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Fri, 29 May 2020

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Could a Virtual Parliament help revive the Restoration and Renewal?

Could a Virtual Parliament help revive the Restoration and Renewal?
9 min read

R&R has been beset by delays and concerns over costs, with some MPs believing the project is now dead in the water. But could virtual working help to revive the project and save the taxpayer money?

While watching the opening salvos of the Hybrid Parliament last week, a thought struck my mind: could some of the new measures be used during the Restoration and Renewal project?

I called a member of the joint Commons and Lords committee formed to consider the options for R&R. "It's not being talked about yet," they told me. “But I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility.”

That is not to advocate a situation in which all MPs work from their constituencies until they can move back into the Palace of Westminster. Many politicians speak passionately of the need to collar ministers in division lobbies and the tearooms to better serve their constituents. 

But with mounting costs, and Parliament showing an adaptability hitherto unexpected, could a blend of the current setup work?

To enter into the debate around R&R is to undertake a political pilgrimage. Thoughts are as strongly held as some of the many contentious issues in modern day British politics.

In broad terms, MPs fit into two categories; those who argue work should continue around them while they remain based in Parliament, and those who believe the risks of maintaining the status quo are too high, and advocate leaving the building on a temporary basis.

The former group fear that a departure from the historic location would be permanent, despite assurances to the contrary, and believe safety concerns are overplayed. The latter are worried that Westminster is just a loose piece of masonry away from disaster.

In 2018, MPs voted to temporarily move out of the Palace of Westminster while essential building work - expected to start in the mid-2020s - takes place.

The current plans, recommended by the joint committee, would see a temporary chamber erected in Richmond House, the former home of the Department of Health, with replica division lobbies of those used in the Commons. A series of planning applications for Parliament’s Northern Estate - the group of buildings including Richmond House along Parliament Street and Whitehall - have been submitted to Westminster City Council for determination.

But the proposals have come up against resistance. Conservation group SAVE is one of those to oppose the measures, which would see much of Richmond House, a Grade II listed building, demolished.

One member of the joint committee says moving to a Virtual or Hybrid Parliament could “get round the problem of a potential judicial review”, as having fewer MPs present could allow for a smaller chamber to be set up in the courtyard of Richmond House, as originally considered. This, in turn, could also save the taxpayer money.

Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who also sat on the joint committee, says: “You still need to vacate the Palace, so you’ve still got to put people somewhere. Even if you’re only going to have thirty people in the Chamber, you’ve still got to have thirty people somewhere.”

But he adds: “Now there may be things, for instance, where if people are prepared to countenance the idea of some electronic voting, then that would make it easier to fit the Chamber and more offices into Richmond House, because you wouldn’t need division lobbies in exactly the same way.

“There are things we could learn from this, but that’s only if some of the more impish members of the House are prepared to accept innovation. Thus far, they have proved themselves remarkably reluctant to do so."

Bryant points out, however, that the majority of the associated costs with R&R are not related to the decant element of the project. “75% of the cost of Restoration & Renewal is the electrical and mechanical engineering of the building. So, you might be able to shave off bits and pieces here and there, but really you’re talking about short change rather than about the main [cost],” he says.

“My bigger anxiety is the commission has effectively slowed it down for another year now. So, yet another year will pass, another year in which the risk rises every year of a catastrophic failure.”

Political prevarication has meant R&R has been beset by delays. A running theme throughout the discussion has centred on money, with the plans estimated to cost £4bn (some fear the final bill could be considerably higher).

The Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body, which took responsibility for the project on 8 April this year, will oversee a delivery authority - due to be established in the coming weeks - which is responsible for procuring contractors and executing the work. The National Audit Office last week warned the sponsor board to take a firm grip on the process so that finances do not continue to slip.

The whole idea of decant and the R&R as previously proposed is far more likely to go out of the window

Given the coronavirus crisis, some MPs believe the project will have to be rethought. One Conservative backbencher wonders how spending billions of pounds could be justified at a time when the Government has had to shell out enormous quantities of cash to support the economy.

