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Grand Committee

Volume 833: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2023

Grand Committee

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Arrangement of Business

Announcement

My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung.

Restoration and Renewal: Annual Progress Report

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the Grand Committee takes note of the report from the Corporate Officer of the House of Commons and the Corporate Officer of the House of Lords, Restoration and Renewal: Annual Progress Report 2023 (HC Paper 1603).

My Lords, this is the first time under the new governance arrangements for the R&R programme that a debate on the annual progress report has taken place.

As noble Lords will recall, following the publication of indicative costs and timetables by the sponsor body in early 2022 and concerns that the previous governance structure operated in a way that was too distant from parliamentarians, the commissions of both Houses jointly proposed that a new mandate and governance structure be established to continue work on the programme and to consider a broader range of options for the works. Both Houses agreed to the proposed new mandate in July 2022, which brought the governance of the programme back into Parliament.

The new mandate established a two-tier governance structure which is closer to parliamentarians. The first tier is the Client Board and comprises the two House commissions, chaired jointly by the Lord Speaker and Mr Speaker, and makes the critical strategic choices and recommendations to both Houses regarding the works.

The second tier is the programme board: a joint board of the two Houses with delegated authority from the client board which has conducted much of the heavy lifting for the programme in recent months. The programme board consists of parliamentary Members from both Houses, all of whom from the House of Lords I am very pleased to see here in the Moses Room today: the noble Lords, Lord Collins of Highbury, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, and the programme board vice-chair, the noble Lord, Lord Morse. The programme board also consists of the clerks of each House and four external members who bring outside expertise from major and complex projects.

The R&R client team, a joint department of Parliament, was established at the beginning of this year to bring the oversight function for the programme in-house from the former sponsor body. The client team delivers expert programme capabilities, works closely with in-house teams and is enhancing engagement with Members of both Houses.

As part of the recent changes to the programme structure and mandate, the statutory responsibilities and other functions of the sponsor body transferred to the corporate officers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the clerks of each House, acting jointly. The independent R&R delivery authority, which the client team is responsible for instructing on behalf of Parliament, continues its work under the new governance arrangements.

The two House commissions identified four priority areas for the works: fire safety and protection, building services, asbestos and building fabric conservation. The House commissions also established parameters to guide the works in the current development phase, calling for a wider range of options and different levels of ambition to be considered, to ensure maximum value for money. This sits within wider principles for the programme, which include ensuring a more integrated and cohesive approach between the R&R works and other critical works on the Parliamentary Estate.

In recent months, the delivery authority has been working at pace to provide the programme board with a suite of options on the levels of ambition for the programme and how the works could be delivered, which the programme board was tasked to shortlist. After careful consideration, the programme board recommended two shortlisted options, down from a longlist of 36, to the R&R client board. These two shortlisted options were endorsed by the client board in July. This means that the client board remains on track to present the shortlist to both Houses later this year in the forthcoming report on the R&R strategic case. The two shortlisted options comprise two different ways of delivering the programme but target the same outcome level—in other words, they both have the same level of ambition.

Regarding the level of ambition, the programme board considered carefully the benefits and draw- backs of six possible outcome levels, and recommended outcome level 4 of 5, with level 5 being the highest. This consideration included analysis of the risks and benefits, including the timescales and costs for the programme. The outcome level recommended will deliver improvements to the priority areas of fire safety and protection, mechanical, electrical and other services, health and safety, and building fabric conservation. It will also provide enhanced security protection measures, improve visitor access, significantly increase step-free access and provide broader accessibility improvements to support and facilitate the participation of Members and the experience of visitors to Parliament.

On the delivery of the programme, the client board agreed to recommend two options for further detailed design work and analysis, with the same outcome level, not least to meet the spirit of the new mandate for R&R agreed by both Houses last year, which was informed by engagement with Members of both Houses. The client board will propose that further work be undertaken on one “full decant” option, where both Houses move out of the Palace at the same time, with one House, likely to be the Commons, returning to the Palace before the works are completed. In the other option, the House of Commons Chamber and essential support services would maintain a “continued presence” in varying locations in the Palace during the works, and the House of Lords would move out of the Palace.

I emphasise that both options will require some form of temporary accommodation. The client board has endorsed that the QEII conference centre is the preferred decant location for the House of Lords and agreed that the northern estate—either Portcullis House or Richmond House—should be explored further as the location for any decant of the House of Commons.

Both Houses are expected to have the opportunity to debate the strategic case before the end of this year, and both will be invited to endorse that further detailed work be undertaken on the two shortlisted options. Endorsement of further work will enable the development of fully costed proposals to support a decision by both Houses regarding the preferred option for delivery of the works, as required by the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act.

