HC Deb 04 August 1976 vol 916 cc2072-8

10.30 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I believe in terse speeches on Consolidated Fund Bills, and particularly so this morning as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan) and others have important matters to raise.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends know, there are a number of us who believe that the creation of an Assembly in Edinburgh is the creation of a political stadium for nationalism and the separation of Scotland and England into separate countries in the middle distance. On the Consolidated Fund, however, I confine myself to an altogether narrower issue. That is the cost of the setting up of an elected legislative assembly and the accommodation connected with it.

At a time when we are scrimping and scraping, when yesterday in this Chamber we heard of the agony of the local authorities, I should like to ask some direct questions.

First, are the contracts to contractors to be set up on a cost-plus or fixed price basis?

Are there to be penalties attached to a time schedule?

Secondly, what is the position about the surveyors' report? Is the Property Services Agency satisfied that the surveyors' reports that it has at present are in fact a sufficient basis for calculating a realistic cost?

May we have a breakdown of the figure of £2.6 million that was given in answer to a parliamentary Question yesterday by the Minister for Housing and Construction?

What calculations have been made in terms of the costs of engineering staff and quantity surveying staff, either public in the Government Service or private, involved in this project?

Are we quite sure that 150 Members of a Scottish Assembly, and their staff, can be accommodated in old St. Andrew's House, and what are the costs of the changes? In particular, what are the costs of the finding of accommodation elsewhere in Edinburgh?

I view with some scepticism a parliamentary Answer that suggested that by just shifting around a bit, adequate accommodation could be found for the existing officials. After all, if this accommodation is in fact available, one might well ask why there is so much fat around anyway. We cannot have it both ways.

I should like to ask particularly about the question of committee rooms, and the very particular question that, if this plan goes ahead, why it is necessary to fill in the swimming pool.

I have given notice that I wish to raise the question of electronic voting. I understood when I was on the visit by Members of Parliament to the Royal High School, it was found that there is no room for division lobbies and that therefore electronic voting is to be installed.

As a member of the European Assembly, I can tell the House that my German colleagues have told me that electronic voting is a subtle and delicate operation if we are to be sure, as they put it, that there is no cheating, and that this problem has more or less defeated, at inordinate expense, the Bundestag in technological Bonn. I am not sure that we are so much better than the Germans. I should like details of the whole subject of practicalities and costs of electronic voting.

On the question of the traffic, I confine myself to a paragraph of Christopher Fyfe, of the St. Mary's Street Society. He says, My belief is still that the wrong decision has been made, and that siting the building on the Calton Hill will generate needless traffic through central Edinburgh, and damage a beautiful site. But as the decision has now been made (as reported in theScotsman on 3rd July), and can be justified in the way Mr. Ewing has justified it"— he was referring to the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing)— I'm afraid there is no point in trying to oppose it further. I think that Mr. Fyfe and his colleagues deserve some further explanation.

Finally, I come to the question of the reporting of the proceedings. Judging by the proceedings on licensing, and 15 years' experience of the Scottish Grand Committee, I hardly think that Scots in an Assembly will be any crisper than we are here in the House of Commons.

Shall we not require roughly the same numbers ofHansard staff, especially if the Assembly is to be based on a committee structure?

If that is so, I must tell the House that the Library tells me The cost of producingHansard for the House of Commons was given in reply to a Question in the House of Lords on 13th October 1975. For the period April 1974 to March 1975 printing and binding costs for the daily issue are given as £619,250; for the weekly report, £41,375; for the bound volumes £56,425 and for 'indexes etc. £48,825. Including paper costs of £51,000 the total cost for the Commons was £816,875. Ought not such costs to be included in any estimate for the Assembly?

Cutting things short, I simply think that there is some kind of an obligation, over a period, say, quarterly, to give an indication of the detailed public broken-down costs of what the Government have in mind, and a progress-chasing of cost.

I have truncated my remarks because my hon. Friend the Member for Spring-burn and others have important matters to raise. However, I hope that the Government will acquit me of not having gone into detail, which I am quite prepared to do at inordinate length, but it would be unfair to do so on this occasion.

10.37 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

I have no wish to detain the House and many other hon. Members who have important things to say. However, as an English Member who believes passionately in the United Kingdom, I want to support everything that has been said by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), but also to say something on the wider issue.

I believe that it is totally wrong and utterly indefensible that this Assembly building should be put in hand and that money should be spent before this House has agreed that there should be an Assembly at all. It is absolutely wrong. It is an insult to Parliament. It is an example of high-handed executive action which ought to be deplored by hon. Members in all parts of the House.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Cormack

I am glad to have the hon. Genleman's support.

We shall be returning to the House in the autumn. We do not know when the new Session is to begin, but when it does we shall be plunged into long and detailed debates on devolution. This is a matter of high constitutional principle. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish, have deeply-held convictions. I for one hope and believe that those convictions will transcend party lines. I believe that there will be some very odd bedfellows in the Lobby—and quite rightly too. I cannot conceive of supporting any scheme for devolution, and I know that there are hon. Members who feel just as passionately as I do.

To take this decision with regard to the Assembly and to put costly alterations in train before the House has decided that there will be an Assembly is utterly wrong. It is wrong not only in principle but in detail.

We have the Government's latest proposals about the size of the Assembly. However, who is to say that they will not be amended substantially? Let us assume for a moment that there is to be an Assembly. Personally, I should not be surprised if the wretched Bill got thrown out on Second Reading, and I hope to God that it does. But if there is to be an Assembly, who is to say that its membership will be 150? There might be an amendment to make it 100, which might be carried. It might be 200. We do not know. Therefore, for this money to be spent and for these elaborate plans and proposals to be put forward and implemented before the House has taken a decision is wrong in not only principle but detail.

