Union chief: MPs should get on with fixing ‘death trap’ parliament
Politicians must get on with the repairs to parliament if they don’t want to be the last cohort of MPs ever to sit on those green benches, writes Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham
The sight of the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral wreathed in flame is one that will stay with those who saw it for the rest of their lives. This was more than just a fire, because buildings like Notre Dame are more than just buildings, they embody something about the essence of a country. Losing them to something as senseless as an accidental fire is nothing less than a tragedy. Thankfully the damage to Notre Dame appears to not be as devastating as initially feared, but even so the cost of repair will run into the billions.
The knowledge of how close the world came to losing one of its great historic buildings should serve to concentrate minds around the world. Here in the UK thoughts naturally turned to our own iconic structure, the Palace of Westminster, a building synonymous with British politics, but one that could be doomed by the short-sightedness of the politicians who work there.
It has been clear for years the Palace is in dire need of restoration but this week the government missed another opportunity to bring forward the legislation to make it happen. The case for urgent action is clear for all to see. The wiring of the Victorian structure is a clear health and safety hazard with dozens of small fires breaking out each year, the roof is falling apart, damp infests its corridors.
A few weeks ago, the press gallery was flooded by water leaking from the ceiling, forcing the suspension of a Commons debate. More seriously, chunks of masonry regularly drop off the building, imperilling those working below. The chamber in which our health and safety laws are made is increasingly unlikely to pass a basic inspection. This may provide wonderful metaphors for those writing about the broken state of our politics, but it represents a real fear for those who work in the Palace.
If this was a school, a hospital, or a care home MPs would rightly be demanding an inquiry into how it was allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair. But in this case, MPs have nowhere to point the finger of blame but at themselves. It is parliament that has dithered and delayed over the Restoration and Renewal Bill, mired in arguments about costs and the length of the ‘decant’ where MPs will have to vacate the building. The cost of the programme of repairs is obviously a concern, but the irony is that every delay only serves to increase the price tag.
We must also be honest that cost is not the only issue. It is unsurprising that a building dedicated to politics would have its fate determined by politics, and so it has proven. Sadly, there still remains a hard core of committed dinosaurs, determined to obstruct progress so that they can enjoy a few more years on the green benches. These relics have mounted a dogged rear-guard action against progress for years and it is time for the sensible majority to see them off. Not only will this play out through votes on the Bill itself, but also in the forthcoming election for Speaker where there is already one candidate campaigning explicitly on the issue of keeping MPs in the crumbling building for as long as possible.
My plea to MPs then is this: think of the people working alongside you every day. The clerks, the security guards, the tour guides and your own staff. They don’t get a say in this, but they are the ones who will have to work in this death-trap alongside you if you keep bottling this decision.
As a trade union, Prospect represents people who work in shipyards, airports and nuclear power stations. It is a disgrace that the Palace of Westminster is up there with the most dangerous places our members work. So, get on with the repairs if you don’t want to be the last cohort of MPs ever to sit on those green benches.
Politics may be in a pretty bad state at the moment, but MPs at least have a chance to show that they can save their own building – not simply selfishly for themselves but for future generations. They should regard themselves as custodians with a duty to protect for the future not simply sitting tenants. If they can’t even do that, then God help us all.
Garry Graham is the deputy general secretary of Prospect
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.