Catering Services in the House of Commons

Written evidence submitted by Will Conway, GMB Branch Secretary

The House of Commons GMB Branch would like to make the following submission to the Administration Committee.

On the current price rises, we do not believe that they were entirely appropriate or completely thought through; particularly for the cafeterias. While this should not financially affect the grades represented by the GMB, they will be in the firing line for unhappy customers. The increases should also be seen in the context of the potential pay freeze for many House Staff.

We believe that the sole use of benchmarking as a methodology was flawed; benchmarking uses a combination of comparators, by only focussing on price the credibility is lost as one cannot be sure that the comparison is valid. The sole use of this methodology will inevitably give the impression that it was to ensure that custom is not lost purely on the basis of price, but, were the local competitors taken into account? Tesco is the nearest outlet for confectionery and sandwiches, but we are now more expensive than them, the various restaurants and takeaways in Strutton Ground are competition, particularly for the Portcullis Cafeteria in 7 Millbank, but were they compared?

There is also the question of the purpose of the various outlets, if the cafeterias are meant to be providing wholesome, affordable meals for MPs, staff of the House and visitors, then this should be taken into account, as should the fact that most staff are unable to spare the time to leave the House precincts during their meal breaks. A combination of benchmarking and margin-setting may have been more appropriate. In this way, the outlets which provide non-essential services, such as the bars and banqueting areas, are differentiated from core areas, such as the cafeterias. The maintenance of the margin should also be stressed; price increases from suppliers should be passed on promptly without having to wait for approval from the Domestic Committees. It should not be acceptable to sell items at a loss.

On savings, the supply of free snacks to users of the Pugin and Members’ Smoking Rooms should come to an end.


Members should be made to be aware that where access is restricted, they are likely to be challenged. Passes should be worn and shown readily if requested.

Consideration might be given to opening up weekend access for weddings and civil partnerships. If this was not restricted to members, the profit gained would be higher because of the members’ discount now applied.

Access to the Terrace and Strangers’ Bar should be retained at the current level, but more strongly enforced. Consideration might be given, however, to adding Members’ partners to the list of those allowed to buy drinks. The Members Only area on the Terrace should be reviewed. It appears to be much underused for its stated purpose. If it is to be retained, thought should be given as to its size and to policing so that guests are not taken into it.

Consideration should be given to access to The Adjournment from Wednesday nights onwards. It is much underused. The pricing might also be looked at, should the price be the same at lunchtime as in the evening?

Underuse of Facilities

The Members’ Smoking Room could be let for Receptions at weekends. The furniture is presently looked upon as an obstacle, but maybe it could be an advantage. It gives the room a uniqueness that could give it a certain cachet as a venue, this could be reflected in the hire charge. Consideration could also be given to wider or different use during the week as it is a much underused facility.


Credit should be given for the hard work and achievements of the staff already, particularly in the kitchens. They have a current finalist in the National Chef of the Year competition (the holder of London Chef of the Year). Holders of the Grand Prix at Hotelympia. Their work in the community through outreach programmes, "Adopt a School" and work experience placements, give the work of the House a positive boost in the community.

The operation of the Members’ and Strangers’ Dining Rooms should be reviewed; changes in the past have been resisted by some of the more traditional Members. The Department should be allowed to offer a more modern fine dining style, with some elements of the traditional. Ways of increasing use of these facilities should be examined so that use is maximised without increasing the cost to the Department. If it were easier to predict customer numbers; control of staffing levels would be simplified. Solutions might include set menus, taking into account expense limits, and examining different menus and price structures for quieter periods.

Although not entirely cost neutral, thought should be given to reviving the plan to bottle water in the old "Annie’s Bar". If undertaken with the House of Lords, this could result in long term savings in the cost of water supplied to Committees.

The possibility of more direct selling to the public could be examined. This could be through an existing venue such as the Parliamentary Bookshop. This could be viewed as "weakening the brand" by members, but, if the range of goods available is different to that available internally, that should not be a concern.

Use of the Terrace Pavilion Bar during the Spring and Summer should be examined. Commitment to it has been lacking in recent years. It could significantly help to relieve pressure on the Strangers’ Bar while developing its own identity. A cream tea service and ice creams could both be offered during the day as well as the drinks currently served. Daytime staffing should be possible from existing resources. Banqueting should be prepared to give up the venue for these months.

Herbs could be grown in the containers on the Terrace. While this would be unlikely to be able to satisfy all the needs of the Department, it has peripheral advantages, in the perception of people and in the environment of the Terrace. Any savings would be likely to be quite small and dependent on the contract with the gardeners.

Purchasing practices should be examined so that we are able to take advantage of suppliers’ offers, and to market them quickly, benefitting both customers, through better pricing, and the Department through increased margins.

House of Lords

Consideration should be given to greater cooperation with the House of Lords in the areas of Stores and Purchasing. Greater discounts might be negotiated with suppliers, and complications arising from the off-site logistics centre could be eased.

October 2010