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Wednesday, 15 November, 2000, 03:26 GMT
Inside Portcullis House
Portcullis House
Portcullis House is the subject of an inquiry
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

Step into Portcullis House and you would be excused for believing you were in a glorified shopping centre or a luxury hotel.

Trickling pools of water, tall fig trees, a beautiful glass-topped atrium, cafes - they all go to create an atmosphere akin to upmarket consumerism.

But Portcullis House is, in fact, an extremely expensive office block for MPs which has cost so much money it is going to be the subject of an inquiry by the National Audit Office (NAO).

With a bill of around 235 million - that's more than 1 million for each MP who has been able to secure a room - Portcullis House was bound to be controversial.

Leaking roof

It has had to cope with a leaking roof, malfunctioning lifts, and disabled toilets that some disabled people say they cannot access.

The fig trees - which are leased from Belgium for five years - have cost 150,000, and bronze cladding in the building cost 30 million.

This was truly an exercise in which no expense was spared - even the lifts are padded.

There is no doubt the office space is impressive. Labour MP Austin Mitchell let News Online into his new bolthole and it is an improvement compared to cramped conditions in the Commons.

More a suite than an office

It is not so much an office as a suite of two rooms, one furnished with three comfy chairs - apparently at 440 each - the other with space for Mr Mitchell and an assistant.

At five storeys up, in what he calls the relegation corridor, the veteran leftwinger's office boasts a glimpse of nearby Nelson's column from its "hermetically sealed" windows.

Austin Mitchell
Austin Mitchell who has an office in the building
He contrasts the building with a luxury hotel in foreign climes but has yet to master the light switches which, he says, seem to have a mind of their own.

The facilities are good, though, with bathrooms round the corner for the more fastidious MPs and restaurants down below which, once they open, will cater to Westminster's long working day.

Built for 200 years

This is a building built to last 200 years.

It immortalises Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson, whose names have been given to adjoining meeting rooms.

Unfortunately, what should have been a perfectly reasonable move to create decent working conditions for the nation's MPs has become shrouded in controversy.

And until the NAO report next year the matter looks set to drag on.

For now, there are plenty of MPs willing to express disapproval of the project.

They include Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who is a long-time critic of the project.

He said: "Hopefully, the National Audit Office will get to the bottom of why the project was allowed to spend taxpayers' money so freely."

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See also:

25 Jul 00 | UK Politics
MPs' fig tree flamboyancy
27 Nov 99 | UK Politics
1m bill for Downing Street decoration
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