I beg to move,
That this House has considered Restoration and Renewal.
The Palace of Westminster is a magnificent building, which must be saved for future generations. Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin’s creation is a triumph of neo-Gothic architecture, recognised the world over. Within these walls, our history, architecture and politics are entwined together. It is a place that inspires us as politicians, just as it inspires the many schoolchildren who visit Westminster. On the Palace walls, the history of their nation is writ large: from the exploits of King Alfred to the stonework damaged by Nazi bombs, left unrepaired as a reminder that this House stood firm against tyranny; from the great Tudor portraits in the Prince’s Gallery to representations of both sides of the civil war, and to the great statesmen—Walpole, Pitt, Burke —who graced St Stephen’s with their rhetoric.
Then we have Westminster Hall—a space that has been at the heart of our national life for nearly a millennium. Built by William Rufus, its hammer-beam roof completed by Richard II, it was the one part of the building that the firemen fought to save as the rest of the Palace succumbed to the flames in 1834. There were the trials of Thomas More, Thomas Wentworth, Charles I. So many great events took place in Westminster Hall. It was the centre of justice and the seat of wisdom for centuries. I want the children and grandchildren of the 1 million pupils who have visited us in recent years to be able to come here and learn about their nation’s history. I want them to be as inspired as I was when I first visited here as a child and won a prize—a biro—for knowing more parliamentary facts than any of my fellow pupils at that time.
The prize we are now seeking is the Palace of Westminster itself. This is a building that must remain part of our national heritage for centuries to come, but it is also a building which, if we fail to act, risks being lost to history forever. Over the years, the Palace has become an increasingly complex and flawed proposition for those tasked with its preservation. Like the barnacled encrustations on the hull of a noble ship, layer upon layer of incremental changes have been built up over the years, just as the challenges of managing an ageing building have built up, too.
Since 2017, there have been over 40,000 problems reported and the Palace is now deteriorating faster than it can be repaired. Anyone who ventures into the basement will see for themselves why. Steam pipes run alongside electric cables. Hundreds of miles of cabling are now in need of replacement. A sewage ejector, installed in 1888, is still in use today. In short, there is a meandering multiplicity of multifarious materials all in need of urgent attention and all increasing the vulnerability of the building. Those who want to see what 150 years of patch and mend looks like are advised to descend into the depths of the Palace and see for themselves.
When I returned to the basement yesterday, I was pleased to find a newly installed system, which will fill the space with a fine mist in the event of a fire. That is among the remedial but temporary measures put in place in recent years to address the possibility that the building might be imperilled by a serious blaze. I am advised that steps such as extra emergency lighting, the installation of new alarms, day and night fire patrols and so on ensure that life will be safe. What cannot be guaranteed is that our historic palace can be saved from destruction in the event of a serious fire. We have known for a long time that, if a blaze were to take hold, the lack of compartmentation would endanger the entire building, so it is a matter of some frustration that comprehensive fire safety alterations have not begun because we have been waiting for the main R&R programme.
Fortunately, we are now moving towards the historic moment when this House is asked to approve a motion allowing the works to commence in the mid-2020s as planned. Such a decision, involving billions of pounds of public funds, taxpayers’ money, which would ideally be spent elsewhere, cannot be taken on a whim, so three requirements must be met if the restoration and renewal programme is to command the confidence of the House and of taxpayers: first, the proposal must be robust and evidence-based; secondly, it must give value for money and we must cut out unnecessary spending; and thirdly, the plans need to be up to date.
No one here today will forget for a moment that we are discussing this matter in the midst of a global pandemic, which is placing great strain on the nation’s purse strings. Today’s debate is a chance to set out our expectations in this context, and this should be a limited project to replace failing mechanical and engineering equipment, not an opportunity to create a second Versailles.
This debate also gives us an opportunity to note how far we have come since Deloitte produced its independent options appraisal in 2015. The Joint Committee’s report of September 2016 was followed by the motion of January 2018, which led in turn to the passage of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. This legislation addressed the first of our three requirements—that the proposals must be robust and evidence-based—by adopting the governance structures used to deliver major infrastructure projects such as the 2012 Olympic games. The Sponsor Body will act as the client on behalf of Parliament and oversee the delivery of the works, which will be entrusted to a Delivery Authority equipped with the expertise needed to keep costs down and to manage a project of this complexity.
The Delivery Authority is already showing the value of its professionalism by getting on with the basics, undertaking detailed investigations of the palace’s condition. Once these surveys are completed, it will then move on to preparing detailed proposals in the form of an outline business case. There can be no blank cheque for this work, which is why it so important that the outline business case will be fully costed. This will be the first time that we have had a proposition that we can assess in value-for-money terms, which is the second essential requirement before Members are asked to make their decision. Rather than hurrying along in an over-hasty fashion—[Laughter.] I am glad that I am creating such hilarity on such a serious subject. It is crucial that we take the time and accept the expense required to get this right—the right price to pay for the assurances we need that the project will be delivered on time and on budget.
I appreciate what my right hon. Friend is saying about the cost. Obviously, this marvellous palace is in the heart of my constituency, so it is a very precious place for me. None the less, at a time when we are spending billions of pounds in the economy following the covid-19 crisis and beyond, does he agree that we must be very careful about how much we spend on this project, because the public will expect us to be very careful about how we spend money on ourselves.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must ensure value for money. I was going to refer to the example of the refurbishment of the Elizabeth Tower, because we have to know what we are going into. The refurbishment of the Elizabeth Tower offers a cautionary tale in this respect. Such is the nation’s affection for Big Ben that I have no doubt we would not have objected to spending £80 million on its refurbishment, if that had been the initial price tag placed on it. The mistake that was made was in initially releasing the figure of £29 million, which was little more than a guess. That is why it is right to spend the time and money on developing a business plan so that we know what we are going into.
It is with this in mind that I advise the House in the strongest possible terms to disregard the endlessly quoted estimates drawn from the Deloitte report of June 2015. These numbers were merely comparisons with other options at that time and before any detailed scoping could take place. We cannot know how much the programme will cost in reality until the outline business case is published, but we can be assured that we now have the programme and infrastructural professionals, drawn from industry, who will be able to produce the comprehensive plans we need.
The Delivery Authority is making good progress, but it needs further clarity on what is expected of it, and this stands to reason. As both the National Audit Office and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority have highlighted, the cost estimates or ranges cannot be set out before the scope and requirements of what is needed are fully understood. Doing that means ensuring that the proposals are fully up to date, which is our third and final requirement.
So much has changed since the Deloitte report of 2015, not least the pandemic, which is having an enormous effect on our way of life, our way of working and economic activity more generally. That is why it is quite proper for the Sponsor Body to conduct a strategic review to consider whether the basis for options developed over previous years has changed significantly enough to warrant a change in strategy. The review should determine how the various options should be assessed. Timelines for delivery, heritage benefits, fire safety and cost must all be considered in the round, and the views of parliamentarians on all this matter greatly. It comes down to a simple question: how much inconvenience are we prepared to accept?
I completely agree with that last point. To take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), we should not be spending enormous amounts on ourselves, but this proposal does not necessarily mean that. We are spending money for future generations, and actually honouring the past, which I think is our duty as well. However, that does not mean that, with the crisis we are in at the moment, we should not be as flexible as possible. We are asking our constituents and our businesses to adapt enormously to very trying circumstances. Surely, given the times we are in, we should do everything we can to adapt, and there are many alternative proposals to the Richmond House move. Even if it means some inconvenience to us, we should do what we can to adapt. Even if it takes longer and even if we have to put up with some noise, surely we should be adaptable in these times.
I agree with my hon. Friend in both regards. This Palace, these Houses of Parliament are the most wonderful testament to our belief in democracy. It is so magnificent to walk along the passageway from here to the House of Lords and see on either side the representation of our history and the pride in our nation’s story that our forebears took because they believed that the democracy and the constitution we have are precious, worth preserving and worth symbolising in stone. To do that, it is worth spending the money to ensure this Palace is secure. However, yes, we must play our part and accept that there is a degree of inconvenience that we can tolerate, because currently we accept remarkably little. Under current rules, work in the Palace of Westminster can be halted on the say-so of a single MP. I am not sure that all MPs realise that each of their gentle and politely worded requests to keep noise down triggers an automatic downing of tools.
They do—well, those who are paying attention do—and I am glad the right hon. Gentleman is paying such strict attention. It is important that we do accept that we may have to compromise in what we expect in this Palace.
Then there is the question of a temporary decant location, and I look forward to hearing Members’ views about what scale and requirements are thought necessary. The Prime Minister has written to the chief executive of the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority making it clear that costs should be kept to a minimum. He is quite right that putting a severe downward pressure on cost is vital in the face of phrases such as “scope creep” and “gold-plating”, which are words that should make any right thinking politician break out in a cold sweat. Our goal should be a narrow, simple one—to save the Palace of Westminster without spending more than is necessary. That is the only way we will be able to look our constituents in the eye and explain the steps being taken.
I have been listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend has been saying, and he has laid great emphasis on saving the building of the Palace of Westminster, but can he just clarify that it is the Government’s policy that it should be saved so that it should be the home of our national Parliament permanently?
I think that my hon. Friend may be alluding to the mention of York in the Prime Minister’s letter. I would remind my hon. Friend that between 1301 and 1325 Parliament met in York 11 times, but when Edward IV tried to get it to move to York, he was unsuccessful. It will end up being a matter for parliamentarians where this House sits, though strictly speaking the meeting of Parliament is called by the sovereign to her palace at Westminster. That, I think, is something that would be highly unlikely to change without the acceptance of parliamentarians. I hope that answers my hon. Friend’s question.
I want to conclude by quoting Caroline Shenton’s book about the construction of the Palace a century and a half ago. She raised the question of the difficulty faced by Barry and Pugin when she wrote:
“But who should be given the upper hand? The government… funded by the Treasury? Parliament as an institution made up of two legislatures occupying a single building… Or—most difficult of all—over a thousand MPs and Peers”—
this must be referring to peers rather than MPs, but never mind—
“fractious, opinionated…partisan, and…with as many individual views on how the work should progress as there were members? Deciding who was the real client at any particular moment would prove to be a mind-bending task for Barry over the next four and twenty years.”
I am a great admirer of much that was achieved by our Victorian forebears, but in this instance, this one instance, I believe the 21st century may—and I sense the shock around the Chamber—have the edge over the 19th century.
I did. It is still available, probably heavily discounted, in all second-hand bookshops. For once, we have truly, in that most tiresome of clichés, learned the lesson of history. We have our client, which is the Sponsor Body. Its strategic review is setting the scope for the programme, and then the Delivery Authority will draw up fully costed proposals for us to consider. At that point, we will arrive at the moment we have been steadily working towards for some years, when we will be able to decide how to do so in a way that offers the consistent political support the programme needs.
The last Parliament set us on the path of action over inaction, but it is this Parliament that will act, meeting our collective responsibility of protecting this building, the throne, the palace of our democracy.
What a lovely performance. It is hard to believe that restoration and renewal, commonly known as R&R—nothing to do with rest and relaxation—was first established in 2013 by both Houses. Imagine if we had actually started the work then: it might even have been completed by now.
I can see why the Leader of the House wanted to schedule this debate. We could have debated the redundancies at British Airways, something that he did not even find time for next Wednesday, but he chose to do this now. Of the current Cabinet, only two members voted for a full decant, seven did not vote and 15, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, voted against a full decant.
I hope that this debate is not about revisiting the project. Everyone accepts that work must be done on this building, not least because it is not accessible, and it is a heritage building. From seeing pictures or visiting the basement, it is clear that work must be done from a safety aspect underground and to the stonework outside. It all needs to be looked at, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime project and it will keep us going for the next few —maybe hundred—years.
I want to make a few points. First, we agreed a process in May 2019, when the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill was introduced, and it then received Royal Assent on 8 October 2019. The House agreed that, using the successful model of the Olympics, we would have a Sponsor Body and a Delivery Authority. Those are made up of experts, but there is parliamentary oversight. They became substantive bodies in April this year, and we in this House have tasked those experts with dealing with this important programme. I want to thank the parliamentarians who are serving on the Sponsor Body: the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who has been involved in this project for a long time—he has seen it all, right from the beginning—the hon. Members for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), Lord Best, Lord Carter, Lord Deighton and Baroness Scott. They are all on the Sponsor Body, so both Houses of Parliament have oversight of the project.
Secondly, the Leader of the House alluded to costs. At all stages, the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General are involved, and their job is clearly set out: to certify that Departments and any other bodies have used resources efficiently, effectively and with economy; and so long as they report regularly, costs can be kept in check. We are not dealing with repairs that could result in even more eye-watering figures; we are dealing with keeping this building safe. I want to put it on record that at no stage are Members or anybody visiting the building unsafe. Yes, there may be fires, but there is a team of people who put those fires out practically every day. The Clerk of the House would be absolving himself of his responsibility if he let Members in here when the building was unsafe. The case for a full decant is strong. We do not need noises off raising the prospect of alternative sites. Inevitably, there will be costs as yet uncosted.
The right hon. Lady says that the case for a full decant is strong. I do not want to get into that argument. I want to ask her about her attitude to whether it is necessary to demolish the listed Richmond House. If she wants a full decant, could we not move into a temporary, rather than permanent, Chamber in the courtyard of Richmond House, as has been fully costed and scoped by the heritage organisation SAVE?
