House of Lords
Wednesday 13 July 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.
Retirement of a Member: Lord Vinson
My Lords, I should like to notify the House of the retirement, with effect from today, of the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, pursuant to Section 1 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. On behalf of the House, I thank the noble Lord for his much-valued service to the House.
My Lords, the United Kingdom continues to engage closely and regularly with our NATO allies as a key part of our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary represented the UK at the recent NATO summit in Madrid at which NATO stated its unequivocal support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. At the summit, the Prime Minister also encouraged fellow leaders to increase their economic, military and political support to Ukraine and announced a further £1 billion of UK military aid to Ukraine. We will continue to act alongside our NATO allies to counter Russian aggression.
We have on the one hand the brutal and unrelenting savagery of Putin’s army and, on the other, the inflexible commitment of Ukraine to a conflict which is already seven years old, where the only war aim is the total withdrawal of Russian forces. On what basis can the European powers justify indefinite spending on a war which is causing global inflation, insecurity across Europe and poverty at home, and which now threatens a winter with many people dying of the cold? When will wisdom and the need to negotiate trump wishful thinking?
My Lords, it is wisdom which ensures that we stand up united against anyone who aggresses in the way that Russia has. We are doing so with our European allies, the US and others. The noble Lord describes the conflict as one that is seven years old, but what is very true is that Crimea was annexed illegally; it is occupied illegally. We need to ensure that Russia stops this and the very issues the noble Lord alluded to, and it can do it now. Pull back and stop the war.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the coldest winter that Europe—and, indeed, the rest of the world—could possibly experience would be if Russa were to win this vicious war that it started? This war cannot succeed in the way that Russia wants if the rest of the world is to move forward.
My Lords, on these Benches, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, we believe that Russia needs to be defeated. But, as we are moving towards the Summer Recess, can the Minister say what wider scenario planning NATO is doing, beyond what is happening in Ukraine? August is often a difficult month. What is the FCDO doing to ensure that a Minister will always be in place over the summer?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, there always is a Minister at the FCDO over the summer—as I was. Some of us cancelled our holidays to ensure that we were there. I assure the noble Baroness that, even when people take deserved holidays, there is always substantial experienced cover, as will be the case for this crisis and others. On the noble Baroness’s first point, of course we are working and engaged with our G7 and NATO partners. Later this afternoon, I will leave for The Hague to look specifically at accountability for the crimes that are being committed daily in Ukraine.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. This is why we are working with our key partners, and with 42 other member states on issues at the ICJ. As I said, I am leaving for The Hague to meet the prosecutors from the ICC and Ukraine to see what further assistance and support we can provide to ensure that crimes are documented, that victims get the hope they need, that Ukraine gets the support it needs and that we can bring justice.
My Lords, the Minister knows the Official Opposition’s position: we are at one with the Government on ensuring that Russia’s aggression is defeated and that any future negotiations must be led by President Zelensky—there is no alternative to that. I will be a little political with the Minister: last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that we were committed to 2.3% defence spending and that Ukraine was a major cause of this. We now have a Chancellor saying that every department should cut 20%. I admire the Minister’s longevity in post, and I do not want to harm it, but can he tell us where that 20% cut will be made in the MoD and the FCDO? This matters in the fight for Ukraine.
My Lords, the noble Lord will not need to wait too long to see what happens with the leadership of the Conservative Party and our country. There are some very able candidates for Prime Minister and leader of the party. But, on the more substantial point, the Ministry of Defence and the FCDO are fully equipped, engaging diplomatically and militarily. As I said, we have made an additional commitment of £1 billion in support and defence of Ukraine.
My Lords, as this conflict in Ukraine is unlikely to be over quickly, what discussions are Her Majesty’s Government and European colleagues having with the Government of Ukraine about a sustainable economic model for Ukraine, particularly in the agricultural sector and with regard to agricultural exports?
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord raises an extremely important point. We are working closely with Ukraine and are one of the leading donors. Our total commitment is £3.8 billion, including £1.3 billion in guarantees for EBRD and World Bank lending to Ukraine. This is coupled with £220 million of humanitarian support. The noble and gallant Lord is right to draw attention to the food crisis. From a global perspective, an estimated 300 million people will suffer because of the war in Ukraine by the end of this year. We are looking towards working with key allies, including Turkey, to seek alternative routes to shift that grain from Ukraine.
My Lords, it is a national disgrace that our Armed Forces are not actually ready today for peer-on-peer war. Our commitment to the new NATO strategic concept in Army terms is an armoured division. The Chief of the Defence Staff has said that we will have an armoured division ready for peer-on-peer warfare with the right stockpiles and weapons in the 2030s, 10 years away. Does the Minister not agree that that is too long a timescale and that, at the very least, we should spend money today on getting our defence firms to produce equipment and weapons on a 24/7 basis to restock our stockpiles and provide weapons to the Ukrainians?
As I have said to the noble Lord on numerous occasions, I agree on the principle that we need to be ready to ensure that we meet the challenges that we face. That is why we have been able to stand ready to support Ukraine with the support that we have extended, as the noble Lord well knows. Of course, he has made a number of points on the importance of spending now and investing now to meet the challenges of the future, and I am sure that is something that my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence have taken into account.
My Lords, the unlawful and illegal invasion of Ukraine was carried out following an intention not to invade by such people as Lavrov and Putin, and it now continues with the world watching. It is good to see that allies are providing munitions, particularly precision long-distance artillery. Can the Minister—who I have to say is an excellent Minister—give the House an assurance that such critical support will continue until every Russian invader is removed from Ukraine?
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. On the issue of Ukraine, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, summed it up very well. We stand united with Ukraine; it is right that Ukraine leads the efforts in terms of any discussions, including those on peace. We, as an ally, partner and constructive friend, stand strong in our support on humanitarian issues, on the economy and on the military. We stand with Ukraine in every sense. I wish to record the broad range of support across your Lordships’ House —indeed, across both Houses—in support of this central and key objective.
My Lords, when later today the Minister has talks with Karim Khan, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, will he talk to him about the use of starvation as a weapon of war, which is a war crime? Will he refer specifically to the burning of Ukrainian wheat fields over the past few days, as well as the blockading of the export of grain to countries in the third world, but specifically into famine-ridden countries that are already facing drought, locusts and the rest, in the Horn of Africa and east Africa?
My Lords, I shall actually be seeing Karim Khan tomorrow, I think—by the time I get there it will be quite late. On the specific points, I have a bilateral whereby I shall be engaging with him on the very points that the noble Lord raises about the increasing level and spectrum of crimes that are taking place in Ukraine against the people of Ukraine, including conflict-related sexual violence. We will be documenting it—that is why the UK has led the way in ensuring that Ukraine’s own prosecutor, who visited the UK, is equipped not just with money and the technical support she needs but with the expertise, including that of Sir Howard Morrison, that is helping her directly in ensuring that those crimes can be documented so that we see successful prosecutions.
Cost of Living: Low Income Families with Children
My Lords, our £37 billion cost of living package is particularly focused on low-income households. Children living in families receiving qualifying means-tested benefits will receive the cost of living payment of £650 in two instalments. Households with a domestic electricity bill will receive the £400 energy bill rebate. We require at least a third of the current £421 million household support fund in England to be spent on supporting households with children. That fund will continue with a further £421 million from October, for which guidance will be announced in due course. The devolved Administrations have received separate funding through the Barnett consequentials.
My Lords, children, especially those in larger or lone-parent families, are at disproportionate risk of poverty. This has been made worse by a decade of social security cuts. Children in poverty are among those hardest hit by the cost of living crisis. Ministers stress that the latest help with the crisis targets those who most need it, yet, as the Children’s Commissioner lamented last week, children were overlooked—and not for the first time. What will the Government now do to ensure there is specific support —not discretionary support through local authorities but specific, as of right, national support for children—as the cost of living crisis worsens this autumn?
The Government’s position is that we have made money available throughout the cost of living crisis. We are doing extra things for children, such as free school meals and all the other holiday support payments. As it stands at the moment, I am not able to say if we will be doing anything further. As we have always promised, we keep everything under review and respond where we can.
We are spending over £5 billion for qualifying means-tested benefits, which is around £2 billion more than the additional cost had the qualifying benefits been increased in July 2022 to 9% higher than the previous year. By delivering flat-rate payments at pace we can make transfers to over 8 million people, and 6 million disabled people. The IFS has said that government support means that, on average, the poorest households will be approximately compensated for the rising cost of living this year. The Resolution Foundation said that the May 2022 packages were highly progressive. There is support for what the Government are doing.
The two-child limit on universal credit is the subject of much debate, and much angst for many people. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham has a Private Member’s Bill going through Parliament, and no doubt that will be discussed in full. As I have said before, the Government keep everything under review.
Is the Minister aware that children in lone-parent families are almost twice as likely to be in poverty than children in two-parent families? The evidence is overwhelming, as recorded in a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Does she believe that all children deserve a decent start in life and, if so, what measures will the Government be taking to ensure that these children do not suffer a double disadvantage?
Of course we agree. All young children should have a good start in life, even if their circumstances vary. I pick up on the point about lone-parent families that the noble Baroness raises. I have received a number of documents from Gingerbread, which is a real advocate for this and does a terrific job. One of the ways in which we can help is to make sure that people who should pay child maintenance actually pay it. I know there is a lot of criticism of the Child Maintenance Service, and I for one would not stand here and say it is perfect. But let me tell the noble Baroness that we are using enforcement powers, because that is one way we can get money to children who really need it.
My Lords, Loughborough University research shows that the temporary £20 uplift to universal credit helped reduce the number of children in poverty from 3.8 million to 3.6 million. That is a sizeable amount, without a shadow of a doubt. The report warns that the decision to end the uplift threatens to reverse this positive trend, and that in-work poverty has now become a major issue for many families. Does the Minister agree that the Government should be taking every possible step to reduce the scandal of child poverty, starting with restoring the uplift and raising social security by at least the rate of inflation, so that no child has to stare poverty in the face?
I think it was said by our previous Chancellor and many others that the Government cannot solve every problem. That does not mean that we reduce our efforts to do so. The £20 uplift was, at the risk of boring everybody, a temporary measure and has been stopped, but we will have the annual uprating of benefits and the Secretary of State will look at it in September this year.
My Lords, with the increased cost of living hitting many families who are continually trying to balance their finances day by day, just how did the Government arrive at these amounts for cost of living payments? Does my noble friend think they are enough?
I have listened to the questions today and there is a real swell of opinion that the payments are not enough—I doubt that we could ever do enough. The package of measures we have provided is designed to target support to those most in need. It will make a real difference and, I am sure, help people through these very difficult times.
My Lords, I fully accept that the Government cannot solve every problem, but one of the problems is that they cut billions off the value of benefits and tax credits, which meant that we went into the pandemic and then the cost of living crisis with families unable to manage. The Government’s response, which is welcome, is to give exactly the same amount of money to a single person living on their own as to a couple with three children, even though their costs of energy, clothes, shoes and everything else are way higher. Does the Minister not accept that families out there are seriously desperate and need more help?
I accept that families are struggling and that some are desperate. We have tried to make the process of giving the money we are giving as simple and unbureaucratic as possible. That is why we are making the payments as we are, starting this week, I think. We hope to have them all done by the end of July.
On free school meals, children will get what we have already announced. We are not proposing to increase free school meals rates to reflect rising inflation at the moment. They will get their holiday breakfast clubs and the support we have previously announced.
My Lords, in her initial Answer, my noble friend mentioned the household support fund, which gives valuable support to low-income families. It was due to close in September, but I think she announced that it will now be extended into October, which is welcome news. Can she give guidance to local authorities so that there is some similarity in the assistance given to low-income families and not a postcode lottery?
It is correct that the household support fund has been extended until March 2023. The Government have kept it under review and extended it where possible and appropriate. The guidance for the household support fund is being written, and there will be a heavy emphasis on one-third of that money going to families with children.
We will have a new Prime Minister and anything could happen with jobs, so I will wait until then—before I get my P45. As soon as I can tell the noble Lord and the whole House what we can do, believe me, I will be the first one here to do so.
HS2: Speed Restrictions
My Lords, HS2 Ltd has undertaken ground investigations to increase the understanding of geological risks associated with settlement. This work supplements examination of information from the British Geological Survey, historic boreholes, salt extraction operators and action groups. This information has informed the current design.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that helpful Answer. She will be aware that underneath the area where the line goes north of Crewe, there are caverns that are 200 metres high, and only 25% of the salt is remaining and the rest has been extracted. It has been settling for 100 years and probably will continue to settle for that length of time. What is HS2 going to do to ensure that the line remains straight and level, which is necessary for high-speed rail work?
Of course, HS2 is well aware of what has happened underneath the Cheshire Basin, and I noted in my previous Answer that groundworks have been undertaken. I am pleased to reassure the noble Lord that that is not the end of it. Plenty more work still needs to be done. A full programme of ground investigations across the entire route will happen between 2023 and late 2025. HS2 is confident that the line can be built on this route at an appropriate cost.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. Is it not the case that the Bill will have detailed consideration in Committee, which it is about to enter in the other place? This is the biggest increase in rail capacity in our country’s recent history, and the simple fact is that it will do more to increase capacity on our rail network than any other project currently being looked at by the Government.
My noble friend is absolutely right. The Bill for this leg of the HS2 project had its Second Reading in the other place on 20 June. As noble Lords may recall from the phase 2a Bill, which was before your Lordships’ House recently, it now goes into a very detailed process of petitioning, which is really important as it allows local people to raise detailed concerns about the project. Obviously, it is key that we keep as many stakeholders as content as possible.
My Lords, I know from serving on an HS2 Select Committee how vital it is for the track to meet the highest standard, particularly in challenging areas like the Cheshire salt mines, to prevent perturbation of the timetable. With today’s announcement of railway speed limits because of concerns about the effect of hot weather on current tracks, is the Minister satisfied that the high-quality steel being used for HS2 will cope with the likelihood that climate change will lead to more regular and more extreme hot spells?
Of course, these are all considerations when we consider how the railway is to be designed and subsequently constructed. It is the case that where changes are necessary, HS2 is willing to look at them. For example, the 2016 route refinement consultation shifted the route slightly to take into account the salt mines in the Cheshire Basin. When issues come before us, we are able to make appropriate changes.
My Lords, the way things are going down the other end, these salt mines might prove useful. On the substance of question, the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, is right: this is a project to increase capacity; it is not just about speed. All the Government’s stop-go on this project has bedevilled it. It is about time they rushed ahead with it, got back to its original concept and had it going all the way up to Scotland.
It is the case that we have to get this project right. It has to be delivered within a reasonable cost, and it must actually be deliverable. As I have said previously, the Government are always willing to look at better solutions for Scotland. For example, the union connectivity review concluded that the Golborne link would not resolve all the capacity constraints on the west coast main line, Crewe to Preston, and would therefore not provide the benefits to Scotland. We are taking that away, and we are working on more options such that we can keep Scotland really well connected.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership. The Minister mentioned the Golborne link and threw doubt on its effectiveness. However, is it not the case that if we are to improve links to the north-west and beyond to Scotland, the Golborne link provides a very substantial improvement? As such, it is not going to assist levelling up in those areas if it is not part of the overall final scheme.
Sir Peter Hendy in his union connectivity review slightly begged to differ, and suggested that there are alternatives that would make for better journeys to Scotland. Nothing is off the table; that may mean new high-speed lines or improvements to existing infrastructure. Of course, any of the options brought forward would have to compare favourably with the Golborne link as originally planned.
My Lords, the spiralling cost of the Great Western electrification programme is a perfect case study of the importance of transparency between government and industry to ensure industry’s preparedness to deliver complex infrastructure projects. Yet that link, the rail network enhancements pipeline, remains unpublished. Given that, how can we expect HS2 to be delivered on time and on budget when maintaining transparency with the rail industry is not a priority for this Government?
My Lords, in November, the Government decided to terminate the eastern leg of HS2 in the Midlands rather than at Leeds, as originally promised. When they were criticised for abandoning their policy on the grounds that it would affect levelling up, the Government promised £100 million to look at alternative ways to run HS2 trains to Leeds. However, eight months on, absolutely nothing has happened in terms of even scoping this study. Is this yet another broken promise from this Government to the people of northern England?
Not at all. Work is of course well under way within the department as to how best to use the £100 million that we have set out to look at the options on the route to Leeds and to finally make some progress on a mass transit system for Leeds. However, one of the key things about the Government’s decision for our plans for high-speed rail in the future is to make sure that we get as close to city centres as possible. In the older plans, it was far too often the case that the train never got anywhere close to the city centre but now places such as Derby and Nottingham will benefit.
My Lords, the report of the Economic Affairs Committee of this House on HS2 predicted that the net result would be that it would run over budget and we would lose the necessary expenditure for east-west improvement of rail services in the north, which has come to pass. Given that the business case was based on the premise that there would be a need for more business travel and given that, as the Civil Service has shown, many people are now working from home, should the business case now be reviewed?
I reassure my noble friend that if there are changes to the budget or to the schedule, that will be put before Parliament in the six-monthly review. I slightly take issue about there being a lack of east-west investment from the Government. The £96 billion that we are investing in the integrated rail plan is a significant amount for east-west connectivity.
My Lords, is the Minister as weary as I must admit I feel from time to time of endless questions about the difficulties and problems associated with building a railway? Some 180 years ago, the Victorians managed to put bridges over estuaries, tunnels through hills and build railways over marshland, and heaven knows whatever else, and we seem to be incapable of proceeding because we are worried about salt mines in Crewe.
I cannot recall 180 years ago, but it sounds idyllic. It is absolutely right that the Government should receive the correct amount of scrutiny, this is an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money, and we want the line built as soon as possible.
Tax Cuts: Fiscal Impact
Her Majesty’s Treasury does not produce fiscal forecasts; the independent Office for Budget Responsibility sets out its projections for the economy, including fiscal indicators, in the Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which will be updated and published alongside future fiscal events. This process includes certifying costings for and any changes to government tax policy. The Government keep all taxes under review and will set out any reforms at future fiscal events.
I thank the Minister for all that. With social care falling apart, the NHS teetering, abysmal UK productivity and skills, our Armed Forces underfunded and millions, including universal credit recipients, struggling with record food, fuel and energy costs as inflation surges, how on earth can Tory leadership candidates credibly outbid each other with tax cuts? Britain has suffered more than 10 years of savage Tory austerity, and now the Tories are promising even more, destroying any hope of kickstarting growth, currently the lowest in the G7. After a mendacious serial rule-breaker as Prime Minister, can we please have some honesty and responsibility from his would-be successors?
My Lords, all I can talk about is this Government’s record, rather than speculating on the future. That is a record of repairing the public finances, protecting jobs during the pandemic through the furlough scheme, delivering cost of living support worth £37 billion this year to help people, and investing in the future in skills, infrastructure, levelling up and cutting carbon from our economy faster than any other G7 nation.
My Lords, do the Government agree that our growth is forecast to be somewhere between 0% and 1% next year and our level of business investment is the lowest in the G7? Should we not be prioritising investment that leads to growth of at least 2% a year? Should we not cut taxes rather than have the highest tax burden in 70 years, which hampers growth and investment, including inward investment?
My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will join me in welcoming the better than expected growth figures that we saw today, but he is right we need to continue to invest in our economy. That is why we are investing in our future skills system and more in infrastructure across the UK, and we will continue to do so to drive growth in our economy.
My Lords, the cruel inflation which has hurt so many families and so many businesses has delivered the Government a bumper windfall in value added tax, now estimated to be well north of £40 billion. Will she campaign to her friends in the other place and ask them to use that money to get rid of the increase in national insurance contributions, for the sake of individuals, but also of businesses, which need that money? Will she also ask them to keep the increase in the threshold?
My Lords, I think my friends in the other place are doing a good job of campaigning themselves. My understanding is that, although VAT receipts are higher, the fact that individuals are spending more of their money on things such as energy, which have a lower rate of VAT, means that the latest OBR forecasts saw overall government receipts from VAT reducing in the next year.
My Lords, the contenders for the Conservative Party leadership, which include the Chancellor, have promised tax cuts adding up to £235 billion, without any consideration of their funding or the consequences of such cuts. Will the Minister publish a list of the courses the Chancellor has attended on economic literacy?
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there would be widespread opportunity for cutting taxes for millions of people across the country if the tax base was widened, such as by taxing large online companies or being rather less generous on offshore taxation? There is also the potential for reform of council tax and business rates, which could bring in more revenue.
My Lords, the Government have taken a number of initiatives in the areas that my noble friend refers to, including the reform of business rates and looking at an online sales tax. She is right that, as our economy changes, we must always look at how our tax system can keep up with it. On tax cuts, the most recent tax change brought in by this Government happened this month, the largest ever increase in a personal tax starting threshold, which took an additional 2.2 million people out of paying class 1 and class 4 national insurance contributions.
My Lords, the Government argue that rising inflation is a global challenge. However, the IMF and the OECD have warned that when put alongside comparable economies, the UK carries a much bigger risk of persistent high rates. This is bad for household budgets and consumer confidence. What is it about 12 years of Conservative control of the economy that has left us in this position?
