In January, the House of Commons debated whether to decant the Palace during the years when the essential restoration and renewal of the Palace is undertaken. It agreed, by 236 votes to 220, to a full, rather than a partial, decant. The Lords debated the issue last month. The vote in the Commons largely took the wind out of the sales of those peers who were reluctant to support a full decant. The House agreed with the Commons without a vote.
I spoke in the debate and in the time available supported the case for a full decant. My principal regret was that it had taken so long to bring the issue before the House. As I explained in an earlier post, the longer the delay, the greater the cost to the public purse. The need to address the state of the Palace is apparent to anyone walking through it – as well as to anyone looking at the exterior – and especially to anyone who has visited the basement. The infrastructure is a mass of pipes and wires, with no record of where a great many of them go. We could suffer a catastrophic failure at any moment. We certainly suffered a notable failure during the recent cold snap. The heating failed in the committee rooms overlooking the Thames, leading some MPs to sit in a Public Bill Committee wearing overcoats. I have just been through the corridor on the ground floor of the West Front of the Lords, where bookcases and paintings have had to be removed because of a major water leak from the Principal Floor. Things, I suspect, are not going to get any better.
In my speech, I addressed the concerns of those who fear that if we move out, we may never return, and the wishes of those who would like us not to return, but instead move to another part of the country. There is a commitment to return to the Palace – not least because we could not afford to restore the Palace and create a new purpose-built Parliament. Moving to another part of the country is not feasible, not as a matter of principle, but for practical reasons. Parliament is where it is because of where Government is located. We could create a new capital – our own Brasilia – in the heart of England, but the cost would be prohibitive. It is going to cost billions to restore the Palace of Westminster. That will not be the most popular expenditure of public money. Consider the cost of building a new centre for Government Departments and both Houses of Parliament and relocating not only 7,000 staff who work in Parliament, but the senior civil service as well, and you begin to see the scale of the problem.
Getting us from where we are to temporary locations – and those locations are not confirmed or problem-free – while the Palace is restored and then getting us back in is going to be a massive logistical exercise as well as having major implications for how the two Houses connect with one another and with how MPs deal with constituents. It is going to be vital to have a body capable of delivering the change and doing it efficiently and effectively. We cannot afford to get it wrong.