Alexandra Meakin

A fire, a flood, asbestos, or a sewage leak? We don’t know which of these disasters will hit the dilapidated Palace of Westminster first, only that the state of the infrastructure means that such a crisis, or the incremental failure of these essential systems, is inevitable. Tomorrow, MPs will vote for the first time on how to respond to these threats, when they hold a debate on the multi-billion-pound rebuilding project, the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster. It is not inevitable, however, that this debate will lead to a clear decision to protect the home of the UK Parliament, and an international symbol of democracy.

There is acceptance among many MPs about the need for repairs. Day to day they deal with floodingmice, crumbling stonework, and appalling access for people with disabilities within the Palace. It is the hidden parts of the building, however, which are the main concerns of engineers within the building. Much of the mechanical and electrical infrastructure serving the Palace passed its expected lifespan decades ago, and the antiquated wiring and power systems are a major fire risk (there have been 60 fires since 2008, with catastrophe avoided by a combination of chance, and work of the twenty-four hour fire patrols across the Palace). On his retirement from his role as Black Rod in December, David Leakey warned that a major fire, with loss of life, was a real risk.

Where many MPs differ is how the work should be carried out (primarily on whether they should leave the Palace during the repairs) and whether the estimated £3-6billion cost of the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) programme is acceptable in a time of austerity. With multiple votes expected on motions and amendments, it is possible that this week’s debate will fail to agree to move forward in the convoluted and over-running R&R saga, which has been prone to delay and indecision.

This week’s debate comes over 500 days since a Joint Select Committee, tasked with investigating the necessary work to the building, warned that the Palace faced “an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore”, and recommended a full decant of the Palace to enable the necessary works, to be managed by an independent Delivery Authority. The Committee stressed that it was “essential that the R&R Programme now proceeds to its next stages without delay”, and envisaged its report being debated in autumn 2016. But for over a year the Government, who hold the power over almost all substantive business on the floor of each House, declined to allow the parliamentary time for the debate.

Even with the debate now scheduled, the Government’s position on R&R remains unclear. The draft motion suggested by the by Joint Committee was ignored by the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, who instead tabled two separate motions in her name: the first of which asked MPs to delay making a decision on the R&R programme until the next Parliament, effectively a “do-nothing” motion. The second motion sought also to delay the project: endorsing the Joint Committee’s recommendation for the creation of a delivery authority but tasking the new body with a remit to examine three options for delivering the necessary work (including an option for partial decant), work, Mrs Leadsom had previously suggested, would take another eighteen to twenty-four months.

The reasoning behind the two motions, Mrs Leadsom told the Commons, was because the issue was one for Parliament to decide, not Government. She argued that the two motions tabled would make it easier for the House to make a clear decision on the way forward, and suggested that no amendments would be possible to either motion. This interesting procedural approach was quickly dropped, and four amendments have been tabled ahead of the debate, stretching the scope of the matters under consideration beyond the original motions. One such amendment, widely supported by senior MPs and select committee chairs, endorses the recommendations of the Joint Committee on full decant of the Palace during the building works, and calls for a much shorter timescale for the programme than either of the Government’s motions. Another amendment seeks a review of moving Parliament away from Westminster entirely: an option that was rejected by the House of Commons Commission and House of Lords House Committee, without wider debate, back in 2012.

The future of the Palace may be a matter for Parliament, but with 650 MPs (and close to 800 peers) with strong views on what should happen to their workplace, achieving a parliamentary consensus has been difficult to date: and Wednesday’s votes may not produce a clear outcome. The Leader of the House has not declared how she will vote (although press reports suggest she will support the second motion in her name), and the Prime Minister will miss the debate entirely, on a trip to China. Prior to the tabling of amendments last week, interest in R&R had been primarily confined to a small number of backbench MPs, with little in the way of leadership.

This points to a larger issue, and one which propels the R&R saga away from a Westminster bubble story: the institutional identity of Parliament. In August 2017 a media and political row broke out over the temporary silencing of the Big Ben bongs (due to rebuilding work separate to the R&R project), highlighting the confused and opaque internal governance within Parliament, and the lack of a clear answer to the question of who is in charge of the Palace of Westminster. Similarly, David Judge and Cristina Leston-Bandeira, and Lord Norton of Louth, have questioned who can speak for Parliament: a question hugely relevant to R&R. This week’s debate marks a rare occasion where the institution of Parliament appears to be supporting one side of a vote in the Commons: the official Restoration and Renewal website (hosted on the parliament.uk site) and UK Parliament Twitter account have highlighted the risks to the building and opportunities of the R&R programme. While completely factual, the message of the tweets and website suggest an institutional position more in line with the second motion tabled in the name of Mrs Leadsom, rather than the do-nothing approach promoted in the motion. As demonstrated by the comments of David Leakey (above) and other retiring officials, such as Baron Lisvane, parliamentary staff are well aware of the need for the R&R programme. The unanswered question, however, whether parliamentary staff, as crown servants, are servants of Parliament as an institution, or of the elected and appointed members of that Parliament?

Back in September 2016, the Joint Committee warned that “unless an intensive programme of major remedial work is undertaken soon, it is likely that the building will become uninhabitable”. This week’s debate and votes may mean a step forward to avoid this fate. Alternatively, a continuation of delays and indecision, with no clear institutional capacity to address the major risks of the Palace, may bring us closer to the inevitable crisis.

 

Alexandra Meakin is a Research Associate at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, at the University of Sheffield. Her doctoral research is on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, and parliamentary governance. Prior to starting her PhD she worked for the House of Commons service and for MPs. She tweets @a_meakin.