Previous Section Home Page

Column 940

Catering Committee (Reports)

10.43 pm

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford) : I beg to move,

That this House approves the First Report from the Catering Committee of Session 1993-94, on Refreshment Services for the House of Commons (House of Commons Paper No. 75), and the First Report from the Catering Committee of Session 1992-93, on Refreshment Provision for Line of Route Visitors (House of Commons Paper No. 307). I am pleased to propose the motion to approve the two reports, representing between them nearly two years' work by the Catering Committee. I thank my colleagues on the Committee for the assiduous way in which they have tackled the two inquiries and for the spirit of co-operation that has prevailed throughout. I should also like to express our thanks to all those who helped in the preparation of the reports--and especially to the Director of Catering Services and her staff, who unfailingly and efficiently assisted the Committee throughout our inquiries, to the Parliamentary Works Directorate for its assistance, and to the various consultants who provided specialist advice.

I shall concentrate first on the major report of the Committee, which is an in-depth study of the long-term catering needs of Members of the House and other Refreshment Department users, and which examines the need to move towards compliance with health, hygiene and safety at work legislation, in line with the policy of the House authorities.

In the course of our inquiry we received evidence, written and oral, from Members, from the trade union side of the Whitley Committee, from the Secretaries and Assistants Council and from the Parliamentary Press Gallery. One of the purposes of our inquiry was to increase the safety of Refreshment Department staff, and we took evidence from the Hotel and Catering Workers Union. That was in addition to meetings, on and off the record, with the various consultants and others. The Committee is enormously grateful to the Members and other witnesses who contributed to the inquiry. It became obvious to the Committee at an early stage in our inquiry that simply tackling the problem of seeking to comply with the relevant legislation would be time consuming and costly--not to mention the need to remedy the effects of what might politely be called deferred maintenance. It was also obvious to the Committee that doing nothing was not an option. Indeed, a specialist in environmental health said in evidence :

"an in-depth inspection by an EHO from Westminster City Council would result in at best an improvement notice or at worst a prohibition notice being served."

Hon. Members may recall the difficulties that were experienced in another place a few years ago, when there was an incidence of salmonella. That resulted in a complete refurbishment of the kitchens on what can only be described as a crash basis, with lack of time spent on site investigation and planning, leading to a massive overrun of cash and of time. Luckily, in that case there were no long-term serious effects from the illness, but the Committee feels that there is a substantial risk that a similar or even worse instance could occur here at any time, and the risk of a serious accident to Refreshment Department staff is also ever-present. Having concluded that rapid action was necessary to attempt to remedy the worst defects, the Committee determined to take a strategic view of what should be

Column 941

provided ; it did so with the aid of a food service consultant's report, which was then progressed by a team of architects who refined the proposals to offer practical solutions that would not have adverse effects on this historic building.

The report that the House is being asked to approve is a result of the various deliberations that followed. Some detailed planning has yet to be done, but I shall highlight the main changes that we propose.

From a health and safety point of view, probably the worst area, and the most urgently in need of improvement, is the kitchen servicing Members' and Strangers' cafeterias. Refurbishment of that area, which was initially planned for 1992, was postponed because we were advised that the refurbishment that was planned would not solve the inadequacies of the kitchen. Under the Committee's plan, the cafeterias would be enlarged and converted into one large cafeteria, with dedicated seating for Members. The kitchen would be moved from its present position to the area below the Tea Room that is currently occupied by Annie's Bar and other domestic offices. That would provide greatly increased capacity and a safer, cleaner, more efficient kitchen, with proper ventilation capability.

The Members' Tea Room is another area that fills the consultants with anxiety for both customers and staff. Indeed, they suggested that there should be a great reduction in the number of menu items, and one thread that ran through the evidence that we took was that that suggestion would meet with a strong rejection. I have to declare an interest as a regular user of the Tea Room--I think that you are too, Mr. Deputy Speaker--and say that the unique nature of the service that one receives is something to be closely protected. That is not to say that improvements cannot and should not be made, particularly to the quality of the food and beverages provided there. The Committee therefore set out to find a solution to the conundrum. The proposed solution is an example of why the strategic approach adopted by the Committee is, in our view, the best way to solve the various problems, and we do not consider that it would be feasible to select projects from within the package of proposals. With the change of position of the Members' and Strangers' cafeteria kitchen, it will be possible to provide a proper service to the Members' Tea Room which is directly above it. Thus it should be possible to eliminate the long and inefficient counter which some consider is also unsightly, and to eliminate the long queues which many of us experience when we only want a quick cup of tea. The change would give more space for Members without any significant change to the range of items currently offered.

