority—which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) said, was enacted in 2019—and nearly five years since the Joint Committee produced its report. I have the pleasure, or some may say the misfortune, of serving on all these bodies, including the current Sponsor Body board. There is great enthusiasm on the board for this project, and work is under way to produce a business case for the required work with the intention of putting it to the House in 2023. Personally, I would like that to happen sooner, but I accept that we have to produce a robust business case and then we need to make our minds up in this House.
Doing nothing, patching up and making do, and pretending it is all fine are not viable options. Carrying on as we are, as if this is somehow a no-cost option, is just ridiculous. We are spending millions of pounds every year on work much of which will probably have to be ripped out and done again as part of the overall project. The Leader of the House is a decent chap but he does not like or accept the decision of this House to decant completely. He believes that we should stay put, even though every estimate that I have seen says that that is the most expensive and time-consuming option that we could choose. I accept that it is an honest view and he believes that that is the best thing for us, but where I would part company with him is in the practice of persistently kicking the can down the road.
The Leader of the House wanted a review of the decision, and that has happened. I hope that he and others will accept that the review broadly went along with the established position and recommended a full decant. It did accept that there are ways in which we could minimise the amount of time that Members are absent from the estate. Of course it is technically possible that we could stay on site, but, as other Members have made very clear, that would probably cost billions more and take 30 years to complete. Not content with these delays, the can has received another good kick and we are to have further work undertaken to find whether we can have some form of presence on the estate. We can go on and on like this, but all it does is to incur more delay and more cost.
Why do we want to stay here? Do we honestly believe that if we move out the world is going to fall apart? Do we believe that this is part of some terrible plot and that if we leave we will not be allowed back in? I have heard all those stories, but they are just not true. As other hon. Members have said, this is not just about us. It is not just about the 650 MPs or the 800-odd Lords; it is about the thousands of staff—the Clerks, Doorkeepers, caterers, cleaners and on and on—who make this place actually function, because, without them, this place would not function. We are the minority, and this should not be just about what is convenient for us; it should be about meeting the requirements, and most importantly ensuring the safety, of everybody.
R and R is not a vanity project, as some would have us believe. It is not a blank cheque to spend public money on luxury surroundings. It is about saving and restoring this great building and, importantly, creating a safe and secure environment for everyone to work in. Of course we have to deliver value for money for the taxpayer, but, equally, we have to deliver a building that can offer much greater access for all and that is actually fit for purpose.
I firmly believe that Richmond House should be the preferred option for a decant for the Commons. However, while knocking most of it down and rebuilding it may offer the best outcome in terms of a useful building, I acknowledge that that is probably not going to happen, and we will have to work within what we have now. That is not the end of the world—far from it. As the Leader of the House said, we have seen during the pandemic that we can do things differently. I am not the biggest fan of electronic voting, but we have managed to make it work. Virtual participation means that the amount of space we will need can be reduced. At the time of the Joint Committee, the Leader of the House was very concerned that we would not get two Division Lobbies, but we could probably live without that.
As the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said, R and R will be a great opportunity for the country as a whole. The Prime Minister is always going on about shovel-ready projects, and this surely meets that criteria. However, the Leader of the House wants to rip the shovel from the hands of the Prime Minister and throw it in the Thames.
Although R and R is a project in London, it should not be a London-centric project. The Sponsor Body has made very clear its determination that businesses from around the UK should have the opportunity to bid for work. We cannot and must not allow some big company just to dish out the work to its usual mates, as we have seen with many big contracts in the past. We then find that all the steel has come not from the UK but from China. We cannot make those mistakes again. To achieve that, we have to ensure that the tender process, while fit for purpose, does not deter smaller companies because of its cost and its length.
Central to the project must be the establishment of a substantial apprenticeship scheme, hopefully taking on at least 160 or more people from around the UK, creating the next generation of heritage experts. I hope Members will embrace that and encourage businesses and individuals from their areas to play their part in what will be an exciting project.
In the coming months, R and R will be reaching out to Members and Members’ staff and administration staff to help explain and build that business case. I hope colleagues will take part in that and help the process. There are those who will always say that this is not the right time to restore this place—“Let’s just keep putting it off and make it the next generation’s problem.” That has been the approach for 80 years; for 80 years we have been putting it off, patching and making do—"Don’t worry about it. This'll get us through the next 10 years.” We knew the problems then and we know the problems now, and they have just got worse. If we persist in kicking that dreadful can down the road, we will face not only mounting costs, but the real prospect of a catastrophic fire or other significant failure. That would put not only this building at risk, but the lives of the people who work in it. I believe that it must be in everybody’s interests that we just get on with the job and stop putting obstacles in the way. Let us restore this place and create a Parliament fit for the 21st century.
There is a lot of what the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said that I agree with. Let us get on with it. Let us come together in this. I commend both the Leader of the House for his approach and his speech and the spokesperson for the Sponsor Body, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). They both spoke in a very outgoing, moderate and sensible way.
This is not a debate between decant and not decant. It is not a debate with, on one side, pragmatic modernisers who want to do what is right and, on the other side, stuffy traditionalists who just care about staying in a Palace that they love. It is far more complex than that. So it is not a debate about decant or not decant—it is about how we get on with the job of restoring this Palace and not having a gold-plate operation. That is what I want to address my arguments towards.
I have to deal, in that regard, with the present proposal—the Northern Estate programme as it is. This is the entire demolition of Richmond House, and this is where I follow what the right hon. Gentleman just said; I would argue that it is financially wasteful, environmentally unsound and not necessary.
Let me look at this in a bit more detail and go back to the original Joint Committee report, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House signed. It said that
“a temporary Chamber could be established in its”—
that is, Richmond House’s—
“inner courtyard and the rest of the House of Commons’ core operations could be consolidated in and around Portcullis House and the Northern Estate”.
The Northern Estate programme later found that measurements of the Commons Chamber, including the exact footprint of Division Lobbies with the oriel bay windows, would not fit in the courtyard, so the Northern Estate programme claims that this requires the entire grade II* listed building to be demolished, except for its façade, and for total replacement with a new permanent building.
On 31 January 2018, the Leader of the House said that
“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.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 885.]
Demolition of Richmond House is a completely different cost basis and I, for one, would not have come to that conclusion, had we known the true picture. The possibility of demolishing Richmond House is not mentioned at all in the Joint Committee report.
My right hon. Friend is right, of course, about the historical sequence, but I hope that it is of some reassurance if I tell him that, since I have been involved in the Sponsor Body, I can honestly say that I have not met a single person, either in this House or on the restoration and renewal programme, who now believes that it is desirable to make the full demolition of Richmond House that he alludes to. We have to cut our cloth and, as I said in my remarks—and indeed, as the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) just said—we have to work within what we have, and we need to work out what compromises we need in order to do that.
That is extremely helpful because, as I said, I have to work with what we have at the moment, and from what the spokesperson for the Sponsor Body now says, we seem to have moved on from the demolition of Richmond House. This will be of enormous comfort to the heritage organisations such as SAVE, with which I have been working very closely. If we are looking at a grade II* listed building, even the lowest level of listing is defined as
“warranting every effort to preserve”
these buildings—that is according to Historic England—and Richmond House is above that. It was, of course, one of the most important public buildings created in the 1980s.
I can cut short my speech, because I appear to be on a bit of a winning streak. I do not really need to quote all the various points that have been made by numerous distinguished architects and historic buildings organisations in favour of Richmond House, which was put up only 30 years ago. Of course, demolishing it would be environmentally unsound.
I do not want to upset the right hon. Member, but my preferred option would be to knock the building down, apart from the façade, and to create something that would have a useful legacy. The reality is that I do not think that will happen, so we have to work within the given footprint. That would probably mean that we had only one Division Lobby rather than two, which would not be the end of the world.
It is so wonderful to all come together and find a way forward. I can provide a way forward, because I have been working with SAVE on the matter. This is called the Mark Hines proposal, and it is from a professional architect. SAVE commissioned Mark Hines Architects to look into preserving Richmond House. He found that a replica Commons Chamber would fit into the Richmond House courtyard. His proposal includes a full Chamber of the same size and layout as at present, Division Lobbies, public and press seating at gallery level—somewhat reduced, understandably —and handicapped access. It would fulfil the full security needs, having a separate public entrance with security clearing area and a blast-proof structure. A private security firm has assessed the plan and said that it meets security requirements.
Architectural plans prove that this is possible. The building could be prefabricated off site and installed using cranes within a matter of months, and independent security consultants confirm that it is as safe as existing proposals. It is professionally costed at £46 million, in contrast to reports in the architectural press that the current plan would cost £1.6 billion. To reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), the former Leader of the House, if the House of Commons insists that we decant and create an alternative Chamber, I proffer that solution. It would save a listed building and provide a perfectly adequate alternative.
I must say that there is an even cheaper proposal, and I hope the House will forgive me if I share it. That is the Anthony Delarue proposal—again, he is a professional architect—which I commissioned. He accepts that a top-to-bottom renovation makes sense, because, as we have heard, the systems need a total revamp. He proposes that we move temporarily to the House of Lords Chamber, as we did in the second world war, and that the House of Lords move to the Royal Gallery. He suggests—this is a professional architect, not me—that these areas could be sectioned off with complete external servicing, with linear access to Portcullis House via New Palace Yard, and with temporary canteens, lavatories and so on accommodated in Old Palace Yard, Victoria Tower Gardens or Abingdon Street Gardens.
That proposal has all the advantages of a full decant. Every electrical socket, bit of wiring, air duct and climate control system can be pulled out and comprehensively done in one go. It solves the most expensive problem—the provision of temporary accommodation—by housing two plenary Chambers within the existing Palace. Richmond House will not be just preserved but integrated into the estate, to house workers displaced from the Palace. The proposal eliminates the lengthy timeframe of potential public inquiries into the demolishing of a listed building. Of course, it retains the QEII conference centre, with all the financial advantages to the Treasury of retaining its income from the centre. That is the proposal. I put it forward as probably the very cheapest option, rather akin to what we did in the second world war. If the House insists on a full decant into Richmond House, however, I proffer the courtyard idea.
None of these plans is set in stone. We can be clever, and we can pick and choose. Surely, time has moved on. As has been said again and again in this debate, we have proved that we can work virtually. I am with the Leader of the House; I do not like virtual working, but it can greatly shorten the time for which we have to be away from this Chamber. There are other proposals I have put which are even cheaper. We know—I know we cannot say much about it—that there is already an emergency alternative pop-up Chamber stored somewhere. If we had to move away for a few months or a year, we could use the atrium of Portcullis House. I met the architect of Portcullis House. He actually designed it so a Chamber could go in the atrium. A Chamber with Division Lobbies could fit exactly in that space. Not ideal, but surely we have proved during this pandemic that we do not have to move out of this place for ever. I was very interested in what the Leader of the House said, and I think what the Chairman of the Committee said, if I remember rightly, that while we would want to move out all the Committees from here, we could actually seal off the Chamber and have access through the corridor past the Prime Minister’s office.
I want to emphasise that this is not a debate between decant and not decant. I am perfectly happy, and all those colleagues on the Back Benches I have been working with are perfectly happy, if we have to decant for a few months, eight months, nine months, a year. What we do not want—I will finish on this point, Madam Deputy Speaker—is a gold-plating operation. We do not want Richmond House demolished. We do not want a permanent replica Chamber created at vast cost. We do not want to surrender our fate to an army of consultants and architects to leave this place and be out of it for five or 10 years. Look at the Canadian example: we could be out of this place for up to 10 years. I do not believe that that is what the public really want. This is a citadel of our democracy. For many people in the world, this democracy is about this building. By all means, let us come together and get on with it, but let us have a short decant, not a long, highly wasteful decant of up to 10 years.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but there is a danger that he is doing what I am very concerned about, which is keeping going the debates about many options. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but we are getting to the crunch point now. It does feel a bit like groundhog day. We are, once again, debating these options and, in essence, what has changed?
