Select Committee on Catering Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 115)



Tony Cunningham

  100. Could you talk us through what you think the difference is between what facilities are available when the House of Lords is sitting and during the recess? What exactly is open as far as the House of Lords is concerned?
  (Lord Colwyn) Historically we have always been completely closed during August. The facilities stay open until Parliament finishes at the end of July and then we tend to re-open the staff restaurant at the beginning of September to cope with the people who are having to work. We have a problem getting in the 30 days' holiday entitlement that staff need and this is something we are aware of. In fact, from this year we are going to open Millbank Cafeteria in August to ensure we have one outlet open right through the summer recess. I would agree: I think we should look after our staff and that some of our areas should be open and this is something I would like to do. In the past we have always relied on the House of Commons facilities: you have a lot more staff down there and we do rely on sharing your facilities. On the other hand, we have now made this decision to open Millbank. Did we open the staff restaurant last year?
  (Mr Ollard) Not during August, no.
  (Lord Colwyn) We opened the staff restaurant last year in September and this year we are going to open Millbank and see. It is trial and error.


  101. Last summer from our information there were major problems for us with you not having any facilities open. Whether the extent of the pressure on our Refreshment Department was particularly unusual Mrs Harrison would possibly tell us, but last summer we did have major problems as a result of the overall pressure.
  (Lord Colwyn) My estimation was that it would only be a maximum of about 70 of our staff who would be here in August who would have to be catered for but I may have that wrong.
  (Mrs Harrison) I do know that last summer was particularly problematic, and the pressure was on the Terrace Cafeteria. I suspect it was a culmination of factors in that demand was increasing from our side, but likewise my evidence was that there were quite a number of Members and staff in the House of Lords making use of the Terrace Cafeteria and that exacerbated our problem. Also, perhaps unusually, your facilities did not reopen at the beginning of September but later in September, and that may have caused more of a problem.
  (Lord Colwyn) It is usually the second week in September we go back for all the staff but you are right—that first couple of weeks there may have been a problem.

  Chairman: Anything that you do in addition to what you currently do would obviously be of benefit to our position.

Tony Cunningham

  102. Liaison between the two might help the situation, if we knew what was available and roughly how many and when it was going to open and so on and so forth. House of Commons catering might be able to deal with it better if they knew exactly what was going on as far as the House of Lords was concerned.
  (Lord Colwyn) My impression is that the liaison is getting better. You and I get on well; we are talking much more, I think, than perhaps we used to and I see this progressing.

  Chairman: Absolutely. It is an essential progress that we need to make.

Mr Campbell

  103. What is the big complaint with the cafeteria, if there is one at all? I am sure there will be. Is it the food or the accommodation?
  (Lord Colwyn) About my cafeterias?

  104. Yes.
  (Lord Colwyn) I am not aware of any.

  105. I asked a good question then!
  (Lord Colwyn) There is no doubt that I get a lot of Members and staff asking me why the soup in Portcullis House is 45p and it is more expensive with us. My only complaint is trying to get 400 staff into two restaurants that seat 70 people. A lot of Peers maintain it is cheaper down your end but, in fact, I think our pricing is very similar and our dining room standard is quite high now and very reasonable. There is no doubt that the ex-MPs like to go down and see their friends; they have been there for many years and they like to think they can still go down there. I would much rather they ate with me!

Mr Thomas

  106. We have been asking about your use of our facilities, but what use do you see House of Commons' staff and Members making of your facilities? Do you see that at all? What facilities are available particularly for staff from the House of Commons?
  (Lord Colwyn) As I say, we absolutely relied on staff facilities in the House of Commons in the past and I will have to continue to do that unless I can find a whole new area to open up alternatives.

  107. But do you find staff in the House of Commons come in to use your facilities?
  (Lord Colwyn) Indeed. Our two areas, the Lords Bar and the staff restaurant, are widely used by staff from the House of Commons. In fact, they are open to anybody who has a photographic pass of any kind, even a temporary pass.

  108. And you see quite a reasonable heavy use? I know my staff drink in the Lords Bar.
  (Lord Colwyn) It is used to the maximum, without any doubt.