If the House approves our proposals, several consequential changes will be necessary. We propose that the Lady Members' Room, which is situated on the other side of the main Terrace entrance to the Strangers' Bar should be relocated to allow an enlarged Strangers' Bar to be created in its stead. We recommend that the present staff bar should become Annie's Bar. It will also be necessary to change the location of the barber's and to close part of the north curtain corridor. Perhaps I should again declare an interest and say that this proposed closure is regrettable to those of us who have offices in that area. However, the plans provide for alternative access to the affected areas.

Column 942

As these consequential changes affect accommodation that is not currently occupied by the Refreshment Department and involve substantial work, I expect that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Accommodation and Works, may seek to speak in the debate. I met the members of that Committee on two occasions to explain the proposals of the Select Committee on Catering.

The other consequential change which has a connection with the other reports that we are debating is to the souvenir shop. The success of souvenir sales and the location of the shop have led to continual overcrowding and lack of space for stock. Our proposal is to create a self- contained shop close to the present position and available to pass holders only. Our proposals for visitors are contained in our other report, to which I shall refer shortly. As well as these major changes involving substantial alterations to our front-of-house facilities, the problem of compliance with legislation has led us to propose a complete rebuilding of the central kitchen located on the ground and principal floors. That rebuilding will enable a total reorganisation of the kitchen that services the Members' and Strangers' Dining Rooms and the private dining facilities in order to avoid the major risk of

cross-contamination of food that currently occurs in this area. These changes are many and a little difficult to visualise, but reference to our report, copies of which are in the Vote Office, should clarify our proposals. The changes will enable the problem of the staff changing rooms to be addressed at the same time. Those have been the subject of much concern for many years ; earlier proposals were shelved because if they had been adopted the money spent would have been wasted.

Those are the Committee's major proposals. There are others in the report that time will not allow me to comment upon in detail. Perhaps I could highlight two. My first comment is on the Members' and Strangers' Dining Rooms. We heard in evidence that at lunch time the Members' Dining Room, which has a capacity of 120, served an average of only 21 covers, while next door the Strangers' Dining Room is regularly over-subscribed. The Committee proposes that for a trial period of 12 months the Members' and Strangers' Dining Rooms should be exchanged at lunch time only. At the end of that trial period I expect my Committee to review the situation and receive representations from hon. Members.

The Committee proposes in its report that the dispense bar for Members and Strangers' Dining Rooms be relocated so as to allow the principal floor corridor with its elegant stone vaulted ceiling to be opened up. When the Select Committee on Finance and Services considered our report, it felt that that was an unnecessary expense at this time. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), who is the Chairman of that Committee, will seek to speak later in the debate. As hon. Members would expect, the examination by that Committee was thorough.

To keep the cost of the redevelopment to a minimum, my Committee had already made several reductions, including the deletion of a proposal for a new wine bar. In addition. the Committee has looked carefully at the programme of works to ensure that the most dangerous

Column 943

areas are tackled first, but proposes that the work should be phased over several years. That, too, will assist in spreading the financial load.

Another aspect should be borne in mind when costs are being considered. There will be those inside and outside the House who will accuse us of extravagance. Those who would make those allegations should be reminded that there are at least 3,700 people entitled to use Refreshment Department facilities, many of whom are expected to work very long or unsocial hours. Hon. Members, in addition to working long hours, do not often have the option of eating elsewhere because of the demands of parliamentary business. My Committee therefore makes no apology for proposing measures that will protect all those who eat here, while in the process making improvements to our refreshment services.

The main element of the cost is in making the structural changes necessary so that proper kitchens and other domestic offices can be installed. To that end, we already have in the kitty some £2.5 million, which will be used to offset some of the costs. That money comes from accrued surpluses from the trading accounts over the past few years.