I will come on to Richmond House, but it is not my opinion—it is an opinion that this House has taken to transfer authority for doing that to the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority. As I said, we are not the experts; they are the experts, and they will be able to undertake that.
The case for a full decant is strong. The Prime Minister has written a letter about moving to York. I do not know whether that has been costed—perhaps the Leader of the House could tell us what costs are associated with moving there. The costings of the building work and moving to York or anywhere else is a matter for the Sponsor Body to look at. This House will not be able to continue with a patch-and-mend approach or a quick fix; that will not do. Any delays will exacerbate the problem, probably making it cost more as some of the systems reach the end of their shelf life.
The Northern Estate programme is for improvements to the buildings in Norman Shaw North and South and Derby Gate, and it is progressing. Plans to house a temporary Chamber were part of the programme. Concerns were expressed about the heritage of Richmond House, but in fact it is only 33 years old. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) intervened on me, because he has been in the House for 37 years, so he will remember when Richmond House was not even there—it did not exist. We now have a strategic review, in which Members are encouraged to take part, and they have until 7 August.
Will the right hon. Lady clarify the review being conducted by the Sponsor Body? Presumably, the Sponsor Body is allowed to conclude that the full decant is no longer regarded as the most cost-effective option, or is she serving notice that because the House has voted it through by, I think, a mere 14 votes some time ago, that option is closed to it? Presumably, that option is open to it.
I am a lot of things but I am not a prophet and I cannot see into the future. I cannot see into the minds of the Sponsor Body, much as I would like to, because I am sure I would be of great help to the House. I am just coming on to that in a second.
There is the challenge panel, which is interesting. I have a list of the hon. Members and various people on the challenge panel, but I cannot see on there a single member from the Opposition parties. We have a strategic adviser to the Prime Minister and various other people, but I cannot see where Opposition Members—any of the Opposition—can have their view heard on the challenge panel. It is good that Sir David Higgins is on there, because he ran a very successful campaign to deliver the Olympics. I had the privilege of interviewing him when I was on the House Governance Committee and I know that he is very conscious of how to have an end to a project. He talked about Gantt charts and proper schedules. It was different with the Olympic Delivery Authority because there was an end date, but I am sure the Sponsor Body can come to some conclusion on how we come to the end of the project.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. Is not the important point about the exchange that has just taken place that the Sponsor Body should be completely free to come up with a number of totally good options, from full decant to no decant at all, and then, as a result of that, come up with a properly costed project that Parliament can either accept or reject in a vote in 2022?
As with any body of the House, the Sponsor Body will listen to what hon. Members say in the debate today and make up its own mind. I cannot tell it what to do. I do not even have a voice on the Sponsor Body, but other people do and, as they have set out very clearly, they will listen to hon. Members’ views until 7 August. Right hon. and hon. Members should feed into that.
The review will enable us to continue with progress ,and the Sponsor Body is in the process of updating the costings. The costings were undertaken some time ago, so it is right that it should do that. Before the work, we will vote on the outline business case, as the Leader of the House said, but that has already been pushed back to 2022.
As right hon. and hon. Members have said in previous debates, and in the debate in which we voted for a full decant, the project will be about the whole country benefiting from the heritage, and from utilising the skills and crafts of the whole country. There will be no blacklisting and there will be an upskilling of our diverse workforce. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will see that this is preserving the home of our democracy for over 1,000 years and for generations to come.
I am very grateful that time has been found before recess for this important debate. I should mention, as the shadow Leader of the House said, that, along with the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), I am one of the four Members of Parliament sitting on the Sponsor Body.
The works to the Houses of Parliament remain critical, but clearly a lot else has changed. It is prudent to review the current approach at this stage, reaffirming the commitment to taxpayer value. This is obviously our workplace, but actually about three quarters of the people working in the Houses of Parliament are neither Members of Parliament nor peers. There are 650 of us, but approximately 1 million people visit this place every year. This place is the focal point of our constitution and, for the wider world, a permanent symbol of liberal democracy. The Houses of Parliament form a democratic asset that we hold in trust.
The median tenure of an MP in modern times—notwithstanding my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—is around 13 years, and of those 13 years, the median current Member has already had about five. Even on the very shortest scenario for restoration and renewal, it would be something like a decade before the works were completed, so the sobering reality is that many current MPs just will not be around to see them finished. On the longer scenarios, hardly any current MPs would be around. So this is not about us. We are trustees of this place, and we clearly have to do what is right, not what happens to be convenient for us, as its current temporary occupants.
The current at patch-and-mend approach is failing. According to the National Audit Office, Parliament spent £369 million in the past three years on projects to keep the buildings in use, and there is still a repairs backlog of £1 billion.
When I was on the Joint Committee and chair of the Finance Committee, we wanted additional work to be done now because that was clearly important—for instance, on the cloisters, which are among the most beautiful parts of the whole estate—but we constantly found that there simply was not enough physical capacity on the estate to allow us to get the work done now. Is there not a danger that further delay will result in the backlog getting bigger and bigger?
The hon. Gentleman is undeniably right about the effect of the passage of time, and of course that is all reflected in the outline business case. The fire at Notre Dame was a stark reminder of the importance of protecting the world’s most treasured historic buildings. Here, the risk of fire is so acute that fire wardens patrol 24 hours a day. This House rightly recognised the significance of that terrible event and passed the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 shortly afterwards. Colleagues will know that a vast amount of work is also needed to replace all the heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems.
It has been almost five years since the plan was drawn up, and much has changed since, including two general elections, our leaving the European Union and, of course, the current pandemic, which is not only illustrating the possibility of different ways of working but placing severe new demands on the public purse. There is also more evidence now about the state of the buildings, through extensive modelling and surveys, and more is known about the cost and the challenge of building like-for-like temporary Chambers. As the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House mentioned, the bodies charged with overseeing and delivering this work have become substantive in the last few months, and it is now appropriate to review where we are and how we should proceed.
There have always been the same three overall pivotal questions that affect the length and cost of the works involved. The first relates to the balance between restoration and renewal—in other words, the extent to which the project goes beyond just fixing the buildings and embarks on improving things. Examples include disability access, which is currently woeful, and various other enhancements. The second relates to pace: should we proceed at a slow speed, estimated at some 30 years, working around current operations with the extended disruption and risks that that entails, or should we move out, in whole or in part, for a period? That would expedite the project and could lower the overall cost, but it would bring that cost forward. The third relates to how closely, during any decant period, Parliament’s physical layout and function has to be replicated and to what extent the location has to be kept close to the Government Departments we are here to scrutinise and hold to account.
Value for money and affordability have always been vital, but they have become even more pressing as the full economic impact of the post-covid environment becomes more evident. Of course, we can all say what we want to see retained and what we want to see enhanced, and that is important, but for this review to be effective in delivering value for money—assuming that we decant somewhere—we also need to say what we could do without. There are some factors that could make a material difference, and I encourage hon. Members, in this debate and when making submissions to the review, to consider these factors in particular when thinking about the decant.
First, while in-person voting is a long-standing feature of our system, how sacred is the exact system and the layout of our Lobbies? Seeking to replicate the current Lobby configuration is a significant factor in the space requirements for a temporary Chamber. Secondly, what flexibilities could there be in the numbers of MPs’ staff who have to be accommodated on the estate?
More flexibility on that could mean lower costs.
Yesterday’s letter from the Prime Minister to the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned, called for the full range of options to be looked at, from a minimum safe viable product to fundamental refurbishment, and the different possibilities of full decant, partial decant and remaining in situ—all, of course, with costs kept to a minimum. These different approaches have already been analysed and will be re-evaluated in the light of what more we now know. I reassure colleagues that that does not mean only looking at one decant option. The suggestion to examine decant locations beyond Westminster has not been part of the programme’s mandate to date, and the programme will of course be discussing this further with Mr Speaker and the Lord Speaker.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we keep opening up all these other options and look at starting from first basics on new ones, we will simply delay the work, and the cost of doing that alone will be enormous?
The hon. Member makes a good point, which does not surprise me given her position on the Public Accounts Committee. She is right, of course, about some of the trade-offs, but the timetable for the review is quite an aggressive one. For analysis to be effective and for realistic options to be presented back, it will be necessary iteratively to narrow down those options in a very short time.
I stress that the views of Members are very important to the process. Today’s debate is a big and central part of that, and beyond this I encourage colleagues to make a submission to the review—in fuller detail, if they wish—by 7 August. The review team will be working through the summer, will be subject to challenge by an independent panel, as was mentioned previously, and plans to report back in the autumn.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). I agree with many of his remarks on the Division Lobby. The Scottish National party’s thoughts on how we vote in this place are well on the record, and I am glad to see that we are inching ever so slightly into the 21st century.
As I was listening to the illuminating opening speech by the Leader of the House, I felt as if I was having some kind of out-of-body experience, because when the UK economy is in freefall and experiencing a global pandemic, this debate does feel a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. But it takes place in the context of spending choices made here in London, so I wish to offer a few brief thoughts from the perspective of the Scottish National party.
I will start with the issue of costings. Astonishingly, the £4 billion price tag for the restoration and renewal project is only £1 billion less than the total economic package announced for the post-covid recovery. If this project was a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money before the pandemic, it now looks even more hopelessly out of touch because spending billions of pounds upgrading a crumbling palace following a decade of austerity is one of the reasons why the public talk about Westminster being out of touch and not chiming with everyday life. With an entire generation now facing economic armageddon and the deficit set to rise to double what it was during the financial crisis, this decision really could not look more crass.
The reality is that the final price tag will likely be much higher. The National Audit Office has called the £4 billion figure a median figure, and suggested that £6 billion might be more realistic. Looking, for example, at the Government’s handling of the High Speed 2 project, a spiralling price tag is not difficult to imagine. In fact, in February this year the cost of the work that has already started on the Elizabeth Tower was reported to have risen to £18.6 million. Part of the additional cost was the realisation, two years after the project had started, that the job could require a specialist clock expert—something that it took a survey to establish.
The lack of transparency around the scale and cost of the project has further exacerbated public concern. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) originally confirmed to the Commons Finance Committee that the full cost of the restoration and the length of the works would not be revealed until 2021, while the deliberately loose language in the Act that vaguely requires the sponsor body to
“have regard to…the need to ensure that the Parliamentary building works represent good value for money”
is an invitation for financial irresponsibility.
The SNP has been consistent on this issue: the Palace of Westminster is falling down. The necessary safety work should be performed as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible. However, put bluntly, Westminster is a hazard risk. We have seen only in recent weeks parts of masonry falling off the building and entrances and exits being closed off. It is not fit for purpose as a modern Parliament. We should not commit to working in a UNESCO world heritage site in perpetuity.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about this being a UNESCO world heritage site. The weakness in his argument is that we have a legal duty to maintain in decent order a UNESCO world heritage site. Surely he is not suggesting that the mother of Parliaments should break the law.
I take issue with the right hon. Gentleman quoting “the mother of Parliaments”, which is often misquoted in this place. He has put his point on the record; I know he is perhaps having quite a difficult week, so I am glad to have had the opportunity to let him do so.
The SNP has no intention of being around Westminster when this tortuous project finally grinds to its long, eye-wateringly expensive conclusion. We on these Benches urge this place to consider what it is proposing to spend against the current economic backdrop and to think carefully about the message that it sends to the public. Safety assessments have pointed out serious problems with the mechanical and electrical engineering system, and a substantial amount of asbestos is present in the building, where normally thousands of people work every day. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire is right that the fire in Notre Dame in 2019 was an obvious example of the risks that exist with these historic buildings and why they should not be used to host a modern Parliament with an intense working environment.
When the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill passed through this place in 2019, the SNP secured an amendment to ensure that the money would be spent in a way that benefited the whole of the UK. Whatever decision is taken on the next steps, that principle must remain.
Whatever decision is taken, there is now a chance to ensure that we work in a building fit to hold a modern Parliament with modern working practices. The recent pandemic has seen Westminster forced to adopt practices—such as e-voting and virtual proceedings—that are commonplace elsewhere around the world. The cries of protest have been deafening as the Leader of the House desperately tries to drag Parliament back into its 19th century comfort zone. Meanwhile, the Commons Chamber can barely seat half of all MPs and Public Health England needed to look at the Palace of Westminster only once to determine that it was not fit to be used in its current form during a health emergency.
With workplaces throughout the country now required to be covid secure in addition to normal health and safety standards, Westminster can be no exception and must modernise for the benefit of all Members, but most importantly for staff. This could start by having parliamentarians in a Chamber that can seat all Members, rather than being some place over-stuffed to promote conflict. As this debate started, I was reflecting on the number of Tories who have had to move over to the side of the Chamber, because today, bizarrely, the Chamber is hoaching with Tories who are desperate to talk about restoration and renewal. I sometimes wish they would show that level of concern when it comes to, for example, universal credit.
To conclude, while we need to be here, the SNP will prioritise safety and sensible public spending in respect of the Palace of Westminster’s future. However, I very much hope that the Government will reflect on the current financial crisis and health and safety concerns and perhaps refocus their priorities. I can tell the Leader of the House that my constituents are not crying out for eye-watering restoration and renewal costs at Westminster; they have other priorities, and so should this Government.
