Politics

Holyrood roof fiasco damaged parliament’s reputation ‘at home and abroad’

THE chaotic handling of a safety scare at the newly-built Holyrood building damaged its reputation “at home and abroad”, Scottish ministers privately admitted.

The Labour-Liberal Democrat administration in 2006 also feared the parliament’s response raised questions about its ability to cope with a terror attack or flu pandemic.

Ministers were also worried the muddle was hurting the public’s view of the coalition government.

The misgivings, which were conveyed to Holyrood’s then Presiding Officer George Reid, are revealed in cabinet papers released by National Records of Scotland.

The loss of confidence was triggered by the dramatic failure of part of the roof of the main chamber of the £431m building less than 18 months after it opened.

On March 2, 2006, a 12ft oak slab weighing 220lb broke free from one of its fixings, swung through a 70-degree arc, and was left-dangling in mid-air above the Tory benches.

It took the authorities half an hour to decide to suspend business and evacuate the chamber.

Holyrood’s cross-party management group then spent around £80,000 ferrying MSPs to the Hub at the top of the Royal Mile for two weeks as an alternative venue, before deciding to return to the parliament and use the largest committee room instead. 

Many MSPs questioned why bosses hadn’t used the committee room in the first place.

The main chamber, which contained more than 60 similar wooden beams, ultimately took months to be checked and repaired. 

At the Scottish cabinet on March 15, Labour minister for parliament Margaret Curran told colleagues that the parliament wanted to use Committee Room 2 (CR2) instead of the Hub, although it could only hold 90 of the 129 MSPs.

The minutes reveal ministers voiced a series of complaints.

“The way in which this situation has been handled by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) damaged the reputation of the Parliament at home and abroad.

“Public perception of the Executive was also being damaged. 

“The SPCB needed to give a clear idea when the advice on the safety of the chamber would be received and what the next steps would then be,” the minutes state.

There was also concern about what the response said about the parliament’s ability to deal with more serious events.

The minutes said: “The way in which this issue had been handled by the SPCB raised wider questions about its preparedness to deal with major civil contingencies such as a flu pandemic or terrorist attack. 

“This should be raised with the Parliamentary authorities once the immediate issues related to the chamber had been addressed.”

The cabinet then agreed that Ms Curran should raise ministers’ concerns with Mr Reid and the parliamentary authorities.

At the following week’s cabinet, Ms Curran reported a temporary repair to the roof should be completed by the end of April, with full repairs over the summer recess.

Until the end of April, plenary business would be in CR2 with nearby CR6 used an overflow room.

“This was unsatisfactory, but it was important that all MSPs tried to make these arrangements work.”

In the discussion, there was a complaint that using an overflow room would deny some MSPs their “fundamental right” to take part in debates and question ministers.

The frustrated cabinet agreed to “seek further clarification” about the proposal “and to raise its concerns about the implications with the Presiding Officer”.

A week later, March 29, Ms Curran reported back to cabinet that she had met Mr Reid and the Parliament’s chief executive Paul Grice “and raised Cabinet’s concerns over the contingency arrangements set in place to handle plenary business while the main chamber was out of use”.

She also said “engineers were being pressed to make progress as quickly as possible”.

 

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