It is expected that the costed proposals will be presented to the Houses in 2025, subject to the Houses agreeing the strategic case later this year. Further work on the shortlisted options will ensure that the costed proposals required under the Act are as taut, realistic and affordable as they can be. Having costed proposals for both shortlisted options will ensure that both Houses will be able to make an informed, evidence-based and robust decision regarding the best way forward for the programme, recognising our role as custodians of this historic building for future generations.

When the strategic case report is published towards the end of next month, an extensive programme of communications and engagement with Members will be undertaken ahead of the debates. Of course, the forthcoming decision on the strategic case for both Houses is supported by a significant amount of continuing work, which is set out in the 2023 annual report—the focus of today’s debate.

I will not repeat all of the work set out in the annual report, but I will highlight some notable achievements of the programme, in addition to the significant work undertaken to establish the new governance structure and client team. There is now greater alignment between in-house teams and the delivery authority to ensure that we maintain the safety and services of Parliament and deliver value for money. To that end, parliamentary teams are getting on with works, including internal projects such as the safety-critical Victoria Tower external works. This is in line with the new mandate agreed by both Houses last year.

Over 7,500 hours of surveys were conducted during the 2022-23 annual year. This has developed our understanding of the condition of the Palace. Many further hours of surveys have been conducted over the recent Summer and Conference Recesses. This work, which involves significant collaboration between the delivery authority, parliamentary teams and contractors, will continue to inform development of detailed costings and schedules as the programme moves forward.

Significant work engaging Members of both Houses and domestic committees has informed decisions taken by the programme and client boards so far. There is further engagement planned for the months ahead to support the publication of the strategic case and work on temporary accommodation. This demonstrates the objective set out in the new mandate to engage Members more comprehensively and ensure that the R&R programme is closer to parliamentarians.

Tours of the Palace basement and the historic Cloister Court continue to be made available to Members. These tours provide a fascinating insight into the history of the Palace, but I found from my visit a troubling reminder of the decay that the Palace faces and the necessity to progress the programme as swiftly as possible. So I do recommend to those noble Lords who have not signed up to a tour that they do so. It is illuminating, as I say, but it also reveals some of the rich and lesser- seen heritage of which we are custodians.

UK-wide engagement with existing and potential suppliers, in partnership with the British Chambers of Commerce, continued in 2023 following the governance changes. This has included UK-wide visits to promote the programme and discussions with more than 100 businesses about potential opportunities to be involved in the restoration work, demonstrating that benefits of the programme should be felt across the United Kingdom. The heritage and collections team will continue to develop plans to ensure that the collections are safe when the restoration works commence.

The annual report sets out the financial performance for the R&R programme overall, including the costs of the client team and the independent delivery authority. Expenditure for both bodies is scrutinised by various means with the client team, as a joint parliamentary department funded by both Houses, subject to the scrutiny processes faced by the budgets of both Houses’ administrations. The annual estimate for the independent delivery authority is scrutinised by the client team, the programme board—including a sub-board chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Morse, which undertakes detailed scrutiny—the client board and, finally, the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission before it is laid in the House of Commons.

I will end my opening remarks with what I am confident are shared sentiments among all noble Lords present and beyond. We all know how privileged we are to work in the Palace of Westminster. It is, after all, the heart of our parliamentary democracy, a historic royal Palace and a building recognised the world over. We in our generation have a shared responsibility as custodians of this much-admired building and it is clearly an imperative that we preserve it for future generations.

I would be the first to accept—these are my words—the profound sense of frustration at times as to the progress of the R&R programme. I hope that the establishment of the new governance structure, the forthcoming debate on the strategic case and the annual report that is before the Grand Committee today can give noble Lords somewhat greater confidence, because we are clearly all going to have to play our part in the restoration and renewal of this iconic building. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have had the privilege of serving on many of your Lordships’ committees in the last 10 years, but I honestly believe that the committee programme board on which I now sit is by far the most important that I have sat on. It is for this reason. While most of our committees make recommendations to the Government—who may or may not choose to follow them; more often than not, they do not—on this occasion we will bring forward the recommendations to the client board. The recommendations will require Parliament to take an executive decision itself; that is very unusual, but it is a huge responsibility for parliamentarians to take a decision about their own building.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said, this has been going on for a long time—the can has been pushed down the road for a long time—so, when I was asked to go on the programme board, I did so with a great deal of trepidation, because I thought, “This could be Groundhog Day all over again”. I asked myself whether we would achieve anything. The answer is: we have—much to my surprise. How have we done that? Without getting drawn into the boring structural description of governance, it has been the people on, and supporting, the programme board who have done this. We have had a fantastic team of people helping us, including a chairman, my right honourable friend Nigel Evans, who has run the board very efficiently; a vice-chair, the noble Lord, Lord Morse, who has his beady eye, as befits any former Comptroller and Auditor-General; and a tremendous team of experts.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

I was talking about the progress that we have made and how well we have been served by the officials. We have had experts supporting the programme board, we have had objective outsiders on it, and we have had independent assessors.