I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will remember the film “Groundhog Day”; as I stand here today, I have that strange feeling of déjà vu, and it is incredibly frustrating. Two and a half years ago, Members in this Chamber had a very fraught debate about what should happen to the Palace of Westminster, and now, to my regret, here we are again, revisiting that very same topic.
In preparing my remarks today, I looked in Hansard at the debate that we held on 31 January 2018, and I wish to remind the House of a few of the key points that I made as Leader of the House at the time. First, I said that 24/7 fire patrols carried out by teams of officers are necessary for Parliament to maintain its fire safety licence. With 7,500 people working in the Palace and more than 1 million visitors a year, the risks are immense. I said:
“Over the past 10 years, 60 incidents have had the potential to cause a serious fire.”
I went on:
“Secondly, there is a huge amount of asbestos packed into the walls”—
used to lag ancient pipes—
“that needs to be carefully and expensively removed”
before repairs can begin.
Thirdly, I said that many pipes and cables that are stuffed into the basement and throughout the Palace are literally
“decades past their lifespan, with some now being impossible to access. The likelihood of a major failure”
of sewerage, burst water pipes or critical system grows the longer the vast backlog of repairs and maintenance
“are left unaddressed.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 880-881.]
Fourthly, on several occasions in recent months, falling stone masonry has forced parts of the Palace to be closed off, and it is only by sheer luck that no one has been injured or killed.
It is not a case of whether we fancy moving out or staying here. If we do not move out, all the evidence points to a disaster that will force us to move out. If and when that happens, as I pointed out in 2018, the contingency arrangement for a catastrophic failure in the Palace is a temporary Chamber in a building in Parliament Square using curtains and temporary wiring that is designed to last for a few weeks at most. That is the truth about the current situation, and that is why, in January 2018, the House agreed that we need to take action.
The Palace of Westminster is a UNESCO world heritage site, it is one of the most famous buildings in the world, and it is the seat of our democracy. Even if we cared not a jot for any of those facts, we still do not have the option to walk out and, as the SNP would like, simply hand the keys back to the Queen. It is our duty to maintain this iconic Palace for the more than 1 million visitors each year from around the world.
About 75% of the cost is for non-cosmetic work on the Palace. The money will be spent dealing with mechanical and engineering works, aimed at preserving essential services for future generations. It is not about carpets, curtains and wallpaper.
When I first looked at the issue of restoration and renewal, I started out with a healthy degree of scepticism, as many hon. Members will have today. I was told, “Let’s use the Lords Chamber while ours is repaired,” “Let’s build a Chamber in Westminster Hall,” “Let’s have a floating Chamber on the Thames,” and, “Let’s move into Church House,” which was last used for Parliament in world war two. They are all excellent ideas and each one has been painstakingly and seriously considered.
Then came the horrific murder of PC Keith Palmer and a major review of security that identified that elected Members of Parliament should in future be secured within the Palace perimeter to keep us and, vitally, those who protect us safe from harm. That fact, combined with the obvious need for a permanent contingency plan for future generations, clearly pointed to establishing a permanent and alternative contingency venue for the Commons to meet and work within the Palace perimeter wall.
Indeed we have, and we have also shown that at least some of us need to be in this place so that we can continue to do our work properly. I absolutely share the concerns of hon. Members that we must get the best value for taxpayers’ money, so I certainly welcome the Sponsor Body’s review of the plans to move to a rebuilt Richmond House, but I urge hon. Members who are lobbying for us to stay in the Palace with no contingency arrangements and allow the vital work to go on all around us to accept that that is not realistic.
The day I first visited the basement, a sewage pipe had just burst—I was sure that they had done it deliberately. I could not walk through because there was a stinking spray right along the passageway. It visibly demonstrated the challenge that our engineers are up against. Don’t get me started on the asbestos snots that are all over the walls down there as a result of old pipe lagging—who knew? It is horrible; there is so much to repair. I am pleased to report to the House, however, that I no longer have a rat in my bin. I have moved office to Portcullis House and that rat has also moved on.
The last time the Palace was restored was because it had burned down. Those who believe that we should not spend the money should consider the cost of rebuilding from the ashes. We have seen the devastation that happened at Notre-Dame, and it would be unforgiveable to allow a similar disaster to happen here because we cannot be bothered to move out.
On the hugely positive side—the sunlit uplands—the restoration and renewal of this magnificent palace will create employment, training opportunities, apprenticeships and economic growth for small businesses and craftsmen and women across the UK. It will showcase UK creativity and ingenuity, spotlighting the best of British. It will provide work to thousands of individuals who, in a post- covid world, will surely need it. This programme should rightly form a part of the palace’s historic legacy, and its place in the world for future generations to come.
As a number of right hon. and hon. Members have said, I am a member of the Sponsor Body—indeed, I think I have served on every committee that has considered this matter. This matter was also the subject of my one Front-Bench speaking engagement in 19 years, although hopefully that will not be repeated. [Hon. Members: “Aw!”] Well, certainly not for the people who were there at the time.
It seems a long time ago that the Joint Committee produced the report that recommended a full decant, using Richmond House as the best option for the safety and security of everybody who works here, with the House of Lords moving to the Queen Elizabeth II centre. We came to that decision after much thought, discussion and debate, and we considered every alternative put before us. That proposal was approved by both Houses, and as a number of Members have said, a Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority were established, based on the experience of the London Olympics. The legislation included a clear provision that when the work was finished, Members would return to this House. I remember that at the time, a rumour was going around that none of us would come back, and that some hideous plot was in place and we would never return.
At the moment, a planning application has been lodged with Westminster City Council to demolish and rebuild much of Richmond House, while retaining the front and side facades. That is in line with the House’s stated desire to replicate much of what already exists here over there. That would give us a very usable building that would also have a legacy for alternative uses.
As we have heard, the Sponsor Body is carrying out a review of the current proposals, which I fully support. The covid crisis has shown us that we can work in ways that were dismissed as unworkable in the past. The vast majority of House and MPs’ staff are working successfully from home. This House has virtual questions, and we even manage to vote virtually, which I am afraid we dismissed previously—I do not know why because it actually works.
The review may return to the option of a reduced intervention in Richmond House—I do not know, and I do not want to pre-empt that—but one thing we could do is have just one voting Lobby. I remember that at the time, the Leader of the House saw that as the end of the world, but I remind him that only in 1836—a year I am sure he remembers fondly—were plans draw up for a second Lobby, at an eye-watering cost of £600, and an extra two weeks to construct. Those were the days. If we are prepared to compromise, we can cap costs and, importantly, cut time. I do not think we will end up with such a great building at the end of the process, but that is something we might have to accept.
In truth, however, a lot of Members want to undermine R&R and do not want it to go ahead—we need to say that. They want to stay here come what may, ignore the decision that we took, and embark on 35 to 40-year maintenance programme. Parliament would be a building site covered in scaffolding and we would no doubt have to evacuate the building every so often, given the asbestos and safety fears.
Asbestos has been mentioned, but it is not in nice, solid sheets, wrapped around piping or in solid boards. It has crumbled and it is in the dust; it is throughout the building in the plasterwork and it is a real safety threat, which we cannot ignore.
If we go down the road of being a building site for 30 years, what sort of advert is that for this country? What are we really saying we can do? However, if that is what the Government want and they believe the House will support it, they should introduce legislation to that effect and not just rely on anonymous briefings about the current proposals to undermine them. Members now openly say, “R&R isn’t happening. It’s been cancelled apparently.” Yesterday, we had the Prime Minister’s letter, which seems to say that it is vital to do something because the place could burn down, but we should also open everything up again for consideration, including the possibility of moving to York, presumably—I hope—on a temporary basis. What about the thousands of staff? Are they to move to York for a period? Was that considered when the option was put forward?
We have options, but let us be sensible. In the light of the Prime Minister’s letter, I hope that the Leader of the House will confirm that any proposal to decant Members and staff from the northern estate to Richmond House, which could delay R&R by up to three years, will not be considered at least until the report has been published, hopefully in October.
We have been kicking the can down the road for more than 70 years. This building is not a safe working environment. As has been said, in the past few weeks, we have had a fire and a collapse of scaffolding. We need to think about everyone who works in this building and act accordingly.
Absolutely. Many of us served on the Joint Committee back in 2015-16, when we looked at all the issues exhaustively. We considered all the ideas that were submitted to us, some partially credible that did not understand the nuances of this place and some frankly less credible, but I want to make the point to everybody, particularly new Members, that this is not something we have an option about. We have got to do this. When I became Leader of the House in 2015, two things happened in quick succession that brought that home to me, one here and one elsewhere.
First, we nearly had to close the Chamber indefinitely within a few days of my becoming Leader of the House because asbestos was discovered up in the ventilation shafts. If it had become dislodged, or if it were to be dislodged in future, we would have no choice but to immediately close the Chamber indefinitely. What would happen then? The right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside is right: the building has huge amounts of asbestos. It is a genuine health hazard, which can bite us at any time. That alone is a reason to do the work.
The second thing that happened had nothing to do with Notre-Dame. A few days after I became Leader of the House, Kingsway caught fire. Kingsway is a road and the wiring under it caught fire and burned for days. I advise all those who have not been down into the basement here to do so. Apart from the sewerage system that was mentioned and the asbestos, the basement contains a jumble of wiring, some very old, that could do just the same—catch fire and burn for days.
The House authorities have always said that they can get us all out and save our lives, but they cannot save the building. If we have a serious fire, this building will burn down, in the way that Clandon Park burned down and in the way that Notre-Dame burned down. That would not only be a gross dereliction of our duty as stewards of this building but a national tragedy. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to visit what is a world heritage site. It brings people from around the world; it is one of the world’s iconic landmarks. We cannot possibly put ourselves in a position where year after year the risks increase because the wiring gets older and all the systems get older, so we are making it more likely that there will be a devastating fire and this building will be destroyed. We simply cannot do that.
As my successor as Leader of the House rightly said, we all come to this project slightly sceptical. It is a lot of money to spend and it is not something that is going to be universally popular with constituents around the country. However, the more one delves into the subject, the clearer it becomes that we have absolutely no choice but to do this. We looked at all the alternatives. We considered whether we could put a temporary Parliament somewhere else. But even if we just went up to Horse Guards or somewhere like that, could we really, at seven o’clock on an Opposition day, have queues of MPs walking across Whitehall to come and vote? What a security risk that would be—what a target for terrorists. We have to keep Members of Parliament and, in particular, people who work for us, who are often as at risk as we are if something terrible happens, within the secure estate.
That is why and how we came to the conclusion that Richmond House was the best option. It is within the secure estate. It is a building that has flexibilities. The one bit I have a problem with is that I do not buy the argument that it is not possible to put a temporary Chamber into Richmond House without the scale of work that is being considered at the moment. We might need a compromise so that we do not need that period of time to replicate this Chamber exactly. Yes, of course we need to have a debating chamber, and yes, of course it should be consistent with the way that this Chamber works, but it does not have to be like for like—inch for inch, foot for foot identical to here. The Division Lobbies do not have to have exactly the same relationship to the Chamber. We have learned in the past few weeks that we can do things differently, and I buy that argument. We cannot just spend money willy-nilly because it keeps the environment in which we are going to be working close to what we have here now. If it changes a bit, it does not matter.
We cannot keep delaying this decision. I am frustrated that it is now 2020 and I co-chaired the Committee back in 2015—five years ago. This building is five years older. The systems are five years older. We have looked at all these options before. We looked at whether we could move the Commons to the Lords end. Actually, I am not convinced that the lords would vote for that if they had to leave and we got to stay. But then there are fundamental issues about the services. There is one sewer that services the whole building. So fine, we move to the Lords end, the work is happening down here, and then something goes wrong—the electricity fails or the sewer fails. If the electricity fails, it is going to take the devil’s own job of a time to try to work out what is wrong and how to fix it, and we stop working in the interim. If the sewer breaks, that makes the whole building unusable. It is really very difficult operationally, in a building that was designed as one with the services flowing from one end to the other, to simply say, “We’ll put something down the middle; that end’s fine and this end isn’t.”
We looked at using Westminster Hall, but there are historical reasons why that is difficult. Perhaps more than any other part of this building, we have a duty to protect Westminster Hall. It is the heart of the building which, back in 1834, the fire brigade chose to protect. In the second world war, when the bomb was dropped, the fire brigade chose to protect Westminster Hall. We cannot abuse Westminster Hall because it gives us a chance to stay a bit closer to this building while the works are happening. We looked at that exhaustively and came to the conclusion that it was not possible.
I think that anyone who looks through these issues carefully and in detail will reach the same conclusion that we all did five years ago. I commend the work of the Sponsor Body and the work that is to come from the Delivery Body. We chose to recommend that those were set up because we felt that that was the right way forward —to learn the lessons of the London Olympics, to follow a single approach to doing it, and to learn from how similar bodies made that project work effectively. My request to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and all those who are on the Sponsor Body is: please let us get on with this. With every month and every year that goes by, the risk gets greater. I do not want us, as a generation of politicians, to wake up one morning to find that we were the people who did not act in time, the building is no more, and the taxpayer now faces a much, much bigger bill to restore a landmark, as the French do with Notre-Dame. Please, I say to the Leader of the House and to all colleagues, let us get on with this as quickly as we can.
