We may abandon Parliament – Bercow

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Published: Monday 2nd March 2015 by The News Editor

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The Palace of Westminster may have to be abandoned within 20 years unless an extensive programme of repairs and modernisation is agreed, John Bercow has warned.

The Commons Speaker said a “not inconsequential sum of public money” was needed to keep the Houses of Parliament “fit for purpose”.

Mr Bercow stressed the need for investment in the historic building over the next decade and said it would be a “huge pity” to have to leave it.

Speaking in Westminster he said: “This is a fabulous institution located in awesome surroundings. It must not have the ethos of a museum.

“It will require bold and imaginative managerial leadership to ensure that we are a Parliament fit for purpose and that this Victorian legacy can be rendered practical for contemporary representation.”

Referring to the blaze that burned down the old palace of Westminster in 1834, Mr Bercow said: ” It would be a huge pity if we decided that by the time we had reached the 200th anniversary of the vast fire which consumed the old parliament and brought this one in to being, we had to abandon this site and look elsewhere in order to serve the public interest properly.

“Yet I will tell you in all candour that unless management of the very highest quality and a not inconsequential sum of public money are deployed on this estate over the next 10 years, that will be the outcome.”

The cost of repairing the Houses of Parliament could top £3 billion, an examination of options for renovating the historic building has suggested.

Dr Richard Ware said last year that it was ”not unreasonable” to think the bill could top £2 billion, but BBC2’s Newsnight programme claimed that the ”working assumption” of insiders was that it could be a billion more.

The Speaker also addressed the “agony” of the controversial process to recruit a new clerk for the House of Commons, insisting he had always believed that splitting the role in two was the right way to proceed.

Mr Bercow led an appointment panel in an external search to replace Sir Robert Rogers, who retired early as clerk last summer after a 40-year Commons career.

The proposed appointment of Australian official Carol Mills was abandoned by Mr Bercow after protests from MPs that she was not able to do the job because she had no knowledge of Commons procedure.

A committee led by former cabinet minister Jack Straw recommended splitting the role, with a director general responsible for administration and the clerk left to manage the constitutional and parliamentary elements.

Mr Bercow said: ” On taking extensive evidence, they could see that the management of the House was simply not fit for purpose and they set out constructive proposals to equip us for the modern world.

“I am absolutely ecstatic that they reached the conclusions that they did, that they managed to obtain unanimity for their recommendations and that their findings were then accepted by colleagues without dissent in the debate in December and the legislation that came before the House last week.

“My one regret about all this is that it was not possible to find the consensus required to commission the Straw Committee a year earlier, because if we had it would have saved us the utter agony of a doomed first attempt.

“Finding a human being who was a parliamentary expert of the highest repute and a chief executive of stellar managerial form proved predictably impossible.

“Now that the role has rightly been separated – I argued all along that the clerk should not also be the chief executive and this has now been agreed by the House – I am confident that we will be able to find a clerk of the House whose constitutional qualifications would make Erskine May proud and a director general who can take on, full-time, the management of the Commons.”

The Speaker also set out his plans for greater public involvement in the work of the Commons.

He said: ” Democracy needs not only to be done but to be seen to be done to enjoy the weight it deserves. Reconnecting Parliament and the public is thus not some sort of public relations exercise but absolutely central to its status.”

Mr Bercow said he was “intrigued” by the recommendation of the Digital Democracy Commission for online public “e-discussions” before debates in Westminster Hall, the Commons’ second chamber.

The Speaker also repeated his criticism of the way Prime Minister’s Questions was conducted, and called for the party leaders to improve the tone of the exchanges.

He said: “PMQs are what the public see and hear of Parliament more than anything else.

“My submission, supported anecdotally wherever I go around the country and by some polling evidence, is that the public disapprove of the decibel level and orchestrated barracking.

“Put simply, if the party leaders want conduct on a Wednesday lunchtime to improve, it will. Post-election there will be an opportunity to achieve change that the public would welcome.”

Published: Monday 2nd March 2015 by The News Editor

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