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We may abandon Parliament - Bercow

The Palace of Westminster may have to be abandoned within 20 years unless an extensive programme of repairs and modernisation is agreed, John Bercow has warned.

The Commons Speaker said a "not inconsequential sum of public money" was needed to keep the Houses of Parliament "fit for purpose".

Mr Bercow stressed the need for investment in the historic building over the next decade and said it would be a "huge pity" to have to leave it.

Speaking in Westminster he said: "This is a fabulous institution located in awesome surroundings. It must not have the ethos of a museum.

"It will require bold and imaginative managerial leadership to ensure that we are a Parliament fit for purpose and that this Victorian legacy can be rendered practical for contemporary representation."

Referring to the blaze that burned down the old palace of Westminster in 1834, Mr Bercow said: " It would be a huge pity if we decided that by the time we had reached the 200th anniversary of the vast fire which consumed the old parliament and brought this one in to being, we had to abandon this site and look elsewhere in order to serve the public interest properly.

"Yet I will tell you in all candour that unless management of the very highest quality and a not inconsequential sum of public money are deployed on this estate over the next 10 years, that will be the outcome."

The cost of repairing the Houses of Parliament could top £3 billion, an examination of options for renovating the historic building has suggested.

Dr Richard Ware said last year that it was ''not unreasonable'' to think the bill could top £2 billion, but BBC2's Newsnight programme claimed that the ''working assumption'' of insiders was that it could be a billion more.

The Speaker also addressed the "agony" of the controversial process to recruit a new clerk for the House of Commons, insisting he had always believed that splitting the role in two was the right way to proceed.

Mr Bercow led an appointment panel in an external search to replace Sir Robert Rogers, who retired early as clerk last summer after a 40-year Commons career.

The proposed appointment of Australian official Carol Mills was abandoned by Mr Bercow after protests from MPs that she was not able to do the job because she had no knowledge of Commons procedure.

A committee led by former cabinet minister Jack Straw recommended splitting the role, with a director general responsible for administration and the clerk left to manage the constitutional and parliamentary elements.

Mr Bercow said: " On taking extensive evidence, they could see that the management of the House was simply not fit for purpose and they set out constructive proposals to equip us for the modern world.

"I am absolutely ecstatic that they reached the conclusions that they did, that they managed to obtain unanimity for their recommendations and that their findings were then accepted by colleagues without dissent in the debate in December and the legislation that came before the House last week.

"My one regret about all this is that it was not possible to find the consensus required to commission the Straw Committee a year earlier, because if we had it would have saved us the utter agony of a doomed first attempt.

"Finding a human being who was a parliamentary expert of the highest repute and a chief executive of stellar managerial form proved predictably impossible.

"Now that the role has rightly been separated - I argued all along that the clerk should not also be the chief executive and this has now been agreed by the House - I am confident that we will be able to find a clerk of the House whose constitutional qualifications would make Erskine May proud and a director general who can take on, full-time, the management of the Commons."

The Speaker also set out his plans for greater public involvement in the work of the Commons.

He said: " Democracy needs not only to be done but to be seen to be done to enjoy the weight it deserves. Reconnecting Parliament and the public is thus not some sort of public relations exercise but absolutely central to its status."

Mr Bercow said he was "intrigued" by the recommendation of the Digital Democracy Commission for online public "e-discussions" before debates in Westminster Hall, the Commons' second chamber.

The Speaker also repeated his criticism of the way Prime Minister's Questions was conducted, and called for the party leaders to improve the tone of the exchanges.

He said: "PMQs are what the public see and hear of Parliament more than anything else.

"My submission, supported anecdotally wherever I go around the country and by some polling evidence, is that the public disapprove of the decibel level and orchestrated barracking.

"Put simply, if the party leaders want conduct on a Wednesday lunchtime to improve, it will. Post-election there will be an opportunity to achieve change that the public would welcome."

Mr Bercow accepted that the cost of repairing the Palace of Westminster could be more than £3 billion and said that, while he did not want MPs to have to move elsewhere while the work was carried out, if they were forced to find alternative accommodation temporarily then leaving London should be considered.

He said £3 billion was "a realistic scenario" and added that Liberal Democrat MP John Thurso, the spokesman for the House of Commons Commission, "may even say that that's on the cautious side".

The Speaker said he was "very uneasy about the idea of decanting" from the Palace of Westminster while the work was carried out because "once you are out it can be very difficult to get back" and the pressure to get on with the refurbishment would be reduced.

Mr Bercow said: "If we were to decant, should we consider all options including, almost certainly, a regional option? We should."

Any decisions would have to be made by the whole House of Commons, Mr Bercow said, and the sums of money involved would require Government funding.

A 2012 report f ound that basic services within the building, like electricity, water and sanitation, were being kept functioning ''with increasing difficulty and growing risks'', while asbestos was present throughout the palace and original roofs were no longer watertight, leading to extensive damp, leaks and floods.

The present building - home to Houses of Lords since 1847 and the Commons since 1852 - has had no general renovation since repairs of wartime damage in 1945-50, said the report, adding: ''If the palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.''

Responding to questions on his own future, t he Speaker said he was "not resiling" from his previous commitment to stand down from the office in 2018, although he pointed out that his election would be for the full term of the next parliament lasting to 2020.

First he had to be re-elected in his Buckingham seat and "if I am returned to the House, I will ask the House whether it is willing to return me to the position of Speaker".

"If he House elects me as Speaker you are elected at the start of the parliament for the parliament. I am not resiling from what I have said previously on the subject, nor am I making any new statement about it. I am just describing the factual position as it is."

At the event, organised by the Hansard Society, Mr Bercow was asked how the Commons would respond to the devolution arrangements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

He said: "I think most people, even coming at this from different vantage points, would like to preserve the idea of a unitary house which is a House of Commons for the United Kingdom as a whole.

"It may well be that that is achieved alongside bits and pieces of further devolution. I've got a sense that in the end it won't be a dramatic 'big bang' effect, it will probably be a very British concept of working through it in a practical way that probably doesn't totally satisfy anybody but at least avoids dissatisfying everybody."

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