[Relevant document: Tenth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Restoration and Renewal of Parliament, HC 49.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Restoration and Renewal Programme in the House of Commons.
Good afternoon, Mr Twigg. I thank you and Mr Speaker, through the Backbench Business Committee, for granting me this opportunity to move the motion. I also thank the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who has stood in at very short notice, because I gather the Leader of the House is required in a Cabinet Committee going on at this very moment. May I thank all my colleagues for attending? The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) have been with me on the same journey for many years, through the Finance Committee, on this restoration and renewal debate. We have seen all the twists and turns. I also thank the shadow Leader of the House for being here to reply.
To begin, I should draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a chartered surveyor—although I do not expect to profit in any way from this whole venture. The Palace of Westminster has played a 900-year role in our political history. It is no surprise, therefore, that we are under a UNESCO world heritage site obligation to protect this wonderful grade I listed building, which has iconic status throughout the world. We need to maintain high standards so that it is a safe and accessible place for all who work and visit here.
The restoration and renewal programme has been briefly defined as a major refurbishment programme that is needed to protect and preserve the heritage of the Palace of Westminster and ensure that it can continue to serve as the home to the UK Parliament. Both Houses agreed that there was
“a clear and pressing need”
for the repair works to be done. There are a range of essential works that need to be carried out to prevent any further major fire incidents or falling masonry, to remove asbestos and to improve the services, which are cracking at the seams.
That could mean doing the minimum amount of work to ensure that the existing building’s layout remains largely the same, so that we are able to function properly for the next generation of, say, 30 to 50 years. It could involve making sure the building is entirely safe, with every bit of stonework thoroughly inspected, ensuring it is completely watertight, carrying out a proper asbestos removal programme so that everyone, both inside and outside the building, is properly at minimal or no risk from that hazard, and, finally, renewing all the services, as there is currently a significant risk of major failure.
A more ambitious project, which would inevitably add considerably to the costs and timeline, would see other major developments also taking place. The Palace could become increasingly more accessible for people with any kinds of disability, and services could be upgraded to the latest design, with digital future-proofing and improved, redesigned energy systems to provide optimal green standards to meet the aims set out in the public sector decarbonisation scheme.
As the Public Accounts Committee heard this week, the public sector has a target of achieving a 50% reduction in direct emissions by 2032 and a 75% reduction by 2037, compared with 2017 baseline emissions. The R and R delivery authority has set out an ambitious programme to enable the parliamentary estate to achieve net zero. However, it will be difficult to properly assess the details of how the policy will be achieved until a definitive way forward is decided. Even without that information, it is unlikely that the Palace will be able to meet the same decarbonisation standards as many other public buildings due to its historically old nature. The energy system, which has not yet been decided, could be completely redesigned to provide optimal costs and energy efficiency.
The Palace has four main floors and 65 different levels, with just one lift that meets modern disability standards. That means that 12% of the building is accessible to wheelchair users. I have experienced for myself, as I am sure other Members of Parliament will have, the difficulty of getting disabled people into this place. We have, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to do better, so that is an essential part of the upgrade in renewal and restoration. The programme is committed to improving accessibility, which is outlined in the business case, which has been updated following regular engagement with representatives of staff with disabilities, and with independent accessibility and inclusion technical experts.
However, the size of the project is enormous. It is estimated to cost somewhere between the Olympics, at £8.77 billion, and Crossrail, which cost £18.25 billion. The cost will ultimately be decided by the scenario chosen. In my capacity as deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen time after time large public procurement projects—whether by the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health or another Department —experience time and cost overruns. Some cost the taxpayer billions of pounds more than the original budget, due to the client—usually the Department—changing its mind on specification as the project progressed, always wanting the latest bells and whistles.
All this work is bound to come at significant cost to the public purse, running into tens of billions of pounds. Although it has been assessed that some essential work, such as the removal of asbestos, can be done in stages and by working around the usual business of the House—meaning at weekends or when the House is not sitting—it would appear that a level of decant for some period will be a serious option to consider, in order to prevent the time for works and the costs becoming completely excessive. As the Clerk of the House said in a recent Public Accounts Committee hearing:
“We have asbestos incidents about once a year…The asbestos is a really extensive challenge. The largest other project that we could find had about 90 people for 18 or 20 months”.
Therefore, it has become quite clear that it will be impossible to complete this project without some decant from both Houses at some stage.
The decant option would minimise costs, even if it is only a partial decant, or if one House at a time is upgraded, which would have the advantage of allowing one House—say, the House of Commons—to remain in Parliament throughout the period, allaying the fear of some, who believe that we will never return once the project is complete. It would also mean that important speeches at both a Government level and at an individual level—for example, a Member’s maiden speech or their retirement speech—can still be made in one Chamber or another.
A partial decant would allow all the necessary works to take place to remove asbestos to whatever is deemed to be an acceptable level and to renew all the services. It is technically possible to carry out the work around the House, but not only would that take considerably longer, it would not account for anything unpredictable found as the works go along. As any chartered surveyor in particular will know, no matter how good the intrusive surveys are, there are a huge number of areas—voids, floorboards, roof voids—where it is impossible to rule out any unacceptable snags being found as the work progresses. Those will of course need to be resolved, which means the project will take considerably longer. Thereafter, it would be possible for both bits of the Palace to be reoccupied—for example, both Chambers—with all the necessary essential services, namely restaurants, Committee rooms, and so on, by siting those services in nearby temporary structures.
In 2018, the House of Commons voted by a majority of 16, or just 4% of the 456 Members voting, for the two Houses to be fully decanted during the works, before returning as soon as possible. After that debate, the House of Lords approved a motion for a full and timely decant. In April 2020, the Sponsor Body said that it expected to start works in 2026, assuming that that was required to develop a business case by 2023. The Sponsor Body now estimates that the main works will start in 2027. However, the cheapest plan involves a full decant of the Palace of Westminster for between 10 and 20 years, with the work costing in the region of £7 billion to £13 billion—these were the figures given to the Commission by the Sponsor Body.
Another suggestion, which would cost the most and take the longest, is for the project to be done with the Houses remaining within the Chambers throughout the entirety of the restoration and renewal programme of works, with no transfer. It is estimated that this option would cost a staggering £11 billion to £22 billion and take in the region of 46 to 76 years.
The Leader of the House has tabled a motion for next week that seeks the House of Commons’ endorsement of the Commission’s latest recommendations. It seeks the approval of the establishment of a new joint department to take over the Sponsor Body’s functions. If the motion is approved, secondary legislation will then be required to abolish the Sponsor Body and transfer its functions to the new joint department, with staff TUPE-ing over.