I shall say no more now because other hon. Members are present and they have sat up through most of the night and have their own contributions to make. I close by saying once again that this is an example of high-handed executive action. Both sides of the House ought to deplore it, because until we have taken a decision here as to whether there should be an Assembly, it is wrong that we should be voting sums of money to build what in fact could become a tartan elephant.

10.40 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was, as usual, an example to us all in the precision and brevity with which he presented his case. I congratulate him upon it, and I assure him that I do not measure his concern by the concision of his speech. I have read carefully the 39 Questions which he tabled on these matters, and I recognise his continuing concern. I shall not be able to reply to every point which he raised, but I assure my hon. Friend that I shall consider the matters which he put to me, and on any which are not covered this morning I shall write to him as soon as possible so that he may have the fullest possible information.

In replying to this debate, I am wearing my hat as Minister with responsibility for the Property Services Agency. I should make clear at the outset the relationship between devolution and the Supplementary Estimates for 1976–77 which are embodied in the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill. The present Supplementary Estimate is not, of course, intended to authorise devolution; it is merely to make possible implementation of the decision without undue delay if and when such a decision is taken.

The Government are working to a timetable which envisages that the Assemblies will come into being and start to hold meetings by the spring of 1978, and that is now only 21 months away. If the Assemblies are to operate effectively, they must have accommodation which both provides for a Chamber in which to meet and for ancillary facilities and is located reasonably close to the relevant Government offices. The effectiveness of any kind of Assembly depends on the provision of suitable accommodation reasonably well adapted to the functions it has to serve.

Such accommodation cannot be created overnight. A new building would take years to provide. The only possibility is to acquire the most suitable existing buildings and adapt them for the purpose. Even so, starting from earlier this year when the PSA was authorised to acquire the necessary buildings, there is all too little time in which to get the work done. Unless, therefore, a start had been made when it was on acquisition, and unless we now follow through to complete acquisition and start the adaptations, the Assembly buildings could not be provided in time.

When we were considering the business of anticipating parliamentary approval, it was decided that in all the circumstances it would be right for the PSA to be authorised to enter into commitments and start work before the devolution legislation itself was approved.

The Supplementary Estimate gives figures for the cost of this project as £2,600,000. I should stress that this is a provisional Estimate, intended to cover a capital payment of £650,000 to acquire the Edinburgh building and about £2,000,000 of adaptation works there.

The Royal High School was the only building which was both available and conveniently located and relatively adaptable to the purposes of the Scottish Assembly. It is in good condition, and we have been able to agree satisfactory terms for its acquisition from the district council which owns it. We hope to let a contract for the adaptations in September. These will cover some repairs, ensure that the electrical heating and other services are suitable for the new use, and adapt the premises to provide for a Chamber with a seat for every member, a public gallery for 90 people, together with lobbies and dining facilities. Members' rooms and committee rooms will be located in St. Andrew's House over the road.

I turn now to some of the detailed questions which my hon. Friend asked. I think that we would accept that the building itself is not ideal, but it was the best choice on grounds of location, availability and adaptability in the time allowed and at reasonable cost. We are satisfied that it will provide an adequate Assembly building in 1978. The Assembly can decide later whether it needs improvement.

The Estimate of £2 million must be provisional at this stage, but we have no reason to think that it is a serious underestimate. As I have said, no detailed breakdown can be given at present, but the overall cost of £2 million, which excludes acquisition costs of £650,000, is expected to include about £250,000 on work to improve the services—heating, lighting, and so forth—and about £200,000 for equipment for ventilation, security and catering installations. The rest will be spent mainly on repairs and adaptations.

My hon. Friend asked about structural investigations. The buildings were inspected as thoroughly as possible by PSA staff in the course of planning the work. Only limited opening up of the structure was undertaken, in the roof and elsewhere by removal of some floorboards, some stonework and so on for inspection. Complete opening up for a full structural survey was not possible as the building was in use and is not owned by the PSA. Subject to this, however, we know of no reason to expect that there are hidden defects of a major nature which will be discovered in the course of the work.

No decision has been made on the installation of electronic voting. It is expected that the Assembly itself will decide whether to install it. The PSA has, however, had discussions with manufacturers and is satisfied that there are systems available which could be used. The PSA will provide ductwork for cables for a voting system, but otherwise the cost does not include any allowance for electronic voting.

My hon. Friend asked what the basis of the contract will be. It is intended that competitive tenders will be invited on the basis of a schedule of rates. As the contract period is over one year, the contract will include provision for variation of price payments. It will not be let on a cost-plus basis.

The plans provide for the reporting of proceedings, but the printing ofHansard, to which my hon. Friend referred, is not the responsibility of the PSA and will be a matter for the Assembly when it has been set up.

I turn now to the cost of finding accommodation elsewhere for staff displaced from St. Andrew's House. I cannot give an estimate of the cost, but we certainly hope to avoid taking new space, and careful scrutiny is being made of the situation in that respect.

As for the swimming pool, the space is needed for other facilities for the Assembly, and that is why action has been taken there. There will be liquidated damages provisions in the contract.

I have tried to emulate my hon. Friend's example in the brevity of my reply, and I assure him that we take very seriously the searching questions which he has put. I shall write to him with further information on any matters which I have not covered.

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