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Parliament Matters: Parliament’s ‘Wastefinder General’ on the ‘Big Nasties’ (Episode 5)

24 Nov 2023
Scaffolding surrounding the clockface to the The Queen Elizabeth tower ("Big Ben") at the Houses of Parliament,. © Adobe Stock
Scaffolding surrounding the clockface to the The Queen Elizabeth tower ("Big Ben") at the Houses of Parliament,. © Adobe Stock

Following the Autumn Statement Mark and Ruth are joined this week by Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons. The Committee is the financial watchdog that has been going since the days of William Gladstone.

As Parliament’s ‘Wastefinder General’, Dame Meg has got a list of ‘Big Nasties’: major public sector building projects that have been delayed due to cost pressures, sometimes for decades, but which are now at a point where they can longer be put off.

She outlines her concerns about one of those ‘Big Nasties’: the Restoration and Renewal of Parliament (or the R&R programme). It has been hit by a string of delays. There are serious concerns about health and safety, governance and the lack of transparency surrounding the project. After kicking the can down the road for years, who would want to be the Government if disaster strikes the Palace of Westminster?

Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust which engages in philanthropy and supports work on democratic accountability.

Parliament Matters episode 5

Please note, this transcript is automatically generated. There are consequently minor errors and the text is not formatted according to our style guide. If you wish to reference or cite the transcript copy below, please first check against the audio version above. Timestamps are provided above each paragraph.

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You are listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society production, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn More at hansardsociety.org.uk/pm. Hello, and welcome to Parliament Matters, a Podcast from the Hansard Society about the institution at the heart of our democracy - Parliament itself. I’m Ruth Fox. And I'm Mark D’Arcy. Every week we're going to be analyzing what's going on behind the Gothic facade of Westminster.

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Helping you to stay on top of the key parliamentary issues of the week and what lies ahead. And we'll be explaining how the system works. Hearing about the latest research and innovations in Parliament in politics, from influential thinkers and practitioner, providing new perspectives from inside and outside of Westminster. I will be traveling back in time to some of the pivotal moments in parliamentary history to help you understand exactly how we've arrived, where we are today.

00;01;00;10 - 00;01;19;14

So Mark on my list for discussion. I've got the Autumn Statement spin news this week from Jeremy, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Also want to talk about the latest developments in the restoration and renewal of Parliament. The program to stop Parliament falling into the Thames or burning down. And we're going to talk to the chair of the Public Accounts Committee about an announcement she's made this week.

00;01;19;14 - 00;01;43;20

Michaelia, about that. But first, before we get to that, what's taken your eye in terms of all the developments? Well, very big moment in the House of Lords this week when David Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, in his new incarnation as the Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, made his maiden speech before Piers as Foreign Secretary. This the first time in 40 years they've had one of the great offices of state led from the House of Lords.

00;01;43;20 - 00;02;03;02

And I think Piers rather liked it. He used the occasion to have a little barb at Boris Johnson, his one of his one of his many successes as prime minister, continuing a political rivalry that had maybe begun on the playing fields of Eton. Or perhaps it's the other way round. Maybe it's actually an Etonian rivalry that's being fought out.

00;02;03;02 - 00;02;22;15

On the playing fields of politics. Yeah, I mean, it was interesting. I saw a couple of piers immediately after he made his maiden speech in the House, and they were buzzing, frankly, as they were coming out of the House of Lords Chamber. I mean, that's such a sense that they've got a big hitter, a sort of first holder of the great offices, a state that's been in the Lords since Lord Carrington in the early eighties.

00;02;22;15 - 00;02;38;14

And, you know, David Cameron, he poured charm all over the chamber. I think it's fair to say he looked to the manor born, but then sort of one of the questions that's going to come up is he's accountable to the House of Lords. He's speaking there in that chamber. But what's going to happen? That's still a live question.

00;02;38;14 - 00;02;59;24

What's going to happen? Absolutely. Because accountability trumps. Absolutely. I mean, David Cameron will clearly know how to tickle noble tummies. But I mean, this is what I think of as the Roy Jenkins factor. Roy Jenkins, the great Wilson Callahan era home secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was a real parliamentary gladiator in his heyday in the sixties and the early seventies.

00;03;00;02 - 00;03;17;15

Then he went off to lead the European Commission for a while and when he reentered British politics in the early eighties as leader of the nascent SDP, there was a sense that at least in parliamentary terms, he'd gone soft, that actually he couldn't any longer cope with the rough and tumble of the Commons chamber. And I wonder if there might be a bit of that with Lord Cameron.

