Parliament risks burning down as decaying fabric falls apart

House of Commons

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows former Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attending Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) during a hybrid, socially distanced session at the House of Commons in London on December 2, 2020.

Governments in the Houses of Parliament have often been criticised for decisions taken there and MPs pilloried for their conduct and the level of debate, but now it is the building itself that has become the subject of alarm.

In short, the 189-year-old neo-Gothic masterpiece alongside the River Thames, known as the Palace of Westminster, is falling apart and is in serious danger of burning to the ground.

That is the verdict of Parliament’s own Public Accounts Committee, which revealed £2 million is being spent per week just to patch up the building.

There is a constant risk of fire and 44 fire-related incidents have been reported since 2016, the committee said. Wardens now patrol the building around the clock.

Cancer-causing asbestos 

Cancer-causing asbestos has been found in 2,500 locations and removing it “could require an estimated 300 people working for two and a half years while the site was not being used,” the report said.

Mechanical and electrical systems were last updated in the 1940s and many pipes are leaking while falling masonry is a constant danger to the one million people who visit each year and the thousands of politicians and staff working on a daily basis.

The chair of the committee, Dame Meg Hillier, said, “There is a real and rising risk that a catastrophic event will destroy the building before much-delayed restoration work is done or even begun.” She criticised “years of procrastination” that had led to the deterioration.

Politicians have argued for years over whether to move to another site in London during an overhaul. If they stay, repair work could take 19 to 28 years and cost £22 billion. If they moved out, it could take from 12 to 20 years and cost £13 billion.

In 2018, MPs voted to move out by the mid-2020s but some politicians believe ordinary voters will resent the huge costs amidst the current cost of living crisis.

Reacting to the committee report, a Parliament spokesman said, “Last year, members of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons agreed on a more integrated approach to restoration, prioritising critical safety work.

“The Restoration and Renewal Programme Board is shortlisting options for restoration and both Houses are expected to vote on a way forward later this year.”

The present Palace of Westminster was rebuilt after a fire in 1834. Its best-known feature is probably the Elizabeth Clock Tower, better known as Big Ben after its main bell.

Big Ben became an instantly recognisable landmark of London and the UK in general, one of the most popular tourist attractions and an emblem of parliamentary democracy.

* * *

Only a week ago, this column set out how racism is fuelled in Britain by misinformation on matters such as the numbers and types of people seeking asylum and the benefits they can receive – the reality being far less alarming than widely believed.

Since then, one of the tactics aimed at stirring up race hate has come to light, namely, the gifting to homeless whites food parcels with far-right propaganda leaflets inside.

Sandwiches, fruit and snacks were given to rough sleepers in Newcastle, Manchester and Salford along with leaflets which contained the sickening line: “Five-star hotels for migrants whilst Brits are on the streets.”

The leaflets are similar to flyers pushed through letter boxes across Merseyside in February. Days later, a riot erupted outside a hotel in the area which was housing asylum seekers.

The distributors of the leaflets are members of a far-right group known as Patriotic Alternative, which was formed in 2019 out of splits in the British National Party.

The group has also targeted towns that are experiencing tensions over housing refugees in Cornwall, Wales and South Yorkshire.

A spokesman for the anti-fascism body, Hope Not Hate, described Patriotic Alternative as “a band of gutter racists attempting to stoke divisions across the UK.”

A spokeswoman for Patriotic Alternative described such criticism as “anti-white drivel”.

* * *

A farmer was driving a cartload of vegetables to market when he was hit by a truck and seriously injured. After many weeks in the hospital, the farmer sued the truck driver and the case went to court.

The truck driver’s lawyer described the accident accurately and then asked the farmer, “What did you say when the police arrived?” 

Farmer: “I said I never felt better in my life.”

The judge shook his head and made some notes, then asked the farmer to describe the scene when the police arrived.

The farmer said, “My horse had two broken legs and was in great pain so the policeman drew his gun and shot it through the head. Then he went to my dog, discovered its back was broken and put it out of its misery. Then he came to me and asked how I was.

“I said that I never felt better in my life.”