House of Commons Commission - Twenty-Third Annual Report

Refreshment DepartmentAnnual Report 2000-01

1. Introduction

The Refreshment Department is responsible for the provision of catering services for Members, staff and others working within the Parliamentary Estate, and for their guests visiting the House. This involves the operation of a diverse range of services within the Palace of Westminster and in three other parliamentary buildings: Portcullis House, 1 Parliament Street and 7 Millbank. Vending machines are also maintained in parlia-mentary buildings that do not have a staffed catering facility.

The opening of the new parliamentary building, Portcullis House, brought about a major addition to the catering services operated by the Refreshment Department, with the opening of two new restaurants, 'the debate' self-service restaurant and 'the adjournment' brasserie, and the start-up of a new catering service to the meeting and conference rooms. The opening of these new facilities has finally enabled the department to close the former Westminster Hall Cafeteria for conversion into facilities for visitors to the House, a decision made by the House in July 1994.

As at the end of the year, the Refreshment Department was responsible for operating the following parliamentary catering services, serving more than 965,000 meals in 2000-01:

6 self-service restaurants (Members' Tearoom, Terrace Cafeteria, Press Cafeteria, Bellamy's Cafeteria & Clubroom, Portcullis Cafeteria, 'the debate' in Portcullis House)
4 traditional restaurants(Members' Dining Room, Strangers' Dining Room, the Churchill Room, Press Dining Room)
2 modern restaurants(the Millbank Room, 'the adjournment' brasserie)
1 seasonal restaurant(the Terrace Pavilion summer buffet)
8 bars(Members' Smoking Room, Pugin Room, Strangers' Bar, Terrace Pavilion Bar, Churchill Bar, Annie's Bar, Press Bar, Bellamy's Bar)

Additionally, the Department operates banqueting and private dining services on a commercial basis. A Member of Parliament or other authorised officer sponsors all functions, and the profits from this activity contribute towards the cost of operating the Parliamentary catering services. Banqueting turnover in 2000-01 was £1.9 million, generating an operating surplus of £378,000.

The Refreshment Department is also responsible for the purchasing and sale of House of Commons souvenirs. Merchandising activities are an important source of income to the House, and during 2000-01 the souvenir shops generated an operating surplus of £180,000, excluding the trial summer opening of the Line of Route.

2. Plans and Achievements



The net cost of operating the Refreshment Department is met from the House of Commons Administrative Expenditure Account. However, under the financial targets approved by the House of Commons Commission, this cost, the subsidy, is limited to the cost of staff for parliamentary catering (i.e. excluding staff costs for banqueting and souvenir services) and capital expenditure for computer systems or other exceptional items. All other expenditure relating to the trading activities of the Refreshment Department, including banqueting and souvenir staff costs, are met from the Department's trading income. The Department is tasked with delivering an overall five per cent surplus on its trading activities.

Forecasting of the trading budget was difficult for 2000-01, as the precise timing and impact of opening of the new facilities in Portcullis House was not clear when budgets were set. Furthermore, the final stage of the Department's modernisation programme was only completed at the end of 1999-2000, with the result that efficiency gains from the Department's new kitchens could not be established before budgets were agreed. Whilst demand for the Department's services varied against budget within individual outlets, the overall income, gross profits and other expenditure from trading activities were very close to budget.

Key trading figures are set out in Table 1 below:

After incorporation of the trading surplus into the Administrative Expenditure Account, the total cost of operating the Refreshment Department in 2000-01 was £6.0 million, against a budget of £6.3 million. This figure represents the net cost of operating the Refreshment Department after return of the trading surplus (£263,000).[19]


In October 2000, the Refreshment Department introduced a quarterly strategic review meeting, intended to improve the financial and commercial awareness of middle and junior management and, in particular, to create a link between business planning and business performance. As part of this process, line managers have prepared business unit plans for the financial year commencing April 2001, linking their individual unit plans with the overall Departmental 4-year plan, and with their own and their staff's personal objectives as agreed in annual appraisals and team meetings. As line managers become more familiar with the concept of business planning, it is intended that business unit plans will be extended wherever appropriate to cover the same timescale as the overall Departmental business plan.


The introduction of manpower planning throughout the Departments of the House has significantly changed the way in which staff budgets are set. This has created an important challenge for the Refreshment Department, whose total pay budget is greater than the total income from the Department's trading activities. Although very much still in its early stages, the delegation of responsibility to line managers for the day-to-day management of staff costs within their areas is a key objective. Some progress was made during 2000-01, both in the level and quality of information available to managers, and this work will be continued in 2001-02.

In March 2000, a scheme was introduced whereby chefs work longer hours when Parliament is in session and take the accrued time off during recess periods. The trial system, which was agreed in consultation with the trade unions, has largely been successful and is expected to be formally adopted shortly.



The opening of the catering facilities in the new parliamentary building, Portcullis House, was a major project undertaken by the Refreshment Department in close collaboration with the Department of the Serjeant at Arms. Detailed design of the kitchen and other back of house areas was completed several years ago, but during 2000-01 much work had to be done to fit out the restaurant areas in a style that met the overall project brief and the operational needs of the Refreshment Department. The Catering Committee agreed the detailed catering brief in January 2000 and a Special Projects Manager was appointed to take responsibility for managing this important project. Furniture, tableware, uniforms and interior finishes were agreed and purchased in time for the planned opening in October 2000, and staff were recruited and trained for the 50 new posts necessary to operate the catering services in Portcullis House. Although the opening of the catering areas was delayed until November 2000 to enable builders' works to be completed in the kitchens, both 'the adjournment' brasserie-style restaurant and 'the debate' self-service restaurant have been enormously popular additions to the catering service provided by the Refreshment Department.

