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Sat, 15 June 2024

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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Parliamentary Staff Could Face “Corporate Manslaughter Charges” If Crumbling Palace of Westminster Claims A Life

A decision on how to fix the crumbling Palace of Westminster has repeatedly been delayed (Alamy)

4 min read

As MPs continue to delay plans to renovate the crumbling Palace of Westminster a leading Parliamentary expert says staff would be the ones to face “charges of corporate manslaughter” if someone dies before it is fixed.

The so-called “restoration and renewal” programme has been stalled since the project was taken back in-house by Parliamentarians last year, who were unhappy with the proposed costs and time-frame.

But Sir John Benger, Clerk of the House, admitted to the Public Accounts Committee in February that if a decision continues to be deferred “eventually there will be catastrophic and irreversible damage” to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There have been fires as well as falling masonry and asbestos incidents in recent years, and despite officials claiming it is a safe working environment there are fears staff or a visitor could die unless Parliament is shuttered to allow urgent repairs to begin.

In 2018 both MPs and peers agreed to plans known as a “full decant”, with everyone leaving the palace and the Commons moving to Richmond House, the department for health and social care’s former offices on Whitehall, while the Lords would be based in the QE2 conference centre on the other side of Parliament Square.

An external sponsor body was set up to begin the work, but last year MPs decided to abolish it in favour of creating the new Restoration and Renewal Programme, bringing it back under the auspices of the Commissions of both Houses.

Dr Ruth Fox, director of the respected research group The Hansard Society that has brought governance for the project back in-house, told told PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that MPs now have still “got power without responsibility”.

“Because if the place does burn down, or somebody is killed by falling masonry, it's not the MPs who are going to be up in court on charges of corporate manslaughter, it's going to be the Clerks of both Houses," she said. 

“They're the corporate officers, and I think they're incredibly courageous - if I can use that phrase - to accept this burden of responsibility when ultimately, it's the MPs who are running the direction of this.”

House of Commons Clerk Benger, and Simon Burton, Clerk of the House of Lords, confirmed to the Public Accounts Committee that they were both legally responsible if something was to happen to anyone, and “could be taken through the courts for corporate manslaughter”.

Speaking to MPs Benger said as things stand “we do not have robust systems to prevent fire from occurring and spreading”, adding that: “I think fire is our foremost risk. It is our biggest risk, first of all because of the scale of damage that fire can inflict, and the threat to life.”

He said “ultimately, this building will fail”, but as things stand there is no timeframe for when the full restoration plans will take place, after another review into potential options for the work was set up.

Also appearing on The Rundown was the Labour MP Mark Tami, who was a spokesperson for the now-abolished Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, and said eventually a decision needs to be taken.

“At some point, and hopefully sooner rather than later, we we do have to face Parliament up with a fairly stark choice I would say, about what road we're going to go down, and the cost and time and safety implications of choosing one option, as opposed to another one,” he said. 

“But if we're still going to be in this loop of ‘well, we want it to cost a lot less, and we want it to be done in quarter of an hour, and we can all stay in’, then I don't think that magic wand exists.”

Dr Fox said she fears MPs will simply let the current status quo, where there is a “rolling schedule of works” taking place while Parliament stays open, and could take decades to take place, rather than opting for a full programme of renovations.

Adding that while lots has been achieved in recent years to reduce the risk to the safety of the building it is “still very high”.  Dr Fox added: “And obviously the longer this goes on, and the work isn't done, the greater the risk will be.”

A UK Parliament spokesperson told PoliticsHome: “We are getting on with work across the Parliamentary estate to ensure the safety of those who work and visit here, and to support the continued business of Parliament. This includes planning for the large and complex restoration of the Palace of Westminster to preserve it for future generations.

“Last year Members of both Houses agreed a more integrated approach to future restoration, prioritising safety critical work. The Restoration and Renewal Programme Board is shortlisting options for how to take forward the work and Members in both Houses are expected to vote on a way forward later this year.”

 

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