When we began, we were faced with 36 options, as the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said. I was sceptical that we would be able to narrow them down at all, but we have—to two. We looked at the objectives that we could achieve, which ranged from keeping the building safe to making enhanced, extensive and very expensive improvements to the whole aspect of the buildings. We then had to look at what was involved with each objective. There was the cost, the different degrees of disruption that will be caused and the different degrees to which the two Houses and Chambers would have to operate from other locations, either within the Palace precincts or outside.

There was also the question of safety. This is a very tight space, so where will the workmen and women operate from? Where will they put their building resources, and where will they change, eat and do things like that? How do we get the resources and materials into the Palace precincts? There are questions of safety and making sure that the work that is done does not put people at risk—there is asbestos everywhere. There are great issues of heritage—this is a historic heritage building—and the question of security, as thousands of people work in the precincts. We had to look at all of these considerations, and, of course, we know that the unexpected will arise, as with any building development work.

The truth is that there is no clear, obvious or perfect answer. Everything involves trade-offs. It requires an acceptance that we can argue until the cows come home, but there will be no obvious perfect solution.

At some point, the options will be presented to both Houses. What has dominated much of our thinking in the programme board has been the safety of the building. This is an iconic building that is a symbol of British democracy throughout the world. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, used rather moderate language when he talked about the basement. He used the word “illuminating”. I think that it is absolutely horrifying. When you go round the basement of this place you realise the tremendous risks. People do not know where the cables, wires or pipes go. There is a real danger of something terrible happening to our building.

Every parliamentarian has a responsibility to safeguard this building, so when the decision comes to Parliament, as it will do, the most important thing is not which option Parliament chooses but that it makes a decision. Parliamentarians—Members of the other House in particular, who have to be elected—take great pride in saying to the electors, “We are capable of running the country. We are capable of doing all the things to do with health, education, transport, security and defence”. If you say that you can run the country, the big question is: can you run this building? It will be a real responsibility. There will be a crunch time, and it will test Parliament, but it will have to take that decision.

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I have nothing but admiration for those, past and present, who serve on what is now the programme board, and those who are supporting, advising and delivering. This is a nightmare of a project, and everyone who has been involved with it deserves a medal. Mine would be a very small one for serving on the joint scrutiny committee for the 2019 Act. When I was asked by the Whips to go on it, I thought that it would probably be the most boring exercise of my political life. It turned out to be anything but. I became engaged with the wider issues that the noble Lord just referred to, as did the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner. I reinforce the point that decisions have to be made and clarity has to be brought forward. We have an obligation to those who come after us to get this right.

I shall be brief because, as the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said, the options will be put before the two Houses and there will be the opportunity to debate. If I may say so, I feel that we in Committee this afternoon are like a fly on an elephant’s bottom—we are nibbling away at the issues—but I will repeat what I have said on previous occasions, and I will keep at it until we get a solution.

Throughout my political life, I have not personally dealt substantially with disability issues, although for a time I was the Secretary of State who oversaw what was then the operation of the DDA and the DRC, which we introduced under my ministerial team, but over the last four years I have got engaged on a bit of a mission. In 2019, when the scrutiny committee’s report was published and the Act was taken through, I became aware of the lack of engagement with access for people with disabilities. This does not affect me; I am very fortunate—there are very few places in the Palace of Westminster that I could not get into, although I am open for the challenge at some point—but many other people have real challenges. It is not that they might not eventually get to their destination. It is the means of getting there—the indignity and difficulty, things which those who do not experience them would not put up with for a moment.

In the original Bill, there was a commitment to “access to” the Palace of Westminster. I was interested in the wording used by the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, in highlighting the priorities that the programme board and the two options will offer us, because step-free access into the Palace of Westminster is not the major issue. The major issue, which was missed by the House of Commons and in drafting the legislation, was access within the Palace of Westminster. After great discussion and enormous help from the then Ministers, we in this House amended the legislation to take account of that rather important element. In other words, we listened to people who had challenges and we were prepared to respond to them.

