Today Westminster faces a choice about its future. At first this choice may seem to be the most tedious, naval gazing of decisions for a political class that are all too often accused of being inward looking and insular. However, I think that there will be something revealing in whatever decision we make today.
The refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster affects not just 650 MPs but over 5000 other staff and the near-million tourists and visitors we receive each year. It also affects the country as a whole, who see Parliament as a foundation stone of our democracy.
The vote today asks a fundamental question of MPs. Will we put off until tomorrow vital choices because we don't want to face them today? If we do delay on a decision so central to our own working lives, how can our constituents trust us to make the tough choices that the country needs to be made, on infrastructure, the health service or Brexit?
In essence, we are faced with three choices. To move out of the House of Commons for a few years, the quickest and cheapest option. Alternatively we could keep Parliament operating while the rebuild happens. This would be expected to take until at least 2050 and possibly 2060, while also costing substantially more.
The final option is a kind of halfway house. First of all the House of Commons moves out, work is done on that end of the building and then when they move back, the House of Lords moves out; this is the worst of all worlds.
The alternative to these options, burying our heads in the sand and hoping things get better, is no choice at all.
The correct decision is clear, we should move out entirely and let the restoration work take place as quickly and cheaply as possible. We are already talking about astronomical sums, but the taxpayer will not appreciate even higher costs as a consequence of our indecision. Even this best of options will mean we don’t move out until the 2020s, but it will see the process completed much faster and much more cost effectively.
Anyone who works in Parliament will have horror stories, from falling masonry to leaking lavatories. Beyond these horror stories however, are even more worrying warnings. Most in need of renewal are the electrical systems that run across Parliament. These were installed decades ago and most were expected to be replaced in the 1970s or 80s and the risk of fire is ever-present. Indeed the only reason Parliament remains open is because of 24/7 fire marshals on patrol. Asbestos is present in huge quantities in the corridor walls and under the floors – indeed safely dealing with this asbestos is a large part of the enormous costs.
The most worrying phrase of all is that there is a risk of “catastrophic failure in this Parliament”. This is a risk we expose not only ourselves to, but the staff of our offices and the House who deserve a safe and modern workplace. The fact that there are offices with no fire exits or that lack disabled access is intolerable, and we owe it to our staff to rectify this.
I am pleased that there is a large group of MPs from all parties who are ready to step up and make the right choice, however uncomfortable it will be. Amendment B seeks to move us all out of Parliament as quickly as possible, let the renovations take place and then move us back.
To me, this is the obvious answer. Hopefully today will be the first step to making Parliament fit for the future, as well as preserving this beautiful World Heritage Site, rather than leaving those who follow us to pick up an ever increasing bill.
We also owe it to future generations to take this decision now. It is not acceptable to simply put this issue in the ‘too difficult box’ and hope that the next generation of Parliamentarians will make the tough choice instead.