Session 2010-11
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Evidence heard in Public

Questions 269 - 303



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Administration Committee

on Monday 17 January 2011

Members present:

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Chair)

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown

Rosie Cooper

Thomas Docherty

Mr Mark Francois

Mr Kevan Jones

Dr Philip Lee

Nigel Mills

Tessa Munt

Sarah Newton

Bob Russell

Mr John Spellar

Mr Dave Watts

Mike Weatherley

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Mr John Borley, Director General of Facilities, and Mrs Sue Harrison, Director of Catering and Retail Services, House of Commons, gave evidence.

Q269 Chair: May I formally welcome John Borley and Sue Harrison? We have decided that the second paper, which was delivered more recently than the first, on initial catering and retail service savings, will be discussed next week. There is quite an amount of stuff before us today, so we are concentrating on paper 4.

Mrs Harrison, would you like to make an introductory comment on what you have written?

Mrs Harrison: I want briefly to say, Sir Alan, that paper 4 hopefully addresses all the questions that the Committee brought back to us after my last evidence session, and that I am very happy to take any further questions in today’s session.

Q270 Chair: Am I right in saying that you appear to be making remarkable progress towards savings of £500,000 on the subsidy, with which you were charged by the Commission?

Mrs Harrison: Indeed. In the four months since we implemented the price increases, we have so far taken an estimated £480,000 of additional income. That has all converted through to the gross profit level and at the net contribution level, which means that we have £480,000 towards our end-of-March target of £500,000.

Q271 Chair: Looking at footfall, it appears that, in most outlets, we are not achieving the numbers that we had in a comparable period a year ago.

Mrs Harrison: In terms of overall covers, most of our venues have not seen a reduction. Some, in fact, have seen an increase against last year. Just looking at that very briefly, we have seen fewer transactions in the cafeterias involving customers wanting teas, coffees-what we call counter lines: the Kit Kats, the bags of crisps, the things that are easily purchased in a retail shop and brought into the workplace. But we have seen no downturn in the number of cooked meals and salads and those core things that people cannot easily make or bring into the premises themselves. Although there is that downturn overall from the cafeterias, despite the downturn in certain types of sales, we are still banking more money at the bottom line.

We have not seen any downturn in the total number of people using the banqueting services. What we have seen is an ongoing trend and this is not just since the price increases: customers who previously may have had a sit-down lunch or dinner are starting to have a reception; people who previously may have had a more expensive reception menu are trading down to the lowest price point that is offered. I think that is partly to do with the external economic circumstances as well because most of our banqueting is sponsored by outside organisations.

In the last three months, the Members Dining Room has traded 14% above its budget, but I think that just serves to indicate that the greatest determinant of business levels in the Members Dining Room is the activity in the Chamber. If the Chamber is busy with debates that are of interest to a large number of Members and Members are here and present, then they will, in my experience, make more use of the Members’ Dining Room. There has been a little bit of switch in usage of the Strangers’ Dining Room and the Churchill Dining Room. We have brought the prices in the Strangers more closely in line with the prices in the Churchill, and there has been a growth in the use of the Churchill Room, offset by a slight decrease in the use of the Strangers’ Dining Room.

One area that I am concerned about is the use of the Adjournment. We have not yet determined whether that is a factor of the price increases or whether it is a more general trend. But the Adjournment is about 17% below its budget for the last three months-the three months since we put the prices up. We have noticed that some of that is on a Thursday evening when it was previously well utilised by other passholders because it was a night when it was open to all passholders. Some of that business has moved into the Churchill Room, but there is evidence that fewer people are using the House services for dinner on a Thursday evening. That is a trend that we will look into in far more depth.

Q272 Chair: Specifically on the Adjournment, it is noticeable that it is trading better in the evening than it is at lunchtime.

Mrs Harrison: It is, but overall it is a venue that we are concerned about. There is a marked trend that it is trading at a lower level than it was in the last Parliament.

Q273 Bob Russell: I have no doubt that Members of Parliament will continue to purchase items here despite the price increase. My questions relate to the several thousand low-income people who are employed in the House of Commons area. Members will appreciate that these questions are not mine, but I put them on behalf of those who raised them with me. For example, I am advised that if jacket potatoes and sushi were available in the Strangers’ Cafeteria there would be quite a market for it. I am also told that if there was a real sandwich bar where customers can determine the content of their sandwich then that also would be more popular than the plastic box sandwiches that are available now.

