HL Deb 14 July 1994 vol 556 cc1962-6

3.6 p.m.

Lord Donoughue asked Her Majesty's Government:

When the construction of the new British Library began, how much has so far been spent on the project, and when it is expected to be completed.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, construction of the British Library began at the St. Pancras site in April 1982. To the end of May 1994 a total of £336 million had been spent on the project. It is not possible to say when the whole building will be completed until solutions have been found for the various technical problems that were discovered in the first phase of the building. We hope to have them by the end of August, after which time a programme for the completion of Phase 1A can be drawn up. Progress on the completion phase of the building continues satisfactorily and construction is on schedule to be completed during 1996.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the Minister for confirming that this monstrous white elephant has taken years more than scheduled, that most of the £450 million budget has been spent and that the Government still have no idea when it will be finished or how much it will finally cost. Will the Minister further confirm that among the scandals already exposed are miles of cabling installed and ripped out, ceilings totally ripped out because one piece of insulation tape was hanging from them, 27,000 roof tiles bought and rejected because the natural colour was felt to be "not quite right" and vast sprinkler systems and shelving installed and removed at great cost in time and money?

In the light of that, can the Minister honestly deny that, under the responsibility of her department and, to be fair, her predecessors—but not political predecessors —this piece of administrative and management bungling is, as one high official close to it described, the worst piece of management and administrative malpractice in Whitehall history?

Baroness Trumpington

Well, my Lords, what a charming way to start the day!

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, it is only the start!

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the main technical issues affect the first phase of construction. The principal difficulties, as the noble Lord said, relate to damage to electrical cabling and concerns about the longevity of the sprinkler system. The earlier problem of the book shelving installation has been fully resolved to the satisfaction of the British Library. Until the faults were discovered, there was no reason to believe that there were problems with the arrangements in place for quality assurance. Clear responsibility for quality control rested with the installing contractors, the construction managers, the design team and project managers. The Government do not abdicate from their responsibilities for the project but they had to rely on those parties for the proper execution of the work. It was they who had the only source of expertise while acting as our agents.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recollect that on 11th December 1991 I asked an Unstarred Question on this very matter? I drew attention to the mismanagement that had dogged this enterprise for many years. I asked whether one project manager could be appointed so that the buck was not continually passed from the OAL to the PSA, from the PSA rapidly to Laings and from Laings to sub-contractors. Does the Minister also recollect that her noble friend Lord Astor gave me an assurance that new management techniques and principles were in place and that costs were firmly under control? Has one project manager ever been appointed? That is the only way in which you can control the mismanagement that has taken place.

Is it also true that some of the incidents to which the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, referred are in fact corrupt practices? Is it true that quite unnecessary work has been done in order to keep the pot boiling and the sub-contractors milking the public purse from the public udder?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the construc-tion of the building is the responsibility of the Government. Once complete, it will be transferred to the library's ownership. The memorandum submitted in evidence to the National Heritage Select Committee for its hearing on 30th June set out the management arrangements and the positive steps taken to improve those arrangements. A copy of that memorandum has been placed in the Library.

With regard to allegations of impropriety, two allegations have been made during the 12-year life of the project. They have been investigated and no evidence of fraud was found. No further action is currently being taken. If the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has any specific evidence, we should be happy to pursue the matter further.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, will the Minister give some indication of what is now the revised budget of the project? Will she give us an indication also of the size of the claims which I presume will be made against those who are responsible for the overrun?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Secretary of State gave evidence to the National Heritage Select Committee on 30th June during which he stated that because of the technical problems, the £450 million cash budget was likely to be exceeded; and the Treasury is aware of that. The Secretary of State said that it remains his intention to return to the cash budget when all the commercial issues are resolved and final accounts settled.

It is not possible to say by how much the budget will be exceeded while we are still discussing the technical problems and before we are able to draw up a programme of work. We shall need to discuss figures with the Treasury when we are clear about the position. It would be unwise to make our commercial strategy known publicly.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, while I agree that there have been many disappointments along the way, I believe that the House should realise that when it is completed, it will be the finest national library anywhere. It will be far better than any library in America or in Europe. We shall be extremely proud of it when it is finished.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I really am grateful to my noble friend. I agree entirely with what he said. On the question of costs, perhaps I may draw a comparison with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France which is costing £800 million to £900 million.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, would not a fairer comparison be with the cost of the splendid new Glyndebourne? I recognise that that is on a different scale, but it is not irrelevant. Is the noble Baroness telling us that no one can be identified as being responsible for all those technical problems? Those technical problems are being used as an excuse. Who has been sacked or who has got into trouble over that matter?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, with regard to the comparison with Glyndebourne, in principle, no doubt it would have been better to have gone ahead quicker but availability of public funds for Phase 1A did not permit that and so design and construction took place in parallel.

As to who is to blame, it will be a complex matter to establish the extent of liability of the many parties who may be involved. We have set up a high-powered team to deal with the commercial issues. It would be unwise to comment at this stage on the question of blame while sensitive issues are being considered and delicate negotiations undertaken with contractors.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this story is becoming rather like the story of Penelope's shroud? Can she convince us that anyone in government circles has the cunning of Odysseus needed to deal with it?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I thought Penelope had a box.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, is not one of the unfortunate consequences of this sad affair that the arts feed from the same departmental udder, which is why I pressed the then Prime Minister as long ago as 1987 for a total separation of the funding for this project, so that it would not have an affect on the arts budget? Will the Minister assure the House that if it continues to milk from the same udder, the arts will not be affected by the ongoing expenditure?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend Lord Crickhowell would do well to read the Secretary of State's recent reply to the Select Committee. He would find a great deal of information which might add to his knowledge.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, contrary to the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, I have made many inquiries about this monstrosity at King's Cross and I understand that even when it is complete, it will be totally inadequate for the purpose for which it was intended. Is it not a sobering thought that despite our modern equipment and technical knowledge, it will have taken longer to complete that building than it took to replace this whole building after the great fire?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I apologise for the length of my answers, but I cannot do anything about it. There will be 130 more seats than there are at present. Readership patterns have changed since the plans were first drawn up. Advanced computerised systems will enable the more efficient use of readers' seats and will mean a faster turn-round of readers. An increasing number of readers now avail themselves of the library's services at some distance from the reading rooms. Documents are delivered to them. Continued developments in new technology are likely to increase that trend.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, indefensible though the history of the building has been, according to the plans that I have seen, I believe that when it is completed, the building will be a matter of pride for the country?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins.

Noble Lords

Next Question, next Question.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, there is only one more Question on the Order Paper. Before the Minister finally sits down, perhaps I may say that although the Minister and I often enjoy jokes together, this is a serious matter. Will she not confirm that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, is absolutely spot on? When the last budget allocation for arts was made, there; was the first ever cut in the Arts Council's allocation. It was stated specifically at that time that that was because of the huge amount of money allocated to the British Library project.

Will she confirm that there have been four inquiries into this matter—two by the Minister's department and two by the National Audit Office? None of that has been put into the public domain. Would it not be helpful if the Government were to announce a full and proper public inquiry into this scandal?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, there is a difficulty with regard to an inquiry because, for example, Kennedy and Donkin has prepared a report on the electrical cabling and that report is commercially sensitive. I know that the noble Lord will understand that. But, as promised, the Secretary of State sent a copy of the report to the National Heritage Select Committee on the understanding that confidentiality is observed. It is a very serious question. We all wish to be extremely proud of the library when it is completed and I assure your Lordships that my department is taking every possible step to ensure that the building is completed in 1996.