00;03;17;15 - 00;03;46;07

I mean, it's not entirely clear yet exactly how he's going to be held accountable to the Commons, and I gather people are looking at that. QUESTION Yeah, I mean, the Procedure Committee's indicated that they're going to do an inquiry. So it's something we talked about in the last episode. You can imagine, though, that certainly Labor and other Opposition MPs, the Commons will be sort of slipping on the knuckledusters wanting to get at him and after so long out of politics, I wonder if he'll be coping with that quite as effortlessly as he once did at the Columbus Dispatch Box.

00;03;46;07 - 00;04;13;22

Yeah, so that's one to keep an eye on. The other thing that took my eye this week was that the government got a statutory instrument, published a regulation to increase campaign spending limits for political parties and candidates in advance of the next election, in some cases to increase the spending by 8%. Keeping. The government says this is to keep it in line with with inflation limits because things have fallen behind over recent years, the limits haven't been updated.

00;04;13;25 - 00;04;39;28

The interesting thing about that, particularly for me as somebody hansol society who studies this stuff, delegated legislation and statutory instruments to research on this for a decade. You know, this is quite a big change, quite a lot of money involved, but it's not subject to parliamentary scrutiny because it's a regulation that's not subject to any parliamentary procedure. But almost all of these could be pushed into the parliamentary arena if someone decided to make an issue of them.

00;04;39;28 - 00;04;54;27

You can pray against these things as the jargon has it. You can force them to the wicket one way or another on masse. I'm a bit surprised Labor haven't made a bit more of an issue that well, there's no actual procedure where they can sort of formally press against it in the normal way of things for these statutory instruments.

00;04;54;27 - 00;05;14;24

But certainly members could be asking questions at the dispatch box of Cabinet office ministers. They could be asking questions through opposition debates. You know, we could we could see backbench MP trying to get this on the agenda. But I mean, the interesting thing here I think is whose interest is is missing. I mean, just to be clear, the Government's brought this forward, but it benefits all the parties the same way.

00;05;14;24 - 00;05;35;28

Yes, they can raise the money initially. The Conservatives have a huge financial lead in election spending. Yeah, and the suggestion is, though at the moment that Labor's doing a little bit better on the fundraising than the Conservatives. So, you know, they might not be in Labor's interest to make too much of a fuss. But I do wonder if this can feed into this speculation that there may be a general election as soon as next May.

00;05;35;28 - 00;05;52;18

Now, yes. So that's one of the, you know, the issues that's alive and one of the issues with the election is actually the financial regulations and the accounting processes and procedures for it in terms of what's called a long campaign. And the short campaign are quite complicated. And, you know, it all depends on the date of the general election.

00;05;52;18 - 00;06;17;17

And you've got to remember that political parties at the national level, yes, they've got the party headquarters sort of running these things, but the local level in the constituencies, you have to manage those because it's national spending as well as candidate spending. Some people say that's a distinction without a difference these days, the parties can flood marginal constituencies with just a few hundred votes between them with nonspecific campaigning material that doesn't mention the name of the local candidate.

00;06;17;17 - 00;06;35;17

And Bob's your uncle is national spending and not local spending. Yeah, I'm you know, one of the issues is that the people who are managing this at the local level are course a lot of them volunteers, you know, volunteer treasurers and local parties and so on. And it's quite a burden on them and a responsibility. So we'll have to see what happens.

00;06;35;20 - 00;06;55;10

Well, indeed, a meanwhile, while there have been some rather interesting goings on at the Commons dispatch box, we talked about the Lords. Another new minister made their debut this week, Esther McVey, in her capacity as the Minister for Common Sense. She was taking part in Cabinet Office questions on Thursday morning and I did find myself thinking what a bizarre title this is.

00;06;55;10 - 00;07;14;02

She's been brought back to the conservative frontbench. She's been brought back into the Government with this very nonspecific title and Nmps were kind of trying to find out what she was, therefore what she would do and a lot of fun was had, I think on both sides with the concept of who has control, if you like, of common sense or labor, the common sense party, other conservatives, the common sense party.

00;07;14;02 - 00;07;32;11

And I found myself musing about what the kind of deep mental structure of a department for Common Sense would be like. You know, do you any up the questions? Not really. I mean, it didn't really question. I was just envisaging that there be an under secretary for speaking, as I find and a minister of state for the bleedin obvious and and who knows.

00;07;32;11 - 00;08;09;13

I mean, if it became a fully fledged government department for common sense, they'd have to be a common sense select committee. And you do wonder what horrors might be unleashed by that. Yes. Well, talking about select committee, something that took my eye as well this week was a number of appointments to select committees. So we saw that couple of of longstanding members, Fabian Hamilton and Mick Whitley for Labor got appointed to two separate select committees to each to each, which does suggest something that we've been sort of suspicious of for a while, that there's not a lot of competition at the moment for select committee, places that the parties are struggling to fill some of

00;08;09;13 - 00;08;33;01

the seats on some of these committees, because we think that the MPs are not that keen on being tied to to quite, you know, substantial workloads on select committees and sort of want to be away from Westminster in their constituencies, plus another symptom of building an election fever, as you say, that they want to be beavering away with their own local voters rather than on some committee doing some detailed technical issues that frankly there are no votes.

