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Draft Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body (Abolition) Regulations 2022

Debated on Monday 12 December 2022

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr Virendra Sharma

† Baker, Duncan (North Norfolk) (Con)

Blake, Olivia (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)

Byrne, Ian (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)

† Carter, Andy (Warrington South) (Con)

De Cordova, Marsha (Battersea) (Lab)

† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)

† Drax, Richard (South Dorset) (Con)

† Hart, Sally-Ann (Hastings and Rye) (Con)

† Johnson, Kim (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)

† Levy, Ian (Blyth Valley) (Con)

† Marson, Julie (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)

† Mordaunt, Penny (Leader of the House of Commons)

† Richards, Nicola (West Bromwich East) (Con)

† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)

† Tarry, Sam (Ilford South) (Lab)

Bethan Harding, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 12 December 2022

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Draft Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body (Abolition) Regulations 2022

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body (Abolition) Regulations 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank all hon. Members for struggling against the weather to be in today.

The draft regulations were laid before the House on 22 November and will give legal effect to a decision of both Houses to take a new approach to the parliamentary building works. I am grateful for the way in which the Office of Speaker’s Counsel has worked with my officials to draft the regulations and for the ongoing advice that I have received from the restoration and renewal directors and the delivery authority.

In June, both Houses passed motions to endorse the House Commissions’ report recommending a revised mandate for the restoration and renewal programme. Changes to the governance arrangements will continue to ensure that, as provided for in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, Members of Parliament, peers and others who work in this place will be consulted fully on the works. I, alongside other members of the client board, which is responsible for making critical strategic choices related to R and R, will take into account the principles agreed by both Houses to deliver a value-for-money approach to the programme, prioritising the work of this place and public safety. It is vital that all members of the parliamentary community feel that they are engaged with on the parliamentary building works, and I am confident that the new arrangements will deliver.

The draft regulations, which are made under section 10 of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act, will abolish the sponsor body, which will be replaced by an in-house governance structure. The statutory responsibilities and other functions of the sponsor body will transfer to the corporate officers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I have consulted the corporate officers and Commissions of both Houses, in accordance with section 10(8)(a) of the Act. Both corporate officers have consented to the transfers to them under this statutory instrument in accordance with section 10(3) of the Act. The corporate officers will share joint responsibility for the parliamentary building works and, at least once a year, will prepare and lay before Parliament a report about the carrying out of the works, detailing the progress towards their completion.

On that important point about keeping Members up to date, the annual report is useful, but will there be the ability to have interim reports along the way? For example, during Her late Majesty’s funeral, New Palace Yard was able to be put together very quickly and has now been taken apart again. One just wonders what the works programme is. Rather than wondering all the time, will it be possible to have interim reports, so that Members can understand what work is taking place, rather than having to wait on an annual basis?

I note what my right hon. Friend said and I reassure him about that. On the next steps of the programme, starting next year, there will be much greater consultation with Members about the shape of the works and our plans. I know that Members are keen to ensure that we have good oversight of what is happening, and that the right level of expertise is involved in the project. I want to provide some reassurance on that.

First, the staff team working on the sponsor body will be brought in-house as a joint department, which will be accountable to the corporate officers. Secondly, I emphasise that the draft regulations will make no changes to the delivery authority—its role is unchanged. That ensures that the programme retains its valuable experience and expertise. In fact, the regulations will allow for greater co-ordination and engagement between the Houses and the delivery authority, which could in turn allow for the delivery of restoration works much sooner. The regulations will not alter the role of the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, which will continue to scrutinise estimates. This statutory instrument is vital to ensuring that this historic and iconic building is restored, while making sure that we deliver for the British taxpayer. Our commitment to ensuring good value for money is reflected in section 2(5) of the restoration and renewal Act.

I reassure Members that the House’s important role in this project is not diminished by these regulations. Under section 7 of the Act,

“No Palace restoration works, other than preparatory works, may be carried out”

until Parliament has approved the Delivery Authority plans for those works. In addition, any proposals that would significantly affect the design, timing or duration of the parliamentary building works would still need to be approved by Parliament. Bringing this project in-house is an opportunity, as the new governance structure should improve accountability and engagement with Parliament by allowing close interaction with, and feedback from, the views of the commissioners. I ask the Committee to support the instrument so that we can take this project forward.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. As I am sure everyone in this room knows, there is an ever-increasing need for urgency when it comes to restoration and renewal, so I welcome this opportunity to at least keep things moving by giving legal effect to resolutions passed in both Houses earlier this year. That is what we are doing: we are just considering the governance structure of the works. As shadow Leader of the House and, therefore, a member of the Commission, I will be supporting the order. However, I do so not because I am happy about where we have got to, but because we have to get a move on.

