Sir Edward LeighMain Page: Sir Edward Leigh (Conservative) - Gainsborough)
Department Debates - View all Sir Edward Leigh's debates with the Leader of the House
What a lovely performance. It is hard to believe that restoration and renewal, commonly known as R&R—nothing to do with rest and relaxation—was first established in 2013 by both Houses. Imagine if we had actually started the work then: it might even have been completed by now.
I can see why the Leader of the House wanted to schedule this debate. We could have debated the redundancies at British Airways, something that he did not even find time for next Wednesday, but he chose to do this now. Of the current Cabinet, only two members voted for a full decant, seven did not vote and 15, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, voted against a full decant.
I hope that this debate is not about revisiting the project. Everyone accepts that work must be done on this building, not least because it is not accessible, and it is a heritage building. From seeing pictures or visiting the basement, it is clear that work must be done from a safety aspect underground and to the stonework outside. It all needs to be looked at, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime project and it will keep us going for the next few —maybe hundred—years.
I want to make a few points. First, we agreed a process in May 2019, when the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill was introduced, and it then received Royal Assent on 8 October 2019. The House agreed that, using the successful model of the Olympics, we would have a Sponsor Body and a Delivery Authority. Those are made up of experts, but there is parliamentary oversight. They became substantive bodies in April this year, and we in this House have tasked those experts with dealing with this important programme. I want to thank the parliamentarians who are serving on the Sponsor Body: the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who has been involved in this project for a long time—he has seen it all, right from the beginning—the hon. Members for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), Lord Best, Lord Carter, Lord Deighton and Baroness Scott. They are all on the Sponsor Body, so both Houses of Parliament have oversight of the project.
Secondly, the Leader of the House alluded to costs. At all stages, the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General are involved, and their job is clearly set out: to certify that Departments and any other bodies have used resources efficiently, effectively and with economy; and so long as they report regularly, costs can be kept in check. We are not dealing with repairs that could result in even more eye-watering figures; we are dealing with keeping this building safe. I want to put it on record that at no stage are Members or anybody visiting the building unsafe. Yes, there may be fires, but there is a team of people who put those fires out practically every day. The Clerk of the House would be absolving himself of his responsibility if he let Members in here when the building was unsafe. The case for a full decant is strong. We do not need noises off raising the prospect of alternative sites. Inevitably, there will be costs as yet uncosted.
I will come on to Richmond House, but it is not my opinion—it is an opinion that this House has taken to transfer authority for doing that to the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority. As I said, we are not the experts; they are the experts, and they will be able to undertake that.
The case for a full decant is strong. The Prime Minister has written a letter about moving to York. I do not know whether that has been costed—perhaps the Leader of the House could tell us what costs are associated with moving there. The costings of the building work and moving to York or anywhere else is a matter for the Sponsor Body to look at. This House will not be able to continue with a patch-and-mend approach or a quick fix; that will not do. Any delays will exacerbate the problem, probably making it cost more as some of the systems reach the end of their shelf life.
The Northern Estate programme is for improvements to the buildings in Norman Shaw North and South and Derby Gate, and it is progressing. Plans to house a temporary Chamber were part of the programme. Concerns were expressed about the heritage of Richmond House, but in fact it is only 33 years old. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) intervened on me, because he has been in the House for 37 years, so he will remember when Richmond House was not even there—it did not exist. We now have a strategic review, in which Members are encouraged to take part, and they have until 7 August.
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I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will remember the film “Groundhog Day”; as I stand here today, I have that strange feeling of déjà vu, and it is incredibly frustrating. Two and a half years ago, Members in this Chamber had a very fraught debate about what should happen to the Palace of Westminster, and now, to my regret, here we are again, revisiting that very same topic.
In preparing my remarks today, I looked in Hansard at the debate that we held on 31 January 2018, and I wish to remind the House of a few of the key points that I made as Leader of the House at the time. First, I said that 24/7 fire patrols carried out by teams of officers are necessary for Parliament to maintain its fire safety licence. With 7,500 people working in the Palace and more than 1 million visitors a year, the risks are immense. I said:
“Over the past 10 years, 60 incidents have had the potential to cause a serious fire.”
