Catering Services in the House of Commons

Written evidence submitted by Frances Allingham, House of Commons staff

1. Introduction

I am responding to the Administration Committee’s request for memoranda for its inquiry into catering services in the House of Commons. I have been employed at the House for 32 years, firstly in the Clerk’s Department and now, after amalgamation, the Chamber and Committee Services Department. I am a Senior Committee Assistant at B2 Grade. During my time here both staff of the House and Members’ staff have increased considerably which has encouraged more outlets to be built.

The views expressed below are mine own.

2. Access

The subject of access has been a bone of contention to the lower grade staff over the years and has now become a serious problem. We understand the need for Members (and Officers of the House) to have facilities where they can talk and socialise freely without the fear of appearing in the tabloid newspapers the following day. However this does not mean their staff have the same rights. For those of us who’s committees meet in, or who’s places of work are near, Portcullis House often have difficulty finding a place to have lunch as it is full of all sorts of folk entertaining their friends from outside. The security staff have very little back-up when they try to enforce the rules except on the Terrace, where this summer they have been more diligent. My perception is that since the opening of Portcullis House the facilities there have become a free-for-all.

I think the rules for lunchtime visitors should stay the same but in the evening the Strangers’ Dining room might be opened to a certain number of staff. This could be done either booking on a specific day of the week before, or by ballot once a term. It would be nice to be able to entertain our loved ones other than on a Friday lunchtime and would encourage more use of an oft times under-used facility. Similarly the Terrace Pavilion in the summer term is often under used except on Friday where there are always more people wanting to use it than seats available.

As an occupant of 7 Millbank it is great to have the two facilities here. The food in the cafeteria is excellent and the baristas in the Millbank Room do any excellent job. However because of its proximity to 4 Millbank we are now finding ourselves sharing tables with the journalists. This should not be a problem but unfortunately these days even broadsheet staff want to sniff out a story. This can be intimidating to the junior staff who are not very well paid and who have very little experience of dealing with them and little time or money to go elsewhere.

3. Needs

This is very simple. What Members, their staff, Officers, and staff of the House need is somewhere to have breakfast, coffee, lunch, tea and dinner when Parliament is sitting.

During recesses the timings of the facilities available need to be reduced.

I accept that prices have had to be raised and think the use of benchmarking against well known brands and outlets an acceptable one.

4. House of Lords

Traditionally Members, Peers and their staffs did not use the facilities in each other’s House. The exception being MPs who were ennobled. The officers and staff of each House were free to use the others cafeterias and bars. This was very useful as it enabled staff the chance to meet their opposite number to discuss commonality. During the recesses the Lords facilities were often closed for the duration so it helped usage in the Commons.

Personally I think that these unwritten rules should be reinstated particularly for the River Restaurant and bar as most staff in the House of Lords have very few other places to go to.

Unless of course in the future we have a parliamentary refreshment department. Then the access rules could be rewritten. A step too far maybe?

5. Improvements

1. Cut down the number of choices available on the menus;

2. Consider which facilities need to serve full meals after 8.30 pm when the House is sitting; and

3. Rethink the number of outside pass holders who need to use the facilities particularly in the Recess.

I would like to end by saying that whatever happens the staff in the Refreshment Department have a hard job trying to please everybody. They are to be congratulated in that they do so willingly and pleasantly.

October 2010