If our proposals are adopted, many years of under-investment, resulting in potential hazard to customers and Refreshment Department staff, will be corrected, resulting in a healthier, safer position for everyone. The Refreshment Department will be able to meet the provisions of the relevant legislation that has been approved by Parliament as appropriate for the rest of the population. At the same time, the existing facilities will, for the most part, be retained or improved. In the case of the Members and Strangers' cafeterias, an increase in the seating capacity and an improvement in the quality of food will result.

Those who press the case for the continuation of Annie's Bar and for formal lunches in the Members' Dining Room will have the opportunity to demonstrate the need. The Members' Tea Room will continue to offer broadly the same choice of food as at present in improved surroundings and with shorter queues at peak times, especially for those requiring only beverages.

The other report on which the House is being asked to express a view relates to refreshment provision for Line-of-Route visitors. We received many representations about the appalling lack of refreshment facilities for visitors, some 100,000 of whom tour the Line of Route every year. In addition, Members, their staff and staff of the House frequently receive visitors and it would be advantageous to make light refreshments available for those visitors to purchase. The Committee is also aware of the overcrowding that often occurs around the existing souvenir kiosk when Members' parties ask to make the necessary detour to that busy area. We took evidence in the inquiry from Members, consultants, the Serjeant at Arms, the Public Information Officer and the Education Officer. We also received memorandums from many Members and others. Again, we are most grateful for the contributions of all concerned.

The Committee considered the various options, including the use of the former St. Stephen's tavern, which is situated at the corner of the phase 1 parliamentary building. We did not consider the former tavern to be suitable for the purpose because of its location but,

Column 944

together with colleagues on the Accommodation and Works Committee, we intend to review its use as the phase 2 parliamentary building nears completion.

We are of the opinion that the best long-term solution is to convert the present Westminster Hall cafeteria into a visitors' centre, which as well as offering light refreshments would include toilet facilities and a souvenir kiosk selling a range of items more appropriate to visitors, including school parties. The cafeteria is well located at the end of the Line of Route and exit could be arranged so that visitors could rejoin the current public exit route through the carriage gates.

Although the Committee identified the problem as needing early attention, it was also aware of the continuing use, mainly by staff, of the cafeteria at lunchtime. The other current overcrowded facilities available to staff would not be able to absorb those users. The Committee therefore proposes that the change should be made at the earliest opportunity after the additional capacity becomes available as a result of the redevelopment plan contained in our other report or, at the latest, when the refreshment facilities in phase 2 become available.

In the meantime, there is the continuing problem of the overcrowding of the souvenir kiosk area. As a temporary measure, the Committee concluded that a suitably attractive temporary kiosk should be erected in the north-east corner of Westminster Hall until the visitors' centre became available. Although that proposal might seem controversial to some, I remind the House that, until about 100 years ago, this historic place saw all manner of activities. One witness said that it was not always the "solemn, gloomy cavern" that it is today. The Committee recommends, therefore, a temporary course of action for the consideration of the House.

The House has a rare opportunity tonight to take a long-term view of its future need for refreshment services. The reports, taken together--bearing in mind the refreshment provision contained in the phase 2 new parliamentary building--propose a long-term strategy that will remedy the past lack of maintenance, bring the House towards compliance with legislation in accordance with its policy and provide vastly improved facilities for Members, staff and visitors alike. The reports were agreed unanimously by the Committee and I commend them to the House.

11.2 pm

Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton) : A former friend of mine inherited his father's shop. In renovating the premises he noticed that the front step was badly worn. Being a thrifty man, he decided to dig up the step and turn it over to use the unworn part and so save money. However, when he dug up the step, he discovered that his equally thrifty father had already taken the same action. The moral is that sometimes, for all one's thrift, it is necessary to spend money to renovate and replace equipment for good safety reasons. There is a parallel with the story that I have recounted, and that is the necessary refurbishment of the refreshment services. When we consider the facilities offered by the Refreshment Department, it is obvious that much of the kitchen equipment is old, inefficient and scheduled for replacement. Premises are dilapidated, do not reach the standard required by current legislation and are generally inadequate for the number of customers.