In the Act of Parliament, which still remains, Section 2 concerns the parliamentary works and in its subsection (5)(e)—I am sorry to do this to noble Lords—the amendment that was carried was to ensure that

“(i) any place in which either House of Parliament is located while the Parliamentary building works are carried out, and (ii) (after completion of those works) all parts of the Palace of Westminster used by people working in it or open to people visiting it, are accessible to people with disabilities”.

When we debated this, it was absolutely clear that we did not mean that people had to get into the towers and turrets at the very top—we discussed it on the Floor of the House—but when, in a recent session, I learned that we were talking about perhaps two-thirds of the Palace of Westminster being accessible, noble Lords can understand that I had a reaction.

An Act of Parliament is an Act of Parliament, and whether the wording was incorrect or not, it stated that

“all parts of the Palace of Westminster”

would be accessible, with an understanding of the trade-offs that the noble Lord has just referred to, where most people would use common sense. Where a particular element of the Palace was not used by those working in it or needed to be accessible to those visiting, we would use a bit of common sense. I say now that unless 95% of the Palace of Westminster is accessible to disabled people, we will have committed a historic mistake. This is the opportunity to put things right, to learn from Mr Barry’s War, which is still worth reading, and to learn how not to do things as well as how to do them.

I hope the two options, even at this late stage, will acknowledge what the Act of Parliament says. I know that the Government, particularly during the Boris Johnson period, thought that Acts of Parliament were “take it or leave it” and not mandatory, but we are not in that position anymore. If Parliament does not respect its own Act, who else will?

I am putting on the table the need to try to have a bit of common sense; we need to get this right. To do so, we need one more thing. When we talk about the total amounts under the two options that will be brought forward—the total sums necessary to do the work properly—we must break it down over the total period of the works to be carried out to the completion and return of both the Commons and the Lords to the Palace. If we do not do that, we will do ourselves and the public a great injustice, because we will frighten ourselves to death. I have heard people ask, again and again over the last three or four years, “On the back of austerity, the difficulty that people are facing and the tightness of public expenditure, how can we possibly spend whatever sum in the billions you want to pick out of the air?”. It does not work like that; we are talking about a very long period over which this money will be spent. I put a plea in that we get that message right.

We obviously have to get the sums right, rather than have the doubling of costs that we have seen in major schemes for many years, but let us try not to frighten ourselves to death with the amounts of money which will be crucial to getting this right for, I hope, centuries. We owe the future an obligation, which we are actually better at in this House, because we choose when we go—or the Lord chooses when we go—whereas, down the road, they are frightened stiff of what might happen and whether they will get the blame for it, and therefore whether to do a meet-and-mend job. Today, can we please take this back to the programme board: I commend the Act of Parliament, but I commend a bit of common sense as well.

My Lords, it is an honour to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. I will try, first, not to repeat too much of what noble Lords have already heard, if that is possible, and, secondly, take a financial view of the project, since that may be more of a minority sport than one might think.

First, in my view, the new governance structure has worked well to date. The programme board, of which Nigel Evans is chair and I am deputy chair, has worked hard over five months to identify a shortlist of options for restoration and renewal and a way forward for the programme. The programme remains on track to deliver the strategic case for both Houses before the end of this year. This will not be the final decision; it will instead seek the two Houses’ endorsement of the shortlist.

The important point, as the Committee has already heard, is that in that shortlist there is one approach that involves a full decant of both Houses and another that involves only a partial decant and something described as a “continued presence”—but, as noble Lords will hear a bit later, it will not be a “continued presence” for the House of Lords. We will come to the opportunity to vote on that. Before we do, there will be work on detailed proposals and costs over the next year, which will be brought back to the Houses for a final decision, probably in 2025.

The programme board asked me to chair a sub-board, with a particular focus on finance and cost. Over the course of the next year, the sub-board will not only look rigorously at the delivery authority’s budget, which it did last year, but look more closely at the underlying cost assumptions on which the programme is to be costed. More work needs to be done on costs, including benchmarking the cost for the programme against similar restoration programmes of this scale. Achieving value for money has been a central theme running through the programme board’s discussions, as has the need to ensure continued in-depth engagement with Members of both Houses about R&R.

Let me emphasise a few points that are really important to bear in mind. First, while the strategic business case will be presented in the next few months and confirm the options to be costed in detail, setting out the shape of what is proposed, the real crunch decision will be to decide on—and commit to—one fully costed option. That is most likely, as has been said, to be taken in 2025—again, most likely after the election of a new Government and Parliament. The crunch decision will be theirs to take.