Last, but not least, and this is perhaps where I come in, could I mention pie and chips or fast food-the occasional McDonald-type burger-or pizzas? While the first two categories are perhaps not me, the third option-the pie and chips-is very much mine. Lastly, Mrs Harrison, you will recall that in a previous incarnation I was a member of the then Catering Committee and one of my great triumphs in Parliament was to have peas and carrots made a staple vegetable in the Strangers’ Cafeteria. In view of some of the concoctions of vegetables we have down there such as spinach and that fried cucumber, can we have some real British food?

Mrs Harrison: I’m not sure whether I can cover all of Mr Russell’s points. The first one, concerning the pricing and how it affects low-paid staff, we took very seriously into consideration. We recognise that there are a lot of staff-both Members’ staff and staff of the House-who are low paid, and that is why the benchmark organisations that we looked at in our selling price were Government Department staff restaurants and the devolved Assemblies’ staff restaurants, which have a similar profile of staff using those venues. We have found it very difficult to justify why our prices should be markedly below those levels, so without doubt there has been a very considerable price increase for those people.

What we tried to do was to minimise the price increase to hot food-as I have said previously, in my most recent evidence, the sorts of food that staff and Members cannot easily bring in to the premises and provide for themselves-and to put higher prices or a greater percentage increase on the prices for teas, coffees, Kit Kats and other snack items that people have the choice to bring in or make for themselves. There are tea and coffee-making facilities in large areas of the estate, and people can bring in such things at a very reasonable price from supermarkets. That’s how we have tried to address low pricing.

Regarding the sort of food that you are talking about, if I go to your third point-I remember your days on the Catering Committee, Mr Russell-we try to differentiate our product. I would say that the Terrace Cafeteria very deliberately attempts to have fairly traditional food. The pie-and-chips scenario is more likely to be found in the Terrace than it is in the Debate in Portcullis House. Having said that, we have to listen to our customers. There are large numbers of customers who do not want to have pie and chips or food of that nature on offer every day, so there is always one hot dish of the day that is supposed to be a traditional dish and a low-value dish. You and I have talked over the years on many occasions about the vegetables.

Bob Russell: And also the other Members.

Q274 Mr Watts: Can I ask about the numbers compared with last year, and the income compared with last year? We had an election last year. Does this period cover that? How have you gone about accounting for it?

Mrs Harrison: Yes, it does, and that is why in analysing the sales increase we have only looked at that sales increase in the past four months. If we look at our year-to-date performance against budget-our budget is set historically on previous years’ performance-in the first two months, April and May, understandably we had very low levels of trade, which meant that we had high levels of cost in relation to those trades, because a lot of our staff cost is fixed cost.

As happens with most new Parliaments, the early months-May and June and to some extent July-were a little bit of a slow start, particularly in the areas of banqueting. Banqueting is a profit contributor to the net catering subsidy before we allocate all the central costs, so if we have less banqueting and more of the more highly subsidised staff restaurants it changes the mix of business. Year to date, we are at the moment running slightly below last year’s, but we have reforecast our year end in the light of the price increases and we should, if we continue the trading of the past few months, end this year ahead of last year, but certainly ahead of targets that we have been set.

Q275 Mr Watts: I wasn’t entirely sure; your financial year runs from when to when?

Mrs Harrison: It’s from April through until the end of March.

Q276 Mr Watts: You would expect your income and your numbers to increase this year doing nothing because you’ve no election this time round.

Mrs Harrison: For next year?

Q277 Mr Watts: Yes. Your predictions are based on what they’re based on. I’m trying to see whether you are doing a quarter by quarter comparison to a certain time of year.

Mrs Harrison: Yes, we do.

Mr Watts: It’s not just the election. There are peak times, I should imagine, in the catering world in this place: at certain times it does well, and at other times it doesn’t do well.

Mrs Harrison: Unlike the other departments of the House, in the catering and retail service, we have a trading week that starts on the first Thursday of April, and then we have a system of monthly periods at four weeks, four weeks and five weeks. That is so we can precisely do that comparison from one year to the next, because, if not, the calendar month ends can fall on a weekend, a public holiday and so on. We have done that for 18 years, where we compare like with like on any trading day, week or month.