00;08;33;01 - 00;08;58;20

And yeah, and the other one has gone under the radar and I think is really interesting is the appointment of Kim mother, the youngest MP just recently elected to Parliament, since he's 25, 26, if that he was elected in the recent byelection in Selby for the Labor Party, he's got a plum job on the Treasury Select Committee when again, you know, you would think that there would be a bit of competition for places from Labor backbenches for that, that role.

00;08;58;21 - 00;09;17;07

The Treasury Select Committee is a big post. Absolutely. I mean it's normally sort of ex-ministers and you know, really quite experienced MPs who spend their time doing pre appointment hearings on people who are going to go off and serve on a monetary policy commission, that kind of stuff. So, you know, it's it's pretty high tech action on the Treasury Committee.

00;09;17;07 - 00;09;40;00

And so for someone like mother to swan straight into such a plum job, well as you say you wonder how much competition there was. Yeah, he's going to be, of course, thrust straight into Treasury Select Committee hearings on the Autumn Statement. So what do you make of all of that? Well, the Treasury Committee always has an inquiry into big fiscal events the budget, the Autumn Statement, any mini budgets or whatever that might come along.

00;09;40;00 - 00;10;07;26

And it's almost become a fixture now. These are quite formulaic inquiries that next Tuesday, for example, they've got the big experts from the big think tanks, people like Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Torsten Bell from the Resolution Foundation coming in. I mean, it's practically part the dignified part of the Constitution. Now, they could always turn up that, you know, there was built into the same break of all nation is the king himself I sometimes think and that's followed up on the Wednesday, of course, Jeremy Hunt comes along.

00;10;07;26 - 00;10;31;15

So the experts kind of tee up the questions that are then asked to the chancellor. It's always very interesting to watch the sort of duo of Bell and Johnson dominating the MPs and saying, this is what you should be asking these are the big problems. And the Treasury Committee sort of sits there, typically taking it all in so that they can they can regurgitate those questions that the Chancellor the next day.

00;10;31;17 - 00;10;50;21

And of course, once we get past the Treasury Committee this week, the question of legislation, what what legislation is going to follow the statements. So we know I mean, the chancellor indicated in in his speech in the Commons that there's going to be urgent legislation, as he described it, to deal with the National Insurance contributions. Employee contributions change.

00;10;50;21 - 00;11;10;08

So that's coming up next Thursday. Yeah. So the Government's confirmed that they're going to bring the bill forward for consideration in the Commons through all its stages next Thursday to make sure it's on the statute book ready for implementation in in January. I mean, frankly, I think they could have given it a bit more time than that, but presumably it's a relatively short bill.

00;11;10;11 - 00;11;32;20

So short, sweet and simple. You know, exactly just exactly what it says on the tin and changes the rates of national insurance, as the chancellor outlined. And so ballabhgarh straight through the Commons in one day, presumably the following week, it whizzes through the Lords in the blink of an eye as well, because the Lords of course, are not allowed to touch financial measures as absolute parliamentary taboo that they do not do that built into the Constitution.

00;11;32;20 - 00;11;48;09

So they basically more or less rubberstamp it, although someone might sort of make a sarcastic remark somewhere along the way and then batter them straight into law. Yes, they sort of get to second reading, but then sort of committee and report stages are all sort of pushed through very quickly. And then we sort of have to see what happens next.

00;11;48;09 - 00;12;16;05

Is there going to be full blooded finance bill? One assumes so, given the number of changes that the government indicated and it published at the end of the Chancellor's statement, a set of what are called Ways and Means motions, which there were 37 of them, and these all of the motions that all the what we call the founding resolutions for a finance bill, for legislation to implement the Chancellor's proposals, and the House will have to approve those at the end of the debate, which I think is next Monday.

00;12;16;07 - 00;12;40;06

And once it's done that, then the government will be able to bring forward the bill on the basis of those founding resolutions. But even before that, of course, of all of this, the both of the measures he's announced to take a more or less immediate effect, as they do in the budget. Yes. So any any whether it's a budget or an Autumn Statement, any of the the changes in duty on alcohol fueled cigarets cigarets and tobacco was was the big one in this statement.

00;12;40;08 - 00;13;07;05

A concern is always once you announce those the market sensitive, you don't want people stockpiling, you don't want people sort of changing prices and so on. So there's a provision in in the financial process in parliament for what's called a provisional collection of taxes motion, and that goes through straightaway. And it basically gives without the need for full blooded legislation, it gives parliamentary authority to the changes that the Chancellor wants to make.

