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Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

Volume 674: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2020

I beg to move,

That Damian Hinds, Sir Robert Syms, Tommy Sheppard and Mark Tami be appointed as Parliamentary members, and that Brigid Janssen, Elizabeth Peace (chair), Marta Phillips, Dr Simon Thurley and Simon Wright be appointed as external members, of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body under Part 1, Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019.

Last year, the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 received Royal Assent—indeed, uniquely, it did so twice. The Act established a sponsor body, which will have overall responsibility for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, and act as a single client on behalf of both Houses. Since July 2018, the sponsor body has been established in shadow form, and has been getting on with the preparatory and due diligence work, so that it can take on the restoration and renewal programme. From 8 April 2020, the sponsor body will become substantive and formally responsible for the restoration and renewal programme.

As required under the Act, the motion before the House today confirms the appointment of Members from this House to the board of the sponsor body. I wish to take a moment to pay tribute to Sir Patrick McLoughlin and the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), who have worked tirelessly as members of the shadow sponsor body and to improve the Act during its passage through the House. In addition, this motion confirms the roll-over of external members from the shadow to the substantive sponsor body. That will provide continuity for the board as it becomes established, while allowing the opportunity for the sponsor board to evaluate the needs for its membership in the future.

Taken together, these appointments ought to strike the right balance between ensuring cross-party support for the works and the appropriate external professionalism and expertise. I wish the appointees every success. The restoration and renewal of this historic Palace will be a significant task, and ensuring that these works represent value for money for the taxpayer, which is perhaps the key thing, will remain absolutely at the forefront of their minds. One of the main aims of this project will be to keep costs down, and Her Majesty’s Government are willing to work collaboratively with the sponsor body in this important mission.

I thank the Leader of the House for tabling the motion, which the Opposition support. I concur with every word he said. If we look at the list of the names in the motion, we see that one is that of the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), so keen is he to get on with the work. We know that all the members listed in the motion have the necessary expertise, particularly the external members, who cover heritage as well as accountancy. As far as the right hon. and hon. Members are concerned, we know they will provide plenty of expertise and important input into this very important project. I, too, wish them every success.

I welcome this motion. I served, under Dame Caroline Spelman, on the Joint Committee that recommended that we proceed in this way. I have done a considerable amount of work on the subject over the years because, as the Leader of the House said, our primary concern should be the saving of public money.

I would like to have served on the sponsor body, but it was not to be. I wish those who have been appointed every success, because they have a very important task. Given the crisis that we are facing, we have to think again, and I am sure that when those on the sponsor body address the subject, their No. 1 concern will be to save public money, ensure the safety of Members and preserve this historic building.

Even before the public health crisis that we are facing, there were difficult decisions to be made about public spending, increases in taxation and trying to divert resources from London to the north of England in particular. Even before this crisis, which will probably necessitate the largest expansion of the state since the second world war, I think that people would have started to look askance at our spending billions of pounds on ourselves when there might well be a cheaper alternative. When the sponsor body has its first meeting, it might consider that this is the moment to review the whole project and look at whether we can do it significantly more cheaply than the present option.

When the House voted, quite narrowly, for a full decant, we were in a very different world. Of course, the original Select Committee on which my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) served accepted a full decant on the basis that it would be possible to create a temporary Chamber in the courtyard of Richmond House. The Committee was actually given the wrong measurements; the incompetence of this is beyond belief. It was then announced that because it was no longer possible to create such a Chamber, which the authorities claimed would have to be exactly the same size as the existing one, with the same size Division Lobbies—the whole works—it was now proposed to demolish all of Richmond House, at a cost of many hundreds of millions of pounds.

I have been working with SAVE, the architectural heritage body. We have come up with well-costed proposals, designed by architects, to create much more cheaply, if it was deemed necessary to have one, a temporary Chamber in the courtyard of Richmond House that was exactly the same size—[Interruption.] It would be exactly the same size as this Chamber. There is absolutely no need to demolish Richmond House, which is an award-winning listed building.

Order. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s passion about this subject, but this is a very narrow motion about the membership of the Committee, not about the exact dimensions of any proposed future Chamber. I must hold the right hon. Gentleman to the particular matter before us. He can address the general issue, but talking about exact dimensions is going a bit far.

I will certainly not dwell on the exact dimensions. I was making the simple, general point that there might be cheaper options than the proposal to demolish Richmond House and build a permanent replica Chamber.

The other point that the new sponsor body has to consider is what will happen when the House of Lords is moved to QEII. It would be possible to place the Lords quite cheaply and simply in that building at a relatively small cost. There is already a large conference chamber there, which holds up to 700 people—big enough even for the House of Lords. Their lordships may have to forgo their planned rooftop terrace dining room, which would cost £200 million, but, given the present crisis facing the nation, I am sure that they will be prepared to do that.

Even more cheaply—speaking in very general terms, Madam Deputy Speaker, to comply with your ruling—it may not even be necessary to have a temporary Chamber erected in the courtyard of Richmond House. Having commissioned architects to work on this subject, I can say that it would be perfectly possible for this Chamber to move temporarily to the House of Lords Chamber, as we did in the second world war, with a line of route through Westminster Hall and Saint Stephen’s Chapel.

To sum up, there are many cheaper alternatives that must and should be explored by the sponsor body, as our primary concern is to save public money, carry out these works as expeditiously as possible and not waste time, perhaps until 2027, waiting for a replica Chamber to be built. We should get on with the work now and preserve this historic building.

If the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) wants to sit in the House of Lords, I am sure that will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench. We know that one day, that ambition of his will be fulfilled—[Interruption.] Exactly—if he wanted to be on the sponsor body, he could have moved an amendment on that this evening. He could have divided the House, and who knows? With the attendance here, it might have even gone through on the voices to let him serve.

I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to the Members who are leaving the shadow sponsor body—especially my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray)—and I welcome those who are coming on to it. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who cannot be here, is thrilled at the prospect of being part of this project and will, as the Scottish National party has always done, keep an incredibly sharp eye on the use of public funds and the opportunity that this must present to modernise and reform the practices and procedures of the House of Commons, however it meets.

I am afraid so. It may disappoint the right hon. Member, but I notice that even their lordships up the back have new Division Lobbies in the Royal Gallery, because their current Division Lobbies would be completely unsuitable in the time of social distancing in which we live. We would be the same, so this will provide an opportunity, if these institutions are going to remain relevant into the 21st century, to make sure that they do, taking advantage of all the opportunities that R and R presents.

On that note, ought we not to properly have had scrutiny hearings for these hon. Members who are going to sit on the commission, so that we could ensure that they will not follow the lead that the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has just given? It is for the whole House to determine what its procedures are and ought to be, and not for some subset to design them into some new pleasure dome, or whatever they plan to construct as a consequence of spending all this money.

There is a serious point to this. The whole reason that we have to sit this distance apart from one another is that, if one thing has been taught about the context of this House and coronavirus, it is that this place does not work in terms of public health. It does not work in terms of being a functioning Parliament, so while there was a degree of bombast there, which I am sure is only engineered on the part of the right hon. Gentleman, an element of pragmatism is required on the part of hon. Members, is it not?

This Chamber has survived many health emergencies, and I do not believe that we should design into the future the prospect of continuing viruses. Let us conquer the virus, rather than change procedures that have endured almost forever. I assure him that change is always for the worst.

This has, as always, been a high-quality, if brief, debate, with people maintaining very safe distances. I think the right hon. and hon. Members whose names I have put forward are ones in whom the House can have complete confidence. I am particularly pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) is here to listen to the debate; having known him since we were at university together, I have a special degree of confidence in him.

Question put and agreed to.