Select Committee on Catering Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 82 - 92)




  82. I would like to extend a very warm welcome to the Catering Committee deliberations on how we can improve our Refreshment Department. Andrew and Kenneth, we welcome you both to our session. As you know, the purpose is really to try and identify where the difficulties lie and then to move forward positively to try to resolve them. We are grateful that the organisations you represent have both made submissions, organisations which are very important to the life and existence of our Parliament. We do respect both organisations and want you to tell us how best we can respond, on behalf of your organisations, in the task we have set ourselves. Would you, Andrew and Ken, like to give us a couple of opening comments, and then there may be questions Members would like to ask you?

  (Mr Pearson) I am very grateful, Chairman, for your kindness in asking us—and I am sure the same goes for the IPU—to take part in this investigation. Where I start from is that the CPA is not part of the House of Commons or the Parliamentary establishment, and therefore all our being and all our work here depends on goodwill. It depends on getting co-operation from Members, officers and the myriad of organisations that make this place work. I may say that in the 14 years that I have been privileged to work for the CPA it has been a constant delight the atmosphere of co-operation that one gets from people here. So that is the sort of mood in my head when I talk about the work of the CPA here. We do a great deal of business with the House of Commons and, to a lesser extent, the House of Lords in catering for our official inward delegations here. Of course, we also depend on catering arrangements for our own staff. We are only small, there are only seven of us, and therefore I am very conscious that any comment I make is very small beer in the context of the huge numbers of staff that work in this place. Our general view, I think, of the catering arrangements here is that we are very pleased, satisfied and privileged to be allowed to participate. It may well be that in questions, Chairman, and from other colleagues, you may get more detail out of me, if you wish to have it. That is perhaps enough for the moment.

  83. Thank you very much, Andrew. That is really, the CPA's opening submission. Kenneth, on behalf of the IPU, we welcome you because you are the new Secretary General of the IPU, and coming in, as it were, fresh and looking at the facilities that we have to offer. We very much welcome your early observations on what you see and what you find.
  (Mr Courtenay) Thank you, Chairman. As you say, being a rather fresh person here I have been wondering whether I am going to leave here having been baked, slightly poached or grilled, I suppose. I would just like to echo Andrew's comments about being honoured and grateful to be here to be able to put our views over, and also to say that in my first year here the one thing that has characterised coming to work here in Parliament from another life, as it were, has been how friendly, open and co-operative everyone has been. So I really do want to endorse that. I think my experience so far is that we, in our business of international Parliamentary diplomacy (which is what we get up to here, as far as our interface with Parliament is concerned), rely a great deal on the catering facilities that are provided. It is a very, very important part of our business and of our handling of delegations. We will deal with, over a year, often up to about 40 different groups or individuals from Parliaments around the world; we hold up to about 16 events in the dining rooms a year for welcoming meals of one sort or the other, and we would use, perhaps, something like the Terrace Pavilion for a less formal meeting of external visitors, perhaps 20 times a year. We will also do some catering events in our own room, and this is an issue which you might want to talk about—how we handle those sorts of things. That, on our business level, I hope, gives some idea of the importance that we attach to facilities here. I think the other important point to make is that as often as not these sorts of events are one of the first meetings that we have with our visitors at the beginning of a week's programme. In other words, one will invite them for a welcoming lunch or a welcoming dinner. Therefore, the ambience and the first sort of impression that they get is often the one they will carry through the week, and that is why it is very important that we get that right. The other level, as it were, is what we as individuals would like to use in the facilities, and rather like Andrew my organisation is quite a small one but we span the white-hair-on-top to the youngsters, and of course the wishes and the preferences do tend to change. We all use House facilities, we all appreciate the ability to use House facilities and we all value the ability to have quick refreshment when we need it or something slightly more formal when we want to do something in that regard. There is only one other point that I perhaps would like to make, and that is that for me personally I sometimes find that it is slightly awkward having access to some of these places because I am never entirely sure where I am welcome and where I am not. I have never been thrown out of anywhere, I have to say, but there are occasions when I have to sort of convince somebody at the door that I really am entitled to be here—or I believe that I am anyway. That would be something which would be very useful to me to get resolved at some stage.

  84. Thank you both. You mentioned the importance of the relationship with the Refreshment Department. Of course, I should emphasise how important we believe the relationship is with the IPU and the CPA. You are very important clients of our department and it is incumbent on us to seek to give you the best service that we can. I am mindful of the points you make, apart from the sort of corporate provision that we make for both organisations, about your personal requirements. We had a letter from Andrew, if you remember, Andrew, writing a letter to the Committee regarding the use of the Adjournment in Portcullis House, and I did reply to you saying that we would be prepared to consider that request at the inquiry that we are now holding. So we shall obviously take that, and I think that is true for the IPU and yourself, Kenneth, and your senior staff.
  (Mr Courtenay) Yes. If I can just give one example, Mr Chairman. Two weeks ago I had a very short request from a senior member of a foreign Parliament who happened to be over here for the Royal funeral: could I please look after this person for half a day or a day, which I did. I was very delighted to do so, I regard that as part of my business, so that was no problem at all, but there was a slight difficulty getting into lunch. It is that sort of thing which, I think, is unhelpful.

  Chairman: There was a mention that from the information passed on from your predecessor, Andrew, the position that you both hold really was an entitlement to use the Members' Dining Room with the Officers of the House. As you said in that letter, you had not taken on that facility but you were hoping that the Committee would look favourably on the use of the Adjournment in Portcullis House. Members, would you like to ask any questions?

