Row over John Bercow's clerk choice 'will inflate Commons repair bill'

The increasingly personal row over Commons speaker John Bercow's choice of a new clerk of the House could lead to a hike in the cost of a planned £4bn renovation of Westminster Palace, senior parliamentary sources have claimed.

Bercow, a divisive figure in the Commons, has been roundly attacked after a six-strong panel he chaired backed Australian Carol Mills for the vacant position. The speaker's critics claim that Mills was selected to fit in with Bercow's modernising agenda but is unqualified for the role, which involves being both chief executive of parliament and a procedural expert in the Commons. Last Monday Bercow was forced to announce a pause in the recruitment process.

Now it has emerged that concerns are growing within the parliamentary estate that the delay in appointing a new clerk will add to the cost of the already hugely expensive renovation and restoration works being planned for parliament, starting in 2020. One source said further delays would also lead to long-term strategic decision-making being pushed back. Another said the delay in appointing a new clerk was "not helpful", but major decisions could wait until the spring of 2016.

Surveyors hired by the Commons Commission – the group of MPs chaired by Bercow that supervises its administration – have found major subsidence in Westminster Palace, partly as a result of the digging of the Jubilee Line in the 1990s.

The report said that the Big Ben clock tower is tilting 18in from the vertical and cracks have appeared in the walls of the Palace. The building also has electrical problems, fire risks and multiple safety hazards.

The surveyors say there needs to be a staged shutdown, section by section, over 10 to 20 years while the infrastructure is replaced. Until the works take place, the parliamentary estate is seeking to patch things up, which adds to the final cost of the renovation. The bill for making good just the current backlog of repairs would be at least £1bn, the Observer understands. The Commons chamber also needs extensive work and at some point during the next parliament will have to be shut for 18 months. The renovation works were raised repeatedly as a major issue by the panel that interviewed Mills for the job of clerk, it is understood.

The Observer also understands that Bercow is now preparing to fight back against his critics with an inquiry into how the name of his choice for clerk of the Commons was leaked to the press. A senior source in the parliamentary estate said a probe was "in the mix" as a potential next step for the speaker, who has been coming under increasingly personal attacks over the issue. Mills's name was leaked before an official announcement and the emergence of her identity was followed by a barrage of criticism from MPs.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, was even asked by Mills's predecessor, Sir Robert Rogers, to delay sending the name of his proposed successor to the Queen for approval because of concerns over the process. It is the first time the role has been externally advertised rather than being selected internally.Friends of the speaker believe much of the motivation behind the criticism is sexist or designed to undermine Bercow. Tory MP Michael Fabricant, one of Bercow's fiercest critics, claimed last week that Bercow may have inadvertently misled the Commons over the process that led to Mills's appointment. He added: "I have had so many messages of support from junior employees of the House saying 'go for it, the speaker is a c***'. I don't use language like that, but I do think he can be a bit of a knob."

However, sources close to Bercow said he was now in "listening mode". The speaker sent an email to every MP following his announcement on Monday asking for opinions on the recruitment process for the clerk of the Commons. It is understood that he has been inundated with responses.

Powered by article was written by Daniel Boffey, for The Observer on Saturday 6th September 2014 21.20 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010