In hindsight, it is clear that the Sponsor Body did not function as successfully as it could have, or even as it was supposed to under the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. It was supposed to fully consult Members of Parliament, peers and above all people who work in this place, if for no other reason than to seek their views and see if there was a consensus on the way forward, particularly on the controversial aspects such as decant. More importantly, Parliament should have been consulted, because it was all of us who were going to be inconvenienced by this project over a number of years. I would suggest that this consultation exercise is critical for the new joint body.
Without a clear deadline or line of responsibility, there is a degree of confusion surrounding this project—unlike the Olympics, where the sponsor body was able to deliver because it had clear deadline and remit from the Government Department involved, so it had a much simpler task. It was envisaged that the House itself—the Commissions—would transfer its clients function to the Sponsor Body, which would then get on and do the job. Actually, I think the Commissions, authorised by the House, would inevitably always have a role closely liaising with the Sponsor Body. I think it was a disconnect, partly perhaps because of covid, that that did not happen. Suspicions arose, and the Sponsor Body came up with a huge cost, which the Commissions then said was unacceptable.
It would have been preferable if Parliament had been more closely involved in the decision making on this project. Far too much power has been delegated to the Commissions, instead of them consulting Parliament, as we saw in February when the Sponsor Body was abolished with very little publicity or explanation. Having had a series of hearings since with the Public Accounts Committee and meetings with the Clerks, union representatives and the chief executive, it is clear that the lines of authority need to be much clearer if this project is to succeed in future.
There is a further problem. With general elections taking place every five years or less, new parliamentarians will be elected. That will inevitably change the balance of Parliament, and that will change the parameters of the project. This will add significantly not only to the costs, but to the time it takes to complete the project. We have to find a way to ensure that, once we do have this proper consultation, we somehow enshrine whatever we decide we should do to take this enormous project forward and make sure that we do not continually add to it—to use my phrase, adding bells and whistles—because that will add huge uncertainty.
The misconception about how the 2019 Act set up the delivery authority meant that it was not able to talk properly to the decision makers before February. After the Commission’s had decided that the Sponsor Body should be abolished, the delivery body then started talking directly to the Commissions. This shortened line of communication started to unblock some of the blockages that had crept into the system. There is a misconception about how the Sponsor Body is responsible for restoration and renewable, compared to the sponsor body that ran the Olympics. However, it is now being abolished, and we will now have this new joint department. I urge that new department to improve its communications, not only with the Commission—to which it is directly accountable—but Parliament as a whole, so that it is constantly updated. If Parliament is updated, it can have a view on the whole matter, and hopefully the project will not continually need changing as it goes on. Major buy-in to the project will help with its more controversial aspects, such as the decant debate.
The parliamentary Sponsor Body failed in two important areas. First, it did not engage comprehensively with parliamentarians and staff to ascertain what they wanted from the project. Secondly, off its own bat, it gave unacceptably long decant completion times, which came with momentously large accounts attached. As I have said, the House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions became increasingly alarmed by those figures and decided to abolish the Sponsor Body. However, at a stroke, that baked in certain nugatory and unnecessary costs: £80 million for the replacement of an unwanted Chamber in Richmond House, £20 million for the fire safety system in the cellar—which will now need to be ripped out—and at least £100 million for setting up and abolishing the Sponsor Body. It adds up to well over £300 million completely wasted. We can all imagine what that £300 million would buy in our constituencies, such as upgraded school programmes and so on.
However, I believe we are on a better track, now that we can see exactly what was wrong with the previous line of authority. When the new department is set up, it will be working on a grid of essential works, which will help to ascertain exactly what timeline the new works should take place over. That can then be considered by the Commissions and the House, and based on hard evidence, both Houses will then need to be consulted again to establish the general direction of travel.
I am listening with interest to the hon. Member’s comments. As he says, we have been on the Finance Committee together for many years. I have some concerns, which I do not know whether he plans to reflect on. We have had long debates and many reviews, although I have not been involved in all of those. I thought we had got some agreement, although it was controversial, that we were going to have a decant and it was going to be expensive. Maybe there were concerns about how the Sponsor Body operated, but the main thing I am concerned about is that bringing the arrangements for the organisation of this massive project in-house will not necessarily solve those difficulties. We do not have a great track record in this place of managing large capital projects efficiently and well, and those projects were nothing like as large as this one.
My hon. Friend, if I may call him that—I have known him so long in this place—makes a very good point. I will come to that issue towards the end of my speech, which I am working towards, something the Minister will be glad to know.
The Palace needs to be upgraded to the highest possible digital and security standards, and if there are any changes to the working of Parliament, those will need to be accommodated. While I commend the adaptations made during the covid-19 period, especially for online working and digital voting, it should not have taken such an unprecedented crisis to push us to adapt those things for the 21st century. We need to be faster and more accommodating of change to meet the challenges of the modern world.
Finally, the education services in Victoria Gardens were only ever given temporary permission. A permanent solution needs to be found, with modern digital working facilities, so that the aim of giving a parliamentary visit to every schoolchild throughout their school career can be encouraged. If taxpayers’ money were no object—of course, we can never say that—there would be the potential to go much further by providing glass roofs over some of the Palace’s walkways and pathways, in order to provide extra work space. However, with my Public Accounts Committee hat on, we must always consider the taxpayers and the value-for-money aspects.
I have laid out what needs to be done. The much more important question, as the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned, is how it should be done to provide the most value for money and the optimal outcome for reaching project deadlines. As I have said, the project is likely to cost in excess of tens of billions of pounds. As I know from long experience as deputy Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the scope for mission creep and overruns for large Government projects, such as Thameslink, Crossrail and HS2, is enormous. The only exception was the Olympics and the reason was that there was an absolute deadline for when it had to be delivered. Equally important is that it was set up with a sponsor body that had clear delivery guidelines for completing the work. That is why the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 tried to mimic that governance structure.
Now we have a proposal to form a joint department in Parliament, there will be a joint client team, which brings me to point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East. That approach is fraught with difficulties. The Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerk of the House signed off the contracts for the original Elizabeth Tower project, which was originally estimated to cost £29.9 million. That project has not even finished yet, but it is estimated that it will end up costing £86 million, which is nearly three times the original cost projection. It is unfortunate that the Clerks signing off and having legal responsibility for this project will be the same people.
