Sir Geoffrey Clifton-BrownMain Page: Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Conservative) - The Cotswolds)
Department Debates - View all Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown's debates with the Leader of the House
I am a lot of things but I am not a prophet and I cannot see into the future. I cannot see into the minds of the Sponsor Body, much as I would like to, because I am sure I would be of great help to the House. I am just coming on to that in a second.
There is the challenge panel, which is interesting. I have a list of the hon. Members and various people on the challenge panel, but I cannot see on there a single member from the Opposition parties. We have a strategic adviser to the Prime Minister and various other people, but I cannot see where Opposition Members—any of the Opposition—can have their view heard on the challenge panel. It is good that Sir David Higgins is on there, because he ran a very successful campaign to deliver the Olympics. I had the privilege of interviewing him when I was on the House Governance Committee and I know that he is very conscious of how to have an end to a project. He talked about Gantt charts and proper schedules. It was different with the Olympic Delivery Authority because there was an end date, but I am sure the Sponsor Body can come to some conclusion on how we come to the end of the project.
As with any body of the House, the Sponsor Body will listen to what hon. Members say in the debate today and make up its own mind. I cannot tell it what to do. I do not even have a voice on the Sponsor Body, but other people do and, as they have set out very clearly, they will listen to hon. Members’ views until 7 August. Right hon. and hon. Members should feed into that.
The review will enable us to continue with progress ,and the Sponsor Body is in the process of updating the costings. The costings were undertaken some time ago, so it is right that it should do that. Before the work, we will vote on the outline business case, as the Leader of the House said, but that has already been pushed back to 2022.
As right hon. and hon. Members have said in previous debates, and in the debate in which we voted for a full decant, the project will be about the whole country benefiting from the heritage, and from utilising the skills and crafts of the whole country. There will be no blacklisting and there will be an upskilling of our diverse workforce. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will see that this is preserving the home of our democracy for over 1,000 years and for generations to come.
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I do wonder if our constituents will be shaking their heads in disbelief that we are devoting an afternoon to this debate when parliamentary time is so limited to discuss the severe threat to their lives and livelihoods. However, I am happy to be able to speak in this afternoon’s debate and to follow some of the hon. and right hon. Members who have already invested huge amounts of time, thought and energy into devising the plans for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. I hope we will listen hard to their valuable contributions.
It feels particularly appropriate to be following the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). As the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, I spent a great deal of time scrutinising his work as Transport Secretary and the decision making and delivery of projects to upgrade the UK’s transport infrastructure, much of which, like this building, was built in Victorian times and requires urgent work if it is to meet our needs in the 21st century. There are some useful parallels to be drawn and lessons to be learnt from the experience.
The first is that our short electoral cycles can make it difficult to take decisions about long-term projects that necessarily span several Parliaments. Incoming Governments have a tendency to re-examine, and sometimes reverse, the decisions of previous ones. Even when they end up reaching the same conclusions, additional time and uncertainty have inevitably added cost. I am afraid to say that reviews are sometimes undertaken to deliberately avoid or delay difficult decisions. We cannot afford to duck or delay restoration and renewal.
However, I welcome the Sponsor Body’s strategic review. It is right to re-examine how the restoration and renewal programme is carried out, especially in the light of covid-19, which has forced all of us to work in ways that some might never have thought possible and ushered in frightening economic impacts. We must ensure that the plans are the right ones, and that they are affordable and represent good value for taxpayers’ money, but we cannot afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It has already taken many years to devise the restoration and renewal programme and to set up the organisations to deliver it. We cannot afford to go back to square one because, as has been said, this place is falling apart faster than it can be fixed. As the House of Commons Commission said in October 2012:
“doing nothing is not an option.”
Eight years on, doing something has only become more pressing.
As the Prime Minister recognised in his letter to the review yesterday, there is a need to
“move as quickly as possible, both because of the risks associated with the current state of the building and the need to provide certainty on the way forward“.
As we have heard, there is a very serious risk of not only a major fire, which we know could spread rapidly through the building because of the thousands of empty ventilation voids, but flooding and falling masonry. We know that we must tackle the risks associated with the presence of asbestos; address environmental efficiency and sustainability; and transform access for disabled people, be they MPs, peers, staff or visitors. We also have a duty to preserve one of the UK’s most treasured historical buildings. It is a huge responsibility and we must not shirk it.
I wish to make two final points, returning to my reflections on fixing our transport infrastructure. The first is that doing the minimum does not work—our patched and potholed roads are testament to that. Reacting to each problem as it arises is inefficient, costly and disruptive. Long-term planned refurbishment provides better value for money and a better result. Secondly, trying to carry out substantial works without moving out of the building risks making the work much more difficult and costly, and risks serious disruption to parliamentary activities. I remember when Network Rail was upgrading Nottingham railway station in 2013 and it took the brave decision to undertake a five-week blockade to get the job done efficiently, closing the station completely, in preference to months of weekend and overnight closures. Thanks to careful planning and preparation, it was a huge success and changed the approach to upgrading the railway.
I look forward to listening to the remainder of the debate, particularly the contributions of my fellow Finance Committee members and that of my predecessor as Chair of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has championed the work to preserve this place. I also look forward to the outcome of the strategic review in the autumn. This is vital work that will allow the House to make the right decisions for the future of the Palace of Westminster and the UK Parliament.
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.
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I do not think there was a slight question mark. It was absolutely clear that the Lords would not move out merely so as to accommodate the Commons sitting in the House of Lords.
Well, all the advice we were given was that, as an engineering feat, it would dramatically add to the cost, it would significantly add to the risk of a catastrophic failure to the building, and it would increase the danger to the staff working either as contractors or as Clerks and others working in the building. On all three counts, the imperative still lies with the hon. Gentleman’s preference, and I am right behind his preference on this.
There are some things that have not changed since the 19th century. The Leader of the House rightly referred to Caroline Shenton, who wrote two books. The first was about the fire and the second was about Mr Barry’s war. The latter makes it absolutely clear that the biggest problem for Barry and Pugin was not the River Thames or the drainage system, it was MPs and peers who stayed on site and were constantly meddling. Governments kept on changing their mind about whether it was a Government project or not, and that dramatically added to how long it took to get the Commons back in. It was not until 1850 that the Commons was back in, and then all the MPs hated it and demanded changes, so Barry said he would never step inside the place again.
We focus on the risk, and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) said earlier that the cost is terrible and there are risks. That is true, but there are also significant opportunities here. This building is now wholly inappropriate for anybody with any kind of disability. We often focus on those who need a wheelchair, and it is true that it is catastrophically difficult to get around the building in a wheelchair, but it is very dark as well. The most common form of disability is poor eyesight, and many people simply cannot use the building for that reason.
We need a building that is better attuned to today’s democracy, so that the public can come in more readily and easily to understand our business than the present Chamber allows. The archives are very badly kept at the moment, not for lack of will from the staff working there, but simply because the Victoria Tower simply cannot accommodate the facilities that we need in the modern era. We also do not have an education space that will last beyond another couple of years, because it only has 10 years from Westminster City Council.
My final point is that we should be seeing this as a training and employment opportunity for the whole country. If this infrastructure project is to succeed, we will have to have people coming from every constituency in the land, learning trades that they have never had, whether that is in encaustic tiles or wood panelling, as well as modern technology. We should see that as an opportunity. My fear is that we will keep on shilly-shallying and call for endless reviews, more papers and more consideration. The danger is that we will fail in our duty to this building. I think that there should be an eighth deadly sin for a Government Minister: procrastination.