Q278 Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: There are two parts to this question. If you were running a commercial organisation, you would look very carefully, which is what you have done, at your pricing, and you have seen an increase in profits. Are you considering any measures to increase turnover further by flexible pricing-maybe including specials-in order to try to increase the usage of the facilities, which appears to be dropping year on year? That was question 1. Question 2 is: are you considering any measures to cut your costs? Clearly, any organisation like yours has to continually examine whether its cost base is appropriate or not.

Mrs Harrison: Indeed, and in the other paper that the Committee is taking evidence on next Monday, I believe, we have put forward a raft of cuts and income-generation ideas that, commercially, we suggest could be looked at. We are not saying they should all be done-there may be other ways of raising more income or taking less of the cuts-but we are looking at those who do that. The key costs in any catering business are the cost of staff and the cost of the food and drink that are consumed. Those are our prime costs and we are always focusing on them.

Q279 Chair: Could I follow that up? There is also the possibility of increasing access. Presumably, if we chose to recommend that, it would be seen as a source of boosting business.

Mrs Harrison: Indeed, Sir Alan, and part of the income generation is to generate additional income through widening access to people who are not able to use the facilities at certain times at the moment.

Q280 Mr Jones: On that note, could increased income be used to keep prices down? Will it be ring-fenced in the catering budget or will it go back into the main budget?

Mrs Harrison: The current pricing remit that we have was agreed by the Commission, and its remit is that our benchmarks are set in relation to certain external prices. The external benchmark is different for the self-service versus the restaurants and versus banqueting. This Committee could, of course, make a recommendation to the Commission to change that.

Q281 Mr Jones: What I am trying to suggest is that it might incentivise your income generation. If you get some benefit out of it and Members thought they were getting some benefit out of it, they might look at using it more. In terms of income generation, on the issue of souvenir sales, how many lines do we have? It’s not in the paper.

Mrs Harrison: I could guarantee that a Member would ask me a question to which I don’t know the answer. I don’t know. I would hazard a guess that it is probably about 50 or 60.

Q282 Mr Jones: According to your paper, 36% of it is sales of the top 10 lines, which is not surprising. There are 13,400 Big Ben pencils and 6,100 diaries. What is done to look at those lines to say that, if these are the top 10 that generated most of the income, there ought to be some that, frankly, are sat on the shelves for a long time? Do we have a cull of those?

Could you also explain something? I am confused by paragraph 11 about the St Stephen’s shop. One line says that, unsurprisingly, given its customer base, guidebooks are a very popular line, and 6,300 were sold last year. It also says that gross profits from sales of guidebooks and some other product lines are transferred to the Speaker’s Art Fund. How does that work in practice?

Mrs Harrison: The profits from the guidebooks and one or two other product lines that we sell go to the Speaker’s Art Fund, so a financial transfer is done at the end of each period. What that means is that, in our figures that you have in front of you, you do not see any profit or, indeed, the sales of those. We have taken those out of our figures, so we are transacting some business that is not reflected in the figures that you have in front of you.

Q283 Mr Jones: So you say that the House of Commons guidebooks are in the top 10 sellers, but, although they are, we are not actually getting any benefit from them?

Mrs Harrison: The House is getting a benefit from them, but the catering and retail service is not.

Q284 Mr Jones: Could you just explain what is being done to cull, because-let’s be honest-when you go down there, there is stuff that has been on the shelves for a long, long time?

Mrs Harrison: There is indeed, and, for some of it, we have been trying for a long, long time to move the stock through.

Q285 Mr Jones: The 80-odd-quid cushions always get me. They seem to sit there a long time.

Mrs Harrison: They were bought a number of years ago. We have, over the last three months in particular, been having a cull, as you call it, of some of the slow-moving stock, and we have been trying to sell those through. We want to start looking at the entire range and to bring some new products in, but, before we do so, we actually want to get rid of some of the old ones.

Q286 Mr Jones: Can I make a suggestion? You have actually done this before, because I remember that you once had a sale of out-of-date chocolates down there, which seemed to go very well. One year, they suddenly discovered that they had ordered too many, and the sell-by-date was coming up, so they had a sale. Honestly, wouldn’t it be good to clear some of it out? Other businesses would. I have been a Member for nearly 10 years, and I have always seen those two cushions there. I haven’t seen anyone buy one in 10 years, and, at 80-odd-pounds a piece, I’m not surprised. We could do a deal-two for one or something like that.