I do wonder if our constituents will be shaking their heads in disbelief that we are devoting an afternoon to this debate when parliamentary time is so limited to discuss the severe threat to their lives and livelihoods. However, I am happy to be able to speak in this afternoon’s debate and to follow some of the hon. and right hon. Members who have already invested huge amounts of time, thought and energy into devising the plans for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. I hope we will listen hard to their valuable contributions.
It feels particularly appropriate to be following the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). As the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, I spent a great deal of time scrutinising his work as Transport Secretary and the decision making and delivery of projects to upgrade the UK’s transport infrastructure, much of which, like this building, was built in Victorian times and requires urgent work if it is to meet our needs in the 21st century. There are some useful parallels to be drawn and lessons to be learnt from the experience.
The first is that our short electoral cycles can make it difficult to take decisions about long-term projects that necessarily span several Parliaments. Incoming Governments have a tendency to re-examine, and sometimes reverse, the decisions of previous ones. Even when they end up reaching the same conclusions, additional time and uncertainty have inevitably added cost. I am afraid to say that reviews are sometimes undertaken to deliberately avoid or delay difficult decisions. We cannot afford to duck or delay restoration and renewal.
However, I welcome the Sponsor Body’s strategic review. It is right to re-examine how the restoration and renewal programme is carried out, especially in the light of covid-19, which has forced all of us to work in ways that some might never have thought possible and ushered in frightening economic impacts. We must ensure that the plans are the right ones, and that they are affordable and represent good value for taxpayers’ money, but we cannot afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It has already taken many years to devise the restoration and renewal programme and to set up the organisations to deliver it. We cannot afford to go back to square one because, as has been said, this place is falling apart faster than it can be fixed. As the House of Commons Commission said in October 2012:
“doing nothing is not an option.”
Eight years on, doing something has only become more pressing.
As the Prime Minister recognised in his letter to the review yesterday, there is a need to
“move as quickly as possible, both because of the risks associated with the current state of the building and the need to provide certainty on the way forward“.
As we have heard, there is a very serious risk of not only a major fire, which we know could spread rapidly through the building because of the thousands of empty ventilation voids, but flooding and falling masonry. We know that we must tackle the risks associated with the presence of asbestos; address environmental efficiency and sustainability; and transform access for disabled people, be they MPs, peers, staff or visitors. We also have a duty to preserve one of the UK’s most treasured historical buildings. It is a huge responsibility and we must not shirk it.
I wish to make two final points, returning to my reflections on fixing our transport infrastructure. The first is that doing the minimum does not work—our patched and potholed roads are testament to that. Reacting to each problem as it arises is inefficient, costly and disruptive. Long-term planned refurbishment provides better value for money and a better result. Secondly, trying to carry out substantial works without moving out of the building risks making the work much more difficult and costly, and risks serious disruption to parliamentary activities. I remember when Network Rail was upgrading Nottingham railway station in 2013 and it took the brave decision to undertake a five-week blockade to get the job done efficiently, closing the station completely, in preference to months of weekend and overnight closures. Thanks to careful planning and preparation, it was a huge success and changed the approach to upgrading the railway.
I look forward to listening to the remainder of the debate, particularly the contributions of my fellow Finance Committee members and that of my predecessor as Chair of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has championed the work to preserve this place. I also look forward to the outcome of the strategic review in the autumn. This is vital work that will allow the House to make the right decisions for the future of the Palace of Westminster and the UK Parliament.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am delighted to catch your eye in this debate. My remarks will be made with some trepidation, because the Chairman of the Finance Committee and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee are in the Chamber. I have been a member of both Committees for about a decade; I have been a long-serving member. I also draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a chartered surveyor. So I have lived with this problem long before it even arose and I have seen the decaying state of the Palace of Westminster.
In his excellent speech, the Leader of the House might have made the point that we are only trustees of this place. We are here for the present generation, but, above all, we are here for future generations. Why are we here? We are here to remind everybody that this is the home of our democracy. It is our history. It needs to remind us that our forebears went to war twice to preserve our way of life and democracy. I caution colleagues about indulging in the argument that we are spending money on ourselves. We are not; we are spending money to preserve our democracy.
This is one of the most important and iconic buildings in the world and, as others have said, it is a UNESCO world heritage site, which we are legally obliged to maintain in good condition. The standard of maintenance over the past few years has got worse and worse, as everybody can see. We only have to look around the Palace to see the amount of scaffolding, large quantities of which are because there is falling masonry. As one of the former Leaders of the House said, it is a wonder that mercifully so far nobody has been hurt or seriously injured by falling masonry. We need to do something about the maintenance of this place.
The Elizabeth Tower project has proved, largely for the reasons that the former Chair of the Finance Committee gave, that the authorities in charge of the maintenance of these buildings are not very good at planning big projects, and that is why it is absolutely right that the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Board were set up by Members of Parliament.
We must learn from history. The National Audit Office report makes it clear that the completion of renewal in 1870 was 18 years late and three times over budget. We must not make those mistakes again. The Sponsor Body started in shadow form, and then was made substantive on 8 April 2020 by the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. It is going to make an interim report, supposedly by the end of September, and we should not do anything to fetter any of the options. I want it completely freely to come out, with all the options and an indicative cost, and then leave Parliament, the Government and the staff in this place and everybody else to make their judgment as to what is the right thing to do.
However, there is no point doing all that unless all the stakeholders buy in to what we are doing. Part of the reason we are here, eight years after this project was originally proposed, is that the stakeholders in general—the 650 Members of Parliament, the 800 peers, the thousands of staff in this place and, above all, the public—have not yet bought fully into the project. I urge those on the Sponsor Body to extend the 8 August deadline for consultation, have wide publicity as to what we might do and then let the Sponsor Body with all that evidence come up with the best solution. I therefore suggest that we have a longer consultation period.
Having established the optimal way of determining what we want to do, we then have to decide how we do it. As a surveyor, I have been a long-term advocate of a full decant, and I still maintain that the most economical and shortest way of doing this vast project is to fully move out. There is no question about that. However, if the political will and the impact of the covid situation on finance and what the Government want to spend have changed the situation so radically, I have another solution for the House this afternoon: do the project in two halves.
I do not mind about the sequencing, but basically the idea would be to move the House of Commons into the House of Lords and do the restoration on this half. Then when the House of Commons was complete, move us back here and start on the House of Lords. In that way, the House of Lords would move out to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, which the Government already own. All we would have to do was compensate the contractor there. It would mean that Members of Parliament—the elected House—never actually moved out of this building. All the fears that we might never move back and all the fears that we might lose our traditions and working ways in this House would be largely unfounded, because we would remain in the building for the entire time. It also has the huge benefit that we would not need the decant centre in Richmond House. Indeed, we would not need the Northern Estate at all to do the project—we need it, of course, for Members of Parliament. Richmond House is the controversial bit in terms of planning and what we do with it, but we would not need it. At a stroke, we would save £500 million, as we would need only one decant centre.
I say to the House that we have been discussing this long enough. The Chair of the Finance Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), makes a really good point: we should not be here debating this subject this afternoon. There are so many issues of national importance. I do not want to be here in another year or two’s time still debating what we should do. I want to be here in 2022 voting on a precise proposal to allow the Sponsor Body to get on with the work. The time for talking is nearly over. We need action if nobody is going to be killed because of poor maintenance of the Palace.
I, too, wish we were debating something else. I would like to be debating, for instance, the way British Airways is treating its staff and, for that matter, its customers, but we have this debate this afternoon. I could just say, “I refer hon. Members to the speech that I made last time”, or to the one before, but, unfortunately, I am not going to do that.
I do love this building. Sometimes, it is the small quirky bits of the building that I love. It is not just the obvious historical bits. When one walks through St Stephen’s Hall, there is the painting of Wolsey demanding more money from Thomas More, who was Speaker at the time. It is a great moment of British history. I love it because it was painted by Vivian Forbes and his lover Glyn Philpot. The sad story is that, when the painting was finished and Glyn Philpot died, Vivian Forbes took his own life 24 hours later. There are so many different layers of history in this building—it is woven into every single aspect of our history—and I think that we need to preserve it, not in aspic, but we need to preserve it.
There are lots of things that have not changed since the last debate. The truth is—notwithstanding the comments from the SNP earlier, or, for that matter, from the Prime Minister in his letter yesterday—we are not going anywhere else. As I am sure the Leader of the House will remember, when they tried to get Parliament to go to York in the1460s, there was no business to transact, so it ended up not sitting properly at all. And when Parliament met in York in the 14th century it only did so because the king was terrified of an invasion by the Scots. I do not think that that is the concern of the Prime Minister at the moment, although there are some worries about a border.
I made an important point earlier about the capacity for doing additional work here in the Palace. It seems crazy, but we emptied out the cloisters to do work immediately, we got rid of all the staff who were working there, and the cloisters are still completely empty; there is no extra space on the parliamentary estate to put extra workers to be able to get the work done. That is an increasing problem. There are projects that have been done very successfully. The cast-iron roofs have been done on time and on budget. It has been an excellent project. The inside of the roof in Westminster Hall has been attended to very well. There are projects that are going well, but we are accumulating, every year, more and more additional projects, and the backlog is getting worse.
Richmond House is still contiguous to the Northern Estate where most of our parliamentary offices are. That was one of the main reasons, when I was on the Joint Committee, that we considered using Richmond House. It diminished the security threats of crossing over to some other building across the road. It is not about the convenience of Members; it just made it possible for people to do their jobs safely.
Actually, there was. The memory of the right hon. Gentleman is failing him, I am afraid. There was a proposal to demolish it. The bit that I think he differs on is whether there was a proposal to demolish the staircases, which some people think are intrinsic to Richmond House. Personally, I think that they are the ugliest bit of the building. The truth is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said earlier, it would be perfectly possible if people like the right hon. Gentleman had not been complaining that we had to have a Chamber that was identical to this Chamber—[Interruption.] If I am diminishing the right hon. Gentleman, my memory is different from his. If we wanted to go to a system where we slightly changed the parameters of what is in there, I am up for that, but it remains a fact that Richmond House is the only piece of land that is contiguous to the rest of the parliamentary estate and therefore safe.
As for the other things that have not changed, the building was designed as a whole, not from the very beginning, but after the fire. After 1834, one of the great, clever things that Barry and Pugin did was to amalgamate the estate into a single proposition about the British constitution, from the Commons through to the Lords and the monarch and incorporating the ancient Westminster Hall from the 11th century. That poses a real problem for those who want us to decant in part, because there is one central heating system, which is steam under high pressure; there is one electricity system; there is one drainage system; there is one water system; and there is one basement, interconnected, with a set of risers that connect it to the one attic and roof. That is the problem for the future safety of the building.
The reason I completely disagree with the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—it is rare for us to disagree on matters of this kind—about the idea of a partial decant, and the Commons going down to the Lords while the Lords go elsewhere, is that the Lords is not contiguous to the offices on the northern estate. So a safe passageway would be needed for votes and for people to be able to take part in debates, or people would have to walk along the pavements outside. All the advice that was given to us was that that was a security risk for us. More importantly, one of the problems with trying to keep us in the Lords—which, incidentally, is too small a Chamber with far too few seats for the House of Commons to be able to sit in—is that if we kept this building working while it was a building site, we would dramatically increase the risk of a further fire and we would increase the risk to the staff who were working in it. That was precisely the problem in Notre Dame, and that is what led to the massive fire there.
It is probably unusual for the hon. Gentleman and me to be in strong agreement and for me to disagree with my good and hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), but I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Of course, there is one other small factor that one has to take into account, which is, of course, that the plans need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. There was always a slight question mark over whether the Lords would agree to be thrown out.
I did make it very clear in my speech that my preferred option was a full decant, but the world has changed as a result of covid. This is a different Parliament. The political imperative is different now, and I still say, as a surveyor, that it would be possible to do it in two halves.
Well, all the advice we were given was that, as an engineering feat, it would dramatically add to the cost, it would significantly add to the risk of a catastrophic failure to the building, and it would increase the danger to the staff working either as contractors or as Clerks and others working in the building. On all three counts, the imperative still lies with the hon. Gentleman’s preference, and I am right behind his preference on this.
There are some things that have not changed since the 19th century. The Leader of the House rightly referred to Caroline Shenton, who wrote two books. The first was about the fire and the second was about Mr Barry’s war. The latter makes it absolutely clear that the biggest problem for Barry and Pugin was not the River Thames or the drainage system, it was MPs and peers who stayed on site and were constantly meddling. Governments kept on changing their mind about whether it was a Government project or not, and that dramatically added to how long it took to get the Commons back in. It was not until 1850 that the Commons was back in, and then all the MPs hated it and demanded changes, so Barry said he would never step inside the place again.
We focus on the risk, and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) said earlier that the cost is terrible and there are risks. That is true, but there are also significant opportunities here. This building is now wholly inappropriate for anybody with any kind of disability. We often focus on those who need a wheelchair, and it is true that it is catastrophically difficult to get around the building in a wheelchair, but it is very dark as well. The most common form of disability is poor eyesight, and many people simply cannot use the building for that reason.
We need a building that is better attuned to today’s democracy, so that the public can come in more readily and easily to understand our business than the present Chamber allows. The archives are very badly kept at the moment, not for lack of will from the staff working there, but simply because the Victoria Tower simply cannot accommodate the facilities that we need in the modern era. We also do not have an education space that will last beyond another couple of years, because it only has 10 years from Westminster City Council.