I do not wish to denigrate the Clerks in any way—they are splendid people. They have huge legal and parliamentary knowledge and huge knowledge of parliamentary procedure, but they do not have the knowledge to manage a project of this size. To be fair to them, they were wise enough to create an expert panel of knowledgeable and well-qualified people, but it is unclear whether that panel will be in place throughout the project. In my view, it is imperative that it is and that the Commissions accept its advice. That would mean the decision-making process of the Clerks and the Commissions would get professional advice, in a form that is hopefully digestible and understandable.
What should happen next? The joint department should be set up as soon as possible, with the advisory panel being given statutory status, with an expectation that its advice be followed. Any department must be given the authority of Parliament. It should then widely and rapidly consult parliamentarians and staff on what is expected from the project and, within three months, produce a properly costed business case, which must be approved by Parliament. It must then move as swiftly as possible to putting the project out to tender, with strong expectations on timetables and costings. Any departure must be approved by Parliament. In any case, a quarterly update must be given to Parliament as a matter of course—not six months after the Sponsor Body has been effectively abolished—in line with the procedure Parliament has for HS2.
I am pleased that one of the recommendations in the Public Accounts Committee report issued yesterday is that the Leader of the House and the Treasury will be completely bound into the process of R&R. While of course Parliament funds the process through its debates and votes, the Government have a major input, because however much is spent on the project has to be raised by taxation. They are crucial partners in the whole operation.
I hope I have demonstrated that, not only is this is a huge and complicated project that is going to cost tens of billions of pounds and go on for tens of years, it is also critical to our democracy that we get it right so that future generations can benefit from it. If we—this generation—take the correct decisions and the pain of all the disruption, and do the project all in one go with the necessary, but minimum, decant, future generations will thank us. If we have a building project in this place for the next 30 to 70 years, I do not think they will. I do not think they will thank us if one of the Commissions’ objectives is that the work should be done on a short-term basis—make do and bodge, I call it.
Whatever work we decide to do needs to be done to the highest possible standards, meet the highest environmental standards, and be expected to last for the longest possible time, so that we can leave a legacy, possibly with some improvements—certainly to disability access, hopefully to education facilities and also to our way of working, through work on creating a properly digital Parliament—so that future generations can be proud of what this generation has done to uphold the highest standards of maintenance of our wonderful Palace of Westminster.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. We have long been colleagues in this place and you might say to me, “Who would have thought we’d both end up here?”, but we have done.
It is an even greater pleasure to take part in a debate secured by the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). I could fairly describe him as a fellow traveller, but that might not help him in the 1922 Committee elections—although he can take comfort that the electorate seems to be changing quite substantially, which might be a good thing. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), I will call the hon. Member for The Cotswolds my hon. Friend. We have been at this for so long, have travelled over much the same ground together, and have come—as anybody who looks at this subject does—to very similar conclusions. There might be differences in nuance, but no more than that. It is also reasonable to place on record that we have served together not just on the Public Accounts Committee, but on the Finance Committee, which I have the honour and privilege of chairing for the second time in my long and exotic political career. The current leader of our party was kind enough to put me back where the previous leader found me, and has temporarily brought me back to other duties for the third time.
Who knows what the future holds, but I am full of fear and trepidation. My hon. Friend kindly refers to the historic meeting of the other place’s Finance Committee and our Finance Committee for the very first time. The first individual report that we considered was about the overrunning costs on the Elizabeth Tower. Every commentator has said how nice it looks and how well it has been done, and they are genuinely excited. Then they read a bit about us and say, “What about the cost overruns?” We have had a comprehensive explanation, which I find credible. There is nothing improper but, as my hon. Friend says, it would have been better if the costings had been much more realistic and subjected to more detailed professional advice at the beginning, because we would not have ended up where we have ended up. The report on this issue was a model of candour and contrition, and it was satisfactory, but it was in front of both the other place’s Committee and our Committee, so it was a pretty inquisitive audience.
That brings me to my next point: I believe that financial oversight is absolutely crucial in all this. I am astonished at the reluctance of officials to come to the Members’ base Committee, which wants to proceed on the basis of good will. We are not there to tell officials off; we are there to try to give our views, to ask penetrating questions and to try to help them with the decision making, rather than thwart them in it. Insufficient use was made of the mechanisms available—I am understating the case. It would also be fair to say that for the big projects, such as Richmond House and the northern estate before it, consulting a lot more Members would have greatly benefited the eventual outcome. For example, the northern estate programme was to be done under the current House estimates and did not draw on R&R at all. It involved Norman Shaw North being cleared and Richmond House being used for a decant. Then, Members would be put back and the Norman Shaw South Members would get their offices done.
We have ended up with Norman Shaw South not being in the programme at all, or being in the programme, some way to the right, in an ill-defined way—I am quite happy to be corrected if I have got this wrong. It will still fall to be paid for—it will not be paid for out of R&R; it is a legitimate charge on the House budget. However, the elegance of getting a whole chunk of the work done—finished—has been lost. I question the wisdom of that.
I would also question whether, if the Members had been taken through it at the time as thoroughly as they should have been, they would ever have agreed to it. I cannot help but feel that we just slipped into it, rather than had the facts put before us. There is a very good summary in The Observer of the journey that we have undertaken. It is elegantly written by a journalist whom I do not know, called Rowan Moore, and it is a fine piece of work. If someone wanted a plain man’s guide to the complexities of R&R, they could do a lot worse than start there.
There is an ideological divide between us. There is what I think is a minority, now, of the House, who do not really want to do this at all and would settle for giving the building a lick of paint, maybe replacing the Anaglypta, and calling it quits. Most of us—I would certainly say the majority of those who studied the questions, which are complex—would like to see us do something that is worthy of the building and what it stands for.
The decisions that we will be invited to make are crucial. I do not think that there is anything to be ashamed of in admitting that, on the structure of the two separate independent authorities, we were wrong. It is what I voted for in the original vote, and what I hoped would work. In other words, we would outline the things that needed doing and then hand the whole problem over to independent authorities. There was a thought that they would come back and talk to Members about what was being done for them and around them, or where they were to be decanted to. I still accept that the decant is an essential part of this, and that it would create more trouble than it would solve if we tried to go ahead, working piece by piece through the building.
I also agree strongly with the current Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), that it is correct to see what works could be done over a long summer recess. Could we, by agreement between the Government and the Opposition, alter a parliamentary year so that we had a longer recess period, where a longer run could be taken at some of the more extensive works? That has been looked at on our behalf, and my understanding is that that is not possible, but I would be open to returning to that to see if something were possible that would save money and get the work done in a more expeditious way. It may be possible to have the House meet in other buildings for specific purposes, or it may be possible to vote electronically; there are all sorts of things that might help us get the journey on its way.