In the meantime, we need to keep costs under control, commensurate with making the requisite progress, and make sure that planning and costing for the programme as a whole are realistic and hard-headed. If a new Government decide to kick the can down the road in any way, at least some of the costs being incurred now may prove abortive, depending, of course, in what direction the can travels. We need to keep ourselves on top of these costs and be ready to account for them in that context, as well as in the context of moving forward successfully. It is important for your Lordships to bear in mind that both the options being evaluated assume that the House of Lords will decant to the QEII conference centre for not less than 10 years, so when we describe this as temporary accommodation your Lordships need to think carefully about what “temporary” means.

Secondly, assuming that the crunch decision is to go ahead, and I hope that it will, there will of course be risks of time and cost slippage to be managed. With so many uncertainties inherent in a project involving such a complex historic estate, I believe some slippage is highly likely. We need to plan to keep on the pressure for value for money even if slippage occurs. That can be done but it requires considerable work.

What is avoidable is what I will describe as scope creep or special pleading, where there are constant attempts by interested parties to interfere in the plans and keep modifying them to achieve change that might improve their particular facilities. I saw this very radically in the design of the headquarters of the United Nations, which went wildly over cost as a result. Setting a point at which there will be no further modifications in the plans and defending that strongly, so that there really is a design freeze, will be most important.

I had not put my name down for this debate but I am absolutely delighted that the noble Lord is taking a financial view of all this. Does he agree that this project is taking place at a time of great financial stringency and that the other place is going to be trying to work out how, in the short to medium term, its Members are going to make it acceptable to their electorates? If that is the case, does he also agree that we may have to accept a longer period of renewal that may come with a partial decant, even if the discounted present value over the whole life of the project turns out to be higher?

In a way, the noble Lord is asking me to answer a hypothetical question, but if a new Government appear and the first thing they are asked for, or an early decision they have to make, is to commit to a very large sum of money on this project, it will take a certain amount of courage to go ahead with it. It would be the right thing to do but it will take a certain amount of courage. I thank him for that intervention.

To sum up, my comment is “Good progress so far”. I do not say that lightly. I genuinely think that the client board, the programme board and the delivery authority have all performed well so far, but it has to be said that the big risks, including the risk to public value and the challenges, are in the future of this programme. We have done well but we have not started climbing the steeper mountains yet, so I wish to record my support for the progress report.

My Lords, when I put my name down to speak in this debate the general reaction was “Why? It has all been said before and it’s going nowhere fast”. I do not think that is fair for the project we have in front of us. We are on the cusp of getting to the point where we make a decision. However, the problems that have already been referred to in this debate are the facts that not everybody will agree with that decision, nobody wants it on their watch, as was referred to in the last exchange, nobody wants to take on that degree of expenditure, nobody wants to be the one who actually takes that risk, and nobody wants to be the one who says, “Oh, you can’t have your guests to tea within the Palace of Westminster”. At certain times it does go on at that petty level. However, we have to make that decision soon.

Purely by chance, the director of facilities was talking to my political group earlier today. I asked him, because I was speaking in this debate, what I should say. He said, “Oh well, don’t worry about it. We’ve been told we’ve got to keep the place going until 2029”. So we have 10 years’ delay. I have been here an awfully long time—getting on for 40 years. When I first got here I was told about how difficult it was to maintain the place because it was in constant use, you never had enough time, there were always problems going on, and work was never finished. This has been true. It has merely morphed into the fact that we now effectively need a total refit.

Certain documents put why we should do it in context. The first paragraph of the summary of the Commons Public Accounts Committee’s report Restoration & Renewal of the Palace of Westminster 2023 Recall finishes

“there is a real and rising risk that a catastrophic event will destroy the Palace before it is ever repaired and restored”.

That is accompanied by a risk to everybody who is anywhere near the Palace. The risk that we are taking because of finance puts people and their historic building at risk. Whatever is said about the construction of this Palace, it is a Victorian building that is seen as being the centre of London. Consider what it is competing with. It is competing with the Tower of London and the great gothic cathedrals. This building and Big Ben are the outline that defines the centre of London. If we allow it to be at risk or to be destroyed, we are taking a huge risk to the presence of this nation. We cannot do it.

There is also the fact that there are people in the Palace. If we do not do something soon we will build up that risk and effectively guarantee that something bad happens. We just are. It is just a matter of how bad and when. It costs £2 million a week to do nothing. Try to sell that on the doorstep. It costs £2 million a week, there are people in the Palace and it is dangerous. If we cannot do something with that and if the political courage is not there, we should give up and go home.