Column 945

The number of people using the Department on a daily basis is as follows : Members, 651 ; Officers, 150 ; staff, 942 ; Members' staff and research assistants, 1,300 ; security staff, 500 ; and workmen, 180. That is a total of 3,723. But as there are about 10,000 security passes in circulation, the number of customers is far greater than 3, 700. In addition, there are about 800 visitors a day. There are also contractors--the number is variable--and banqueting guests. Apart from the demands of increasing numbers of customers, the past 20 years during which I have been a Member have seen immense changes in the areas that impact on the Refreshment Department. For example, there have been tremendous changes in people's eating habits--styles of food, menu and diet. There have been changes also in working hours, styles of service in employee catering, modern technology and value for money.

With the increasing number of customers and their demands, it can be seen that the pressure on accommodation has meant that there has been limited opportunity to expand refreshment facilities in line with the increase in refreshment requirements of the potential users.

Reports in 1966-67, 19967-68 and 1978-79 concentrated on financial and operational matters and services tended to develop in a piecemeal way. At the same time changes in people's eating habits and expectations led to an expansion in the range and variety of food demand. That meant that existing resources had to be adapted in an ad hoc manner.

With all those changes, the Committee decided to undertake a wide-ranging inquiry into the services provided by the Department. It sought to assess whether the health and safety, hygiene, fire and ventilation standards are being properly met. The Committee had to bear in mind the fact that in the past piecemeal changes, such as the refurbishment of obsolete equipment, did not deal with the underlying problems. Nor did they provide a cost- efficient solution. Instead, the Committee had to bear in mind the importance of remedying the effects of years of deferred maintenance and modernising and of reordering the kitchens to ensure greater safety and efficiency. The Committee was satisfied that a longer-term policy was required, while taking into account the Palace of Westminster's status as a grade 1 listed building, limitations on space and the need to provide services that can respond to flexible demand. The Committee decided to make recommendations for a programme of necessary and in some cases urgent work, to be phased over a period of years to avoid disruption and excessive peaks of expenditure.

Accordingly, the Committee commissioned two surveys. The first, from Food Service Associates (Henley) Ltd., included an extensive study of the existing Refreshment Department and made substantial suggestions for change. The second report was from Winton Food Management Service, which specialises in the hygiene and safety aspects of catering. In view of the urgency of some recommendations, the Committee agreed as early as 15 July 1992 to purchase immediately refrigeration equipment.

Column 946

The Winton report commented that an in-depth inspection by an environmental health officer would result at best in the serving of an improvement notice or at worst--I want the House to remember this--a prohibition notice, which would result in the relevant areas being closed until remedial works had been undertaken.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham) : When was the last time that a Member of Parliament, or anybody else, contracted food poisoning or was injured by fire in the Palace of Westminster ?

Mr. Callaghan : There was an outbreak of salmonella poisoning in the House of Lords a year or two ago. That is what we are afraid of--that a disaster is waiting to happen.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a question not of reported cases of food poisoning ? We do not know the extent to which people become ill as a consequence of food eaten here, insanitary arrangements, and lack of compliance with health and safety and food hygiene standards in the kitchens of the House.

Mr. Callaghan : I agree.

The Committee took oral and written evidence from a wide range of opinion. Witnesses included Members of Parliament, staff, members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and Whitley Committee and trade union representatives. It became clear to the Committee that compliance with relevant hygiene and safety legislation was necessary.

We heard from Food Service Associates at the start of the oral evidence that doing nothing was not an option. The Committee accepts that there is no alternative but urgent and effective action to ensure that relevant health, hygiene and safety standards are met in Refreshment Department outlets.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : The hon. Gentleman mentioned an environmental health officer, but am I correct in thinking that no such officer came to the Palace or made a report ?

Mr. Callaghan : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Outside consultants said that if environmental officers came to the House--which they cannot, because it is Crown property--they might close the place down.

If those standards are not met, we shall encounter the same problems as arose in the House of Lords kitchen some years ago. It was clear from evidence presented to the Committee that the area most in need of urgent attention is the Members and Strangers cafeteria. Another area that will require upgrading is the principal kitchen. Other areas urgently needing attention are the Churchill Room, the Press Gallery kitchens and the Westminster Hall cafeteria. However, major works in the House can be undertaken only during the summer recess. So we recommend a redevelopment plan over six years, under which the modernisation of the Refreshment Department will be phased in. The Strangers and Members cafeterias will be treated as a top priority.