What has changed, as others, including the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), have said, is that we are spending more money: £127 million a year, according to the National Audit Office. What has not changed is that we still need to do a major refurbishment. What has changed is the personnel involved. I caution new Members in particular that it can be tempting to say—I think the Leader of the House is dangling this in front of us regularly—that Parliament has changed, people have changed and there are new views. But that is the thing about this place: it is a constantly renewing democracy and place. Unfortunately, with the byzantine structure of Committees and Members changing all the time, if we take the view that we always have to revisit everything because it is a new group of people working here, we will never settle on tough decisions. The Government are the same. How long does a Government Minister last or indeed a permanent secretary in Whitehall? I have been the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee for six years. Only one permanent secretary is still in post, in a different Department, from six years ago. We therefore have to recognise, as the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) said, that we are the custodians now and we need to make the decision.
It is worth noting—this is a bit of a back-of-the-envelope calculation, so there is probably somebody I have missed out—that there have been three Clerks of the House, two Mr Speakers, at least three Leaders of the House, three Prime Ministers and three Parliaments since the Joint Committee reported in 2016. As others have pointed out, it was on 31 January 2018 that this House made a decision to get on with it. It has been a very slow process since. There is a danger that this will be endlessly revisited, with new Parliaments, changes to the public finances and everyone coming up with a great new idea about what the different needs are.
Let me re-emphasise, as the former Leader of the House the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire did, that there is a risk of catastrophic fire here. There have been 29 incidents between 2015 and 2020. There are 24 fire wardens on three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not long before lockdown, one of the fires was found on a weekday. If it had been a weekend, the wardens’ patrolling pattern meant that they might not have picked it up. Mechanical and engineering is a mess. Anyone who has been down to the basement can see the problems there, with hot water next to electricity. This has all been highlighted many times, as have issues with the sewers; you do not need to ask someone where the lavatories are in this place because you can sniff them out most of the time, and staff have to work in that stinking smell. The great stink got the sewers of London built, but the great stink might finally get us out of this place. There are holes in carpets, with more seeming to emerge even in lockdown, and dangerous voids, top and bottom of the building.
The main change is that a lot of money has been spent to keep people safe in the event of a catastrophic fire. So we have all got fire alarms in our rooms and in Committee Rooms, but that does not save the building; if the worst happened, that is what would happen. That is a real issue because this is a grade I listed building, a heritage building and a UNESCO site, so there is no option here. Ultimately, the Government—it is the Treasury’s responsibility—under UNESCO rules, have to make sure that this building survives. Much of the work that has been done, with this £127 million a year, will have to be redone once major works start.
The Leader of the House has used his position to delay, not progress. Of course we have to keep an eye on things, but we have set up a structure that allows us to do that. I agree with the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) that there is a danger that it is seen as self-indulgent to discuss this today. We should not be discussing the principle of what we do and when we do it; if more Members were here talking about the businesses that could benefit from this, that would be a good thing. There are many other issues we could be discussing. Rather than this, we could be talking about jobs and opportunities for people who have had a really tough time over the past year. The Leader of the House is proposing options that would put staff at risk. I do not want to be responsible for any staff in this building once we start ripping out asbestos. He is also proposing options that would lead to a lack of clarity over who is responsible. If we had a hybrid set of working, are the contractors, the Sponsor Body or the Delivery Authority responsible, or is the Clerk of the House? If something went wrong, who is in charge in that complex set-up? We need to be clear that those are dangerous and risky options.
The Leader of the House speaks of Parliament agreeing it, but I remind him, as others have, that Parliament has agreed with this. We must be careful about endlessly opening up options, and having a start-and-stop approach. There is a sense that this is a bit like musical chairs, with everybody believing or hoping that they will not be standing when the music stops, a bit like as it is with covid-19. I recall that just over a decade ago, probably about 12 years ago, I was serving on a pandemic planning sub-committee of a Cabinet Sub-Committee, where I was a bit-part player in discussing then how to deal with a pandemic. It is apparent that over time that drops down the agenda because nobody thinks that they are going to be the Minister in charge when the pandemic hits. It dropped down the priority list, but this issue cannot, as we know what we want to do and there is a real risk here.
Of course, value for money is very important—I am clear about that. I chair the Public Accounts Committee for a reason: I believe that every pound of public money saved is a pound for the Government of the day to spend on something else that they consider to be important, on the basis of the manifesto on which our voters elected them. That means that the business case is important, but it will cost billions and billions of pounds to do this work. Let us be honest about that. Let us forget this £4 billion figure that is being bandied around. We know it will cost a lot of money, but it cannot be done on the cheap—there is not a cheap option for a building such as this. We have to acknowledge that and accept that we are the custodians and we have to make the tough choices. This must be value for money and in response to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) let me say that, yes, there needs to be an envelope of costs, contingency needs to be built in and we need to be rigorous about testing and pursuing people on that. That is why we have made sure that the National Audit Office looks regularly at this and that the Sponsor Body works closely with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, so that each step of the way the project planning is in place to make sure we are doing this.
Of course we should not gold-plate things. We certainly do not need to gold-plate temporary provision, because it will be temporary. It needs to be functional and workable. We have shown over the past year that we can be very adaptable and their lordships seem to be even more adaptable, able to work in different ways. We work in our constituencies and in all sorts of different environments. We do not have to have the perfect solution, but we need a solution for the time we are out of the building.
We must also plan to ensure that businesses up and down the country are enabled and prepared to bid for the contracts that will come up. Some years ago, I visited New South Wales ahead of the London Olympics to see how businesses in New South Wales had been worked with to get them ready to understand what they needed to do to bid for contracts for the Olympics. We can do a similar engagement project, but while we are debating whether or not we do it, we are going to be a long way off getting to that point of supporting such businesses to get jobs.
All the evidence shows that any major project will get more expensive and more complex the longer it goes on, so we need to decide and we need to get on with it quickly. We should not be prolonging it, and we need to have a focus on what needs to be done, including setting the parameters and making sure that good governance is in place to get on with it. This will also help us control costs, which of course we are all concerned about, but we must not be concerned about the big figure at the beginning, because there will be a big price tag. There is no getting around that.
Let us just run through the governance. We have the Sponsor Body, which is a group of professionals who understand how to manage projects, and it will oversee the Delivery Authority. Of course, Members—we have heard from some of them—are represented on those bodies. In the House in the past, and let us look at the Elizabeth Tower as an example, reporting to the Clerk of the House through the system in the House has not worked. The Elizabeth Tower refurbishment started off with a price tag of £29 million, and it ended up at £80 million. So the idea that somehow we are passing responsibility over and losing control of costs is hardly borne out. We need to keep a close eye on the costs, but the idea that it can be done in the old-fashioned way through the House systems has not proved to work. I will not highlight it, but I recommend to Members the National Audit Office report of last year that looked at the Elizabeth Tower, when the House’s own auditors recognised some of the challenges and problems, such as mission creep and the inability to bottom-out costs at the beginning.
We need to get on with it, and we need to open up the opportunities. As the right hon. Member for East Hampshire says, doing nothing is not an option. We must not reopen every option every time we debate this. We all aspire to run the country—sadly, my party is not running the country at the moment—but if we want to be in that position, we need to show that we can boldly take difficult decisions. Government is not about being popular and always choosing an easy option; it is usually the opposite. Proper governance is actually about making difficult decisions.
I want to put on record my thanks to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire. She did not mince her words today, and I thank her for that. It is not a political game. It is not about pitting London against the country. It has just got to be done, and if we do it well and we do it right, we will be thanked, ultimately, because we will have saved this building and created jobs around our country.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who talked about the length of time it can take to make decisions and to plan properly for the inevitable in this place. I have been a Member of Parliament for almost 30 years, and as she alluded to, it is certainly a regular pattern in this place that, when a difficult decision comes along, there are in effect three parliamentary ways to deal with it: first, legislate for it, whether it is good legislation or bad legislation; secondly, throw money at it, whether or not it is good value; and, thirdly, put it off. It seems that there are still some of those who want to do the last.
I plucked this notice from the staircase close to my office a little while ago. I would be showing it to the House, but I know that would be against the rules about using props, so for those who were not able to take advantage of seeing it, it says:
“Do not enter
Masonry falling on staircase
Use lift only”.
It was not that inconvenient until a couple of days ago, when the lift did not work either, and I was not able to access my office in St Stephen’s Tower, and neither were any of my staff. To those who say this is something we can put off again, I say that it is not. If we actually care about things like the health and safety of our own staff, it needs to be dealt with. One thing I think the House needs to agree on is that we have to get on with it. Further delay should not be one of the options that we consider.
Those who say that we should not be talking about this now because there are much more important subjects for Parliament to talk about, or that we should try to do it on the cheap, are failing in their duty as Members of Parliament. In terms of those who say that there are much more difficult issues to talk about in the covid environment, I am getting fed up with that sort of virtue signalling from people in this Chamber as an excuse to put these things off because they believe it will buy them favour with bits of the media or the electorate. It is irresponsible to put it off, for the very reason that has been given by so many Members today.
The idea that we should do it on the cheap is actually to betray those for whom we hold this place in trust. It is an amazing, wonderful building, but we are not just temporary residents; we have a role in holding it in trust for our country. It is shocking that we have allowed ourselves to get to this position of patch and mend at a huge cost, let alone even considering carrying that on. We would regard any Government proposal that took a similar approach as a shocking waste of public money that would ultimately require a bigger bill to put it right. That is the case in this House, and we have to face up to that today.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch made the very interesting point—with her PAC hat on, I imagine—that, were we to go ahead with what will come at a very large cost, it will provide employment for people with great skills and crafts, many of them diminishing in number, who are able to repair a grade I listed building. We have just gone through a period in the pandemic when we have paid out huge amounts of public money for people to not actually be doing anything in many cases. We have an opportunity to provide employment, skills and training for those in our country, and it is a unique opportunity in many ways that we should not overlook.
In this short contribution, I want to say something about the historic political and constitutional importance of this House—the House of Commons, not the House of Lords. The Houses of Parliament are, of course, iconic nationally and internationally, but the position of the House of Commons is a unique one. I have not taken part in these debates before, but I have listened with great interest to Members talk about the difficulties with the solution of decanting the House of Commons to the House of Lords or vice versa until we get the building work done in one place. I entirely understand that, but I believe it is something that we should consider for the following reason.
The House of Commons and the House of Lords are not of equal constitutional importance, and keeping a democratic link between the House of Commons and the Palace of Westminster is, in itself, of great national importance. I listened to the argument made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) about the basement and the problems in this place. We hear all these arguments about cost and difficulty, but—again, to refer back to the contribution of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch —we were told prior to covid about the cost and difficulty of mRNA vaccines, and when we had to put our minds to it, we were able to provide solutions in a relatively short time.
I accept the difficulties, and I am by no means an expert in any of that, but if it is possible to maintain the link between the elected House of Commons and the Palace of Westminster, we should take it. When German bombs fell on this Chamber during world war two, the House of Commons remained inside the Palace and moved to the House of Lords. Many of Churchill’s greatest speeches during world war two were, in fact, given in the House of Lords, because that historic and iconic link was maintained between the democratic Chamber and the Palace of Westminster.
However long or short our tenure in this democratic House of Commons, we are not just temporary residents here; we have duties to those who have sent us. The historic continuity of the world’s oldest democracy inside this building is extremely important, and such rare links should only be broken when there is no alternative but to do so. The link between British democracy and the House of Commons is of tremendous value—a value that can be measured in terms of more than just the cost we face for refurbishment. As Members of Parliament, we should strongly consider our role in our heritage and the future of this Parliament before we take such decisions.
It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate. Looking at the Benches, this seems to be a bit of a minority sport, but it is an important matter that all of as parliamentarians must take seriously. I am the longest-serving Member on the Labour Benches, which means I am coming to my 41st year in Parliament later in the year.