There are other objections, such as, “Would it not be dreadful if you made a speech on something in a Parliament that was not in the Palace of Westminster?” You are affecting laws—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, just pointed out how important they are, or should be—that will be there for the foreseeable future and change the way people live. If you think it matters whether you make them here or 300 yards away, give up. You do not understand what your job is, in my opinion.

All I would say to everyone in this Committee is: make that decision. Get on with it. It will not be quick. It will be a difficult argument, but you have a counter. This is something we have put off for far too long. We are putting people’s lives in danger and risking the building. Ultimately, and probably most importantly to many politicians, you are making yourselves look absurd.

My Lords, I have come today mainly to listen and learn, but I think one particular issue that was referred to needs to be given more consideration. There is a physical timetable for when the plan will be done and when the work will start, but there is a parallel timetable of politics, and how the two fit together will be crucial in determining the success or otherwise of this process.

We should thank the board for its work: it is taking things forward, and we will make a decision. The report goes only as far as 2024, but we have been told today that a decision will be made in 2025. Of course, that will be the new Parliament. The big scary numbers will become known at the end of this year or the beginning of next year, so they are bound to be issues within the next general election campaign. People will be aware of these big scary numbers. I was at a bicameral meeting of the Commons Finance Committee yesterday, and we discussed these issues and heard figures, which are big and scary, whatever happens. So they will be part of the debate in the run-up to the election.

As I understand it, the new Parliament will have to take a decision about which option to go for, but we were told yesterday that, for planning purposes, it is assumed that nothing fundamental will happen with the project until 2029. Preparation work will be done and it may be that a lot more investigation is required, but it will not actually start until then, which—by coincidence—will be just after the following election. I am making the working assumption that Labour will be elected to government with a substantial majority and will be seeking re-election in 2029, just at the time when the project will be fully manifest. If you are saying that it will then have sufficient momentum that no one will dare to stop it, I point to HS2, which was cancelled despite having momentum, legislation and substantial support, as quoted by the Government.

So there is a political timetable happening at the same time, and it and the building timetable have to be synchronised. As I say, the numbers are scary and will be a political issue, so we have to build that into the timetable that we follow.

My Lords, I declare an interest: I am the president of Historic Buildings & Places, which was known as the Ancient Monuments Society for the previous 100 years. It is one of the five statutory heritage bodies that it is mandatory to consult. In a personal capacity, I am the owner of a grade 1 listed building and, as a trustee, the owner of several others.

I will stand back and make two comments. Like the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I came here rather a long time ago, at a time when HS2 was a twinkle in some engineers’ eyes. Then, the state of the building and the issues it threw up were significant matters for us to think about.

What has happened since then? We have had reports, committees, consultations, debates, resolutions, strategies, consultants and plans. At the end of the day, I am reminded of a meeting I had with the NP11, on which I sit, discussing an aspect of levelling up, when one of my fellow members said, “And then, of course, the politicians will do what they do best: talk”. We are still where we were when the noble Lord and I came into this House all those years ago—except that the building is more dangerous and it is more expensive to put it right.

We know that the Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834, but we cannot rely on the principle that lightning does not strike twice in the same place. We are looking at a potential Notre-Dame or something worse and what is needed now, as I think everybody agrees in theory, is action and not more talking. Speaking for myself, I have got to the stage where, although I have some strong views about what should or should not be done, I am not sure I care any more; it is more important to do something.

Secondly, as I alluded to, I am involved with listed buildings, of which there are many thousands in this country. The owners of those buildings have a legal obligation to look after them properly. That is quite right, but I also point out to your Lordships that it is expensive. Let us be clear: in comparison with most people—certainly many people—we in Parliament have access to almost inconceivably large sums of money to deal with our legal obligations. If we compare our predicament with those facing many other owners of listed buildings, they have much less and many of them get taxed on it.

What signal does all this delay and obfuscation send out? What sort of lead are we giving to the rest of the country in respect of this aspect of our heritage? It is worth remembering that, as I understand it, the public’s principal response to partygate was disgust that those who made the rules did not follow them themselves. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who said that there is no place here for parliamentary or parliamentarians’ exceptionalism. If the Parliament of this country cannot even sort out the problems of its own workplace, what capacity and moral authority do we have to lead and try to sort out all the other multifarious problems that we face?

I think to most outsiders we look, if I might be allowed to use the phrase, like terrible plonkers. Quite simply, we need to get on with it, not defer things, resolve problems when we have them and not try to ignore them, cut the Gordian knot if necessary and get on with doing the work. So let us stop talking— I sense that there is a real wish to do that—and do what is required. In that way, we will properly look after one of the most significant buildings in the whole world.