If we are going to look at the serious point of trying to increase sales, quite clearly you concentrate on the top sellers. Frankly, rather than carrying stock for long periods of time-the little prime-ministerial models seem to have been sat there for many years without any takers-wouldn’t it be better to have more of a strategy in terms of saying that if they are not selling, we should get rid of them?

Mrs Harrison: Mr Jones, in the last three months, we have had some very heavy discounting on those items that do not sell through. Sadly, despite that, they are still not selling.

Chair: At risk of incurring the wrath of the Chair-

Mr Jones: You bought some cushions.

Chair: No. I want to cross over to paper 5, which we would prefer, because there is quite a bit in there, Kevan, about what might be done with income generation, dealing with the whole issue of souvenirs and sale of merchandise. It may well be that we want to have some more thoughts about that in terms of a big effort on merchandising, because, at the moment, we are very modest in the way that we do it.

With your first point, a question then arises, because I think I perhaps earned the wrath of Nigel last time when I said that income generation from retail sales could be used to cover, as it were, the catering side. In a sense, yes, the two have to be kept separate for accounting purposes, but if the catering and retail services group is kept together and not separated, there seems to be no reason why we can’t meet overall targets by the fact that we have managed to increase income generation.

Q287 Mr Jones: I like some of the ideas. Let’s be honest, I have criticised the shop before, but there is the idea of having an off-site location. Clearly, you need some advice on the range that you are covering-you can get rid of the cushions and other things that aren’t selling-and perhaps look at the things that are selling very well.

You seem a bit reluctant to go down the route of online sales. I accept you not doing it yourselves, because it’s a specialist sector, but have you perhaps looked at hitching up with Amazon or somebody else to offer that line of sales? I am sure that you would sell through Amazon. They would obviously take a commission for selling, and I accept that we don’t actually want to get into the role of actually designing websites or anything like that, but going into partnership with somebody like Amazon or one of the other retailers would be an opportunity to actually get those sales out there.

Mrs Harrison: Before putting forward our proposals, I did actually take advice from retailers. As you know, I am a caterer by background. I would prefer not to name the particular organisation that I took advice from on this point, but they had experience of exactly what you are proposing. Their summary advice to me was that as long as they had a third party fulfilling their e-sales they made no money out of it whatsoever, because they found that the third party did not have the same ethos towards customer service that they felt represented their brand, which they felt was actually harming their brand and their reputation; and, for the third party-and it may be the way in which the contract was structured-that there was not sufficient financial incentive for the third party to really try and grow the sales.

They have taken that work in-house themselves. As they said, it took a number of years of learning curve-how to do it. They found going the route of the third party in the first instance, even though they made no money, to be very beneficial in terms of them learning how to do it and then, at the right point, bringing it in-house to deliver that e-fulfilment themselves. The strong advice of that organisation, and also two independent consultants in the area that we sought, was very strongly that we should first of all look to develop an off-site high street presence shop, from that learn what products appeal to the public, and then use that information to gradually then move into the e-sales. But the consistent advice from all three was start with high street presence.

Q288 Mr Jones: Yes, but how do things like the National Gallery do it? You go on line and buy things from there. I know you can’t buy the entire range from those organisations, but you can buy; it might be worth looking at some of those similar things.

Mrs Harrison: I think in our proposals here we’re not discounting the internet sales; what we’re saying is, for it to come on stream and be producing a profit back to the House within three years is, on the advice we’ve been given, unlikely. What we should be doing is doing the research and starting it up in a small way if we decide to go that route. And I think it’s a very complex area that the House itself has limited experience of, and that we would be best to treat it cautiously and bring that information back at regular intervals to this Committee, if we decide to move into the internet sales area.

Q289 Nigel Mills: I will resist continuing the debate about merging catering and retail, because I think it is important that we get the catering budget into a position where we’re happy to be transparent and say, "This is what it costs for us to achieve these objectives that we set." But I think we’re all a lot clearer, and certainly I’m a lot clearer; we’ve got this variety of financial information, and information on the footfall and everything, to understand exactly how we’re getting to where we’re getting. Having been through the exercise of producing all that, what do you think are the key issues you need to address to be able to get down to somewhere like the budget target that’s sort of been set by the Commission?

Mrs Harrison: I’m not sure that I understand your question, Mr Mills.

Q290 Nigel Mills: If there were three big actions you needed to take to get the subsidy down to the level that the Commission is targeting, what would those three key things be? Is it income generation, is it closing outlets, is it reducing certain costs? Have you actually gone through the exercise?