I love Parliament and I love the building, and over this last year we have all been conscious that the beating heart of our democracy is not just about the Chamber, Committee rooms, and the formal side of Parliament, but it is the Tea Room, the Lobby, the chat on the Terrace—the political life that goes on and is nurtured in a building such as ours. Covid has badly affected that vibrant life, and we know what it is like to have real challenges to our normal political and parliamentary life.
Nevertheless, I am on the “let’s get on with it” side. We have had two big votes, and as the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) said with such clarity in a very good speech, it is much more expensive to do the job now that we could have started some time ago. Interestingly, I am just clocking the number of speeches from former or current Chairs and members of the Public Accounts Committee, and I was a member of that Committee as a very young MP.
I wish to make two rather different points. Yes, I want to get on with this. I understand that we will have to decant. I look back at the amazing achievement of the London Olympics and at how people in my constituency—Huddersfield is a very typical constituency—were full of pride at the way those Olympics were managed and at how, it seemed to them, no expense was spared to make them the finest Olympics they could be. Reading the report we are discussing, all the time it comes back to value for money. Of course we want value for money, but this is a vital and important building and we cannot do it on the cheap. It must be done to the finest specification, because we owe it that. When it comes to their Parliament and their great institutions, the people of this country do not penny-pinch. They want to be proud that a leading nation such as the United Kingdom can do something, do it well and, as with the Olympics, do it on time. That is an important point: let’s get on with it!
Could we also be a little more conscious of the tremendous effect that this massive renewal programme will have on the whole of our capital city? I am a member of the River Thames all-party parliamentary group, and we have a little commission on the renaissance of the Thames. Major construction companies came to us and said, “You realise that the renewal of Parliament is such a major job that it will clog the roads of half of London for years.” The number of trucks carrying materials and taking away waste will involve tens of thousands of truck movements in our city. I believe that the impact of that on the rest of our capital city has been rather neglected.
I have been in touch with the commission, who are a very good group of people, and they are aware of the interests of a number of Members in this subject, and of the additional challenge of making the renewal programme more sustainable. Some of those major players came to talk to Members of Parliament and said, “Do you realise the impact on the whole transport infrastructure of London, and how that is going to hurt?” In a very good speech, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee mentioned the importance, in major projects such as this, of talking to local people—of consulting in a meaningful way about what is going to happen. We should renew those efforts to consult, as London will be massively affected by this, the biggest construction programme since the second world war.
The alternative that people have been talking about for some time now is bringing the River Thames back to life as a major transportation highway. So many materials that are required by this massive construction site could come on the river, and most of the waste and the detritus could be taken away on the river. There is a real opportunity here not only to do something wonderful in terms of bringing the River Thames back as a major conduit for our capital city, but to reduce the enormous pressure of this important and challenging piece of work. Therefore, that broader context is important. I implore every Member of Parliament to take that alternative seriously. It is not an easy choice to make, because most of the jetty points on the Thames that are good for getting goods on and off boats are increasingly being bought up, sold and given planning permission for rather expensive apartments. There are enough still left, and they should be rapidly secured so that we can have that supply chain. Down the line, all the experts and people who know about our docks, our transportation links and much else say that that renewal of the Thames, even when we have finished the building work, will mean that food to the House of Commons and supplies to the whole of central London can come in on newly developed, electric and low-impact craft. I wanted to make that point very strongly.
Madam Deputy Speaker, like many others, you might think, “What has got into the hon. Member for Huddersfield?” Well, it is no secret that I was born on the River Thames, I went to school at Hampton, which is on the Thames, and I have spent 40 years in Parliament, working by the side of the Thames. I care about it and can see the potential for it in the future.
May I make one further point? There will be massive contracts. I do hope that we deliver on the large number of jobs that will be required for craftsmen and other people employed all over the United Kingdom. As much material as possible that is used in that big construction project should be derived from the UK. We talk about apprentices, and I hope that they will be given a thorough education and training in the highest level of skills—skills of which we can be proud. The potential that exists in this project in terms of the sheer number of jobs that can be generated is greater than the report has indicated.
I wish to mention one other important point. It is strange that I should be in agreement on this not only with the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but with my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who made a very good speech. As he said, in order to do this, all the options must be kept open. There are some very innovative ideas for what will happen to Richmond House, but that must not be an excuse for delay. We must get on with what we are doing.
Lastly, I am a little disturbed that some of the early contracts, when we had sight of them, did not have enough of what they call environmental sustainability elements—an audit of its sustainability. During the procurement process, please do not let us make considerations based only on cost. Please let it be done on quality and, vitally, on sustainability and the environmental impact. Environmental audits will be crucial to this whole process. We could send a message, at a time when we face climate change and global warming, that we can do major construction sensitively, sustainably and in a way that employs great craftspeople and trains great skills.
I apologise on behalf of the House authorities to Members in the Chamber that a report that ought to have been on the Table, having been tagged in today’s Order Paper in connection with this debate, has not been made available. It is of course in the Vote Office. The reason I mention it is because several Members have raised matters that are dealt with in the report.
In particular, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) mentioned that the programme of works that will take place here in some form or other ought to be constructed in such a way as to provide employment and other opportunities for every part of the United Kingdom, not only for London. That matter is mentioned in the report. Another matter mentioned in the report, which the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) just alluded to, is the number of apprenticeships to be created and the number of apprentices to be given opportunities. I mention it to the House because it would be wrong if the impression were given that nothing is being done and that no one is overseeing the current work that is being done in preparation for the necessary works that everyone acknowledges must be done to this building.
It will not surprise Members in the Chamber to hear me say that the reason why I am aware of this report is that I wrote it in my capacity as Chairman of the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission. It was not on the Table. It should have been. I can see that you have all missed it. Now that I have told you about it, I hope that it will be taken into consideration, as indeed it has been by the Treasury and the Sponsor Body.
As the newly elected Member of Parliament for Clwyd South 18 months ago, I was awestruck to be working in such a beautiful and historic building, but also acutely aware, from all the internal hoardings and cordoned-off spaces, of the serious of the problems of repairing and renewing the deteriorating fabric of the Palace of Westminster. As a member of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, I am also aware of day-to-day problems such as leaking roofs and the need to protect the many and varied works of art within the Palace of Westminster.
Before I became an MP, I was much involved in heritage projects, mainly in Wales, and therefore have nothing but respect for the experts who are advising us on the scope and scale of the restoration and renewal programme. But equally, representing my constituency, which has many fine buildings in need of restoration and renewal, not least those relating to its proud mining and industrial heritage, I am aware of the need to be realistic about the amount of public money that can be spent on the Palace of Westminster. I therefore welcome this general debate because it is vital that MPs scrutinise restoration and renewal. Although the 2019 Act established an independent Sponsor Body to carry out the project, it is essential that there is a mechanism to ensure that the House’s views are heard, particularly as circumstances change as the project proceeds, as was eloquently discussed earlier. We are, of course, the guardians of taxpayers’ money, and restoration and renewal will involve a vast sum of public cash. It is right that the project should be completed, but it is essential that Members are in a position to scrutinise the way the money is spent in line with the Act, which stipulates the importance of seeking value for money.
As the Chancellor has made clear, the public finances are in a difficult state and it is therefore only right that we find ways of economising with restoration and renewal. It is clear from the terms of this debate, and has been pointed out several times this afternoon, that the terms around the project have moved on significantly since the Act was passed, and that the make-up of the House has changed since then as well. Some of the lessons that we have learned from the hybrid Parliament can be applied to restoration and renewal, and it is right for Members to raise this with the Sponsor Body. We know that hybrid proceedings have been a poor second best, but surely they are a viable temporary option to be used if it means saving hundreds of millions or even billions of pounds in construction costs and minimising the need for a full and lengthy decant. In particular, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I would like to express my support for the ideas put forward by Save Britain’s Heritage for an alternative scheme for retaining Richmond House, which was cited in the recent strategic review as
“the cheapest of the shortlisted options by some way”.
In conclusion, this debate comes at a critical time in the restoration and renewal process. 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 and that this consensus also commands the support of the people who elected us to Parliament in the first place.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank you for calling me to contribute to the debate. The history of this place simply resonates with every step up those ancient stairs in Westminster Hall, with every breath that is taken in this history-saturated Chamber, and with every glance heavenward in Central Lobby where the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland come together as one in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are part of the living history in this place, and the preservation and restoration of it are essential. We are literally preserving the history of our nation.
I came into this House in 2010 when I was elected as the Member for Strangford. Before that, I served as a councillor for 26 years and in the Assembly for 12 years. I love the tradition of this place, and I love the building. I stay in the hotel across the bridge, and every morning when I walk across and look at the Houses of Parliament, I never fail to gasp and say, “Wow, look at that building!” Coming to this place inspires me every day of my life. It also makes me very proud to be British and to have the traditions, the history and the culture that we have in this House. Wow, I am really proud and pleased to have that! It makes me so proud to be British.
I love the pomp and the pageantry. When I have had the chance to be a bit player when Parliament is prorogued, I love to watch how it is done, and to watch the state opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech. Wow! Those things are incredible. Nobody anywhere in the whole world can do it like we British can in this House. That is something that I want to put on record. I truly love the democratic process. This mother of Parliaments has sent the democratic process across the whole world to many nations who have all had a chance to embrace the democratic process that we have in this place. I am humbled to be the MP for Strangford and represent the good people of Strangford. When we come here, ever mindful of the history, we are walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest political giants that ever walked, in all the history of this world and our great nation, and now we have the chance to be here and be a small player. A wee boy from Ballywalter—that is what I am—has had the opportunity to be the MP for Strangford. That is a reflection on the place that I come from.
This place is steeped in history. I love the building, not just for the building alone, but for the democratic process that it represents and for the opportunity that it gives everyone to represent their people in this House. On my trips to the United States, pre-covid obviously, I am always thoroughly impressed by their attitude to their nation’s history and the care that they take of it. Their monuments and memorials gleam, they have tours and information at every place of historical significance, and they are proud, as they should be. However, when I look at the attitude to our history in this place, a lot is left to be desired.
Most recently, there has been a desire to remove historical figures and to attempt to paint our historical literature and films with warnings. The past is the past and we are shaped by the lessons learnt from it. If we alter the past to suit a modern narrative, we do our history a disservice. The House is part of the fabric not simply of British history, but of the foundation of democracy. It deserves a top-class restoration to secure and preserve it for generations to come. To walk through and see beams from 1400 is humbling. The duty on us is clear: we must do what is right, we must get this right and we must pay what is right.
On 16 July, the Leader of the House said—I read his comments before the debate—that
“the proposal must be robust and evidence-based…must give value for money and…cut out unnecessary spending; and…the plans need to be up to date.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1737.]
That is important. Whether the crux of the issue is value for money, what compromises need to be made to save money, what opportunity exists for simpler, quicker and cheaper temporary accommodation, or how new ways of working developed in response to covid-19 affect Parliament’s requirements, they are all things that we must look at.
The review also found that by approaching restoration in a new way, with a phased approach to the delivery of the works in the Palace of Westminster, the time that Members and staff will spend in temporary accommodation could be kept to a minimum. I very much look forward to the Leader of the House’s response and a look at that timescale. A detailed and costed restoration and renewal plan will set out specific timescales, but the period in which works take place in the Palace of Westminster should be thought of in terms of years and not months.
I was slightly dismayed by some of the briefing that I looked at. It was indicated that while theoretically this is a House matter, concerning the running of the Commons and the Lords, given that several billions of pounds are involved, the Government have a stake. There are suggestions that Downing Street is jittery about the cost. A possible final bill of £4 billion is often quoted, but that is a ballpark estimate made several years ago. No one can be sure—it could cost a lot more. The Government must know that the restoration must be done and done soon. They must back it.