Under our recommendations for a phased approach, the cost of the work would be similarly spread, so that it would not take a disproportionate share of the works budget in any one year. The provision of such funds is therefore a matter for decision by the House of Commons

Column 947

Commission on the basis of recommendations from the Finance and Services Committee after a debate to enable the House to express its views.

The implementation of our report is not a matter for the members of our Committee. We have simply drawn attention to what needs to be done. We are concerned that emergency unplanned expenditure under crisis conditions would lead to uncontrollable costs--but I ask the House to remember that doing nothing is not an option.

In recommending the report to the House, I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, its members and the officers who served it. I also congratulate all the witnesses who helped the Committee to produce such a detailed and sensible report.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. Before I call other hon. Members to speak I should point out that the debate will finish at 12.13. Apart from the two Front-Bench Members, six other hon. Members want to catch my eye, and if hon. Members give their co-operation, all six may be successful.

11.11 pm

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West) : As my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) said, I speak on behalf of the Finance and Services Committee--and I shall speak only for a few minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members who have taken the trouble to find out already know the Committee's views, because we published our minutes a short while ago.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and his Committee for their excellent work in producing the two reports, and to the Director of Catering Services and the Director of Works and their staffs for the enormous support that they have given to the Catering Committee and to my Committee in the course of several discussions on that important topic. I must also say how much I agree with every word spoken by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan), who made a powerful case in favour of the changes. Many hon. Members have said this, and it is in danger of becoming a cliche , but the first thing that the House must understand is that we cannot do nothing. There is a very urgent requirement to take action in line with hygiene and health and safety legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the Refreshment Department has nine kitchens and more than 300 staff. We have a duty to ensure that its staff work in a safe environment and that the meals produced here--last year there were about 1 million of them--are not at risk from health hazards.

Mr. Stephen : My right hon. Friend will be aware that the taxpayer would have to produce a very large sum to finance the schemes, if they are approved. On the evidence that we have been given concerning an outbreak of salmonella in the House of Lords some years ago, is he really satisfied that that level of expenditure is really necessary ?

Mr. Channon : Reluctantly, I must tell my hon. Friend that we are. Naturally, when the Finance and Services Committee first considered the report and its major proposals, we took it with a pinch of salt, if I may use that

Column 948

expression. However, the more we investigated, the clearer it became that it was essential that something radical be done. I shall deal with all the points that my hon. Friend raised, and the first thing to say is that we operate as if we were covered by legislation. It is our policy, in the end--perhaps not too far ahead--to remove the immunity from health and safety legislation that we currently possess. It must remain a reasonable aim for the House of Commons to ensure that our facilities reach the standards that we have required others to adopt, under legislation that we have voted for--certainly I have voted for it--in the past.

Secondly, if we are to undertake such major changes we must have a strategic approach. Will they be introduced as a logical scheme or not ? I think that, for the first time, the consultants and the architects have planned a logical scheme. No doubt there are differences of detail, which can be debated later, and can be changed. And colleagues can make their views clear tonight. But we must have an overall solution and not introduce piecemeal measures that will be much more wasteful and cause just as much disruption and a great deal of extravagance and not solve the problem.

I regret saying it, but, in the light of the deferring of maintenance during the past few years, we cannot delay the schemes any longer. Schemes, costing some £2 million, have been put off recently until a comprehensive plan could be agreed. It is extremely difficult to undertake works in the Palace which will not cost a lot of money. In a grade 1 building of this kind it is vital to respect the quality of the building during such work.

We are also hampered by the need to do most of the work during the summer recess. When else can it be done ? Such constraints are familiar to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), who may seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the members of his Committee, who compile the 10-year rolling programme of works. They need to be associated in the decisions that have to be made annually. If the House wants to go ahead with the programme, we shall look carefully at each year's works programme when we prepare the estimates. We shall also use the £2.5 million trading surplus from the Catering Committee to reduce the total cost to public funds. The projects can be funded within the normal scale of financial provision for the works vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford raised two points of detail with which I shall deal briefly. The first was the question of the dispense bar. My Committee is not at all sure that the proposal for that is a good idea. Nevertheless, we shall reconsider it when the overall proposals are re- examined. It is quite expensive and there may be other objections to it as well. We do not have a closed mind, but we are suspicious.

