This week the Daily Mail ran a story which appeared to criticise the House of Commons for spending £36,000 over five years for repairing the roof of Portcullis House. The cost was used, alongside subsidised food and alcohol, to try and paint a picture of Parliamentary profligacy in a story attacking the replacement of televisions on the Parliamentary estate. This followed criticism of the cost of the repairs earlier this month from the Taxpayers' Alliance in an article run by the Evening Standard.
For those unfamiliar with Portcullis House, it is situated across the road from the House of Commons and houses Parliamentary meeting rooms and many MPs' offices. Its ground floor comprises a large atrium covered by a glass roof. The atrium holds a restaurant, cafeteria, coffee shop and post office. All are frequented by MPs, their staff and staff of the Parliamentary estate. It is often a very busy area. In recent years, cracks have appeared in a number of the panes of glass and on one occasion one shattered completely. Concerns were raised by myself and others and the House of Commons did what any sensible employer or commercial landlord would do in the circumstances. They sought expert advice and then took steps to secure the safety of those working in the building.
While £7,200 a year is a lot the reality is that at times safety costs money. Anyone who has seen the size and design of the panes of glass in Portcullis House will appreciate the scale of the task of replacing them. They will also appreciate the consequences should one of them fall into the atrium below. The Mail and Standard have Westminster correspondents, they know this well. Neither paper would wish to see an individual seriously injured or worse as a result of falling glass. Sadly rather than explain the circumstances behind the cost, both would rather use the repairs as another excuse to further undermine confidence in the political class.
It will not however just be politicians that feel the consequences. As well as MPs, the House of Commons is the place of employment for their staff alongside catering staff, postal workers, IT assistants and cleaners among others. Parts of the House of Commons estate are over 900 years old. Parts are full of asbestos. Frequently decisions on the maintenance of the estate will have to be taken that will have implications on the safety of all staff working on the estate. Those responsible for taking these decisions should be able to do so without fearing an ill-informed backlash from the tabloid press.
This is not an issue on the Parliamentary estate. While MPs' research staff are often based in Westminster the vast majority of caseworkers are based in the constituency. At times it can be a very dangerous job. In 2000, Andrew Pennington was killed defending his employer Nigel Jones MP from a constituent armed with a Samurai sword. In 2010, Stephen Timms' employee Andrew Bazeley had to disarm his constituent Roshonara Choudhry of a knife, with which she had just stabbed the Member of Parliament. MPs are able to claim money from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to adapt their offices to make them safer for their staff. They can also send staff on training courses to educate them on resolving difficult situations. Some of these courses are free however some course providers charge. All these costs, as well as travel costs to and from the course, are published by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. They will also include in the Member of Parliament's end of year totals. If the media allow a climate to be created in which all MPs' spending is publically condemned it is not difficult to envisage a scenario where some MPs could choose to cut costs by foregoing office adaptations and staff training no matter how appropriate they believe such steps to be. Such a situation would be a cause for deep concern.
MPs' offices and the Parliamentary estate are funded by public money. It is only right that their spending is properly scrutinised. It is vital however that this scrutiny is properly informed. The media have a duty to report MPs' and Parliamentary spending responsibility. MPs' and the Parliamentary estate have a duty of care to their employees. When it comes to the workplace environment safety must be paramount.
John Percival is the Health and Safety Rep for Parliamentary staff branch of Unite (@unitepsbranch). The branch represents the staff of Members of Parliament. He has worked for MPs in Westminster for six years