As Shadow Leader of the House I spoke at the Westminster Hall debate initiated by Chris Bryant MP on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday 25 January 2017.
This week marks 20 weeks since the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster published a report on ‘Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster’. On 15 December 2016 I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the restoration and renewal report. In his response he said he will announce the date of the debate “as soon as possible”. The House has not yet debated the report.
Here is my speech:
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Flello. So did I. It is very good for us, I understand.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the other members of the Joint Committee, who worked very hard in the lead-up to this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Hon. Members will know what my hon. Friend is like: he is blustering and blarneying and very frustrated about this, so it is great that he has had the opportunity to secure the debate. He is right to do that, because the report was published in September 2016.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been talking to me, and it goes without saying that all hon. Members are concerned about the immediacy and urgency of the work. They are also concerned about costs, and they note that other events and priorities may be occupying the Government’s mind. However, we come to this debate with a background of reports. We have the very good report from the hon. Members who served on the Joint Committee, and the Public Accounts Committee is also considering this matter, although it may not report until March. We also have the Treasury Committee report. Without doubt, whether for engineers, architects or whatever, the costings from September will be different even to the costings now. The hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) is right to be concerned about that issue. My view is that the debate will clarify all that. The important issue for our side is that hon. Members have a say. That is the key thing. All these questions and concerns can be aired with new information—against the background of the information from all those reports.
The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) mentioned Canada. I had the opportunity, with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to visit Canada. Quite by chance, we were taken to the mock chamber that the parliamentarians there had and, in the best tradition of “Blue Peter”, I have here one that I made earlier—a picture of it. Obviously, it cannot be read into Hansard, but it does give a nice flavour of what can be done, if hon. Members want to see it later. It is a beautiful chamber. All of us may feel very comfortable debating in this Chamber now, but if we were given a chamber in the Department of Health that had desks, we would realise how good it would be to debate like a proper, modern Parliament and we might even not want to come back to the old Chamber. Canada’s temporary chamber is not just in a courtyard. It is a beautiful building and, engineering-wise, it shows what can be done—a visit to Canada might be in order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda always reminds me that there are no options; he says, “Don’t tell people there are options. There is only one option.” The main thing is that Members should have a say. I am pleased to hear that some of the work has already been done. I was going to raise the issue of asbestos in the Chamber; again, not sitting in September might be an option to deal with that. The subject of fire has been constantly raised.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I have to say, gently, that it is the tradition to be in the room at the start of the debate, but I take on board that, particularly given her previous role, she understands the medical reasons— I have a cough today and it is difficult to breathe—and she mentioned the terrible condition of mesothelioma.
I want to knock another myth on the head. Again, I am not an architect or an engineer but Members should understand that although we may be moving out of the building, we will not actually be moving off the estate. We will still be around and will not be leaving the parliamentary estate. I am pleased that the work on the cast-iron roof is also being done.
The Joint Committee was tasked to look at this, and has fulfilled its remit, but Members are right to be concerned about costs. We had the same debate when the Labour Government decided they wanted to put money into the Olympics and there was a lot of chuntering that it was going to be too costly. In the end, sadly, there was a change of Government and we did not get the benefit of how brilliant the Olympics were and how, under the Olympic Delivery Authority, everything was done to time and, to a certain extent, cost. The hiccup, as the Deputy Leader knows, was the security—we finally had to get public service in, rather than G4S. We need to be careful that Members are not excluded from the delivery authority. The key point for me is that Members should decide and the only way they can do that is if we have the debate. The one main thing I would ask the Deputy Leader is that we have the debate as soon as possible, based on the information that the other Committees are looking at.
A building is only a building with people in it. It is nothing without people in it. Whatever we decide to do, and if there is only one option, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda suggests, we need to take that decision. However, we need to take an informed decision because, in the end, MPs are always blamed when things go wrong and, rightly, we will take responsibility for that. We need to do this on an informed basis, with everybody abiding by the result.