  109. And the cafeteria is well used by members of the House of Commons staff.
  (Lord Colwyn) Yes, but I think, going back to your former question, if I was to produce a little list of areas, very few Peers know about the other Millbank restaurant you have—I suspect a lot of them have never been there—so there is an ignorance of what is available which I would like eventually to put right.

  110. On this question of close liaison, as you say, we meet quite regularly now and have discussions on common problems and challenges but, in terms of the staff side, Mrs Harrison, do we have regular meetings with your opposite number in the House of Lords? Is it formal or semi-formal?
  (Mrs Harrison) It tends to be informal. We have regular dialogue certainly when we are planning our services during the recess, and we base them on the assumption that the House of Lords will be closed because that has been the previous pattern.
  (Lord Colwyn) I am delighted to try and help with that and I think it is important that we discuss it. If we can open a staff area in August then we will.

  111. In terms of the future, and this is obviously what this inquiry is all about, have you got any specific ideas that might bring about improvements in the House of Lords?
  (Lord Colwyn) As I said earlier, space is the problem. When I first became Chairman and the Labour Party were the new Government, I was summoned into the Leader's office in the House of Lords in 1997 and Margaret Jay said to me, "Your job is to find us somewhere like the Commons where we can have a Strangers' Cafeteria so Peers can take in researchers, secretaries, guests, somewhere that is open all day". We have nowhere at all similar to that so, if a Peer was entertaining a couple of researchers or having a meeting with outside people, there was nowhere. They can go to the Dining Room and have lunch or the Guest Room and have coffee, but there is nowhere to get a sandwich. That was my remit and that has been followed up, so I am very much trying to find an area which I can keep open all the day. Of course, the kitchen facilities need refurbishing; the staff facilities are not good; but I have one dining room doing the banqueting and the main dining room upstairs and I have problems. I am concerned about food being prepared in the same area for different parts so I have to put those kitchens right, and I think my plan—which has been approved by various committees but not yet by the Treasury—will improve the kitchen facilities and the staff facilities and will give us this new idea with a bit more space for Members and staff to try and recreate an area like your Strangers' Cafeteria, which is most important. The primary aspect is the staff facilities because, if I leave them as they are, I will have to cut back on what I am doing and the various function rooms are busy, working to maximum capacity.

  Chairman: From our point of view, one of the major issues that is coming through in evidence is the pressure on our Terrace Cafeteria and what possible changes we may need to make in that area and the implications then for other parts of our estate as a result of that which mean that it might, in a sense, lend itself in the future to more of a joint operation, but it is early days. I am just indicating that we have a lot of thinking to do following this inquiry about how we are going to try and get rid of the bottlenecks that we have that are growing and becoming more and more acute.

Mrs Dean

  112. Is the pressure on your cafeterias and facilities at the same time as the pressure on ours? Lunchtime is the worst, is it?
  (Lord Colwyn) Absolutely, yes. The Millbank Cafeteria closes at 5.00 after tea, but I do get complaints about the queuing from the staff. In the summer it gets easier because you can go out on to the parts of the terrace, but it is a problem. But we are talking about this, Chairman, and I would like to feel that relationships are improving and, if we can act together on trying to improve this, I see it going in the right direction.


  113. So do I. Is there anything else you would like to add or ask us?
  (Lord Colwyn) I do not think so, no. I am delighted to help with the summer recess and, if we can open and take some of the strain off your facilities, that is fine.

  114. Thank you very much indeed. We will continue the dialogue, and you will obviously receive the final outcome of our deliberations on this inquiry and then we will meet again.
  (Lord Colwyn) And if there is anything else that comes up where you need my help or Mr Ollard, we would be delighted to help.

  115. Are there occasions where you have, even in that busy House of Lords, any gaps in your trading that would enable members of the House of Commons occasionally to pop into the Barry Room or any other facilities in the evening to partake of a meal? Do you find that all of your evening facilities are fully occupied?
  (Lord Colwyn) The Home Room, of course, is only open to Members. The Barry Room is pretty well booked up, yes. I cannot even get a table on some evenings and I think we are full to capacity. The idea of sharing areas is attractive to me. Again, give me some more space and we will do it, but we are limited.

  Chairman: So if any Members want to book a table for four in the Barry Room we can tell them that at the moment there is a lot of goodwill but no seating capacity. Thank you very much for coming.

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