I am a proud Ulster Scot, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I know that you are a proud Scot. That history is something that we both share. I loved history, and it was the one subject at school that I did rather well in and enjoyed. As an Ulster Scot—I do not want to put words in your mouth, Madam Deputy Speaker, but you might say the same—I say, every pound is a prisoner. If it is, the thought of spending huge amounts of money is not the kind of decision that I take lightly. However, this is not an option but a necessity.
The money must be spent, and we must do it to as tight a budget as possible, but it must be done. There is much uncertainty about how to go forward. I am reminded of an Ulster Scotsism that is used, which I always remember, along these lines: they used to be indecisive, but now they are not sure. Sometimes, we might show some reluctance to make decisions in this House, but I hope that we do so.
It is also my opinion that the options presented allow us to do the work and yet still participate in this Chamber. I would like that to happen, but I am not sure whether it is possible, and others have reflected on that as well. Having spent a large part of the past year fiddling with Zoom passwords, battling wi-fi connections and frozen screens, and not really understanding exactly what was happening—I am not technologically minded—one thing has been made abundantly clear to me: this place is special and to do it wholly remotely simply does not cut it.
The thrust of the debate and the outworking of the role of an MP is simply not up to the same standard when carried out remotely. We must be able to retain a base in this place. I know the history of former decants and it is clear that they were not the best route.
I also saw in the background notes a quote stating:
“The work to save our Parliament buildings for the nation is essential and urgent, and the Palace of Westminster continues to be at a high risk of catastrophic damage, be that a major fire, flood or falling masonry”.
I am reminded of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliament buildings. On 2 January 1995—just before I entered the Forum for Political Dialogue and ultimately into the Assembly—there was a fire in the Parliament buildings. It was over the Christmas and new year holiday period, so no one was aware of it and the fire had been burning for a period of time in the main Chamber.
The Parliament buildings of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont replicate this House; they are not as large, but, as people can see on television, they are based on this place. The fire at Stormont was started by two wires rubbing together. After a number of years, that friction caused a fire. Someone living down in Dundonald, at the edge of Stormont, saw the smoke coming up the chimney. There was lots of talk that it was a terrorist attack, but it was not—it was just the age of the electrics. That is a reminder to me that perhaps we need a high level of maintenance in this House.
I have read reports that
“the Restoration and Renewal Programme team found that moving MPs into a temporary chamber in Richmond House on Whitehall and peers to the nearby QEII conference centre remains ‘the most secure, cost-effective and practical solution’ to keep parliament in operation while works take place.”
The cost of this is extremely prohibitive and leads me to the idea of hybrid systems. At least with a hybrid system, there could be some people in this place and others able to work effectively in other places; the background notes also referred to the Northern Estate programme. As the Leader of the House said, we have to focus on value for money. I am very much on that page. I am not the greatest advocate of hybrid proceedings —my ability would indicate that—but I would rather have hybrid proceedings for a little bit while we could not use this Chamber than spend £1.5 billion.
The background notes state that an hon. Member
“asked the House of Commons Commission if it had considered ways in which hybrid or virtual proceedings could reduce the cost of the restoration and renewal programme and minimise the need for decant during the programme. Sir Charles Walker, who answers questions on behalf of the Commission said that no formal assessment had been made and that it would be for the House to determine whether to adopt different ways of working.”
I believe that we can have the best of both worlds. The creation of a replica Chamber is not a good use of funding if there is a way to keep this place open while continuing the works.
The comments of the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), regarding wheelchair and visually disabled access are welcomed by everyone here. She also referred to those with autism and challenging educational issues. I entirely support her proposals in that regard. I have often had the opportunity—as have other right hon. and hon. Members—to engage with schools from our constituencies in the education centre, which the former Speaker was instrumental in bringing about, and which was really good news.
I understand that the safety and security of staff is paramount, and changes will have to be made to the placement of staff in our offices, yet it seems to me that there is a way forward: we must look to a hybrid model as the best of both worlds.
At the end of the day, this is undoubtedly and unfortunately a costly project—costly but worthwhile. We have an opportunity to take lessons learned from Parliament by Zoom, along with sensible financial decisions, to ensure that this Parliament can continue to operate effectively while we restore and protect this living and breathing seat of democracy for hundreds of years to come. We do this not just for us at this time, but for everyone who comes after—everyone who will walk where political giants have walked before.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the detail that you gave: it was good that you were able to inform us that all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have a part in the work. I welcome that and am encouraged by that. Perhaps the Leader of the House could provide some assurance that apprentices from Northern Ireland will have an opportunity to be part of that work.
I realise that I have gone on a wee bit long, so I shall finish with this. There are reports that say that a delay in starting work would add to the cost, because this 150-year-old building is falling apart faster than it can be fixed, with the cost of maintenance having doubled in just three years to £127 million a year in 2018-19, so it is clear that the decision must be made shortly. I urge the House to consider a hybrid model as the right decision, if it is in order and Members agree. We need to put up with the inconvenience, knowing that we are preserving this wonderful place—this incredible seat of democracy, the envy of all the world—and doing so as cost-effectively as we can while ensuring that we can all work well and still do the job we are elected to do.
It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); I share his delight in that incredible view on Westminster bridge. This place is an iconic symbol of our country and a symbol for democracy around the world. It is an immense honour to be an elected representative, but we also have a duty as custodians to take care of not only the fabric of the building but the culture and ethos. The hon. Member for Strangford is the embodiment of a very good ethos and culture that our Parliament represents.
We have heard about the decisions that have already been made and the extensive work that has already been done—including by you, Madam Deputy Speaker—and I pay tribute to everybody who has worked so hard to get us to this place. I wish to expand the debate to look forward, because the Leader of the House is right when he says that we are now moving to the next stage. To date, the biggest concern has been clarity on keeping the lid on costs, as was said earlier, and for this place not to be closed for business for any longer than absolutely necessary. That message has been sent loud and clear. Those issues remain of paramount importance, but we also need to make sure that there is just as much clarity on what a modern democracy needs from its buildings.
The No. 1 recommendation of the report we are considering is that we need to move the discussion on and, in particular, to look at a balance between restoration and renewal. What is it essential to preserve and what should we change? No one wants to gild the lily—all right hon. and hon. Members who have made that point today are absolutely right that we do not want to over-engineer R and R—but there are issues that we need to deal with. There are issues of restoration and issues of renewal and we need to consider them. It would be wrong to allow other people to decide the priorities for us, so we need to grasp the matter.
A vision has already been clearly set out to
“transform the Houses of Parliament to be fit for the future as the working home for our Parliamentary democracy, welcoming to all, and a celebration of our rich heritage.”
But what do we mean by that? That is a lot of words that are open to a lot of different interpretations. One theme in the plans for restoration and renewal is accessibility and inclusiveness, but what do we mean by that?
The Joint Committee that looked at these issues back in 2016 was absolutely right that this is a one-off opportunity to get things right—to renew and transform Parliament to be fit for the 21st century. That is fundamental to the planned building works and refurbishment. Most importantly of all, we have to avoid mission creep when the work actually starts. Current Members and, indeed, those who will be elected in elections to come—I am sure they will come on a frequent basis—should not feel that we have missed the opportunity to see this project as one of renewal, too. The Leader of the House is absolutely right when he says that we need to move on to that part of the debate and not just repeat debates of the past, and I am sure many Members would agree.
I have always believed that the right approach is to do the minimum, but what that means will be very different for everybody. Our Parliament is a building that has literally shaped our democracy as it has emerged and grown. It reflects the history of our democracy, and that is absolutely right, through its architecture, its artwork and its sculptures, but the democracy when this building was built back in 1837 was very different from the one we have today.
Parliamentary buildings are really important. They reflect democracy. They reflect our history, and that rich history is crucial to preserve, but they also condition us for the future. We have a duty to ensure that they reflect the entirety of our democratic history and perhaps our ambitions for the future, too. A celebration of our rich heritage and the need to be welcoming to all, which are clearly in the vision for this project, must be taken seriously as we move into the next stage.
Our plans for renewal need to seriously take into account and articulate to the Sponsor Body the importance of preserving our history, which needs to be firmly protected and not subject to any rewriting exercise. We also need to ensure that the currently untold stories of our Parliament are there, too, to make sure we are celebrating the full richness of the history of Parliament. Also, as set out in the restoration and renewal vision, we must consider the importance of making sympathetic changes to ensure that we are welcoming to everybody, whether that is disabled people visiting Parliament, members of staff or, indeed, Members ourselves.
Most important of all, we need to make sure that when we come back after all these works are finished, it is a place that is fit for the future. In particular—many Members have referred to this in the debate already—we have to ensure that we have the digital technology we need to run a modern democracy, whether that is in the Chamber, our Committee Rooms or our meeting areas. We need a clear plan for setting priorities for delivering a Parliament that is, as the vision says, “welcoming to all”.
I commend the Women and Equalities Committee for considering some of that as part of its broader inquiry on a gender-sensitive Parliament. A number of other Members in this debate and elsewhere have raised the issue of disability access, but we need to have a much more cohesive consideration of these issues that looks at more than just the bricks and mortar; we need to look at what is going to happen. We have to determine how we can ensure that this restoration and renewal project of the fabric of our democratic institution will be viewed by all the people we represent. We need to make it a place that is welcoming for all, whether that is people considering standing for election or people visiting to see their democracy in action.
I would like to make one final point, which is that there is a significant section in the strategic review on the growing use of the Palace. The report noted:
“To avoid disturbing Members and staff, major works programmes try to operate outside of ‘normal working hours’”,
and of course that is important.
The strategic review goes on to say that
“the growth in the 24/7 culture means many onsite business activities now operate beyond normal working hours. Saturdays are busy with commercial tours, weddings and other events. Hansard production plus coverage of political TV programmes (followed by production of digital newsprint) also occurs during weekend hours. Requests to film on site are also regular. Catering are now just as busy during some recess periods as”
when Parliament is sitting, and
“August is the busiest month for Tours which operate every weekday during the month.”
The report goes on to say that all of that is squeezing out some of
“the time for major building works.”
We should be concerned about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), the Chair of the Administration Committee, has taken this issue head on. He is to be applauded for his tireless work to make sure that Parliament and the House of Commons focus on their core business, and are not distracted by becoming a corporate entertainment venue or a tourist attraction. That is a cause for concern. We must not allow activities that are not core business to prevent major building works from being done now. We need to get a much better grip on this place being used for our core business as a democratic institution first and foremost, and not allow these secondary usages to crowd out the essential work that we do, but also the essential maintenance that the building needs.
I wholeheartedly disagree with the comments made earlier that this debate is self-indulgent—far from it. The way we renew our Parliament and transform it to be fit for the future as the working home of our parliamentary democracy could not be more important. Making it welcoming for all and a celebration of our rich heritage really matters. It should matter to everyone who values the future of our democracy, so it should matter to every Member of this House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) is absolutely right about the importance of this iconic building. Coming from the other end of the earth, I watch many of the Commonwealth Parliaments mimicking, or trying to mimic, this one, but they cannot mimic the building.
I was a little concerned when this debate came up because I was worried that the Leader of the House was going to tell us that the can was going to be kicked further down the road. So I enjoyed his speech, but I am afraid that I join his opposite number, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), in the “get on with it” gang.
When I was on the Commission with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), we discussed this issue backwards and forwards, and we came forward with the decision that a full decant and “get on with it” action should happen. She gave an excellent speech on that—I am sorry she is not here to hear me put this point—which has saved me from having to do an awful lot of talking.
When we discussed this issue, I became aware that some of my friends in the press—I have some friends in the press, including the national press—were pretty cynical and pretty worried about the cost. I took two of them—one each from two of the national papers—around individually to show them the masonry, which was falling apart and decaying. Some of it was very ancient and in desperate need of restoration and renewal.
I also took them down to the basement—the long passageway that runs the length of the building—and showed them some of the 86 vertical chimneys running from it. They were originally designed for ventilation, which of course meant that a fire could travel laterally and vertically extremely quickly. At present, these chimneys carry a mass of electrical services of varying ages, many of them clearly defective, as well as gas pipes and so on. We have gas pipes down in the basement, as well as air conditioning conduits, steam pipes, telephone systems and communication fibres—there is, of course, also a hugely overlaid and overworked sewerage system. That infrastructure serves the whole building from end to end, moving up through the chimneys.