In my view, it is at least partially on the Government that we are in this position. In 2018, the Commons and the Lords agreed that work was pressing, and rightly concluded that that work should be undertaken by a statutory sponsor body and delivery authority. Since then, various right hon. and hon. Members—not exclusively, but in large part, from the party of Government—seem to be working to undermine the progress of those works, spending time wrangling with the experts instead of working with them to secure the future of the building and the safety of the people in it, and coming up with wizard wheezes that only remind one of what happened in the mid-19th century after the 1834 fire. A previous generation of parliamentarians—none of them qualified—decided they knew best, and would tell engineers what to do. We ended up with the situation we are in now, with substantial flaws in the current building.

We must follow the evidence and the advice of experts. Importantly, we must also heed the wisdom of colleagues such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside, who has put in the hard yards—nay, years. I think he has sat on every single Committee over the past 12 years to try to get the parliamentary community to recognise that, yes, maybe we are the generation of MPs that will have to put up with work-arounds and moving out of Parliament to enable those vital works to start. We are doing so for future generations, to make sure that this incredible place, with so much history in it, continues to be a living place of work, not either a dangerous wreck or just a museum.

Delay, asking for new assessments, and the further delay resulting from those assessments brought about a loss of confidence in the previous process, as well as ever-increasing estimates of times and costs. There is a complicated story behind why that happened, which I hope will one day be written, but the independent expert panel tasked by the Commissions to assess the situation concluded that the previous model was unlikely to be viable, and that doing nothing was also not an option. There is no doubt that large-scale works are needed, and I put on record that the longer those works get put off, the more expensive they become. We have already spent a lot of money not getting very far, as the delays exacerbate problems. Costs never go down as a result of waiting.

Members need to engage when we have consultations. I know that Members are busy, and I know there are so many things to call on our attention, but I have been in many consultation events in this place where the number of colleagues who turn up to take part is very, very small—smaller than the number of fingers on half a hand—and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside has, as well. If the consultation is at the wrong time or in the wrong place, Members need to try to find other ways to engage.

I will continue to press every single structure involved in this process to make use of every single method they have to consult with Members, but we have to try to meet the project halfway, otherwise this place could really turn into a disaster. We have asbestos, leaks, wires, plumbing that nobody knows the function of, and buildings at risk of fire and flood. It is testimony to the hard work of House staff and contractors that we have not yet witnessed a catastrophic failure of the building, as has been seen in other buildings around the world, such as Notre Dame. However, at some stage, that hard work just will not be enough.

There are opportunities for us to offer apprenticeships and revitalise craft training across the UK through this R and R project, and for patriotic pride. People already feel that pride when they turn up to see Big Ben again, and they will feel it when they see a parliamentary estate that is the iconic building for democracy and British soft power that it can be, given the attention it so badly needs. We need to pass this regulation today so that we can get a move on, but we also need right hon. and hon. colleagues from across the House to do everything they can to support it.

I will finish with one question for the Leader of the House: can she assure us that the Government will do everything they can to support, not frustrate, any future progress, and that we will get estimates and progress on business that needs to come before the House in as speedy a manner as possible, so that we have as little delay as possible? Every single day that goes by puts the building and the hard-working staff who work in it—never mind us; this is an issue of workers’ rights—more at risk.

I should say that I am currently a member of the sponsor body, although not for much longer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West said, I have had the pleasure or the misfortune—whichever way you want to look at it—to sit on, I think, every single Committee that has looked at this process since it began.

I used to work with a colleague who, when he was given legal advice he did not like, would tell us to get another lawyer, and would keep doing so until he got the answer he wanted. That really sums up where we are today. The sponsor body was given a task, and I think it carried out that task very well. The problem is that certain individuals in this place—I will not name them—did not like that, and they did not like what the sponsor body came up with. I think the sponsor body was very honest, and did a hell of a lot of work on this project, but it is not going to be a quick project; it is not going to be a cheap project; and it will be a project where, whatever people want, we will end up having to move out of this building. The fact is that some people do not want to move out, and now, after years of work and hundreds of millions of pounds, I would say that we are back at the beginning again, but I think we are actually further back than when we started.