The souvenir kiosk is a matter for the authorities that control Westminster Hall. It is not a matter for my Committee. The first figures for such a kiosk were vast. I am glad that they have been substantially reduced, although it is not cheap even now. However, I do see merits in making better provision for Line of Route visitors, and I accept the target of creating a visitors centre in the space now used by the Westminster Hall cafeteria. But that project needs a great deal of work before final plans can come forward.

Column 949

Mr. Steen : My right hon. Friend said that the work could be contained within the normal vote for repairs to the Palace. Can he give the House some idea of what we are talking about in terms of annual expenditure ?

Mr. Channon : Yes. I would mislead the House if I went into that in too much detail. I shall write to my hon. Friend if he would like. I have here the expenditure for the House of Commons works votes and the total costs will not vary considerably if the proposals are taken forward. I assume that my hon. Friend is in favour of the proposals, as he was a member of the Committee, was present when the Committee deliberated on the matter and voted in favour of the report. I take what he says as a constructive statement in support of the Committee's proposals.

My final point relates to the Refreshment Department. In the past 10 years a great deal has been done. We have a new and effective management team and an excellent staff, and the operation to deliver the services has become much larger. There are now 3l outlets spread over three sites.

My Committee will continue to monitor the Department's financial performance, and our aim is to support it in its aim to provide good food at reasonable prices to those who have to be here. We are gradually transferring costs from the House vote to the trading operation and setting sharper financial targets. If we are to improve standards further, we have to rebuild the kitchens and reorder some of the outlets.

I accept the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend. I congratulate the Director of Catering Services and her staff and my hon. Friend and his Committee. They deserve the support of the House on the two reports that the Committee has produced. The House has no practical alternative but to accept the reports tonight.

11.18 pm

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) : I shall be brief because I know that several other hon. Members wish to participate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and his Committee on the two reports that they have produced and the time that they have spent doing so. On numerous occasions, my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) has had to excuse himself for two or three hours to attend the Catering Committee. Likewise, I have had to attend the Accommodation and Works Committee. I receive a lot of support from members of my Committee and I am sure that the hon. Member for Hereford receives tremendous support from his Committee members, although I may be more fortunate than he in that I hear no dissenting voices after my Committee has presented its reports. I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Finance and Services for his work in trying to accommodate all the reports from the Catering Committee. While we are all in the mood for congratulating and thanking people, I should like to take perhaps the only opportunity that we are afforded in the House to thank Committee members, who serve the interests of all hon. Members and who undertake a task that is distinct from their jobs as constituency Members of Parliament and their pursuit of a political career. They serve the House and do the job voluntarily. No one even offers them £1,000 for tabling questions.

I have found out about the work that the Catering Committee has already completed and I have read its

Column 950

reports and proposals. Hon. Members are in the House a lot of the time and spend many hours here. When we go to the Refreshment Department for our meals, we expect them to be adequate and facilities to be readily available, and we should be assured that hygiene is given top priority. Some hon. Members have voiced disquiet over the fact that the Refreshment Department would probably have been closed a long time ago if it were an outside catering organisation. We should appreciate what the Committee are doing to try to improve that position.

In many ways, the exercise promoted by the Catering Committee in both reports on refreshment services is not unlike the task that my Committee faces whenever it is asked to justify the expenditure of public money on improvements to the fabric of this fine Victorian palace. Both Committees face some degree of criticism due to the lack of understanding of two major factors.

First, it is the duty of the domestic Committees and the House of Commons Commission, in the context of a responsible, co-ordinated and planned set of programmes, to reduce the backlog of refurbishment work that has built up over many years, and to provide hon. Members and staff who have to work in these buildings with the essential minimum health and safety standards that would be taken for granted in many public buildings and commercial enterprises. Secondly, it must be recognised that the twin demands of the need to meet the stringent quality requirements of a historic, listed building and to undertake work without disruption to Parliament and its Committees add a premium to the work that is carried out.

I compliment the Director of Works and the Director of Catering Services on their efforts to tailor their major refurbishment and deep-servicing programmes into the period of the recesses. That is even more difficult when, as nowadays, so many hon. Members and staff continue their work throughout the recesses.

At one time, as soon as the recess started, House officials had far more opportunity to work because most of them were unoccupied and hon. Members had gone on holiday or to their constituencies. Today, when one comes back during the recess for a week or a fortnight, one finds that hon. Members may not be here, but the staff usually are. As a result, that poses further problems for hon. Members, the Director of Works and others.