There is also a small duplication, which many Members will be unaware of, in the form of a corridor, much like that in the basement, running along the top of the building. In the days before the dangers of asbestos were known, that dangerous material was literally and liberally splashed everywhere from buckets. All that needs to be dealt with and preferably removed.
The sewerage system is extraordinary. It consists of two very large steel tanks, which are listed, at the Commons end, and that collect from a very large pipe that runs the whole length of the building. If we are going to do a part-and-part arrangement, that would be exceptionally difficult to deal with. As somebody mentioned, the system was put in place in 1888. It not infrequently bursts and not infrequently leaks. If it bursts over equipment or some of the infrastructure, disaster may well be staring us in the face.
Infrastructure has been laid on infrastructure. All must be removed to allow for a modern, safe replacement. This has long been realised by most who have looked into the basement over many decades. In fact, I understand that the problem was discussed in the House in 1904, as well as interminably since, but the radical renewal required has been consistently put off—the can being kicked down the road.
Any suggestion that the work could be completed from one end of the building, proceeding to the other defies logic. To even try that would greatly extend the period of the renovations and vastly increase the cost. We have to understand that the longer we wait, the more the risk of catastrophic collapse of service looms over us. In 2020, if my memory is correct, the risk was rated at a 50:50 chance of a catastrophic collapse of our services—not just fire but a collapse of our electricity, gas, telephone systems and fibres, where we have that. Fires regularly break out. We are at a real risk that means we could well have a total collapse of our internal communication system and of Parliament at both ends. As I said, I join the Opposition gang: the longer we delay, the greater the risk.
I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of our former colleague Mike Weatherley. I offer my deepest sympathy to his family and friends. He was an outstanding colleague and Member for Hove.
Having been a Member of Parliament for a long time, I fully understand, better than most, the need for restoration work to be conducted. I could actually do with some myself. Although I was greatly heartened by the opening statements of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I take nothing for granted. There are so many potential fire hazards around, not to mention the unsanitary state of the place generally.
When I was a member of the Administration Committee, we were taken up the Elizabeth Tower to see for ourselves how urgently the repair work was needed. Water was pouring in through the windows and the masonry was in a very poor state. As the scaffolding is gradually being removed, we can all see the transformation that has taken place, with the minimum of disruption to the work of the Palace of Westminster. This project should be taken as an example of what can be achieved without interruption to the life of the parliamentary estate. Will my right hon. Friend tell me when the project will be completed and the whole tower will be revealed?
The Palace of Westminster, as many colleagues have said, is a symbol of democracy the world over, and the envy of most other countries, but behind the façade there is severe decay. Over the past few years, there have been several instances of pieces of stonework falling from the building, endangering staff and visitors. The sewers are no longer functional. The smell along the Terrace Corridor is absolutely appalling. One need only visit the cellars, as I have, to realise the very real fire risk from the miles of electrical cabling. Electrical wiring has been added in layers over many years until it hangs like jungle creepers everywhere. A modern Parliament needs modern services, and a full upgrade is long overdue.
As a member of the all-party fire safety and rescue group, I regularly receive reports on the number of minor fires that are dealt with every month as a matter of routine. Over the past few years, much has already been done to improve fire safety. Thousands of new sprinklers have been installed, along with miles of pipework to service them. Thousands of automatic fire detection devices have also been fitted, along with voice alarms. All this has been done without disturbance and almost without the knowledge of Members and their staff. I do not think any Member would wish to see this magnificent building share the same fate as Notre Dame. The roof is leaking and stonemasonry needs restoring, not to mention the problem of the asbestos that needs to be safely removed.
I therefore accept without reservation the need for action. What I remain unconvinced by is the proposition—because it is still there—that the elected House should move out of the building. I fear that Parliament may never return, in spite of all the guarantees given.
The plan voted on by the House of Commons recommended a full decant and the provision of a temporary Commons Chamber in the courtyard of Richmond House. May I point out that the vote was extremely close—but I fully understand that every vote counts—with a majority of only 16? That is not exactly an overwhelming endorsement. Apparently, these plans, as we have heard, have now been shelved and there is a new plan to completely demolish Richmond House and rebuild it. This is not only a horrendous waste of money and time, but totally unnecessary. Demolishing a perfectly serviceable, thermally efficient, relatively modern listed building to accommodate a temporary Chamber is absolutely crazy. The so-called gold-plated solution, which seeks to create an exact replica of the Commons Chamber, is a ridiculous idea. It is also costly in terms of emissions, given the Government’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Demolishing the building and rebuilding it is not only a complete waste of money, but would result in unnecessary additional carbon emissions.
Richmond House, a grade II listed building, where I worked in my days as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, is barely 35 years old—I was there on the day it opened—and to consider demolishing it is an absolute act of vandalism. It also delays the start of the restoration and renewal work for several years, possibly until 2027. Work should start as soon as possible to renew the hazardous wiring and other services in the Palace and to create a modern, sustainable working environment within the historic fabric of the building.
Since the vote in 2016, there has been a considerable change in the make-up of the House and the arguments for and against a full decant need to be looked at again. The Sponsor Body needs to be held to account by the elected members and its proposals properly scrutinised. I think the unelected Chamber should be the ones to decant, if that has to happen, as they have done admirably well during the covid-19 pandemic—it would probably be my only opportunity to sit on those red Benches. Hybrid or fully virtual proceedings have worked well for them over the last year, so I have favoured us using the Lords Chamber while the Commons and surrounding areas are restored. The work on the services for the whole Palace, including the cabling in the basement, could then go ahead with a minimum of disruption to Members and their staff. The Lords Chamber and the Royal Gallery can be serviced externally in terms of electricity, lighting and so on, which would provide enough working space and eliminate the need to convert the QEII Centre for the use of the House of Lords at an estimated cost of £350 million or more. The estimates of cost for the conversion of the QEII Centre did not take into account the loss of earnings for this publicly owned building and the subsequent loss to the Exchequer. Plans for the QEII Centre also include major building works to create a working space to replicate the height of the Lords Chamber—it is absolutely ridiculous.
Since 2016, with the uncertainty of Brexit compounded by the covid-19 pandemic, money is now very tight, so the economic considerations are absolutely crucial. Affordability and value for money are so important. The Chancellor has said that huge efforts need to be made to balance the books after the enormous cost to the public purse of supporting businesses throughout the pandemic. The current plans will cost billions, and I think we need to take into account the sacrifices made by our constituents over the past year and think of how it will look to them if we allow taxpayers’ money to be wasted on a white elephant. By comparison, the cost of a new school is between £20 million to £30 million, so we need to be both careful with costs and transparent in how the money is spent.
Both Houses have proved their ability to work flexibly and embrace new technology over the past year, which is what I am doing right now. It is only right that all options be looked at in order to save millions of pounds of public money and start the process of renewal as soon as possible. Virtual proceedings are not ideal, but all options need to be considered.
I do not want the Sponsor Body to be given a blank cheque. Elected Members should have oversight of the budget for this project. The recent strategic review has costs redacted, even in the copies provided to Members of Parliament. Every solution presented so far by the body inflates the costs and increases the delay in commencing the urgent work that is required to make the Palace safe for everyone who works in and visits the building.
If a temporary Chamber is required, there are cheaper and less disruptive options available, and Members of Parliament should be given the chance to debate them. The House should take this opportunity to rethink plans for a full decant and instead consider a rolling programme of work on the Palace structure and services, working continuously in three shifts. It could be completed in five years, and the continuity of Parliament in this place maintained. The current plans in no way represent value for money, the importance of which was stressed in the Act of Parliament that set up the Sponsor Body.
Some Members of Parliament serve only for one term. My length of service, together with that of a number of colleagues who have spoken in this debate, is quite unusual these days. I will never forget walking into this building on my first day as a new Member of Parliament—even if some people mistook me for a Labour Member. The magnificence of the architecture and the weight of history that these walls carry was quite overwhelming. To deny the next generation of Members of Parliament that experience, and instead to swap it for a soulless copy of the Commons Chamber in another building, would be absolutely unforgivable.
Thank you, Sir David. You mentioned the architecture of this building, which is vital, but it is the people who make this building. Mike Weatherley was one of those people, and I counted him as a personal friend. He told me that he was standing down because he did not want to leave it too late to start another career. He did start another career, and he did it admirably well, travelling between California and the United Kingdom. I was devastated to learn of his illness, and more so this morning when I learned of his passing. My deepest condolences to his family.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess); contrary to what he said, he looks to me to be in fine working order.
In preparing for this speech, I tried to think about what the public would make of what we are debating this afternoon. For someone who does not live or work around Parliament, it is probably rather hard to envisage the scale or the incredible intricate detail of the Palace of Westminster. As a new MP, I am still struggling with it. I imagine that when we talk about Parliament requiring, in some cases, quite literally hundreds of millions of pounds to be spent on it, it is probably very difficult for someone in the outside world to comprehend just where and how much of that money needs to be spent. That is the crux of this issue; in the eyes of the taxpayer, we have to justify that money.
Before I became an MP, I had some experience of renovating buildings and upgrading property. I was a director of a very large, historic family department store, which was extremely old, and we had a huge listed building that we were constantly improving, upgrading and modernising. I appreciate that that is not quite on the scale of what we are discussing. However, it beggars belief that we are in perhaps one of the greatest buildings in the world, steeped in such history, and our Parliament is in such a dire condition around us that we are discussing the need to decant. Talk about kicking the can down the road.
That raises the even bigger question of how, once we get this magnificent building restored and repaired, we keep on top of it year after year—for heaven’s sake, let us make sure that we do—and not let it get into rack and ruin before fixing it again. I have no doubt that had we maintained it properly, we probably would not be dealing with the eye-watering cost and disruption that we now face. This is an historic icon and one of the most famous buildings in our country. We absolutely should restore it to its former glory, but then we need to keep on top of it and maintain it for the next 1,000 years.
In my experience of refitting old buildings, extending supermarkets with thousands of people a day walking through them, and even putting in new floors—yes, I have also removed asbestos from buildings—we never ever shut the business for one trading day. The people we inconvenienced were far more important than us MPs. They were called “customers” and, like taxpayers, they paid for the work. I am fully aware that Parliament is a much bigger and more complex job, but the principle is the same. This is a long-term, decade-long project, and I for one am more than happy to be inconvenienced. I cannot see the public having too much sympathy for us in that respect.
The public will want to know that we are doing our job properly, making good decisions, and that they are getting value for money—more than ever at this moment in time, given the state of the public purse. Yes, it is common sense to evaluate what is best for the taxpayer, but I question whether it will be cheaper to move out entirely, allow a blank canvas, and be away from the home of democracy for years on end. I fear the repercussions of a project of this scale rolling on indeterminately, and when we would get back. Indeed, as some Members have said, some of us might never return. Alternatively, we could put up with inconvenience, but we should get on with it as these works are much needed now. Obviously, we must ensure that it is safe, but let us not keep putting off the issues, and instead start to deal with them now.
We are in recess for around four months of the year. That gives a huge degree of flexibility, and the ability to tackle the project in stages. Surely it must be feasible to work around a functioning Parliament, if that is possible, viable and cost effective. Being here is a powerful incentive to get on with the job. Out of sight, as they say, is out of mind. We have had months using a hybrid Parliament system, which could be used again if absolutely necessary, when some parts of the building were being worked on. It is fair to say that nothing is impossible, as we have seen over the past year, but we owe it to the taxpayer to spend their money wisely and properly. We as MPs are capable of being flexible and adapting, just as we and the rest of the nation have done. There are no such words as “can’t be done”, and great chunks of the work could be carried out around us, or indeed have already started. Above all, this is our home. It is where we represent our constituencies. This is the mother of democracy, and I would think carefully about the repercussions of not being inside these four walls, should we move out for a long period.
