The text of the speech made by Mark Tami, the Labour MP for Alyn and Deeside, in the House of Commons on 16 July 2020.
As a number of right hon. and hon. Members have said, I am a member of the Sponsor Body—indeed, I think I have served on every committee that has considered this matter. This matter was also the subject of my one Front-Bench speaking engagement in 19 years, although hopefully that will not be repeated. [Hon. Members: “Aw!”] Well, certainly not for the people who were there at the time.
It seems a long time ago that the Joint Committee produced the report that recommended a full decant, using Richmond House as the best option for the safety and security of everybody who works here, with the House of Lords moving to the Queen Elizabeth II centre. We came to that decision after much thought, discussion and debate, and we considered every alternative put before us. That proposal was approved by both Houses, and as a number of Members have said, a Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority were established, based on the experience of the London Olympics. The legislation included a clear provision that when the work was finished, Members would return to this House. I remember that at the time, a rumour was going around that none of us would come back, and that some hideous plot was in place and we would never return.
At the moment, a planning application has been lodged with Westminster City Council to demolish and rebuild much of Richmond House, while retaining the front and side facades. That is in line with the House’s stated desire to replicate much of what already exists here over there. That would give us a very usable building that would also have a legacy for alternative uses.
As we have heard, the Sponsor Body is carrying out a review of the current proposals, which I fully support. The covid crisis has shown us that we can work in ways that were dismissed as unworkable in the past. The vast majority of House and MPs’ staff are working successfully from home. This House has virtual questions, and we even manage to vote virtually, which I am afraid we dismissed previously—I do not know why because it actually works.
The review may return to the option of a reduced intervention in Richmond House—I do not know, and I do not want to pre-empt that—but one thing we could do is have just one voting Lobby. I remember that at the time, the Leader of the House saw that as the end of the world, but I remind him that only in 1836—a year I am sure he remembers fondly—were plans draw up for a second Lobby, at an eye-watering cost of £600, and an extra two weeks to construct. Those were the days. If we are prepared to compromise, we can cap costs and, importantly, cut time. I do not think we will end up with such a great building at the end of the process, but that is something we might have to accept.
In truth, however, a lot of Members want to undermine R&R and do not want it to go ahead—we need to say that. They want to stay here come what may, ignore the decision that we took, and embark on 35 to 40-year maintenance programme. Parliament would be a building site covered in scaffolding and we would no doubt have to evacuate the building every so often, given the asbestos and safety fears.
Asbestos has been mentioned, but it is not in nice, solid sheets, wrapped around piping or in solid boards. It has crumbled and it is in the dust; it is throughout the building in the plasterwork and it is a real safety threat, which we cannot ignore.
If we go down the road of being a building site for 30 years, what sort of advert is that for this country? What are we really saying we can do? However, if that is what the Government want and they believe the House will support it, they should introduce legislation to that effect and not just rely on anonymous briefings about the current proposals to undermine them. Members now openly say, “R&R isn’t happening. It’s been cancelled apparently.” Yesterday, we had the Prime Minister’s letter, which seems to say that it is vital to do something because the place could burn down, but we should also open everything up again for consideration, including the possibility of moving to York, presumably—I hope—on a temporary basis. What about the thousands of staff? Are they to move to York for a period? Was that considered when the option was put forward?
We have options, but let us be sensible. In the light of the Prime Minister’s letter, I hope that the Leader of the House will confirm that any proposal to decant Members and staff from the northern estate to Richmond House, which could delay R&R by up to three years, will not be considered at least until the report has been published, hopefully in October.
We have been kicking the can down the road for more than 70 years. This building is not a safe working environment. As has been said, in the past few weeks, we have had a fire and a collapse of scaffolding. We need to think about everyone who works in this building and act accordingly.