The noble Lord will know that it is international factors that are driving high rates of inflation, including supply chain disruption after the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. However, he is right that the UK has a combination of factors. It is more exposed to higher energy prices than economies such as the US and it has a tighter labour market than fellow European countries. These put us in a slightly different position. However, people should be reassured that the Government are absolutely determined to tackle inflation. We have a plan that will bring it back under control.
My Lords, the Minister said that the Government have been successful in repairing the country’s finances. However, at the end of April, the net public sector deficit stood at nearly 95.7% of GBP, almost an all-time high for this country. Of course, Covid accounts for part of that, but can she elaborate on how the country’s finances have been rebuilt?
The noble Baroness says that Covid accounts for part of that. The Covid pandemic caused the biggest recession that we have seen in a generation. The response was the biggest galvanising of government action, in both our healthcare response and our response to support the economy. We were in a position to do that because we had taken responsible decisions in the lead-up to that period. If we look at how we are coming out of that period, the public finances will be returning to a more stable footing.
My Lords, the three lockdowns during the pandemic cost the economy £370 billion, and that was without the added costs for Covid. The taxes on fuel and energy are not being passed on to the consumer when we are putting reductions in place. Can my noble friend pleased look into this, as the cost of bills and fuel for the transport sector is absolutely excruciating? This must be addressed urgently.
My noble friend talked about the impact of the lockdowns. They had a significant economic impact but also a significant social impact—for example, on children who were unable to go to school during those periods. However, our vaccine rollout meant that we could come out of that cycle of lockdowns earlier than many other countries. On her point about the tax cuts on fuel that we put in place to help with the cost of living, we have been very clear that they must be passed on to consumers. The Competition and Markets Authority has also been clear to retailers that this is the expectation.
Given that we still have many social security benefits based on contributions, can the Minister explain how taking people out of being able to pay the national insurance contributions does not, in the medium and long-term, affect their right to contributory benefits?
I can reassure the noble Lord that the threshold at which the tax is paid is different from that at which the credits towards contributory benefits are earned, so increasing the threshold where people are paying the tax has not affected their ability to accrue those rights.
My Lords, could the Minister explain how the Government will reconcile tax cuts, which seem to be the subject for the majority of Conservative Party leadership candidates, with the pressing need to bear down on inflation and high costs?
It is possible to put more money into people’s pockets—for example, through the national insurance threshold rise—without having a disproportionate impact on inflation. Similarly, we have been able to make our cost of living payments while bearing in mind the noble Baroness’s exact point: we need to be careful of inflation as we make those policy changes.
Leasehold Reform (Reasonableness of Service Charges) Bill [HL]
A Bill to amend the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 to provide for service charges to be reduced where they do not reflect the landlord’s actual costs in providing goods and services; to make fixed service charges subject to reasonableness requirements; to amend the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 to make the same changes; and for connected purposes.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Kennedy of Cradley, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Commons Urgent Question
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia and the Middle East to an Urgent Question in another place on the state of emergency declared today in Sri Lanka. The Statement is as follows:
“We are closely monitoring the fast-moving and fluid political, economic and security situation in Sri Lanka. The Minister of State for South Asia has engaged directly with our high commissioner and the team on the ground. We encourage all sides to find a peaceful, democratic and inclusive approach to resolving the current political and economic challenges.
Sri Lanka’s political and economic challenges should be resolved through an inclusive and cross-party process. Any transition of power should be peaceful, constitutional and democratic, and I call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that response. Sri Lanka is now facing a state of paralysis and desperately needs a Government with popular support to emerge from this chaos. There is a desperate humanitarian crisis and Amanda Milling said in the other place that our support is being channelled through multilateral institutions, without providing any details. My honourable friend Catherine West asked the Minister to outline the immediate support offered to Sri Lanka, including through engagement with regional partners such as India. Since no answer was given by Amanda Milling, can the Minister now provide one?
As the Minister of State for South Asia, I have been engaging directly on this issue. We are working with, for example, the Red Cross on its disaster relief emergency fund and its operation in Sri Lanka. We are providing direct support, including essential medicine, first aid and psychosocial support. We are also working through various UN agencies, based on their assessments, with a plan launched on 9 June. The Humanitarian Needs and Priorities Plan called for $47.2 million to provide lifesaving assistance, and we are supporting that directly through the UN. The World Bank has also announced assistance of $400 million, which includes funds for medicines and medical equipment, and we are looking at that. I assure the noble Lord that, on the state of emergency, I have again today instructed officials to look at what bilateral support we can provide. I acknowledge his point and I am very much on it: we are seeing how we can engage constructively with India as a near partner and friend to Sri Lanka.
My Lords, I agree with the Minister on the need for a peaceful transition back to stability. While he and I were in Kigali—he was representing the UK Government at the ministerials at CHOGM—two Sri Lankan Ministers were in Moscow negotiating the purchase of Russian oil. Can the Minister expand on the practical steps the UK can take—both the direct support we can offer, and bilateral support through the Commonwealth—to ensure that Putin does not exploit the instability in Sri Lanka, because he certainly wants to?
My Lords, the noble Lord’s point about Mr Putin would apply in many instances. I met with Foreign Minister Peiris while I was in Kigali, specifically regarding the current state of play. He remains in position, notwithstanding the appointment of the Prime Minister as the acting President.
As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are looking at how we can best channel our support through agencies on the ground. The UN is present, and we are engaging with other key partners. As the noble Lord will acknowledge, the UK is also looking at what has caused this crisis, which is an economic crisis. When I was in Sri Lanka and I met with the then Administration, I implored them to consider the importance of not just talking to the IMF but working through a specific plan. I believe that we have the fifth-largest quota share when it comes to the IMF, and we are working very constructively. Sri Lanka needs political stability, but the underlying cause and problem remains the economics. We are working with the IMF on that programme.
My Lords, we are certainly watching that space very closely. Communal tensions arise in any conflict where communities perhaps seek to assign blame to another community. We are also looking very carefully at pre-existing religious tensions. Although there have been raids into the presidential compound and the Prime Minister’s residence, we have not yet seen or monitored an increase in communal tension between the two major communities in Sri Lanka.
My Lords, Sri Lanka has a dark history of human rights abuses, the vast majority being perpetrated with complete impunity. Today’s fear, with the announcement of a state of emergency coupled with political instability, is that these terrible atrocities will begin again. What conversations has the Minister or any of his colleagues had with our partners about how we can avoid these fears being realised? On the issue of impunity, it appears that the Rajapaksa brothers are intent on going to the United States of America. Can we have some conversations with our American ally about whether the impunity they have enjoyed up until now will survive that transfer to the USA?
My Lords, the noble Lord talks about impunity regarding conflicts past, particularly the civil war. That is why the United Kingdom has led on Resolution 46/1 at the Human Rights Council. When I was last in Geneva, I engaged directly with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, saying that we would sustain our support for it. That remains an important issue, and I am sure it will be a point of discussion when the UNHRC returns in September.
As to the current situation with the previous Administration, including Mr Rajapaksa and other members of his family, countries will make their own determinations but we want the perpetrators of the civil war to be held to account. Equally, we want to ensure that the communities that suffered do not see the conflicts of the past occur again.
My Lords, I will not comment specifically on the current situation with the previous President—we still await the final formal resignation. As to what will happen regarding his future, determinations will be made. At the moment we are focusing on the economic and political stability which will lend itself to whatever future inclusive Government are formed in Sri Lanka, to allow for full accountability for whoever needs to be held to account.
My Lords, as the noble Lord will know from his own insight, we do not keep specific track of the numbers there, but we have a very strong Sri Lankan diaspora here in United Kingdom and many dual nationals. On Saturday I spoke to our chargé on the ground to ensure that we have the support in post for any increase in consular inquiries. There had been no increase, certainly up until Saturday. I also convened a meeting this morning to ensure that there is a specific plan regarding the humanitarian, economic and political support we can provide with key partners, but also the support we can provide to British citizens seeking to leave, as the noble Lord highlights. We have the experiences of Covid repatriation and other crises, which will ensure that, if and when required, we can mobilise the resources we need in Colombo and here in London to provide the support UK citizens might need.
My Lords, following on from the Minister’s answer to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, he said that people have to be held to account, but he also referred to countries to which the President might flee making their own decisions. There were rumours this morning that the President was intending to flee to the UAE. If the Minister does indeed think that people should be held to account, it is surely incumbent on us to engage with the country in question—be it the UAE or the US—to try to ensure that it is not seen as a safe haven that people can flee to and escape potentially being held to account in the way the Minister says he wishes to see.
My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness knows me well enough to know that when I say that people should be held to account, we would follow through on that. I am not going to speculate; there are a lot of rumours as to where particular people may seek to travel. Those are conversations to be had as and when we know the full facts, and then we will act accordingly.
My Lords, the Chinese have had considerable involvement with Sri Lanka and, indeed, have effectively got control of a deep-water port as part of their belt and road initiative. Are we aware of any Chinese involvement—or any actions at all—in what is going on there at the moment?
On the noble Lord’s first observation, he is of course absolutely right. As with a number of other countries, Chinese infrastructure support—economic support—in Sri Lanka has in itself had a quite disabling effect on its economy. Regarding the noble Lord’s second question, I am certainly not aware of any specific engagement or involvement of that nature.
My Lords, we have not looked at that specifically. What we have said, as I have already indicated, is that our focus is and must be first and foremost on the humanitarian situation. As I have said in previous answers to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, if at all possible that includes where, how and to what extent we can channel humanitarian support bilaterally, particularly food. Equally, the next important element should be political and economic stability, and that is what the Government are focused on.
Ambulance Services and National Heatwave Emergency
Commons Urgent Question
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question asked in the House of Commons today.
“Our ambulance service performs heroics every single day, and I put on the record my thanks to every single one of them for all their dedication and hard work. We have a duty to support this vital service and give it the resources and support it needs.
The latest figures from the NHS in England show that ambulance service response time performance has improved month on month, and that ambulance hours lost are also improving month on month. However, we fully acknowledge the rising pressures facing the service, and there are three significant factors influencing these. First, bed occupancy is currently around 93%, which we would normally see around wintertime. We know there are high rates of Covid admissions in hospital—that is either people ‘with Covid’ or ‘because of Covid’—and that puts pressure on A&Es’ ability to admit patients. We are roughly running on void beds of around 1,200 and part of this is because of the 16% increase in the length of stays. We also have pressures of delayed discharges: they remain flat, but a significant influence. We also have record numbers of calls to the ambulance service—100,000 more today compared with last year—so there is significant pressure on the system.
We also have to be mindful of the weather in the coming days. We have the Heatwave Plan for England, which was published earlier this year, and the hot weather plans that NHS trusts are able to put in place. We have also been providing sector-specific guidance setting out the best ways to protect people who might be at risk. As well as this specific support for hot weather, we are doing everything in our power to support the ambulance system more widely to make sure that it has the resilience it needs. We have allocated £150 million of extra funding to respond to ambulance service pressures in 2022-23, and we are boosting the workforce too. The number of national 999 call handlers had risen to nearly 2,300 at the start of June, which is a considerable increase on the previous September, and Health Education England has been mandated to train 3,000 paramedic graduates nationally per year during 2021 to 2024. On top of this, we have invested £50 million in NHS 111 in England for 2022-23 to give this vital service extra capacity, helping us to reduce demand on the ambulance service.
I will be meeting ambulance trusts over the coming days to make sure that we have the capacity and the resilience not just for these important few days but for the winter months too. This is an important issue that we are taking extremely seriously, and we will keep the House updated as the situation develops.”
My Lords, every ambulance service is on the highest level of alert. Just yesterday, the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives spoke of the intense pressure on the system. This is not new. As the Minister acknowledges, a maelstrom of long-standing factors is causing massive delays, leaving ambulances stuck outside hospitals unable to transfer patients, staff shortages exacerbated by the spike in Covid and, on top of this, a heatwave generating more 999 calls. Can the Minister confirm whether further COBRA meetings are planned? How are the Government prepared for the impact of this heatwave on health and care services? What communications are planned to ensure public safety?
My Lords, there are well-established and well-practised co-ordination and escalation procedures in place to manage cross-system and cross-government impacts at all levels. These are activated when appropriate and on the basis of subsidiarity. UKHSA public health advice is being regularly updated and communicated for everyone to stay safe in the heat. As noble Lords will know, today the UKHSA and the Met Office have announced that all nine English regions will be under a level 3 heat alert from Saturday 16 to Tuesday 19 July. The heat alert system runs during the summer. Depending on the level of alert, a response will be triggered to communicate the risk to the NHS, government and public health systems. Advice and information for the public and health and social care professionals, particularly those working with at-risk groups, are provided, including both general preparation for hot weather and more specific advice when a severe heatwave has been forecast.
My Lords, delayed discharges account for more than 2.5 million lost bed days in NHS hospitals. With the greatest respect, organisational reorganisation will not deal with the gross underfunding of social care that means ambulances spend hours outside A&E. What are the Government going to do now to deal with the crisis in social care funding, which causes ambulances to wait outside hospitals?
My Lords, as the noble Lord will know very well, we have put increased funding into our social care system, but we also have in place a national discharge task force to drive further progress and support regional and local system arrangements. That has membership from local government, the NHS and national government. Local health and social care partners are already standing up the use of additional action to support discharge and improve patient flow. The task force is looking at a number of interventions—for example, identifying patients needing complex discharge support early and ensuring multidisciplinary engagement in the early discharge plan. There is more support going into social care, but there is also a specific piece of work with the national discharge task force.
My Lords, have not the Government created the perfect storm? First, they cut the number of beds available, then they cut social care, then they do not plan for the number of doctors that we need, then they have Covid and now they have heat. What are the Government doing to address the long-term problem of hospitals that are underfunded and do not have enough beds, not enough GPs, accident and emergency units stopping functioning and the ambulance services being in crisis? What are the Government doing?
My Lords, I am not sure that the Government are responsible for Covid. The pressures that we have seen on ambulances have come since the pandemic; we were seeing a much more effective ambulance service prior to that. But we need to fix that so, as well as the specific action that we are taking to improve resources in ambulances, including more staff, more call handlers and more funding into the 111 service, we also have a long-term plan for the NHS that is putting record funding into the NHS. We have also created integrated care boards to ensure integration between health and social care in local areas.
My Lords, the Minister talked about boosting the workforce and then she referred to the NHS training 3,000 new ambulance staff. How far does that go to fill the gap in retention and recruitment, what else is being done to boost the number of people we need to create a resilient ambulance service and when will we arrive at that point?
The noble Baroness is right that, as well as additional training and recruitment, retention will be a really important part of the picture. The Government have put in place additional support save-line3for ambulance staff to ensure that retention continues. My understanding is that the target to train 3,000 paramedic graduates a year nationally between 2021 and 2024 will help the domestic paramedic workforce meet the future demands on the service. I also reassure the noble Baroness that ambulance staff and support staff have increased by almost 40% since February 2010.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am a member of the Order of St John in Northern Ireland—and therefore St John Ambulance—and we do not have a heatwave. Can I ask the Minister: what consultations have gone on with volunteer ambulance services in England, of which there are several, what has been the result of those and how many ambulances are they prepared to put on standby in order to support the ambulance service?
My Lords, I know that both the Department for Health and Social Care and NHS England have a strong working relationship with the organisations that the noble Viscount has mentioned. On the detail of that work in terms of the heat health alert, I will have to write to him.
My Lords, handover times at hospitals of nine hours are not uncommon and 26 hours is not unheard of. What are the Government doing to ensure that the other emergency services are working in co-ordination with the ambulance service to make sure that people who need urgent care are getting it?
My Lords, I think there has been some co-ordination with other services looking at this issue. Of course, it varies from area to area and NHS England has focused its support on those areas that are struggling the most and account for the largest delays. We have talked about the taskforce to reduce delays in discharge, but the noble Baroness is also right that there is specific work going on to improve the handover process. We are looking to address the delays in every bit of the system that are causing delays up front to ambulance response times.
My Lords, I recently had occasion to contact the ambulance service—10 days ago—and I was struck by the fact that none was going to be available for a considerable period of time. Do government statistics show a difference between the availability of ambulance services in rural areas compared to urban areas?
There are 10 ambulance service trusts and they have differing levels of performance. I acknowledge that across all those 10 trusts there is pressure on the system in rural and urban areas. Our focus is to provide specific support to those trusts that are struggling the most.
My Lords, it is recognised that the difficulty with the handover to social care is one of the reasons for the problems faced by the ambulance service. The Local Government Association, of which I am a vice-president, estimated that there would be a £2.2 billion shortfall in funding for social care within local authorities. What are the Government going to do to address that challenging problem?
My Lords, as I said, the Government have put additional funding into social care. We have also allowed local authorities flexibility in how they approach council tax and their own local precept to support that funding. Funding is an essential part of the picture, as is better co-ordination. We can learn from those areas that are more effective at smooth discharge and ensure that best practice is shared across the country. There are some pilot sites both within the NHS and in social care to try to spread that best practice.
Legislative Reform (Provision of Information etc. Relating to Disabilities) Order 2022
Motion to Approve
Occupational Pension Schemes (Governance and Registration) (Amendment) Regulations 2022
Motion to Approve
Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]
My Lords, as I and many other noble Lords have made clear on numerous occasions, it is a matter of great regret that we have been debating the contents of this Bill in your Lordships’ House. It would have been far preferable had the Bill been taken forward by the Northern Ireland Executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as was originally intended, but that plainly has not happened, which is why we have had to make progress on the important New Decade, New Approach commitments that the Bill delivers within this Parliament.
Since the Bill’s introduction into your Lordships’ House there has been neither a functioning Executive nor an Assembly, and that remains the case. It has therefore not been possible for the Government to seek a legislative consent Motion. My officials have been engaging with counterparts in the Northern Ireland Civil Service throughout the Bill’s passage and will continue to do so. I think I speak for the whole House when I say I hope that, by the time the Bill leaves the other place, such consent will have been given by a restored Executive and Assembly.
My Lords, as we come to the end of the passage of the Bill through your Lordships’ House, I want to place on record my gratitude to all noble Lords who have participated in our debates upon it. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, who speaks with great wisdom as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister who helped negotiate the Belfast agreement in 1998, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for their support for the Bill and their constructive and pragmatic engagement during its passage.
I thank all noble Lords from Northern Ireland for their detailed and insightful contributions. While some of them might not like every aspect of the Bill, and I am sure that their colleagues in the other place will continue to push the Government in a number of areas, I appreciate the collaborative and open manner with which they have engaged with me and put forward their arguments.
It will come as no surprise to many that I found the most enjoyable aspect of the Bill’s passage the debate on the Castlereagh Foundation, the establishment of which the Bill will enable. It provided us with an opportunity in Committee and on Report to discuss the great contribution that Viscount Castlereagh made to Irish, British and European history, not least as the architect of the Act of Union and a key figure in defeating the Bonapartist tyranny in the early part of the 19th century. In doing so, we have benefited immensely from the expert historical knowledge and wisdom of my noble friend Lord Lexden, who I see in his place and to whom I am especially grateful and have been ever since he took the bold decision to employ me 35 years ago.
Finally, I place on record my thanks to my noble friend Lord Younger, my officials from the Northern Ireland Office, the Whips’ Office and all those involved in the Bill’s drafting for their hard work and support. The aim of the legislation is to implement important commitments in New Decade, New Approach, which, noble Lords will recall, led to the restoration of devolved government in January 2020. In remaining faithful to New Decade, New Approach, I am pleased that the Government were able to table amendments to the Bill and to make commitments in response to the debates we had.
As a result, I believe that the Bill is in a better state thanks to your Lordships’ scrutiny. Once again, this demonstrates the value of your Lordships’ House in examining legislation in detail. It is now over to the other place and, I sincerely hope, to a reconstituted Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, to continue and complete the work we have started in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I echo the view of the Minister in the sense that the debates have been very good, informative and useful. They have also been informed from the point of view of many contributions from Members of your Lordships’ House from Northern Ireland, which enhanced the quality of the debate considerably. I thank the Minister for the very civilised way he handled this Bill at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, and all Members of your Lordships’ House who took part.
The Minister rightly says that the Bill is based on New Decade, New Approach, which was an all-party agreement some years ago in Northern Ireland, and the Bill faithfully sticks to that agreement. There have been some improvements and, again, I am so glad that the Minister and the Government were able to accept those changes; for example, to how the Secretary of State’s step-in powers would be dealt with by Parliament. There were also changes, such as the Castlereagh Foundation, which originally was not in the Bill, and in the title of the commissioner for Ulster Scots to add the Ulster-British tradition. These came about because we had a good debate, and because these were sensible things to do.
I wish the Bill well. It is founded on the principles of the Good Friday agreement of equality, of ensuring that people have respect for each other, and of parity of esteem—which came up many times in debate. There is still an opportunity in the House of Commons for further changes to be made, so long as they are in step with the agreements made in Belfast. I wish it well on its legislative journey.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister and his Bill team for the constructive and positive way in which they have engaged with noble Lords on the Bill. I also thank my colleague Elizabeth Plummer in the Lib Dem Whips’ Office for her constant support and knowledge as somebody from Northern Ireland.
