‘Another Grenfell Tower.’ Departing Black Rod warns Parliament at risk of 'major fire'

Posted On: 
21st December 2017

After nearly seven years as Black Rod, David Leakey left the post this week. In his first interview since standing down, Leakey speaks out over his fears of a “major” disaster at the Palace of Westminster – and urges MPs and peers to “find the courage” to back plans for its restoration 

Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is being spent "patching up all over the Palace of Westminster in a completely uneconomic way", Leakey says

One of Parliament's most recognisable figures, Black Rod, has spent seven years banging on doors and having them slammed in his face. Not any more. David Leakey stood down from his high-profile job on Thursday and, in his first interview since retiring, the former army general has spoken out   issuing an apocalyptic warning that the risks of a major disaster at the crumbling, dilapidated Palace of Westminster are growing as MPs and peers dither over how and when to repair it. He fears a catastrophe that could be a major fire on the scale of the Grenfell Tower tragedy – with possible loss of life, and warns that the Palace of Westminster could even burn down, as happened in the 19th century.

General Leakey also lambasts what he calls the “ego and sense of entitlement” of some of the more “demanding and undeserving” peers he had to serve, weighs into the debate about Lords expenses, and is uneasy at the decision to downgrade the job of Black Rod for his successor.

‘There could be a major fire’

David Leakey despairs at the lack of political willpower in some quarters to act on recommendations that urgent repairs to the decaying Palace of Westminster should not be put off any longer. After repeatedly postponing a debate, MPs and Peers are finally due to discuss Parliament’s Restoration and Renewal project and what to do next in the New Year. But the chances of adopting the option recommended by the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster – moving everyone out for five to six years while the Palace is renovated and made safe – seem increasingly remote. The price tag, estimated at £3.5bn in 2015, could virtually double if MPs and peers insist on staying in the building while the work is done, and it could then take up to 40 years to complete.

“This is a national, global, iconic building,” Leakey says. “It has got to be either knocked down and rebuilt or it has to be preserved because it is so iconic, and that is the decision that has been taken – the right one, I think. Speaking as a taxpayer, on that assumption, there is only one option, and that is doing it quickly and in the most economical way and that should be the end of the matter.” 

He adds: “The politicians have a more difficult problem. They will see it from the perspective of what is described as ‘the Grenfell dynamic’. ‘If we couldn't spend a few million on the cladding of a residential tower block, why should we be spending billions – and it will be billions – on refurbishing the parliament of this country?’ This seems an unequal and disproportionate use of taxpayers' money, and I really understand that Grenfell perspective and the dilemma in which the politicians find themselves too.

“So here is the decision that politicians have got to take. They have got to find the courage to take a decision, the right decision, and stand by it, and justify it, and that will take some courage. Everybody probably has a finite pool of courage and you can exhaust your courage. I understand, therefore, that with so many tough current political issues on their plates, politicians need to pick carefully in which priorities to invest their courage.”

Black Rod’s ceremonial function – hammering on the door of the Commons to summon MPs to hear the Queen’s Speech – is known by millions of TV viewers, but Leakey has described the ancient post’s key role as  “squirting oil into the machinery of the Houses of Parliament” – and that includes helping to keep the buildings safe to use.

So how far does he go along with the claims of experts employed to assess the fabric of the crumbling 19th century Palace of Westminster that it is a major fire and safety risk?  “I know what the risks are here. Knowing in detail that the expert recommendation is that you should do this quickly and now, not slowly over time in phases, I know that is necessary in order to prevent another Grenfell Tower happening here. And that’s the point. If we don’t learn the Grenfell lesson, this building could burn down, just like it did in 1834 when there was a decade of delay and procrastination about how or when to refurbish the building. We will again be accused of sitting on our hands.

“There could be a major fire, there could be loss of life. The state of the fabric of this building is a Red Risk -- the highest risk you can have in your risk register in terms of the likelihood of something happening, and of the impact of the consequences.”

And he offers another possible catastrophic scenario that could befall the Palace of Westminster in its current state of decay: “What an embarrassment and a disgrace it would be to our nation if our Parliament suddenly disintegrated in a puff of asbestos because the steam pipes burst in the cavities around this building and the electricity and the IT infrastructure went with them.”

Leakey also argues that, because the state of the fabric of the buildings in the Palace of Westminster is a Red Risk, the steps required to manage and mitigate that risk are both expensive and politically fraught. He concedes that if Westminster was any other kind of building – offices, a factory or accommodation – it would be closed down as a health and fire risk, if it weren’t for the uneconomic and expensive interim refurbishment going on all the time to keep the place “just safe enough”.