In addition to the two new restaurants, the Refreshment Department introduced a service to provide light refreshments to the meeting and conference rooms on the first floor of Portcullis House. Bookings are managed by staff of the Department of the Serjeant at Arms, who pass on details of refreshment requirements to catering staff. Customers who are not permitted to take refreshments into the meeting rooms elsewhere within the Parliamentary Estate have welcomed the introduction of this new service.

Not only have the new catering facilities in Portcullis House received universal approval from customers, the financial contribution from these areas has exceeded expectations. In just four months of trading, the catering income from the new services was £200,000, against a six-month budget of £180,000. The food service concept, based on food freshly cooked to order in both restaurants, has yielded financial benefits by reducing wastage and ensuring that portion sizes are carefully controlled; consequently the food gross profit margin was almost 10% above budget and the overall gross profit from catering activities in Portcullis House was almost 70% above budget.


A questionnaire was issued to all Members, staff and other regular users of the catering services during October/November 2000 in order to measure customer satisfaction levels with the various services offered by the Refreshment Department and to inform the planning of services for the future. Almost 650 responses were received, a slightly lower response rate than the last survey conducted in July 1996.

As in 1996, the survey shows that location, the friendliness and helpfulness of staff, and food quality are the three key issues to customer satisfaction. However, menu range and the variety of food on offer are becoming increasingly important to customers in their choice of which venue to use. It was gratifying to note that improvements were recorded in all nine indicators measuring service standards, recording an overall satisfaction rating of 79% (76% in 1996). Taking the results for individual venues, all but one area increased or maintained their service score for 1996. The department continues to be well regarded for its breakfast offer, which recorded a customer satisfaction score of 78% (73% in 1996). Cooked lunches and dinners were slightly better rated than in 1996, but still did not score as highly as breakfasts, whilst the salads and sandwiches remained the least well regarded aspect of the Department's food offer.

The Department published a response to the customer survey in March 2001, setting out the steps that had already been taken or were planned to address areas of concern identified from the customer feedback.



A staff training programme, "Aiming for Excellence" was conceived and developed in conjunction with a specialist training company. Management of the Department were trained to deliver the course and all staff of the Department had attended the course by October 2000. The course not only raised awareness of customer expectations, but was also an important aspect of the Department's commitment to the training and development of its staff.


The Refreshment Department exceeded its target to achieve full accreditation as an Investor in People by March 2001, achieving the standard in August 2000. The "Aiming for Excellence" customer focus programme was a very significant factor in the Department's early accreditation, but other key requirements included the establishment of an annual appraisal system for all catering grades, and the compilation of personal training and development plans for all members of staff.

Following the Department's accreditation, an action plan was drawn up and implemented during the autumn of 2000, with a view to retaining accreditation when reassessed in July 2001. The key elements are that:

  • action plans arising from staff appraisals will be drafted to maximise the development opportunities of all staff;

  • "SMART" objectives for the development of teams and individuals will be set specifically with reference to contingency planning, career development and succession planning; and

  • evaluation of the effectiveness of staff training and development will be conducted at three levels - individual, team and senior management.


Alongside the work undertaken to gain and retain IiP accreditation, the Refreshment Department has embarked on an objective to become an approved NVQ centre. This will enable the Department to assess and award nationally recognised qualifications without incurring the cost of external assessors. By the end of 2000-01, an infrastructure of trained assessors and internal verifiers will be in place, enabling the Refreshment Department to actively operate as an approved NVQ centre as soon as accreditation is awarded.



The 5-year programme for the installation of electronic point of sale systems throughout the Department was completed in February 2001, approximately a year ahead of the original timetable and within budget. One of the last installations, the Members' Dining Room, was exceedingly challenging, with the need to tailor a standard system to meet the unique operational requirements of this busy and vital service to Members. This was a very time-consuming project during the first quarter of the year, with management focussed on eradicating early system failings and improving the skills of staff using the new system. By July 2000, the system had largely been settled-in and staff familiarity with the new system had been achieved through a combination of training and usage.

Additionally, the Department installed on-line credit card authorisation systems throughout the dining rooms and souvenir kiosks, improving the speed of service for customers paying by credit card.



In January 2000 the House agreed to re-open, on a trial basis, the Line of Route for visitors during the summer of 2000. As part of this trial, the Refreshment Department was requested to collaborate with the House of Lords Refreshment Department in the operation of merchandising activities, selling souvenirs and guidebooks to visitors during the summer opening. The planning and management of this additional service was very time consuming and had a considerable impact on the workload of the Department. In particular, purchasing, stores and accounts office staff had to work to tight deadlines to agree the product range, receive and store the merchandise and set up appropriate financial controls and reporting systems. The sales counter was largely manned by dining room waiting staff, whose contribution was vital.

With no previous history, financial projections set out in the Administration Committee's Report had to be taken as the basis for planning; in the light of experience, these projections were over optimistic, and the merchandising activity for the second trial year during the summer of 2001 has been appropriately scaled down. The Refreshment Department derived no financial benefit from undertaking this activity, as all income and expenditure was transferred into the project account held by the Department of the Serjeant at Arms.


In collaboration with the other departments of the House, the Refreshment Department was been involved in planning for the 2001 general election. Detailed plans were drafted for catering services during the period of dissolution, and for the new Parliament.

Sue Harrison

19   The different figures in this section and Table 1 (page 11) reflect reconciliation and accounting base differences between the Vote and the Refreshment Department's operating accounts. The figures are provisional and subject to audit by the National Audit Office. Back

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Prepared 17 July 2001