00;13;07;05 - 00;13;24;09

And so until they get the finance bill through, but it comes into effect on the day of the statement and so in the twinkling of an eye, you're paying more for a packet of cigarets because the duty goes up more or less instantaneously. So it comes into effect that evening and the government's got to get the finance bill to keep those measures in place.

00;13;24;09 - 00;13;49;00

It's a temporary provision, but it just ensures that, you know, you you don't get these sort of problems with market sensitivity issues. And there's a so technical difference between finance bills and other bills as well as that. As you say that they brought in on a resolution, which isn't quite how normal bills work. And what difference does that make to the kind of the course of the way these bills are considered by employees?

00;13;49;02 - 00;14;09;15

Well, it means that this committee stage, particularly, you see, you see a difference. So you get the you know, you get a split. So some measures will be debated by the whole House. Some will be debated in public bill committee. Public bill committee is usually a lot bigger than a normal public bill committee on a on a government bill, sort of you know, I think you I think it can be up to 40 members in either.

00;14;09;15 - 00;14;25;26

Yeah. And of course, as you mentioned there, the finance bill that the laws don't consider them in the same way. So they effectively have the second reading debate. And then the financial privilege of the House of Commons means that subsequent stages after second reading in the Lords are what's called sort of negative. You know, they just pushed through.

00;14;25;28 - 00;14;53;02

I know if you go, but that's of course the technicality of how you get the stuff through. But there's also plenty of debate about the actual measures that Jeremy Hunt announced and whether his sums add up and what they actually mean and what the longer term implications are for government spending. And you know, what's going to happen with budgets of government departments providing services like schools and hospitals a few years down the line when some of these measures really start to bite.

00;14;53;08 - 00;15;19;01

Yeah, it was interesting during the debate itself, there was there was a bit of back and forth between the chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Harriett Baldwin, and the Deputy Speaker on the line who Harry Baldwin was taking issue with some of the Labor opposition members, broadening the debate out and getting into things that had been sort of touted in the media in the days beforehand, but then hadn't actually been in the statement or hadn't been quite as had been presented by the media.

00;15;19;03 - 00;15;38;15

And Jamelle on the line gave a degree of latitude, I thought, a bit of leeway to the opposition members, given the fact so much had been had been trailed in the media. And, you know, there were a lot of debate around, oh, it's our old friend. The trailing stuff in the media controversy that just seems to go on and on, as we've been talking about in numerous editions of this podcast.

00;15;38;15 - 00;16;02;01

You know, governments love to trail things sometimes just to gauge the reaction, sometimes to give a little bit of a taster in advance. But it is something that really irritates speakers. And I think leaving that aside, Damian Long isn't someone who likes to be told how to chair the House of Commons either, so I'm not sure it's a great idea to suggest to her that she was being too permissive in what she was letting MP talk about.

00;16;02;01 - 00;16;17;19

But the other thing we could have done with the with the Autumn Statement, we could have had a sort of equivalent of a drinking game checking, checking, checking, which journalists said got the most accurate trials and therefore got the best sources. Did I sometimes think that you also ought to slow down an additional shot every time the word crackdown is mentioned?

00;16;17;19 - 00;16;39;22

But but what you don't get with this process, because what we've been talking about is how you put tax changes into law, what you don't really seem to get outside of a little bit of debate anyway, is any real scrutiny of the big spending decisions. Should they be more on the NHS and maybe less on schools? Does there need to be more on defense and less on something else?

00;16;39;25 - 00;17;05;29

Those kind of things. And this is one of the really strange things about the way Parliament, which remember once fought a civil war over control of the national purse strings, that the parliament control of the finances, it's all slipped through parliamentary fingers. Yeah, it's not just true of Westminster, it's also true of Westminster parliamentary systems generally. But we have one of the weaker systems for pulmonary control and influence over government expenditure and taxation.

00;17;05;29 - 00;17;26;00

How it's how it's raised before the event scrutiny, if you like, before the decisions and the spending is made. Ironically, we have one of the strongest systems for looking at spending after it's happened. I'm going to talk to Mike Hillier a bit later in the program. She's chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which is one of the best regarded in the World Parliament's waste finder general.

00;17;26;00 - 00;17;46;17

Yeah. So so there is this anomaly. I mean, there are ideas out there about how that could be improved. It's not that Parliament can't do things, it's there are some procedures out there that are utilized and there are some reforms that they could implement that would improve things. So the procedure Committee in the last parliament made a recommendation, for example, for a budget committee.

