The text of the speech made by Damian Hinds, the Conservative MP for East Hampshire, in the House of Commons on 16 July 2020.
I am very grateful that time has been found before recess for this important debate. I should mention, as the shadow Leader of the House said, that, along with the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), I am one of the four Members of Parliament sitting on the Sponsor Body.
The works to the Houses of Parliament remain critical, but clearly a lot else has changed. It is prudent to review the current approach at this stage, reaffirming the commitment to taxpayer value. This is obviously our workplace, but actually about three quarters of the people working in the Houses of Parliament are neither Members of Parliament nor peers. There are 650 of us, but approximately 1 million people visit this place every year. This place is the focal point of our constitution and, for the wider world, a permanent symbol of liberal democracy. The Houses of Parliament form a democratic asset that we hold in trust.
The median tenure of an MP in modern times—notwithstanding my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—is around 13 years, and of those 13 years, the median current Member has already had about five. Even on the very shortest scenario for restoration and renewal, it would be something like a decade before the works were completed, so the sobering reality is that many current MPs just will not be around to see them finished. On the longer scenarios, hardly any current MPs would be around. So this is not about us. We are trustees of this place, and we clearly have to do what is right, not what happens to be convenient for us, as its current temporary occupants.
The current at patch-and-mend approach is failing. According to the National Audit Office, Parliament spent £369 million in the past three years on projects to keep the buildings in use, and there is still a repairs backlog of £1 billion.
When I was on the Joint Committee and chair of the Finance Committee, we wanted additional work to be done now because that was clearly important—for instance, on the cloisters, which are among the most beautiful parts of the whole estate—but we constantly found that there simply was not enough physical capacity on the estate to allow us to get the work done now. Is there not a danger that further delay will result in the backlog getting bigger and bigger?
The hon. Gentleman is undeniably right about the effect of the passage of time, and of course that is all reflected in the outline business case. The fire at Notre Dame was a stark reminder of the importance of protecting the world’s most treasured historic buildings. Here, the risk of fire is so acute that fire wardens patrol 24 hours a day. This House rightly recognised the significance of that terrible event and passed the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 shortly afterwards. Colleagues will know that a vast amount of work is also needed to replace all the heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems.
It has been almost five years since the plan was drawn up, and much has changed since, including two general elections, our leaving the European Union and, of course, the current pandemic, which is not only illustrating the possibility of different ways of working but placing severe new demands on the public purse. There is also more evidence now about the state of the buildings, through extensive modelling and surveys, and more is known about the cost and the challenge of building like-for-like temporary Chambers. As the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House mentioned, the bodies charged with overseeing and delivering this work have become substantive in the last few months, and it is now appropriate to review where we are and how we should proceed.
There have always been the same three overall pivotal questions that affect the length and cost of the works involved. The first relates to the balance between restoration and renewal—in other words, the extent to which the project goes beyond just fixing the buildings and embarks on improving things. Examples include disability access, which is currently woeful, and various other enhancements. The second relates to pace: should we proceed at a slow speed, estimated at some 30 years, working around current operations with the extended disruption and risks that that entails, or should we move out, in whole or in part, for a period? That would expedite the project and could lower the overall cost, but it would bring that cost forward. The third relates to how closely, during any decant period, Parliament’s physical layout and function has to be replicated and to what extent the location has to be kept close to the Government Departments we are here to scrutinise and hold to account.
Value for money and affordability have always been vital, but they have become even more pressing as the full economic impact of the post-covid environment becomes more evident. Of course, we can all say what we want to see retained and what we want to see enhanced, and that is important, but for this review to be effective in delivering value for money—assuming that we decant somewhere—we also need to say what we could do without. There are some factors that could make a material difference, and I encourage hon. Members, in this debate and when making submissions to the review, to consider these factors in particular when thinking about the decant.
First, while in-person voting is a long-standing feature of our system, how sacred is the exact system and the layout of our Lobbies? Seeking to replicate the current Lobby configuration is a significant factor in the space requirements for a temporary Chamber. Secondly, what flexibilities could there be in the numbers of MPs’ staff who have to be accommodated on the estate?
More flexibility on that could mean lower costs.
Yesterday’s letter from the Prime Minister to the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned, called for the full range of options to be looked at, from a minimum safe viable product to fundamental refurbishment, and the different possibilities of full decant, partial decant and remaining in situ—all, of course, with costs kept to a minimum. These different approaches have already been analysed and will be re-evaluated in the light of what more we now know. I reassure colleagues that that does not mean only looking at one decant option. The suggestion to examine decant locations beyond Westminster has not been part of the programme’s mandate to date, and the programme will of course be discussing this further with Mr Speaker and the Lord Speaker.
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we keep opening up all these other options and look at starting from first basics on new ones, we will simply delay the work, and the cost of doing that alone will be enormous?
The hon. Member makes a good point, which does not surprise me given her position on the Public Accounts Committee. She is right, of course, about some of the trade-offs, but the timetable for the review is quite an aggressive one. For analysis to be effective and for realistic options to be presented back, it will be necessary iteratively to narrow down those options in a very short time.
I stress that the views of Members are very important to the process. Today’s debate is a big and central part of that, and beyond this I encourage colleagues to make a submission to the review—in fuller detail, if they wish—by 7 August. The review team will be working through the summer, will be subject to challenge by an independent panel, as was mentioned previously, and plans to report back in the autumn.