New offices for MPs 'is pounds 60m over budget'

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The Independent Online
The National Audit Office, the public finance watchdog, is to be asked to investigate the way MPs spend taxpayers' money on upgrading and refurbishing their accommodation at Westminster. Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the Commons, may be dragged into the inquiry as the person with the ultimate say over MPs' spending.

The request to the NAO from a Conservative MP and member of the influential Public Accounts Committee comes after claims that a new building for MPs will cost pounds 215m, more than pounds 60m over budget.

To be built above the new Westminster underground station, the new block was scheduled to cost pounds 154m. But with its bronze cladding alone expected to cost more than pounds 30m, pounds 10m more than the Parliamentary Works Directorate had budgeted for, and other items also predicted to run over schedule, industry experts are predicting a final bill of pounds 215m.

Intended to house 210 MPs and 210 staff, the building, even at its original price would cost pounds 367,000 per place. Peter Thurnham, Conservative MP for Bolton North East, said he was appalled by the lack of controls applied by the works directorate. The cost of housing each MP there could be "10 times" what it would cost in the West End of London, he said. "I will ask the NAO to look at the way the costs have escalated."

As someone who used to run a family engineering business, Mr Thurnham said he knew how costs mount when they are not tightly controlled.

His request will carry extra weight because he sits on the Public Accounts Committee, the body to which the NAO reports. He acknowledged his move would not be popular with colleagues, but added: "It is public money at the end of the day; we're here to protect taxpayers' interests."

The MP is prepared to see the Speaker dragged into an NAO study. "Ultimately, it comes down to the Speaker," he said.

Work on the new building is due to start in 1997. Standing on the corner of Bridge Street, across the road from Big Ben, it will contain MPs' offices, a bar, restaurant, library, shop, conference and meeting-rooms. Inside it will be finished to the same high standard as other new offices for MPs at 7 Millbank and 1 Parliament Street.

Elsewhere in Parliament, other rebuilding and decoration work has been stepped up. The works directorate, which answers to two groups of MPs, the Accommodation and Works Committee and the Finance and Works Committee, has between pounds 30m and pounds 40m a year to spend on heating, lighting and refurbishing the facilities. Lifts have been revamped, and the area around the old Strangers' Bar redesigned. A new, bigger, bar has been built in what was the Lady Members' Room.

The Palace of Westminster has also recently acquired a pounds 1m sweeping new entrance for cars at its western end, beyond the House of Lords. Mr Thurnham said: "There needs to be proper control, there is no financial discipline there that I can see."

A Works Directorate spokesman said that the new building did not have "a lavish specification. It is designed to a high specification for a very prominent site and it has to last for 120 years."

He added that the cladding was bronze to match the surroundings, and there were unique security features that had forced up the cost. Mr Thurnham, he said, "is entitled to his opinion". But the spokesman pointed out that the plans for the new building had been approved after a full debate on the floor of the House.

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