Some of us asked questions about that when we still had not decided on matters. We used to have a longer summer recess, when a lot of works could be done in this place, but it suddenly got shortened because some elements of the popular press criticised it as us simply going on 12 weeks’ holiday. However, there is a big problem here, which needs to be looked at and could save us a lot of money. I am not saying it is an absolute solution, but we at least ought to have a look at it to see if, in the long term, it would save us money and enable the place to work better.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is also the stated view of the current Leader of the House, who, I think, makes an entirely reasonable point. He is taking, more generally, from my point of view, a much more reasonable approach to all of this, and a much more consensual approach—or at least is trying to, in the current, troubled times—to bring this together and get us to a point where we are confident in the progress we are making.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way a second time—he is being very generous. Contrary to what I had understood, when the asbestos is removed, it is possible to seal individual areas. One area is sealed, the asbestos is removed, and then we move on to the next area. That is very time-consuming, whereas if we shut all of the Palace, or at least half of it, to do that work, it is much more cost-effective and takes much less time, so it might be better for us to decant for a little while, while that dangerous work is done, rather than try to do it piecemeal.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Also, the Chamber of the House of Commons, of course, was rebuilt in the 1950s when asbestos was extensively used as a fire prevention and building material. The dangers were not as well known then, or were not as accepted as they are now. The survey work to see how much asbestos is there has not been fully undertaken yet. Some excursions have been made and, as he hints, it is not looking good. There was a large exercise in the 1990s, I think, to remove asbestos from the House of Lords. How well that was done needs to be checked. Asbestos is a killer. Mesothelioma is a terrible condition.
The thinking behind decanting is not just about the asbestos. There is a sewerage system that runs from one end of the building to the other. Stopping it halfway down—be it left or right—is not feasible because it would involve a sewerage system outside the building and considerable complications. Added to all the other facilities in there now, we would have the same problem.
That problem goes back to the beginning of the debate about whether we could decant Chamber by Chamber, or whether it would all have to be done as one big decant because of the pooled facilities. Again, survey work is not completed yet. We have agreed the R&R estimate that should bring the survey work to completion, and I eagerly await the conclusions.
Re-routing has been thought of. The interesting thing about the article I referred to is that it had photographs of what the original conduits look like now. They have been colonised by electricity cables, which are not labelled. They have been colonised by gas and water pipes that run through the original utility that was supposed to draw in air, so that it would become hot air heated by the fires underneath, which, given the fate of the previous building, was quite a brave thing to install in Victorian times. Is it appropriate now? Probably not. A bolder solution might be to just concrete over the whole thing and put new services in. A great danger of being on a Members’ scrutiny Committee is that we start finding Members’ solutions to problems, and that is probably worse than calling in the experts.
We have made mistakes; we should admit it. I do not think they are quite as expensive as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds thinks, but there are things that have not been done as well or as elegantly as they could have been. I do not think we will get another chance to make a major change because we are about to embark, in perhaps two years’ time, on really big expenditure, depending on the directions we choose. For certainty, that will require another decision of the House, perhaps in the next Parliament, but soon-ish in our terms, and then there is no going back. If the costs are to escalate dramatically, we need to get there first. If the time that we are decanted from this place is to be longer that we had hoped, given the starting point for this discussion—it could be a lot longer than we hope—we had better get the decision on that right and reconcile ourselves to it. I do not think there is a more rational way forward.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend again, but it was in the early stages of the High Speed 2 project that the money got out of control. Once Parliament started getting quarterly reports based on an end cost, and once there were fixed dates for completion, it was able to see whether the trajectory was right. If we do that from the beginning with R and R, so that Parliament has control of the project, it has a much greater chance of being on time and on budget.
I accept that point, and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman does, too. We should keep a sharp eye and a controlling grip on the money—not on what we spent last year, which tends to be what we get told, but on what we will spend in two or five years’ time—and on where the programme takes us. There is a chance to—dare I say it?—reduce expenditure in other areas, and perhaps spread the cost over a longer period. Making absolutely certain that we have a grip on the project is key. That has to come out of the reorganisation that we will discuss next week and presumably bring in soon after.
This must be one of those rare occasions when we welcome the direct involvement of the Treasury as an adviser and overseer; that is the new proposal. This is almost an act of desperation, but I think it is the right thing to do. It is forced on us by the circumstances so ably described in the article in The Observer. It is important that we face up to them today.
I am delighted that you are guiding us through this, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing this debate. It seems to have had a really good first effect, which is that a motion on the subject will be before the House on Tuesday. I think he can take credit for that, even if it is not quite justified.
As I think everybody in the Chamber would agree, this project must move forward. It is sad that there are not very many of us here. Two colleagues are here from compulsion, and three or four of us are here because we are interested, but out of 650, that is not a very good sign.
We have been looking at this issue for quite some time. The first reference that I could find to the House of Commons looking at it was from 1904, and we have done nothing much since. The need for the works has been set out by the professional here, my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds. I was intrigued when the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) talked about concreting over. Of course, when we walk into the subterranean areas of this building, we see that we cannot concrete “over” everything, because we are talking about all along the floor, all across the walls and all across the ceiling. I am a little taller than the right hon. Gentleman, and I find it quite difficult to walk down there. If everything were cleaned out, it would be a straight walk, and we would not have to hunch down. That is an indication of the amount of stuff there. As he said, we are talking about sewage, water, electricity and fibre. Nobody knows whether some of the electric wires are working, and whether there is any power in them. The insulation is coming off. There are fire detectors from one end to the other, and somebody walks up and down checking it 24/7, because we do have fires.
The basic structure of the building seems to be in reasonable order, as far as I can tell, although we have learned a few lessons from the Elizabeth Tower, where, when we lifted a brick, we found a frog underneath it; I guess we will find that. I hope that we can explain to the public that if we come up with an assessment of costs, it will undoubtedly be expanded upon, because we do not know what is underneath, or some of the problems that we will find.
The services really need to be sorted. My belief, having walked up and down the basement and above it, is that they have to be taken right out from end to end—a complete removal and replacement. At the end of January 2019, we debated the state of the infrastructure, and we agreed that the work should be done, and that it should get moving, but nothing has really happened. I am delighted that we managed to get work on the Elizabeth Tower moving; mostly that has been done because it was separated out and totally independent. The task is absolutely enormous. However, one does not need to be an expert to realise, even before somebody gets down to the basement and has a look at it, just how enormous the task is. I have taken one or two members of the press down there who were scathing about the costs until they went. Even the most scathing of them, from The Telegraph, came back saying, “You’re right. It’s got to happen. It’s got to be done.” If we do not do it, we are in for real problems.
