In a report today the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) complains that there is an “unacceptable cloak of secrecy” surrounding plans to restore the Houses of Parliament.
The report says progress on the restoration and renewal of Parliament is “unacceptably slow” with the “likely start date for major works pushed back by many years because of repeated attempts to revisit the basis of the programme”.
The committee says it must not take “another catastrophic incident to finally galvanise action and focus minds.”
Since the start of 2016 there have been 25 fire incidents in the Palace and 13 incidents of falling masonry.
The House authorities have spent large amounts of taxpayers’ money to mitigate health and safety risks, “including £140 million to install temporary fire safety systems” alone.
MPs say there has been an “unacceptable cloak of secrecy around the programme” with “House authorities’ failure to manage asbestos incidents transparently, or with alacrity” underlining “an approach which does not welcome scrutiny”. The “failures of transparency and accountability” include the House administrations being three months late sharing information on a recent asbestos incident with those impacted.
The committee saw “no evidence to justify” the House of Commons commission’s proposal to “reverse decisions from both Houses of Parliament” and abolish the project Sponsor Body – which was set up in 2019 “precisely to take the oversight of this huge project out of the political arena”.
The CEO of the Sponsor Body say they do not know why this was proposed, and the report finds there is no evidence alternative options were considered.
PAC say the “suggestion that the House authorities oversee the works does not seem viable,” given their previous performance with Portcullis House and “more recently the Elizabeth tower renovation, which is almost triple its original £29 million budget.”
The two commissions have asked for further options to be explored “but it is unclear how the higher costs”, “enormously longer time” – an extra 15 to 48 years – and added “extraordinary health and safety risks” of a continued presence during the building works can be managed.
PAC chair, Dame Meg Hillier MP, said in light of the report: “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. Of course, current Members and authorities care deeply about this place and its restoration but this project will outlast any contemporaneous interests or cohorts and must be taken out of their hands. 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.”