Monday saw the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, which creates the formal structures required to carry out the task of saving the Palace of Westminster from ever more rapid decay. Admittedly, some of their noble Lords seemed rather determined to fight a battle that had been lost more than a year ago, but Ros was focussed on the task at hand...
My Lords, I start by reminding the House that I am a member of the shadow sponsor body. I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said about the clarity and focus of the members of the sponsor body in delivering this project. I can assure the House that, even though we are still in shadow form, we are behaving as much as we can as if we were doing the job and, therefore, a huge amount is already going on. However, there comes a point where we need to be on a statutory footing, and that is why we need the Bill. I pay particular tribute to Liz Peace and the other external members, who are working well over and above their expected time commitment to come up to speed, not only with the project and the labyrinthine way in which we make decisions but on how their special expertise can be used to best effect.
The time has come when we must get on with it and get the project off the ground. It is not to Parliament’s credit that this building has been allowed to deteriorate to its current form. I often think that we are so accustomed to that deterioration that we do not see it any more. We do not see the portakabins in the courtyards because there is no space; or the large parts of the building that are covered in scaffolding because the masonry is falling off; or the piles of unwanted material cluttering up the ground floor because there is not anywhere to put it— the fire risk has already been referred to by the noble Baroness in her opening—or the constant and expensive patching up of the mechanical and electrical services. Through all of these we plough on regardless.
What we are doing to the heritage here is tragic. I have been here for almost 20 years and have only just realised that there is a mediaeval cloister in the House of Commons and that this historic gem is in a state of serious disrepair. The one fact that really struck home to me—which, to my shame, I had not realised—is that in this entire Palace there is only one lift that meets modern accessibility criteria. That is disgraceful.
The Joint Committee has done a great job. It has pointed out—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, referred to this—that restoration and renewal brings forward a chance for democratic renewal. However, I would add that, in this most conservative of institutions, restoration and renewal can also be a catalyst for operational renewal in areas such as catering, support functions such as IT and security, visitors, education and so on. When I talk about Parliament in the context of this work, I mean the whole of Parliament as an institution and not only the Members.
It is a very complicated project. It has many technical challenges in a confined space in a world heritage site, with the complexities of all the different activities that we need this building to deliver, whether as a home for our democracy, an operational Parliament, a workplace for many, a visitor attraction, an educational resource and so much more. So Parliament made the right decision 18 months ago when it decided to use the model successfully used for the Olympics—I am glad the scrutiny committee supported that. That committee focused attention on the relationship between the sponsor body and the delivery authority that it will establish in statutory form. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said in his opening remarks, it is a well-trodden, contractual relationship—or should be.
For me, the key is that for everything to work, the brief set by the sponsor body, acting as the single client, must be clear and not subject to constant change. The most important relationship is that between Parliament itself and the sponsor body. For the sponsor body to act as the single client effectively, it can certainly take the lead, but it is not Parliament. The democratic renewal of which I spoke earlier must be led by Parliament itself. The sponsor body should reflect the wishes of Parliament, certainly by offering up ideas and options, but mostly by looking at how the current Parliament’s aspirations can be met and ensuring that future aspirations are not stopped.
The same goes for operational renewal. It is not for the sponsor body to tell Parliament how to run its security, catering or visitor management, but rather to explore with Parliament what opportunities there might be for more efficient, effective and imaginative services.
The sponsor body is ambitious, and Parliament should be too. From much of the work the sponsor body has done so far in talking to many Members and staff, it is quite clear that there is a lot we could do right now. We do not have to wait for restoration and renewal, but we are so conservative that we never change anything. Many of the questions raised by Members and staff about restoration and renewal are about not the building work itself but how the building will be used. That should be in the hands of noble Lords and the Administration, not the shadow sponsor body.
We have heard a lot about Caroline Shenton’s book, and she gave us a copy when we started. The previous Clerk of the House of Commons commented that Barry needed a sponsor body. I am sure that may be right, but we must be realistic that the sponsor body itself is not a magic bullet. Parliament has a responsibility to be ambitious and to make this work. Parliamentary oversight of the work after the event is important, but the real value lies in engagement before the decisions are made, really understanding the potential consequences of particular options and aspirations and guiding the sponsor body accordingly.
The approach taken in the Bill envisages key milestones in the project which require parliamentary approval and an estimates committee with financial oversight powers. There will be a serious focus on communications between the sponsor body and Parliament, but we need to give more thought to how that will work the other way round: how Parliament is going to communicate with the sponsor body. There is potentially a very important role for the Deputy Speaker, the Services Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the arts and heritage committee. Then there will be the usual mechanism of debates and questions, all of which will play an important part. The sponsor body has established a set of key strategic objectives, which include health and safety, security, accessibility, heritage, effective working and value for money. Very few people would disagree with any of them. The job of the sponsor body is to commission a project that delivers as many of them as possible, but there will be points where Parliament will have choices to make. They may be difficult choices, and Parliament will need to be very clear about where its priorities lie.