I went on:
“Secondly, there is a huge amount of asbestos packed into the walls”—
used to lag ancient pipes—
“that needs to be carefully and expensively removed”
before repairs can begin.
Thirdly, I said that many pipes and cables that are stuffed into the basement and throughout the Palace are literally
“decades past their lifespan, with some now being impossible to access. The likelihood of a major failure”
of sewerage, burst water pipes or critical system grows the longer the vast backlog of repairs and maintenance
“are left unaddressed.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 880-881.]
Fourthly, on several occasions in recent months, falling stone masonry has forced parts of the Palace to be closed off, and it is only by sheer luck that no one has been injured or killed.
It is not a case of whether we fancy moving out or staying here. If we do not move out, all the evidence points to a disaster that will force us to move out. If and when that happens, as I pointed out in 2018, the contingency arrangement for a catastrophic failure in the Palace is a temporary Chamber in a building in Parliament Square using curtains and temporary wiring that is designed to last for a few weeks at most. That is the truth about the current situation, and that is why, in January 2018, the House agreed that we need to take action.
The Palace of Westminster is a UNESCO world heritage site, it is one of the most famous buildings in the world, and it is the seat of our democracy. Even if we cared not a jot for any of those facts, we still do not have the option to walk out and, as the SNP would like, simply hand the keys back to the Queen. It is our duty to maintain this iconic Palace for the more than 1 million visitors each year from around the world.
About 75% of the cost is for non-cosmetic work on the Palace. The money will be spent dealing with mechanical and engineering works, aimed at preserving essential services for future generations. It is not about carpets, curtains and wallpaper.
When I first looked at the issue of restoration and renewal, I started out with a healthy degree of scepticism, as many hon. Members will have today. I was told, “Let’s use the Lords Chamber while ours is repaired,” “Let’s build a Chamber in Westminster Hall,” “Let’s have a floating Chamber on the Thames,” and, “Let’s move into Church House,” which was last used for Parliament in world war two. They are all excellent ideas and each one has been painstakingly and seriously considered.
Then came the horrific murder of PC Keith Palmer and a major review of security that identified that elected Members of Parliament should in future be secured within the Palace perimeter to keep us and, vitally, those who protect us safe from harm. That fact, combined with the obvious need for a permanent contingency plan for future generations, clearly pointed to establishing a permanent and alternative contingency venue for the Commons to meet and work within the Palace perimeter wall.
Indeed we have, and we have also shown that at least some of us need to be in this place so that we can continue to do our work properly. I absolutely share the concerns of hon. Members that we must get the best value for taxpayers’ money, so I certainly welcome the Sponsor Body’s review of the plans to move to a rebuilt Richmond House, but I urge hon. Members who are lobbying for us to stay in the Palace with no contingency arrangements and allow the vital work to go on all around us to accept that that is not realistic.
The day I first visited the basement, a sewage pipe had just burst—I was sure that they had done it deliberately. I could not walk through because there was a stinking spray right along the passageway. It visibly demonstrated the challenge that our engineers are up against. Don’t get me started on the asbestos snots that are all over the walls down there as a result of old pipe lagging—who knew? It is horrible; there is so much to repair. I am pleased to report to the House, however, that I no longer have a rat in my bin. I have moved office to Portcullis House and that rat has also moved on.
The last time the Palace was restored was because it had burned down. Those who believe that we should not spend the money should consider the cost of rebuilding from the ashes. We have seen the devastation that happened at Notre-Dame, and it would be unforgiveable to allow a similar disaster to happen here because we cannot be bothered to move out.
On the hugely positive side—the sunlit uplands—the restoration and renewal of this magnificent palace will create employment, training opportunities, apprenticeships and economic growth for small businesses and craftsmen and women across the UK. It will showcase UK creativity and ingenuity, spotlighting the best of British. It will provide work to thousands of individuals who, in a post- covid world, will surely need it. This programme should rightly form a part of the palace’s historic legacy, and its place in the world for future generations to come.
