MPs and peers ‘must leave Parliament for YEARS’ during restoration
Jacob Rees-Mogg today slammed a plan for MPs and peers to leave the Palace of Westminster for years during a multi-billion pound restoration – warning taxpayers will not tolerate spending £20billion turning Westminster into ‘Disneyland’.
The Commons leader lashed out after a strategic review of the huge project found that vacating the Houses of Parliament during the huge overhaul of the crumbling estate remains the best option.
Despite pressure for a rethink from many MPs, it concluded that staying in the historic building is ‘technically possible’ but would mean an ‘extraordinary level of risk’, extending the length of the process by ‘decades’ and a far higher cost.
Instead the review said creating temporary Lords chambers in Richmond House and the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre respectively was still the most attractive option.
It also suggested a focus on ‘essential’ works and measures to accelerate the pace, such as installing a dry dock along the length of the estate on the Thames.
But Mr Rees-Mogg – who along with Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has been hunting for ways to slash the bill – said creating the temporary chambers alone could cost £1.5billion.
He told MPs that the idea was ‘for the birds’ after coronavirus hammered the public finances, suggesting that if the estate does need to be shut down for works it should switch to virtual proceedings instead.
Some peers have previously suggested lavish improvements to the QEII before they move in, including a central staircase to bring in natural light and banqueting suite on the top floor.
The Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority backed plans to relocate locally after Boris Johnson suggested a move to York.
That idea did not prove popular with those who use the palace, with 19 per cent of respondents expressing clear views that moving the Lords far from the Commons ‘was not practical or acceptable’.
Just 6 per cent suggested one or both houses could move outside of London.
The restoration team will continue to develop a fully costed plan, but various price tags from £4billion to many times that have been estimated.
Parliament will be asked to approve the final plan with work expected to begin in the mid-2020s.
MPs and peers voted two years ago in favour of moving off the estate for the first time since the Luftwaffe bombed chamber in 1941.
But there has been deep anxiety that the timetable – initially forecast to start in 2025 and end between five and eight years later – will stretch even further.
Opposition members of the ruling Commons commission have been accused of trying to add ‘all sorts’ of upgrades into the proposals.
One senior Commons source told MailOnline: ‘I do not see us leaving.’
MPs are due to sit in a temporary chamber being created in Richmond House, which borders the existing Parliamentary estate.
The original scoping report produced by consultants in 2015 laid out a range of possible upgrades to the estate including creating underground meeting space below the current New Palace Yard, with ‘natural light from a landscaped courtyard above’.
Minutes of a cross-party Lords committee meeting last spring showed they discussed options for QEII including ‘the provision of a staircase through the centre of the whole building to bring in natural light and improve access options between floors’.
Following concerns that peers will be deprived of access to subsidised bars and restaurants, the minutes referred to a proposal ‘for the top floor to provide the majority of catering services, a mixture of served and self-service; with the main preparation kitchen located in the basement’.
There could be ‘smaller outlets located throughout the building’.
At business questions in the Commons, Mr Rees-Mogg’s Tory predecessor Andrea Leadsom said the review’s recommendation was the same as reports in 2014, 2016 and legislation that she introduced in 2018.
‘He must surely see that the risks of a major asbestos leak, a sewage failure or indeed a devastating fire such as we saw at Notre Dame are very high and remain very high and we have virtually no contingency for this place.
‘My personal motto is JFDI and I would like to offer that to (Mr Rees-Mogg) to gird his loins to make some progress.’
But Mr Rees-Mogg said: ‘The proposal for Richmond House and for the Queen Elizabeth Centre was there would be about £1.5 billion of expenditure on temporary chambers. This can’t have been a sensible thing to do, even in less straitened financial times. In current circumstances, it seems to me to be for the birds.
‘I am not the greatest advocate of hybrid proceedings, they’re better than nothing but they’re not as good as real, physical participation in debate – but I’d rather have hybrid proceedings for a little bit where we couldn’t use this chamber than spend £1.5 billion.
‘And we as Members of Parliament have a responsibility to our constituents, when their money is being spent, to accept while great restorations are taking place, we may have to put up with a little bit of discomfort, there may be occasionally a little bit of banging and noise being made, we can’t be too fussy about that if we’re to keep this as a working operational building.’
He insisted: ‘Regardless of all these reports, regardless of what people have suggested, this has to get value for money for the taxpayer. We have suddenly heard talk of cost of £10 to £20billion coming up.
‘We cannot say that to our constituents. We in this House have the responsibility to protect taxpayers’ money and the other place it has to be remembered doesn’t, we are responsive and answerable to our constituents.
‘And yes, we need to redo the wiring, yes we need to ensure this place is safe and secure but we must not turn this House of Commons into Disneyland.’
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, said: ‘The idea that parliament could be fully restored without evacuating MPs and staff was always a ridiculous obsession of a minority of politicians.
‘We welcome the conclusion of this review that this option would pose and ”extraordinary level of risk” and hope that this bad idea can now finally be put to bed, after a large amount of time and public money has been wasted pursing it.
In a letter in July, Mr Johnson said that locations outside London should be considered if MPs and peers do have to move out.
Mr Johnson wrote: ‘Costs should be kept to a minimum (ie no gold plating). We should also move as quickly as possible.’
The PM said that the case for both Houses staying in place should be considered but that other locations should be in the mix.
He stated: ‘However, the review should also consider a possible location outside London.
‘The Government is considering establishing a Government hub in York and it would therefore make sense to consider this as a potential location.’