My final point is that we should be seeing this as a training and employment opportunity for the whole country. If this infrastructure project is to succeed, we will have to have people coming from every constituency in the land, learning trades that they have never had, whether that is in encaustic tiles or wood panelling, as well as modern technology. We should see that as an opportunity. My fear is that we will keep on shilly-shallying and call for endless reviews, more papers and more consideration. The danger is that we will fail in our duty to this building. I think that there should be an eighth deadly sin for a Government Minister: procrastination.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who speaks with great passion about this building and great knowledge about the challenges we face. All I plead for is realism. We have a clear objective: that this great building should remain the home of our national democracy. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did not quite say that in his response to my remarks. It may be so obvious as to be implied, but it would be good if it was explicitly the policy of the Government that they envisage staying permanently in this building—even if we decant for a period, and even if the House of Commons chooses to meet in different parts of the country at different times, with this remaining our national home.
I mentioned the need for realism. The NAO report published in April highlights an enormous number of problems with this great project, not least a confusion of boundaries about who is responsible for what. In some respects, the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority have been put in charge of a project they do not control, because of us, because of the quirks of public opinion, because of the press and because of all kinds of added political risks.
I was unambiguously in favour of decant until I went around the basement and learned that, when we took the decision to vote for decant, we did not know nearly enough. I remain open-minded about the question of decant. While we are still learning, the cost of alternative arrangements and security has risen and risen. The opportunities for modularising on an incremental basis are quite apparent, particularly in respect of mechanical services. Sometimes we get a little carried away. We should not conflate the outside of the building with the inside of the building. The outside of the building is capable of being repaired while we are in it—the roof and parts of the walls are being repaired as we speak. It is perfectly possible to deal with the external fabric.
The problem of capacity is important, and it is the capacity of the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority that we should be most concerned about. They need to develop the capacity, expertise and skill to manage a very large project, and perhaps they should cut their teeth on a series of smaller projects, to build up their track record and expertise.
I come back to the question of risk. We all want best value for money. When large projects overrun, people often say that it must be due to the incompetence of either the contractor or the people who let or manage the contract. The bigger the contract and the project, the more complexities, the bigger the budget, the more people involved and the more risk. We see that in the procurement of new buildings and of large bits of defence kit. The risks compound and concatenate, and that is what will happen with this project.
As the NAO report makes clear, there are still so many known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The lesson from many of the cost overruns on the Queen Elizabeth Tower was not just on what could have been known—for example, somebody should have worked out what the scaffolding requirement was and costed it properly, which was a very big component of the cost overrun; there were also a whole lot of unknown unknowns that inflated the cost.
We have to accept that if this is to be a single big project, it is bound to overrun on cost and time because there are so many unknown unknowns. The question is whether the Sponsor Body should be charged with doing a single great project, or whether we should let it do it in bite-size pieces and learn incrementally; whether we decant is a secondary consideration. I hear strong arguments in favour of decanting, and I remain open-minded about them, but I spent 10 years looking at major projects, as Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee and then the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and everything we learnt about major projects told us one thing: the bigger the project, the more unpredictable it is. If there is one absolute certainty, that is it; it is the law of major projects.
I will finish with one final thought. Great emphasis is placed on what is known as “the requirement”. What is the requirement? Is it simply to preserve the building as it is, with a new set of mechanical services, new windows, a proper roof and without bits of masonry falling off? Or is there a very different requirement, to make this a major statement about what our national democracy is, what it should mean and how it should engage with the British people? One thinks of what the German people did with the rebuilding of the Reichstag after the reunification of Germany.
Is the country in the mood for a huge national statement about this building and our Parliament, or will that simply add to the risk? I think the British public want us to do a job that makes this building much more relevant to them. I had many differences with the previous Speaker, but the construction of the Education Centre was an act of genius. It has brought tens of thousands of children through here every month and has been a tremendous exercise in the education of our people about the value of our democracy, anchored in this building, which communicates so much about the values of our democracy and its permanence.
If we want this refurbishment to make that kind of statement, how is that conversation to be conducted? Will there be a competition for different proposals to see what attracts us as parliamentarians? There is a great deal about engagement with parliamentarians; there needs also to be engagement with the people. The danger is that we decide on something and then there is a great national controversy, and one party or another is driven off course as it tries to win an election, and the whole project is thrown into disarray as somebody says they will save some money by cancelling it. We have to engage with parliamentarians and the people and develop a proper vision for this building before we ask the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority to embark on what is an almost impossible job—to manage the risks of this great project.
I do not intend to speak for long, as others have contributions to make, but it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), especially given the question he put at the beginning of his remarks about the status of this place as a seat of UK democracy in the future, because it is on that point that I want to provoke, perhaps, a new angle to the debate.
The current crisis has put a great deal into perspective in recent months and forced us as a society to re-evaluate some of our priorities. As such, it is right that the Sponsor Body is re-examining some of the options decided upon before the pandemic, particularly if public services are expected to come under further strain in the autumn and as we tremble at the thought of a possible severe economic recession. Plaid Cymru welcomes the strategic review, therefore, and is open-minded about some of the ideas suggested recently and during this debate, including Parliament’s full decant, possibly beyond Westminster.
Some Members have mentioned that we might be debating other issues today. One thing that has become very clear in recent months is that we cannot go back to the status quo ante, in all respects of that phrase. In my opinion, we cannot go back to the old status quo, where public investment and political attention has been largely concentrated in one corner of the British Isles.
Communities across Wales are already experiencing job losses, and there is the threat of more to come. At this difficult time, perhaps we should be debating ways to increase investment into our infrastructure and economic packages of support for our small businesses and industries such as tourism that will take longer to recover from this pandemic. However, as I think the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned in his remarks, this is the debate that we have.
Taken in that broader context, it is right to look again at some of the strategic options that are before us. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned in his remarks, the amounts of public spending that we are talking about are sizeable. I think that the projected cost is about £4 billion, but, as others have mentioned, it is likely to rise. It is right that we are debating whether there are other ways that this project can be pursued and progressed that might be more beneficial to the public purse. If I needed to labour the point, to put the £4 billion into context, the additional funding that the Welsh Government received via the Barnett formula to deal with the present public health and economic crisis has been some £2.8 billion.
We cannot deny that the Palace of Westminster is falling apart, and the staff of this place deserve better, as well as everybody else. Others have mentioned falling masonry. I remember quite vividly an occasion about a year and a half ago when a piece of masonry fell from the roof of, I think, Norman Shaw North. It mercifully did not hurt anybody, but it did destroy a car. The dangers are there, and I will not go on to discuss some of the problems with asbestos and the cellars and basements.
If restoration and return is the only route open to us then of course I will support the safest and most cost-effective option. I do think, though, that an opportunity might be missed this afternoon if the debate only reruns the old arguments of whether we move out versus whether we try to stay and work around the building works—to decant or not to decant—especially considering that every year of delay has, I think, been estimated to cost a further £100 million of public money. A full decant, I believe, is therefore necessary.
I listened with great interest to the points made by the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on looking again at options to decant elsewhere, beyond Westminster. Others have mentioned the comments by the Prime Minister about the possibility of moving Parliament to York. The historical precedents to one side, I will end my comments by playfully suggesting: why stop at a temporary decant to York? Why not go further and make the move out of London permanent? This place should still be restored, but as a site of historical and world heritage importance. The phrase “build back better” has been used quite a bit in recent months. There is an opportunity in this debate for us to live up to some of the rhetoric.
This debate has often falsely been portrayed as a debate between pragmatic modernisers such as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who by the way I cannot help liking and respecting—I do not know why, but I do—and traditionalists who are putting their own comfort first. Actually, the arguments are far more complex. I have spent quite a lot of time over the past few years talking to architects and mechanical and electrical engineers, and I personally believe that compared with the present plans, there are greener, cheaper, faster and better solutions.
May I burnish my credentials with those who say that we have to get on with this work by saying that 25% of the space in the Palace is currently taken up by unseen historical ventilation systems? I went round some of them yesterday. There are 24-hour fire checks in many roof and basement areas. There were four fires in 2019, eight fires in 2018 and even a small fire in the basement last month. We all accept that the work has to be got on with as quickly as possible.
My contention is that if we follow the present plans, we will face years of delay and public inquiries, because when the original Joint Committee met, it was told that it could fit a temporary Chamber into one of the courtyards of Richmond House. It was given the wrong measurements and that is how we started the whole genesis of knocking down all of Richmond House.
It was not so much that the Joint Committee was given the wrong measurements; actually, the plans were different from the structure that was built, and the basement turned out to be 10% smaller. I do not know whether the builder, whoever it was, had fiddled the system, but that was the reason.
I am grateful. That points out some of the problems.
I come to the present proposal to knock down Richmond House, which is, of course, a listed building. I never thought that I would defend a building younger than myself, but I am. It was listed for a purpose—to preserve it. It is an award-winning building. The best way to be carbon neutral, actually, is not to knock down an existing building, so even if people are in favour of full decant—I do not want to repeat all the arguments—we do not need to knock down Richmond House. I have been working with SAVE, the architectural heritage association, and it is perfectly possible to build a temporary Chamber in the courtyard. If it is temporary, it may be a tiny bit uncomfortable. There will be less of a tendency, once we leave this building, for the works to drag on for five or 10 years—and it will be five or 10 years. We have seen with modern voting systems that we can vote electronically. We do not need two wide Division Lobbies, and all the rest.
I am looking now to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I think that we can very quickly probably come to a kind of consensus—that we do not need to go to the super-gold-plated option of knocking down Richmond House and exactly replicating this space, with the Division Lobbies. They have even made the Division Lobbies wide enough to have the oriel windows, but we do not need those in any temporary future Chamber.
There is a better, cheaper, faster alternative, however, and I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). I have been working with Anthony Delarue, a well-respected architect, who has a long history of working with historic buildings. It is perfectly possible to have a line of route through Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Hall and Central Lobby into the House of Lords Chamber, which could be used by the House of Commons, as it was in the second world war, perhaps with the House of Lords put in the Royal Gallery. It would be perfectly possible, according to expert opinion, to have the services taken from outside—from services in Abingdon gardens or Victoria Tower gardens—and we could start getting on with this work now.
Contrary to the horror stories that we have been told, it is possible to get on with this work, make considerable progress with the ventilation systems, the heating systems, the electrical and mechanical systems and the asbestos systems while we continue to work in this Palace, which is the iconic home of British democracy. As we have heard, it has 1 million visitors every year. Do we really want to close this building down? I think that it will be 10 years—I do not think it will be five years once we lose control of this process. Do we want to lose 1 million people a year times 10? That is a lot of schoolchildren who will never visit this place. At least if we can keep Westminster Hall and Central Lobby open, and if we can have visitors coming to witness our debates in the House of Lords Chamber and visiting the House of Lords in the Royal Gallery, we would be doing a service to our constituents.
I repeat this vital point. We are told again and again that it is impossible to split up the services. I have been around in the past week with a mechanical and electrical engineer and he says that that is simply not true. After all, we create, in days, pop concerts for hundreds of thousands of people, but we are told, “No, we can’t do that. We can’t take services from outside. It’s all too difficult. We have to surrender control of the process.” I simply do not buy into that. I think that it is groupthink and, frankly, that we have been bamboozled in the past four or five years. There are alternative, costed, expert opinions saying that there are cheaper, greener and better ways to do this. If there is a real fire risk, and I think there is a real fire risk, why delay this whole process for years while we seek to demolish Richmond House, while we have a public inquiry and while we build a permanent replica Chamber?
By the way, what will we actually use that Chamber for? When visitors come here in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time, do they want to be visiting a replica? They will want to see this Chamber, where Winston Churchill spoke or Jacob Rees-Mogg—that great orator of the early 21st century. They do not want to be going to see a replica. It will be the most glorious white elephant.
And do we really want to move the House of Lords to QEII, with all the security implications and losing the rent that the Government gain from it? The plans for QEII are wildly extravagant: those involved want to create a roof-top terrace, and they want to demolish the existing conference hall so that the height of the temporary House of Lords Chamber is the same as the existing House of Lords Chamber. The fact is that this has become out of control.
I see the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), in her place, and we are the guardians of the public purse. Of course we have to put safety first and of course we have to do the work properly, but we do not need to have a feeding feast over 10 years or 15 years, costing between £10 billion and £20 billion, with this gold-plated option of demolishing Richmond House, moving out completely and stripping everything out of this building while we are evicted.
I end on this point: there is a compromise, and I wish my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) well. The debate has moved on, even in small things or not so small things. We were told even quite recently—I was told this by the present Leader of the House—that we had to knock down Richmond House because we needed more office space. That is a strange and quite a circular sort of argument: we need to knock down an office building to get more office workers. We do not need them. The entire civil service is now working virtually and the entire civil service will almost certainly go on to a three-day week. We have proven that we do not need an emergency Chamber in case of a disaster; we can work virtually for a few weeks or, indeed, a few months. The whole debate has moved on and we need to think again, but we do not need to delay. We can get on with the work around us now, and that is what we should do.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but I do rail a little against his comment about group-think. If I remember rightly, there was a group-think that we must stay here come what may, until we had a vote— I remember it very well—on 31 January 2018, when the House decided that the best option was to work up one option in detail and move out.