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I, too, wish we were debating something else. I would like to be debating, for instance, the way British Airways is treating its staff and, for that matter, its customers, but we have this debate this afternoon. I could just say, “I refer hon. Members to the speech that I made last time”, or to the one before, but, unfortunately, I am not going to do that.
I do love this building. Sometimes, it is the small quirky bits of the building that I love. It is not just the obvious historical bits. When one walks through St Stephen’s Hall, there is the painting of Wolsey demanding more money from Thomas More, who was Speaker at the time. It is a great moment of British history. I love it because it was painted by Vivian Forbes and his lover Glyn Philpot. The sad story is that, when the painting was finished and Glyn Philpot died, Vivian Forbes took his own life 24 hours later. There are so many different layers of history in this building—it is woven into every single aspect of our history—and I think that we need to preserve it, not in aspic, but we need to preserve it.
There are lots of things that have not changed since the last debate. The truth is—notwithstanding the comments from the SNP earlier, or, for that matter, from the Prime Minister in his letter yesterday—we are not going anywhere else. As I am sure the Leader of the House will remember, when they tried to get Parliament to go to York in the1460s, there was no business to transact, so it ended up not sitting properly at all. And when Parliament met in York in the 14th century it only did so because the king was terrified of an invasion by the Scots. I do not think that that is the concern of the Prime Minister at the moment, although there are some worries about a border.
I made an important point earlier about the capacity for doing additional work here in the Palace. It seems crazy, but we emptied out the cloisters to do work immediately, we got rid of all the staff who were working there, and the cloisters are still completely empty; there is no extra space on the parliamentary estate to put extra workers to be able to get the work done. That is an increasing problem. There are projects that have been done very successfully. The cast-iron roofs have been done on time and on budget. It has been an excellent project. The inside of the roof in Westminster Hall has been attended to very well. There are projects that are going well, but we are accumulating, every year, more and more additional projects, and the backlog is getting worse.
Richmond House is still contiguous to the Northern Estate where most of our parliamentary offices are. That was one of the main reasons, when I was on the Joint Committee, that we considered using Richmond House. It diminished the security threats of crossing over to some other building across the road. It is not about the convenience of Members; it just made it possible for people to do their jobs safely.
Actually, there was. The memory of the right hon. Gentleman is failing him, I am afraid. There was a proposal to demolish it. The bit that I think he differs on is whether there was a proposal to demolish the staircases, which some people think are intrinsic to Richmond House. Personally, I think that they are the ugliest bit of the building. The truth is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said earlier, it would be perfectly possible if people like the right hon. Gentleman had not been complaining that we had to have a Chamber that was identical to this Chamber—[Interruption.] If I am diminishing the right hon. Gentleman, my memory is different from his. If we wanted to go to a system where we slightly changed the parameters of what is in there, I am up for that, but it remains a fact that Richmond House is the only piece of land that is contiguous to the rest of the parliamentary estate and therefore safe.
As for the other things that have not changed, the building was designed as a whole, not from the very beginning, but after the fire. After 1834, one of the great, clever things that Barry and Pugin did was to amalgamate the estate into a single proposition about the British constitution, from the Commons through to the Lords and the monarch and incorporating the ancient Westminster Hall from the 11th century. That poses a real problem for those who want us to decant in part, because there is one central heating system, which is steam under high pressure; there is one electricity system; there is one drainage system; there is one water system; and there is one basement, interconnected, with a set of risers that connect it to the one attic and roof. That is the problem for the future safety of the building.
The reason I completely disagree with the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—it is rare for us to disagree on matters of this kind—about the idea of a partial decant, and the Commons going down to the Lords while the Lords go elsewhere, is that the Lords is not contiguous to the offices on the northern estate. So a safe passageway would be needed for votes and for people to be able to take part in debates, or people would have to walk along the pavements outside. All the advice that was given to us was that that was a security risk for us. More importantly, one of the problems with trying to keep us in the Lords—which, incidentally, is too small a Chamber with far too few seats for the House of Commons to be able to sit in—is that if we kept this building working while it was a building site, we would dramatically increase the risk of a further fire and we would increase the risk to the staff who were working in it. That was precisely the problem in Notre Dame, and that is what led to the massive fire there.