Mrs Dean

  85. A question for Mr Courtenay, in the first instance. You welcome the innovative menus of the Debate Cafeteria, as I understand it, and say that they are attractive to your staff, whereas you do not seem to value those served at Parliament Street and Millbank, from your letter. Are there elements of the innovative menus that you think could be replicated in and around the House?
  (Mr Courtenay) I think the attraction is to menus, certainly, but it is also the ambience and atmosphere. I think it is going to be very difficult to replicate the ambience and atmosphere of Portcullis House elsewhere, for obvious reasons of the architecture of the place. I have discussed this with my staff since the letter I wrote, and the staff do use Millbank on a fairly regular basis, both the cafeteria downstairs and the restaurant as well. The cafeteria is really a facility for no-frills, quick food and as often as not they use the take-away service. I personally have not used 1 Parliament Street, not because I do not want to go there but I have never in my year got round to going there, but I have two members of my staff who do use 1 Parliament Street and they enjoy it. I would not want to suggest we have anything against either of those places. Just going back to the cafeteria in 7 Millbank, which has come up quite a lot in conversation, it is the nearest we have to a sandwich facility really and that is the thing which often as not staff are looking for, because if they do not go there it will be the Italian sandwich shop down the road or something like Pret a Manger. So if we are looking for a gap or an opportunity, I would think that is probably something which could be looked at.

  86. Do your staff use the new Despatch Box? You are talking about a sandwich facility, and obviously the new Despatch Box in Portcullis House is one of those.
  (Mr Courtenay) Only if they are going that way. A sandwich facility is somewhere you want to go fairly quickly—go from your desk, get a sandwich, get back again—and it is quite a long walk from where we are in Great College Street, so that is why they tend to look to Millbank.

Tony Cunningham

  87. Have you got access to the Clubroom over at 1 Parliament Street? If you have that facility at lunch time and if you have one or two visitors, I think it is an excellent facility if you want a fairly quick meal. The ambience is good, you are looking out over Westminster Abbey, Whitehall and so on, and I wonder whether that would be of use to you or whether or not you use it?
  (Mr Courtenay) Yet again, I have not in my limited time had much chance to use it, but thank you for raising that because we are going to take some members of a visiting delegation there for a meal, so we do have that in our sights. Certainly it has been mentioned to me as a place I can go. Yet again, if one is taking a visiting member of a foreign parliament, let us say, for a morning to look at the buildings, to walk around, to see some people in our room which is off Westminster Hall, it is much better, if one could, to then go a short distance to a facility that is nearby to have a quick lunch than to have a long walk somewhere. I do not mean it is that long but, often as not, we are having to juggle timetables and the distance between one place and another is something one has to take into account, but I do accept what you say about the Clubroom.

  88. You say in your submission that you book things well in advance, are there ever any problems with a relatively short notice visiting group or delegation and trying to book a dining room or wherever?
  (Mr Courtenay) Yes, we have had difficulties with certainly booking dining rooms. When we want to have, let us say, 24 covers, as often as not that is difficult. We usually have enough time for our delegation planning—something has seriously gone wrong if we are really cut short—although we do have one case in point at the moment where our visitors were simply incapable of getting their decision-making processes in line, so we were left hanging on at the last minute. That obviously not only applies to eating but other things as well. It is that sort of thing where we find we are caught out, and of course the alternative is that we have to go out to a commercial restaurant somewhere, which is not the same thing.


  89. Can you give us an indication of the size of your inward delegations, the groups that you need to entertain in the House or elsewhere? Just in average terms.
  (Mr Pearson) I am glad you asked that question, Chairman, because I was hoping to get an opportunity to touch on the annual CPA Seminar which starts next week. We are a substantial customer of the Refreshment Department for that because we have about eight set lunches for 50. That is biggish business, I think, by any standards. We have found in all the time I have been here the utmost co-operation in getting space for that, because getting a room which will seat 50 is never easy. To give you an absolutely up-to-date example, due to a date error in a letter between us and the Refreshment Department we found ourselves a couple of days ago without a room to give lunch for 50 people, but I am delighted to report that a way has been found and alternative arrangements have been made for us—the Churchill Room actually—and that is an example of the very real feeling which I have always encountered for our needs.

  90. That is good. You are obviously happy with the support and service you receive?
  (Mr Pearson) Yes. These are regular events. I can give the date of these things a year ahead, which helps of course, but nevertheless without the co-operation of the Refreshment people it would be impossible essentially to do our job.

  91. That is good to hear.
  (Mr Courtenay) You asked about size, Chairman. Our delegations normally are about eight, but then we have accompanying staff and also our host members here, so we are usually talking of dinners or lunches for about 22 or so people. We will want to do that often about 16 or so times a year. We also have other events outside the parliamentary estate as well but that is what we would normally be doing.

  92. Is there anything else you would like to say to us at this juncture? If not, I would like to thank you both very much for coming. The whole purpose of our inquiry and the exercise we are engaged in is to bring about improvements to our Refreshment Department and that is very important to us where the CPA and IPU are concerned. We hope we can give you assistance in giving a better quality service to your delegations and very important parliamentarians who visit us in the UK from all the countries in the world. They judge us as the mother of parliaments and it is right we should have high standards. Thank you very much, Andrew and Kenneth. You will obviously see the outcome of the inquiry and we have taken account of the points you have made to us.
  (Mr Courtenay) Thank you very much.
  (Mr Pearson) Thank you, Chairman.

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