As the right hon. Gentleman said—he is an illustrious predecessor of mine as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and I am delighted to be here today with the deputy Chair, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—we do, all of us, value spending and watch how taxpayers’ money is spent. It is not our money that is being spent on this place, nor is it our place. It is the nation’s and the world’s: it is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) talked about what makes big projects work. We know that there are many multiple projects within this big project—everything from how the stone masonry will be dealt with to the education centre, how the archives will be stored and the wood carvings, let alone all the mechanical and technical work that goes on. However, the challenge of a major project is to bring all those together and make sure that each is delivered in a time that means the others can carry on.
We therefore see the need for integration, and I refer to the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) about the rail system. The integration of our rail system has been one of the big problems about delivering such projects. We can deliver the tracks, the trains and the signalling, but if they do not work altogether at the same time, passengers do not get a benefit. That is the challenge, and that is why we set up the Sponsor Body, after a lot of work by a number of us.
It is interesting how this House has divided today between those who have been very heavily involved in meetings, discussions and papers on this project and, hearteningly, a lot of new Members who have probably had less time to get into the subject. I hope that they have been listening carefully to those of us who have been very closely invested in this project.
The project will cost money, but it is not an either/or. On the idea that we should not spend money on a place that everybody who has spoken so far agrees is a huge fire risk and a huge health and safety risk, that money will not be available to spend on other things. Under UNESCO rules, as the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) highlighted, the Treasury is responsible within the Government for paying for this project.I have checked this out, and the Treasury is ultimately responsible for making sure that this place does not crumble and for maintaining it to UNESCO standards. It is vital that that work is done. As I say, fire is a real risk, and there is an important question here for the Leader of the House about who is ultimately responsible for the health and safety of all who work here and all who visit here.
I disagree with the right hon. Member for Gainsborough again on the point about the visitors who would come here if we did it in parts. I would not ask schoolchildren from Hackney to come to this building if we were ripping out asbestos and there were building works going on. I would not expect my staff or the staff of this House to come here. I hope that the Leader of the House is taking that very seriously. Has he been talking to the trade unions and staff representatives, whom I have had the privilege to meet on a number of issues, and who are very thoughtful and considerate? They love this place, but they want people to be safe, just as I hope we do.
Value for money is absolutely vital, which is another reason we wrote in the role of the National Audit Office, to get it involved now, before any work is done. One thing I have been trying to promote as a member of the Public Accounts Committee—I put the implication out there, although there is only one Government Minister present—is to do more looking at projects before they go wrong, ensuring that the assurances and the methodologies are in place. We need to ensure that the Sponsor Body is set up well to do its job and to hold the Delivery Authority to account for whatever is ultimately delivered.
But how much longer? We have been waiting a long time for this. Some have talked about 2013, some about 2015, 2016 or 2018, but it is 40 years, really, that we have been having to look at this. The amount of money and time spent on patching this place up is no longer justifiable. It is still taxpayers’ money; we just do not see the big tag. Let us not kid ourselves that by avoiding doing it in one hit as a major project—actually, this building is a major project whichever way you cut it up—we will save money. That is a myth. Obviously, the full figures have to be worked up, but we would still be spending millions and millions.
Let us take the risers with some of the electrical and other facilities in them. For work to be done to take asbestos out, all that has to be removed and rebuilt outside the building, while ensuring that the connections are not lost. Then the asbestos is removed in roughly half-hour slots by someone in asbestos gear. It takes more than a year and costs multi-millions of pounds to do each one. There are contractors rubbing their hands with glee as we keep dodging the decision about getting on with this. A lot of people are making a lot of money out of the taxpayer’s pockets—our constituents’ pockets—and we need to get on with this quickly.
We need to be careful about the smoke and mirrors around whether there should be an exact replica of the Chamber in Richmond House. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); I remember that there was a very loud cacophony of voices here saying, “We will not consider leaving this Chamber unless we have an exact replica.” I am not wedded to an exact replica. I can do my job pretty much anywhere. I do not need this Chamber. I love this Chamber; it is a great place to debate, it is very atmospheric and it provides a lot of opportunities for us to get our constituents’ points of view across. But we do not need to have it precisely like this. We can compromise, as the past few weeks have shown. We have adapted very well.
We need to be aware, as well, of the smoke and mirrors from No. 10 Downing Street’s suddenly announcing the suggestion of a move to York. I put the move to York for the House of Lords in the same category as the bridge to Northern Ireland or the estuary airport.
Or the garden bridge, indeed. Only £30 million of taxpayers’ money went through the Department for Transport to the garden bridge, so that was a relatively cheap proposal by the current Prime Minister. We need to be careful: it is very easy, and very much a tactic of the current incumbent at No. 10, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), to throw out a random thought and let everyone talk about that, and meanwhile we stop talking about the real issue: that this place needs to be sorted, and it needs to be sorted now.
I turn to the Leader of the House again and ask him who is responsible if someone gets injured or hurt. Who would be responsible for asbestos poisoning in this place? I think it would end up being the Clerk of the House and the corporate body of the House of Commons. That means that the Leader of the House is sitting there and everyone is waiting for the musical chairs to stop, hoping that they will not be standing at the moment when a disaster happens in this House.
I can clarify that. The Clerk of the House is the responsible officer, and he takes his responsibility enormously seriously. He has made it absolutely clear that, if he thought there were a risk to people in this Palace, he would insist that the place closed.
That means that we have to be responsible for the Clerk of the House’s sake as well, so he is not left holding the problem if something were to go wrong. We had a fire only a few weeks ago.
We need to decide and get on with it—we have decided; there is a statute in place—and we need to make sure that we get on with costing up the preferences and let the Sponsor Body get on and do its work. We cannot keep adding options or we will just build the cost and build in delay. We cannot keep changing our mind.
I am a patient and reasonable woman, I think, but I am angry at the prospect that we could be one of the last generations of MPs to stand in this place and that my schoolchildren from Hackney could be the last generation to come to visit, because if we keep dodging the issue, we will have a pile of ash and rubble, not a beautiful world heritage site. We have to avoid that. We have to protect the people who work here. We need to get on with it.
As a relatively new Member of the House, I have not been party to many of the debates that have been referenced in the speeches of right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon, but I have found it enormously illuminating to hear the experiences that have been shared and, in particular, the insights into the advice that the House has received over many years about securing the long-term future of the building.
I am conscious that there are not many Members of the House who have detailed technical experience of the building trade, but there are a good many who have experience of the political oversight of major capital projects. That may be directly, in my case through projects such as Building Schools for the Future, the Priority School Building programme and the decent homes standard, or as stakeholders and consultees in those projects when the NHS or our public transport providers undertake major rebuild works.
From that experience, the warning signs are there of a major capital project that is running into some degree of difficulty. In particular, I highlight something that has been referenced by a number of Members: the somewhat confused governance about driving the project forward. Who owns each of those decisions? Who owns those risks? At which point do those decisions need to be made to address the issues that have been highlighted by many Members on both sides of the House?
I have had the privilege over many years of visiting places that our democracy uses across the country, such as the Senedd in Cardiff bay, the Scottish Parliament and many of our town halls, although sadly not yet Stormont. A key characteristic of all those places is that they are first and foremost places of work and places in which our democracy delivers for the people.
We cannot open a commentary about the British economy without spotting references to that British disease, the lack of investment in our productivity. When we talk to the people about the rationale behind investing in new hospitals, new schools, new roads and improved railways, the same rationale applies to the need to invest in our democratic institutions. It is about ensuring that, in this place of work, we can be productive in the service of all our citizens. That is not about gold-plating, which has been referenced a number of times; it is absolutely right to raise that as a criticism.
In all those town halls and each of those regional and national Parliaments, the focus has been not on making a major statement of national confidence necessarily, but on how we can do our job well in those institutions on behalf of the people, and on ensuring that the physical nature of those buildings supports the delivery of that agenda. That includes making sure that, whether it is the leaking school roof that puts the IT department out of use, or the inadequate wi-fi that means constituents cannot get a response, we have adequate facilities so those places do their job effectively.
There are many projects to learn lessons from. Building Schools for the Future is a good example of a project that started with good intentions but morphed into something that was about creating temples to learning. It became astonishingly expensive and, in far too many cases, ended up delivering nothing practical to school teachers and children who, to this day in some cases, are in buildings that were not fit for purpose 20 years ago.
The learning from that project informed the Priority School Building programme that said we need to focus on doing what makes it easier for people to do their job in that environment at an efficient cost. That has resulted in a better spend of taxpayers’ money and a faster renewal of many of those buildings, and it has ensured that those facilities are—that key phrase—fit for purpose for the future.
At a time when our Government nationally and Parliament collectively have set out a very clear commitment to investing capital, which is historically cheap at the moment, in improving our public realm for the benefit of our citizens, there is a compelling argument for investing that capital in ensuring that our political institutions are fit for purpose as well.
I would like to draw to a conclusion by raising two points that I have not yet heard addressed in the debate about this capital project. There are, no doubt, those with more experience who may know about them, but I think it is important to raise them. The first is that there does not seem to be a clear property strategy for Parliament. We have heard reference, for example, to the income-raising capabilities of parts of the parliamentary estate. We have heard about the need for different staff to be based here, and the learning from the virtual working brought about by the covid pandemic and what that means for the future need that this institution has for buildings. There is a very clear programme expressed by the Sponsor Body for how we keep this building intact, but there does not seem to be, as far as I can see, a great long-term strategy that says, “How do we ensure not just that this building here is preserved for the next 40 or 50 years, but the strategy for ensuring that this institution can function in the future?”
There is more of a strategy than perhaps the hon. Gentleman is aware of, but one of the things that has plagued the House for some considerable time is that, because we have been bound by Government pay scales, it has been quite difficult to get really high quality personnel to engage in some of the projects here. Sometimes that has meant that we have had to buy in consultants, which of course ends up being far more expensive. That is one of the things the Finance Committee has returned to time and time again, and it is why we set up the structure with the arms-length body so as to be able to bring in that expertise at the very highest level, rather than constantly having to reinvent the wheel.
I am very grateful for that intervention, which is illuminating. It sounds like a suggestion from both us is that it would perhaps be helpful for the Leader of the House and colleagues to consider a clear exposition to Members and some thinking about what a long-term property strategy for Parliament looks like, so we can ensure we have the office space and the facilities for our security staff, our Members and our visitors which mean we can sustain this institution for the long term.
I would like to finish on this point. One thing that is very characteristic of all such major capital projects—we discussed this under the very able chairmanship of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the Chair of the Finance Committee—is that there reaches a point where a decision has to be made and the absence of a decision becomes a bigger problem than almost any decision that could be made to achieve progress. I saw that happen when my local authority, the London Borough of Hillingdon, spent £24 million with consultants on the Buildings Schools for the Future programme without a single brick being laid or sod being turned, because the project management structure was so complex and expensive, and it was not set up to deliver.
The recommendation that we make progress now on the refurbishment of Richmond House and the decant of Norman Shaw North is a wise decision that enables us to ensure that our staff and the Members directly affected are able to continue to do their jobs in a sufficient and adequate working environment. I think that was the outcome of the views debated in the Finance Committee last week. I very much hope, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) set out in his introduction to the debate earlier on, that the review being carried out is one that results in swift decision making, so we can ensure that the accusation of fiddling while Rome burns is not justified, and that we can make decisions and our constituents can see that, as we are doing in respect of our public transport, roads, schools and hospitals, we can make decisions about our democratic institutions, so they continue to function productively and efficiently in the interests of the people.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds). If he is seeking, as I understand he might be, a chance to visit Northern Ireland and the Assembly, I am sure that that could be arranged. It could be one off his bucket list of things that he wants to do in life.
I have no desire to get caught up today in the most recent protests that have taken place throughout the nation, but something that hit me hard was seeing the statue of my boyhood hero, Sir Winston Churchill—to whom I give a nod every time I have the privilege of coming into this place—being vandalised and covered in graffiti. That was hard, because it reminded me not only of the man but of the victory over fascism that he symbolises. That is something that I and others in this House hold dear.
Similarly, when we discuss the restoration of this place, I do not regard it as I did when my wife decided to replace the windows and refurb the entrance to my home. When I queried the necessity for this, the bottom line was my main concern; obviously it was not hers. The restoration of this place involves the preservation of our history and a nod to the future of the nation. This is the thing that unites us all and where we are. To me, it symbolises where we have come from and where we are heading. As an Ulster Scot who keeps his money pretty tight, I know that money is vitally important and should not be wasted. I also believe that if we are going to do something, it must be done right.
We must cut the cloth to suit us, and the ladies in the House will know that the one dress that they never scrimp on is their wedding dress, because that is the most important dress they will ever wear. I have three granddaughters, and I understand exactly how that dress will symbolise their dedication and commitment. Similarly, our Parliament is a symbol of the greatest democracy in the world, and my fear is that, amid the to-ing and fro-ing and the usual backbiting, we might forget the symbolic importance of this place and the vital nature of preserving this history.
Before coronavirus, I never once came to this place without seeing a massive queue of people from every corner of the world waiting to catch a glimpse of these hallowed halls and to experience a piece of history dating back to 1016. As I heard the American and other accents marvelling, I was reminded of the fact that America as we know it did not exist at that time and was home only to the proud native Americans. It is little wonder that they marvel at our history as they gaze at the magnificent hammerbeam roof in Westminster Hall, which is the largest medieval timber roof in northern Europe. It was commissioned in 1393 by Richard II, and it is a masterpiece of design. Every time I walk these hallowed halls, the weight of our responsibility to the history of this nation echoes along with my footsteps.
