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Parliament restoration plan ‘unacceptably slow’ and untransparent – committee

The Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, at the Palace of Westminster (Victoria Jones/PA)
The Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben, at the Palace of Westminster (Victoria Jones/PA)

Progress on renovating Parliament is “unacceptably slow”, cloaked in secrecy and may expose MPs to health and safety risks, a powerful committee which scrutinises Government spending has said.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), criticised recent moves by the House of Commons Commission to abolish the project’s sponsor body, thereby “wrecking the plan that was under way – if tortuously slowly”.

It comes after a report by the sponsor body earlier this year showed that restoring the crumbling Victorian Palace of Westminster without finding a new home for MPs could take up to 76 years, with a repairs bill reaching £22 billion.

The cheapest option would involve a “full decant” of the palace for between 12 and 20 years, with the work costing in the region of £7 billion to £13 billion.

The likely start date for major works has been pushed back “by many years” because of attempts to revisit the basis of the programme, the PAC said in a report.

It must not take “another catastrophic incident to finally galvanise action and focus minds”, the committee said, while pointing to 25 fires in the Palace and 13 incidents of falling masonry since 2016.

Removing the sponsor body could exacerbate “nugatory spending”, which has already seen the House authorities spend large sums of taxpayers’ money to reduce health risks, “including £140 million to install temporary fire safety systems”.

Dame Meg, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, said: “The House authorities have unilaterally taken this massive, critical project of huge national, historical, cultural and political significance back to the drawing board; reversing decisions by both Houses, with no justification for wrecking the plan that was underway – if tortuously slowly – and no assurance that they can actually deliver the works they now envisage.

“This cannot be acceptable in anyone’s book.

“The new arrangements must have the transparency and independence to come up with a proper, deliverable, risk-managed plan at acceptable costs.”

NHS crisis
Labour MP and Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier (PA)

She said the project must be taken out of the hands of current MPs as it will outlast their interests.

She added: “It is inconceivable that this building at the heart of our nation’s life should be allowed to deteriorate further – or worse, that those working or visiting the Palace are put in physical danger – by the inability of the current generation of residents to come to and stick to a decision about how to proceed.”

The sponsor body was set up in 2019 “precisely to take the oversight of this huge project out of the political arena”, the PAC report said.

The Palace of Westminster has long been beset by maintenance issues – from flooding to fires and vermin – and is in need of extensive restoration.

Around 120 people were potentially exposed after asbestos was released during works on the Speaker’s bedrooms last October, though some were reportedly not informed for several months.

The PAC report said: “There is an unacceptable cloak of secrecy around the programme.

“The House authorities’ failure to manage asbestos incidents transparently, or with alacrity, underlines an approach which does not welcome scrutiny.”

A parliamentary spokesperson said the PAC reports findings would be carefully considered.

They said: “The Sponsor Body’s recent proposals for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster were estimated to cost between £7 billion and £13 billion, take up to 28 years to deliver, and were not due to start until 2027 at the earliest.

“Following concerns expressed over the costs and timescales presented, the two Commissions agreed to propose a new approach to the works and the governance of the restoration and renewal programme.

“The new approach is designed to ensure maximum value for money and will see essential safety-critical works start sooner than was originally proposed.

“The Commissions’ proposals have been published in full. Engagement with the parliamentary community on these proposals is currently underway. Members of both Houses will have the final say, and it is intended that that they will have the chance to debate and decide on the Commissions’ proposals before the summer recess”.