Break in Debate
I do not intend to speak for long, as others have contributions to make, but it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), especially given the question he put at the beginning of his remarks about the status of this place as a seat of UK democracy in the future, because it is on that point that I want to provoke, perhaps, a new angle to the debate.
The current crisis has put a great deal into perspective in recent months and forced us as a society to re-evaluate some of our priorities. As such, it is right that the Sponsor Body is re-examining some of the options decided upon before the pandemic, particularly if public services are expected to come under further strain in the autumn and as we tremble at the thought of a possible severe economic recession. Plaid Cymru welcomes the strategic review, therefore, and is open-minded about some of the ideas suggested recently and during this debate, including Parliament’s full decant, possibly beyond Westminster.
Some Members have mentioned that we might be debating other issues today. One thing that has become very clear in recent months is that we cannot go back to the status quo ante, in all respects of that phrase. In my opinion, we cannot go back to the old status quo, where public investment and political attention has been largely concentrated in one corner of the British Isles.
Communities across Wales are already experiencing job losses, and there is the threat of more to come. At this difficult time, perhaps we should be debating ways to increase investment into our infrastructure and economic packages of support for our small businesses and industries such as tourism that will take longer to recover from this pandemic. However, as I think the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned in his remarks, this is the debate that we have.
Taken in that broader context, it is right to look again at some of the strategic options that are before us. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned in his remarks, the amounts of public spending that we are talking about are sizeable. I think that the projected cost is about £4 billion, but, as others have mentioned, it is likely to rise. It is right that we are debating whether there are other ways that this project can be pursued and progressed that might be more beneficial to the public purse. If I needed to labour the point, to put the £4 billion into context, the additional funding that the Welsh Government received via the Barnett formula to deal with the present public health and economic crisis has been some £2.8 billion.
We cannot deny that the Palace of Westminster is falling apart, and the staff of this place deserve better, as well as everybody else. Others have mentioned falling masonry. I remember quite vividly an occasion about a year and a half ago when a piece of masonry fell from the roof of, I think, Norman Shaw North. It mercifully did not hurt anybody, but it did destroy a car. The dangers are there, and I will not go on to discuss some of the problems with asbestos and the cellars and basements.
If restoration and return is the only route open to us then of course I will support the safest and most cost-effective option. I do think, though, that an opportunity might be missed this afternoon if the debate only reruns the old arguments of whether we move out versus whether we try to stay and work around the building works—to decant or not to decant—especially considering that every year of delay has, I think, been estimated to cost a further £100 million of public money. A full decant, I believe, is therefore necessary.
I listened with great interest to the points made by the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on looking again at options to decant elsewhere, beyond Westminster. Others have mentioned the comments by the Prime Minister about the possibility of moving Parliament to York. The historical precedents to one side, I will end my comments by playfully suggesting: why stop at a temporary decant to York? Why not go further and make the move out of London permanent? This place should still be restored, but as a site of historical and world heritage importance. The phrase “build back better” has been used quite a bit in recent months. There is an opportunity in this debate for us to live up to some of the rhetoric.
It was not so much that the Joint Committee was given the wrong measurements; actually, the plans were different from the structure that was built, and the basement turned out to be 10% smaller. I do not know whether the builder, whoever it was, had fiddled the system, but that was the reason.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but I do rail a little against his comment about group-think. If I remember rightly, there was a group-think that we must stay here come what may, until we had a vote— I remember it very well—on 31 January 2018, when the House decided that the best option was to work up one option in detail and move out.
As the right hon. Gentleman said—he is an illustrious predecessor of mine as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and I am delighted to be here today with the deputy Chair, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—we do, all of us, value spending and watch how taxpayers’ money is spent. It is not our money that is being spent on this place, nor is it our place. It is the nation’s and the world’s: it is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) talked about what makes big projects work. We know that there are many multiple projects within this big project—everything from how the stone masonry will be dealt with to the education centre, how the archives will be stored and the wood carvings, let alone all the mechanical and technical work that goes on. However, the challenge of a major project is to bring all those together and make sure that each is delivered in a time that means the others can carry on.
