Chris Grayling – 2022 Speech on the Restoration of the Palace of Westminster

The speech made by Chris Grayling, the Conservative MP for Epsom and Ewell, in the House of Commons on 12 July 2022.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is new to this. I recognise that both as a friend and a thoughtful politician he is approaching this in the way he judges the most sensible, so I do not want him to take any of the comments from me or from other Members tonight as being about him, but it is about seven years of failure, in my view.

We are standing in what is, for all of us, the office, but it is also a global landmark. We have all seen how—thank goodness, in the wake of the pandemic—the streets outside are full of tourists again. People come here to be photographed alongside the Elizabeth Tower and see this building as a symbol of the United Kingdom. The reality is that it is a world heritage site. People who question whether we should spend money on updating, restoring and protecting it, and say that we should move to a new building elsewhere, miss the point that we have a legal duty, whatever we do as a democracy, to restore this building and protect it for the future.

Back in 2015, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and I, and others, including the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), sat on a Joint Committee of both Houses saying, “What are we going to do about the problem?” It is a very real and acute problem. When I became Leader of the House in 2015, about four days later, we very nearly had to relocate out of this building because up there in the vents the engineers found asbestos. Had they discovered that that asbestos had been disturbed—fortunately it had not; it had remained unmoved for decades—we would have had no choice but to close the Chamber for months and months.

That kind of risk is with us every day of every week. The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) referred to the leak yesterday. Thank goodness it was a small problem. But we saw what happened at Notre Dame. Yes, the Leader of the House is right that it was down to a workman in the building doing the wrong thing, but we have workmen right across this building all the time, and it can happen. We saw what happened at Clandon Park. The thing that really brought it home to me at the time of the Joint Committee was when Kingsway caught fire—a road caught fire—because of electrical problems underneath its surface, and it burned for about two days.

The shadow Leader of the House is absolutely right: the fire service have always said, as they said back in 2015—it is not just about now—that, if there is a serious incident in this place, they could save the people but they could not save the building. So every day of every week in this building, we live with the risk that we may discover that an asbestos problem or a critical failure of the plumbing system means that we have to move.

Mark Tami

The right hon. Gentleman is a fellow person who has been at this for seven years. We have already seen a release of asbestos in Speaker’s House that will lead to a group of people having to be monitored for probably about 40 years to see whether in those terrible circumstances anything actually develops, and that can happen in any part of the building.

Chris Grayling

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We went through all this seven years ago. It is hugely frustrating to me that we are here seven years later still working out what to do about it. I thought that we would have done something by the time we got to 2022.

The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Rhondda will remember me pushing hard to get the northern estate project started so that we could move on and decant quickly. At least the northern estate, or some parts of it, is being done, and we have taken over Richmond House, as we planned at the time, but here we are seven years later still discussing how we are going to do this. It is not about discussing how we are going to do it starting in about a year’s time. I cannot see how we quickly get to a point where the works are actually starting. With every week that goes by, there is the risk that we as Members of Parliament wake up in the morning and discover that we have relocated to Church House indefinitely. We have to accept that.

Chris Bryant

Is not one of the difficulties that all the alternative places that we would have to go to in an emergency are not safe? Church House is not safe from any kind of bomb attack, and there is no other venue that we could go to. I think the Government have just sold the one other place that we might have gone to. There is nowhere. So this is not only a risk to us and the building; it is also a risk to our democracy.

Chris Grayling

We have been around the houses on this. We had all the proposals, whether it was “Let’s build some great gin palace on Horse Guards”, “Let’s have some great building taking up the whole width of the River Thames”, or, “Let’s move out of London”, but the logistics of this place mean that Parliament and Government have to be close to each other. In order that Ministers can go to and fro between their Departments and the Front Bench, in order to have interactions between both Houses of Parliament, and in order to have basic levels of security—given the horrendous events that have taken place in recent times, we absolutely have to make that a priority—the reality is that Parliament will not move off the secure estate. It is why we recommended taking over Richmond House, because it was the one place that gives us extra capacity within a secure environment.

The reason I have put my name to this amendment tonight and the reason I am minded to push it to a Division, unless I can achieve an extra bit of assurance from the Leader of the House—I hope he will be able to say a couple of words at the end—is that we have been around the houses on this issue, and we have talked about all the different options. We have explored the issues and challenges, and the Leader of the House is absolutely right that we do not have the expertise in-house. We need the expert advisers. I respect the fact that he will bring in further expert advice to help him, but, at the end of the day, there are only a certain number of ways in which we can do this.

On the Joint Committee, we agreed that doing this bit by bit over a 30-year period does not work, because that would leave too much risk for too long. We explored whether we could do half the building and then the other half, but the problem is that the services are all common to both Houses. There is not a shutter that can be brought down between the Commons and the Lords—the sewerage and plumbing systems work for both, and the risers full of asbestos serve both. There is no simple option that allows us to move into the Lords Chamber while this is done, and so forth. We came to the clear conclusion that a decant was the only realistic option.

Many Members have expressed concerns that if we move out, we will never move back. I do not think we can just move out with an endless timeframe. There has to be a clear mandate for the people who will do the work, and that is the purpose of the amendment. It states that we think the only viable option—I have discussed the fact that we spent a year debating it—is a decant that lasts a maximum of eight years, because no Parliament will accept being asked to write a blank cheque. This is where I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The idea that we could do a 20-year decant is crazy. We cannot do that.

We need to give a clear brief to the Delivery Authority and all those working on the project that we are prepared to countenance a decant that takes us through much of one Parliament and much of the next, but we do not think that any generation of Members of Parliament should be deprived of the opportunity to spend at least a part of their time here participating in debate in this Chamber. Realistically, an eight-year timeframe is the most that is possibly sellable to Members of Parliament. It is, in my view, the only deliverable option. It will cost money, and there is nothing we can do about that, because this is a world heritage site. It is a duty that we just have to perform. If we do not give a clear brief to those who will be deciding the way forward and making recommendations, we will frankly be kicking the can down the road yet again.

I seek my right hon. Friend’s assurance that at the end of this debate, and as this approach goes forward, he will give a clear mandate that we will see what it will cost and what it will take for us to be decanted from here for eight years and then return. If he can assure me that that will be part of the brief and we will all be able to see the outcome, I will be happy not to press the amendment to a Division. However, we spent a year coming to this conclusion, so I am not happy to cast it aside, and I do not think the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is either.

We have done an awful lot of work, and we are all deeply frustrated that we have got to this point seven years later. We cannot possibly defend that, and I describe this amendment as the “Bloody hell, get on with it” amendment. We worked out that the decant was the only way forward. When the plans are laid before this House next year, we want to see the eight-year decant and what it entails on the table for Members to consider. If my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is happy to give me that assurance, I am happy not to press the amendment, but I am adamant that we must have that on the table.

This is a historic responsibility for us all. The shadow Leader of the House is absolutely right that we cannot be the Parliament that swept this under the carpet; we have got to get on with it. It is not the fault of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that we are where we are, but we should never have got into this position in the first place. I ask him and all on the Commissions to ensure that we really get on with it at pace. If we do not, one day we will find that we are no longer sitting in this Chamber, but stuck in Church House, thinking, “What on earth are we going to do now?” That would be letting down our democracy and letting down our country.