There are some little things that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds, who is an expert in the field, did not mention. We have little problems, such as 86 vertical chimneys running right along one passageway. That is where the heated air was supposed to go up. If there is a fire in the basement, it will go through the building as if it was made of timber. The trouble is that those chimneys now carry a mass of the services that run horizontally and are then directed up. There was mention made of the Chamber being built in the ’50s; I was not around and did not see it, but I understand there is an awful lot of stuff behind the panels. The panels of the Chamber will have to be pulled off, and everything will have to be cleared from behind them. Replacements will have to be put in if necessary, and then the panelling needs to be put back. That makes it rather difficult to think we could use part of it alongside that work.
There are gas pipes, air conduits, steam pipes, telephones, and communication fibres, and then there is that ghastly, huge, overloaded sewage system. The infrastructure serves the whole building from end to end, and vertically through the chimneys, and there is a duplication of it in the roof. I do not know if anyone in the Chamber has been in the roof and seen it, but it is a smaller edition of the horrendous mess in the basement.
The dangers of asbestos are well known and talked about. When I went down to the basement, I asked the engineer, “Where is all the asbestos?” He replied, “Well, they didn’t know about asbestos when they put it in, and they went in with buckets of it and big brushes and sloshed it up and down over the walls.” In other words, it is absolutely everywhere.
The situation is actually more serious than my hon. Friend suggests. Each one of those ventilation chimneys is surrounded by asbestos. Virtually every Committee Room in this House has asbestos in it. The experts need to tell us whether it needs to be removed.
The decision to do that would be so much easier if we were not occupying the building. Every time I cough, I think that a certain Committee Room has caused it. The thing that staggered me was the sewage system. It runs from end to end of the building, and it tends to run down, of course, toward the House of Commons. At that end, it has two very large steel bowls. They were installed in 1888. When we think of the volume of usage, and how it has gone up over time, I am amazed that they still work. I understand why it leaks, I understand why there is panic when it leaks, and why we have to seal it up and stop it. There is an added problem, in that one of the tanks is listed. If we are going to do anything with it, we will probably have to try to get it out; knowing English Heritage as I used to, it will probably want us to set up the listed tank as a symbol. That would be a complete waste of time and money.
For safety and efficiency, we have to have a full decant. We have debated that before. In the last main debate, we definitely came down on that side. There were one or two pseudo-engineers, who I would not give a Meccano kit to, who were saying we could do it bit by bit. However, logic says that we cannot. What complicates matters even more is that if we do decant and move, we need to cover the security requirements. They are now worse than when we first started them. We have to be within the enhanced security envelope; otherwise, we might find that we are severely damaged.
As I have said before, this is an enormous and extremely complex task. I am looking forward to the revelations we will get on Tuesday, and to learning how this is to be done. It has been more than 100 years since 1904. I am nervous that there will be yet another delay, and that 100 years from now, we will still have not done the job.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing this important debate; he and I have spoken about this issue outside the Chamber, and he knows that we share concerns about it. I will start by paying tribute to those involved in what I have heard already this afternoon, because many people have already worked on this project. I am a relatively new member of the Sponsor Body—an interest that I am happy to declare. In the few months I have been on the Sponsor Body, it has already become clear that a number of people attached to this project and who have taken an interest in it have both developed great knowledge and expertise about it, and demonstrated a clear passion and care for its effective delivery, as reflected in this debate.
For the purpose of declaring interests and making clear the relevance of my comments, I note that I trained in civil and structural engineering at university. During my first few years working in that field, a lot of my work was on older buildings and their conservation and restoration—in fact, on one occasion, I had the great privilege of crawling through the ceiling space over the Commons Chamber, little knowing that I would come back years later to sit on the green Benches. Having said that, I do not presume to second-guess the real experts who are working on the projects: the engineers, or the procurement, management and administrative experts who will help with decisions about the formation of the governance and other bodies that will be set up. As I have said, I joined late in the process. That should not be interpreted as a way of distancing myself from previous decisions, which I recognise; it is more to explain my focus on what lies ahead, and on the future of the restoration and renewal project.
In the time I have, I offer three observations, drawn from the time I have spent on the Sponsor Body and the discussions I have heard. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds mentioned the importance of not allowing specification creep—a problem that plagues so many projects—whereby what was intended is embellished, enhanced and even replaced, very often with the best of intentions. At its heart, it should be possible to boil every project down to three things: how much it costs, how long it will take, and what the client will get for their money and time. If a project cannot be boiled down to that simple description, I would suggest that it is not properly understood. Those three parameters define the scope of the project.
The scope of this project was set in law, which presents the danger of that scope becoming fixed and immovable. I suspect that may be what happened in this case. I have heard the criticisms made of the Sponsor Body, but there is another factor, which is that the Sponsor Body was dealt a fixed hand of cards. I have been impressed with the knowledge and care of the people I have met, and suggest that another way of looking at the Sponsor Body’s role is that it was asked to deliver a set of proposals against fixed legislation, and has done its best to do so. I would not want to cast doubt on that, but the inflexibility that was created through legislation is at the heart of the problem. I will return to that at the end of my speech.
In any construction project, there has to be a dynamic relationship between the client and the contractor—the person who wants it and the person who is building it. The difficulty with legislation is that unless the client is absolutely clear from the start about exactly what they want, they are stuck with it once the gun has been fired, once the document has been signed and the law has been passed. While that works for what we might call a black box project—the client commissions it, walks away from it, and returns in time to cut a ribbon, pull a rabbit out of a hat or what have you—in the case of a project like restoration and renewal, where a key part of the scope has been the ongoing function of the site, that is not necessarily the case. That is where some of the confusion and disappointment might have crept in.
I stress that point on continuity of function. As a new MP who has spent just two and a half years here—and for some of that, I decamped to my constituency because of the pandemic—I have seen that this place really deserves the reputation of being the mother of Parliaments. I therefore take very seriously the need for it to continue to function in that way. It should not tip over into being just a relic or memory of what it once was, preserved for the past and for future generations in a historical sense, rather than remaining a living and dynamic mother of Parliaments around the world.
My second point is on procurement. Every commission has a buy-or-build stage. A decision is made about whether the solution will be bought or procured, or whether it will be developed in-house. That is true of this project too. With a project of this scale, complexity and importance, it is important to recognise the knowledge that develops along the way. By way of illustration, we can look at other Government procurement exercises. Perhaps I should not draw this comparison, but one of the difficulties that the Dreadnought programme has run into—it will replace the ageing Vanguard submarine fleet—is that the level of knowledge developed with the contractor responsible is so great that there is no alternative; they cannot be told, “It is taking too long and costing too much; we will switch to another contractor.” There is a real danger of a different kind with this project, in that the knowledge, understanding and professional expertise developed needs to be carefully curated, and we need to think carefully about where that resides.