“One of my responsibilities for the last five years has been overseeing for both Houses our business resilience, emergency response, incident management and disaster recovery. In that time, the risk has gone from quite Red to very Red, so the mitigations we have put in place – for example, contingency plans for the relocation of Parliament to other buildings – have been a major priority. We have invested significantly more staff effort and more money. Parliament has had to take this risk very seriously and the longer we don't have the Restoration and Renewal programme being implemented, the redder that risk becomes and the more we will have to invest on contingency planning in case we are forced to relocate Parliament – at no notice.

“It isn’t just that we are having to spend on contingency planning for a forced relocation of Parliament in a hurry –  as we have done in the major exercise carried out this week to build an entire alternative chamber near Westminster, complete with all the necessary ancillary services – we are also spending, every year, millions of pounds on updating the fire safety improvements in the Palace.

“We are doing this, knowing that in a few years all that wiring is probably going to be ripped out and replaced. We are patching up and pasting up all over the House in a completely uneconomic way. No commercial enterprise would dream of doing it this way.

“It is a very big decision to spend any money on the R & R of both Houses, never mind a short upfront burst of billions of pounds. But, in the meantime, millions of pounds are being wasted every year on work that is just palliative, for a problem that is going to have to be solved and paid for further down the line.”

Despite the proposed Commons and Lords debates on the repairs project in January, Leakey fears that nothing might happen to speed up the renewal work unless there is a disaster.  “We could easily find ourselves muddling on for as long as there are viscerally vocal, minority, destabilising factions. It applies whether the subject is Brexit, or R & R, or in other controversial policy areas. If you can't guarantee to secure a consensus, there is a risk in putting any issue on the floor of the House. That is our politics at the moment – a parliament, a politics, that is divided in a multi-factional way.

“And there will be a crisis in the Palace of Westminster; it could be as very nearly happened just a few years ago when there was an asbestos scare in the House of Commons chamber.  In the end, it turned out to be carpet fibres in the air, but if that had been asbestos, the decision on R & R would have been taken in a fortnight. Not wishing to tempt fate, but if the metaphoric Guy Fawkes got underneath the building in some way and created some disaster, the decision would be taken out of everybody's hands... it would be a matter of pragmatic necessity.”

So if the parliamentary buildings at Westminster really are so dilapidated and dangerous, the risk of a potentially-fatal fire starting so high, why aren’t there the kind of regular fire drills and staff evacuations that most other major employers regularly have to carry out? Leakey says these have been practised routinely, during the quieter times of the parliamentary week, though never a mass evacuation when both Houses and the various committees are sitting.

That may be about to change, however. Plans for an entire evacuation drill involving all of the Commons and the Lords are, he says delphically, “under active consideration”. 

All 3,000-4,000 of the people who work in or visit the Palace of Westminster on a typical sitting day may find themselves ordered out at very short notice one day in the coming months, in an exercise the planners believe – perhaps optimistically – can be completed in little more than two hours from the alarm being raised to a full evacuation, to normal work resuming.       

Leakey acknowledges the practical difficulties: “The time to achieve such an evacuation will be dependent on how quickly you can motivate and energise people to get out. Some are elderly, slow-moving or just resistant. Most MPs and peers won’t be told when it’s going to happen, just the party leaders and the whips. And the members and staff won’t know that it’s a fire drill.”

So how amenable does he think the members will be to doing it? “Such a mass drill will be uncomfortable and of course people will say 'this is Parliament – are you screwing about with vital Brexit legislation for a fire drill? Can't you think of a better time to do it?'

“Well, we have always being doing these drills at 10 o' clock on a Monday morning when nobody is here, but the fire experts and the independent auditors are saying that wasn't good enough. If there's a real incident, like a Grenfell Tower, we need to do the drill when everyone is here, so that people have the culture and understand how to do it. So that is what has been proposed and that is what is likely to happen sometime in 2018.”

‘Needy and demanding’ Peers

When the new Black Rod starts work in February, it will mark a significant change in the post’s 650-year history. Sarah Clarke will be the first woman to hold the post, and the first for many years not to hail from a senior military background: she is currently Championship Director at the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon. 

So what can she look forward to? Leakey says he found much of the job great fun but there were times when it was extremely wearing and frustrating too. He says he enjoyed working with many interesting, good-natured peers but there were some large egos to deal with too.

“Most members are or have been eminent in their field and, at the same time, humblingly modest. But there are a minority who have a sense of privilege, a sense of entitlement and who are, maybe, not entirely meritorious. Some of these were among the most needy and the most demanding. And yet one has to be a servant of the House to all peers,” he says.