Mrs Harrison: My previous experience and my personal advice is you need to do a mixture of all of them. You’re unlikely to achieve the level of savings that we’ve been asked to put forward as a package just by doing one. You could not achieve a 50% reduction in the subsidy merely by putting up the selling prices because the customers would vote with their feet. That would have a dramatic impact on the number of customers we were serving, so no commercial business would be wanting to change their prices to that extent.

I think that we do have a very extensive range of catering services that are open for long hours of the day, and commercially I would always encourage considering the question "Do we need to have as many services open as we do at all the times of the day in the week?" and trying to consolidate back. It does mean that customers may not be able to go to their venue of first choice, but there will be a service provision which is appropriate for the number of people who are typically within the House.

On developing sales for new markets, hitherto we have had about five or six years of doing that, trying to extend more services to other passholders for the Members’ services, at times when Members are not around. Certainly, it has had a benefit to us. Over the last seven years we have reduced the bottom-line catering subsidy by £1 million, bearing in mind, over the seven years, that’s including swallowing the inflation.

There have been some very definite improvements in that area, but there is a limit to the number of passholders. Our experience is that when Members are not around, a lot of House officials and members of staff themselves are also not around, so the total market for catering services is reduced when the House is not sitting and Members are not here. Therefore, to make any radical change on the utilisation of our facilities is why we are looking in our other paper at some of the income generation, and whether it would be appropriate and possible to open some of our facilities more widely to the general public, where they are not currently available to the public.

Q291 Nigel Mills: I was trying to lead you in an open manner towards the difficult question of the level of staff costs compared with turnover, because of all the things that are out of line with comparables, that is it. Do you have plans to try to address that? Otherwise, in trying to increase income, you’re hitting a law of diminishing returns. Trying to tip away at other things won’t get you there. That looks to be the kind of big issue.

Mrs Harrison: There is no getting away from the fact that catering is a labour-intensive business. It’s far more labour-intensive than retail, which is why it is not as profitable in many instances as retail. The numbers of staff that we employ have been reduced consistently now for almost 20 years. Just to go back 19 years ago when I started here, we had 340 staff providing about 4,000 meals a day just here in the Palace in 1 Parliament Street. We now provide over 8,000 meals a day. We also have Portcullis House and 7 Millbank, and there are 280 staff. So we have made quite sizeable increases in our productivity and at the same time reduced very considerably the number of staff.

Some of the savings proposals put forward are designed to be able to provide services that we hope would be acceptable to our customers, but would be delivering services that require fewer staff. Staffing is our biggest cost. Therefore, like any commercial catering operator, that is the first line that we look to, to see whether we can deliver our services more cost-effectively. This is really where we want to discuss with this Committee how far down that route to go. There are organisations on the high street that have very low levels of skilled staff within their organisations, and that is reflected in their service offer.

We at the moment have got a high number of staff in many of our areas because we are making very little use, I would say, of pre-prepared foods. We are primarily preparing fresh foods here on site to meet the demands of our customers. There is no doubt there is a cost involved in that in terms of labour. If you talk to many of the contract caterers, for many years now they have been on a mission to-they may not use this phrase with their clients-deskill their kitchen and deskill their operations, making more use of goods that are bought in and then just reconstituted on site. That is a route that we could go.

Q292 Bob Russell: A Tesco bakery?

Mrs Harrison: In simplistic terms, Mr Russell, yes.

Q293 Chair: Before I call on Tessa, can I just follow up on that? For example, dining room usage on average would show-across the Members Dining Room, Strangers Dining Room, Churchill and Adjournment-roughly 230 dinners on a Monday night. There are 650 Members of Parliament, there are staff, officials and guests. As we have capacity there, how far could we improve those numbers by looking at the type of food that we offer, by altering the mix and what we offer at the present time? Do you believe there is any advantage in examining that?

Mrs Harrison: The best way in which to examine that would be to have some structured interviews with your colleague Members, so that we have some good quality research into it. For many years, 150 has been about the maximum number of Members who will use the Members Dining Room on a busy evening. As you say, Sir Alan, there are 650 Members, which means that 500 or so MPs are dining elsewhere. They might be elsewhere in the House-obviously many are in places such as the Members Tea Room; a number use the cafeterias; and some, depending on the voting, are not in the House itself and return to it just for the votes. That is why what is happening in the Chamber has a direct influence on what is happening in our business areas.

