HL Deb 13 September 2004 vol 664 cc898-900

3.14 p.m.

Earl Attlee asked the Leader of the House:

Whether it is appropriate for the House of Lords to sit when major works are in progress and when many facilities for Members are not available.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, it is unfortunate that some facilities for Members are unavailable at present and that some Members have been disturbed, particularly, I understand, in the Committee Corridor. It is hoped that almost normal services will be returned by 11 October. All the work plans were approved by the committees of the House and the impact of the building works was discussed by the House last December, when your Lordships voted to return this September. A detailed notice about potential disruption was sent to your Lordships on 16 July.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but does she not agree that when the House agreed to sit in September, in many cases it was out of loyalty to the Leader and on her advice? Does not responsibility for this shambolic state of affairs lie right inside the Leader's office?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

No, my Lords, and I think that some of your Lordships should remember—I had this pointed out to me when it fell to my lot to answer this Question—that the committees of the House discussed and approved the works and that the House discussed the sitting times, including the possibility of disruption, which were raised by some Members of your Lordships' House. The noble Lords, Lord Boston of Faversham, Lord Ampthill and Lord Colwyn, certainly spoke of those matters and the House voted accordingly.

Lord Williamson of Horton

My Lords, we do appreciate that, when the House decided to have a September sitting, we were warned of the inconveniences, which are certainly unwelcome. But does the Minister agree that a very relevant point now is that the question of a September sitting is not decided for ever and, if it were to be reconsidered next year, the problem of falling over the carpet and all the other works during a Session would ipso facto be solved?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, no doubt there will be issues to discuss about that arising from the Leader's report, which I understand will be published tomorrow. I take the point: there is some dust; there is noise; perhaps there is a little discomfort; and there is inconvenience. But this is not a disaster area. The fact is that we have reassembled because there is business to do. That is what is important, not questions of convenience, dust or difficulties in finding enough refreshments. The fact is that the House has business to do. We have done business over some nine Bills. I myself had the pleasure of talking to your Lordships during a day's debate on Iraq. The fact is that the House is here to discharge the business allotted to it. If that involves a little inconvenience on occasion, so be it.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely justified in saying that the House was given full details of the works to go ahead and what might be the consequences, but can she answer two brief questions? First, has she reason to believe that things will be back in a proper state by the time of the reconvening of Parliament on 11 October, or is there any overrun in the expected time? Secondly, given that what we are spending is taxpayers' money, can she assure the House that we are living entirely within the budget agreed to by those committees?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have no reason to think that the budget is any different. I can tell your Lordships that £14.4 million is being spent over the three phases of the refurbishment. I understand that that has been considered by the appropriate committees of your Lordships' House. On the question of whether all will be returned on 11 October, I was careful to say that almost normal services will be available on 11 October. I understand that there will still be a degree of disruption in the Library and to Committee Room G.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that sizable numbers of noble Lords dislike September sittings? Does she further appreciate that although she is very good, if I may say so with respect, at keeping your Lordships informed about things in your Lordships' House, the disruption that we suffered last week and continue to suffer this week is, in my experience, much greater than we ever envisaged when we discussed these matters last year? Can the noble Baroness hold out any hope to those of us who take that view of an end to September sittings?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I acknowledge that there are Members of your Lordships' House who dislike September sittings very much. Were it not for that fact, we would not have discussed these sittings twice—in December of last year and November of the year before—when those voices were very clear in their objections.

I agree with the noble Lord that it is undesirable to have this degree of disruption in the House. But it is enormously important that the facilities of the House are put right in order that it can function properly in the longer term. We have had real issues of concern about the facilities, particularly on the question of health and safety for members of our staff for whom we, as sitting Members of this House, have a duty of care. That duty of care has to be discharged.

I do not have the length of experience that the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, has over the degree of disruption, but the inconvenience that we are suffering is not all that great considering how important these changes are.

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