Big Ben row: MPs kept in dark over plan to silence bongs for four years

Robert Mendick
One of the four faces of the Great Clock - AFP

MPs were not told Big Ben would be silenced for four years when they approved a £29 million renovation scheme, The Telegraph can disclose.

The chairmen of two Commons’ committees have complained that officials failed to disclose that the bell could not be rung to protect the hearing of builders on site.

Parliamentary authorities have announced that Big Ben will chime for the last time at noon on Monday until the completion of the work on Elizabeth Tower in 2021.

The decision has led to demands for the bell to ring when builders are off site - such as in the evenings, early mornings and at weekends.

Big Ben in Elizabeth Tower Credit:  Jon Arnold

On Tuesday, David Davis became the first Cabinet minister to wade into the row, saying it was “mad” to silence the bongs for so long, adding: “There’s hardly a health and safety argument... They should get on with it.”

Conservative MP Sir Paul Beresford, chairman of the administration committee that first approved the project in October 2015, said: “I don’t remember them [officials] ever saying the bells will be switched off for four years.

“If we had known the bells would be out of action for four years we would have asked them to work around it. It was not mentioned to the committee.”

Technicians cleaning Big Ben in 2014 Credit:  BEN STANSALL/AFP

Liberal Democrat Tom Brake, the MPs’ representative on the House of Commons Commission that then rubber-stamped the renovation, said: “It was never spelt out that Big Ben would be silenced for four years. I guess when the original plans were put forward it would not have been explained [to MPs] at that level of detail.”

Two other MPs - the Tory’s James Gray and Labour’s Mark Tami - confirmed they had not been told how long the bells would remain silent when giving the scheme the go-ahead.

Mr Brake will now demand that Palace of Westminster officials re-examine the scheme and assess the cost and practicality of ringing Big Ben when workers are off site.

Unite, the largest construction union, said it had no objection to Big Ben being rung when workers were off-site. 

Gail Cartmail, Unite’s assistant general secretary, said: “The safety of the workers undertaking the work must be paramount. However when the workers are off site, Unite would welcome the bells ringing as normal provided this doesn’t have any additional implications for safety on the project.”

The bell will chime on New Year's Eve and other special occasions Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

Steve Jaggs, the Keeper of the Clock, responsible for its conservation, has told The Telegraph it would be costly and complex to ensure Big Ben chimes when workers are off site. But when asked what that cost would be, he said no calculation had been made.

Mr Jaggs said: “We have to get value for money. It isn’t cost effective. I have to think of the Government’s purse and the public purse and whether it is worth the extra cost. It would be expensive and complicated.”

Authorities have put in place procedures for Big Ben to ring on special occasions that include New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday.

But on Tuesday evening, parliamentary authorities released a statement insisting that to ring the bell regularly would not be possible. 

In a statement, the House of Commons authorities said: “It would not be practical or a good use of public money to start and stop the bells each day. In addition, as we cannot fully predict the times that staff will be working on this project, it would be impossible to reconnect the bells on a regular basis.”

It went on: “Big Ben’s bongs are an integral part of parliamentary life and we will ensure that they can resume their role as the nation’s timekeeper as soon as possible.”

The renovation work includes installing a lift, largely to evacuate tourists who happen to be taken ill after climbing the 300-plus steps in the Elizabeth Tower; repair and redecoration; and improvement to the tower’s energy efficiency.

Workers could wear ear defenders to block out the noise of the bells while working but that is considered dangerous because they need to be able to communicate on a hazardous building site. 

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said it had worked with parliament and the building contractor to minimise risk to construction workers.

An HSE spokesman said: “People’s health should not be made worse by the work they do, so it is important that no worker should suffer any hearing loss while working on this project. 

“This has been one of many projects where we work with contractors in the planning stages, and we’ve noted how intricate, complex and challenging this particular exercise will be.”

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