The text of the speech made by Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire, in the House of Commons on 16 July 2020.
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.
Sir Edward Leigh
Although of course we have now proven that we can work virtually if we have to.
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.