The Minister sets an extremely positive example—perhaps the gold standard—with his willingness to listen and make changes, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said. It would be deeply welcome if a similarly constructive and listening approach were to be used for the two other Bills that have not yet reached your Lordships’ House: the legacy Bill and the Northern Ireland protocol Bill. It is unlikely, perhaps, but one can live in hope.
I have two final brief points, if I may. I believe that everyone, including the Minister, has agreed at various stages of the Bill that it would have been much preferred if the Northern Ireland Assembly had been dealing with this Bill. The Northern Ireland Assembly, with all its relevant experience and expertise in being much closer than many of us are here, would have been much better placed to deal with this legislation.
During the slightly unusual and turbulent period that we are going through, I none the less hope that the new Northern Ireland Secretary will allow the Minister to use his many years of experience to leave no stone unturned in helping to bring back a functioning Executive and Assembly as soon as possible. It is in no one’s interest, least of all the people of Northern Ireland, for this current stalemate to continue.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for all his hard work and dedication during the passage of the Bill. I am pleased that he and the Government have accepted the amendments to the title of the Ulster Scots/Ulster British commissioner and acknowledged the important role that the Castlereagh Foundation plays in research and exploring the shifting patterns of social identity in Northern Ireland.
Without wishing to add to the Minister’s workload over the Summer Recess, I ask him whether he would consider looking at two important issues in the Bill, as it makes its way to the other place. First, I believe that the proposal for the Secretary of State to overrule the Northern Ireland Assembly sets a dangerous precedent. Secondly, it needs to be made clear that, although the two commissioners have different functions, they should have equal weight in those functions so that the unionist community can be given an equal opportunity to complain through its commissioners across the spectrum of their function. I hope that these points will be given full consideration when the Bill reaches the other place. I thank the Minister again for all of his advice and work.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, we are grateful to the Minister. A Minister being prepared to be flexible and listen to people makes a difference. But I gently correct the noble Lord, Lord Murphy: the Bill and the agreement did not have all-party support. My party does not support New Decade, New Approach and never did, and we consequently never supported this legislation. Unfortunately, it will ultimately become a grievance factor for people. Certainly, it should have been dealt with not here but in Stormont. The Assembly is now heading towards six months without a functioning Government, in unprecedented economic circumstances —and winter, when things will bite even harder, is approaching. As each day passes, it is a matter of great regret that we find ourselves in this position.
This is no reflection on the Minister or his team; it is merely a fact. New Decade, New Approach, which led to the restoration of the Executive, was flawed anyway. But we have to move on and see how we can concentrate minds and get the institutions re-established so that we can help to protect as many people in the community as possible from the surge in prices and the suffering that I have no doubt will emerge in the winter. Sadly, we are still in this limbo.
Could the Minister ask his right honourable friends in his department to step up activity to ensure that we can get the institutions replaced? No process whatever seems to be taking place—yet huge national issues are at stake. I thank the Minister for his flexibility, but I assure him that we have a long way to go.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and his team for introducing the Bill. I also thank my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, his team on the Front Bench and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Obviously, as an Irish language enthusiast and as someone who studied it up to O-level and attended the Gaeltacht on several occasions, I want to see the Bill implemented as quickly as possible. For me, it represents parity of esteem and the necessary equality of opportunity.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the Bill should have been dealt with by the Northern Ireland Executive presenting it to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is vital that those institutions, and all the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, are up and running as quickly as possible. I appeal to those preventing this taking place to act immediately to put the Assembly, the Executive and the other institutions in place, because that will be in the best interest of the people of Northern Ireland, who are suffering from high inflation and high energy and food prices.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, that the other Bills need to be resolved: the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the legacy Bill. Several outstanding issues need to be resolved, but they need to be resolved on an equitable basis, based on equality and parity of esteem.
Finally, I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish language organisation in Northern Ireland and hope that can take place shortly, so that they can discuss the need for an Irish language strategy to put in the Bill, perhaps in its passage through the other place, and a time limit on the Secretary of State’s powers. The members of that organisation can embody those issues much better through their articulation as people who are enthusiasts. I do not make that by way of a political point—they are Irish language speakers in the truest sense of the word. Once again, I thank the Minister.
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Restoration and Renewal
Motion to Approve
That this House
(1) reaffirms its commitment to preserving the Palace of Westminster for future generations and ensuring the safety of all those who work in and visit the Palace, now and in the future;
(2) notwithstanding the Resolution of 31 January 2018, welcomes the report from the House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions proposing a new mandate for the Restoration and Renewal works and a new governance structure to support them;
(3) accordingly endorses the recommendations set out in the Commissions’ report; and
(4) in consequence, approves the establishment of a joint department of the two Houses, under the terms of the Parliament (Joint Departments) Act 2007.
My Lords, on behalf of the House of Lords Commission, I ask the House to endorse the Joint Commission report for a new mandate for the restoration and renewal programme, and to approve the Motion before the House today. Before I turn to it, I should like briefly to comment on the amendment to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. He rightly highlights that sitting behind this Motion and the new mandate is the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. That Act was the product of careful consideration and scrutiny by both Houses, and the noble Lord played an active part in our discussions. Your Lordships will recall that Section 2 of the Act sets out a number of important considerations to which we wanted the sponsor body to have regard in exercising its functions. I want to make it clear that those considerations will not be amended by the proposed secondary legislation.
The noble Lord has picked out three in particular, relating to the important points of the accessibility of the Palace and any temporary location; public engagement during the works; and the need to ensure that benefits from the works are available throughout the United Kingdom. Regardless of this amendment, the Motion before us does not override those requirements of the 2019 Act. The full list of matters that the client function must have regard to remains in place. The new parameters from the commissions are supplementary to the provisions in the Act; they do not replace them. This point is set out in paragraph 22 of the report, and I reiterate it now for the benefit of your Lordships’ House. I hope that, with those reassurances, the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment at the appropriate point.
Before I move on to the substantive Motion, I put on record our thanks to the sponsor body—to Sarah Johnson and her team—for the considerable work that they have done to date, and to the sponsor board, particularly those from your Lordships’ House who have given time and effort in their active participation as members of it. I look forward to hearing contributions from several of them today.
The commissions have reiterated their shared commitment to preserve the Palace of Westminster for future generations. It is our collective duty as custodians, and our responsibility to all who work in and visit it. It is a duty that we do not take lightly, which I hope will be demonstrated in what I set out today. Noble Lords may ask why a new mandate is needed when we and the other place in 2019 passed the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act, and gave effect to decisions made by both Houses in 2018, when a set of resolutions was approved about the governance and delivery of the programme. The answer is that we are in a very different situation today than we were then.
When we made our decisions in 2018, the best guesstimate we had was a programme costing £3.5 billion, with a decant period of around six years. Those were the figures in the independent options appraisal, provided in 2014. Those figures were only ever indicative estimates and not based on extensive surveys or design work, but they were the figures before your Lordships’ House at the time.
A lot of work has been undertaken since. Detailed surveys of the condition of the Palace have begun and more will be undertaken over the coming months. Detailed work has also taken place establishing the requirements of the two Houses, both for the end-state Palace and for a potential decant period. As a result of this work, earlier this year the sponsor body published initial estimates of its essential scheme option. It estimated the cost of R&R to be between £7 billion and £13 billion; that the work would take between 19 and 28 years to deliver, with a full decant of the Palace of between 12 and 20 years; and that the work would not begin until 2027 at the earliest. This is a very different proposition from that presented back in 2018.
Of course, two years after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic we are facing an incredibly challenging fiscal environment. We are responsible to the British taxpayer for the effective use of public money but at the same time we are responsible to the British public for safeguarding this historic building for future generations. We are merely its custodians, entrusted with this building for the time being. It falls on us to make decisions that will affect future generations of both parliamentarians and the public. These duties must be weighed carefully.
In 2018, it was thought that an independent body was best placed to act on behalf of Parliament, to set the priorities and to guide this project, but once up and running this operational model has not worked as effectively as we hoped. In the light of this experience, an independent advice and assurance panel was set up to advise on a new approach to the works and governance. The panel consisted of individuals with proven track records in major projects, picked specifically for their expertise. They have provided an excellent report on the current situation and proposed the next steps that both commissions should take to best fulfil the duties which fall upon us.
The governance structure envisaged in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 drew upon precedent from other large-scale programmes. However, as the panel points out, Parliament presents a complex and varying array of stakeholders that is without parallel in other large-scale programmes. A programme of this scale will span multiple Parliaments, bringing with it further complexity.
Although the panel found that the concept of an independent sponsor body was reasonable in theory, it recognised that valid concerns were raised about how it worked in practice. In particular, the sponsor body was seen as operating in a way that was too distant from those who use this building the most. That perception was strengthened by concerns that there had been insufficient engagement by the sponsor body with Members of your Lordships’ House, as well as Members of the other place, and that insufficient engagement was a mutual failing.
The arm’s-length nature of the sponsor function has caused issues as the programme has developed. In the light of the fact that we as parliamentarians are accountable for the decisions—whether for money spent or choices that determine the future of the Palace—the commissions have concluded that to continue in this way is not the best approach to make this project a success.
The proposal before noble Lords today is that the governance of the programme is brought back into Parliament and integrated into the existing governance framework within which we operate. Both commissions agreed that this is best the way to ensure that the programme responds to our needs and changing political circumstances and requirements. The governance structure must, in the words of the panel, be able to
“anticipate and adapt to changing demands”.
It must be one that is resilient and enduring. By bringing the governance closer to where ultimate accountability for decision-making lies, we can achieve that aim.
Today presents an opportunity to reset the direction of the programme, and it is one which we in the commissions are determined to seize. We all accept that we need to step up our engagement and leadership in this area. The proposals before your Lordships’ House today are for a revised governance structure and a new approach to the works, prioritising safety and ensuring that works can start sooner. I will briefly address each of these points.
The Motion today would result in integrating the governance of the programme into existing parliamentary structures through the two commissions; a structure that will be responsive to the requirements of Parliament, and one that is engaged with and accountable to it. The new structure will see the sponsor body abolished and its functions under the restoration and renewal Act transferred to the two corporate officers, the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerk of the House of Commons, who will become the statutory duty holders.
The proposed new in-house governance will consist of two tiers: a client board and a programme board. The client board—in effect the two commissions acting jointly—will advise the corporate officers on the overarching strategic direction and make recommendations to the two Houses, which will remain the ultimate decision-makers for this programme. The new programme board will act with delegated authority from the client board and bring together parliamentarians, officials and external members with relevant programme expertise. The programme board will be the main forum for the programme. It will meet to resolve critical strategic choices and priorities, select options and resolve trade-offs and disagreements as needed to finalise the strategic case, which will ultimately be brought forward for both Houses to decide on.
The staff of the sponsor body—around 35 people—will be brought in-house to form a new joint department, accountable to the corporate officers, delivering the strategic case and working in tandem with strategic estates and other departments. This new joint department will be known as the client team.
I emphasise that there is no intention to change the role of the delivery authority, whose purpose is to develop proposals and ultimately deliver the works on the Palace. It will remain an independent body, bringing extremely valuable technical and commercial expertise and experience to the programme. We will have a closer and more direct working relationship with it following these changes. I take this opportunity to thank the delivery authority for all its hard work.
The independent panel has sought to meet the core challenge that this programme faces: the need to make decisions today for a project that will not be completed for decades. We are being asked to judge on the basis of our current needs and requirements, and current economic and political circumstance, what should be provided to our successors, who may face a quite different world and have different expectations and ways of working. However, unless we make a decision about our destination and engage constructively with it, this project will never get off the ground.
The independent panel’s proposal, which both commissions endorse, is to accept that challenge head-on and determine a long-term vision for the programme, which will enable the development of a strategic business case, but at the same time to accept that the delivery strategy for the works is not entirely fixed and will be reviewed periodically, enabling us to take account of changes when necessary and adjust course when developments require. This is the right path for us to take: planning for uncertainty but not allowing that uncertainty to deter progress.
In line with our primary commitment to safety, your Lordships’ House is being asked to endorse a revised approach to the works which puts safety first. Four areas will be the initial priority for the works: fire and safety, building services, asbestos and building fabric conservation. I hope noble Lords will agree that these are sensible and urgent priorities to focus on. The joint commission report sets out parameters to guide the works in this development phase, calling for a wider range of options and different levels of ambition to be considered, to ensure maximum value for money. This will include consideration of approaches that might minimise the period during which the Houses have to vacate the Palace.
In line with our commitment to maintaining the safety of all who work in and visit the Palace, we support the recommendation of the independent panel to take a pragmatic approach that allows for safety-critical restoration works to be commissioned and undertaken before the strategic case has been approved. While the 2019 Act allows for restoration works to be undertaken only once the proposals have been formally approved, that does not stop our teams doing essential maintenance and repair and other safety-critical work before the main Palace restoration works begin. The commissions are keen for restoration works to start sooner and deliver greater value for money through better integration with other critical works happening across the estate.
The Motion before your Lordships’ House is to endorse the recommendations of the joint commission. Secondary legislation will be required in due course to give effect to some of these decisions. Options will be reviewed and a strategic case will be presented to both Houses by the end of 2023. Today, no decision is being asked for on either the costs or specific delivery approaches of R&R. Members of both Houses will be consulted on proposals and will have opportunities to engage with these matters in due course.
On the issue of decant, your Lordships’ House is not being asked for a decision today on how, where, when or for how long the House will be temporarily accommodated during the R&R works. That is a decision for another day. I ask noble Lords also to note that there is no proposal for or against any specific option for temporary accommodation during the works presented in the commissions’ report. Let us take that decision at the right time, when we are informed by the strategic case.
In conclusion, the commissions propose a new way forward, one which allows us to balance our requirements as a working legislature with our responsibility to take fiscally prudent decisions and our stewardship of this historic building.
It is incumbent on us, in both Houses, to show leadership and take difficult decisions. Both Houses and commissions must, going forward, stand by the decisions we make, and make them work. I look forward to working with noble Lords from across the House to do just that. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
“As an amendment to the above motion, at the end insert:
“(5) reaffirms its commitment that the client function for the Restoration and Renewal programme, in the form of the new joint department, must have regard to
(a) the need to ensure that—
(i) any place in which either House of Parliament is located while the Parliamentary building works are carried out; and
(ii) (after completion of those works) all parts of the Palace of Westminster used by people working in it or open to people visiting it, are accessible to people with disabilities;
(b) the need to ensure that the Parliamentary building works are carried out with a view to facilitating improved public engagement with Parliament and participation in the democratic process (especially by means of remote access to Parliament’s educational and outreach facilities and programmes); and
(c) the need to ensure that opportunities to secure economic or other benefits of the Parliamentary building works are available in all areas of the United Kingdom.”
My Lords, in moving the amendment in my name on the Order Paper, I wish to indicate a debt of gratitude to all those who have strived to find a way forward, from the original Joint Committee back in 2016, the sponsor board and the sponsor body to the staff at every level who have done their best to try and move this on over the last six years.
Many people will have read Mr Barry’s War—and if you have not, I recommend it—which indicates why I am concerned, and why I believe others should be, in relation to the Motion. I shall not like other Members today oppose the Motion, because I understand the politics behind it, but as spelt out in Mr Barry’s War, it was precisely the constant political interference in decision-making, back in the late 1830s, that messed up the original construction that we are endeavouring to protect today. I say to the Leader of the House, and I will come to the comments at the beginning of her speech in a moment, that we need to learn from history rather than live in it. We need to understand what went wrong years ago when restoration and some form of renewal were undertaken and to take into account the wise words of those who struggled then to get the seat of our democracy, our Parliament as it was emerging as a democracy, into a fit state—for them, for the 19th century and now, two more centuries on, for the 21st century.
I say that because the noble Baroness the Leader of the House referred to paragraph 22 and the new mandate. It is not just the mandate that concerns me. It is the level of ambition, and the understanding of where we are and what we need to do. There are those of us who would like to see, in a sensible and rational fashion, a complete review of how this Parliament operates, and its relationship to our wider democracy, which is deeply under threat—I do not mean just from the chaos emanating from Downing Street; I mean the vision that people are talking about in the western world, about how fragile our democracy is at the moment. I refer to the interesting and wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, over the last few days. We live in a very fragile environment.
The image of what we are trying to do, in putting the building right, needs to be matched by what we should be doing in putting our democracy right. At the centre of the democracy are this House and the other House. Unless we link the participative democracy in the community with the representative democracy in Parliament, and we take seriously how the construction and reconstruction of this building can contribute to that, both in its imagery and therefore its example, but also in its outreach which is mentioned in my amendment, we will get this very badly wrong.
I believe, as do many others—in fact, two amendments were put down in the other House yesterday and then withdrawn—that we need an ambitious programme that will lead us to a situation where, in 50 years’ time, people will be proud of this generation rather than asking the same old question: “Why didn’t they have the foresight to get it right? Why did they pass it on to us to botch up what they botched out in the first place?” That would be a terrible outcome.
What happened earlier this week in the Chamber of the House of Commons, when water came through the roof and the House had to temporarily adjourn, is almost a metaphor. I will not make any remarks about the new definition of drips in the other place because it would be deeply offensive, but honestly, that indicates both the urgent action we need, which the noble Baroness spelled out, and an understanding of what we are trying to achieve in putting it right.
I come to my amendment—noble Lords will forgive me if I run slightly over time. The reason why I am both concerned and so emotional about this goes back to the summer of 2019, following the joint scrutiny committee on the Bill on which I served. Incidentally, I thought that would be the most boring period of my parliamentary and political life, but it was not: it was an eye-opener, including the ridiculous arguments, which were eventually unlocked by then Leader of the Commons, the right honourable Andrea Leadsom, that a car park at the Ministry of Defence could not be used for temporary buildings and materials. We have staggered from one calamitous nonsense to another. It is important that, even with what I think is a flawed way forward, we try to get it right.
One thing that really got me all those years ago was the fact that when the original Bill, which became an Act in 2019, came to this House, it mentioned access for people with disabilities. It talked about access to the building, but it did not talk at all about access within it and therefore the functionality for either parliamentarians or those working in or visiting the building who by necessity would need to get around. That is why, along with the outreach function of making democracy work for the people out there and not just for the people in here, I was so keen to ensure that the amendments before your Lordships today were placed in the Bill in 2019. Such was my keenness that, over the Summer Recess—I pay tribute to the Ministers who were dealing with this at the time and who were prepared to give their time through that recess—I could not be there on the day that my cousin Abigail was buried because I needed to be here to ensure that those amendments were put forward and carried. That is why I am emotional about this.
I ask the noble Baroness not to take it for granted that everyone agrees that access and other key issues will be taken into account in years to come, unless we are crystal clear. I quote, for instance, the words of noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, on 16 May this year on this subject—I have given him notice that I would do this. He said:
“But the reality is that this building’s problem is services, not access or modernisation.”—[Official Report, 16/5/22; col. 245.]
Of course the problem is services, the plumbing, the wiring and the fabric of the building falling down. However, it is also about people—that is what this building and this Parliament are all about.
I would like to have it reinforced by the noble Baroness that nothing in this Motion precludes the implementation of the 2019 Act. Incidentally, the new mandate and the process which she has described are based primarily on ridiculous timescales and estimates of the cost; I say that having had 50-odd years in public life and having seen estimates like this before. We have moved from the ridiculous estimate for the Scottish Parliament, which underestimated grossly what it would cost, to grossly overestimating what it would take to get this right. For instance, the £13 billion that went adrift in fraud, which led the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, to resign at the Dispatch Box, should be compared to the likely cost of making sure that we have a Parliament fit for the late 21st century.
I do not want to hold anyone up. I tell the Whips that I will of course concede this evening, so nobody needs to stay on a hot summer night. But I expect and hope that the Minister will reinforce what she said at the beginning, because otherwise we will drift into a world where future generations will sincerely believe that we let them down.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader for moving the Government’s Motion and for her introduction to the joint report of the House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions. I also thank my noble friend Lord Blunkett for moving his important amendment on the key principles of accessibility and public engagement going forward, and I thank the noble Baroness for her reassurances to him in her speech.
As the House will know, my noble friend Lady Smith has long been a passionate advocate for the visionary, strategic and structured management and delivery of the programme for the restoration of the Palace as set out in the 2019 Act, and she will sum up for us later. She and I worked closely on the then Bill on behalf of these Benches, and I note that many other noble Lords who were also heavily involved in that, and who are highly committed advocates, are also speaking today. They will share our deep frustration at the position we are now in. Nevertheless, we have obligations to meet and we must move forward.
Under the 2019 Act, we all thought we had established restoration and renewal governance structures and accountability that were vital to the safe and efficient execution and delivery of such a huge and complex project. By passing the Act, MPs and noble Lords accepted the necessity for the arm’s-length sponsor body to oversee the entire project, provide the expertise needed and avoid the constant political interference, changing objectives and moving goalposts that was greatly feared would happen under an in-house delivery alternative. It also meant full acceptance of the extensive analysis and costings that had been undertaken, showing clear evidence of the overwhelming safety, security, logistical and practical reasons why full decant of both Houses to alternative venues during the works was absolutely necessary and the only viable and realistic option in terms of overall costs and minimising project delivery timescales.
