The Prime Minister and the Palace of Westminster

In evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee this week Theresa May discussed the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster. Alexandra Meakin discusses the importance of government support for the R&R programme.

This week’s meeting of the Liaison Committee made the headlines for the questioning of the Prime Minister on preparations for no-deal Brexit. The session was also notable, however, for drawing out, for the first time, support from Theresa May for the planned rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster—the Restoration and Renewal programme. May’s comments offered reassurance on progress on Restoration and Renewal (R&R), but also emphasised the reliance of this parliamentary project on the support of the Government.

It is now almost six months since the House of Commons voted to move out of the Palace of Westminster to enable a major refurbishment of the building’s antiquated infrastructure, a decision endorsed by the House of Lords a week later. A decision was long-overdue, coming seventeen months after the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster had called for a full decant to enable the work to take place, warning that:

The Palace of Westminster, a masterpiece of Victorian and medieval architecture and engineering, faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore

Further progress on R&R was made this week with the announcement of the composition of the Shadow Sponsor Board, one half of the Olympic-style governance structure which will manage the work. The questioning at Liaison Committee, led by Finance Committee Chair, Chris Bryant (a former member of the Joint Committee), however, focused on the fact that the sponsor board has only been established in shadow form, in the absence of primary legislation. This has, Mr Bryant warned, left the board in a situation where it has members “but won’t have any powers”. The Prime Minister said that the Government’s intended to bring forward a draft Bill “this year”, and, for the first time, confirmed her support for the programme, recounting a personal and unpleasant-sounding experience of the failing sewage system in the Palace:

I recognise, though, the importance of the Bill. I recognise the importance of dealing with the state of the building. Indeed, when I was Home Secretary, my outer office was flooded and it wasn’t just water.

This support had not previously been obvious. The Prime Minister had missed the free vote on R&R in January, flying out to China on the same day, and press reports had suggested that she had sought to delay major work, citing potential concerns about the public reaction to the high cost. Indeed, it was said to be on Mrs May’s insistence that the motions tabled for the Commons debate had included an option to put off a decision on R&R until the next parliament. An editorial in The Times criticised this apparent indecision:

[…] instead of acting, the prime minister is prevaricating at considerable long-term expense to the taxpayer, apparently fearful of how voters will react if politicians are seen to spend money on themselves. She should overcome her anxiety.

In interviews I am undertaking for my PhD on the Restoration and Renewal programme, MPs have reported their belief that the Prime Minister had been responsible for delaying or blocking action on R&R. One MP told me:

I think she’s been the sticking point personally. Somehow or other she thinks it is wrong to spend money on the Palace of Westminster, or she thinks the public won’t like it, or… I don’t know what. But endless delays…

That the future of the Palace of Westminster, the home of the UK Parliament for centuries, can be placed at risk due to such political concerns reflects the intrinsic political nature of the building. But is also demonstrates the role of the Government in the R&R programme. Officially, as David Cameron told the Commons in 2015:

As for the future of this House of Commons and where we stand and where we debate, that is a matter for the House of Commons

In practice, however, the executive’s control of almost all substantive time on the floor of the House meant that the Commons were unable to make a decision on R&R without the Government’s facilitation. Mr Cameron’s next words “but I have to say that I have a slight emotional attachment to this place” were perceived as a message that he was unlikely to press the Commons to commit billions of pounds, during a period of austerity, on a policy he didn’t support. The somewhat busy political climate of the last three years—two general elections, Brexit and a change of Prime Minister—has also limited the attention the Government can commit to a policy and programme on which they felt no ownership. The delay on discussing the Joint Committee report was described by Committee Member Mark Tami as a period as one in which “the Government have ducked, dived and dodged, and done everything but bring this issue to the House”.

Once the debate was finally scheduled, the Government also sought also to control the terms of the debate. Two motions were tabled in the name of the Leader of the House: one reflecting the PM’s alleged preference for a further delay; and the other in support of the Restoration and Renewal programme but falling short of the full decant proposed by the Joint Committee. The Commons approval of such a decant occurred only due to the surprise success of an amendment tabled by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and supported by over a dozen other select committee chairs. Several Cabinet ministers, including the Chief Whip, Julian Smith, voted against decant, which was won by only 16 votes.

As Chris Bryant’s questioning demonstrated, however, primary legislation is required to implement the Commons and Lords approval of R&R and full decant. In the Lords debate in February, the former Clerk of the Commons, Lord Lisvane warned:

The initiation of this legislation will be in the hands of the Government, and I can already hear the well-worn phrases about the crowded legislative timetable and competing pressures. Those pressures will have to be resisted.

This warning looked somewhat similar to the Prime Minister’s response at Liaison Committee:

We are going to support bringing forward legislation. We intend to publish a draft Bill this year, but as Members will know, we have a very busy legislative programme.

On further questioning from Mr Bryant, and Sir Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Mrs May indicated that the publication of the Bill in draft form was not a delaying tactic, but a way of maximum input and scrutiny from both Houses. She added that the Government will be bringing forward the legislation “on behalf of both Houses and on behalf of Parliament”: again emphasising that this is a Commons project, rather than a Government one. The need for the Government to introduce legislation on behalf of the House is not particularly unusual: changes to the House of Commons Commission in 2015, and the enabling legislation for joint parliamentary departments in 2007, for example, have followed this course. Neither of these Bills, however, were accompanied by an estimated cost of £3.5 billion.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to bring forward legislation, even in draft, at Liaison Committee is promising for the future of the Palace. Furthermore, the Leaders of both the Commons and the Lords, Andrea Leadsom and Baroness Evans, have also been vocal in their commitment to deliver R&R. The establishment of the governance arrangements, even in shadow form, should also make the project less susceptible to wavering political support or ministerial turnover. But the Restoration and Renewal programme will have to come back to the Commons and Lords for approval, at a timing of the Government’s choosing, and with a final price-tag attached.  The continued support of the Prime Minister—or her successor—will be critical.

Notes

Alexandra Meakin is a Research Associate at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, at the University of Sheffield. Her doctoral research is examining the governance of the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster. Follow her on Twitter: @A_Meakin

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