As ever, I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his characteristically fabulous history lesson which, as so often, filled me with a warm glow at having the honour of representing my constituents in this place. He was right to highlight the importance of this place at the centre of our national story. The walls that surround us, the very fabric of the Palace of Westminster, are a central tenet of our democracy. The palace may feature on postcards, tea-towels, ceremonial mugs and—I am guessing—the screensavers of many parliamentary staffers across this place, but first and foremost it is a working office.
This is a meeting place for representatives from around our Union, and an open and accessible centre for constituents to lobby us as their Members of Parliament. It is, of course, a thriving melting pot of political plotting, which happens in every corner of the building, not just here in the Chamber. It is vital not to lose sight of the fact that even though the palace is a symbol of London and of our nation, it is home to thousands of members of staff who support our work. Those members of staff deserve to work in a building whose fabric is not crumbling around them, where they can walk around without fear of falling masonry, and where they do not have to greet the office rat alongside their colleagues in the morning.
Naturally, the restoration of a grade I listed building and a UNESCO world heritage site housing a working legislature comes with unique challenges that are not faced by other large-scale restoration projects. We must complete the works quickly in a cost-effective manner and, vitally, with as little disruption to parliamentary business as possible, because what is this place for if not for legislating effectively, and never legislating for the sake of it, but instead doing all within our power to make people’s lives better?
The restoration and renewal process has felt like a black cloud looming over Westminster for too long. Since the appointment of a Joint Committee six years ago, it seems we have had endless back and forth and um-ing and ah-ing about the best route to follow, with no clear decision making and a troubling lack of clarity and transparency. The Sponsor Body’s strategic review—itself due in October, but published in March—was full of redacted costings, including the capital costs of a number of potential decant locations for both this place and the other place. If the Sponsor Body is trusted to make operational decisions for a significant chunk of the restoration and renewal works, it must be open and honest about how much these things are likely to cost.
I cannot stress how important it is that the cost of the work is reduced as much as feasibly possible, with no gold-plating in sight, while ensuring that democracy can still be done and we can continue to change lives for the better. I know that the past year has been an economic whirlwind for my constituents right across Bishop Auckland, and I have heard far too many stories of lost incomes, despite the Government’s unprecedented support schemes. On that note, I have severe reservations about voting in support of giving a blank cheque of up to £6 billion or more against the backdrop of such intense economic hardship, with millions upon millions spent on a management report alone, before a single brick or cable has even been restored. It is completely unacceptable.
In Bishop Auckland, we are waiting patiently for the result of our bid for just £46 million from the towns fund, so just imagine what we could do with £500 million. I do have a shopping list, Mr Deputy Speaker, including restoring the A&E, a Toft Hill bypass and a new school in Shildon, but I will save that for another day for fear of getting into trouble.
After this Chamber was bombed during the blitz and the question turned to how it should be rebuilt, Winston Churchill said:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.]
I would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form. Churchill understood that the form and fabric of the Chamber is an essential ingredient of the fiery debates we hold in this place.
For that reason I would like to make clear how important it is that, whatever decant arrangements we agree on, we do not see a permanent return of hybrid proceedings. While virtual proceedings have allowed some hon. Members to spend more time at home with their families and in their constituencies in a difficult year, I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that not being physically in the Chamber is detrimental to the parliamentary experience. I heard the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) make this point even more eloquently than me earlier. Small things, such as the inability to intervene in virtual speeches, have led to a significantly reduced quality of debates.
I know that the proposals included in the Sponsor Body’s strategic review involve the demolition and complete redevelopment of Richmond House as the location for the decant, and these plans involve the construction of a number of, in my view, unnecessary and expensive add-ons. I may have spent only about 18 months here as a Member, but I would be more than happy to forgo access to new cafés, Committee Rooms, replica voting Lobbies and gyms if it meant that I was saving my hard-working constituents their taxes and stopping them being wasted. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) so eloquently outlined, we have heard alternative proposals, such as those from Mark Hines Architects, which has drawn up plans for a temporary Chamber of the same size and layout as the current one, saving over £500 million compared with the current proposals—and I am back to my shopping list.
However, I will admit that I do have some concerns about a full decant. That is not, as the shadow Leader of the House lightly alluded to earlier, because I would miss the place, though I would, but for two reasons: first, as I have already highlighted, because I believe we need the minimal possible disruption to our ability to do our jobs and to serve our constituents, but also because of the optics. In a time when the nation’s finances are stretched by the pandemic, how does it look to our constituents to demolish a 30-year-old building, only to construct a swanky new shiny one at vast expense just to be used temporarily?
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) cannot be here today, but she asked me to represent her view in this debate, which is that we should seek both to reduce disruption to our democratic institutions and try to save our constituents money. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough highlighted a number of cost-effective possibilities, but my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton spoke to me about the possibility of shifting this Chamber into the House of Lords and moving the peers out to an alternative place, while ensuring that the democratically elected element of this place would continue to function as normal. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) has spoken eloquently about that, too.
As I highlighted earlier, given its UNESCO heritage site recognition, this place is of global significance. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), who also cannot be here today. She believes that the decant works must be carried out as swiftly as possible. In her words, although I would never try to deliver them in her usual vivacious style and nor in her accent from what I consider to be the wrong side of the Pennines: “In the era of global trade deals an extended decant risks our global perception. I am of the view no longer than six months is tenable or we risk the following with our global trading partners, ‘Well, why would I use your company for my projects when you can’t renovate an old building to time?’”
On the point about the companies working on these projects, I agree with the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) that this should be a huge opportunity for businesses right across our country to contribute.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) highlighted earlier, the devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral in 2019 acted as a tragic reminder that we must get the restoration and renewal works done as quickly as possible. If we waste time dithering and delaying, quibbling over how best to decant the Palace, not only does that risk spiralling costs to the taxpayer, but it increases the risk of a catastrophic incident such as what happened in Notre Dame. That is why, contrary to the view of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), now is the time for this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) stated eloquently that since the restoration project was first actioned, circumstances have changed and the political make-up of this place has changed, and that is why it is right we have this debate today.
In conclusion, I implore the Sponsor Body and corporate officers of both Houses to come together swiftly to find a definitive path for the works. Members’ staff and most importantly the public need certainty over the timescale, costings and style of the works to rest in the knowledge that their democratically elected representatives will be able to do their duty to legislate, to scrutinise the work of Government and to keep the beating heart of democracy that our ancestors planted in this place alive and kicking for many generations to come.
After that fantastic contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), I feel this is going to be a bit of a disappointment, but let us see how it goes.
This has truly been slightly seat-of-the-pants stuff today, believe it or not. I did not really know what to expect when I came into this debate. As we saw the opening salvos from the Leader of the House of Commons and the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), I thought we were going to see the old arguments of leave or remain, but just that we had stepped through the looking glass a little bit. As the debate has progressed, however, I think some really important points have been made. I am conscious that I will probably not be able to address all of them to the extent that I would wish to, but I would like to touch first on the idea of the opportunities that come out of this.
The right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and other hon. Members are absolutely right: there is an opportunity with these works, either way, to ensure we see the best this country has to offer—whether that means ensuring we have builders from Wednesbury, bricklayers from Spennymoor, electricians from Haslington, surveyors from Clitheroe or artists from Clifton—and to ensure that as we do this work we can showcase the best this country has to offer. We all know that it truly does have the best to offer. We need to ensure, as we come out of the pandemic and out of the economic hard times, that we use the restoration of this Palace as a symbol to everyone else that we are back and that we do support those industries, we do support our economy and we do support our local artisans. It is important that we do that at the heart of our democracy.
Picking up on a point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), this is an important debate. Do not get me wrong. There are other things I wish to talk about as well, of course. I want to have debates about how we protect survivors of domestic violence. I want to have debates about ensuring that the children in areas such as Princes End in my constituency, which has some of the highest rates of child poverty, get the resources and the opportunities they deserve. But at the moment, the way we do that is by ensuring that the basis of our democracy—the area we have those debates in—functions; that it can operate, that we can have those debates and done in the right way. Because if this place slows down and is not operational, we cannot do that and we cannot change people’s lives. That is why every single one of us is here: to change people’s lives for the better. That is why we are here, irrespective of party and irrespective of whether we are a socialist, Conservative, Unionist or nationalist, and to be able to do that, we need a place to do it from.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland that we must ensure we are back here after any sort of decamp, because that is what the public expect. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North made an interesting point when she said that her constituents saw this as a stuffy place. For the schoolchildren from areas such as Tipton in my constituency who came down pre-pandemic, this place was awe-inspiring. I remember welcoming a school down from Tipton just before the pandemic and their awe at this place. Many of them felt that this place was inaccessible to them, and I was so proud, as their Member of Parliament, to show them round and say to them, “No, you can come here, and do you know what? One day you could be sat on these Benches, and you should be able to aspire to be here.”
The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic point. I have had the opportunity, through the Parliamentary Education Centre, to have schoolchildren from the different strands of education—state schools, Catholic-controlled maintained schools and integrated schools—come to this place, and they all look forward to it, because it is an opportunity for them to see the mother of Parliaments at work and to ask their Member of Parliament questions. He is right: it is also an opportunity for us to give encouragement to those young people, who one day could be Members of Parliament.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend, if I may say so—for that intervention. He is absolutely right. It has been disappointing that, because of the pandemic, I have not had the opportunity to show more schools round, but I hope to be able to do so in the future with our fantastic Education Centre, which I pay tribute to for the work it does, as I am sure all Members do.
I touched previously on the best of British, and we have to ensure that the procurement is open and transparent. That is key, and it is what the public expect, particularly given the fact that we have gone through some interesting times over the last few months. We need to ensure that there is transparency. I will not regurgitate all the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland made about transparency on the costings, because she articulated them much better than I would, but we need to be up front with people about the cost of this. When we talk about billions of pounds, what does that actually mean? We bandy these words around in the Chamber quite a lot, but sometimes that can feel quite disconnected, as I know from the conversations I often have with my constituents, particularly a few weeks ago on the doorsteps.
For example, the £29 million spent on the Elizabeth Tower project could pay for us to run nearly 1,000 police stations in my constituency. I am actually losing all my constituency’s police stations, but that is a different matter altogether that we are not going to talk about right now. The point is that we have to make this relative to the people we represent, because I think we all agree that ultimately this is their Parliament. We are the custodians of it, but this is their Parliament, and we have to ensure that we do the work on their building—on the people’s building—in the way that they would expect us to do it, which is transparent and cost-effective and respects the situation that we now find ourselves in.
As many Members have said, when people are losing their jobs and their livelihoods, it is difficult to explain why we are spending millions of pounds on a building. I would find it difficult to go into some of my most deprived communities that have lost so much and say to them, “We’ve just spent millions of pounds on knocking down a 35-year-old building.” I would struggle to look them in the eye and justify that.
I am conscious of the need to allow colleagues to make their contributions, so I will conclude. We have to get this right. As many Members have said, it is about the people who are here; they are at the heart of this. I echo the comments made about accessibility, which is really important. The hon. Member for Bristol West articulated that very well, and I absolutely agree with her. We have to ensure that, as part of the works, this place is accessible to everyone and allows everyone, irrespective of additional need, to access it.
Equally, we must ensure that the people we engage to do the work pay the living wage and use apprentices and that this work is done to advocate social mobility, so that people from all backgrounds and all strands of life can be part of the work and benefit from it.
This is vital work. It will set the stage for how this place is viewed in the decades to come. It is vital that we get this right and get this done, but it must be done in the right way that respects our communities.
It is always an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey). I must mention my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham) really wanted to contribute to the debate. I know he shares many of my views. I am grateful to be able to speak in this critical debate on how this fantastic building can be protected, preserved and restored for generations to come.