I am not scared by the prospect of making a buy-or-build decision and deciding to bring things in house, and I am not overly worried by others’ observations that the Clerks may not have the necessary expertise, because we are talking about a commitment to a way of working, not an expectation of instant expertise. We need to make a strategic decision about where the knowledge that will come through working on the delivery of the project over time will accrete. Does it rest here, or does it go out into the marketplace? I have a very conservative question about where that fits, and how well it fits in the private sector.
I draw the analogy with what happens in France, especially in work on large, old buildings. There, there is recognition that such projects are ongoing and will take decades, if not a lifetime. Indeed, the old cathedrals very often took centuries to build—longer than the life of the architects who conceived them. Generations of builders worked on them. We need to adjust our timeframe, and our mindset to thinking in that way. The advantage is that a master craftsman commissioned to work on a building like this would have plenty of time to bring up the next generation—or generations—of apprentices, who would also work and develop expertise. They could then be deployed to other parts of the UK. The question of knowledge and where is it held becomes one of how that knowledge is best used, and how the restoration, refurbishment and renewal of this site is used to leverage improvement around the rest of the UK. Enhancing the number of workers skilled in this kind of work is a key way of doing that.
I will quickly make one point about innovation. A project of this scale, complexity, timeframe and cost should demand innovation from us. In looking at this place, we think it is so great, expensive and time consuming that we need to go with what is familiar and certain. I argue the opposite. Where is the innovation in governance structures? Time does not allow, but I could point to construction projects such as T5 at Heathrow, where an innovative relationship between client and contractor ensured that risks were managed better. I can see an opportunity for that here; in fact, the official documentation sets out that a third priority of the new approach is
“establishing a governance structure that is receptive to Parliament’s requirements as a working legislature”,
which links to my first point on concerns about scope.
I could say more, but I will conclude. I share the concerns about cost and timescale, but in defence of the Sponsor Body, it has been working within the constraints placed on it. I welcome this debate and the transparency of understanding that it offers. I look forward to the new arrangements, because this is a Parliament of which this country can be proud and a project of which MPs can be proud. Being involved on behalf of colleagues is a privilege of which I am proud, too.
I thank the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing the debate and hon. Members who have contributed.
Great ideas, constructive debates and empathetic policies need a home. The space in which ideas, debates and policies flourish really matters. In the wake of the bombing of the House of Commons Chamber during the second world war, Winston Churchill said:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.]
The Palace of Westminster is a glorious building. It is a work of art filled with works of art, a UNESCO world heritage site that is recognised the world over, the home of scoundrels and the odd hero for 1,000 years.
We are meeting here in the shadow of Westminster Hall, which was built in the 11th century by William II, son of William the Conqueror. He conceived the project to impress his new subjects: it was the largest hall in England, and probably all of Europe, when it was built. It was here that Charles I and Sir Thomas More were tried. It was here that the great Scottish patriot William Wallace faced a kangaroo court before being murdered by the English state, all because he wanted Scottish independence; Edward I had said, “Now is not the time,” and refused a section 30 order. The hall has seen monarchs lie in state and witnessed great state occasions such as Nelson Mandela’s address.
Fires have been a scourge throughout history, but from the ashes of the 1834 blaze rose the glories of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin’s Gothic revival masterpiece. Of course we should repair and restore it—it has been crumbling around us, and as the scaffolding comes down we can see that some ancient skills are still flourishing. The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) made an excellent point about skills being passed on from generation to generation in a single building. The honey stonework repairs are beautifully done, and the iconic tower housing Big Ben has been restored with the original Victorian clock face’s colours returned and the finest German craftsmanship on display, with 1,300 German-made glass panes glittering in the sun as we speak.
There has always been a debate in architectural refurbishment circles between restoration and conservation. Do we return buildings to their original form with exact replicas, or do we keep the best of what has gone before but allow buildings a useful present and future-proof them for coming generations? Our constituents have rightly questioned the cost of the works at the Palace of Westminster, especially in the midst of a cost of living crisis. We have to justify what we are doing and explain our decisions, so it is important to communicate this stuff to members of the public. How can we serve our constituents to the best of our ability if, even after so much taxpayer money has been poured into this place, it remains so ill-suited to the work that we were sent here to do?
I think we owe it to history to repair this magnificent building, and good restoration does not come cheap, but if we consent to the costs, we owe it to the taxpayer to make the building an efficient place to work in. We should respect history, but not wallow in it. Restoration should not mean stagnation.
Much about how we go about our business here is absurd. We have more than a dozen bars, but not a single crèche anywhere on the estate. We have sword hooks in the cloakroom, but no wheelchair access to much of the Chamber. As a teenager, I remember reading with horror that a Member of Parliament, Alfred Broughton, offered to be stretchered on to the estate from his deathbed to have his vote registered on a motion of confidence to save the Callaghan Government. It was indefensibly cruel.
We took the opportunity to address our absurd voting system during the pandemic, and considerable sums of money were spent on devising and then perfecting an electronic voting system. It worked yet, incomprehensibly, the then Leader of the House, already somewhat of a caricature on these matters, decided to abandon the system, resulting in Members on crutches queuing up past midnight to cast their votes. Small wonder that Westminster has been such a covid plague hotbed.
Westminster’s workings are ludicrous in so many ways—we know it and our constituents know it—and we should not defend the absurdities but take this opportunity to reform them. After all, this is the perfect time. The restoration of the building will preserve its architectural glories, but let us also make it a contemporary place of work with electronic voting, disability access, full-time childcare facilities and all the other basic accoutrements of a modern democracy, including the continuation of remote working where necessary. If I might say so, we saw a perfect illustration of some of the strange, peculiar and archaic practices earlier when we discovered that we can use iPads, but only if we tap the screen and not the silent keypads—I mean, really.
Members on both sides of the House tend to agree on much of this, so we should be more assertive. Electronic voting was abandoned against our wishes by a languid Leader of the House who preferred supine siestas on the Green Benches to rolling up his sleeves to ensure that the restoration and renewal of the Palace is fit for a modern Parliament.
I have good news and bad news for the former Leader of the House and the other parliamentary luddites who resist change. Very soon there will be more room to recline. Churchill may have ordered that the Chamber be rebuilt deliberately too small in scale for the number of Members, leaving some literally seatless at great parliamentary occasions, but soon there will be 59 Scottish seats available for Members to stretch out in comfort.
