Catering Services in the House of Commons

Written evidence submitted by Ken Gall, Trade Union Side (TUS)

Catering and retail services does an excellent job in providing food and drink for the many people who work in the House of Commons, their guests, the press and members of the Civil Service. The range of food caters for different tastes and dietary requirements and the surroundings in which people dine are generally agreed to be first class.

However, there are a number of long-standing concerns that have been raised by the Trade Union Side in previous inquiries into this subject; one is overcrowding in many of the House of Commons refreshment facilities, and another is access to those facilities.

The Committee will be unsurprised to learn that the major concern currently among staff is the decision to increase prices in the catering facilities in the House of Commons. The concerns can be summarised as follows: that the decision had primarily political, as opposed to genuine cost-saving, motives; that it pre-empted and distorted the current House-wide savings programme; and that it financially penalised staff of the House of Commons, who are facing a two-year pay freeze.

On the first point, in a speech on 8 September 2009, David Cameron –as leader of the Opposition – said the following:

Under Labour, millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been wasted on funding what can only be described as a cushy lifestyle for politicians.

And in the restaurants on the Parliamentary estate, you can treat yourself to a 'Lean salad of lemon and lime marinated roasted tofu with baby spinach and rocket, home-roasted plum tomatoes and grilled ficelle crouton' for just £1.70.

That's all thanks to you - taxpayers' cash subsidising a politician's food and drink.

We all have to eat, we all sometimes want a drink, there's nothing about this job that forces us to eat or drink any more than if we did something else.

So with the Conservatives, the cost of food and drink in Parliament will be increased to match the prices normal people pay in cafes, restaurants and bars around the country.

There can be little doubt that an element of the public mood was being echoed in this statement, coming as it did in the wake of the expenses scandal. But the message that prices should be raised to end "a cushy lifestyle" for politicians was unfortunately incomplete. The provision of subsidised food to approximately 2,000 staff of the House of Commons and hundreds of MPs’ staff, secretaries and researchers - many of whom have little or no option as to where and when they eat and virtually all of whom are paid a great deal less than a Member of Parliament – can only on a very loose definition be described as a contribution to "a cushy lifestyle".

On the second point, the House of Commons – like most public bodies – is currently engaged in rigorous attempts to find substantial savings over the lifetime of this Parliament. The four Departments of the House, along with PICT, were originally asked to contribute individual savings proposals to achieve to

deliver a saving of 9% by 2012/13 against the 2010/11 Estimate of £231million.

Each department was asked to submit an analysis of the impact of cuts of between 10 and 20 per cent., along with an estimate of the likely impact on service provision of such cuts. Yet the imposition of price rises in an attempt to make a saving estimated at approximately £500,000 meant that there could be no scrutiny or analysis of the kind envisaged for savings proposals from all other Departments – and, indeed, for future savings programmes from the Department of Facilities itself.

In addition, the terms of reference state that, in achieving this financial objective,

Staff will have been treated openly, fairly and with respect.

Regrettably, it must be pointed out that at the time of writing the TUS has – despite requests - not received the benchmarking report used in determining the appropriate range of prices for bars, cafes and restaurants in the House, nor the names of the public and private sector organisations used in the benchmarking exercise, nor confirmation of whether an equality impact assessment was carried out as part of the process.

Finally, and most importantly, the politically understandable aspiration to cut the cost of Parliament has in this instance led to House of Commons’ staff suffering a financial detriment. Many of the "normal people" to whom the Prime Minister referred last September do indeed eat in unsubsidised cafes and restaurants; we can only wonder as to how many of those "normal people" work in an environment whose working hours are as unpredictable of those of the House, or whether they are subject to the security restrictions that can prevent staff from choosing to eat elsewhere.

Other issues of concern include overcrowding, particularly during recess. Overcrowding is exacerbated during recesses, particularly short ones, when some outlets are closed for the duration. While we appreciate that management has to make the best use of staffing levels available to them, could more be done to prevent the lengthy queues that can build up on these occasions?

On access, the current rules exacerbate tensions between Officers of the House and other members of staff, as Officers have access to many refreshment facilities from which other staff are barred. We favour the opening of these refreshment facilities to staff across the House wherever possible, especially as a number of these facilities are currently under-used.

October 2010