One incident early in his time in the post typified the problem… an extraordinary row about Black Rod’s efforts to tighten non-existent security around the peers’ car park on the West Front of the House of Lords, facing the busy road. “Almost the first thing I noticed here was that there is, quite rightly, around the Palace of Westminster and the Parliamentary Estate very tight, airport-style security. Vehicles coming onto the Estate have to be stopped and searched – as the public, the media, and taxpayers would expect – to prevent a repetition of the bomb that killed Airey Neave in 1979 or any similar kind of atrocity. And yet the one car park in the whole Palace of Westminster that was unguarded was the peers' car park right underneath the West Front of the Palace. It was one of the most vulnerable places in the whole of the UK, and cars could just drive into the car park with a wave from the policeman, without being searched.

“I suggested options to improve the security and the best one was approved unanimously by the relevant committee, yet half an hour after that meeting, I heard two peers on that committee telling people in a bar that this was going to be extremely ill-received by members as a breach of the trust and traditions of the House. That was really difficult and my position was undermined, frankly, by some peers. I nearly resigned because I felt that put me in a position where it wasn't worth going on with the job.

He continues: “Two years afterwards, the new security regime had settled in and one of the peers who had been one of the most vociferous critics of my security proposals came to see me on another matter. As he was about to leave, the peer – who had been a very senior minister as an MP and a very pugnacious personality – brought up the car park issue and said he was sorry he opposed me because I had been completely right. ‘Everybody now accepts you were right, and I admire you for having the balls to see it through’, he said. And it was that last comment that gave me the moral encouragement to just ride out the odd bit of criticism.

“Very often Black Rod is asked to police or implement things that are not necessarily very popular, and you come in for a bit of criticism and you have to be thick-skinned about it. It is not a popularity contest being Black Rod.”

'Downgrading' Black Rod

General Leakey thinks his successor will handle these things in her own way and he wishes her well.  “It is partly a matter of personality – that will count for a lot. Also, someone without any military baggage could find less prejudice from certain quarters and break new frontiers. I am sincerely optimistic.”

But he has mixed feelings at the changes being introduced to the pay, conditions and responsibilities of the post she will inherit. “The fact is they are downgrading the post, reducing the salary range of the job, they have removed the accommodation that was part of the remuneration package, and Black Rod has come off the management board. The role has been downgraded in terms of some tasks and functions but the responsibility, profile and visibility of Black Rod on state occasions won't change – what the public sees.

“The House is trying to come in line with the 21st century... with a task-orientated job description rather than the vocational commitment of the office holder, and that is perfectly normal. It is modern management style and is a good thing in some senses, seeking value for money, making sure of no sinecure jobs... Some people think Black Rod is a sinecure. Many ask what do you do the rest of the year when you are not banging on the door of the Commons?!

“The House has decided that the task and role and objectives and outcomes do not merit somebody of the grade and pay and remuneration package which I have had. If that is a wrong decision then I am partly to blame for perhaps not explaining what the job has been. Perhaps I overstate what I do and the value I bring to the House.  The proof will be in the eating of the pudding. I don't object to what the House of Lords is doing to the job. I think it is an experiment and if it works that is good and it is progress, and if it doesn't work, then maybe there will have to be a change of minds.”

Finally, having seen it from the inside for seven years, what is Leakey’s overall assessment of the House of Lords, and can it really last in its current form? He agrees with the public perception, reflected in the views of most peers who spoke in this week’s Lords debate on the size of the House, that it’s too large and unwieldy with more than 800 members, but still insists it offers “phenomenal value for money”.

He highlights one comment from this month’s debate on the report chaired by Lord Burns into the optimum number of peers: “I was struck by one speaker who played devil’s advocate, suggesting the total number of 800 peers is misleading, as fewer than 500 come to the House each day – which means that you have the 500 members on call for the job in hand from a pool of 800, at no additional cost.”  

As for the rumbling row over peers’ expenses – they can claim up to £300 a day – Leakey offers an interesting comparison: “The most a peer can earn – as an allowance, it’s not a salary – is around £40,000 a year if they are here every single sitting day. That is roughly half an MP's salary. Anywhere else in civilian life, even advisors and consultants brought in to advise the government in Whitehall or NHS trusts would charge fees that dwarf the sums that Lords receive.

“Yes, there may be the odd bad apple among peers, but the number of these who might be claiming expenses unreasonably is marginal… though, reputationally, of course, it is very damaging, and the House of Lords knows that.”

“Having worked here, I couldn't envisage the quality of what goes on in the House of Lords being replicated by a House that was elected. Knowing the personalities who sit here, who are the real contributors, nine tenths of them would never stand for election, so you would lose all that value from the House. Would it be replaced by people of the same quality who would be prepared to be elected? We could be at great risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

“The most depressing thing of my entire experience in parliament is the ignorance of MPs about the House of Lords. It fulfils excellently a function in holding the government to account, revising and scrutinising new laws that is simply not recognised, barely understood, in my view, by so many MPs,” he says with feeling.