Select Committee on Catering Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 139 - 160)




  139. We welcome you both. I did assure you yesterday that we would not give you a hard time so you can relax, and we welcome you coming to give evidence to this inquiry. You know the background to it and you have already made a submission. We are just anxious, as dedicated members of the Catering Committee, to make progress in improving the facilities in the House for everyone—staff, Members and visitors- and you were at the opening of our Jubilee Café yesterday. Is there anything you would like to say to us by way of an opening statement?

  (Dr Pond) I think our memorandum probably speaks for itself, but I would like to add that we and our members do very much appreciate all the hard work and organisation which is done by members of the Refreshment Department staff. We think they do a really excellent job providing quality food at all hours, and that was underscored by the way they turned out and provided excellent facilities at the time of the lying-in-state and the preparations for it, so we are very much appreciative of the service that is provided.

Mrs Dean

  140. Can I start off by asking you both where you choose to eat and why?
  (Mrs Willows) I work in 2 Abbey Gardens so sometimes I will go to the cafeteria in 7 Millbank. Once or twice I have been to the House of Lords, 1 Millbank, the new outlet there, but often as not I will go to the gym so I will pick up a sandwich from the cafeteria in Portcullis House and eat it back at the office.
  (Dr Pond) I use most of them depending on who I am having lunch with and whether I am time tabled and rostered at lunchtime or not. I think there is no Refreshment Department facility open to me that I have not used at some point in the last year.

  Chairman: You would be a good judge of all the facilities, then.

Janet Anderson

  141. Dr Pond, if you have used all of them, what do you think about the quality of the food? Does it vary, and where is it best and where is it worst?
  (Dr Pond) I think the food has improved greatly over the last ten years. We last gave evidence to your predecessor Committee on 20 January 1993 when we made certain criticisms of the quality of the food. Those do not now apply: there have been great strides. I certainly feel, for instance, that the ambience and the quality of food provided in Portcullis House is, to a large extent, the measure against which the other outlets are now judged. Having said that, there is a demand for basic, plain food well cooked and presented but at advantageous prices and there always will be, so it is a question of balancing both the more sophisticated approach we have seen in the last five or six years, and the need to eat quickly and with due economy.

  142. I take your point about Portcullis House being used in measure but do you think, for example, the more basic food of the Terrace Cafeteria is of the same quality?
  (Dr Pond) I would say it is of the same quality: it is perhaps not presented in quite the same way but I have no complaints about the quality of food served in the Terrace Cafeteria.

  143. Is it merely a matter of the presentation?
  (Dr Pond) Mostly, and the decor and the ambience, so to speak. I think I annoyed one of your predecessors 10 years ago by likening some of the then Refreshment Department outlets to a British Restaurant or factory canteen of the 1940s. That is a thing of the past, but the surroundings do in some measure complement the food that is served and, in a way, they reflect it and mirror it as well.

  144. How do you think the presentation could be improved?
  (Dr Pond) In the Terrace Cafeteria?

  145. Yes.
  (Dr Pond) It is very much still doled out, served up by servers in what you might call a rather basic way. There are little touches in Portcullis House like moulds for the rice and stir fried vegetables which are dished up on the spot, whereas everything in the Terrace Cafeteria is pre-prepared and served out. I think we made the suggestion last time that the throughput in the Terrace Cafeteria could be improved by more self-service. For instance, last time round we suggested that aided dispense of drinks should be replaced by self-service of drinks. That has happened and has reduced the over-crowding there, but the throughput of clients in the Terrace Cafeteria is so great at 1.00 that it is very difficult to see how presentation could be much improved by the present methods.

  146. Do you think one of the problems is caused because both tills are not always staffed?
  (Dr Pond) Yes. There have been one or two instances where colleagues have complained to us that only one till has been staffed. There are three tills because there is also a relief till in the Terrace Cafeteria. The third till is very rarely manned and the two tills do find it difficult to deal with the bulk throughput at 1.00 but at less peak times, say between 12.00 and 12.30, sometimes there is only one till staffed and then queues to pay build up markedly. If there were a relief cashier on hand who could be called very quickly when queues start to mount, that would relieve some of the crowding at that point. It would not deal with the problem of overcrowding in the seating area but it would improve the throughput.