For the three centuries of our parliamentary Union, Scots have walked these halls, bellowed in the Chambers and occasionally, just occasionally, changed the course of history, when we were allowed to, of course. In what will, I hope, be a velvet divorce, we have made it clear that we will assume 10% of the debt and 10% of the assets, but it would only be fair to offer a deal: Members of the House can have all of Westminster, even though we have paid for so much of it, but how about we get Scotland Yard in return? Once the Scottish embassy, accommodating monarchs and diplomatic representatives from the Kingdom of Scotland, it is about time we got it back.
I look forward to joining our architecturally outstanding but accessible, family friendly, hybrid-working Parliament in Edinburgh, but in the short time we have left here I will do all I can to push this Parliament to do better, to support the restoration and to modernise. It is in England’s long-term interest, after all, and what are good neighbours for?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.
I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing this debate and on giving us the time to air the arguments before we come to a possible parliamentary vote next week. I appreciate it a great deal, and I appreciate the consensual way in which most of this debate has been conducted. It has been heartening to hear Members’ understanding of the warp and weft of this debate, and the warp and weft of the wiring and sewerage.
I am particularly impressed with the description of the ventilation shafts provided by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). I am obsessed with the shafts, partly because they provide a good illustration of what happens when hon. and right hon. Members mistake themselves for civil engineers. I understand that some of us are, but most of us are not. If we come up with too many wizard wheezes, we run the risk of building into the fabric of the building, which we all love, something that future generations will come to rue and regret. I heartily endorse what pretty much everyone has said, that whatever we do after next Tuesday’s parliamentary vote, it has to involve both scrutiny of the process and real consultation and engagement with Members, the public and, importantly, the thousands of people who work here. Scrutiny and engagement are the two pillars to which I want to draw everyone’s attention.
I completely agree with the hon. Member for The Cotswolds that there are concerns, and rightly so, about value for money, and I commend the Public Accounts Committee’s excellent work in that regard. It has scrutinised, line by line, in a way that is really impressive and we will need it to continue to do that work.
Similarly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) referred to financial oversight and accountability. He also rightly raised the role of the Finance Committee, on which he plays such an excellent role as Chair. As a former Whip, I was obviously distraught to lose him as our Chief Whip, but I am glad that he is now in charge of the finances of this estate. It comforts me to know that his eagle eye will be on every single line, as will be that of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who is no longer in his place, raised concerns, which I think are shared by everybody, about what would happen if we brought this process back in-house. Are there problems of oversight, political meddling and ventilation shafts that turn out to be fire risks? It is important that we hang on to at least some of the consensus that we have achieved here today. We all think that the building is worth preserving. We all have our own ideas about how we would do it if we were in charge, and we all know that we are going to have to compromise.
I think pretty much everybody here also knows that we will have to move out. For too long, this debate has been very binary: it is either a full decant or continued presence. That has not been helpful. I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East that the current Leader of the House has done a great deal to create more consensus, and I have watched his view shift from being, “I’m not sure we need to move out,” to, “Actually, we will probably need to and it will probably be for about eight years or so”. Personally, I think it will be for a bit longer than that, considering what the experts are telling us, but the Leader of the House, who is currently in the Cabinet of course, has done a great deal to try to bring people and the Commissions with him.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds criticised the Commissions over transparency. His points were well made and they have been heard by this commissioner. When I suddenly found myself on the Commission, by virtue of being the shadow Leader of the House, I was somewhat surprised by the fact that commissioners are not provided with a manual explaining what the Commission is, what it is for and how it is accountable to Members. There is a lot that we need to do, and I will return to that in a different debate on another day.
We all agree that the honour of working in a UNESCO world heritage site comes with the duty of being a responsible custodian, and we are that custodian. It is on us, this generation of politicians, to make sure that we carry out the necessary preservation. As the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) has said, we must do so without making the preservation the enemy of good working practices. I have to correct him slightly, though: it may have been a terminology issue, but one bar has certainly been converted into an excellent nursery. If he is saying that the crèche should be open for 24 hours a day, a whole load of questions would need to be answered. I have heard many colleagues talk about this building being very family friendly, but my initial impression was that it is not. Many Members have told me that they feel that their children are very welcome in this building, but the hon. Member and others raised an important point about accessibility.
We agree that work is pressing. I know that all Members of the House want to see improved fire, mechanical and electrical systems. As they have also said, however, just having a monumental and iconic building does not mean that we can accept lack of safety or asbestos. We are going to have to make sure that the experts can do their job. As the hon. Member for The Cotswolds said, they will need to be able to access the asbestos in order to know what can be done about it and, frankly, to establish whether we are surrounded by it.
As the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) has said, there are issues regarding how we learn about the best practice in commissioning and ensure that we deal in advance with, or at least have prior knowledge of, the tensions involved with such an iconic building. Once we have a contractor, a set of contractors or a supply chain, it will be very difficult to unglue that relationship, because they will need to get to know the minutiae of the building, its quirks and idiosyncrasies, but also our quirks and idiosyncrasies, and it would be strange if we did not admit that we have them.
It is important to say that this is not the same as the Olympics. I love the fact that we decided that the sponsor body and delivery authority for the Olympics would be separate. That was a good model. I was not here at the time, but I applaud that decision. Voting for it was the right thing to do. This is different, however, because it is about a sponsor body for the works on our own House. This is our place of work, but it is not just ours; it is also the people’s place of democracy. I want everyone to feel that they have a stake in Parliament. I want them to feel the same way they feel when they come out of Westminster tube station and look up at the Elizabeth Tower. That is a wonderful experience, and I want everybody to feel the same way about the whole of this lovely estate. Instead, at the moment there is an awful lot of scaffolding and, in my case, a certain amount of trepidation because I know too much about why the scaffolding is there.
I am afraid to say that there has been political interference. Ironically, the Sponsor Body was set up to remove political interference and yet political interference, or certainly obstruction, there has been. Certain Government Members have continued to ask unreasonable things of the Sponsor Body. I also note, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East and others have said, that the Sponsor Body has not always engaged as well as it could have done, for all sorts of reasons.
There is asbestos, sewage, wires, plumbing that nobody knows the function of, flood risk and regular fires. It is testament to the hard-working members of House staff and contractors—I pay tribute to them—that, thankfully, we have not yet witnessed a catastrophic failure of the building, as has happened to other buildings around the world, such as Notre Dame and other Parliaments. But, at some stage, that will not be enough. At some stage, a piece of masonry will fall on somebody’s head, one of the fires will become catastrophic or the asbestos will cause health problems that many of us will not know about in our lifetimes, but others in the future will suffer.
