Officials put dampener on Theresa May's call not to silence Big Ben

House of Commons commission says plans to silence London landmark for renovation work will go ahead despite PM’s objection

Parliamentary officials have issued a defiant statement saying plans to silence Big Ben for renovation work will go ahead, after Theresa May criticised proposals to silence the chimes for the next four years.

Officials said the decision to stop the bell tolling until 2021 as part of the restoration of the Elizabeth Tower was agreed by three separate parliamentary committees in 2015. MPs were reportedly unaware that this would involve the clock being silenced for four years, double the length of time being taken to negotiate Brexit.

The House of Commons commission, however, said it had heard the concerns of MPs. “In light of concerns expressed by a number of MPs, the House of Commons commission will consider the length of time that the bells will fall silent,” it said.

Speaking at an event in Portsmouth on her first day back at work after her summer holiday, the prime minister said the Speaker, John Bercow, should review the decision urgently. “Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years,” she said.

“And I hope that the Speaker, as the chairman of the House of Commons commission, will look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.”

The commission, the administrative body that runs the Commons, had already announced a review of the decision to silence the bongs, which has been criticised particularly strongly in conservative papers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

In a statement on parliament’s website following the prime minister’s intervention, the commission said: “Starting and stopping Big Ben is a complex and lengthy process. The striking hammer is locked and the bells can then be disconnected from the clock mechanism. The weights are lowered within the weight shaft to the base of the tower and secured in a safe position. The whole process takes around half a day to complete.

“Following a thorough assessment, experts have concluded that it would not be practical or a good use of public money to start and stop the bells each day, particularly as we cannot fully predict the times that staff will be working on this project.”

Any new discussions with MPs about the length of time the bells will fall silent will “focus on undertaking the work efficiently, protecting the health and safety of those involved, and seeking to ensure resumption of normal service as soon as is practicable given those requirements”, the statement said.

“The bells will cease to ring, as planned, following the chimes at noon on Monday 21 August.”

The plan is for Big Ben to continue to chime on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday, but some MPs have complained the clock is being decommissioned for far too long. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, reportedly described the plans as mad.

The Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, a spokesman for the commission, said on Tuesday: “I have asked whether someone can do some work working out what the costings and the practicality of ringing more frequently would be.

“It would not be possible for them to continue to be rung every 15 minutes as is currently the case, that would not be practical, but it may be perhaps practical and it may be financially viable to ring them more frequently than is currently being proposed.”

Brake confirmed that when the restoration plans were approved MPs did not know the full ramifications for the operation of Big Ben.

The project will involve extensive repairs to the whole clock towerand the dismantling and restoration of the clock. The 13.5-tonne bell will not be removed but it will be checked for cracks.

One reason given for the silencing of the clock was to protect the hearing of workers , prompting complaints in the press about health and safety overkill. The TUC released a statement this week saying protecting workers from a 120-decibel sound was “just plain common sense”.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said he was sad about the silencing of the clock, but that it was clear the work was needed and safety should be a priority.

“I’ve been listening to Big Ben for many years and I’ll certainly miss it, so if we can have a … some kind of playing of Big Ben’s sound would be a very good idea,” he told LBC. “Or we could have bells from all over the country played at various points.

“I hope Big Ben comes back, but obviously, people working right alongside that wonderful, massive bell need to be protected as well and so their safety, their working conditions and their health must come first, and so if we have to miss Big Ben in reality for a while so that work can be done, well, that’s something we have to go through. It’s not a national disaster or catastrophe.”

The Labour MP Chris Bryant, who sits on the Palace of Westminster’s restoration committee, said he was astonished at the reaction to a plan which he said the prime minister and cabinet had known about for years.

“I’m mystified at the idiocy of some people. It was always going to be four years because 2021 is when we are scheduled to move out of parliament for the restoration work,” he said. “The work is urgently needed on the glass, which is in danger of falling off and on the mechanics of the clock itself.

“How anybody could think that this work could take place without the bell being silent, I cannot comprehend. Anyone who read the papers and didn’t realise this would mean the bell would be ongoing doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near any other major decision.”

Bryant said he spoke personally to May last summer when they discussed the fact that Big Ben would be silenced. “She didn’t demur then,” he said. He also pointed out that the bell had been silenced on several previous occasions, including during the first world war, and suggested using another bell toll such as Great Tom in Oxford for the BBC.

“My worry is that we will make the same mistake as the past restoration of the Palace of Westminster, which was overcomplicated and delayed by decades because of interventions by politicians,” he said.


Andrew Sparrow and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Big Ben to be silenced for four years for maintenance
People are being asked to gather to mark the moment, at noon on 21 August, when restoration work halts the hourly chimes

Jamie Grierson

14, Aug, 2017 @8:24 AM

Article image
Emmeline Pankhurst will stand her ground outside parliament
Proposed move of statue funded by suffragettes to Regent’s Park led to outcry

Aamna Mohdin

17, Sep, 2018 @11:51 AM

Article image
UK parliament could suffer same fate as Notre Dame, warn MPs
Palace of Westminster caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012

Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

16, Apr, 2019 @12:09 PM

Article image
MPs expected to gather to hear Big Ben's last bongs before repairs
Labour MP Stephen Pound says he hopes ‘traditionalists’ will assemble to witness chimes before they are silenced

Heather Stewart Political editor

20, Aug, 2017 @5:45 PM

Article image
Parliament apologises for photographing rough sleepers
Contractor took photos of homeless people as they slept near palace of Westminster

Diane Taylor

19, Sep, 2019 @2:25 PM

Article image
Stonehenge may be next UK site to lose world heritage status
Britain is eroding global reputation for conserving its historic assets, culture bodies are warning

Josh Halliday North of England correspondent

23, Jul, 2021 @3:58 PM

Article image
Irish prime minister dismisses Theresa May's border idea
Leo Varadkar says US-Canada style border ‘not a solution we could possibly entertain’

Peter Walker, Lisa O'Carroll and Anushka Asthana

05, Mar, 2018 @7:41 PM

Article image
Theresa May's new Brexit deal: point-by-point analysis
The prime minister has made a 10-point offer to MPs. Here are the pledges she made

Peter Walker Political correspondent

21, May, 2019 @4:56 PM

Article image
MPs farewell Big Ben's hourly chimes, not with a bong but a whimper | John Crace
As bell is silenced for four years of restoration, even Labour’s Steve Pound finds it hard to muster a melodromatic tear

John Crace

21, Aug, 2017 @3:36 PM

Article image
Westminster: plans for Olympics-style body to oversee restoration works
MPs to vote on proposals for Houses of Parliament refurbishment

Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

07, May, 2019 @11:00 PM