Tony Cunningham

  147. I notice you said you went to the gym, got a sandwich and went back to the office, and we noticed when we were over at 1 Parliament Street in one of the bars that there was a group of people in there who had brought their own sandwiches and gone into the bar and were sitting eating it. Do you think we should provide more association rooms and lounges for staff, as opposed to eating facilities, somewhere where they can go and sit and have a chat?
  (Mrs Willows) I think that would help a lot. One good example of that, which is what the staff used to have, is what is now the Bellamy's Club Room, which used to be the spillover for staff eating in Bellamy's Cafeteria. They would go there and it was greatly used and we fought long and hard trying to prevent the change saying it would be underused and saying it would exacerbate over-crowding in other outlets and it has proved to be the case. Somewhere like that is a good-sized space, it is a nice informal environment—very much like the atrium in Portcullis House, and it would help. It is a new style of having informal meetings over a more relaxed atmosphere. I think that would help a lot. Going back to the divide for the MPs and the staff in the Terrace Cafeteria, it is like a symbolic barrier dividing MPs and staff, and if that could be removed maybe you could make that a more informal area like Bellamy's Club Room used to be. Then you could have two distinct areas but for all people who work in the House of Commons.
  (Dr Pond) The success of the atrium in Portcullis House is very marked as an informal meeting area and quite a lot of what you might call business meetings of staff, if you have to have three or four, whereas in the past they would have been booked into one of the "W" rooms which are rather dingy and miserable, nowadays tend to take place over a cup of coffee in the atrium in Portcullis House, and that is a valuable and much appreciated service.


  148. The Secretaries' and Assistants' Council suggested that the outdoor area known as North Terrace should be covered and have some seating and some heating installed in order to extend that type of facility that you have just outlined.
  (Dr Pond) I think that is an excellent idea in that the Portcullis facilities have become victims of their own success and very overcrowded, and if some improvement to the throughput of service could be achieved then additional seating out there perhaps in a tent of some kind would be very valuable indeed and would be an excellent short term measure.

  149. And would ease some of the congestion?
  (Dr Pond) Indeed, it would.
  (Mrs Willows) And it would be nice to have an outdoor area like the Millbank restaurant and you could have those burners. I think it would be a great idea. May I make a couple of points?

  150. Yes.
  (Mrs Willows) Some of our members have said the contractors coming in cause a huge problem of overcrowding so perhaps that could be measured in some way, and perhaps the Jubilee Cafeteria could be open for staff after the visitors' tours have been completed.

Janet Anderson

  151. Following on from that, I think the contractors certainly during the summer recess are a huge problem. What do you think about the refreshment facilities being open during the recess? My staff complain, and I think we have a wider problem here in the Palace of Westminster in that there is a perception by some people, that we go off to our country retreats in the summer and do not carry on a job of work, so I would welcome your comments.
  (Mrs Willows) I think you are right. Certain departments carry on—say, the Finance and Administration Department, the Department of the Library, the Refreshment Department, carry on as though it is a place of work but with normal office hours, so not the long hours. But people do need somewhere to get refreshments as though it was a normal place of work.

  152. And then the contractors cause additional problems, do they not?
  (Mrs Willows) Exactly, and last summer there was a porta cabin in the outside area. I do not know if they were banned from using the other outlets—I think not but I do not know.

  153. So maybe we should have some more portable ones?
  (Mrs Willows) Yes.
  (Dr Pond) Just a couple of thoughts, Chairman: in our last evidence in 1993 I was asked about undersea of existing facilities and in reply to question 72 I mentioned that quite often our Members passed the Members' Dining Room at lunch time and found it was only about a third full. A few weeks ago a colleague and I decided we would go to the Members' Dining Room one lunchtime and we were the only customers during the hour and a quarter we were there, being served wonderfully by seven staff. I think the Trade Union Side feels that there are facilities which at the moment are dedicated to Members and Officers of the House only which are underused, certainly at certain times in the Parliamentary week, which will become worse if the Parliamentary week contracts, and we feel it would be very sensible to try to open those facilities to long-serving members of staff who are not Officers of the House. You might set a threshold of seven years, for instance—the old apprenticeship. Once a person has served seven years he or she would be able to use those facilities on the same basis as an officer of the House. There is a distinction between Officers—the more senior staff—and non—Officers, who are more junior, which is rather invidious. We feel that would be helpful and would also lead to a greater utilisation of facilities which at the moment are perhaps underused. We do worry about the contraction of the Parliamentary week because the overcrowding in the Palace, which is the most serious problem at the moment in the Terrace Cafeteria, as we pointed out in I think question 56 last time round, is going to become worse if the Parliamentary week is shunted up into effectively three days, and that will provide the managers of the Refreshment Department and your Committee with a real problem.