Sadly, the argument for a continued presence—primarily of MPs—and remaining in the building, like latter day Miss Havishams, has still not been laid to rest. A decision on whether to decant is not now to be made until after the intrusive survey work is completed and there is greater understanding of the condition of the House and the work that needs doing.
We also know that persistent attempts to revisit the basis and scope of the programme began pretty much as soon as the sponsor board started its work. The Lords’ spokesperson on the body, the noble Lord, Lord Best, who I am pleased to see is in his place and will be speaking later, has made clear his view that it has been hampered from the outset by political interference and has not been allowed to get on with the job Parliament gave it to do.
However, despite the regrettable changes to the established managerial and delivery structures and our disappointment at the stage we are now at, the House will know that, yesterday, the Commons supported this joint report produced by the two commissions. We strongly urge our Members in a free vote to support it today. We recognise that the joint report is now the only show in town—the only way to keep moving forward the vital restoration work that must take place on this wonderful building. It is the only opportunity we now have to try to make sure that the urgent and vital works that are needed are proceeded with in as coherent and managed a programme as possible, and the only way to get the essential House of Commons buy-in.
It is of considerable comfort that the joint report fully acknowledges the huge challenges and scale of the work that has to be done and outlines the key initial priorities of essential work that must be addressed to prevent the building falling into even further decay: on fire and safety; building services; asbestos elimination; and on the building’s stonework and framework.
The noble Baroness has set out the new structures and arrangements under the joint report, and I will not repeat the details. The sponsor body is disbanded, and the much-reduced numbers of expert staff that we have succeeded in retaining from it will be transferred to the new joint department of the two Houses. We will have a new in-house client body, advised by an independent panel of experts.
The Public Accounts Committee’s report on what has or has not taken place since the passing of the 2019 Act, and on the new mandate—surprisingly not referred to by the noble Baroness the Leader—raises a slew of key questions for her on how it will all work. I will come back to those later.
First, I pay tribute to the role played by our representatives on the sponsor body and draw the attention of noble Lords to their contributions in last year’s Grand Committee debate in November, on the parliamentary sponsor body’s 2020-21 annual report and accounts, led by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I commend it to noble Lords. It is a master class in the management of major renewal and construction management, with contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Best, and from my noble friend Lord Carter of Coles and the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, both of whom have extensive experience of managing and delivering large-scale construction and building projects —on NHS pricing and procurement in the case of my noble friend Lord Carter, and on the 2012 Olympics in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton. The detailed analysis of the sponsor body’s accounts by our Finance Committee chair, the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, was particularly insightful and informative in the light of the PAC’s subsequent observations.
My noble friend Lord Carter and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, are both speaking today, but it is worth placing on record the view of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, that full decant is
“the only truly viable option which would produce the best value for money for the taxpayer.”—[Official Report, 16/11/21; col. GC 58.]
He also stressed the inescapable fact that for any total budget for renovation, three-quarters of the costs would be for the necessary core engineering work—a key factor that the Government must remember when the key priority areas are being planned and budgeted for.
My noble friend Lord Carter warned that:
“Without a decision, or if the decision is to kick the can down the road, we will be faced with a catastrophe at some point.”—[Official Report, 16/11/21; col. GC 64.]
This is a warning that we have heard many times and which no doubt will be repeated today. It is reinforced in the escalating media coverage on the state of the Palace, such as in the recent Observer article, “Britain’s Notre Dame?”, with some very graphic pictures of the decaying basement and antiquated engineering and plumbing works.
The steady but extremely slow-moving work of the sponsor body on the intrusive surveys and drilling down into the buildings and courtyards has urgently to be stepped up so that the maximum work can be achieved over the Summer Recess. I serve on the Services Committee, under the excellent chairpersonship of my noble friend Lord Touhig. We have spent a great deal of time over the past two years combing through detailed sponsor body reports on the urgent works needed and the proposed surveys—what they will cover, how they will work and what they are designed to find. My noble friend Lord Blunkett will be pleased to hear that this included ensuring that all the accessibility issues while the work takes place are fully addressed.
Can the noble Baroness the Leader assure the House that the surveys are going ahead at full steam on the priority areas of work over the summer, so that we know what we are starting with and the viable costs? The PAC report calls for this particularly in respect of determining what the asbestos removal plan should be and the safety of remaining in the Palace while these works take place.
The PAC report makes for some pretty sober reading, recognising of course the realities of the post-Covid financial environment. However, it contains no real surprises to most of us: the colossal sums wasted; the loss of the critical professional skills built up by the sponsor body to develop the business case for the programme funding and undertake the specialist construction and technical work; and the delay and prevarication that has resulted in the start date for major works being pushed back by many years, up to 48 or even 76 years under some worse-case scenarios. The PAC pulls no punches on these issues and on the increasing risks that the delays have caused.
Can the Minister comment on three of the issues that it raised? First, the PAC calls for a clear plan and structure on how the short-term risks to value for money and to avoid nugatory expenditure and further health and safety incidents will be managed. What timescales are envisaged for this extremely urgent area of work? Secondly, given the lack of time to consider other options for going forward and why the 2019 Act structures have not worked, how will the performance and governance lessons be learned in the delivery phase for the new arrangements? Thirdly, how will transparency and accountability to Parliament be managed in the future? What are the plans to report regularly to Parliament and its various committees on progress, potential costs and risks? How will the independent expert advice needed to support decision-making be truly independent and objective?
In conclusion, and despite the many unanswered questions from the Public Accounts Committee and that I am sure that will be asked by noble Lords today, I come back to where I started. The joint commission report on a new mandate, and the Motion before the House, must be approved. It is the only way forward to meet our obligations and to preserve and develop this wonderful building—the only show in town. Comfort can be drawn from the joint report’s undertaking to start the safety-critical works as soon as possible. There are definite signs of optimism in the first stage engagement survey of 20,000 members of the public, which shows strong support for the preservation and renovation of the Palace as the heart and centre of our democracy. This is a very welcome development and it must not be squandered.
My Lords, it is not just the effect of the heat that makes the prospect of this debate so dispiriting; it is the fact that we are having to have it at all.
The blunt reason for it is that there were a small number of people in the Commons, led by the former Leader of the House, whose romantic notions of the sanctity of the Commons Chamber made them unwilling to accept the clear and incontestable view that the cheapest and quickest way of making this building fit for the future was to have a full decant. This view has never had any substantive support in your Lordships’ House, and the commission has been clear throughout that a full decant was by far the best option. By requiring the sponsor body to investigate the case for a continuous presence, this minority view caused confusion and delay. When the sponsor body then produced its estimates earlier this year of the cost of going ahead and the time required, the figures looked so ridiculously large, particularly in respect of continuous presence, that their credibility was brought into question. That, in turn, undermined the credibility of the sponsor body itself.
That is why we have the current proposals before us. They are the answer to the question: if not the sponsor body, then what? The principal and obvious concern they raise is the one raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and the reason the sponsor body was established in the first place: that the aim was to take the overall management of the programme away from Parliament itself. This was partly because of the experience of the 19th century rebuilding of the Palace, which was beset by parliamentary meddling, extending the process and making it much more expensive. It was also because more recently, Parliament has not shown itself to be overly adept at managing capital projects effectively and efficiently. I have a lot of sympathy with those arguments.
There are, however, at least some reasons to believe that the proposals before us today might work more effectively than what has gone before. First, the two commissions, Commons and Lords, will jointly play a continuing part in the oversight of the project. The key word here is “jointly”. Until three months ago, the two commissions had not had a joint discussion on the issue at all, because the Commons refused to do so. If we had worked together throughout, it is highly unlikely that we would have reached this impasse. Hopefully, a commitment to joint working and a continuous strategic oversight by the commissions working together will ensure the continuing political support for the process that clearly has not been present to this point.
Secondly, there is a broader recognition that more delay is unacceptable and that all the politicians involved in the programme board should be committed to making a success of the project. While Members of your Lordships’ House who served on the sponsor body did indeed do a noble job, there were some whose attitude helped to undermine its effectiveness. This new approach should mean that that does not happen in future. Thirdly, and related to that, as a result of broader political changes, the very few individuals who have caused so much damage to the programme are unlikely to be involved in any significant way in the future.
We have gone a long way backwards in terms of what R&R will look like. It had been agreed that there would be a full decant. It had been agreed where both the Commons and the Lords would go in the meantime, and preparatory activity was under way. Although some valuable work, such as the intrusive surveys, are going ahead this summer, beyond that nothing is now decided.
I have always supported the full decant and the temporary relocation of your Lordships’ House to the QEII conference centre. The original proposals for this were almost certainly too lavish, and the use of new technology over the pandemic has shown how we can make the relocation operate with rather less disruption than originally planned. For example, we could reintroduce electronic voting on the estate so that those with offices in Millbank do not have to spend a huge amount of time moving between their offices and the conference centre.
As to what we do in the Palace itself, I support the proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, very strongly. I hope we will also look at other changes, such as covering some of the internal courtyards to enable facilities for Members and visitors. As the restoration of the Bundestag showed, there are great benefits in being imaginative.
One common argument against doing the project properly now is that it will cost billions at a time when the country simply cannot afford it, given all the other pressures on the public purse. This argument simply must be rebutted. First, failure to act decisively runs the risk of a serious fire or health incident, and the country would hardly look sympathetically at us if our endless dithering allowed such an eventuality to happen. Secondly, even on the quickest timescale this is a multiyear project. Expenditure in any one year will, by definition, be a fraction of the total cost. The highest rate of expenditure that is likely to be incurred, even if all goes well, will not happen for a number of years, by which point I hope the current economic crisis will be well behind us. So at no point will this project have a significant impact on overall public expenditure or the Government’s ability to spend their money where they deem it necessary to do so.
The key challenge now is to identify and appoint the political members of the programme board. They need to be fully committed to the success of the project and be prepared to spend a very significant amount of time and energy ensuring it. We will be asking a lot of them. As the first step in bringing sanity, speed and substance back into this project, we should support the proposals before the House. There is no other viable alternative and we simply must not tolerate further delay.
My Lords, alongside the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Deighton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, I am a board member of the restoration and renewal sponsor body charged with implementing the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. I act as the spokesperson responsible for reporting to your Lordships’ House on behalf of the board. I am grateful to the Chief Whip and the usual channels for allowing me to speak for a couple of extra minutes. However, the opinions I express today are my own.
I have to say that the whole exercise, since the creation of the sponsor body and the attached delivery authority in 2020, has been deeply frustrating. There is a straightforward reason for this: our client, for whom we were required to deliver a full scale R&R programme, including the decanting of both Houses while major works were undertaken, has not been committed to the project. The client role has been represented by a House of Commons Commission that has not accepted the brief.
The approach of the House of Lords Commission, with leadership from the two Lord Speakers over this period, has been entirely positive. The Lords side agreed the mandate set out in the 2018 resolutions and the Act, and accepted, albeit reluctantly, that a move, probably to the QEII conference centre, would be necessary. But from the Commons, it has seemed that there has been a constant effort to kick the can down the road, specifically to resist all proposals for temporarily decanting the Commons from the Palace. This tension came to a head in March with the decision from the House of Commons Commission that the comprehensive programme should be halted, and the sponsor body dismissed. In essence, the new position—now incorporated into the Motion before us—comprises two significant changes.
First, instead of a full-scale R&R programme, as originally envisaged by the Act, the delivery authority is being asked to bring forward a selection of more modest propositions for works that could be undertaken end to end. This avoids committing to a very large sum, which is hard to face up to when public funds are tight. It is also implied that this will make possible the continued presence of the Commons in the Palace throughout the restoration, even if the Lords must move out. The details of this changed approach need clarity urgently, otherwise the delivery authority—which is continuing its extensive preparatory investigations with intrusive surveys during the forthcoming recess—will face a prolonged hiatus, with all the dangers of losing more staff and of substantial nugatory expenditure.
An extended sequence of major repair projects will probably cost far more in total and take far longer—and, of course, risk a major disaster in the meantime. All that aside, the approach will simply not work when it comes to the extraordinary challenge of the basement beneath our feet. Last week, I paid another visit to the basement’s frightening scene: the tangle of intertwined sewerage pipes; miles of electric cables internet wiring, gas pipes, steam pipes and chilled water pipes; the newly installed fan to suck out smoke from the frequent small fires which stands idle because it stirred up the asbestos; and the inaccessibility of key infrastructure now behind layers of more recent installations. This part of R&R represents well over half the total cost and does not lend itself to being one of a series of smaller projects. Sooner rather than later, the complete upgrade of all the services in the basement must be faced. It is very hard to believe this can possibly be done sensibly, safely and economically with the Commons staying in situ.
The second change from the position prior to March 2022 concerns the governance structures for our R&R. This is the real focus of the Motion before us. Despite its governance performance being deemed exemplary by the relevant external bodies, the sponsor body is to be disbanded as soon as possible, with new in-house board arrangements as outlined by the Lord Privy Seal.
Should we accept or reject this Motion? I see three reasons why we should not oppose the proposed changes. First, the abolition of the sponsor body is a fait accompli. The process of dismantling the current structure has already gone ahead. Our excellent chief executive, Sarah Johnson, is leaving imminently and senior staff have already gone. Progress towards bringing the planned business case for Parliament to consider in 2023 has been discontinued and work on the QEII decant ceased months ago. It would not make sense to try to return to the position before the abrupt stop to our work back in March.
Secondly, I recognise the case for stopping the programme’s progress now because, if matters were to proceed as planned for a parliamentary decision this time next year, the House of Commons might well simply reject the sponsor body’s propositions and the whole of R&R would be set back indefinitely. It may therefore be best to stop now rather than continuing to spend money for another year before crashing into the buffers in 2023.
Thirdly, even though proposals for new arrangements for R&R sound very much like the can being kicked further down the road, I think they are worth a try. What they could do is remove the ongoing hazard of a client that does not really want the project to progress. If the new arrangements engage Parliament’s representatives more closely, with genuinely joint working between the two Houses, creating a greater sense of ownership of the brief and putting the deliverer and the client on the same side, it might at last resolve this inherent problem.
I feel sure that those of us who have served on the sponsor body will happily move on, and I am delighted that the majority of our highly capable and committed staff will form the team for the new in-house body, but a serious change of approach is required from the leadership of the Commons commission. The aversion to a decant has to go and I am encouraged by the view widely expressed in the Commons yesterday that a decant of several years should be accepted.
The client role must now be exercised with absolute clarity and there must be a proper recognition that the restoration and renewal of the Palace as a safe, sustainable and accessible building, fully in accord with the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, will be enormously costly but incredibly worth while. The total cost may be around £10 billion, spread over 15 years or so, although the rising annual spend of £150 million on maintenance will be saved.
Those in the Commons who are apprehensive about their electorate’s disapproval of such spending may draw comfort from the sponsor body’s consumer research, published last week, which shows that the wider public are hugely proud of this internationally recognised and iconic Palace and desperately want it fully restored. We should remember that all this spending supports businesses throughout the UK with contracts, jobs, apprenticeships and skills.
Because the new arrangements are a fait accompli, because they spare us a doomed outcome next year and because there is a chance that the new governance will at last achieve the commitment to the project that has been lacking, I accept the Motion before us. Let us get on with it.
My Lords, I am certainly not inclined to quarrel with this Motion, nor the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. At the same time, I feel that we are seeing no more than a further twist in what is already an overlong tale. The risks attributed to further delay are mounting and I cannot understand why more people do not recognise that fact. There is no guarantee that a grave incident can be averted. I pay tribute to all those of our staff engaged in minutely looking after this Palace to ensure that no unfortunate incident is allowed to spread and become a total disaster.
It is also now to be recognised—this has already been said in the debate—that a total decant from the Palace is the means of achieving lowest cost and shortest displacement. When a few years ago we sought the views of the Austrian Parliament, which was faced with a similar situation, it was ahead of us but the message it gave us at the time was: “You must get out of the building before you can carry out the repairs and the restoration satisfactorily.”
Staying on, as Peers and Members of Parliament did after 1834, proved a total nightmare. It has been graphically described in Caroline Shenton’s book Mr Barry’s War, and I am relieved that I am not the only person to refer to that volume. I think it should be made compulsory reading.
Even now, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Best, there are colleagues, maybe some of them entirely well meaning, who demur about what should be done. There is talk that, “They will not allow us back into this building”. That is a very odd idea; if the public are willing to see a very large sum of money spent on its restoration, they will not take too kindly to Members of Parliament and Peers who then say, “We don’t like it; we’re not going to use it”. There is some worry about whether an MP will be disadvantaged if his or her time is so short that they do not get to serve in the Palace of Westminster, because proceedings are taking place elsewhere. I find that a very strange way of looking at matters. To be a Member of Parliament should be seen as being about the honour and the privilege—not whether the upholstery is to your liking.
There is, as just referred to, the worry about the cost. Members of Parliament, looking to the people who elect them, worry about the sum of money being embarrassing when other difficulties are taking place throughout the country. The fact is that the evidence points to the public as whole caring more about the preservation of this building than they do about its inhabitants and we should realise that the British people have great pride in this iconic building. It would be seen by them as a total disaster if we did not attend to matters.
There are bound to be some cost overruns, as far as I can see. If the intention is to have a Parliament building on this site but updated for the likely needs of the next 100 years, inevitably there have to be some changes—some modernisation. Facilities for women would not be a bad idea. There is a classic quote from Lord Brougham, who said, on the question of whether seating capacity for ladies should be provided in the Commons part of the Palace, that
“ladies would be infinitely better employed in almost any other way than in attending the Debates of that House.”—[Official Report, 17/7/1835; col. 679.]
Of course, ladies did not even have the vote at that time, so this Palace was ill designed to look after that basic equity.
In our new arrangements, we must ensure that handicapped people are better able to use the facilities of this building and play a part in whatever way they seek. There need to be improved reception facilities for the greater number of visitors that we seek to attract to the Palace. It is an absolute scandal that at present we leave people in the open air, in queues, trying to get in. They can roast, freeze or be drenched. It is not the way that they should come to Parliament and get their first impression of it.
We need more space for meetings as we are taking on more and more issues and Members wish to congregate to discuss these things. All-party groups have swollen to, I think, more than 600 by now and it is very difficult to get facilities within the Palace at the moment. I quote again from Caroline Shenton, who said of Charles Barry and all he had to put up with:
“Battling the interference of 658 MPs, plus Peers, press, and Royalty; coaxing and soothing his collaborator, Pugin; fending off the mad schemes of a host of crackpot inventors and assaults from the egos of countless busybodies intent on destroying his reputation; and coming in three times over budget and 16 years behind schedule, its architect eventually won through—after countless setbacks and rows.”
It seems to me that some of those people roam this building like ghosts, reminding it constantly of what they wanted, not now recognising what is needed.
Let us not ignore the lessons of history; let us learn from them. Let our overriding purpose be a handsome Palace on this site, updated to allow our parliamentary democracy to flourish for many decades ahead.
My Lords, I support the new mandate because clearly the existing arrangements are not working. In fact, they have been a shambles.
I have had a ringside seat as a member of the sponsorship board. I have watched with great interest as the board tried to be true to the 2019 Act while facing the Government and the House authorities working to a totally different agenda. We therefore had stasis with no progress. It was sad to watch both parties spending a great deal of time talking past each other and spending money trying to prove different points, none of which had any grounds.
We could change the governance structure. The old adage is, “We have failed, we have reorganised and we have tried again”, but we must hang on to the fundamentals of the great challenges that we face. It will be interesting to hear in the response how we intend to organise to ensure that we are sticking with the things that we decide to do. There have always been three great challenges: what to do, how to do it and what we are prepared to spend on it. We have to get those questions nailed down. The delivery authority will bring forward proposals on that which will undoubtedly be well worked up.
When these great projects start, there is widespread consultation and everyone is asked what they would like. You build up an enormous wish list; I think the noble Lord, Lord Newby, described it as luxurious while others have described it as gold-plated. You inevitably end up with a long list of desirable things, and anyone involved in great projects knows that that is the moment when you have to edit. You have to seek to build a consensus about what you want to do and that has notably failed to be done. One of the most critical elements of the new structure will be to get people to sit down and agree what they are going to do. Will there be compromises on aspects such as access or security?
Are we really going to build something in here fit for the 21st century? We might want to consider the wisdom of trying to put a 21st-century future-proofed building into a mid-19th-century shell. That will cost a huge amount of money; maybe we should think a little around the edges of that.
On the question of how, other noble Lords have referred to what to do about full decant. That has been a subject of disagreement, the question that has most poisoned the progress of this scheme. We know that the two bookends were full decant at one end and significant continued presence at the other. The delivery authority is going to look at different proposals but—to dwell for a moment on continued presence—many of us who walk around the building, including underground, will realise how hard it will be to rebuild this thing if it is occupied. The estimates are that the most money we could spend, given the constraints of the building, would be in the low hundreds of millions a year. We cannot spend any more money if people are in the building. We might therefore end up with work lasting for 30, 40 or 50 years, and in that time there would be noise and dust as well as discomfort, not only to Members but to staff and visitors.