We therefore see the need for integration, and I refer to the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) about the rail system. The integration of our rail system has been one of the big problems about delivering such projects. We can deliver the tracks, the trains and the signalling, but if they do not work altogether at the same time, passengers do not get a benefit. That is the challenge, and that is why we set up the Sponsor Body, after a lot of work by a number of us.
It is interesting how this House has divided today between those who have been very heavily involved in meetings, discussions and papers on this project and, hearteningly, a lot of new Members who have probably had less time to get into the subject. I hope that they have been listening carefully to those of us who have been very closely invested in this project.
The project will cost money, but it is not an either/or. On the idea that we should not spend money on a place that everybody who has spoken so far agrees is a huge fire risk and a huge health and safety risk, that money will not be available to spend on other things. Under UNESCO rules, as the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) highlighted, the Treasury is responsible within the Government for paying for this project.I have checked this out, and the Treasury is ultimately responsible for making sure that this place does not crumble and for maintaining it to UNESCO standards. It is vital that that work is done. As I say, fire is a real risk, and there is an important question here for the Leader of the House about who is ultimately responsible for the health and safety of all who work here and all who visit here.
I disagree with the right hon. Member for Gainsborough again on the point about the visitors who would come here if we did it in parts. I would not ask schoolchildren from Hackney to come to this building if we were ripping out asbestos and there were building works going on. I would not expect my staff or the staff of this House to come here. I hope that the Leader of the House is taking that very seriously. Has he been talking to the trade unions and staff representatives, whom I have had the privilege to meet on a number of issues, and who are very thoughtful and considerate? They love this place, but they want people to be safe, just as I hope we do.
Value for money is absolutely vital, which is another reason we wrote in the role of the National Audit Office, to get it involved now, before any work is done. One thing I have been trying to promote as a member of the Public Accounts Committee—I put the implication out there, although there is only one Government Minister present—is to do more looking at projects before they go wrong, ensuring that the assurances and the methodologies are in place. We need to ensure that the Sponsor Body is set up well to do its job and to hold the Delivery Authority to account for whatever is ultimately delivered.
But how much longer? We have been waiting a long time for this. Some have talked about 2013, some about 2015, 2016 or 2018, but it is 40 years, really, that we have been having to look at this. The amount of money and time spent on patching this place up is no longer justifiable. It is still taxpayers’ money; we just do not see the big tag. Let us not kid ourselves that by avoiding doing it in one hit as a major project—actually, this building is a major project whichever way you cut it up—we will save money. That is a myth. Obviously, the full figures have to be worked up, but we would still be spending millions and millions.
Let us take the risers with some of the electrical and other facilities in them. For work to be done to take asbestos out, all that has to be removed and rebuilt outside the building, while ensuring that the connections are not lost. Then the asbestos is removed in roughly half-hour slots by someone in asbestos gear. It takes more than a year and costs multi-millions of pounds to do each one. There are contractors rubbing their hands with glee as we keep dodging the decision about getting on with this. A lot of people are making a lot of money out of the taxpayer’s pockets—our constituents’ pockets—and we need to get on with this quickly.
We need to be careful about the smoke and mirrors around whether there should be an exact replica of the Chamber in Richmond House. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); I remember that there was a very loud cacophony of voices here saying, “We will not consider leaving this Chamber unless we have an exact replica.” I am not wedded to an exact replica. I can do my job pretty much anywhere. I do not need this Chamber. I love this Chamber; it is a great place to debate, it is very atmospheric and it provides a lot of opportunities for us to get our constituents’ points of view across. But we do not need to have it precisely like this. We can compromise, as the past few weeks have shown. We have adapted very well.
We need to be aware, as well, of the smoke and mirrors from No. 10 Downing Street’s suddenly announcing the suggestion of a move to York. I put the move to York for the House of Lords in the same category as the bridge to Northern Ireland or the estuary airport.