00;17;46;17 - 00;18;08;08

The feeling was that the Treasury Select Committee, which currently looks at these issues and we're talking about Harry Baldwin, chair of that committee, earlier, a feeling was that it has a huge agenda and it's a sort of grand macroeconomic policy setting of interest rates and regulating the city and all those kind of things. So the feeling was that you can have a dedicated budget committee to look at these things.

00;18;08;08 - 00;18;33;10

Some people suggested even a taxation committee, one of the big problems, of course, is that how the information is presented and the capacity and expertise of MPs to actually scrutinize the stuff in America. In Washington, there's a congressional Office of the Budget, some Congressional Budget Office Westminster poll was I mean, Canada and Australia. They've got some versions of a Parliamentary Budget Office, a PBO, as they're known, and there's different approaches to in different models.

00;18;33;10 - 00;18;54;26

I mean, certainly one of them, for example, actually scrutinizes election manifestos of the political parties in advance of an election. But you can have something more limited than that that's that's providing support to MPs to understand the technical financial information that's that's presented. I think there's improvements that could be made by the Government to make that easier for MPs.

00;18;54;28 - 00;19;29;27

Parliament's got what's called a scrutiny unit, which has some capacity to support financial scrutiny basically by select committees when they're looking at things like the departmental annual reports and so on. But there is an argument and examples elsewhere that it could be done better by Westminster if there was the will. Yeah, but I think the critical thing there, as you mentioned, really is the support mechanism that they have to be the pointy headed Institute for Fiscal Studies types who actually understand and can take the numbers apart and provide the fruits of their research to MPs because it's very difficult, I think, to be a full time MP and the full time economist scrutinizing the gory

00;19;29;27 - 00;19;50;09

details of government spending programs. Yeah, I mean, to understand the information as it's presented now, you basically have to be an accountant and there are not many of those in Parliament. Well, continuing the theme of the Autumn Statement, we've come up to the upper committee corridor in the House of Commons and the Office of Parliament's Premier Financial watchdog, the Waste.

00;19;50;09 - 00;20;13;17

Find a General Meg Hillier Day, make Hillier Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Parliament's venerable financial watchdog that's been going since the days of William Gladstone. Meg, you spoke in the debate on the Autumn Statement quite early on and you dismissed what Jeremy Hunt was saying as a smoke and mirrors. Autumn Statement. Why? Well, let's take his unveiling of a National Insurance cut.

00;20;13;20 - 00;20;33;08

This is a government that has actually increased the tax by freezing thresholds on so many working people and so 2% back on national insurance doesn't go anywhere near to replacing that. We've got one of the highest tax governments that we've had for decades. And then add to that and one of the real concerns I've got a big concern of the committee too, is the lack of investment in big capital projects.

00;20;33;08 - 00;20;50;21

And the longer you leave these things to rot and we've just published reports on schools and hospitals, the bigger the bill, the bigger the problem. And we're still at the foothills of resolving those two alone, let alone other major public sector building projects. And in the end, they'll just cost more. And they are things that the public sector needs to invest in.

00;20;50;21 - 00;21;17;11

There isn't a private sector alternative, so you can boost business as much as you want, but there's a very hefty bill for the taxpayer, for our schools, hospitals and other public facilities. And one of the complaints about the Autumn Statement is that the arithmetic rests on cuts yet to be made in the budget. So all the big government departments in the future that many observers simply don't think are feasible to make it so sort of ticking time bomb in the bowels of the government's accounts?

00;21;17;18 - 00;21;39;20

Absolutely. If you look at the projections, the heavy costs come after 20, 24, 2025. Indeed, spookily enough after the next general election? Well, indeed. So there is an awful lot of traps being set there for any future government which will need to be carefully worked through. And then if you look at the settlement for government departments, it's sticking to the previously agreed 1% increase a year.

00;21;39;20 - 00;22;04;14

That is nowhere near inflation, even though inflation has dropped. That means local government departments are effectively all going to have to make cuts, reduced services and their costs to balance their budget. So that's again smoke and mirrors, hidden cuts. We don't know what that will mean yet. Each department will continue to work that through, but no prospect from what he said yesterday, that there's going to be any significant increase to any government's departments day to day spending.

00;22;04;17 - 00;22;22;19

So talking about putting off spending plans, let's come to the restoration and renewal project restoration of parliament. So this is the long running project to save Parliament, stop the building falling down, burning down, falling into the Thames. Your committee has been looking into it quite a time now. You've been monitoring it. You're not happy with the current state of play.

00;22;22;25 - 00;22;45;14

What's your understanding of where we are? Well, we were supposed to be having a vote in Parliament about the options that were in front of us in December. We now understand that's been moved back to January, but crucially, we've been looking at it in a lot of detail in the committee with still six years after there was a vote in Parliament that we would get ahead and start planning, restoration and renewal.