I start by agreeing with the general principle that Parliament must be restored, not only because I seem to spend more of my time with Stuart Little in this building than with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), but because, as much as it is a working building, it is also a symbol identifiable around the world. It is our physical manifestation of democracy and British values, and it is a majesty to work in. I still remember the feeling I had after the 2019 general election when I came into this place for the first time as the representative of Hyndburn and Haslingden. I remember it because I still feel it to this day. This building gives us pride. It encourages us to be thoughtful, considered and collegiate, and it is steeped in history, from Westminster Hall to St Stephen’s Chapel. Let us not forget, and as we remembered only last week, that night during the second world war when this place was bombed by the Luftwaffe.
As a new MP, I cannot imagine being elected and not having the experience of walking into this place, but sadly that is what is proposed. Rather than work occurring around Members of Parliament, recognising the importance of this place’s continuing to function, as it managed even after being bombed during world war two, the proposal is for us all to leave. We all recognise that remaining in situ, with construction occurring around us, would be disruptive, but disruption is, I believe, a price worth paying. It can only be because of an aversion to disruption that works have not taken place already. Generations have ducked this question. It is right and proper that we do not, and that we finally take the decisions on how much disruption can be tolerated and how much we are willing to pay, both immediately and over time.
Unfortunately, nothing that I have seen in these costings indicates a genuine attempt to get a handle on the costs of this colossal project. The most striking number I have heard so far is a potential cost of the survey running into the hundreds of millions of pounds. That money spent elsewhere would fund new schools, hospitals, road upgrades, rail line openings, freeports and research and development—all things that can make an enormous difference to the lives of my constituents. They create jobs, they level up, they spread equality of opportunity. For that money being spent on this project, what do we get? How much change do we see? Not very much. It will fund investigations and deliberations.
I accept that work will cost money, and my constituents accept that too, but we have to be proportionate. We have to consider the wider economic circumstances and those of our constituents. We have urgent infrastructure needs in Hyndburn and Haslingden. We do not need surveys. For this project to succeed, and most importantly to bring the public with it, we need to be realistic on the cost. What is realistic in the short term that needs doing as one block, and what can we span over multiple years, allowing our economic recovery to take hold, allowing us to deliver on some of our levelling-up promises so that opportunity is spread?
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe). The Palace of Westminster is a building, but it is more of an institution. It is of incredible historical importance, and for new Members like me, who have been deprived of valuable time in it, it is an iconic place to be revered for future generations. I, for one, fully support the move to not only restore it but to bring it up to date, ready for others to use it, appreciate its history and create more history within its walls. Its importance is enjoyed not only by those of us who sit here; more than 1 million people visit Parliament every year, including schoolchildren, constituents, businesses, charities and tourists.
However, a large part of this debate is about the value for money of this project. It is imperative that the many Members who, like me, are recent additions to this place are given the opportunity to scrutinise this project for our constituents. After the last year or so that they have endured, they need to see us enact our role as custodians of the public purse, which as we all know has taken a real hammering because of covid. However, we also need to make progress and not procrastinate any further. This place deserves our attention and investment, which has been delayed for too long. We need to reappraise what we are spending and how. Clearly, there are some non-negotiables, such as improving fire safety—we certainly do not want to see a Notre-Dame. However, covid, although wreaking havoc on so many aspects of life, has also shown us that changes in working practice can be delivered at extraordinary speed when there is a will. We need to take that mindset and see how we can substantially reconsider the ways in which operations can continue, albeit with some transitional inconvenience, while the restoration and renewal is delivered.
An ex-boss of mine, now sadly departed, had a phrase in managing our business: “follow the cash”. We need to do precisely that. It is said that if we look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves, but we also hear about people being penny wise and pound foolish. It is imperative we look for value at every stage and keep our focus on the pounds. We need proper procurement and management. This is not a private project with a private purse, so we must not be wasteful and we must have a stringent procurement process that is robustly and explicitly in control. We must see that things are done not only well and right, but appropriately, and without extravagance and wasteful spending where it is not really necessary.
There is also a way in which we can make this project contribute to the country’s purse. The Houses of Parliament restoration and renewal programme states that the restoration will be a
“national infrastructure project that will benefit small and medium-sized enterprises and create training opportunities all over the country.”
Small and medium-sized enterprises will be engaged in supply chains and will benefit significantly from the contract spend. It certainly makes sense that the contracts born of the restoration of such a quintessential British heritage site be given to British businesses. Only by ensuring that this project provides jobs to British companies and British people, and provides stimulus to British supply chains, can we truly claim that we are providing value for money and offsetting costs by allowing the job and business benefits to be here, where the source of the money is.
The project writes:
“The Delivery Authority will create a host of new employment and training opportunities, supporting thousands of jobs in construction, engineering, design, and IT”.
This will be
“as well as attracting those with specialist skills in carpentry, stonemasonry, metalwork, and heritage conservation”
The latter of those trades, which will have struggled during our national lockdown and need contracts, are also often to be found and practised in the areas we might call “left behind”. We need to ensure that unless there is absolutely no alternative all contracts remain on British soil. Not only would we support those who have faced some of the worst effects of the pandemic, but this might go a way towards our levelling-up agenda and give stimulus to some sectors and areas that have fallen behind in recent decades. Here is a good opportunity to take a good deal of money, which it will be, by necessity, and inject it into areas that really need it.
I must be clear that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, this place is special. It is fundamental that it remains special and it continues to be a special home of democracy. Technology must be used to help the transition and we must minimise the frustrations to true debate, which this place affords normally but has failed to deliver over the past year, just as now, when I am giving a speech but this is not a debate that I am part of, even though we have this video link. Of course we need to deliver technology in this place that is as future-proof as possible, but we also need to have such broad thought on that, because in the time it will take to do that we cannot possibly imagine the further technological innovation that will take place. It is a difficult thing to do, but we must attempt to make sure we future-proof, where possible. We of course need to recognise that the positive changes in the perspective of inclusivity that we have seen in society must be fully incorporated into the fabric of this programme.
In conclusion, done well, this project is an excellent opportunity to invest, rather than just spend, the taxpayer’s money, but it must be delivered in a way where our constituents can be confident that their money has been appropriately spent and that this place retains its place as the iconic seat of democracy.
We have had a good debate today. I am pleased to be part of closing this debate and to have seen almost every speech and heard the range of views. The well-informed right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who worked hard on so many things in her time as Leader of the House, reminded us, with a note of frustration, of how we got here. I understand that frustration, because she reiterated —as it needs to be reiterated—the increased costs of either delaying things or maintaining a continued presence in this place.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) has enormous expertise and is a font of knowledge not only on why we need to just get on with the job, but on how to do that well. As he said, he has been on every Committee that has discussed this matter over many years. He has put a great deal of thought not only into making sure that we are doing a good job as custodians for future generations, but into how we can make the decamp work.
It is also fair to say that other hon. and right hon. Members of the sponsor body board, including the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), who have obviously put in an enormous amount of work and said so today, made it clear that doing nothing, patching up and making do are no longer options. I do not know whether there is anybody left in this House who thinks that it is an option to do nothing, patch up and make do, but just in case, let us make it clear that that is not an option. Pretending that we do not need to do this is also just wrong, but so, too, is pretending that it is not going to cost more if we do this in a way that keeps us in here at increased cost, expense, time, risk and various other things that I might not have thought of.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, with her eye for detail and ability to cut to the heart of the argument, pointed out that the costs of endlessly and repeatedly debating the matter means that we keep on spending money. We carry on spending the taxpayers’ money that many hon. Members here today have said that they want to take care of. We all want to take care of taxpayers’ money. I cannot think that there is a single Member in this place who is not acutely aware of taxpayers’ money. That is why so many of us want to ensure that we are preventing the further unnecessary spending of taxpayers’ money that is occurring because of delay in the stop and start approach.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) made his case for getting on with the job with his customary style. He raised concerns about the disruption to the centre of London and put forward the interesting case for using the Thames as a conduit. While I am extremely fond of the Thames, I have also seen the sort of construction works that are needed to take place to make a landing-stage in tidal water such as the Thames, and I do have to say to him that I would like him to come to us with more information, but I am very concerned that his suggestion would mean more disruption, more noise and possibly more delay. However, it is obviously something that needs sorting out and with speed.
It was disappointing to hear so many hon. Members talking about taxpayers’ money as if we are not at risk of having to spend more taxpayers’ money if we do not act or if we do not decant to allow the work to get on efficiently. It is disappointing to hear it framed as if this were not a place of work for thousands of people, not just MPs, and as if it were not also the property of the taxpayers whom we are representing.
I have not yet mentioned voids. Anybody at all who has visited a tower block with dangerous cladding or other fire safety defects in the past few years, as I have, cannot fail to be horrified at the news of the voids that exist across this estate that present a great fire risk if they are not remedied. If we remain here while they are being remedied, that, in my view, represents an unnecessary risk at which to put MPs and, more importantly, staff.
I am glad to say that I found myself in agreement across party lines many times this afternoon—as I have already said with the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire and other members of the board. The right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) put forward many well-made points. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke with his customary charm and showed his willingness to try the difficult road. He has embraced technology even when he, I and many others have been, frankly, quite bothered by it at many times in the past year, and he is willing to put himself through more of the same so that we can do our work efficiently on behalf of the people we represent. Would that everybody would follow that example and be willing to take that difficult road. I say that even though I have frequently had cause to want to do something really rather fierce with my iPad when I have heard yet another person say, “You’re on mute.” I am going to get that put on a T-shirt to save everybody time.
What is in it for taxpayers? Apprenticeships, jobs, skills and crafts—businesses up and down the country are going to benefit from the money that we are not spending but investing. We are investing it not just in the building but in the constituencies of those Members who have expressed understandable concern about the cost. Of course, there must not be an unlimited flow of money—we all agree that that is essential. I cannot stress too highly that I do not think a single Member does not believe in value for money for the taxpayer—but in my view, from what I have read and been briefed on by the various experts, the idea of a partial decant to the House of Lords fails to take into account the fact that this is an entire estate, complete in itself. Although flawed, it is connected, with those flaws, which would in itself put us at possible further risk.
I thank my hon. Friend for the very kind words she said about me earlier. On the point she is making, I am sure the Leader of the House agrees, because he was also on the Joint Committee, and we spent months—probably more than a year—looking at every one of the options, including using the House of Lords. On the surface it seems quite a sensible case of just moving down there, but as my hon. Friend rightly says this is one building and one set of services. It would be incredibly expensive and difficult to try to create new services, and we would still be working in a building site, so it just would not work.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that detailed and informed view.
It is also worth reminding Members—and I say this respectfully to newer Members—of the awful day when we were locked in here because of the terrible murder of PC Keith Palmer. That cannot have failed to have alerted everybody in this place to security risks that we all would really rather we did not have. We have to remain within a secure perimeter, and I want to take seriously the advice that we have had from security specialists who say that staying within the northern estate is vital if we are to maintain security. Again, I have to say that it is not about us; it is about our staff and the public.
I have heard mention of Portcullis House; I walked across Portcullis House atrium yesterday and counted not one, not two, but three buckets collecting water from a leaky roof, so we are going to have to do some work if we think we are going to decant into Portcullis House. That is also a cautionary tale of what happens when we do not keep up with the maintenance.
I say to all right hon. and hon. Members, whether new or long-standing, that if they have not—as I have not yet, but I am booked to—taken the tour of horror, which I am told is really quite the horrifying tour, please will they do so? I think it will help those who have said that they do not how to explain it to their constituents. I completely get that, because to begin with I was not sure how, but once I had seen some of the pictures and heard some of the tales—I am about to go and see for myself—I finally understood how to talk to my constituents, because my constituents own this place, as do the constituents of other Members. That is why we need to stop the delays, recognise that the costs of delay are high and realise that a partial decant is in and of itself both a delay and a cost.