We will have to move out. We have to accept that. It is the right thing to do, for the patriotic reasons of celebrating our democracy and our history, whatever different interpretations we may have of it. As the hon. Members for Mole Valley and for Aberconwy said, this is also an opportunity for apprenticeships in all of our constituencies, and for every single one of us to be able to point to a bit of the building and say, “That bit of rock got quarried from my constituency.”
We have no choice. Both Houses are going to have to move out at some point, but we are going to be the generation that says to the next generation and the one beyond, and to the public, “We did this because we love democracy.” It is not just because we love the building, although we do, but because we love democracy. We know it is worth celebrating. We know that this is not just a tourist site, although it is an important tourist site. Therefore, if there is a vote on Tuesday—I do not yet know what will happen—I will be support the motion. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will do everything necessary to ensure that support will be provided to enable maximum financial accountability and that there will be minimal unnecessary political interference?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. At the start of today, I did not anticipate being in this Chamber summing up for the Government, but over my 12 years in this place, I have accepted that we have to expect the unexpected.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing this debate. All Members have made a valuable contribution to it and demonstrated significant knowledge of the issues. There has, in many ways, been a spirit of consensus. That is always helpful, particularly to someone who is called to respond to a debate after not having done so for many years.
The restoration and renewal programme is on all our minds, for the many reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for the Cotswolds and others. I share hon. Members’ view of the important and urgent need to get on with the work of repairing this magnificent but tired building—a building that is, as has been said today, a UNESCO world heritage site of which we can be extremely proud.
I also share the view of Members that the estimated cost of £13 billion simply cannot be justified in the current economic context. A gap has emerged between what is realistic, practical, and can be justified to taxpayers on the one hand, and what is being proposed by the Sponsor Body on the other. That is why the House of Lords Commission and House of Commons Commission have unanimously proposed a way forward, and the House will be asked to approve a motion next week, as right hon. and hon. Members know, endorsing the Commissions’ joint report, which proposes a new mandate for the works and a new governance structure to support them. Let me emphasise that under the proposals, the delivery authority’s role remains unchanged; that valuable expertise and experience will remain in place. The senior leadership of the delivery authority will continue and, following recent discussions, I am confident and positive about its ability to work within the new governance structure.
Some Members in the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds, have gone into detail on the question of decant, which is important to us all. I am sure Members will appreciate that decisions around decant will need to be taken in due course. Members will have the opportunity to express their views, but at this stage no decisions on decant or cost are required of the House. The intrusive surveys will offer us a more detailed understanding of the condition of the House. As my hon. Friend said, they might not give us the full picture, but they will give us a far better picture. Following that, there will be an opportunity for the House to consider all options and costs fully. We can then, at the right time, take the decision, informed by far more analysis and information.
Next week, the House will be asked to endorse a revised governance structure that aims to provide greater flexibility and closer Member engagement, the ambition being for works to start sooner. The House of Commons Commission has already agreed a set of initial priorities, including fire safety and protection, on which we have already made substantial progress through the installation of fire suppression systems in the basement, and asbestos management. We all know the dangers of asbestos, an issue raised widely by Members today. Other priorities include the replacement of mechanical, electrical, drainage, plumbing, data and communications systems, as well as conservation of the building fabric and stonework. Having heard Members discuss their experiences of the building, I think we can all agree that those are the essential priorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds raised concerns about bringing the work back in house, and about expert knowledge. The R and R programme will have its own bespoke governance structure, as I am sure he knows, which is the right approach for a programme of such magnitude and technicality. It will incorporate external expertise on the programme board. The technical knowledge of the Sponsor Body will be used by the client team, and the delivery authority’s deep expertise, experience and understanding of the requirements of the Palace will remain. I reassure him that that expertise will be there for the duration of the project.
The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) mentioned cost overruns and accountability, which are extremely important issues. I am sure he is aware that the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 allows Parliament to scrutinise and make decisions about the programme and budget, and I am hopeful that the new governance structure will allow deeper consultation and collaboration with Parliament. I urge all those responsible for the programme to consider carefully how decision making can be transparent and accountable to Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman also made a very good point about how we use our recess time. If the House decided that it wanted to go down the route of being more flexible with that, I know that it is a conversation that the Leader of the House is willing to have.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said that if work is brought in house, it may be just another excuse to delay the vital work. I reassure him that the revisions to the governance structure should allow us to bring forward the dates for starting the restoration works that we all want. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) was correct about specification creep, and I was impressed by his knowledge and expertise. We cannot allow things to run away with themselves and give this project a blank cheque; that would not be the responsible way to spend taxpayers’ money. He also made an excellent point about the skills required. We all know that skills are at a premium in lots of industries, especially those of skilled craftsmen, whose skills have been developed over generations. We have a good opportunity to develop new skills and apprenticeships for younger people, so that those skills can be used not just here, but across the country, to make sure that our historical buildings are fit for future generations to enjoy.
I heard what the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) said. In many ways, I agree with him. I did not agree with the cut of his jib on some of his ideas about separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, but that is not a new thing on which we disagree. I bring to his attention that there is already a crèche and nursery in Parliament, which replaced a bar here, but I accept entirely what he and other Members said about disabled access facilities, which are crucial. At the moment, our disabled access facilities are completely inadequate.
I was grateful to hear the constructive comments of the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire). It is good that there is a degree of consensus, and it was great to hear that she will support the motion next week, so that we can take this project forward, get a start date and, to refer back to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley, see action and delivery.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for the opportunity to participate in the debate. It has demonstrated a wealth of knowledge and a depth of affection for this historic building. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds for securing the debate, which has been extremely important for airing our views in advance of the vote next week.
Mr Twigg, may I thank you again for the professional way you have chaired the debate? I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones). As he said, when he got up this morning, he had no idea that he would be responding to this debate. He has gained a great deal of knowledge in a very short time.
I thank all colleagues for participating in what I think has been a very consensual debate. It is almost universally agreed that we have to get on and do something. We may disagree on the emphasis here and there, but we have not disagreed about the need to do major work to preserve this excellent building for the next generations.
I will support my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton in the vote next week, although I have thought very carefully about it. Let us make a vow that we will not be here in three years’ time. I do not want to still be talking about this issue in three years’ time, should my constituents re-elect me. Let us hope that by then, we have a proper costed plan, with a timetable, and have actually started work.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Restoration and Renewal Programme in the House of Commons.