00;22;45;17 - 00;23;14;16

We started all over again. So we've lost those years and we no nearer any decision on the final solution of how we're going to actually resolve this. The big sticking point is whether we have what's called continued presence or we just move out of the building, continued presence, however, in our view, and we pushed the Clerk of the House very strongly on this when he appeared in front of us recently, means that you have to have people working in here when you're ripping out asbestos, all the mechanical engineering and all the dangerous things that will be happening on a building site.

00;23;14;18 - 00;23;36;12

And just cost wise, that's very expensive to do. It takes longer to do the building as a whole. And we know from all our work on the committee that the longer a project takes, the more it costs in the end. And frankly, it's not reasonable or safe for people to be working here. And, you know, Mpesa only 650 people in the building, Piers, are only 850 as the other thousands of people who work here and visit here, you need to be protected.

00;23;36;12 - 00;23;59;23

So we know in they were decision. We don't even know what the numbers the costs are likely to be. And we feels like this is being kicked down the road yet again and there are of course costs. So just staying in the building and not doing all the repairs that need to be done. I mean, to be sure, there have been some measures taken, but the full on full repair program can't be done while MOPS and Piers continue to occupy the building.

00;23;59;26 - 00;24;20;00

But keeping them there while waiting for a decision is not free either. No, we when we looked at it previously, it was £2 million a week is being spent just keeping the building propped up. That's now dropped to 1.45 million because some big projects have happened, but other other big projects in the pipeline that will need to be done just to keep the building ticking along and being safe.

00;24;20;00 - 00;24;36;24

We spent millions of pounds on a fire detection system, which means happily for those of us sitting here now, we would get out of the building, but it wouldn't save the building. And these are all things to keep the building just about going. But look, in my own office, I've had water through the roof, cold air through the roof.

00;24;36;29 - 00;25;01;24

There are toilets and plumbing that frequently leaks. Sometimes we saw water. There have been fires in this place. The corridors underneath the carpets have literal holes in the floor. And this is just the building that people have to work in day to day. That's not even beginning to look at the real guts of the building, the basement, ripping out all of the old technology and our own wiring and replacing that and all, of course, the beautiful heritage parts of the building.

00;25;01;24 - 00;25;17;08

So there's an awful lot to do and we have not got anywhere near starting that big work. But it is you're right, it's very costly just to stay here for the day to day work that needs to keep it safe. The costs are eye watering. So a strategic review was done last year and they looked at three options.

00;25;17;08 - 00;25;44;13

So staying in the palace, anything between 11 and 22 billion, but potentially taking somewhere between half a century and three quarters of a century with work going on with the work going on. Right. It's very difficult to see how you run a national legislature in the middle of a building site. Then these are options of partial decant. So House of Lords would leave the building and Parliament would move into the House of Lords Chamber, work would go on in the Commons area and then they would move back in the work happening.

00;25;44;13 - 00;26;09;10

The Lords again, sort of nine and a half to 18 and a half billion, something up to sort of 25 plus years. And then the full decant option, which is everybody leaves the palace, the estate, and that that is consistently we've looked at review after review after review consistently the cheapest, most cost effective option. And yet it is incredibly difficult to get MPs to agree that and stick to it.

00;26;09;10 - 00;26;26;04

And the problem is in the previous Parliament MP did vote for that is now being overturned. How do we get a decision to stick? Well, this is one of the problems. I mean, we have got a way of running this place that if it was any other body, the opacity and the lack of transparency on decisions would not be acceptable in a local government.

00;26;26;04 - 00;26;49;29

You wouldn't get away with it. And yet we don't have that transparency, but also, if you look at these eye watering costs, we know that every project that's delayed costs a lot of money and you can't we're saying continued presence is not practical. We've got the clerk of the House to acknowledge that if he had a disagreement with this commission, which is the body that runs this place, chaired by the speaker, he could signal his discontent by putting a letter in the library.

00;26;49;29 - 00;27;10;06

That's very quaint and parliamentary. But actually he is the person responsible for the health and safety of everybody working in this building. If it was a building site, that would be his responsibility. So I think it's beginning to sink him with now the third or fourth clerk I've been dealing with on this issue, that it is absolutely falls to him to make sure that the right decision goes through.

00;27;10;06 - 00;27;29;17

But somehow he's still playing with different options, even though we all know the most cost effective approach would be to get it all out. Can I just say on the one about moving the Commons to the Lords and the Lords out, this is one building. All the mechanical and engineering is connected, all the airspace is connected. So if asbestos is found somewhere, you know, even with asbestos conditions, I don't think I'd want to be in the building when that was happening.

00;27;29;17 - 00;27;45;28

And if you take out what you need to the mechanical engineering and replace it with modern technology, then the whole building ceases to function. So you'd have to set up a whole separate structure inside the house. The complications and cost of doing that would outweigh any benefit from the work that we've done. We can we can point to.