I am not someone who accepts change easily. I am apt to change, and I have to be, but when we need work done in the house or in the office, I arrange for it to be done in my absence. The thought of what is to come is not something that I look forward to, but the prize at the end is worth the upset and worth the finance. It is clear to me that work must be carried out here. Money must be spent and we may have to relocate somewhere else, if that is the option. We have had lots of options put forward here today, and every one of them is feasible. As an Ulster Scot, I would probably wish to see the one that costs less money and less inconvenience, and the amount that has to be spent will only rise with every month we put this off, as other hon. Members have said.
Let us get UK firms doing the work and support our economy at a time when we as a country need to invest in ourselves. Let us ensure that the workload is spread as well as it can be, and that not one penny leaves the UK. This is a very difficult time. Covid-19 has and will cost incredible sums of money; it is costing billions, and there is a demand on the funds that we can spend. We need a programme that will preserve and protect the fabric of this House, and we must deliver the value for money that is needed. Let us do this right. We must have a safe place for our staff—safety first—and ensure the preservation of one of the most important pieces of history, not just in this nation but in the whole world. Let us get the money set aside and the plans drawn up, and let us not for a second risk the heritage of these hallowed halls that we are so privileged and honoured to sit in today. Not to do anything would be a travesty.
I want to talk about fact and fiction, place and purpose, and all in six minutes. But before I do so, let me speak about this place. Of course it is true that this is a great edifice. Its aesthetics are something that we celebrate and enjoy, and that are enjoyed, by the way, by all the people who visit here. We have spoken of children and many others who come here to see democracy at work. They would be deprived of that opportunity if we were to abandon this place for however long.
This place is, of course, also a working environment—a place of work not just for Members of Parliament here and in the other place, but for all those who clerk, clean, cater, serve us and serve the people by serving us. And their place of work is something special to them; it fills them with joy, too. What would become of them when we abandoned this place? Would they all be accommodated in Richmond House? Would they be offered some kind of redundancy package?
I see all kinds of horrors for those who in many cases have given their lifetime’s service to this place, including, by the way, those who repair and restore it, because restoration and repair is a continuing process and has always been so. I mentioned a day or so ago that Geoffrey Chaucer was a Clerk of Works when this place was being restored a very long time ago, so let us not see restoration and repair as a moment in time. It is an inevitable part of the stewardship of this place, for we are just that—stewards; we have a responsibility to maintain it as well as to enjoy it.
Now, there are some who do not revere the character of this building and do not really much like the traditions associated with it. There are a few who argue that we should strip it out, start again and create some Parliament in the round—some terribly modern body in a terribly modern place. Well, I tell them that I estimate that that would not chime with most of the people I represent in South Holland and The Deepings, and I would say it would not chime with most of the people represented by other Members of this Chamber.
In the three minutes and 33 seconds remaining to me, I want to make five very quick points. First, T.S. Eliot said:
“Knowledge is invariably a matter of degree : you cannot put your finger upon even the simplest datum and say ‘this we know’.”
The truth is that facts do not change, but what we believe is factual does, so we should beware of estimates. We should beware when we are told, “This will be more expensive” or “This will be done in seven years.” These things always alter in every capital project, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) said.
Secondly, circumstances change too. We now debate this matter given all that has happened with covid. We should understand that when we first considered it, we were in an altogether different climate economically, socially and culturally.
Thirdly, let us look at precedent. There have been times when we have been forced to re-accommodate Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) reminded us that in the war we moved to the House of Lords, and most of Churchill’s great speeches were made from there, not here, contrary to what many might think. So of course there is precedent for the inconvenience that comes from emergencies, and we should look to that precedent and see how we could—at our inconvenience—repair and restore this place while maintaining its life and character.
Fourthly, there is the issue of governance. Do we really believe that we are sufficiently capable in project management terms both to govern the creation of an enormous edifice at Richmond House, and simultaneously to govern and manage—carefully and skilfully—the restoration of this place? I would not be confident about that, and I would be very surprised if any Member of this House could say with confidence that it will not run over time and over budget. I do not think that we have the capabilities to do both, and we probably do not have the capability to do either in one chunk. We should be more modest about what we do and create a timetable that reflects that humility.
Fifthly, there is the issue of the character of Parliament. People say, “Let’s strip out staircases. Let’s make it more friendly.” But it is the eclectic character of this place—its particularity and peculiarity—that is its charm. I want it to be inefficient and I want it to be eclectic. God preserve me from the efficient, clean, utilitarian life because beauty is not always clean, efficient and utilitarian, and love is not either—and I love this place and I know that the people love it too.
That brings me to the people, finally. We know that we can lead the people and follow the people, but we should not get on the wrong side of the people. If we go about what was originally proposed and spend billions of pounds building another Parliament a stone’s throw from this one, doubt will quickly turn to disdain and disdain will turn to derision, so I say stick with the common sense of the people and stay put.
I have been listening carefully to what colleagues have been saying, and I am struck that some speak with great certainty about the future. Unfortunately, I am not able to speak with such certainty. Indeed, one of the fascinations of life is that we never know what is going to happen. We have only to look at the state of the world and the country at the moment to see that we cannot be certain about the future. What I say to every colleague is that this Parliament cannot tie the hands of the next, and whatever is said in this Parliament could easily change.
Unashamedly, I am very fond of this building. Not everyone is. Some people think, “Oh, it’s an old palace; throw it open as a tourist attraction” and all of that, but I want future colleagues to share the thrill that I felt when I was first elected. This is the mother of all Parliaments; it is very special indeed. However, I had no idea that it was falling apart, and only when I served on the Administration Committee, and went to the top of Big Ben and saw the iconic clock and the problems there, and then went over the roof and saw the damage there, and then went to the cellars and saw how dangerous things were, did I think, “My goodness. This place does need some restoration.” Without any question, therefore, I support the restoration and renewal of this place—some of my critics would probably say that I could do with some restoration myself, and I am open to offers on that account.
There is no question but that the deterioration of this building accelerated when we—how can I put this gently?—opened it to a huge number of people. Some would argue that that was the right approach, but when more and more people were visiting the place, that obviously did damage. Then we did away with our recesses because it was felt that it was not good to be away for so long. The recesses were used to maintain the building, but all of that has been lost, at great cost.
As has been said, the sewers are in a terrible state, the façade is decaying, the electrics are awful, the roof is leaking, and there is asbestos everywhere. I know the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) does not want me to reopen this, but I do not agree that the elected Members of this place should leave the estate. When we held a vote on that, there were only 16 votes in it. It was rather close.
I was at Richmond House on the day it opened because I happened to be involved with the then Department of Health. It was a great joy compared to where we were in the Elephant and Castle, but I do not like the building just as—I am sorry if this upsets colleagues—I do not like Portcullis House. I am in love with 1 Parliament Street, which is where I have been since it opened, but that is down to individual taste. It is a crazy idea to demolish Richmond House and rebuild it, and I do not think the electorate will be pleased with that.
I congratulate the House of Lords on the brilliant way it has worked virtually throughout the pandemic. Some people are keen on a virtual approach, and they might want to consider that. I am keen for Members of the Commons to move to the House of Lords, which is very possible. I am advised that the Lords Chamber and the Royal Gallery could be serviced externally in terms of electricity and lighting. There could be enough working space for everyone, and that would eliminate the cost of converting the QEII building—it is absolute madness to spend £350 million on that. Work on the services for the whole palace, including the cabling and basement, could then go some way to allay the minimum disruption.
Since 2016, we have had Brexit and the pandemic. Money is so tight at the moment, and it will not go down well if we spend a huge amount of money on this project. In the first three months of the Sponsor Body, before any actual work starts, the cost will be £27.5 million—these are huge costs. It was estimated that the programme will cost between £3.52 billion and £3.87 billion. Surely to goodness, in this day and age, we could get the work done in half the time that has been forecast.
This House should take the opportunity to rethink the plans for a full decant and instead consider a rolling programme of work on the Palace structure and services. That would save a huge amount of money, which the electorate would expect us to do. We should do the work continuously in three shifts. The project could then be completed in five years, and this great place could continue without interruption.
This debate and its predecessor debates have shown just how strongly people feel about this building. There is something very special about this place—people feel it whenever they come here. I certainly felt it when I was a new Member, and it does not fade with time, or at least not for me. Visitors who I have brought here tell me that they feel exactly the same. Whether they are school groups or pensioner groups, the reaction is the same.
We are very lucky to work in a building that, alongside being a functioning Parliament, is an architectural masterpiece, a repository of our national history and one of the most famous buildings in the world. Not many buildings can be recognised globally by their silhouette alone. Its continuity as a central location in our national story is extraordinary. We reflect our national story in the architecture here, such as the Churchill Arch, constructed of rubble from the bomb damage in the blitz. We reflect it in our art, such as the frescos on the walls depicting moments of importance. I always highlight to visitors the scene of Speaker Lenthall asserting the primacy of the Commons. We also reflect it in our procedures, such as closing the door in Black Rod’s face at the State Opening, again to reflect the primacy of the Commons.
What we are showing is how our country has journeyed from one person, one vote, when that one person was the King, to one person, one vote, but with a universal franchise, and how our journey has not been a smooth one. These tell us of the struggle for democracy, how precarious it is and how it cannot be taken for granted. What I am basically saying is that we have something that cannot be replicated and is really worth saving. With that comes special responsibility for us. We all know that there are huge problems with the building. Those have been well articulated—it is always easier to articulate problems than solutions—but we must not be the generation of parliamentarians that fails to protect and pass on what we have, knowing its value and knowing the problems.
Our predecessors may not have grasped the nettle as they could have done, and we now face a bigger problem as a result. There have been many suggested ways forward—some of them have even been sensible. We have already voted on this issue. I would like to see some parameters or guidelines set for those who have the significant challenge of dealing with this project, to help them scope and define it and then help colleagues to contribute, understand and perhaps stick to its conclusions. It is clear that flexibility will be required from everyone. MPs must accept that there will be significant disruption. Changes to procedure may be necessary, but we have shown that we can do that in our response to the current crisis. Do we need to have so many people on site, or even so many people at all? Seeking to create an interim but exact replica of this place will drive cost, not value. We should be asking ourselves what we will actually need to keep Parliament functioning and fulfilling its duties.
There has to be more focus on value for money; our constituents would expect nothing less. Some of the proposals have had price tags which, frankly, have been fanciful and almost embarrassing. We are living in a world where the economy is much smaller as a result of this virus. Gold-plating temporary measures is not acceptable. Knocking down Richmond House does not feel like a temporary measure to me—it seems much more extreme—but we have to focus on value for money. That is critical. The control procedures for project management must be robust, given that it is almost inevitable that, as soon as work starts, there will be nasty surprises. I was struck by the wise words from my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) based on his experience of project management.
We will clearly need a very imaginative approach, as there are so many factors to consider and so many groups to satisfy. There is lots of colleague concern that if we leave here we will never come back. I am sure that such concern could be allayed by stating clearly in the project objectives that if we choose to leave, our goal is to return to this place as our national parliamentary home. I recognise that I am not an engineer, as most of us in this place are not, so I am not going to be leaping to any conclusions. I am aware how much work has been done, but we need to bear in mind that there is still much more to be done. That is why when solutions are still being debated, we should be clear about the principles and recognise that we are some way off before the options for final progress are in front of us. It is disappointing that we are still in this place after many, many years.
I wish to give one last thought. Parliamentarians must support the restoration and renewal team to define this project as comprehensively as possible, and then MPs must stick to the definition and decisions. The lessons from projects changing their objectives during the course of their life, be they from national or local government, is that that is a sure-fire generator of time and cost overruns—that is project creep, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House does not like to describe it. Many Governments have had a tendency to put some questions into the “too hard” category, with some elegant, “It’s not the right time” explanations for a deferral. We should not be taking the easy comfort of delay or pretending there are easy answers, as talk has suggested. We have to take our responsibility and make sure we preserve this amazing place and all that it tells us. We need to save it for future generations as our national Parliament, making sure not only that it is modernised, but that it is fit for service for centuries ahead.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is not a debate I thought I would be speaking in, and I did not know much about it prior to becoming the MP for Wolverhampton South West. The issue has never come up on the doorstep and it does not fill my inbox, but as a new MP it is important to have a say. It is just a shame that 20 other colleagues around me from the new intake do not get to have their input.
One thing is clear: from what we have heard today, we must take swift action. Doing nothing is not an option. We need to consider a lot of factors that have come into play now but that were not there before, with the general election being one. The 2019 election brought nearly 150 of my colleagues into this place. Are our views the same as those of our predecessors? Ultimately we will be dealing with this project for many years to come and that needs to be taken into consideration.
We are still in the covid-19 crisis and it has changed the way that we operate here. We have seen pros and cons. I reckon that the covid pandemic has advanced technology in this place by probably a decade. We have worked, voted and debated remotely. Lots of things have been done, some of which have worked well and some of which have not, but we have seen what Parliament can do in a very short space of time under pressure. We have risen to the challenge. This site is a UNESCO site, just as the Black Country is—we have recently been awarded that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that having asked the nation to be resilient and resourceful—and to work from home—we should be doing that as well and leading by example? Does he also agree that should an alternative be necessary, Dudley is exactly that place, as we have a zoo and a castle that just needs a roof?