I could make the general observation that Members choose not to use the Dining Rooms because that reflects the trend throughout workplace catering in the past 10 years or more towards much more casual dining. From talking to many Members, I know that if they are not in the Chamber and needed for votes, they have jobs of work to do-they are in their offices working. They may not wish to take the time to go to a dining room and have a full meal. There are different motivators and reasons for different Members, and the best way in which to investigate that is to get some good quality customer research.

Q294 Tessa Munt: A couple of my questions have been asked already, but there is one that I would like to address. On the external visits log that you provided us with, I am not able to see whether staff or management have been to visit directors’ dining rooms. If you go into the City, there are any number of directors’ dining rooms, which are run in a pretty unembarrassed way by the commercial organisations concerned as facilities for the equivalent of Members. They accept that those facilities are not there to make money at all. A lot of work has gone on to look at the grab-and-rush and recession-buster meal end of things, which is absolutely right. Have you planned for-or could you envisage-doing research on directors’ dining rooms?

Mrs Harrison: Indeed, a number of the venues that are listed on the log are contract caterer-operated, and there is a mixture of staff restaurants and directors’ dining. One of my operations managers and I visited a number of sites in Canary Wharf with your Committee’s adviser about two years ago, I think. That visit was specifically to look at those sorts of areas, but we would look at the staff restaurants at the same time. It is not restricted to me; supervisors and staff who are working in the Dining Rooms go out regularly, but we do not log every single one of those visits. This log was compiled from our Outlook calendar records. Many of my staff do not use Outlook, so we were not able to pull together the information that the Committee asked from us, but I assure you that our staff do go out.

Q295 Tessa Munt: That’s good. It’s just that it is clear that it is helpful looking for a nuanced notion of subsidising meals-

Mrs Harrison: No, we are aware of that.

Q296 Thomas Docherty: Moving away from Members’ provision to that for the other 12,500 pass holders, your helpful and detailed paper mentioned Moncrieff’s, the Adjournment and Churchill. I have a couple of observations about the bar charts and so on. Moncrieff’s café bar seems to be phenomenally popular on a Friday, which might relate to Mr Russell’s point about good British fish and chips. Although the Press Gallery had said that it was interested in access to other facilities, that was not supposed to be at the expense of Moncrieff’s. There is spare capacity in Moncrieff’s, the Adjournment and Churchill during their current opening times and, as Mr Borley has mentioned, there is a possibility of a more commercial operation at weekends and during recess. Your own comments have been that, ultimately, the key is increasing footfall, otherwise we are simply chasing an ever-decreasing circle. What benefit do you see in opening the facilities that we have to non-Member pass holders during the week, and looking to try to raise a significant sum by using the facilities at weekends and during recess on a more commercial footing, whether that be through catering blue chip events, civil ceremony receptions or whatever else? Is that something that you are both looking at?

Mrs Harrison: Yes, indeed. Again, the paper that we will be talking about next Monday includes a number of suggestions that we have come up with as to where you could extend the facilities to the general public. Some of those may find more favour than others, but I have no doubt that there are other sorts of facilities that could be open to the general public as well. That is certainly our thinking, in terms of increasing the footfall.

Q297 Thomas Docherty: To follow up on my first point, because it was quite a rambling question from me, as a starting point, is it fair that the premise should be that, rather than closing existing facilities, there should be a significant step towards making better use of them-such as through members’ dining clubs or running special offers-to try to retain the width and depth of facilities that we have?

Mrs Harrison: There is always merit in looking at ways in which you could introduce specials or try to grow the business that you have. Looking at the table service restaurants, however, there is so much surplus capacity at the moment that we think that it is unrealistic to expect to increase the sales sufficiently to fill it. That is why we have put forward two options that could be looked at that would reduce the stock of accommodation that would be used for table service restaurants, and allow that space to be used for other purposes or, if the Committee so recommended, to give it up from catering purposes all together. There may be something else that the House wishes to do, and that this Committee would like, that is not catering or retail-related, if the space is appropriate for it. Moncrieff’s table service restaurant is part of the same room as the self-service cafeteria, and I think that it was the self-service cafeteria, rather than the café bar, that you were talking about when you said that it was phenomenally successful on a Friday. The fish and chips are served in the cafeteria. That is all part and parcel of one room.