00;27;46;00 - 00;28;05;05

It's worth saying to our listeners, understand, I mean, it's something like at the moment two and a half times locations where asbestos has been identified, it's thought to be the the biggest amount of asbestos in one building anywhere in the country. There've been a number of asbestos incidents already. And how do you think that the staff and the trade unions feel?

00;28;05;05 - 00;28;23;26

Because yes, the Clerk of the House has legal responsibility. He's the sort of the corporate accounting officer, but he doesn't hold the purse strings on the decision. That's government, that's the Treasury that votes, if you like, to authorize the works. He's the MP. So the MP and ministers have got power without responsibility in the clerk's got responsibility with that power.

00;28;24;03 - 00;28;43;16

I think you sum up the constitutional challenge very well and it's exactly why one of the longer term things I think out of this is we do need to review the governance structures of this place. We actually did discuss back when there was a Joint Lords Commons committee to look at how setting up the original set up to do this work a few years ago, that there might have a Treasury minister sitting on the relevant bodies.

00;28;43;16 - 00;28;58;23

The government didn't really want to do that and so can understand one level why. But actually that means we're not stitching the Treasury in as much as we should at those early stages, and they would probably bring some discipline, frankly, to the process. But we are a group of people in this building of MPs who want to run the country.

00;28;58;23 - 00;29;11;03

We will go into elections, you know, to try and get into power and yet we can't seem can make a decision about this place. I think for a lot of members, it's just not something they think about most people. You don't go to your work rooms thinking that you're going to have to worry about aspects of the building.

00;29;11;03 - 00;29;35;10

I think there are people who do that for you, so most people aren't really thinking about it day to day and really the fact that 650 people who are not always as well informed as they should be about it are voting on it is is a ludicrous way of doing things, frankly. But it is now getting worrying to me that we've got the fires that we know happen that get caught because we've got 24 hour a day fire wardens on three shifts, seven days a week.

00;29;35;12 - 00;29;50;20

We have the fire system that's being put in expensively to make sure that we can get out, but the building wouldn't be saved. We have many failures every week, every month, and yet these don't seem to be warning signs enough for people that we've got to get on and do this job. And it is an iconic the mother of promise.

00;29;50;20 - 00;30;16;27

So the other problem, of course, is within a general election looming, this is kicked beyond the general election. There's a whole nother new parliament to discuss this. You've got the clerk of the House of Commons, the clerk of the Parliament's senior clerk in the House of Lords. You've been kept coming to your committee, giving evidence. But the commissions of both houses, the chief governance bodies, the political heads of those are effectively the speakers of each House and the Leader of House of Commons, the leader of the House of Lords.

00;30;16;29 - 00;30;37;22

Is it not time to get them in front of the committee? Or is there some constitutional reason why why you can't? Well, as a public accounts committee, our constitutional role is that we call the counting officers. The people are actually just responsible for day to day spending or delivery of projects. So we wouldn't never have politicians. We've never in living memory anyway, ever had a politician in front of us.

00;30;37;22 - 00;30;54;25

So there are other committees that can do that. But interesting you mention the clerk of the Parliament in the Lords and the clerk of the House. And still to speak, because there is a difference of opinion, the Lords are saying let's get on with this. The Commons have not and there is just a risk and it's everyone thinks they won't be standing when the music stops, but at some point there will be a catastrophic moment.

00;30;54;25 - 00;31;20;03

The music will have stopped and someone is going to be holding the hot potato that is the Palace of Westminster, this beautiful World Heritage site. And he wants to be in that position. You can see the political issue here that it's very difficult in incredibly difficult financial times for any government to say We're going to spend however many billion it now is on redoing the Palace of Westminster, and it's not going to be any less of a problem for a Labor government if we get one after the next general election.

00;31;20;03 - 00;31;38;25

That is for the current Conservative government and this is something no politician wants to touch. It's kryptonite, It's radioactive. Absolutely. I mean, I have what I call the list of big nasties that are coming up that are things we've talked about at the very beginning of the school buildings, hospital buildings, things that have been delayed, decisions that have been delayed sometimes for decades, sometimes for a through a government.

00;31;38;28 - 00;31;55;05

And they are costly pressures now sitting there that we're getting to the point where they need to be done. And this is one of those it can't be delayed much longer. It shouldn't be delayed any longer, really. But the reality is that that will be a pressure. Whichever government's. And they will always think, well, I could do something else with the money.

00;31;55;10 - 00;32;22;18

But actually there are also positives out of this. We have up and down United Kingdom craftspeople who've got specialist skills and talents and with some thought and planning, just as we've done for other big projects, you can actually build up those skills. They could be exported around the world. We could make this an iconic World Heritage site as it is, but a world class example of how to do a heritage project, everything from the project management skills to all the different crafts involved they could be selling those skills around the world.