We therefore need to see a much more flexible approach—some form of decant. This will not work without decant to some degree. Again, though, we come to the central point: we need to get an agreement. We have had position-taking on this that has lasted years and people have not come together to get an answer. With the new arrangement, it is critical to sit down and decide, first, what we are going to do; secondly, how we shall do it, and settle that; and, thirdly, to settle the money.
I wondered the other day whether, when the joint commission came forward with its number of £3.54 billion for the scheme, if it had known at that point that the figure would be nearer £10 billion or even £13 billion, it would have proposed it. Other noble Lords have referred to the public being in support of this proposal, but we need to be aware of the climate. With Covid around the corner, would people have said, “We are prepared to spend £10 billion”, at that point? We need to find out what it costs—and find out quickly—but we can do that only when we know what we want to do, and we have dithered. Having found that out, we know the cost. We then come to the question of affordability: can we afford it and are we prepared to spend it? That is where the Government come in. We cannot plot our way forward in this unless the Government come forward very clearly and say what they are prepared to spend and what they are prepared to commit to spending in years A, B, C and D. We need to get that very clear.
It is right to have a reset. We need a new degree of pragmatism. Things are going to change continuously. I would be very keen to hear what the governance oversight arrangements are going to be. How will Parliament know? What are the milestones? What are we expecting to be delivered and when? How are we going to keep our eye on that? Reassurance will be critical but above all, like other noble Lords, I believe the key now is to use the reset to get speed into this. We are living on borrowed time, and it would be very sad if we did not take this opportunity to get on with things a great deal faster.
My Lords, I agree very much with what the noble Lord has just said about the Government and their role. One of the more misleading statements in the general debate so far—not in this debate this afternoon, but outside—has been that it is all a decision for Parliament. That is patently not the case. If Parliament was to make a decision on financial spending which went over the accepted limits, then it is a pound to a penny that the Government would intervene; there is no doubt about that whatever.
As it is, over the last eight years, government Ministers such as Mr Rees-Mogg have not thought twice about intervening in the debate of Parliament. Even more to the point, Governments can take decisions which limit the action of Parliament. If we take the issue of a decant of Members—I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said about Members working while it is going on, and I do not want to argue the case because he has done it so well, as have others—the obvious place is the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre.
However, the former Secretary of State, Mr Gove, whose department ran the centre, said bluntly—rather like a 19th century mill owner—that this was not acceptable to him and that the House of Lords should not go to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre but hundreds of miles away. We have a position where a Secretary of State—here yesterday and gone today—appointed by a Prime Minister who is still here today but gone tomorrow has vetoed the most sensible proposal for a decant of this House, if it ever decided to go that way. I hope that the Leader of the House in replying to this debate will say if the veto on the Queen Elizabeth II Centre is still part of the Government’s policy—or was it just Mr Gove’s policy and not the Government’s? It is rather a crucial question. If we cannot go to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, that limits where a decant could go.
I cannot resist saying in passing that I am puzzled by a process that has a commercial conference centre run by the Government and not the private sector. I see that my old friend the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, is here. We worked together very early on in the Thatcher Government in transport. We found a company called National Freight Corporation, which included a removals company called Pickfords. We came to the conclusion that you did not need a nationalised removals company in this country. I do not think its abolition as such has caused any controversy with any known political party.
In my position as a—what am I?
In my position as a Cross-Bencher, I think that it is a very odd position for the Conservative Party. I do not believe that it is in our national advantage. I gently say that it might be better for the Government to go down the privatisation route in this area rather than in one or two others that they seem to support.
That brings me to my second point about the joint report. Frankly, I did not find it to be the clearest exposition of the case or the clearest piece of writing. I give one example, from page 6:
“The Panel recommends that the parameters ‘should be augmented by clear evaluation criteria’ which are designed to support option assessment, and key trade-offs which will need to be made to arrive at a progressively shorter list of possible options for the works. These criteria should take account of longer-term perspectives and link to the programme’s end-state vision and intended outcomes.”
I am sure that that is persuading people around the country to be in favour of this report, but I am not altogether sure that it persuades me. There is much in the joint report about generalised vision but precious little about some of the real issues, such as the real cost of eight years of work—carried out prior to what is now called a “new mandate”—that we are turning our backs on.
Thirdly and finally, after the Great Fire of 1834, to which the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, referred, various efforts were made to agree a rebuilding plan, and it took 30 or 40 years for it all to be agreed. We should learn from that. I am concerned not just because of the complexity of the task but because of the many interests, including the Government’s and government Ministers’, all intervening at the same time. Unless we are very careful, we are likely to face exactly the same kind of indecision and delay as they did in the Victorian times—we have certainly done that in the first eight years. So far, we lack both leadership in this project and a determination to stay on the plan.
I agreed with the spirit and almost every word of what the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, but I was not encouraged when the Leader of the House said that it would take “decades” to complete this project—I think I quote her right. Is it really going to take decades? If it is, we are in for a certain amount of difficulty. We need to get on with this; we should decide a plan and stick to it, rather than having the kind of debate and discourse that we have had over the last eight years.
My Lords, I am sure that I speak for all of your Lordships when I say that I am very fond of this building. My affection has grown as a result of having been a member of your Lordships’ Finance Committee for over four years. This gave me the opportunity to clamber all over its structure, up both Victoria and Elizabeth Towers, and on top of and underneath Westminster Hall, inspecting stained glass and other windows, all to investigate excellent works that were in progress, or which had been completed and had appeared in the accounts. It is fair to say that, in large part, notwithstanding all the scaffolding that we can see, the outside of the building is in pretty reasonable condition. I am not going to rehearse the comments already made by so many noble Lords about the internal conditions, other than to continue to highlight the difficulties attached to the unknown quantity of asbestos and the state of the cellars and basement—a tour of which should be obligatory for all able-bodied Members of both Houses. Lastly, there is the situation regarding fire hazards, whereby, as your Lordships know but can chillingly be reminded, there is a requirement for 24-hour fire marshals, who detect one fire a month on average in this building.
So my interest in R&R has developed a personal focus, and my two questions for the Leader of the House are these. What real progress has been made since 2016? How much money has been spent on R&R to date? With regard to the first, I have seen a disappointing lack of focus on an operational level, which on occasion has led to a manifest waste of money without accountability. By way of an example, a management consultancy study was initiated to explore the design and cost for a floating dock on the river to facilitate the transport and unloading of building material that was forecast to be needed for R&R. This was done without prior consultation with the river authority, which when asked said that it had not granted permission for such a structure. Another example is the laying of an electric cable at Millbank House, infinitely more costly than necessary and with a much greater time delay than was forecast because the correct permissions had not been sought at the right time from Westminster City Council. Those are small examples, but they illustrate the disquiet that some of us feel as we inch forward slowly on this endeavour. Has anyone really thought through how and within what timescale world heritage site authorities, historic building conservation officers and the council will work together on whatever grand plan the proposed new joint commission will come up with? What likelihood is there that they will concur with whatever plans are proposed in any event?
The stop-go history of R&R to date tells its own story of obfuscation, just now so eloquently put by my friend the noble Lord, Lord Best. His speech should very much echo in our collective memory. For my part, having a passing knowledge in my professional life of the hiring and firing of people, I recently tabled two Questions with a view to finding out how much these comings and goings have cost in terms of personnel costs, both full time and agency. The first was to the Senior Deputy Speaker regarding R&R costs paid for by your Lordships’ House since 2014, the answer to which is £58 million, with staff costs at £7.5 million and contractors at £51 million.
The second question was to the sponsor body and the delivery authority, to ask what their costs have been since they were established in April and May 2020. I am glad that your Lordships are sitting down, because the answer—in a six-paragraph reply—was that for two years, between 2020 and 2022, the figure was £212 million, of which £33.5 million was salary costs and £151 million related to contractor costs. I know that contractors are expensive, but what do we have to show for this investment? Any reference to long-term value to be gained from design and survey work, programme delivery, and project and programme management is debatable, since within a very short period of time all costings and designs become redundant and need to be reworked. Within that figure, £11 million was spent on work assessing and preparing decant locations. Is that really what it cost to direct us toward the Queen Elizabeth II Centre as a location option for this House?
Since we are pretty much back to where we started, my questions to the Leader of the House are these. First, should your Lordships have confidence that the new mandate for the R&R programme will bring about the cessation of what to date has proved to be in large part an egregious waste of money? Secondly, will its success or otherwise remain dependent on the whim of the Commons? I fear that history will not be kind to us if we continue to procrastinate and fail to make a decision before an accident occurs in this marvellous building. I echo in very large part the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I am surprised to hear myself saying that. What pleasure there is comes from having more transparency in the past hour about what has been going on and what is likely to happen than we have had in any document or debate to date. It has been exceptionally helpful to hear the devastating speech from the noble Lord, Lord Best, and to hear from my noble friend Lord Carter and the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain. There are so many questions being lined up for the Leader of the House. I am sorry she will have such a limited time to reply, and so we look forward to her letter.
In deciding on the future of this building, we will be judged to have been derelict in our duty. What we have heard this afternoon is that vested interests seem to mean that we are incapable of acknowledging the consistent evidence that it is more expensive, more dangerous and will take far longer if we insist on staying in this building, for whatever period, than if we faced up to the realities of a full decant. That is what the evidence has been telling us for four years. That is what we voted on in 2019. That is what the work of the sponsor board, as we have heard, was geared to when collecting evidence as an expert, independent body. That is what we thought we would stick to. We thought we had a plan, but we have had a handbrake turn instead. Far from planning for certainty, we seem to have created even greater, indefinite uncertainty.
As the noble Lord, Lord Best, and others have said, in February this year the sponsor board came forward with figures. Those figures were unacceptable and took the commission by surprise: parameters of £7 billion and £13 billion, and a decant period of 12 to 20 years. The sponsor board also produced two other scenarios. First, that the Commons stay put in the building—probably in this part of the building, while we would be evicted indefinitely—at a cost of between £9 billion and £18 billion. Secondly, that we all stay put in the building site, at a cost of £11 billion to £22 billion, and facing the ludicrous prospect of work taking 76 years. That would be daunting to even the youngest of the hereditary Peers. There would be significant parliamentary disruption, with longer recesses and no parliamentary recall.
In response to this unwelcome evidence, the commission shot the messenger—what else could it do?—losing all the skills and the knowledge that had been accumulated. Now we have a situation where politicians and parliamentarians will be firmly in charge, but at least, as has been said, the commissions of both Houses will work together. That is a definite improvement. This is a scenario that Barry and Pugin recognised in extraordinary detail immediately in having to deal with what Bagehot called the interference of politicians—it came close to killing one and really did kill the other. They were trying to design the Palace; we are trying to concentrate on saving the Palace, and the future and functions of Parliament.
The current—although possibly very temporary—Leader of the House of Commons seems to think that the answer lies in some sort of Shavian superhero; what he calls a star architect, who will be brought in to reconcile the irreconcilable. Parliamentarians would work in a dangerous building site for decades, rather than budge.
The building is dangerous: we have had 13 instances of falling masonry in recent years—the most recent being the north face of Westminster Hall. We all know that it is dangerous, and not least because it suspends the Commons. Yesterday, with masterly timing, a leak suspended the Commons. Removing asbestos has already proved to be dangerous to our staff. Experts outside this House tell me it would take at least two years just to remove the asbestos. Does the Leader of the House agree with the trade unions that
“the ongoing viability of the Palace of Westminster as a safe workplace is at stake and … anything less than the full decant envisaged under the Act would put that at risk”?
I would appreciate a clear answer to that at the end of the debate.
The temporary sprinklers in the basement may hold the worst fires at bay but they cannot prevent them all, and they will cause further damage. They have cost £140 million to install and will be ripped out when something permanent is put in. That is only one of the eye-watering examples of waste revealed by the PAC report a few weeks ago—the latest in a long line of devastating audits on lack of transparency, failure of accountability and waste.
I will put some specific questions to the Leader of the House; the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Carter, have answered many of them, but I still think I ought to put them to her. Why precisely did the commission propose dissolving the sponsor board? What did not work? Does she accept the sponsor board’s evidence that not decanting the House fully will be more expensive and dangerous and take longer? Are the two alternative scenarios set out and costed by the sponsor board still on the table? Does she agree with the noble Lord, Lord Best, that what is proposed now will not work? Can she explain why she thinks it will? Can she expand on the Leader of the House of Commons saying yesterday that, notwithstanding the need for an agreed end view, there should be “opportunities for periodic review” to
“allow the programme to adapt to changing fiscal, societal and political contexts”?—[Official Report, Commons, 12/7/22; col. 275.]
Does that not mean a licence for political interference?
Put that together with the evidence that the House administration has a poor track record of project management and I have little confidence that we know what we are doing. However, I believe we have to support this, for the reasons that have been explained, because there is no alternative and we can see some improvement.
The commission now has the great challenge of showing real leadership and reconciling what is desirable with what is necessary. If we are going to be stuck in this limbo indefinitely, we face the risks of catastrophic failure, as people always do when custodians of heritage buildings fail to act in time. We will be accountable to not just this country but the world. UNESCO is looking at us extremely closely; it wants a plan to secure the building and protect its heritage, on a realistic timetable. At the moment it does not have that; if it does not get one, we will face the shame of being blacklisted as a world heritage site.
My Lords, I find it difficult adequately to communicate the sense of frustration that I feel at the way these matters have been handled. In 2011, together with my opposite number Sir David Beamish, I commissioned the original condition survey of the Palace. I felt passionately that we could not be another generation of stewards who passed up on our responsibilities for this wonderful building; it had been only too easy to do, year after year and decade after decade. David and I agreed that this had to stop.
The principal conclusion of that survey was that doing nothing was not an option. Now, more than a decade later, we are still unable to escape from Groundhog Day. Still beneath our feet is that horrifying basement, so vividly and frighteningly described by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and which I very early on christened the “Cathedral of Horror”. Certainly, there is no reason to change its name now.
I supported the original R&R governance structure on two main grounds: that parliamentarians would be unable to resist interfering with the delivery of the project, as happened for decades when the Palace was being built; and that Parliament is not good at taking executive decisions—and why should it be? Now, it seems, everything is to be put back into the melting pot.
I spoke in the debate on 6 February 2018, at the end of which your Lordships concurred with the House of Commons in recognising the
“clear and pressing need to repair the services in the Palace of Westminster in a comprehensive and strategic manner to prevent catastrophic failure in this Parliament”.—[Official Report, 6/2/18; cols. 1916-17.]
The two Houses agreed that the only option was a full decant, and that the right governance model was a sponsor board and delivery authority. Now we are back to square one—or possibly square minus one. I do not feel strong enough at the moment to revisit the arguments about governance, nor those about the likely cost. My concern is with the immediate practicalities, which I hope the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will be able to address in her reply.
First, let us suppose that there is what the 2018 resolution of both Houses called a “catastrophic failure” of services. It might be caused by fire, flood, power outage, asbestos escape, whatever. If there were a major incident, it might well mean that the Chambers and perhaps large areas of the Palace were unusable for a long time. Let us also say that, instead of the vague possibility of such a failure, the very vagueness of which has been such a comfort over recent years, the disaster happens tonight—for the sake of argument, at about 11.30 pm. What happens tomorrow? How does Parliament continue its work? I hope there are good answers to these questions, but I fear I do not know them.
It is worth remembering, too, that there are already a large number of projects under way on this crowded and constrained site, and it is a credit to those who plan and carry out those works that the effect on day-to-day business has been minimised.
The first paragraph of the Motion before us emphasises the need to ensure the safety of all those who work in, and visit, the Palace, now and in the future. It is one thing to express such a commitment but quite another to fulfil it. We may think that we carry some collective responsibility for these matters, but legally they fall to two people only: the Clerks of the two Houses, who under the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992 are the corporate officers. Those of your Lordships who have been corporate officers, in whatever contexts, will be only too well aware of the unforgiving nature of the law in respect of corporate responsibility. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 concentrates the mind wonderfully—it certainly concentrated mine. It is for a corporate officer, and for him or her only, to decide whether an organisation can discharge its duty of care and, if not, what remedial action to take.
In a parliamentary context, that could mean deciding that part of the Palace was too hazardous to allow access to. That could not be overruled by the commissions of the two Houses, and it might have a very significant effect on the transaction of parliamentary business. I would simply observe that in terms of hazards—multiple hazards—we are living very close to the edge. We can be lucky only for so long, and if we are not, national and world opinion will not be kind to us.
When I spoke in the February 2018 debate, which was just about a year before the Notre Dame fire, I suggested what I described as,
“a highly plausible scene … on a hot summer’s evening, with both Houses sitting late to finish business before the Recess. One of the too many minor fires, which we are told occur each year, swiftly becomes a major fire and spreads rapidly because of the lack of completed fire compartmentation. The electricity supply goes down completely. A huge demonstration which happens to be taking place in Parliament Square means that the emergency services cannot get to us quickly. There are hundreds of casualties and possibly fatalities.”
“How do we feel about continuing to carry that risk…?”—[Official Report, 6/2/18; cols. 1972-73.]
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House emphasised the need to proceed more quickly with safety-critical works, but I would say—adopting Lenin’s words, “everything is connected to everything else”—that it is quite hard to complete safety-critical works within the wider context of building restoration. You cannot do it properly without doing it as a single exercise.
I shall finish on a less pessimistic note. I endorse the aspirations of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. As chairman of the fabric advisory committee of a cathedral, I am very well aware of the shortages in the many heritage crafts that will be needed for the restoration and renewal of this world-renowned building and the desirability of these being found from all parts of the country. I am glad that it seems accepted that R&R should be supported by a heritage crafts academy, which partly through apprenticeships will support the skills needed and thereafter will stand as a permanent public benefit.
My Lords, I remind your Lordships of my registered charitable interest as chairman of the Chartered Institution for Further Education, which has some national responsibilities for vocational education and apprenticeships, and I shall return to apprenticeship in one moment. I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has mentioned this aspect of R&R.
With other noble Lords, I believe we must accept these proposals for restoration and renewal. I have much to do in my life with the repair and restoration of historic places, and the one thing that we know about working on heritage buildings is that the unexpected happens. What look to be straightforward and relatively swift tasks very soon turn out to be complicated, slow and delayed ones, and it is rare that the opposite happens. I think, as my noble friend Lady Evans has said, we must have processes which anticipate and adapt as we go along.
I have two, brief observations: one of them cautionary, the other a request. Annexe A of the joint report says that it will be essential to ensure that,
“lessons from previous project activity are embedded in future project activity”.
I think that is what noble Lords have been asking for throughout the afternoon. There is one particular reason that I want to outline for that, and that is that the number of men and women in the country who are skilled and experienced in the leadership, management and delivery of great projects, such as this one, is not infinite. During the coming decade, there will be large number of huge infrastructure programmes in the United Kingdom, many of them connected with the supply of energy, both conventional and green, and which current world conditions will demand of us. They will require exactly the kind of people that the restoration and renewal of Parliament will need. It is sad that we now have, out there, a reputation for vacillation, and that may not make us attractive employers. As page 27 of the report suggests,
“confidence within Parliament has been lost to … an extent”.
If that is so, it will certainly be lost outside Westminster and we must now regain it by clear, unambiguous plans for the future, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, made clear to us in his speech.
Secondly, in the last few years—and I hope the noble Lords will find this rather more encouraging than some of the issues we have discussed this afternoon—I have been in discussions with the delivery authority staff, and I want to pay tribute to them for all their professionalism and hard work, in difficult circumstances during the last few years. We have been designing, in embryo, what has now been called the Palace of Westminster apprenticeship scheme. Briefly, it suggests that restoration and renewal should provide a superb opportunity to showcase apprenticeships of every kind. As well as heritage crafts, which have already been mentioned and are in danger of disappearing, there are many which will lead to permanent, important employment opportunities for such as architects, surveyors, builders, electricians, safety engineers, plumbers, stonemasons, carvers, painters and those engaged in a host of other skills. I am delighted to say that the delivery authority’s contracts over a certain sum will now require firms to employ an appropriate number of apprentices on or off-site. The scheme will offer employers the opportunity to register young people at the start of their apprenticeships and to report when they have successfully completed them. They will then receive a small medal, based on a Victorian example showing the Palace from the Thames, to remind them of their work on this historic site, which we want them to be proud of and remember. There are likely to be around 50 or 80 of these young people every year, and we hope that some of your Lordships will meet them.
This House knows that there is a serious skills gap in this country. Whereas large national businesses are good at training the young, small and medium-sized firms often find it difficult to do so. The incentives are too few and the bureaucracy complicated. Alas, the numbers of trained and up-to-date lecturers in vocational colleges are falling each year. If this country is to be competitive, then things must improve. This scheme, in a small but visible way, will help, and I commend it to your Lordships for approval.
My Lords, I very much regret the situation that we find ourselves in today. I served on the sponsor body until the last general election, with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and others, and it is worth remembering that one of the reasons the sponsor body was put in place was that it was based on the backdrop of the successful delivery of the Olympic Games in 2012. It was very much based on the way the Olympic sponsor body was set up, to get on and do the job.