“The whole idea of decant and the R&R as previously proposed is far more likely to go out of the window,” says a Conservative MP.

Dr Alexandra Meakin, a research associate at the Crick Centre who wrote a PHD on R&R, agrees. “It seems extremely unlikely that Parliament will go ahead with the R&R plans as they are currently formulated,” she says. “The project was based around the idea of a perfect replica of the Commons chamber and division lobbies in the decant accommodation - the hybrid Commons programme shows that you can do things differently.”

Meakin adds: “The other danger to the project is the cost. MPs were already concerned about the pricetag for R&R and as we head into a very difficult economic climate, I’d say it’s more likely than not that R&R will be significantly downgraded or cancelled". 

Many MPs fear the prospect of further delay or even cancellation. “We’ve been very fortunate up until now that when a large lump of masonry falls off the building, it hits a car or it’s over the weekend when nobody is there. If that happens and it hits somebody and it kills them, we have known the state of this building for so long. We can’t just carry on as we are," says an MP involved with the R&R process.

Others, however, are content for the repair work to take place concurrently. “The sensible thing is to do it in stages,” one Tory MP says. Opponents of staying in the building argue that doing so would lead to a larger bill for the taxpayer overall.

Under these circumstances, measures in a Hybrid Parliament could still be implemented. MPs could, for instance, consider an option whereby they work virtually when essential repairs preclude them from sitting in the Commons. “While the Chamber is in any use at all, you can’t really do the work that’s necessary, which is the eternal problem. If they went completely virtual, you’ve got a bit more of a chance to do that,” says Dr Meakin. Some Conservative MPs favour the idea of taking over the House of Lords Chamber, with their Lordships moving to a nearby Westminster building, such as the Queen Elizabeth II centre off Parliament Square.

On using a Hybrid Parliament during R&R, a member of the sponsor board says it would be up to MPs to change the requirements of the project. “If we stick to the criteria that we were given, we just have to plough ahead. If that changes, then you’re in a different ball game,” they say.

Sources in the Commons relay a similar message, namely that if MPs wanted to look at remote working and voting as part of the decant process, it is up to them to make the plans a reality. Equally, if they wanted to make the measures part of the restorative work - eg, in designing what a future Commons Chamber looks like - that is also within their gift. But sources note that where R&R is concerned, agreement is hard to come by.

Political will is also a prerequisite. MPs and other sources say that Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons Leader, is skeptical of the R&R project, as are other ministers in the Government. 

As currently constituted, the measures in the Hybrid Parliament are temporary. But there is a consensus emerging that, in some instances, remote working and voting could be a necessary feature of parliamentary life. One formally sceptical Tory MP says: “If anybody was looking for ways in which aspects of the remote sitting might remain for longer or indeed become permanent, it’s far more likely to be in relation to people who are unwell and physically unable to attend.”

Dr Meakin says: “One of the issues with R&R has been just treating it as a refurbishment project, bricks and mortar, rather than thinking ‘we can do things differently’. This crisis is making things be done differently; but it’s being done out of necessity rather than thinking what could actually work better.” She adds: “The political will is always the problem.”

There has clearly been a mood change very quickly in the House among colleagues about the possibility of remote working and voting

Parliament has shown that it can continue to function without all MPs being present. Remote working over Zoom has been effective, as have the virtual select committee evidence sessions that began before the Easter recess. While there are some concerns over plans to introduce remote voting, with one MP branding last week’s trial run “completely catastrophic”, Parliament has moved further and faster than many can recall.

“There has clearly been a mood change very quickly in the House among colleagues about the possibility of remote working and voting,” says a member of the joint committee into R&R.

They add: “Businesses, workplaces are realising that remote working does work and the flexibility that it affords employees and employers as well is something that needs to be harnessed longer term.

“So, it is possible now that it could be something that could be discussed around Restoration & Renewal, whether that is to replace the temporary chamber, I’m not sure, but I would like to think it is something that might be open for discussion.”

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