My Lords, I am not going to repeat what is in the report, but it is worth stressing, especially after the previous contribution, that we have been working hard and have achieved quite a lot. One of the frustrations is over why we cannot reach a final decision. Part of the problem is that people were not satisfied with the sort of decision that we were going to make, whether on the construction process or on the final outcome. I will address that.

Having been on the Finance Committee of the House of Lords for some period and having experienced how things have got out of hand, particularly on construction cases, I know that the biggest issue for us has been the famous terms that have been used in the past: “known knowns” and “known unknowns”, particularly when you start off and then suddenly realise something. Westminster Hall is a classic case; it is the most historic building in the world. Look at its age and how important it is to our heritage.

The other thing that I want to stress is that we have moved on from the debate that this building, as I think the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, said in the Chamber last week or the week before—before recess, anyway—is not simply a building about facilities for MPs, staff and Lords. This building represents something; it represents our values. If you show a picture of this building to anyone throughout the world, they will see not just the physical building but the values that it represents. Bearing in mind the sort of situation that we are now in in the world, that is really important.

Our ability to protect this building will be incredibly important, too. It seems like we have been going through a painful process, but we have had a complex matrix. What are the options in terms of construction, are there a range of options—moving out and staying in—and how do we evaluate them? Of course, as my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, there are also the options around what people want to end up with. The programme board has considered that matrix in a lot of detail. When we talk about the strategic case, again it seems like, “Well, why aren’t we just getting on with it?” The reason is that, when we ask people to make a decision, it will be based on fully costed options. People are making a decision at the end of the year on the strategic case, but that is not the final decision. The strategic case narrows things down so that more detailed work can go on on the costing of any final decision, so that, when we make that decision, we are very clear about those costs. The noble Lord, Lord Morse, is absolutely right: we are evaluating that at every stage of the process, and evaluating what we spend now.

It is also worth pointing out—and I have raised it in the programme board—that it costs nearly £1.5 million a week to maintain the Palace. Of course, we are doing a lot of restoration work now. One thing that I am really pleased about, and which the programme board has focused on, is how the in-house team has been working with the delivery authority to ensure that whatever we do fits so that we do not spend £200 million restoring something only to tear it down when we start the final programme. We are working collaboratively as a team, and that is really important. We are not standing still; we are not not doing anything; we are actually working quite hard. It is in the annual report, and we need to stress this to our colleagues, but thousands of hours of work have gone into the intrusive surveys, so that when we get these final costed options we will reduce the number of unknown unknowns, and we will be very clear about the work that we want to do.

The point on which I want to conclude is the temporary accommodation and the question that my noble friend Lord Blunkett raised about accessibility. I agree with him that the best people to ask about accessibility are those most affected. We should have much more survey work and include people in those discussions. However, accessibility is not just a question of the physical building. It is also about how we manage and run this building, so that we see accessibility in terms of whether we have a proper needs assessment and fully understand the range of physical capabilities that people are impacted by. Disability is not just restricted to physical capability, there are other issues. Of course, those things are not a set given over a period of time: people’s needs change, and that is something else we should build into this exercise.

I will conclude on the other point that the annual report has focused on: how we engage. I have heard so many people say that they were not consulted and I share some of the frustration, but there is a difference between consultation and engagement. We have a job of work to do, and we will ensure that people fully understand the scope of that work so that there is no shock to them when it starts. We have to move away from the idea that we are somehow in a special position to know exactly what needs to be done. I have heard MPs say that they fully understand the construction needs and stuff like that, but they do not. What we need is to have a proper system of ensuring that the full information is available.

I praise all the staff who have been involved in engagement. We need to do more about how we engage, and the responsibility falls not on them but on us. Whatever group we are a member of, whether Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem, we should express our opinions on the work we have been doing. We should not leave it until it is too late. We should certainly involve them and not be so focused on the formal consultation. We need to keep reporting back to our own groups on the work we have been doing. We have a good report and a good process, and we are getting on with the work. I know it will take a long time. As my noble friend said, the costs involved, because of the Act of Parliament, may seem horrendous, but we are talking about a 20-year period to restore this building. That is the vital thing that we need to say to other Members of the House.

My Lords, I have written down “energy, passion and zest”. It seemed to me, from noble Lords’ contributions, that this is an issue which commands very considerable attention from those who have spoken. I sense that is something that so many of us feel, and not only in Parliament. I recall reading some years ago that the British people, when surveyed, said that they want this building kept and restored; they want it for future generations. We must be careful that, with the eye-watering numbers, we do not lose focus of the fact that this building means so much, as was said by the noble Lords, Lord McLoughlin and Lord Collins of Highbury, and that it resonates with people around the world. In these very ghastly times, the democratic values encapsulated in this building take us a long way to saying that we must do our part to get the decisions made.