  154. We are grateful for you recognising that. Indeed, we are worried equally about the difficulties that are going to arise and the Leader of the House and his Modernisation Committee see them as a great challenge and therefore we are going to respond to them as challenges, but we do totally understand the point you are making. I can assure you that we are equally making these points to the Committees that are looking into the modernisation of the House.
  (Dr Pond) That is good news.
  (Mrs Willows) Following on from that point, with the Parliamentary week potentially being shortened, it still does not mean that a lot of staff will not be working on the Monday or the Friday or the Wednesday evening.

  155. But it is going to call for some serious organisational changes that we all have to gear up for.
  (Mrs Willows) Yes. I think our biggest point, which would alleviate a lot of the problems, is stopping the differentiation between Officers and the rest of the staff. Some dedicated members of staff working here for 20 or more years are still denied access to an outlet where somebody who just comes in at a certain level and has been here for a week can have that privilege.

Janet Anderson

  156. All the Officers have access to the Members' Tearoom and I have never understood the reason for that.
  (Mrs Willows) Yes. They cannot bring guests but they can go by themselves, and MPs' spouses can take five guests to some restaurants and refreshment outlets which staff who have been here for years cannot go and eat at.
  (Dr Pond) For clarity, I do not think we are suggesting that existing Officers should be denied access to places they have always used because that would exacerbate the overcrowding situation. 200 Officers, if they were additionally thrown on to the Terrace Cafeteria, would be a distinct identifiable problem; but we do feel that long-serving staff have a legitimate grievance in this area, and opening up some of the facilities to them would be very welcome indeed.


  157. We thank you for that. You will appreciate I know that in the last couple of years we have tried to move in that direction but, as far as we are concerned, it is fresh thinking: the sky is the limit and this evidence taking and this inquiry is really going to challenge us to think greatly about all of these issues, and there is nothing that is going to be discounted or ignored.
  (Dr Pond) In the spirit of the sky being the limit, may we pick up a point that our good friend, the Serjeant, made with you last week in that we suggested in our memorandum that, with advantage, there could be a catering outlet opened in one of the Norman Shaw buildings, and the Serjeant said that both of those buildings were purpose-built Edwardian office blocks. With great respect, that is not entirely the case. Both of them were built as the operational police headquarters and did include canteen facilities at one time. Both of the buildings have large loft areas which are the sort of spaces that might be adapted with due arrangement being made for people who occupy them at the moment for a refreshment facility. We feel that the Norman Shaw buildings, when the South building is reconverted next year, will accommodate a very large number of Members and staff who will, I think, want something on site. I worked in Norman Shaw North for 14 years and it was a desert: there was no social life to it and nowhere to eat. There was a rather miserable vending machine on the second floor of Norman Shaw South that used to eat your money but you did not really want to eat anything that came out of it! So I think your Committee should seriously consider something in the upper reaches of those buildings.

Janet Anderson

  158. In fact, was it not bedrooms originally?
  (Dr Pond) No. It was a training facility. There were two large rooms, one of which was a training room and the other was an indexing room. The bedrooms are in Norman Shaw North, on the fifth floor. The sixth floor was a very large open attic given over to storage but which was converted about three years ago for the public information activities of the Department of the Library. I know about it because I helped organise it because I used to be head of public information, but they are very large spaces and I know there are all sorts of difficulties about converting that sort of space for refreshment outlets, but I do think it is something on which a feasibility study might be inaugurated.


  159. Thank you for that because we are obviously concerned about the facilities in the refurbished Norman Shaw North. You have already made reference this morning to the importance of making some proper facilities for staff in that building, and as a result of the evidence we have taken very valuably this morning we shall obviously want to continue the dialogue with the Parliamentary Works and the Serjeant at Arms on that particular matter. I think it would give us tremendous help in dealing with these pressure points.
  (Dr Pond) In the case of Norman Shaw, in addition there is a wide quadrangle in the middle of the Norman Shaw North building, and thinking of the conversion of the Great Court at the British Museum and the success of the atrium in Portcullis House, it would not take too much imagination to imagine that fitted out for an eating area—with or without expensive fig trees!

  160. Food for thought, as they say! Your evidence has been extremely valuable to us, and we are very grateful for the time you have taken in giving the written submission and coming to see us today. We are all trade unionists so we have everything in common.
  (Dr Pond) Not at all, Mr Chairman. It is a great pleasure to come and, if we can help in the future, you know where we are.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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