There is no doubt that this project will be vastly expensive and no Government, be they Labour or Conservative, will want to commit that kind of money to it. I look at the Elizabeth Tower as it is today. What a fantastic example of restoration that is. Yes, the costs overran, but the Elizabeth Tower is seen as a symbol of the United Kingdom around the world—it is absolutely prominent. While it was being prepared, it looked awful. In fact, when most people go past the Palace of Westminster today, they think we have started restoration and that we are committed to doing it. We are doing not restoration but repair, because in places the building is falling down.
I understand why we are where we are today and the sensitivity about the whole decant. When I spoke in the other place on this matter, I made the case that one of the large infrastructure projects that I saw commenced when I was Secretary of State for Transport was the rebuilding of London Bridge station. That was four years of sheer hell because it was still being operated. If you look at it today, everybody says what a fantastic job has been done, and likewise with some of the other restorations that have taken place.
The simple fact is that restoration is incredibly complicated and very difficult to do. I very much sympathise with what the commission has been saying. However, one suggestion I would like to make at this point is that perhaps we should think in the future of giving the planning authority to the Commons so that it can get on with the job. I fear that there will have to be a decant. Nobody really likes the idea that some of the works that need to be done, certainly in the basement or the cellars, will require it, but it will be impossible without it. Parliament used to have a three-month Recess and sometimes a lot of the building work was done in it. That is now seen as impractical and something that we will not go back to. I do not think we should—there might be a desire for it but I would certainly not like to see the headlines in the papers. I can say that today because I think the headlines in the papers tomorrow will be of a different nature. Therefore, I do not think we will go back to that position. Now, however, the whole Palace is almost like a building site; that is not to take away from the very difficult jobs that a lot of people do in and around the building, trying to maintain it.
I should like to see us give ourselves our own planning permission and to see 24/7 working once we start that basement work. We could get access via the river; that could be one way of overcoming the problem. Some of the things that the sponsor body has been attacked for coming up with were never its plans in the first instance. The whole Richmond House idea was not something that the sponsor body did; it was told that it had to do that. Sometimes I feel that elements of the sponsor body have been unfairly criticised for coming forward with proposals that were not originally theirs—the body was told that it was necessary to do them.
The noble Lord, Lisvane, aptly summed up the challenge to us. It is a huge challenge. I understand why the Leader of the House and the commission have come forward with today’s proposals, and that is why I will support them tonight. However, this is an incredibly special building, not just in the United Kingdom but in the world, and we need to make sure that it is looked after and maintained to the highest possible standards.
Part of the reason we are in the mess we are in is that past Governments have not wanted to do any of this work. There has to come a time when we are on the front foot, saying why it is right and necessary to do it. I hope that the Leader of the House can reassure us that this will not lead to even longer delays. If we get longer delays, one day there might be a catastrophic incident and then people will say, “Why didn’t you do this before when you knew about it?” We did know about it but, at the moment, we are not acting.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords that I chair your Lordships’ Finance Committee and therefore sit on the commission. In those roles I have become more involved in the discussions around R&R in the last year or so, but I stress that today I am speaking entirely on my own behalf.
I wholeheartedly support the Motion in front of us today and the changes being made to the governance of the R&R project. We have heard quite a lot of doom and gloom so far and I am sure we will hear more, so let me try to put a more positive view on things, if I can.
First, I will say a word on what the proposal is, and what it is not. This is not about prejudging the end result—what options will be chosen, whether we decant or not, the level of accessibility and so on. Those decisions are for the next stage, once the delivery authority has done its job in providing us with a range of options. This proposal is about how we get to that point and ensure that we are able to take the right decisions. I am sure that some will think we already know what the options are, but really, we do not. No intrusive surveys have yet been carried out—they are, at last, happening this summer—and only very limited options have been considered. Like most noble Lords, I expect that a full decant or at least some decant will be required. But again, that is not a decision for today.
I thank our representatives on the sponsor body board. They have worked extremely hard to get us to this stage and, frankly, their task was pretty much impossible. They deserve our sincere thanks. But the existing structure was flawed and, frankly, not working. The sponsor body was created in part to put R&R at arm’s length from Parliament and to remove the politics from it. That failed. It was not the fault of the sponsor body but we ended up with the two Houses of Parliament taking opposing positions. The whole thing became, frankly, rather Brexity, split between “decanters” on one side and “non-decanters” on the other, rather than trying to find imaginative solutions to the problem. One of the great positives to come out of this new situation is that the two Houses are now working much more closely together. Personally, I have been encouraged by the amount of common ground we have had in our joint meetings.
The sponsor body was also meant to be the “critical client” for the delivery authority but, in reality, I am afraid that it has become its de facto communications arm. This has been most evident in the poor control of expenditure, as the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, previously raised. The combined expenditure of the sponsor body and the delivery authority to date has been well over £200 million—I think the noble Lord said £212 million—which includes incredibly high expenditure on corporate overheads and consultants and, in particular, extraordinary levels of expenditure on IT. The sponsor body itself has been paying between £5 million and £7 million a year to a big four accountancy firm just for the business planning. As I say, the intrusive surveys are only now kicking off, nearly two years later than planned. Most of the work done has been desktop analysis and modelling rather than genuine “sleeves rolled up” investigation.
The structure also created a very “them and us” situation. Our in-house teams, who probably know more about this building than anybody else, have not been sufficiently involved in the R&R process so far. This reset should ensure much closer collaborative working—it is already achieving it. However, we should be looking at how we can improve the situation, and I believe that this reset creates some real opportunities.
First, we have heard comments, and I am sure we will hear more, about kicking the can down the road. I have a more optimistic view. There has been a tendency to defer decisions on important work simply because it will be part of R&R. Part of that is to avoid nugatory spend, but part of it has simply been “It’s simply too difficult to make that decision now: let’s park it.” We now have the opportunity to bring some of those elements forward, especially where they relate to safety and risk, and I very much hope that will happen. I urge the teams to give us tangible examples of that as soon as possible.
Secondly, I hope we will now see a fundamental change in approach and mindset. So far, the way it has worked is that the sponsor body and the delivery authority come to us to ask how we want things to look and then go away to investigate that scheme. To me, that is the wrong way round. As Members of this House, none of us are experts; we do not know what is the art of the possible; and we do not really understand the state of the building. Of course, we know the broad parameters of where we want to end up—safety, accessibility and fitness for purpose as a home for Parliament in the future—but there are many ways to achieve that. To prejudge the detail before we have the options is the wrong way round. In this, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Carter: we should not set the endgame before we know the situation and before the delivery authority has imaginatively come up with what we need to do.
We need the delivery authority to do the work, including the surveys—which should have been done two years ago—and come back with a range of options that will allow us to take an informed decision. We must also test some of the articles of faith that have emerged that are not always entirely based on fact. One I hear regularly is that the building is falling down faster than we can maintain it. I see no evidence of that anywhere and, when I asked for it, the sentence was taken out of the paper.
This requires much greater imagination and creativity by the delivery authority. Let me give your Lordships some examples. One reason the costs are so high is the assumption that everything should stay the same. First, we must remove all the services out of the basement and then we put them all back in the same place. That has huge time and cost implications. If it is possible to do it differently—to install services in a different location—we could do those two things in parallel, or even avoid the first step by leaving what is there. We do not have to remove it if we do not have to replace it there.
We have also been overly cautious over heritage constraints. I am quite pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is not following me, because he might choke at this point. Of course we need to preserve this amazing building, but not in aspic. Buildings evolve, as this one has since it was built. We should look seriously at options that would reduce costs and, potentially, make the building a better home for Parliament, even if there are heritage implications.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, mentioned glazing in the courtyards, and I agree. My example is lifts. Putting improved accessible lifts in current locations is very difficult, time-consuming and expensive. An easier solution might be to put them up the outside of the building in the courtyards, where no one can see them. That is easy and cheap, but has not been considered so far. That is just an example—it may not be workable—but I am asking that we think more creatively to save and improve this building. The current proposals would see a 20% reduction in usable space for the £7 billion to £13 billion we are talking about. Where is the imagination in that? Where is the out-of-the-box thinking? I am sure we can do better.
The new governance structure will help, with more co-operative working between the two Houses—it already is. It should allow some work to be accelerated and, I hope, will encourage greater creativity of thought, hopefully leading to better proposals for the Houses to agree. I am completely behind the proposed changes, and I urge noble Lords to accept them.
My Lords, I do not share the noble Lord’s optimism, having listened to and participated in debates over the past 10 years. When I hear the term “sponsor”, it appears to me that this whole thing probably should have had a sponsor’s name in the traditional style. British Leyland would probably be the most apposite sponsor, given how the whole thing has been managed and handled.
I am a bit nosy, and when I was first elected to the other House, I had the curiosity to ask random members of staff to show me around until I knew my way around everywhere. They were always quite surprised that anyone was asking them anything. A few years ago, I did a tour of the Victoria Tower. The gentleman who kindly showed me round had worked there for 44 years, and he showed me every nook and cranny. It was fascinating. At the end, I asked him how many Members—we are talking about the Commons here—had actually visited and looked around. He said, “Two.” I thought perhaps he meant two that week or two that month. No, it was two in his 44 years. Anthony Wedgwood Benn had previously done so with a camera crew; I was the second that he was aware of in that entire 44 years. When Members of the House of Commons cite their great knowledge of this building, my experience is that they know not what they talk about. They have not been around. They talk about a fantasy of the little bits that they follow, the little routes they go through.
The reason I have no optimism is that, having once had the privilege—sometimes the burden—of being elected, I know that their timescales are rather shorter and, therefore, decision-making is easier to put off because someone else can do it in the near future. But we have had a decant: two years, in essence, of a decant of pretty much the entire building. Can anyone demonstrate, since we undecanted, that governance of the country has improved or that our decision-making is better than it was? I put it to the House that, at a minimum, our decision-making was as competent when we decanted, pretty much en masse, as since. Indeed, when one looks at some of the alcohol-related allegations made about the other House, it has perhaps been rather worse—certainly for the Government—given what has happened since.
I did an international conference a few years ago in the Bundestag with the German Government. I had President Steinmeier, Chancellor Merkel and the leaders of all the main parties there. It was appropriate for various reasons that it be held inside the new Bundestag. But there was a bit of a difficulty, because I learned in many meetings over there that, when they rebuilt the Bundestag—their R&R—they did not rebuild it as was. They got rid of most of the meeting rooms. In essence, I had to have a conference in a corridor in order to be able to have a conference inside the Bundestag; it was the only place available. It was quite extraordinary. They went to great efforts to assist. It was on anti-Semitism, so there was a symbolism to why they wanted it inside the Bundestag, and so did I. But they had moved all their facilities outside—they did not rebuild and restore what was there.
I see precisely the intention. On the timescales, once there are major engineering works, they will take whatever time they have. That will cost the bulk of the money; of course, they must be done. Of course, the building will have to be decanted for however long, however many years.
But that leaves the rest. All these curious corridors and steps up and the offices that are there—do we need them all in the same way that they have been perceived to be there in the past? Do they all need broadband enabling, for example? Modern design is much more about the wi-world, as I believe it is called, with desks in open-plan and people going in to use a facility with their laptop—we can all have laptops, if we wish, now. That is where the world is already at. We could choose to be that. We are very peripheral, but it is symbolic.
Why would we keep different catering departments? Would we not rationally have one catering facility? As to whoever is agreed to use it whenever, I am not sure—we could occupy many hours on who, where and when—but why not run it as one, plan it as one and rebuild it as one? What do we need two Libraries for? Just because there has always been— I am sure there have not always been, but for the past 50 or 100 years there have been two Libraries.
I appreciate that for some Members of the Commons, these things are sacrosanct and we should not go anywhere near the so-called traditions, but this place has evolved over, essentially, 1,000 years in a vast array of different ways. I would be in favour of going back to the days when we said, “Let’s go to York”. It would be far more convenient for me and far more pleasurable, and it would be good for the health of us all. That is a debate I will not recreate, because I will not win it; but let us not just stay as we are. Based on the timescales, some of this place could be a semi-museum, which would be perfectly appropriate. Let us get to the core of the issue.
My final point for the Minister concerns corporate responsibility and liability. Who precisely will be responsible for corporate manslaughter if we do nothing? Which individuals will accept responsibility for the future public inquiry when there are deaths here because nothing has happened? Who will take that liability for corporate manslaughter? It is rather important that we know.
My Lords, I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Mann. I too would like an answer on the corporate manslaughter issue.
This is a ridiculous building. I speak as a former archaeologist of prehistory. It is modern Victorian kitsch. I do not understand why we hold it in such reverence, particularly now that it is falling apart. I have a lot of respect for the past, but I also respect what it teaches us, which is that things do not and cannot stay the same for ever. Societies, organisations and governments move on, develop and become quite different. I realise that that is unwelcome news for some, but over the millennia we have seen systems rise and fall, however powerful and stable they appear. We certainly cannot say that about our system: we look as though we are letting democracy slip through our fingers. Systems fall, however stable, however powerful, and we need some drastic changes. I support the Motion—I see no alternative—and the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. I regret that it is even necessary to table it, and that it is not simply obvious.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Best, I visited the basement and was absolutely horrified by it. I took a lot of photographs, and one thing I noticed was that quite substantial waterpipes had rusted through completely at the bottom and had been bound up with gaffer tape so that they could still push water through. They were running over electrical wires, telephone equipment and so on, which was absolutely horrifying. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
Therefore, of course we must fix this building, and as soon as possible. We are in a dangerous situation. This has been put off for long enough, and a full decant is the only option. It is interesting to think that the pandemic was a full two years we could have taken advantage of to fix things here. We need some creative thinking. I also agree that moving our Parliament to another city much further north is a very good idea. It would be very healthy for democracy in our country. However, I accept that it is not going to happen.
We did test remote electronic voting, however, which is quite modern, and we did better than the House of Commons. Yet somehow, we have gone back on that because other people think it terribly important to mix and give each other Covid or flu in the corridors. Well, I admit that those machines work extremely well. Remote voting might be the way forward for other circumstances.
This is a very adversarial way to run a Government. I do not know if it is true that the Front Benches are slightly more than two swords’ length apart so that people could not kill each other when they got annoyed at what was being said. I was elected to the London Assembly, which had a horseshoe shape. That worked much better and was much better for co-operation. Your Lordships’ House does co-operate: by and large it is extremely generous and kind to people who have different views, but this Chamber is not conducive to anything except an adversarial situation. A horseshoe shape is used in Edinburgh as well. I am not sure whether that does help co-operation up there, but it could. I, too, think that we could turn this place into a museum. We could get some very beautiful artefacts in here and make it much more of a destination than it is at the moment.
I do not expect these ideas to be taken up, but we must widen our expectations of what government is and what it can be, and what suits our modern, global ideas of democracy. I do not want us to stagnate and collapse, as earlier civilisations did. Yes, please let us get on with it. Please let us not have more and more debates and more and more delays.
My Lords, I wish to raise three related points: transparency, cost and risk.
At the outset, a long time ago, we were promised a transparent, open process throughout. Alas, it has been the opposite. A recent Answer to a Parliamentary Question revealed that £212 million has already been spent on R&R, almost all of it on consultants, professionals and salaries, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Vaux. Alternative schemes and costings have been prepared for different locations and for substantial pieces of work that we have never seen. They lie largely unpublished and unexhibited. A few groups of Peers have had a peep at folders during a visit or meeting but have never been given anything to study. A pop-up display on screens in the Royal Gallery was diagrammatic but had no plans of the proposals.
We are constantly told, as many speakers have said in today’s debate, that we must push ahead, as with every passing week costs will escalate. Curiously, these postponements have brought us a dividend. We have saved £1.5 billion by abandoning the extravagant rebuilding of Richmond House, a 40 year-old public building built to last as long as its great Georgian and Victorian forbears. I am not sure about the view of the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Fowler, on the QEII conference centre. We have saved close to £1 billion by not knocking it inside out to provide a replica Lords Chamber and rooftop restaurant. As a result, the Government and the taxpayer also regain the considerable revenue from letting the capital’s prime conference centre for events.
I turn now to timing. All are agreed that the really important and urgent task is to shut down and replace the outdated cabling and servicing in the basement, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best. Yet under the grandiose schemes produced by R&R, this job was left until last. It was not to be done until the two new temporary Chambers had been built. This was under the R&R sponsor team, deemed now too distant and renamed in the report as the client team and programme team. Why? Why not be transparent and call it the Palace of Westminster team, so that people know what it is about?
At present, the planning application to Westminster for the northern estate is stalled and that for the Lords has not even been submitted. This was mentioned in the very good speech of my noble friend Lord Colgrain, and I agree with him. However, during all these delays, a parallel process has been taking place and is now completed on time and on budget. This is the £80 million repair and restoration of the entire roof of the Palace of Westminster, using the architect Sir Charles Barry’s fire-resistant, cast iron trusses and tiles. A sound roof is the most vital element of any building in Parliament, and this Parliament is now good for another century.
The spectre of a Notre Dame-style fire is constantly cited, but Barry was even more conscious of these matters, as he was replacing historic buildings destroyed in the great conflagration of 1834. Many large buildings have had their services wholly replaced, but none of them has ever been told it is an 80-year process. We all know Rome was not built in a day, but 80 years for R&R seems excessive, costing £13 billion or more. This is way above the original £4 billion.
The immediate need is for the costs and timings, not just headline numbers, to be published and brought into the open. I urge the Lord Privy Seal on this. Parliament is otherwise in danger of signing a blank cheque for a job that will continue to run out of control. If the whole roof can be repaired for £80 million, there has to be a better and less ruinous way to do the basement. We should also not forget how much was well-spent in the 1980s on restoration of the Chambers, the Royal Gallery, the Lobbies and the committee rooms.
There are several other more detailed points in the report that give cause for concern, but they will be for another day, as we shall no doubt be debating this further. Meanwhile, I look forward to the Lord Privy Seal’s informed and, I hope, positive reply, as she has been involved with the project for some time.
My Lords, I take note of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on the history and traditions of this place. I just add that, when the Earl of Devon was first in Parliament, we were in Shrewsbury, and then we sat for a number of centuries in St Stephen’s Chapel, which explains why we sit opposite each other in the manner of a medieval chapel.
I note my entry in the register of interests and my role as a custodian of a medieval building, which has a number of crumbling Victorian and Edwardian extensions, utilities and services. Like this one, that building operates as the home of a working business, housing staff, tourists and visitors and hosting functions and events. We consistently balance the challenges of health and safety compliance, equality of access and the need to preserve and explain important local heritage, with a wholly inadequate budget. I am therefore very sympathetic to the issues here.
The one big difference is that, as a private individual, I am obliged to comply with the rules and regulations of heritage listing, alongside health and safety and public access requirements. I understand that, as Parliament, we are not strictly required to comply with such things, and I would be grateful if the Lord Privy Seal could confirm that fact. I would also like to know the extent to which the Palace of Westminster, in its current condition, complies with such obligations of heritage conservation, access, and health and safety, as I do not believe it does. Just because the soon to be former Administration do not care to comply with the rules, that does not mean that we, as Parliament, should ignore them. We need to set a good example, and we do not.
I think we are all agreed that the condition of this building, and the conditions in which we expect our visitors and parliamentary staff to operate, are a disgrace. We were agreed on that back in 2019 when we passed the legislation to establish the sponsor body, which the joint commission now recommends we get rid of. In the three years since, and despite the hard work of many dedicated people, it appears that we are no further forward with the big decisions that are necessary to see restoration and renewal complete. I reviewed the joint report of the Lords and Commons commissions, and nowhere do I see a thorough analysis of exactly why the sponsor body is due to be disbanded, or how it has failed in the task it was set in the 2019 Act.
I note that much reliance is placed on the findings of the independent advice and assurance panel. Its members are indeed an eminent group, but their review lasted only three days, during which they interviewed some 25 people. This amounts to considerably less than one hour with each person and gives the sense of a review conducted in a considerable rush. Given the huge amount of work that has gone into R&R over recent years, I am not clear that such a brief review provides a sufficient basis on which to take the drastic action currently proposed.
As far as I can tell, the issue that the sponsor body has faced since its formation—something confirmed by my noble friends Lord Vaux and Lord Best—is the complete overpoliticisation of the decision-making process. Issues of whether or where to decant, what adjacencies and proximities to the Chambers should be adopted, and how parliamentary business should be conducted during the works have all become political questions. They should not be so: they are practical, procedural and administrative issues.
I understand many Members, including those of the other place, are concerned that the works programme envisaged by the sponsor body would be too disruptive of the rhythms and traditions of Parliament, but if we have learned anything in the last few years it is surely quite how flexible Parliament can be in the face of adversity. I may be new here, and I may be naive, but I am worried that we are far too precious about our procedures and processes, to the detriment of this building, our staff and the future of Parliament.
I am also particularly concerned that the proposed solution, far from fixing things, will only make them worse. The new mandate under which we revisit the key questions of the extent of the works and the process by which they are achieved will be overseen now by a new in-house sponsor function, overseen by the clerks of the two Houses. This will bring these issues directly into the political sphere and make them only more subject to the vagaries of the relations between the Lords and Commons commissions. They appear to be somewhat like the warring couple, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, in “The War Of The Roses,” sitting at either ends of a grand and crumbling house that finally burns down. I cannot therefore endorse the mandate for this reason, though I do understand it is a fait accompli, and so cannot seriously object.