I am conscious that, following my mild word of “frustration”, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, spoke about a decision and the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, mentioned early work and action rather than talking. We all share the sentiment of those descriptions, but what I take from the hugely valuable contributions made by Members of this House on the programme board is that they should give better confidence to us who are not on the board. We have heard from those noble Lords an identification, even with surprise—the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, spoke about an element of surprise—that progress is undoubtedly being made and that we are in a much better position to take all these steps forward in a timely and very considered fashion, given the value-for-money aspects that have been highlighted.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, in particular that I think we would all agree that we must keep a focus on value for money. In doing this huge project, we need to retain the confidence of people outside this building that it provides value for money. Benchmarking along the way is important, with the continuing scrutiny of the programme board and the other elements of scrutiny: the client board and external experts, who will be important.

I also wanted to put on record our thanks to all engaged as officials on the programme board and across the piece for R&R, as highlighted by noble Lords. It is important that we work collaboratively together. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, that I am sorry, again, that I was mild. My view of the basement is that anyone who is lukewarm about doing this exercise should be dragged there and then come to a considered view.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, made some important points. I respond by saying that the requirements set out in Section 2 of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019—that regard must be given to ensuring that temporary accommodation and the restored Palace of Westminster are

“accessible to people with disabilities”—

remain in force and will remain a key consideration in design work both for temporary accommodation while we are away from the Palace and for the restored Palace itself.

On engagement, if the strategic case is agreed at the end of this year, the client team intends to undertake targeted engagement with members with accessibility requirements from early 2024, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, to facilitate forthcoming design work on temporary accommodation and the future Palace. It is absolutely essential that this work is very much at the heart of our consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, raised annualised costings. The forthcoming strategic case will present indicative costings for the two shortlisted options, including annualised costings.

I entirely agree with noble Lord, Lord Addington, in his reference to people giving reasons not to do this. The reasons why we must do it are absolutely clear. However, the building is currently safe for all those in it: as corporate officers, the clerks of both Houses are satisfied that the parliamentary community continues to be safe. But the noble Lord is absolutely correct that we need to act to ensure that the safety of people and the building continues. There has been quite a lot of investment in compartmentalisation for fire. This will not necessarily help the building, but it is all part of ensuring that people are safe—we clearly need to factor that in, and it was one of the key factors raised at the beginning of this debate. The noble Lord is absolutely correct that the cost of £1.45 million per week to do nothing is simply not sustainable; we have to do something.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, raised the parliamentary cycle and the possibilities of elections. I hope that Members of Parliament in both Houses will have courage—and by that I mean the courage to do the right thing, and the courage to know that this building encapsulates the very essence of why the elected House comes here and why we undertake our scrutiny and improvement of legislation. Again, I believe that this is why both Houses intrinsically work together.

But it is clear that the forthcoming strategic case will present indicative costings. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, that this project will be over a considerable period, and my guess is that its cycles may take in a number of general elections. But the point is that mission creep, scope creep and hesitation will all cost money and, in the end, my view is that the electorate will be far more concerned about not wasting money and not prevaricating when we have a task of responsibility before us.

I turn to the issue of heritage. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, raised something that is the essence of part of one of the specifications: why are we so concerned about this building? It started in 1099 with the floor space; in 1399 it got the roof, and in 1521 it got the cloisters. This Palace is all about extraordinary and exceptional heritage, some of which is entirely unique. That is why engagement and dialogue with heritage organisations is so important, as are the lessons learned from what has been undertaken at Buckingham Palace and Manchester Town Hall. This is all about learning, not only here but from some of the work on other parliament buildings, such as what the Dutch and the Canadians have done. Again, I do not in any way suggest that we should be doing anything other than looking at how we best conserve and protect our heritage, but it is also important that, when we move, the heritage that will be in storage is looked after very well for our return.

So many issues have been raised about different aspects, but the most important thing we should all take away is that this is an annual progress report that should encourage us that we are on the right path. There is more work to be done by gallant members of the programme board—I use the word “gallant” despite them not being military, because they add real quality to the consideration of the programme board, which is immensely valuable to the client board. One of the reasons why the decisions Parliament made were of great value and an advantage was that this has drawn us into greater responsibility: we as parliamentarians are more responsible under this new governance and we should all be looking to make our own contributions.

Noble Lords have spoken with both passion and frustration, but we are all working to the same end, and I thank them for their contributions. I hope we might have a few more noble Lords for the strategic case consideration, but this has been an important part of a fairly long-going process.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.48 pm.