The text of the speech made by David Linden, the SNP MP for Glasgow East, in the House of Commons on 16 July 2020.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). I agree with many of his remarks on the Division Lobby. The Scottish National party’s thoughts on how we vote in this place are well on the record, and I am glad to see that we are inching ever so slightly into the 21st century.
As I was listening to the illuminating opening speech by the Leader of the House, I felt as if I was having some kind of out-of-body experience, because when the UK economy is in freefall and experiencing a global pandemic, this debate does feel a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. But it takes place in the context of spending choices made here in London, so I wish to offer a few brief thoughts from the perspective of the Scottish National party.
I will start with the issue of costings. Astonishingly, the £4 billion price tag for the restoration and renewal project is only £1 billion less than the total economic package announced for the post-covid recovery. If this project was a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money before the pandemic, it now looks even more hopelessly out of touch because spending billions of pounds upgrading a crumbling palace following a decade of austerity is one of the reasons why the public talk about Westminster being out of touch and not chiming with everyday life. With an entire generation now facing economic armageddon and the deficit set to rise to double what it was during the financial crisis, this decision really could not look more crass.
The reality is that the final price tag will likely be much higher. The National Audit Office has called the £4 billion figure a median figure, and suggested that £6 billion might be more realistic. Looking, for example, at the Government’s handling of the High Speed 2 project, a spiralling price tag is not difficult to imagine. In fact, in February this year the cost of the work that has already started on the Elizabeth Tower was reported to have risen to £18.6 million. Part of the additional cost was the realisation, two years after the project had started, that the job could require a specialist clock expert—something that it took a survey to establish.
The lack of transparency around the scale and cost of the project has further exacerbated public concern. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) originally confirmed to the Commons Finance Committee that the full cost of the restoration and the length of the works would not be revealed until 2021, while the deliberately loose language in the Act that vaguely requires the sponsor body to
“have regard to…the need to ensure that the Parliamentary building works represent good value for money”
is an invitation for financial irresponsibility.
The SNP has been consistent on this issue: the Palace of Westminster is falling down. The necessary safety work should be performed as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible. However, put bluntly, Westminster is a hazard risk. We have seen only in recent weeks parts of masonry falling off the building and entrances and exits being closed off. It is not fit for purpose as a modern Parliament. We should not commit to working in a UNESCO world heritage site in perpetuity.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con) rose—
I am happy to give way to the right hon. Gentleman who would have been the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about this being a UNESCO world heritage site. The weakness in his argument is that we have a legal duty to maintain in decent order a UNESCO world heritage site. Surely he is not suggesting that the mother of Parliaments should break the law.
I take issue with the right hon. Gentleman quoting “the mother of Parliaments”, which is often misquoted in this place. He has put his point on the record; I know he is perhaps having quite a difficult week, so I am glad to have had the opportunity to let him do so.
The SNP has no intention of being around Westminster when this tortuous project finally grinds to its long, eye-wateringly expensive conclusion. We on these Benches urge this place to consider what it is proposing to spend against the current economic backdrop and to think carefully about the message that it sends to the public. Safety assessments have pointed out serious problems with the mechanical and electrical engineering system, and a substantial amount of asbestos is present in the building, where normally thousands of people work every day. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire is right that the fire in Notre Dame in 2019 was an obvious example of the risks that exist with these historic buildings and why they should not be used to host a modern Parliament with an intense working environment.
When the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill passed through this place in 2019, the SNP secured an amendment to ensure that the money would be spent in a way that benefited the whole of the UK. Whatever decision is taken on the next steps, that principle must remain.
Whatever decision is taken, there is now a chance to ensure that we work in a building fit to hold a modern Parliament with modern working practices. The recent pandemic has seen Westminster forced to adopt practices—such as e-voting and virtual proceedings—that are commonplace elsewhere around the world. The cries of protest have been deafening as the Leader of the House desperately tries to drag Parliament back into its 19th century comfort zone. Meanwhile, the Commons Chamber can barely seat half of all MPs and Public Health England needed to look at the Palace of Westminster only once to determine that it was not fit to be used in its current form during a health emergency.
With workplaces throughout the country now required to be covid secure in addition to normal health and safety standards, Westminster can be no exception and must modernise for the benefit of all Members, but most importantly for staff. This could start by having parliamentarians in a Chamber that can seat all Members, rather than being some place over-stuffed to promote conflict. As this debate started, I was reflecting on the number of Tories who have had to move over to the side of the Chamber, because today, bizarrely, the Chamber is hoaching with Tories who are desperate to talk about restoration and renewal. I sometimes wish they would show that level of concern when it comes to, for example, universal credit.
To conclude, while we need to be here, the SNP will prioritise safety and sensible public spending in respect of the Palace of Westminster’s future. However, I very much hope that the Government will reflect on the current financial crisis and health and safety concerns and perhaps refocus their priorities. I can tell the Leader of the House that my constituents are not crying out for eye-watering restoration and renewal costs at Westminster; they have other priorities, and so should this Government.