As to the new approach outlined in the joint commission’s report, while I salute the important focus on health and safety, I am concerned that the coming years will see yet more sticking plasters and no long-term solutions. The joint commission is going right back to the drawing board, seeking a wider range of options for decant, a broader range of options for delivering the works and different levels of ambition for the programme’s scope. It appears that we are starting all over again.
We have done this. We have agreed to decant and to move to the QEII building, so please can we not just get on and do it? The longer we wait, the greater the risk to ourselves, our staff and our visitors, and to our beloved building.
My Lords, I begin by echoing the general thrust of the vast majority of comments made in this debate, and the critiques behind them. I must also at the start of my remarks refer to the register, which contains a significant number of entries related to buildings, listed buildings, heritage and such like.
Let us go back to the start. In April 2020 the National Audit Office published its report, Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme. It states:
“For more than 20 years, Parliament has been thinking about undertaking significant works to restore the Palace.”
We can all agree it is worth taking time to think things through. Two years before that, in January 2018, Parliament approved the restoration and renewal programme and in the following year the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 became law. Currently, it seems to me that progress comprises the document around which this debate is being conducted, Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster— A New Mandate, which I hold in my hand; such is the speed and extent of taking this proposal forward.
Almost simultaneously with Parliament approving the restoration and renewal programme in January 2018—to be precise, on 19 April that year—Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which is a real symbol of France just as Parliament is for our country, burnt down. Mention has been made of it already. Allow me for a moment, even if the circumstances are not exactly equivalent, to compare and contrast. Notre Dame is most impressively being put back together again, and President Macron’s stated aim is for the project to be completed in April 2024, the fifth anniversary of the inferno. Even if that deadline is not met precisely, the work proceeds with pace, conviction and commitment. In this country, I stand here in your Lordships’ House clutching the restoration and renewal document that we are discussing, rather like Neville Chamberlain on his return from Munich brandishing a piece of paper that merely delays the inevitable.
I am afraid I believe that we as Parliament have collectively made ourselves national laughing stocks. As your Lordships will know, there has been quite a bit recently about government and Parliament leading by example. If we cannot put our own house in order, we are not in a very strong position to get others to do so.
As I see it, the Government are the guardian of our national heritage, which is the collective national memory of our nation and an important pillar of our national identity. They set a general framework within which the owners of our listed buildings, whoever they may be and who are the custodians for the time being, then actually have to look after them. In my view, the frame- work is wobbly and inadequate, but that is for another day. In this instance, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that in these circumstances, de facto, government and Parliament are the same, which makes what has happened—or perhaps what has not happened—all the more lamentable.
Anyone who knows about these things knows that, in circumstances such as those of today, inflation is hitting construction costs more aggressively than prices in general, and that delay in addressing structural problems in buildings aggressively and progressively worsens the state of the problem. Having said that, if there is anyone who has the resources to remedy this kind of thing, it is the Government, because Governments of all political views always find plenty of money for fripperies of what they like. Let us be clear, as has been made absolutely apparent in this debate, we are not talking about fripperies.
I will briefly echo the noble Earl, Lord Devon. Speaking as an owner of a listed building—there are more than half a million listed buildings in this country, some of which are owned by private individuals, some by third sector organisations and some by the public sector—we are not encouraged to spend our money on our statutory obligations to the buildings for which we are responsible when we look at what the Government have done in respect of the sad story of the Palace. The Government and Parliament should lead from the front, not rather unconvincingly cheerlead from the back.
We all know that everybody has a view about the Palace and what we should do. I have given my views and, I suspect like many others, I have subsequently modified them, but I will not go into that now. Not everyone will be satisfied. Indeed, everyone may to some extent be dissatisfied, but I expect that everyone can agree that progress has been slow, indecisive and inadequate. Reams of paper have been consumed, hours of meetings have taken place and nothing much has actually happened, and heigh-ho, the Palace of Westminster is slowly and quietly deteriorating.
A strong, imaginative and proper grip needs to be taken of the whole proceedings. Action is needed now, and it needs to be firm. It is plain as a pikestaff that, unless something is done soon and decisively, it looks as though the way this country commemorates Brexit will be by allowing the greatest worldwide symbol of Britishness to deteriorate and disintegrate in front of our eyes.
My Lords, if today’s approach to restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster had been taken in 1835, we would not be here in this majestic building. The decision then to establish a royal commission, with a competition for designs, produced 97 entries and Barry’s visionary new Palace. It might have been three times overbudget and taken 24 years to complete rather than six, but it was done.
Two centuries later, as inheriting custodians of the Parliament that was created then and repaired after the war, it is surely nothing less than our duty to maintain and repair it. Of course we must control costs, but we are talking about a capital sum spent over a period of years to renew a world heritage site for a further 200 years.
In an overreaction to the scale of earlier proposals, all ambition truly to renew this royal Palace seems to have gone. Instead, we have a deliberately more modest proposal to deal with the safety of the building first, perhaps last. Of course we must heed the warnings. Our predecessors did not, ignoring the public alarm sounded by leading architects of the day, Sir John Soane and Robert Adam among them, that the Palace was a fire risk. The rest is history.
Of course we must act to protect this building and the thousands of people who work here, but essential repair, though it might be an argument from which the naysayers cannot so easily escape, should not be the limit of our ambition. This building is not fit for today’s purposes—for modern meetings with technology, for greater public engagement, for the number of staff who now have to work here, for the disabled.
If you go to Canberra, you can visit the pokey old Parliament building, which is now a museum. You can still smell the tobacco in it. Up the hill, there is a purpose-built Parliament, with the space and facilities which a modern legislature needs. I am not suggesting—at least not today—that we move out of this place altogether, but we need to do more than repair the building. We know about the importance of public and shared space; a Parliament especially, where meetings and discussion are fundamental to our life and work, needs such space. We know that performance improves when people work in a good environment, yet we cram staff into appalling conditions. My ministerial office beneath the Commons Chamber was overrun with rodents and alarming spores were growing on the walls. A shocked eminent doctor visited me and pronounced my office a health hazard, but it was also occupied by members of my staff because there was nowhere else for them to work. This is true even of Cabinet Ministers’ parliamentary offices, such is the overcrowding.
Piecemeal improvement, which is now to be institutionalised in these arrangements, has led to suboptimal development. The ugly visitor centre that has been added on to the western end of the Palace is a great facility for schoolchildren, but it shamefully obscures the aspect of the Palace from Victoria Gardens. The visitor centre at the United States Capitol is not an eyesore; it has been built underground. By the way, the environment around Capitol Hill is immaculately tidy, free of the litter which blows around Whitehall and chewing-gum mashed into the floors of this Palace—a detritus which is somehow a metaphor for the disregard we collectively have for this special place.
Of course we should decant while the work is done. Disliking the prospect of leaving, or fearing never returning because parliamentarians are approaching retirement age, is neither an honourable nor an acceptable reason to stand in the way of a cheaper and necessary temporary measure.
I agreed with everything the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said. Restoration and renewal cannot just be about health and safety; it needs to support a renewal of our democracy. That requires ambition, not reactionary opposition. If we had vision, for instance, we might consider ideas such as those of the Commission for Smart Government, which I had the honour to chair, to build a new ministerial centre as part of a revamped Parliamentary Estate. Ideas such as this might improve the performance of government.
I suppose I agree, albeit reluctantly, with what noble Lords have said: the proposals put before us are the only way forward now. But this is worse than a menu without prices; we have now been told that what might be on offer for the main course and pudding cannot be seen at all. All we are left with is the starter: the essential safety-critical work, apparently the only thing we can agree on. I am afraid it reflects badly on us. This is not our building; it belongs to the nation. It is an international symbol of who we are, where we came from, and the parliamentary democracy that we stand for and are known for.
That we should repair this building urgently, now, should be beyond debate. But I believe we should do more, lift our sights, and try to show at least a measure of the same leadership, ambition and foresight which a few good parliamentarians and a great architect showed 200 years ago.
My Lords, clearly, I know next to nothing about construction, albeit that I oversaw from a distance the construction of two new buildings at my college. So to prepare myself for today, I sought advice from a national expert on megaprojects. I feel compelled to speak because of my alarm at the paralysis we find ourselves in and because of my respect for this building and all that it represents. The urgent start needed is held up by Members of Parliament who know that it will not be completed while they hold their seats. To them, I have to say that if you love it, you have to leave it.
I call on your Lordships and the Minister to declare today our willingness to decant for the sake of doing the job in the most efficient way possible, thereby earning the gratitude of future generations rather than their disbelief that things have been allowed to degenerate to such a level. It is not hyperbole to describe this moment as our Notre Dame. In recent years, there have been about 25 minor fires and a major asbestos leak. Dithering over the role of the sponsor body has cost at least £100 million. Some £70 million was written off when the Commons decided against moving to Richmond House, and there is no plan B. Incidentally, Richmond House, standing vacant with its forecourt by the Cenotaph, would make a far better location for the planned Holocaust memorial than Victoria Tower Gardens, where it is literally bogged down by water, stubbornness, and the usual underestimate of costs and overestimate of benefits.
This project seems fit to join the list examined by the political scientist Sir Ivor Crewe in his study, The Blunders of our Governments. From the poll tax, child support and super casinos to the Millennium Dome, projects fail because they are commissioned by Ministers and designed by civil servants, both of whom move on to other jobs. Policy is separated from reality and from implementation, while in the end there is no penalty for failure, and no one takes the accountability. Meanwhile, in this Motion, we are being sent backwards. Resignations have cost us much needed experience and the whole project has gone back to the drawing board. We need one small outside body to drive it forward; we need to confirm our decant; we want no plethora of options, because people will always favour the cheapest; and we need to hear directly from the professionals.
There are lessons to be learned from history and from the study of megaprojects. Nine out of 10 such projects have cost overruns. The Scottish Parliament cost overrun was 1,600% and the Channel Tunnel 80%. For many of the world’s most iconic projects, it could have been said that if people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. We should brace ourselves now for the disapproval that may come from transparency over expenditure, and we should keep our eyes focused on the future working parliamentary democracy of this country. By way of illustration, does anyone regret the Channel Tunnel or the Sydney Opera House, or indeed our current Palace of Westminster, which itself took decades to construct and ran into the same problems of governance, cost and political disarray that we are facing now, more than a century later?
Instead of learning from the past story of indecision, unwillingness to move and lack of leadership, there is this decision before us today to terminate the sponsor body, apparently because it told the truth about the budget—up to £13 billion—and the need to decant completely for 12 or more years. Decisions of both Houses have been reversed, with no reasoning given for this new model of governance. As the Public Accounts Committee said, this Motion before us will cause further risk and delay; there is no one person or body to be in charge.
Much as we respect them, we know that the clerks do not have construction expertise—indeed, they were never expected to have that as part of their job—nor do the Speakers, not even with a client team and a joint department of both Houses. Why, at the very least, does the Infrastructure and Projects Authority not have oversight of this rather than being excluded? Why was a meeting of interested Lords called the day before the report from the Public Accounts Committee? That report is critical of the fact that there is still no start date and of the new oversight given to the House authorities. We have no evidence as to why the existing governance model was rejected. The sponsor body had already spent £145 million in readiness. Our delay is costing us £60-85 million a year and that is an old estimate.
Every expert has told us that a full decant is called for. Our experience with Zoom during lockdown has shown that Parliament can function in innovative ways, without losing its authority and without changing for ever. We have to accept that we will be a generation who sacrifice our own convenience for the sake of generations of politicians to come. A decision to decant is the kick-start this programme needs. In this House, it has already been approved and we should not resile from it in the face of this Motion. We should not encourage work to minimise the decant or plan for a shorter life expectancy for the completed works, which would mean leaving our successors that recurrent nightmare. The decision should be made now, before the recess. No amount of rejigging of the governance will change the need to decant, not least for the sake of the staff.
We need to move from policy development to project execution. I fear that some of the current debate about governance is really about finding a new organisation that will tell us that the project is cheaper and less risky. The worst-case scenario is that the new organisation will come up with more palatable numbers, and then overoptimistic costs and timelines are approved. The best-case scenario is that the new organisation will go back and redo the work that has already been done, and come up with the same conclusion. The Commons yesterday were also pretty pessimistic about this new governance.
My final thought on governance is that we need to bring together decision-makers, so that stakeholders can debate, align their objectives and find common ground. I tried to piece together an organogram of the new structure, and it ended up looking rather like that tangle of wires and pipes beneath our feet in the basement. I do not really see how it can work efficiently.
A number of individuals are currently putting themselves forward as our next Prime Minister. The one question I would ask of each one is: are you committed to progressing the restoration and renewal of the Palace, and will you convince MPs that they must vacate it as required? I agree with my noble friend Lord Devon that ideally this Motion should be rejected in its entirety, but I envisage that that is not possible.
My Lords, when I was a schoolboy in India, we were told stories about the British Parliament. One of the stories, of course, was of how Guy Fawkes tried to blow the old Parliamentary building up. But then I heard that every year, there was an inspection—just on Guy Fawkes Night—to check whether Guy Fawkes was there or not. Obviously, given the state of this restoration report, I think they all expect Guy Fawkes to turn up only on Guy Fawkes Day to set fire to this place.
That is what traditionalists and romantics think our history is about. What we are suffering from is the fact that there are romantics and the so-called modernisers. The romantics want this place to be exactly as it was and not change anything, which is why we are talking about restoration.
This is a great building. It is a fantastic building, but I have always thought it utterly useless as a parliament chamber. All other parliament chambers you see in the world are much more modern than this: you have a proper seat of your own, a desk, computer facilities, meeting halls and decent catering. You do not have this very crowded place, where deliberately not everybody can find a seat. If there are 800 Members, God forbid that you may think you will get a seat—heavens! You are here not for sitting down but for the gorgeous decorations, history and all those sorts of things. Yes, the pandemic forced us into modernisation, but we are rapidly marching to restore all the old habits. We do not really like modernisation.
Obviously, this report will have to be agreed to because we have no alternative. I do not think any good will come out of it, because 15 years from now we will have another debate like this—I will not be there, because I was 83 last Sunday and I may not be alive—and discuss the same things: what different committees we have formed and whether the House of Commons is refusing to decant. Let us hope that, in the meantime, no Guy Fawkes has set fire to the basement—not so much for ourselves but for the staff who work here. They will pay the cost of our laziness, not us.
If I had any choice—thank God I do not—I would not have thought about anything other than not decanting but building another parliamentary building. At the start of the pandemic, I wrote a letter to the noble Baroness in charge of this thing and said we should start building a new parliamentary building while the pandemic was here so that we would have a building ready for occupation. Had we done something like that, we would all have decanted there, Commons and Lords, and restored this building as one of the most fantastic museums of British history, exposing it to the public and showing all the decorations. I quite agree that this is an incredible building, but a parliamentary building it is not. It is useless as a parliamentary building.
I was surprised to hear that when the restoration took place after the House of Commons Chamber was bombed during the war, it was insisted that the Commons Chamber be restored exactly as it was, so that it would always be overcrowded if everybody decided to turn up. I think this is the only country in the whole world that worships democracy but makes quite sure that the parliamentarians do not have a comfortable life. The parliamentarians love it, because they think not being comfortable is the great strength of British democracy. Being comfortable would absolutely corrupt us like all the Europeans, and we do not like the Europeans. Given that we made that mistake and are not going to move out of here—we may move out, but the Commons will not—all we can do is hope and pray that within the next 50 or 100 years we get this place fully restored and are able to do what is proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, which is very important.
We really ought to think of Parliament in a different way, because our democracy is different. This Parliament was refurbished at a time when the franchise was only 10% of the population. Most people in the House of Commons were second sons of Peers, and the voting public were hardly more than 10%. We are in a very different situation now. We should use a much more consultative system whereby our citizens can communicate with us their preferences regarding our proposals and the legislation before us. How many people are aware of what we are discussing? We ought to be able to connect constantly with our citizens so that they can tell us their proposals. We should have a people’s budget in which people can tell us their preferences regarding taxes or expenditure. We do not know any of that, because we are not able to consult our citizens.
Let us concentrate on the positive aspects and, whatever we do for restoration, make this a more fit place for democracy than it has been so far. We know from what is going on in the selection of a new Prime Minister that we are not a very successful democracy.
My Lords, this Motion marks the end of a very sorry chapter. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Newby, who clearly outlined how we have got to where we are today. It almost beggars belief that Parliament set up a sponsor body through primary legislation and gave it a clear brief agreed by both Houses, but found itself unable to live with the independent process that it had set up.
I pay tribute to Liz Peace who, as chair of the sponsor board, worked tirelessly with her team to try to make the relationship with Parliament a success. I know there were considerable frustrations that it was not possible to set up a proper liaison committee between the sponsor board and Parliament, so I cannot agree with the Leader of the House that Parliament was not fully consulted. I know that Liz Peace and her team did everything possible to ensure that that was not the case.
But we are where we are, so I want to move forward and look at how we can make real progress on restoration and renewal. First, it is obvious to me that bringing the functions of the sponsor board back in-house is the right way forward under the circumstances. As this process has unfolded, it has become painfully obvious that the parallel with running the Olympics is easy to draw but very hard to sustain. I have seen at first hand how well this model can work, having been involved in overseeing the delivery of the Olympics, but the Olympics was totally different. It had a clearly defined budget and minimal political interference—the exact opposite to where the sponsor body found itself.
It is clear that the two Houses wish to retain ownership of how this precious building is made safe for the present and preserved for the future, and this is unlikely to change. I believe that putting these arrangements in place for just the programme definition period of 12 to 24 months is very unwise, because this is likely to be the best structure going forward. We should set it up accordingly and not just see it as a short-term fix.
We have been told that the commissions are set to delegate authority to a new programme board, a joint decision-making board of the two Houses, but we have been here before. Parliament delegated this role to the sponsor body, but then refused to accept its findings. It is really not rocket science to work out that costs would be lower and the project much more straightforward to deliver if the building closed for several decades.
It is therefore essential that the programme board has strong political leadership and cross-party representation, otherwise it just will not command authority or be able to act consistently across several electoral cycles. It should include representation from the major parties in both Houses and the Cross Benches and be chaired, in my view, by a senior member of the governing party who has the ear of the Government. This is crucial if we want to make sure there is no repeat of the current fiasco.
Giving it real responsibility for delivery of the project is vital, as is keeping the process in-house for the long term. But let us not delude ourselves that in-house automatically means good and efficient. As chair of the Lords Finance Committee for four years, I saw some disturbing examples of work not being properly defined before tender, surveys and advance investigations that were limited in scope, budgets running out of control and virtually no corporate memory.
We must above all else ensure that these mistakes are not repeated on an epic scale during restoration and renewal. But before we start, we must tackle the safety issue in the basement so graphically outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Best. In my view, a first step would be to re-provide above ground crucial mechanical and electrical infrastructure currently in the basement. If we were, for example, to use electricity above ground to heat the Palace rather than the steam boilers in the basement, we could end the highly dangerous practice of mixing steam and electrical cabling underground—a fire risk for which any other building would almost certainly be prosecuted. It would also enable full access to the basement, allowing the underground renovation to be undertaken over a longer period, at a lower cost and with a better outcome.
While the safety work is under way, the commissions and/or the programme board can concentrate on what is the minimum viable way forward for the wider R&R programme. We simply must move away from endless assessments of options in the foreground and political wrangling in the background, since both are barriers to making real progress. Instead, let us recognise that with a project of this kind even the minimum option is enormous in complexity and cost. I would rather, if necessary, now deliver the minimum than keep on arguing about the parameters of the maximum.
Let us now seize the moment to make this building safe once and for all, establish what we are prepared to spend to preserve it for the long term, take responsibility for delivering it and, above all, get on with it.
My Lords, this has been an interesting and very thoughtful debate. Like the noble Baroness who introduced it and spoke to her Motion, I also confess to being a member of the House of Lords Commission.
I first thank my noble friend Lord Blunkett for his amendment and his comments, which were widely appreciated. Although technically, we are talking today about the governance of the project rather than the underlying principles, let us be honest: it is not the problems of governance that have brought us to where we are today but the deeper concerns that some have raised, and which we have touched on. It is really important that we state our commitment to inclusivity and engagement, to the need to ensure that the regions and nations of the UK have opportunities to benefit from the building and other works that have been undertaken, and that we have some vision of the project—of what we are seeking to achieve as we move forward. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for being clear about the amendment from my noble friend Lord Blunkett and her commitment in that regard.
I support the principle of the Motion and if there were a Division, I would vote for it, but I will be honest: I would do so with a sense of enormous frustration and, I have to say, some qualification. That is as much to do with what has led us to this point as the Motion itself. As I was saying earlier, when we are having this debate, it is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu—again and again. I feel that I have been here many times.
This building, the Palace of Westminster, as we have heard, is recognised throughout the world and is designated a UNESCO world heritage site, as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, said. That status is really important. It is our privilege to work here, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who is not in her place, said. Part of the attraction for the thousands of visitors who come here is that it is a working parliamentary building. It is not just a museum; it is the living heart of the democracy of this country. But it is not our building. It belongs to the nation as the home of Parliament, and we have a responsibility as custodians of this building for future generations.