We also need to remember why the model of the sponsor board and delivery authority was chosen in the first place. Following on from the Olympic model, recognising that this was not going to be a project that could be delivered in one term of a Parliament and that colleagues and views change from one election to the next, we needed a structure that took the project away from us tampering and changing our mind on everything. As my hon. Friend has said, the danger is that we do not actually get anywhere with this, because it is always too difficult for one Parliament to do it.

Colleagues have said, “We need to deliver it quicker, and we need to spend less money.” I would like to see how we square that circle. However, the decision has been made, so we are where we are. We will probably regret what we are doing today; I think bringing the project in-house is a mistake. Certainly, if we look at the many projects that have been delivered in-house, it is not a great record of success in terms of cost and time, but we are where we are.

I have one final point, which is on engagement. I have chaired many sessions, and we all know what we are like in this place: we all say we want more engagement—we want people to talk to us more—but we do not turn up to the meetings, because we have got something else to do. That is the reality of the situation: the decision has effectively been made, but I fear we will rue that decision.

I thank colleagues for their contributions, and particularly the shadow Leader of the House for the collaborative way in which we have worked on these matters together. I echo her thanks to all Members who have been to many meetings over many years and spoken to many colleagues to get us to where we are today. I think this is a move motivated by wanting some pragmatism and granularity to the schedule of works. It will mean we can be more creative in how we do the works. I do not think work that has been done to date will be wasted. A huge amount of survey work has been done, and that will help inform options next year, which will form the basis of the consultation with Members.

If we have some granularity in the programme, we will find that we do have other options, which are very difficult to assess at the moment. We might have a different approach to some of our recesses. We might use some of the new technology we used during covid, such as the remote voting system, which cost £1.3 million and was used for eight days. We will have more options and more flexibility going forward.

Critically, as the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside points out, it is about maximising value, not just controlling costs. I can give the hon. Member for Bristol West the reassurances she seeks. I hope I have given her that impression in the meetings we have been in together. We want to get a move on, and we do understand the concerns. It is why we have prioritised safety at the heart of our approach, as she will know. We are custodians of this incredible building, and we need to safeguard it.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving way on that point. Will she concede that at some point, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, we are going to have to move out? The nature of what is underneath us and all around and the connectedness of the two buildings means that even the option that has been touted by many people—that the Lords move out and that we move over there—is just not viable. We made enough fuss when some steps were missing a ramp last summer. It is not like just having builders in to put a new carpet down at home. Will she acknowledge that we are going to have to move out at some point?

I do not want to pre-empt the work that is being done next year, but the hon. Lady is right. I am very sceptical about us being able to dislodge their lordships for starters. Although there will be things that can be done to work around and bypass systems while they are worked on, we obviously have to take into account noise, disruption and a whole raft of things. I think the majority of our colleagues want to minimise the amount of time we are out of the building. Of course they do. I think the problem that happened with what she refers to is that, quite rightly, people were given a task, but the conclusions people came to were too far adrift from the expectations.

I think there is a way through this, but unless we change the approach, get granularity in so we can see the schedule of works that needs to happen, and unless we can get into that Chamber and have a proper survey done, we will not move forward fast. That is our shared aim, and I think that is where we will get to. The right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside, who has put in more hours than most on this, rightly notes that today we are just implementing a decision of both Houses. I want to make progress, and I want people to be prepared when they are considering standing for election and when colleagues are considering re-standing that they know what future Parliaments will look like in this place. I think we will be helping ourselves.

We all tend to talk about ourselves in this place, but it is actually about the thousands of people who work here—their safety, how they work and can continue to work. It is not just about us.

I completely agree. That is why I made that point. What we are doing with this new governance structure places them at the heart of this. They should be at the forefront of our minds, and they also need to be consulted as we are getting the more granular programme together.

Finally, though I was not directly involved in it, I think lessons have been learned from the experience of the Elizabeth Tower and other projects that have been brought in house. We are getting some very good external expertise into these governance structures, and greater oversight, scrutiny and audit is of course to be welcomed. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for being here today. We are delivering on the will of both Houses of Parliament, and I will do my utmost, working closely with the shadow Leader, to ensure the pragmatism that we all want to see is brought to fruition swiftly.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.