We need to recognise that the specialness of this place is worth preserving. This place is worth modernising and enhancing. Debate itself can take place anywhere that there are two politicians of different parties in a room—and even more so if they are of the same party. That debate can take place anywhere, and we now know that we can also vote in really quite constrained circumstances. It is not ideal, but it will do us until we can get back in here, fully modernised and fully safe.
May I begin with the point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and by you, Mr Deputy Speaker: our mutual friend, Mike Weatherley, whose death was sadly reported today? He and I coincided—we were elected to Parliament at the same time—and he was a friend to every Member of this House. He was a kindly, good, decent, hard-working person. We send our deepest sympathies to his family and pray for the repose of his soul.
This has indeed been an excellent debate. I am grateful to everyone who participated, particularly the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who has taken a very constructive and thoughtful approach to this matter. I think that we can work together, because it is one of those occasions where there is much more agreement than perhaps there appears to be on the surface. I will try to go through that and, at the same time, try to respond to all the contributions that have been made.
First, let me record my gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for representing us on the Sponsor Body, for the work that he is doing, and for the extremely measured and thoughtful approach that he characteristically takes, pointing out to us that ultimately we will have to make choices. We will have to decide on what we want, to consider phasing, and to work out how much is renewal and how much is straight restoration. This will be fundamental to how the scheme is costed in the end.
I also thank my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who unfortunately is not in her place for the wind-ups. Given that she was the Leader of the House, she knows where this programme began and piloted it through its beginning stages very successfully. She made some important points about recognising that the work has to be done. That is fundamental. There is nobody who disagrees with that at all. The work needs to be done, and it needs to be done as soon as is practicable. There has been absolutely no delay in my period as Leader of the House. Indeed, I would argue the reverse.
Interestingly, my right hon. Friend gave an example of the stone falling on to the car of our right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General. That was not at the Palace; it was at Norman Shaw. That is why the works that we are doing have to be phased, and the work on Norman Shaw is taking place. I can tell the House that the plans for Norman Shaw are under way and the proposals are being made, and, as we are not now intending effectively to bulldoze Richmond House, they are going ahead faster. The planning permission went in, I think, in March and the work on Norman Shaw North should have its own decant in December 2021, with external works commencing in January 2022 and completion of the project in October 2025.
I have to tell the House that if we were continuing with the Richmond House programme, were waiting for that to happen and had not used Richmond House as the decant option for Norman Shaw, we would not even have started on Norman Shaw until 2025, let alone completed it. I must therefore reject the idea that things have not been happening.
Derby Gate, which of course creates some of the space for people moving out of Norman Shaw, will see people moving into it on 31 July this year. The preliminary works are taking place, and they are taking place faster because we have been trying to get the scheme under control. That is the second part of the work. The first part was to recognise that it needed to be done, but the second part was to look at the cost.
When I became Leader of the House, in one of my early meetings on restoration and renewal, it was suggested to me—this is not a formal forecast—that the cost range was likely to be £10 billion to £20 billion. That is ridiculous. It is not an amount that even those of us who are most committed to the project think is reasonable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said in his excellent speech that the figures for Richmond House had risen to £1.6 billion. I knew that the combined cost of moving the two Chambers was £1.5 billion, but my right hon. Friend was suggesting £1.6 billion just for Richmond House.
The right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), as always, made a thoughtful contribution in which he spoke about decant. My opposition to decant has never been decant per se; it has always been a means to an end on cost. We were getting schemes that were so ridiculously expensive that one had to push back and say, “Surely there is a better and cheaper way of doing it.” Whether we can get it down to the £46 million suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, I am not certain, but £1.6 billion is not proper stewardship of public funds.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about cost, but we of course do not know what the cost is until the business case comes through, and I think that needs to be clear. Is he really suggesting that if we do the work around us, that will be cheaper than if we move out and do it in one hit and then come back?
I have not begun to suggest that, and I am very glad that the hon. Lady has intervened on me, because the figures given by the Public Accounts Committee on the £127 million of running costs that we are expending are not very well explained in the Committee’s report. If she wants to explain them, I would be delighted to give way.
The figures quoted are from the National Audit Office, and the full details are in the National Audit Office’s work. They are then simply quoted in the Public Accounts Committee report. It is National Audit Office work that is done to get those figures in the report.
Those figures seem to relate to the £44 million spent on the Northern Estate project, the £24.6 million for Canon Row, the £15.9 million for fire safety, the £12.6 million for the Elizabeth Tower and the £4.8 million for IT, almost all of which will continue regardless of how R and R is done. Therefore I am concerned about the impression being given by this figure that there is a massive increase in cost because we have not yet moved out. I do not think that is accurate, but if the hon. Lady would like to give more elaboration on the figures, I would find it very helpful.
I have tried to look for further details to understand what is being quoted in that £127 million figure that was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire and alluded to by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I think it is important to get an understanding that a lot of the costs we are being told are extra are actually preliminary, because we are getting on with the work to get things ready.
There is the crucial work—a number of people have mentioned Notre Dame—on fire safety. We should bear in mind that the fire safety work has been tested and completed, with the exception of the Victoria Tower, in the past few months, and includes: 7,112 automatic fire detection devices; 1,364 locations for fire stopping compartmentation, dividing the Palace into 16 compartments; 4,126 sprinkler heads in the basement of the Palace, so the risk that we have heard about of a conflagration from the basement is very, very significantly reduced; and the 8 miles of pipe that I have referred to before.
It is really important to understand that a lot of work is already going on and ties in with the outline business case, which is being carried out to schedule by the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority. That is the right way to proceed, because a number of people have mentioned the Elizabeth Tower, including the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and what went wrong there with the cost going up from £29 million to £80 million. The key thing we learn from that is that we need to do the outline business case in detail.
I actually think that had we said to the British people, “To redo Big Ben, a national symbol, would cost us £80 million”, the British people would have said that that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I think the criticism came because the expense rose as the process unfolded. We want to ensure that that does not happen with restoration and renewal and that we get a figure that is realistic.
Just to touch on that very briefly, if I understand my right hon. Friend correctly, it is not so much that we have an aversion to public expenditure; what I think he is trying to say is that we should be up front with the public about exactly what that looks like. Am I correct in understanding what he is trying to say there?
Absolutely, but within limits. The £10 billion to £20 billion would, I think, test the patience of most of our voters. That is why I do not think that this House should go blindly into approving or delegating this scheme without knowing precisely what the cost is. This debate is therefore important, because the outline business case is being worked on as we speak. Those involved have begun the survey work, and they are getting on with it, which is really important. But if they come back to us in early 2023 and say, “The cost is going to be £10 billion to £20 billion.” there will be a vote in this House to approve it or not. I have a nasty feeling that if it is at that level, we will not approve it, and yet the work must be done. So now is the time to give the message that we are willing to accept a little inconvenience and to have more restoration than renewal, and that while we have to ensure that disability access is done properly, we recognise that the last percentage of disability access is the most expensive. There are therefore compromises that we will be called upon to make.
On the Elizabeth Tower—I alluded to this, but perhaps I should quote directly from the NAO report—Parliament’s internal auditors identified, among other things,
“inadequate project governance; high turnover of project staff; and poor cost estimation.”
That really encapsulates the things that we do not want to get wrong with this project. It will cost a lot of money, but we need to be sure that we have had proper governance and proper cost destination and that we are presenting to the public a figure that is real, even though it will not be cheap.
I am absolutely at one with the hon. Lady, and I am grateful for that helpful intervention. That is why the outline business case is being worked on now. We hope to have some preliminary idea about it early next year, with the vote on it in 2023.
Let me return to some of the individual contributions. My neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) emphasised the symbolism, the need to get on with things and the stonework. It is important that, under the Act, the Commission—I can assure the House that the Commission is very aware of this—is allowed to carry out repairs before the R and R body takes over. We have scaffolding up, so it seems sensible to try to do repairs where we can. There is no point in having scaffolding, as it currently is, just acting like the slips, waiting to see what catches come its way, although of stonework rather than cricket balls. So I agree with what my right hon. Friend said.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) seemed to want to become Old Father Thames, which was a rather charming way of suggesting how we should rebuild the Palace. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) emphasised the limits on public money, as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He also encouraged, as did many others, UK-wide working and opportunities, and pressed for answers on timescales, which we will get in the outline business case.
I find myself in a very high level of agreement with my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who pointed out that this is a place of work. Although it is nice that tourists come to see it, that must not interfere with its work as a legislature, and if we need to do building work in August, it cannot be open to the public in that time. Getting that priority right is very important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said, “Get on with it!” I hope that I have persuaded him that we are getting on with it, and that is what everybody wants to do. As I have set out, the preliminary works are very much already happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West wanted a date for the Elizabeth Tower, and I will give him a date. I am told that the bells will ring in early 2022. Now, “early”, when used by the civil service, is one of those things that I have learned about in my brief time in Government, and early 2022 could mean some time in December, but it would be early December. However, there is a better promise, which is that the scaffolding will be down by summer 2022—“summer”, of course, is an equally elastic term. What particular point in summer, I do not know, but we are almost there. The bells were being tested this morning, and it was really rather wonderful to hear them—it was uplifting. My hon. Friend made the crucial point, which was so helpful to the argument, that the Richmond House planning would have delayed us until 2027, which would have been an added complication and problem with the whole programme.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) brought his own experience to bear in a very interesting way, and talked about how we look after customers. He said that we do not inconvenience them, but that we sometimes have to recognise the need to keep going regardless.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) made an inspiring and sparkling speech. She was against gold-plating, as am I, and did not want a blank cheque in these economic circumstances. She reminded us of Churchill’s view of how buildings shaped our democracy. She also talked about what it would look like to our constituents if we decided to do things in a sort of Liberace way—I am not very keen on doing things in a Liberace way. [Interruption.] I am being mobbed out from the Front Bench by the Deputy Chief Whip. As he has 330 votes in his pocket, I must not ever dare to disagree with him; otherwise, Government business might become problematic.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) mentioned opportunities and the need for there to be a plan for jobs. I think his basic plea was for every member of his constituency to be employed on the parliamentary estate. He referred to apprenticeships. Apprenticeships will be important and will have a long-running benefit for the heritage of this country because the stonemasons who are trained here will then be stonemasons who work on our great cathedrals and other heritage buildings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) mentioned the symbolism of this place and told us very clearly—I think this is the right way to put it—that we cannot duck the question. If we duck the question, we will end up grousing, to carry the bird thought through. But that is what we are doing now: we are not ducking the question.
I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) spoke. I fear that even now, nearly 18 months after the general election, one’s heart still leaps at the thought that Sedgefield is a Conservative seat. Leaving that little point aside, he mentioned what an iconic institution this is with its 1 million visitors. Follow the cash, as his old boss used to say to him, is what we must definitely be doing. The important point is that it is very hard to future-proof in terms of technology, because we think we are future-proofing but the technology goes off in some other direction that we did not think about. So we have to be open to a variety of opportunities.
This is a long-term project and it will come at very considerable cost to the taxpayer. The solutions we arrive at must therefore be the best option for the preservation of the Palace of Westminster and in the public interest, prioritising value for money. This is fundamentally a parliamentary project. I cannot remember who said that actually it is a fundamentally House of Commons project, because the symbolism of this House as the democratic House is what people think about when they look at the Palace of Westminster. I have the greatest admiration and respect for their lordships, but when people look at this palace, they think of the home of the world’s oldest democracy. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset made that fundamentally important point. It is a parliamentary project. It is a House of Commons project. We are the ones who are accountable to taxpayers.
I have set out my Government’s views and other hon. and right hon. Members have set out theirs. I am confident that the restoration and renewal programme team will listen to those carefully, and in the coming months the Sponsor Body will engage with MPs and peers to seek their views on how the proposals should develop. It is vital that parliamentarians give their time, energy and expertise to this process so that collectively we shape a programme that safeguards both the Palace of Westminster and taxpayers’ money, and will make St Peter proud.
If there is a Liberace candelabra going spare, I can think of no more fitting place than the Leader of the House’s modest office.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.