There are a few experiences you expect to have when you become an MP. Taking the government to task over the ways they’re failing your constituents is an everyday occurrence, speaking in the House of Commons chamber on important local and national issues is now fairly frequent; but standing with a hard hat on in the basement of the palace with Westminster looking at the huge Victorian pipes that dispose of Parliament’s sewage was a bit of a new one.
So why was I there? Well, very soon MPs and peers will be debating and voting on the plans for the refurbishment and repairs to Parliament. It is a massive undertaking, and having been a tour underneath the Parliamentary Estate I now know why.
There are bundles and bundles of wiring like liquorish laces hundreds of feet long pinned to the low ceilings from one end of the Palace to the other. They are not in isolation. They are combined with electric cables and more recent broadband cabling. All of which sit alongside gas pipes with minimal if any insulation – much of the insulation and protections have been eroded because of damp, corrosion or general works damage over time. The thought of a spark from a slightly damaged electric cable deep within those bundles next to a corroded gas pipe doesn’t bear thinking about.
On the tour, my very knowledgeable guides, including a surveyor who is project managing the current upgrades showed us some of the working conditions for the multitude of workmen that are under our feet while we go about our daily business. For a start anyone over five and half feet tall is going to struggle to walk with ease in the underground passages. But where they are trying to mend, replace or upgrade our heating systems the complications of ‘best-fit’ solutions to complex engineering problems means that not only do they have to be a mechanic or engineer or sparky they also have to be a contortionist of the bendiest order. And preferably cold blooded because it is like a sauna in some sections.
It is a complicated and time consuming amount of work that needs to be done and all in line with English Heritage guidelines. Not only are there concerns about the precious documents stored in Victoria Tower which (in the absence of a museum-type facility) are being put at risk of damage by water and the general atmosphere in the stores but the building infrastructure is struggling to cope with what modern Parliamentarians are asking of it. MPs, our staff and Parliamentary Estate staff more widely need facilities that meet modern regulations and capabilities. It isn’t on for us to be skirting the health and safety standards that were voted into law in this very building.
One riser, that assists with temperature control, air flow and takes various wiring between levels, has been upgraded (the asbestos made safe and fixed to working order). It has taken five years to complete. All while the House is not sitting. When we go home, be that 10pm or 2am this essential work behind the scenes goes on. Did I mention that there are another 99 risers that all need the same modernising work to be done? You work out how many years that will take if the work has to continue around our sitting commitments.
All of the options under consideration mean upheaval and changes to the way we work – but the period of time that we will be displaced will vary. It can either be for as short as five years or as long as thirty-two. And when the debate about the move from the Palace comes to the floor of the House I will be strongly tempted to leap from my seat and proclaim that the very best place for the Parliament to be temporarily located to is of the course the generous, hospitable and glorious surroundings of Great Grimsby. But I won’t. I won’t because I do not want to be the one who adds enormous expense and logistical nightmares of shifting the Portcullis/Norman Shaw/Parliament Street offices, equipment and hundreds if not thousands of not just political staff but post office, catering, security and front of house staff 200+ miles away.
650 MPs all standing up and extolling the virtues of their own beautiful, well-appointed constituencies being suitable spaces for a modern, albeit temporary Parliament would do MPs reputations as naval-gazers no good. It would waste time when there are the more pertinent issues that could be raised: will there will be an appointment of a body to oversee these works? Can the deadlines can be met? And can the severity of reductions in income of the estate if no visitors have access for years be mitigated?
We should therefore fully expect the proposals from the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster (the group of cross party MPs and Peers who will make a formal recommendation to both the Lords and the Commons sometime after March) to offer London-based solutions that meet the budgetary considerations that the public would expect as well, as meeting the needs of Parliamentarians and the procedures that govern our work.
I came to Parliament with a whole host of things I wanted to achieve and issues I wanted to engage with. What to do with Parliament wasn’t one. But this is one of our country’s most recognisable icons that we cannot just let crumble into the Thames. It’s an issue that does merit some thought, because whatever we choose will be a significant cost and we’ll have to live with the decision for generations, so we need to make sure we get it right.
So one final quiet word of warning; if you do take the tour of our subterranean vaults, avoid the Victorian sewage tank. I don’t care if it’s been there 150 years, someone whacking the side of it with a spanner is enough to make anyone nervous of an unexpected explosion.