I love my neighbouring MP’s passion for the Black Country, but I think Wolverhampton would be first.
As I said, this issue does not fill my inbox or come up on the doorstep, but if we get it wrong, it will fill all of our inboxes. I would like to have heard more of my colleagues’ views, but there are a lot of things that I simply do not get. I do not understand some of the decisions and how I would justify the current course of action to the electorate in Wolverhampton. When the great people of Wolverhampton say to me, “Why are you replicating a brand-new building nearby so you can live in semi-comfortable conditions when the rest of the country is having to change how they work?” I cannot justify it. I do not get the move to Richmond House. It is not something that I want to justify to the electorate, because I do not think it is a good use of money.
I would also struggle to explain to people why they cannot have investment in Wolverhampton when we are investing a huge amount of money in the project here, but I understand the importance of ensuring that we invest for generations to come so that they can enjoy this facility. I have had to cut my speech very short, but we need to level up the country and ensure that investment is spent wisely. I cannot justify a lot of the decisions that are being made at the moment as wise and I could not pass them on to the electorate. We need to adapt to the work for the restoration of this great site. Too much has happened for us to sit back and take the same course of action. I believe that we can think of a new solution that not only restores the Palace, but keeps us here working under circumstances that, while not optimal, mean that we are doing what the rest of the country is having to do through the pandemic.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) and I wish him a happy birthday for tomorrow.
I remember the first time I visited the Palace on a day trip to London with my mother when I was seven years old and how I was mesmerised by these green benches. Over the years, it has become clear to me that the building is just as fundamental to our democracy as the people in it, so we must do whatever is necessary to conserve it for future generations.
As Winston Churchill said in 1943 when speaking on the restoration of the building at that time:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. I believe that will be the opinion of the great majority of its Members.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.]
A great deal is at stake. My preference is for a rolling programme of work occurring alongside usual House business. I would support a full decant only if Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body’s review finds that it is still a substantially cheaper option, because value for money is vital. Indeed, our duty is, first and foremost, to be accountable to our constituents and the taxpayer, more so now than ever, given the economic fallout from covid-19.
The review therefore should not provide a fait accompli, but a range of costed options so that careful consideration and evaluation can be made of change versus cost. If there are changes to be made to this great building, let them be for safety and energy-efficiency reasons. I welcome the emphasis on improving safety for all who work here as well as on the preservation of the building should the worst occur.
Picking up on my hon. Friend’s earlier point, it is important to remember that this is not just a place of wood and stone. It is a place of stories that remind us of the lessons of history over centuries. We need to ensure as we move forward that we remember those stories so that we do not make the mistakes of the past, but learn from our glorious history.
Yes, indeed. We feel the hand of history on our shoulders.
The need to increase the building’s energy efficiency in recent years has also been important. Members of all parties have rightly placed great emphasis on tackling climate change. I know that the Government are prioritising the issue and I welcome the work that is being undertaken to determine how we can achieve a green recovery from covid-19 as well as the announcements in last week’s summer economic statement on creating more green jobs.
To cut my speech considerably, I am incredibly proud and honoured to be able to play a role in our democracy and be part of the history of this place. We must preserve the atmosphere—the very nature as well as the fabric—of the building so that future seven-year-olds can come here, stand by the Mace, look up in awe and realise that this is the place where we wish to be.
It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and to have heard the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members who have been involved in this project for a lot longer than me; as a new Member, it is has been very insightful. I shall attempt to remove some of the scaffolding from my previously arranged speech, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Opposition Members said that they would have liked to have used this time to discuss other matters; such matters are important and weighty, but it is only right that we, the tenants in this place at this moment, have a constructive discussion about the preservation of this architectural gem. We owe it to our ancestors, constituents and future generations to get the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster right.
The fire in 1834 was mentioned earlier; although a distant event, that incident is invaluable warning. Less than a month ago, on 22 June, a small fire in the basement of the Palace was reported and dealt with; in 2019, four fires were put out; and in 2018, eight incidents were identified. Electrical wiring—not always at home within the old structure of the building—is often cited as a cause. Although tally sticks were the reason for the 1834 fire, wires could start a new one at any point. Last year, the world watched in shock as flames engulfed the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. We must ensure that such a situation never happens here, which means eliminating any potential causes.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to protecting this UNESCO world heritage site. In the coming months and years, not only will we build, build, build, but we will restore, renew and revive. I know this sounds like a bad advertisement for furniture polish, but in all seriousness, we will once again marry tradition with optimism and a drive for the future.
In 1840, in the aftermath of the 1834 fire, a four-decade-long reconstruction began. Throughout that period, artists and craftsmen alike poured their work into this magnificent building. Painters, stonemasons, carpenters, joiners, roofers, pipe fitters and many more from all across the British Isles contributed to what was a massive project. Some of them cut their teeth here; all of them proved their skill.
Restoring and renewing the Palace will provide an exciting opportunity for both seasoned workers and apprentices, working on a once-in-a-generation project. The Government have championed apprenticeships, and I want to see young people from all four corners of this nation given an opportunity to develop their skillset as part of the renewal programme—the future of our country working for the future of our democracy.
There is precedent for major works occurring around the business of both Houses. Although sittings in the current Lords Chamber began in 1847 and in the current Commons Chamber in 1852, the construction of the new Palace was not finished until the 1880s. This place would be sorely missed by parliamentarians and I am sure that we, too, would be sorely missed, not least by the rodents with whom we share these premises.
I had not expected to be discussing leave or remain again so soon, but politics is full of surprises. As a new Member of this House, I do not have experience of the long debate that has been going on, although I have listened intently to this debate. I can, though, comment slightly on this building, with which I have become more familiar over the past few months, and its importance.
We are shaped by our built environment. Architecture matters: it changes our behaviour. The Gothic style is perhaps one of the most powerful architectural styles. It has weaved its thread throughout the tapestry of British history since it was introduced to this country in the 12th century. Our Gothic churches make one feel more humble before God; our Gothic courts of law help to reinforce the full might of the law; and in this Palace of Westminster the Gothic style reinforces our reverence of our democracy and our sense of awe. The building reinforces the fact that we are not the first Members of Parliament to have been elected and that, as long as our democracy endures, as I am sure it will, there will be far more Members of Parliament to follow us after we are dead. That important sense of imposing pressure on us as legislators makes me think that we should be in this place for as long as we can be, so far as possible.
It would be very symbolic if we were to leave. This Palace symbolises Britain in the way that the Eiffel Tower might symbolise France, the Colosseum might symbolise Italy or the Brandenburg Gate might symbolise Germany. It is powerful that Britain is characterised not by a folly or an ancient ruin but by a building that functions as the beating heart of our democracy. Were we to leave, it would be a symbolic act, and one that we should approach cautiously. Were it to be the case that we must decant, it should hopefully be for as short a time as possible and as cheaply as possible. I think that a degree of privation on our part would be welcomed at any time, but now particularly so. I hold no particular torch for Richmond House, but I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for bringing to my attention the fact that it is perhaps possible to establish an alternative temporary Chamber within the footprint of the building. I hope that that idea is explored thoroughly rather than the current plans. This Parliament—the Commons and the Lords—has met in here in Westminster for centuries, and I hope that in the fullness of time it will do so for centuries to come.
Let us be honest: this is not a building; it is the home of our nation. Great events happen here. From Charles, King and martyr, who was condemned to die here, to William Rufus building Westminster Hall, this is such a monumental building that needs to be preserved and protected. We cannot have another Notre-Dame happening here. We need to protect it; we all agree with that. The question is: how do we do it and what do we need to preserve?
We have talked about the costs. Let us not see this as a cost. Money will be spent, but in the long run and in the medium term, it will save money. On top of that, as we are spending money, let us spend it on British work- men, British goods and British building materials. Let us use this as an opportunity to revitalise our economy—to invest in Britain. As I am sure hon. Members know, the very stone in this building comes from Rother Valley—from North Anston. I commend hon. Members to read a book by my constituent Christine Richardson, which is all about the stone that comes from North Anston. Everyone should enjoy that and get more stone back here from Rother Valley.
On the question of whether we should decamp or stay, I do not think we should decamp. We have a big building here. Yes, there are issues, but we were bombed in the second world war and we moved down to the other place. It is not just a bit of redecorating and refurbishment. We should not leave this building. We should move down to the other place. We should be where the lords are and they should decamp. We are the beating heart of democracy; the other place is not. We need to stay here. It is not beyond the wit of man to understand how to do that. Frankly, to say otherwise is defeatist. I will not have defeatism; I want to invest and continue building here. As I said, we need to use this opportunity to bring back and invest in British quality architecture and British redecorating, and use it to turbo- boost our economy post covid.
I welcome this debate about the mother of all refurbishments. This building is the very fabric of our democracy. The building is steeped in such architectural and political history. It is the very bastion of egalitarianism. How I felt as a newly elected MP walking into the Palace is hard to put into words. Every single day I feel the sense of history that this building represents, and the bond that it has with the fabric of this great and united nation and those who have gone before me.
But what strikes me most is how much this building—this great place—means to those who work here: the staff who make this place work, from to the Clerks, to the Doormen, to those in the Tea Room who make the best jerk sauce on this earth. With their dedication, their loyalty, their own sense of history and purpose in being here, and their pride, they are truly the loyal custodians of this great place.
We should not forget that this building stood tall and towered over covid-19. No matter how it has tried to change our world order, no matter how vindictive it has been, it did not overthrow democracy, and here we will all remain. For me, it is covid-19 that unlocks the answer to what we need to do—that is, we must continue to debate and continue the scrutiny of Government. We need this great place to remain open to ensure that that continues. This is not just a refurbishment project about bricks and mortar; it is a project to ensure that this great symbol of our democracy remains every single day. I hope the way forward will be the mother of all workarounds, protecting one of the world’s most recognisable buildings and protecting democracy. But whatever we do, we must do it prudently and safely. This is the mother of all Parliaments, which has stood tall for over 900 years—and long may it stand tall for another 900.
I will be very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It does not matter who one talks to in any part of our United Kingdom, or, for that matter, in many countries around the world: the image of the Palace of Westminster and the Elizabeth Tower is the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about a Parliament. This is not just another building project; it is a project to preserve the seat of democracy and to renew this place for many years to come.
During normal times, this place attracts thousands, no millions, of visitors, and one of the incredible things about this being one’s workplace is that occasionally it feels a bit like a zoo as well, with people looking in at what we are doing. That is a good thing. It is democracy in action and we must preserve it. I am very much of the view that in the same way as we care for our statues and monuments around the country, we must care for this historic palace for generations to come, because it is of global importance.
The frustrating thing, as a new Member of Parliament, is that we have been talking about this for 20 years. Now we need action. After 20 years of discussion, and having seen what happened to Notre-Dame, we must not disregard the danger of not taking this action soon. We need value for money, but we also need speed and care and a workforce drawn from the United Kingdom who can bring great craftspeople to this place to create a great place again. Parliamentarians and the public can see how this investment will benefit the future of this Parliament and the future of this great country.
The Leader of the House and I have kept our closing remarks short to allow more Members to speak. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken. The Sponsor Body is the body that will look after our interests, and I have great faith that the hon. Members on it will, on a cross-party basis, look after the interests of Parliament and the costs and keep those at the forefront of their minds. One hon. Member mentioned the Elizabeth Tower. We did not know what was going to be found there, and that is why the costs went up. On Richmond House, I am not sure, but I think there was legionella disease floating around somewhere, so it is important that we see what is going on there.
The review is important because Members can feed their views into it, and yes we are not experts, but the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority do have experts on them. I agree with the many Members who have said we cannot do the work because all the services are connected. We do have to decant somewhere, although it might be for the Sponsor Body to provide an answer to that.
I feel sorry for new Members, because they have not been part of the debate, but I think the models were shown to them all at the induction day, so they knew this was coming down the line. I am pleased that many of them have taken part in this debate. We do not know the outcome of the review. Let us wait and see what comes up.
I want to conclude with a quote from the restoration and renewal programme’s vision. That vision is
“to transform the Houses of Parliament to be fit for the future as the working home for our parliamentary democracy, welcoming to all and a celebration of our rich heritage.”
To coin a phrase: let’s get going.
I obviously cannot respond to every point made, but if any have been made that require a response, I will write to right hon. and hon. Members. I also encourage those Members who did not get called to speak to send their speeches to the challenge panel of the review board so that their views can be on the record. That is very important. If any Members have left the Chamber already, I will make sure they are notified of that suggestion. I will also send a copy of today’s Hansard to the challenge panel so that they have the views of all right hon. and hon. Members.
This has been an excellent debate. We have listened to a lot of new and developed thinking, including some fresh thinking from Members who entered in 2019, which is extraordinarily helpful. Two things are clear. One is how proud we are of this extraordinary building. We have heard Churchill quoted about how we make our buildings and then they make us. That comment is so right. How proud we are of this magnificent building, which symbolises the democracy we cherish and the pride we take in it.
The other thing that we realise is that in a time of economic difficulty we cannot spend vast amounts of money without ensuring that there is value for money. Everything that is done must be done with value for money in mind. If we have to take a little bit of inconvenience, so be it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Restoration and Renewal.