Downing Street endorses tree scrapping at Portcullis House
Downing Street today endorsed Commons Speaker John Bercow's call for a £30,000-a-year contract to rent trees for an MPs' office block to be ended.
Mr Bercow said he was "horrified" to find out the cost of the 12 fig trees in Portcullis House greenery and accepted the taxpayer was being "fleeced".
Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman today said Downing Street was in agreement with the Speaker, and that the Houses of Parliament must make economies, just as other parts of the public sector are doing.
The deal has been in place for 12 years and covers care and maintenance of the trees, which shade dining areas in the building's glass-topped atrium, which stands beside the historic Palace of Westminster.
But Mr Bercow said it should be scrapped immediately, if contractually possible without adding more costs, but no later than September.
In an interview with The House magazine, he said: "I was horrified by it.
"Inevitably and understandably it will cause people out there to think these people are living in another universe.
"I think the contract should absolutely be revisited. If we are going to have trees, they absolutely shouldn't be trees that cause us to fleece the taxpayer in this way, and that must change at the earliest opportunity.
"If there is a contract and it's going to cost us more to get out of it immediately than not, then it may well have to wait.
"But should the present arrangement continue beyond September? Absolutely not."
Mr Cameron's spokesman said: "I think we find ourselves agreeing with Speaker Bercow.
"All parts of the public sector need to be looking at where they can find savings, and I don't see any reason why Parliament shouldn't be part of that."
Mr Bercow also conceded that there were some grounds to argue that the daily prayer session in the Commons was discriminatory.
But though he said he would not stand in the way of a review if sufficient MPs wanted one, he said he wanted to keep what was a "reasonable and generally popular" tradition.
Focus was put on the prayers - which MPs must attend to secure a seat for some high-profile parliamentary sessions - after a court ruled prayers could not be part of local council business.
The ruling does not apply to the Commons, which sets its own rules.
But Mr Bercow said: "If enough Members wanted to look at it, I'm certainly not going to object or try to impose my view.
"Theoretically there is a ground for criticism. But I think that there should be a degree of reasoned, balanced common sense."
The Speaker also called for annual party conferences to be cut to a long weekend so that the Commons could sit without a break from September.
"Most people have an annual holiday entitlement and unless they are taking annual holiday, they will ordinarily be at work in September.
"And I think a lot of our electorate think, given that the MPs finished in the latter part of July, why are they not back at their place of work undertaking their scrutiny, standing up for our interests, debating our concerns, in September? They should be. And frankly I agree with that."
A House of Commons spokeswoman said discussions would soon get under way on what Parliamentary authorities should do about the fig trees.
The current contract is up for renewal in September and the review will look at "possible savings", the spokeswoman said.
The Department of Facilities will review options in consultation with the Administration Committee, which represents the views of MPs to officials running Parliament.
Multiple options could be laid out by the Department of Facilities and recommendations may be made on the way forward.
The spokeswoman added: "The opportunity for change is in September but they will probably start the review before that."
The spokeswoman said the review would likely be broad but could not confirm what options will be available when the issue is reviewed.
Administration Committee chairman Sir Alan Haselhurst said the group of MPs would now look at the issue of the trees - and said it would be the first such discussion since he joined the committee in 2010.
He said: "The House of Commons Commission will be the ultimate decision maker. The Speaker is the chairman of the commission.
"If he's getting backing from No 10, it's easy to see which way things are going to go.
"This issue has burst upon us - the building has been there for 12 years. It's an iconic building.
"You have to have some kind of respect for the thinking behind (the design) of Portcullis House. I would need to know what the alternatives are."
Labour MP Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) sits on the 16-member, cross party committee of MPs. He said he had lodged Parliamentary Questions this week in a bid to establish facts about how much the trees are worth and when the contract was made.
He said: "I can't believe the trees are worth that much, frankly.
"My understanding is this was a contract that was let years ago. As is too often the case, things are done by officials without any recourse to getting MPs' approval.
"The reality is our constituents are taxpayers and they expect some accountability."
Documents published on the Parliament website suggest the trees are a design feature of the Portcullis House atrium, part of the system for maintaining the environment inside the glass-roofed space.
Fig trees were selected because the species is able to stay healthy in an indoor, temperature controlled environment.
Threat of 'catastrophic cascade of collisions' must be averted, warn scientists
Wellcome Image Awards: The most striking images from the world of science, including breast cancer cells under chemical attack and a photographer’s own kidney stone
Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: 'All passengers' under investigation, police say
Bob Crow death: 'Admired by his members, feared by employers' - Tributes pour in for RMT union leader and 'working class hero' Bob Crow
Oscar Pistorius murder trial: Athlete repeatedly sick as court hears 'graphic details' of Reeva Steenkamp's post-mortem
How climate change helped Genghis Khan: Scientists believe a sudden period of warmer weather allowed the Mongols to invade with such success
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
Poor 'live like animals' says Boris's privately educated sister after going on 'poverty safari'
Exclusive: Impact of immigrants on British workers ‘negligible’
Vince Cable: Teachers 'know absolutely nothing' about the world of work
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
The quiet diplomat: Catherine Ashton - recognised and admired in all the world’s troubled countries, yet ridiculed at home
- 1 Pakistan vs Paul Smith: Sandal-wearers bemused by famed British designer's attempts to sell traditional Peshawari chappal-style shoes for the distinctly untraditional sum of £300
- 2 Family forced to flee home after discovering 'terrifying' nest of spiders in bananas
- 3 First Kiss: Filmmaker gets 20 strangers to make out on YouTube with awkward results
- 4 Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
- 5 Bob Crow death: 'Admired by his members, feared by employers' - Tributes pour in for RMT union leader and 'working class hero' Bob Crow
£30000 - £50000 per annum + Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: Private Cli...
£30000 - £35000 per annum + Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: Residential...
£1000 per month: Inspiring Interns: The company works with Tier 1 FTSE 100 Ban...
VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED : Reach Volunteering: Fantastic opportuni...