00;32;22;18 - 00;32;37;23

And we've got a great reputation for heritage in this country. We should be seeing this and embracing it. And actually there are jobs to be had out of this. There are suppliers in the UK that could be supplying goods as it could be a big boost to the economy if it's played well. Those numbers need to be crunched through and until we get decision is very hard to do that.

00;32;37;26 - 00;32;58;02

Well, that's the optimistic vision. But having seen this saga unfold over the last decade, what do you think is actually going to happen? I fear there will be pressure on and anyone new impetus will perhaps be focused on other things when they get here. To be honest. But there'll be pressure on them not to agree something that's too costly, but actually the cheapest option or the best value option.

00;32;58;04 - 00;33;13;23

I keep saying we can't use the word cheap is not cheap. The best value option is to do it fast and get out and make sure that the building is fixed and then we move back in. It's got to happen sometime. We've been kicking the can down the road for 40 years and I've been here the half of that time.

00;33;13;23 - 00;33;35;10

We just can't keep doing that. Who wants to be the government when this building burns down? How do we avoid that then? What would your advice be to Keir Starmer if he wins the next general election? To Rachel Reeves, You won't be chair of the public Accounts Committee in that Parliament if it happens because the committee has to be chaired by Member from the Opposition, you'd be in a position to give sound and constructive advice to them.

00;33;35;17 - 00;33;52;14

How do we fix this? I think we need to make sure that they push to a decision because once you've got a decision, then you can really look at the costings and then you need to have as part of that a real push on Parliament to make sure that it's looking at all the supply chains. You can breakdown everything that needs to be done in this place down to every screw.

00;33;52;14 - 00;34;16;03

And there are companies across this country that could make the screws, wood paneling, all of those things. And that is an opportunity to create jobs and growth and opportunity in communities across the UK. This government talks a lot about leveling up now this morning on his own level up. But there are real opportunities spread far and wide. Yes, there's going to be a cost to it, but you know, the cost of not doing it is huge.

00;34;16;06 - 00;34;37;27

But until there's a decision made, they can't even phase the works at the moment from what we're picking up, if there's not a clear decision with costings in January and we're still not sure quite what's happening there, it could be on current projections 2030 before even a shovel is in the ground or properly decanted from this building. That is ridiculous and it actually I think is an embarrassing now for us as a nation.

00;34;37;27 - 00;35;00;08

We have this beautiful, iconic building. The mother of parliaments is that image on New Year's Eve when Big Ben bongs and it goes around the world, that's really significant. And if this was a catastrophic failure of this building, a fire that would be also go around the world, but would send very poor signals about the ability of UK PLC and the UK government to deal with this issue.

00;35;00;10 - 00;35;15;09

They make him out of the public accounts committee. And just time before we go, Ruth, just to have a quick look at some of the things that are coming up in Parliament in the coming week. And of course there's a lot of stuff to do with the Autumn Statement. Jeremy Hunt, as we mentioned, is in front of the Treasury Committee on Wednesday.

00;35;15;09 - 00;35;35;29

Thursday, we'll see that national Insurance Bill withdrawal its stages in the Commons in a single gulp pretty much. Yep. And we're also, of course, on the lookout for the possibility it's not been confirmed yet, but rumors that we will have the Rwanda treaty. The government's response in part to the Supreme Court decision last week. So you have to look out for that.

00;35;36;05 - 00;35;55;26

Definitely. And that's certainly politically radioactive for the government. If its own supporters aren't satisfied with whatever the measures, they come up with. An interesting techno measures coming up in the House of Lords, the autonomous vehicles Bill, the legal framework for self-drive cars is up in front of the Lords for its opening consideration, its second reading debate on Tuesday.

00;35;55;26 - 00;36;26;04

This is a bill starting in the House of Lords and will go to the Commons once peers have polished it up to a suitable sheen and watch watcher also for the report of one of those Special Lords Select committees that they like so much in the Upper House, looking at a very specific subject, Robert Rodgers loyal to this vein, the former Clerk of the Commons, is presiding over what I think of as the Terminator committee, a committee examining autonomous weapons systems and the legal and ethical implications of having basically computers deciding whether or not to shoot.

00;36;26;07 - 00;36;47;06

And that's a really knotty problem that they've consulted all kinds of experts over for months. And I think a very interesting report is going to land on a few desks next week. So we thought I think that's probably everything for this weekend. I'll see you next week. See you then. Well, that's all from us for this week's episode of Parliament Matters.

00;36;47;09 - 00;37;04;19

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00;37;04;22 - 00;37;27;25

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00;37;28;01 - 00;37;41;20

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00;37;41;23 - 00;37;52;18

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