For me, R&R was never just about replacing the bits that are falling off, not working properly— “Last week, the door fell off in my office”—and so on. It is about something more than that, as the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, said. It is about something inspirational, something special. Every single national project of this kind has always had its detractors. There is never an ideal time to spend that money or to look ahead to what we are going to do to try to future-proof it.
Many consider that this building is now outdated as a home of Parliament. I disagree but, along with all the changes that have been made over many years, we need to look at what changes will be made in the future for future workers in this place. I felt so disappointed. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech—who is back in her place—mentioned those supporters who really just did not want to leave. Let us be honest: if we want to do it properly, it is impossible to do the work on the scale required if we all stay here.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, who made the point about creativity in what comes next. Let us think outside the box; let us be enthusiastic about the project. We cannot look at how much this part costs and what we can scale down for that; we have to be visionary and look at how we can achieve it. We have to be mindful of the cost, but not to the detriment of ensuring that we do the work properly.
The noble Lord, Lord Mann, made interesting points about some of the things that could change, but I say to him that we do not need R&R to do some of those. For me, a House-wide catering department is a no-brainer, but we will work on that one. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, talked about moving Parliament completely. I am not necessarily against that, but the work still has to be undertaken on this building because it is a heritage site. If we relocate Parliament permanently, we need to relocate the business of government as well, not just a couple of buildings where people talk.
The need for an overhaul and repair, for restoration and renewal, is indisputable: it has to happen. The Library briefing is very helpful on this saga of dither and delay. It started at the time of the 2016 committee on which I served, which reported in 2018. The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, was also involved in some of those earlier debates. They have been going on for years and years.
We have referenced Mr Barry’s War, the excellent book by Caroline Shenton about the rebuilding after the great fire of 1834. It would be fair to say that Charles Barry’s mental health suffered as a result of the constant chopping and changing and the problems he had to deal with. It sounds all too familiar when we look at some of the things we are facing today.
When we passed that legislation in 2019, we did not do so in a vacuum. It followed the 2018 Joint Committee of both Houses, which the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and other noble Lords also served on. It had pre-legislative scrutiny from another Joint Committee of both Houses on which Members in today’s debate served. We also had earlier reports—such as the one from the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst—for which considerable work had been undertaken to identify the scale of the deterioration of the building.
In passing the legislation in 2019, we went through all of this and decided on the governance model that experience told would best manage the programme. All the reports and investigations have identified the same problems and the same potential crisis points. All recommended that the most efficient, quickest and least costly way of undertaking the necessary work was a full decant of the building.
Working conditions are poor—noble Lords are right to reference that. Our maintenance staff are crucial to the continuation of business, as the House of Commons found when they had to delay a Sitting this week because of a leaking air conditioner.
Only a couple of Members referred to the report from the Public Accounts Committee. I was surprised by that, because it provides helpful guidance on how we got here and how we can get out of the mess we are in.
There are three things I would like to reference, one of which is uncertainty. There should not have been uncertainty. Clearly, the pandemic made things difficult and we had to look at the financial environment; however, it strengthened the case for not wasting public money but spending it wisely. It is political uncertainty, even to the extent of MPs bringing in their own surveyors to check the work we had done, that has increased costs. There are individuals—Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Leader of the House, has been mentioned, but there are others—who are not prepared to accept the decisions and have reopened the issues, taking us to where we are now.
There has been constant changing of scope and other options to be considered or explored, even when they had previously been examined and rejected. Having agreed to a full decant, the House of Commons Commission asked again for a continued presence on the site, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referenced. That continued presence got bigger and bigger, beyond the Chamber. As the Government withdrew support for the option identified—to decant the House of Lords —and then floated nonsense about splitting Parliament into two in different parts of the country, all that work cost more money. The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, referred to a waste of money. That was the biggest waste of money here: the work undertaken that did not need to be.
The House of Commons Commission made the decision to remove the sponsor body without any attempt to look at alternatives or manage the programme differently, or even to consult or discuss this with the House of Lords Commission, which should have been an equal partner in all this. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, that there is no cost-free option here. If the public were aware of the cost of delay and the daily, weekly and monthly cost of maintenance, they would be horrified that we are not moving along much more quickly and getting the work done.
I understand the frustrations of those who feel they have not had enough engagement. Communication must be better. However, all projects change, and as this one moves forward not everyone can be consulted on every single issue. There has to be widespread consultation, agreement and buy-in for the general direction, but not every single detail of the work has to be consulted on.
Part of the reason why we are here today is that some have sought to undermine the work. However, despite the real concerns, we need to make progress. This is the only game in town, so we need to make sure that we can move forward. There are opportunities here for better engagement and consultation.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has borne the brunt of many of the questions here, but she is on the House of Lords Commission and I consider her to be one of the good guys in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, made a point about the joint approach by both commissions, and that is welcome. Many of us in the Lords commission have been really frustrated that decisions have been taken on which we have not been consulted. We have been careful in our approach to this; it is no secret that we have felt frustrated when we have been carried along in trying to make things work, even when on one occasion the House of Commons Commission walked out of a meeting that we thought we were having with it to discuss this. So it has been a bit of a saga, but I hope that we can now move forward and that the House of Commons Commission will genuinely want to work with and engage with us.
I have only one question for the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, which should be an easy one. In passing today’s Motion, we need an unequivocal, 100% commitment that, when the programme board is established, it will have a membership that is committed to the programme, and that no Member will be appointed to that board if they do not support it 100%. What we cannot have again and again is those opposing the project seeking to undermine it with their positions when taking important decisions.
I am sorry that I have gone over my time, but today’s debate is about responsibility, and this may be the last chance that we ever have to fulfil that responsibility. If we lack that commitment now, it may be too late.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for taking part in today’s debate and those who have engaged with the R&R teams over the course of recent weeks. I entirely recognise and understand the frustrations expressed by everyone in this debate. Those of us who have been involved in this—the noble Lords, Lord Newby, Lord Best, Lord Fowler and Lord Carter, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Doocey—all share them. I am not going to pretend that we are not all in the same place. There is no denying, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, have alluded to, that we have had problems between the two commissions. Again, there is nothing I can say to dispute that; it has been absolutely true up until now. We have not been a good client, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, rightly pointed out.
Let us try to take this opportunity to reset. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, the commissions have demonstrated more collaborative working, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, also outlined. Amazingly, we finally have joint meetings, which we have been trying to get for months—years, in fact. We have published a joint report, and I think we have acceptance of our joint responsibility to safeguard the Palace.
I am not promising—and it would be foolish of me to do so—that there will not be further frustrations and bumps in the road, but I believe we have reached a more constructive place. Unfortunately, that is now going to be on the record so let us hope that it proves to be true and that we can move forward from here. I am grateful that, despite noble Lords’ misgivings and clear frustrations, the overwhelming view from the debate is that we need to move forward and this is the way to do it. Whether we ever wanted to get here, we are here, and we are trying to work together.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, that the make-up of the programme board is now going to be critical. I echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we have to have people on the board now who want to take the project forward. That must be at the forefront of the minds of all those involved in taking it forward. I hope that is how we will move forward from here.
I shall respond to a few questions that came up during the debate. The noble Baronesses, Lady Wheeler and Lady Smith, talked about the PAC report. I am sure noble Lords know that the accounting officers for the two Houses have responded to the recommendations addressed to the PAC. That response has now been published and is available for people to look at. There is a recognition that important lessons need to be learned that the House authorities are taking on board, including around issues of transparency. Indeed, we believe that the joint commission report is one part of the evidence showing that we are taking those issues on board, and we want to engage further. Obviously, reflections on the PAC report will be taken into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, asked about contingency planning. I assure him that we have a set of business resilience plans in the event of fire, flood or other emergencies that might disrupt the Parliamentary Estate. The aim of the plan is to ensure the continuity of essential parliamentary business with minimal delay, and I can confirm, having been involved, that the contingency plans are regularly reviewed and updated.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, referred to health and safety. That is an extremely important issue which has been highlighted in the joint commission report as a priority. The two clerks, the corporate officers, are the responsible officers and take their responsibilities enormously seriously. For instance, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 expressly identifies the two corporate officers as responsible persons for areas occupied by their respective Houses, and they have a duty to ensure that appropriate fire precautions are in place, risk assessments have been carried out and appropriate fire safety arrangements have been made. Again, I can say from personal experience that we have regular conversations with the authorities to make sure that our duties are being upheld.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood asked about our heritage obligations. We abide by the relevant legislation. We follow planning legislation and go through all statutory consent required for a grade 1 listed building.
The noble Lord, Lord Mann, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked who had corporate responsibility if anything went wrong. John Benger, the Clerk of the Commons, told the PAC in the evidence session that he gave that
“if there is a catastrophic failure and if life is jeopardised, it is our legal responsibility”—
that is, the Clerk of the Commons and the Clerk of the Parliaments. He emphasised:
“It is no one else’s.”
So that is where the responsibility lies, which is why, again, we work closely with the House authorities to try to ensure that we uphold our responsibilities.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, is right when he says that our decision today is not about prejudging what may be in the strategic case. A number of noble Lords talked about a whole range of issues that they might like to see in the strategic case that is put to both Houses, but that is not what we are talking about today.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, my noble friend Lord McLoughlin and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones, Lady Deech and Lady Andrews, all talked about decant. That is not a decision for today but, although I cannot make promises to noble Lords, the House of Lords Commission has been clear—I am being honest here—that, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, we cannot quite see how it cannot happen. Still, let us see the strategic case that comes forward, and then it will be up to this House and the Commons to make their decision on the back of it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and my noble friends Lord Colgrain and Lady Rawlings talked about the money already spent by the sponsor body and delivery authority. It is not right to look at this as money wasted. A significant amount of work has been done and is required to prepare for, design and develop the plans for R&R, irrespective of the approach we choose. For instance, spending has included design schemes to RIBA standards, detailed programme planning, decant scoping, public engagement and plans for heritage collections. I would just say that the money spent to date has not been wasted; it has been spent on work that we will still need to build on no matter where the programme goes from here.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about milestones and next steps. Assuming that we approve this Motion, the plan is to establish the client board, with the first meeting planned for October; to agree the terms of reference of the programme board, including composition and membership, at the client board first meeting, which is of the joint commission in September; and the recruitment of external members with required major programme expertise over the course of the autumn. Until the programme board is set up, the client board—which is the two commissions—will act in its place to ensure that there is no loss of momentum.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, asked about surveys. Intrusive surveys will commence next Friday, as soon as the House has risen for recess. Over 150 sites will be surveyed over the summer and the programme of surveys will continue into 2023. The aim is that the strategic case will be presented to both Houses by the end of 2023.
Finally, I return to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. I recognise and welcome his sustained, principled commitment to these issues and the passion with which he spoke in his contribution. It is right that we consider the importance of sharing the benefits of the restoration and renewal programme. That of course means taking into account the importance of making the building accessible and ensuring that the public are welcomed in, that engagement with Parliament and democratic processes are fostered and that opportunities presented by this tremendous programme of works are shared across the United Kingdom through programmes such as the one my noble friend Lord Lingfield mentioned.
As I said in opening, I hope I have been able to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and all Members of the House—a number of whom spoke in support of his amendment—that the changes proposed today do not alter the statutory framework in that regard; nor will the regulations that we propose to bring forward to give effect to the proposals we are considering today. As set out in paragraph 22 of the joint commission’s joint report, the programme will
“continue to have a mandate to consider these areas and how best to address them”.
That commitment remains.
Anyone who has either been in or will read about this debate will recognise the deep affection that every noble Lord has expressed for this incredible, historic building. I understand the strength of feeling about the importance of ensuring that this new way forward is robust and takes us on. The task before us today is to ensure that the project has the structures and processes in place to allow us to deliver the best possible options for this House and the other place.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, rightly observed, whatever your views, I am afraid this is the only show in town so I hope noble Lords—despite misgivings and frustrations—can support the Motion. The Commons managed to pass it without amendment, which we should take as a good sign so that we can start to move forward together.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the indications of support from around your Lordships’ House for my amendment. I am particularly grateful to the Leader of the House for her reassurances. I am taking it that the strategic case will be completely aligned with the 2019 Act of Parliament. In light of that—I take the same view as my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon on agonising about how we are progressing but recognising that we have to—and the excellent speech from the noble Lord, Lord Best, I am prepared to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill
Second Reading (and remaining stages)
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.
Energy (Oil and Gas) Profits Levy Bill
Second Reading (and remaining stages)
My Lords, we will take a little more time over this Bill. We are here to debate the Energy (Oil and Gas) Profits Levy Bill, introduced in the House of Commons. It may be helpful to start with a little of the context behind the Bill.
People across this country are facing rising energy costs and an increase in their overall cost of living. Of the basket of goods and services we use to measure inflation, a record proportion are seeing above-average price increases. Indeed, this country is now experiencing the highest rate of inflation we have seen for 40 years, and this is causing acute distress to the people of this country.
In May the Government announced a series of measures to help the British people during this difficult time—a period in which we have seen prices in oil and gas reach new heights. Oil prices have nearly doubled since early last year and gas prices have more than doubled. This is a global phenomenon, driven by factors out of any single Government’s control and in part by Russia’s war.
With increased prices at this global level, profits from oil and gas extraction in the UK have also shot up. These are unexpected, extraordinary profits, above and beyond what forecasters could have expected the sector to earn. Because of these extraordinary profits and to help fund more cost of living support for UK families, the Government are introducing the energy profits levy. This temporary levy is a new 25% surcharge on these extraordinary profits. When oil and gas prices return to historically more normal levels, it will be phased out. However, we have a responsibility to help those who, through no fault of their own, are paying the highest price for the inflation we face.
I now turn to the content of the Bill. As set out in the energy security strategy, the North Sea will still be a foundation of our energy security. Indeed, currently around half of our demand for gas is met through domestic supplies. In meeting net zero by 2050, we may still use a quarter of the gas that we use now. It is therefore necessary to encourage investment in oil and gas, encouraging companies to reinvest their profits to support the economy, jobs, and the UK’s energy security.
It is possible to both tax extraordinary profits fairly, and to incentivise investment. That is why, within the energy profits levy, a new super-deduction style relief is being introduced to encourage firms to invest in oil and gas extraction in the UK. The Government expect the energy profits levy, with its investment allowance, to lead to an overall increase in investment. The new 80% investment allowance means that businesses will get a 91p tax saving overall for every £1 they invest, providing them with an additional immediate incentive to invest. This nearly doubles the tax relief available and means that the more investment a firm makes, the less tax it will pay. It means that the allowance can be claimed when the spending on the investment is actually incurred. This is unlike the allowance under the existing permanent tax regime for oil and gas companies, which can be claimed only once income is received from the field subject to the investment. As noble Lords may know, this can take several years.
I will provide some clarity on what the investment allowance will apply to. First, if capital or operating expenditure qualifies for the supplementary charge allowance, it will qualify for the energy profits levy allowance. Since the levy is targeted at the extraordinary profits from oil and gas upstream activities—that is, the profits that came about due to the global price increases—it makes sense that any relief for investment must also be related to oil and gas upstream activities. Secondly, such spending can be used to decarbonise oil and gas production, through electrification, for example. Therefore, any capital expenditure on electrification, as long as it relates to specific oil-related activities within the ring-fence, will qualify for the allowance. Examples of electrification expenditure on plants and machinery are generators, which include wind turbines, transformers and wiring.
I remind noble Lords that there are other tax and non-tax levers to support non-oil and gas investments, such as in renewables. These levers include the super-deduction and the UK’s competitive R&D tax credit regime. Importantly, returns on these investments are taxed at 19%, rather than 65%, as for UK oil and gas profits.
The Government have been listening closely to industry feedback. Late last month, the former Chancellor met industry stakeholders in Aberdeen to discuss the levy and make sure it works as the Government intend. Since then, the Government made a change to the legislation, which is reflected in the Bill. Tax repayments that oil and gas companies receive from the petroleum revenue tax related to losses generated by decommissioning expenditure will not be taxed under the levy. These repayments are typically taxed under the permanent tax regime, but, since wider decommissioning expenditure is also left out of account for the levy, this change is consistent and fair. I reassure noble Lords that, with this change, the Government still expect the levy to raise around £5 billion over the next year.
Finally, I turn to how long the levy will be in place. It will take effect from 26 May this year, and it will be phased out when oil and gas prices return to historically more normal levels. The sunset clause in the Bill ensures that the levy is not here to stay. Very few taxes have expiry dates set in law, so this provision demonstrates the Government’s commitment to keeping the levy temporary, and it gives oil and gas companies further reassurance, as they seek to plan their investments.
The Bill, and the levy it legislates for, should be seen against the backdrop of the reality that we find ourselves in: people are in hardship across the country, while businesses in the UK oil and gas sector have made profits surpassing their expectations, reflecting the extraordinary global context. Through the Bill, the levy will raise around £5 billion of revenue over the next year. This is not about maximising revenue for the Exchequer but about targeted objectives: to help with significant targeted support for millions of the most vulnerable, and to encourage the oil and gas sector to reinvest its profits to support the economy, jobs and the UK’s energy security. For these reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, this legislation, which is being rushed through Parliament, has the ostensible purpose of addressing the crisis of fuel poverty that is affecting an increasing number of households. The crisis is a consequence of the escalation of fuel prices in the international energy markets. Temporary measures are to be taken to tax windfall profits that are accruing to the domestic energy companies, which are the providers of oil and gas. The Labour Party has called for such measures, and the present legislation should be seen as a welcome response by the Government. Therefore, it might seem surly and ungracious to call this legislation into question, but that is what I intend to do.
Although the Explanatory Notes suggest that the measures are intended to help fund more cost of living support for UK families, they are not directly connected to this purpose. The additional energy taxes or levies have not been hypothecated in this way; that is to say that they have not been pledged in a legally binding manner to serve the purpose of alleviating fuel poverty. The levies will serve to bolster the tax revenues of the Government, which sustain a multitude of purposes. Nevertheless, the Government can expect to derive some significant political capital by imposing the levies.
The current high prices that we are paying for gas and petrol have been determined in the international markets. It does not necessarily follow that our domestic energy suppliers are bound to profit from these circumstances or that their profits will have increased automatically. We are led to believe that their profits have increased; this is true for the US but the figures to prove that it is true for UK companies operating on the UK continental shelf are not yet available. We know that, in 2021, their total profits across supply and generation fell by £133 million, or 3.4%, on the previous year. However, profits increased in the domestic supply market, providing an average profit margin of 4.3%, I believe.
The truth is that the UK’s oil and gas revenues are now a fraction of what they were in the peak period in the mid-1980s, when North Sea oil and gas were plentiful. The supplies are virtually exhausted now, which means that only a small proportion of what we consume comes from domestic sources. Therefore, one should not expect the levies on windfall profits to generate a large amount of additional revenue. The aspersion that the companies have been adding a substantial mark-up in selling what they have been purchasing on international markets is not substantiated. Companies operating in the North Sea are subject to a 30% corporation tax levied on their profits and a supplementary charge levied at the rate of 10%, whereas the standard rate of corporation tax is currently 19%. The energy profits levy, which will take effect retrospectively from 16 May—which is when we were notified of this legislation—will represent a 25% tax on oil and gas profits, bringing the total tax burden on profits to 65%.
In the financial year from 2021, the total receipts from profits on oil and gas from companies operating in the North Sea were £3.1 billion. The Treasury estimated that the additional revenue from the oil and gas levies will be £5 billion in the first 12 months—a highly speculative figure, which may represent an exaggeration. Moreover, as we have heard, the additional revenues are not expected to persist, and the legislation includes a sunset clause that will remove the levy after 31 December 2025, when it is expected that the profits will have declined.
The proposal to impose the levies has been met with the criticism that they are bound to deter investment by energy providers. The Government have met these criticisms by providing some very substantial investment allowances. A new 80% investment allowance will be available to companies in respect of qualifying expenditures. Such expenditures are closely circumscribed to prevent the allowance being used in financial acquisitions, for example, or covering decommissioning costs. It appears that the Government envisage further investment in oil and gas extraction.
However, the allowance will not be available for investment in alternative sources of energy, and here lies the main criticism of the legislation. To encourage investment in fossil fuels flies in the face of the commitments to staunch emissions of carbon dioxide. One can be fearful that these provisions represent the beginning of an attempt to roll back the measures to attain net-zero emissions, to which the Government are seemingly committed.
In any case, one must question the rationale behind investments in oil and gas. Given that the prices of oil and gas are determined in the international markets, and that domestic UK production is now a negligible fraction of global production, there can be no expectation that expanded domestic production could impact significantly on prices.
An economic rationale for an expanded domestic production might be to alleviate the impact on our balance of payments of the cost of our energy imports. Given the magnitude of our balance of payments deficit on the current account in respect of goods and materials, this alleviation would be small in proportional terms.
The truth of the matter is that the UK has failed to take the appropriate steps over the past decade to secure its supplies of energy. Now is a time for urgent action to embark on a viable long-term strategy for the provision of energy. Instead, the current exigencies are encouraging the Conservative Government to attempt to suck from the North Sea what little energy there remains under the waves, a