On the second report, the time is long overdue when the House should be expected to provide visitors with some sort of refreshment when they come here. Many of our constituents, some of them disabled, travel for many miles and several hours to see their Member of Parliament and to visit the House. It is no more than common decency that they should be able to rest and have a cup of tea in decent surroundings, instead of being rudely tipped out into the street at the end of their visit.

Some weeks ago, a party of schoolchildren from my constituency visited the House. At 1 pm, when we had finished the tour, the children had to leave Westminster Hall and go out into the rain because there was nowhere in the House for them to have a sandwich or a cup of tea before returning at 2.15 to see the Speaker's procession and try to obtain tickets for the Strangers Gallery.

That does not only happen to my constituents ; it happens every day of the week to hon. Members who receive visitors. That is deplorable. We visit Parliaments in other countries and see what they offer--particularly the Canberra Parliament, which has a new building. The Government there encourage children to visit the building

Column 951

and see democracy at work. If we want to encourage young people to know what democracy and Parliament are all about, it is high time that we provided decent facilities for visiting constituents. I do not want to go into the details of all the proposals. As the hon. Member for Hereford will know, my Committee has studied them in depth, and they have been adequately covered in the speeches of other hon. Members--particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan), who is a member of the Catering Committee, and the speech of the Chairman of the Committee himself. My Committee, however, is aware of the effect of the proposed changes on accommodation. I suggest full consultation with those whose accommodation or facilities would be affected, and careful consideration should be given to the views of English Heritage and those in whom control of Westminster Hall is vested before a temporary souvenir kiosk is introduced into that historic part of the building.

The report mentions staff changing rooms. I have often talked to staff, especially the catering staff downstairs. They have no rest room, and they have to go into the toilets to change their clothes. This country has the mother of Parliaments ; yet where in the world could we find another Parliament that does not even provide facilities for staff to change their clothes ? In fact, we have now converted rooms in the area to give staff such facilities, but they still need a rest room. They should have at least as many facilities here as they would have outside ; at present, they have far fewer facilities.

I mentioned alternative accommodation for Members. We know what happens once a Member is moved out of accommodation that he has enjoyed for 10, 15 or 20 years, especially if he could step straight out on to the Terrace : that is a lovely location. There could also be problems for those who frequently use Annie's Bar and the Strangers Bar ; indeed, the changes in that regard have already prompted criticisms. My Committee, however, unanimously approved those changes, considering them reasonable, and I believe that they will lead to a major improvement.

11.28 pm

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) : It is a great pleasure for me to speak soon after the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan). We have both been Members of Parliament for 17 years, although at one stage he displaced me in the part of his constituency that we once shared. Now we find ourselves participating in the same debate, and very much on the same side. I very much endorse his remarks. I echo his tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) for the unruffled way in which my hon. Friend undertakes the thankless job, in a sense, of being Chairman of the Select Committee on Catering. As Chairman, he is therefore often the main target for brickbats which come his way from any disgruntled person who did not perhaps like his previous meal.

Our great difficulty in addressing the subject is that we are open to the charge that we appear to be recommending the expenditure of a large sum of money. There will be ready critics, certainly outside the House and, perhaps, some inside the House, who will ask how dare we suggest spending a large sum of money on ourselves. It needs to be emphasised, as has already been mentioned, that it is a

Column 952

debate about facilities not for 651 Members of Parliament, but for many thousands of people--the 3,000 people who work here in addition to Members of Parliament and the many more thousands of people who visit in the course of the year. We have a responsibility which goes beyond trying to ensure that there is some sort of basic standard of luxury for Members of Parliament. It should extend to ensuring that there is a decent standard of provision for all the people who work here in whatever capacity and also for those who visit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) has sounded a warning of the concerns which, of course, we should feel. It would be reprehensible if it could be shown that we were behaving in a cavalier fashion and were apparently prepared to put the pen to a cheque for a very large sum of taxpayers' money for apparently frivolous purposes. I have certainly been convinced from our work in Committee that the proposed provision is not a frivolous purpose. The difficulty with which the Committee was faced in trying to address the problems first stemmed from the nature of the Palace itself. It is not possible to imagine that Sir Charles Barry or those who instructed him could have known that, 140 years later, the Palace would be used so heavily. If we were to adjust this fine building to the needs which confront us, we would be involved in making changes to the fabric which would be, of necessity, more expensive than if were playing around with a more modern building or if we were simply starting from a blank sheet of paper. So that there are inherent extra costs in almost anything that one seeks to do to change the arrangements in the Palace.

