Compliance with health and safety protocols, in particular reporting asbestos incidents, remains unsatisfactory, warns a House of Commons committee report published today.
According to the Public Accounts Committee, the UK Parliament is spending up to £2m a week ‘patching up’ the Palace of Westminster, with a growing list of health and safety incidents.
Restoration & Renewal of the Palace of Westminster – 2023 Recall warns that progress in repairing and restoring the iconic UNESCO world heritage site has been ‘painfully slow’, adding that ‘there is a real and rising risk that a catastrophic event will destroy the Palace’ before this long overdue work is completed.
The cross-party committee report, which makes five recommendations, argues that the Palace’s Clerks must set out ‘how they will reiterate the importance to contractors of their responsibilities and contractual requirements’ in relation to health and safety protocols before any more substantial restoration and renewal (R&R) works are undertaken.
The report recommends that the Clerks, who have personal responsibility for the health and safety of those working and using the Palace – and are also now legally responsible for the building works – ensure ‘the timeliness and accuracy of reporting’ [asbestos incidents] and set out what they will do to hold contractors to account for meeting these responsibilities.
‘The Clerks and newly created programme structures “need to build confidence in their ability to deliver a programme of this magnitude and complexity”,’ the committee said in a press release.
‘Timely transparency and compliance with health and safety protocols, particularly around asbestos, urgently needs to improve before significant works and potentially more serious incidents occur.’
Following the committee’s June 2022 report, the Clerks agreed that they needed to improve health and safety incident processes and, as the report adds, they said they had reviewed and updated Parliament’s safety escalation arrangements.
However, despite these assurances, ‘existing processes are not operating effectively’, argues the committee report.
‘For example, in September 2022 a contractor did not inform the Clerks of an asbestos incident or limit the dangers as quickly as expected.
‘Fortunately, the asbestos discovered on that occasion in a roof void was not dislodged, but it could easily have been broken up as the contractor drilled through to gain access. This would have resulted in a far more serious incident.’
According to the report, the Clerks have appointed a new health and safety director to help mitigate the risks and have been compiling an incidents database.
‘Managing the safety of the Palace remains a top priority for the Clerks and House Administrations,’ continues the report.
‘As they have been unhappy about the treatment of several safety issues, which also includes 12 instances of falling masonry, and given an increase in the volume of maintenance work, the Clerks have considered the structure of their safety teams.’
Headed up by the new health and safety director, these safety teams, together with an additional six safety professionals who have been appointed in the past 12 months, will have operational oversight for construction and maintenance safety management, explains the report.
Although the Clerks had explained to the committee how they were ‘more robustly compiling safety incidents through the dedicated database’, the report points out that the Clerk of the House of Commons ‘recognised that he did not yet feel confident that safety structures were robust enough’.
Witnesses at the committee’s February 2023 session described continuing worries, which ‘led to health and safety risks alongside periodic failures in building services’.
The report notes that building systems such as heating, ventilation, drainage and electrical systems were out of date and needed replacing.
Responding to the report, a UK Parliament spokesperson, said: ‘We are already getting on with work across the Parliamentary estate to ensure the safety of those who work and visit here, and to support the continued business of Parliament. This includes planning for the large and complex restoration of the Palace of Westminster to preserve it for future generations.
‘Last year Members of both Houses agreed a more integrated approach to restoration, prioritising safety critical work. The Restoration and Renewal Programme Board is shortlisting options for the restoration and Members in both Houses are expected to vote on the way forward later this year.’