If we are going to look at alternative uses for that room-economically, that is one of the things that the figures suggest that we should consider-the table service is restricted entirely to the press at the moment, and there is plenty of surplus capacity in the other Dining Rooms. Therefore, it would seem to us to be more of merit to look at allowing the press to use those other Dining Rooms, where we have surplus capacity, and consolidating the business into fewer areas. On top of that, you can still do precisely what you are suggesting about offering specials and other incentives to use those facilities.

Q298 Mr Jones: The reason why you don’t get many people who actually use the Members Dining Room is because the service is so damn slow. That’s the case in quite a few of the restaurants, and there is a sense that there is no urgency. I have stopped eating in Strangers’ because, frankly, I waited an hour between the courses of a meal, which is not acceptable and is not the right way of doing it. Surely changing how some of those restaurants are managed and structured, and the type of food offered, would actually increase the numbers you would get through them.

Mrs Harrison: I think it would be fair to say that the Members’, Strangers’ and Churchill Restaurants, in particular, are very traditional. The Adjournment is far less labour intensive. Generally speaking, it has a faster service. It still should not take an hour, in any of those restaurants, for you to have the main course, Mr Jones. That is the sort of thing that, if it happens, we need to know about at the time, so that we can deal with it. As a general tenet, moving more towards the style of menu and service that is offered in the Adjournment would suggest that that is less labour intensive, and therefore a less heavily subsidised area. But, it is just a question of treating this with caution. We wouldn’t want to suggest having four Dining Rooms that were clones of the Adjournment. It’s a question of finding restaurant concepts that meet the needs of Members, and other passholders, and appeal to them so that they want to use them, and are less labour intensive than they currently are.

Q299 Mr Jones: It’s not just that. Compare the Members Dining Room in the evening with the carvery on Wednesday lunch time, which seems to get a bigger flow of people. I think that has increased, even though this place-this is the other thing I’ve always said about it-doesn’t advertise what services are available and where people can eat. It would be better to go to the level where people can go in, have something to eat and at least not wait an hour or more for it.

The lunchtime trade at Moncrieff’s is pretty dire, isn’t it? Appendix C.1 says that there is a capacity for 30 covers, and this year you have been doing four on average on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That is on page 5 I think.

Mrs Harrison: There is no doubt about it-it is not a heavily utilised service. That is why we are suggesting that that business could be accommodated in one or more of the other Dining Rooms.

Q300 Mr Jones: Have you done any analysis? When I was last on the Committee, a justification for spending £7 million on the Press Gallery was that we’d open Moncrieff’s to other passholders. Who are these people? Are they members of the press or other people?

Mrs Harrison: The table service area is still restricted to members of the Press Gallery and their guests. The rest of Moncrieff’s-the self-service restaurant and the café bar-is open to all passholders.

Q301 Mr Jones: When you say, "Moncrieff’s bistro lunch covers", what is it?

Mrs Harrison: That’s the table service.

Q302 Mr Jones: So we have an entire restaurant that is catering for four people on most days.

Mrs Harrison: That’s only one small part of the restaurant behind a moveable screen. The rest of the room is used for the self-service restaurant. With the agreement of the Press Gallery, because it has recognised that the cafeteria is very popular, we don’t offer the table service restaurant in Moncrieff’s on a Friday lunchtime, so we can use the entire seating area for self-service custom.

Q303 Mr Jones: So is Moncrieff’s the most heavily subsidised?

Mrs Harrison: If you were to look at it for table service, I think that the cost per cover for Moncrieff’s is the most expensive, but that is purely by factor of the very low level of sales they are doing, and their share of the allocated central costs is what pushes it up very high.

Mr Jones: There is always a lot of press interest in subsidies paid for our lunches and dinners, and, quite clearly, the most expensive one is the Press Gallery itself.

Bob Russell: May I ask a supplementary question? I think, Sir Alan, it’s fair to say that Press Gallery catering is subsidised. However, my understanding is that most journalists, if not all, are then able to claim the costs of that subsidised meal anyway.

Chair: That may be so.

I think, colleagues, that we should wind up there. We have had a very elongated session. I apologise to Mrs Harrison and Mr Borley for keeping them so long. We ran over, but this has been interesting stuff. We will come back to these matters-both the initial catering and retail service savings. I think we need to examine the whole retail side of things more carefully, because I suspect that there is great potential there. Thank you very much indeed.