We are, of course, catering for very much greater numbers than ever could have been envisaged when the basic design of the Palace was undertaken. So we would be trying to superimpose in this magnificent building substantial new requirements which would be very difficult to accomplish, certainly at minimal expenditure. There is also what may be called the domino effect when we start to make changes in the confines with which we are presented. For example, if we say that we must have proper provision for the receipt of raw materials of food and the consequence is that something is moved down the line, further changes come about, which help to cause the expenditure to mount. Those were some of the practical difficulties with which the Committee was faced. It was not an attempt to find out how we could have a bonanza, but an attempt to meet minimum requirements. I defend resolutely the fact that we must make changes in the House which conform with the standards that we have imposed on everyone else outside the Palace of Westminster. We have not invented those standards for ourselves. We have a responsibility when proposing the expenditure of money to ensure that the people who come to this place should be as safe and as secure as we expect them to be anywhere else.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend ; he has put some sound and rational arguments. Nevertheless, does he not accept that we can move only at a certain speed without incurring the wrath of the public and that we have to be sensitive to what they will think ? Perhaps a more phased approach to the changes would be appropriate.

Column 953

Mr. Haselhurst : We have done very little for 40 years. That is pretty good phasing. When we now come to an accumulated problem, we are still saying, for all sorts of practical reasons and for reasons of financial responsibility, that we should still phase the changes over a number of years. We can look our electors and taxpayers in the eye and say that we are not embarking on a madcap scheme. There is an accumulation of work that needs to be done within this fine building. We have a responsibility to the building and to those who will enjoy it in the future to do something now, having refrained from doing anything over a number of years. We have avoided, it could be said, some of the responsibilities that we have imposed on other people. The other problem is that we have a balance of needs for which to cater. That has been borne in on me since I have had the honour to be a member of the Catering Committee. We have 651 Members of Parliament who have very strong views. It is the 651 Members of Parliament who will make decisions about whether certain things are done. However, we must think about all the other people who have a great interest in what happens to the catering services of this building.

We have seen in the evidence given to the Committee some very idiosyncratic views which have been put forward with great passion, as one might imagine, from elected representatives of the people. However, there are many other people who may have the same strength of view and who certainly have great strength of numbers. We must think of them. The Palace is not just for Members of Parliament, although we are entitled, while the public give us the privilege of being here, to have the enjoyment of those facilities. We have a responsibility to those who work for us--those who work for the nation in maintaining this Palace--to ensure that facilities are provided. It is a matter of balance. We cannot get it right by saying, "Oh, this area of the Palace must be a facility for Members of Parliament ; forget the rest." When one has to try to balance the needs of Members' staff, visitors and Members themselves, one gets into awful difficulties when one is in a confined arrangement. We do not have excess space that we can freely dispose of, in this direction and that direction, to cater for all needs. The proposals for the consideration of the House tonight are very carefully balanced to try to give something to everybody and to ensure that we maintain standards for all.

I refer briefly to St. Stephen's tavern. I am tempted to adopt the words of Sir Winston Churchill--that it is

"a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

So it has seemed to all the bodies of the House that have had to consider what should happen to St. Stephen's tavern. We were quite right to knock on the head the possibility of its being a visitors' centre. I am sure that the proposals that we are putting before the House are much more practical and I hope that they can be fulfilled in time. I also hope, however, that we shall not lightly dispense with the idea of St. Stephen's tavern. It is the possible expansion chamber for our needs, particularly if we are sensitive to the needs of staff if we take hold of the Westminster Hall cafeteria for a visitors' centre at some stage. We must be sure that we have sufficient cafeteria space and bar space for our staff. Perhaps St. Stephen's tavern would provide that opportunity.

Finally--and I hope not frivolously--I refer to the possibility of having a kiosk in Westminster Hall. I must take as many visitors round this Palace as any other hon.

Next Section

  Home Page