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MPs call for quicker action to repair Parliament amid warnings of fires

MPs have approved a motion to abolish the restoration and renewal project’s sponsor body and bring the governance ‘in-house’.

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Scaffolding on the roof of the Palace of Westminster (PA)

Scaffolding on the roof of the Palace of Westminster (PA)

Scaffolding on the roof of the Palace of Westminster (PA)

Fires are reported virtually every month in Parliament, MPs have heard amid criticism of the “cack-handed” project to fix the Palace of Westminster.

MPs approved a motion to abolish the restoration and renewal project’s sponsor body and bring the governance “in-house”.

Commons Leader Mark Spencer said a rethink is needed to ensure value for money is offered to taxpayers and he insisted no options are ruled out under the new project management arrangements, including moving MPs and peers elsewhere during the works.

But several MPs bemoaned further delays to the project and raised concerns about the risks faced by the Victorian palace.

I fear we are leaving the building at a risk of much large failure than a leak in the roof, which inevitably would involve us in having to move out of Parliament and leave us all looking rather stupid that we didn't actually take major action quickerSir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP

The debate came a day after a broken air conditioning unit led to water leaking into the Commons chamber.

Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) said the debate could “not be more timely” given the leak, adding: “There are small fires reported virtually every month in this place.

“And it is only by the diligence and hard work of the staff in this place, patrolling virtually on a 24-hour basis on fire watch, that nothing more serious has happened.”

He added: “I fear we are leaving the building at a risk of much large failure than a leak in the roof, which inevitably would involve us in having to move out of Parliament and leave us all looking rather stupid that we didn’t actually take major action quicker.”

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A view over a courtyard at the Palace of Westminster (PA)

A view over a courtyard at the Palace of Westminster (PA)

PA

A view over a courtyard at the Palace of Westminster (PA)

For the SNP, Kirsty Blackman described the Houses of Parliament as a “relic” which is “not a suitable, appropriate working environment”.

She criticised how the project has been handled, saying: “You couldn’t really do it in a more cack-handed way than the way it is currently being done in.”

MPs and peers agreed in 2018 to a plan that would see both the Commons and Lords move to temporary facilities near the existing site, a “full decant”, to allow essential repairs and upgrades to be made.

But a review of the plans was carried out amid concerns about the cost, which was estimated at £4 billion in 2014 but has since spiralled.

Conservative former Commons leader Chris Grayling said MPs were “deeply, deeply frustrated” that it has taken seven years to get to the current point of the project and spoke in favour of a proposal which he described as the “bloody hell get on with it” amendment.

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Chris Bryant highlights some of the wiring in the House of Commons in 2017 (PA)

Chris Bryant highlights some of the wiring in the House of Commons in 2017 (PA)

PA

Chris Bryant highlights some of the wiring in the House of Commons in 2017 (PA)

Labour former minister Chris Bryant also warned: “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.

“There is no other venue that we could go to. I think the one other place that we might have gone to the Government has just sold. There’s nowhere. So it’s not only a risk to us and the building, it’s also a risk to our democracy.”

For Labour, shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire criticised Tory former Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and said he had “kept changing goal posts” on the project.

Opening the debate, Mr Spencer said: “In 2018, decisions on the structure of the programme were made when estimates were in the region of £3.5 billion, with a programme to decant for approximately six years.

“This was the context on which the two Houses agreed the current approach, but in early 2022 the sponsor body published its essential schemes options, it estimated the cost to be between £7 billion and £13 billion, and that that work would take between 19 and 28 years and would require a full decant of the Palace of Westminster for between 12 and 20 years.”

He added: “This is a very different proposition, so a gap has emerged between what is realistic, practical, and can be justified to taxpayers and what is being proposed by the sponsor body. These estimates make if very difficult to proceed down this path only two years after the pandemic and facing a challenging fiscal context.”

Closing the debate, Mr Spencer said he could not guarantee that MPs will have a vote on the option of an eight-year decant, but noted: “I will make sure that the eight-year decant is one of the proposals that they look at, and they consider very seriously.”

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