Catering and Retail Services in the House of Commons - Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 78-99)


22 NOVEMBER 2010

Q78   Chair: Good afternoon. I'm sorry we kept you waiting. We're running a little late. Thank you for coming to see us and thank you for paper that you submitted. I gather that James Mills has had to go to hospital and that it's Lauren who is replacing him. Welcome. Is there anything you'd like to say by way of introduction before we ask you some questions?

Louise Haigh: In terms of our oral submission or introducing the branch?

Chair: I'm sorry?

Louise Haigh: Sorry, would you like us to introduce the branch or introduce our oral submission because we've prepared an oral submission as well?

Chair: I'm still not quite hearing you properly.

Louise Haigh: Sorry. Do you mean would you like us to introduce our oral submission?

Q79   Chair: You can enlarge on it, if you'd like to highlight any particular points that you need to draw to the attention of the Committee. I hope we've all read it, but nevertheless you might want to give emphasis to something.

Louise Haigh: Yes, we do have a couple of other things that we would like to add to the written submission, if that is okay.

First, we were quite disappointed as a branch not to have been consulted before the price rises were announced. We do have a memorandum of understanding with the House authorities. We do appreciate that it was a quick strategic decision, but we would have liked to see some consultation with the branch. Also, we were quite disappointed not to have been invited to consult and to submit to the Commission. It was a request from myself that led to us making the submission, whereas the Trade Union Side and MAPSA were both invited.

Enlarging on our written submission, the main point that we want make is that the catering price rises will impact disproportionately on MPs' staff. We have an average salary of around £20,000 per annum, which is far below the market rate for the vast majority of the jobs and qualifications of most MPs' staff, and at the same time, we're also facing higher costs on the estate. I know this is not part of your remit as the Administration Committee, but just to give you some context, IPSA is driving down salaries through cuts to MPs' staffing budgets and MPs have also been banned from giving their staff bonuses, so many MPs' staff feel they are unfairly bearing the brunt of the cuts at work.

In addition, we also have a response to the cuts specifically proposed in the Houses' saving programme.

Lauren Edwards: Yes, we have just been having a look at the House savings programme and our major concern really is that the cuts programme recognises the long hours a lot of MPs' staff work. We know that one of the proposals is to close down some of the facilities and replace them with vending machines. I know that's the context of 7 Millbank, and we don't believe that any of our members work in that building, but just in terms of that setting a precedent, we would like evening meals and that kind of thing to still be available for our members, given that some of us work as long as the MPs are here.

Shelley Phelps: Finally, as Interns Officer, I would like to bring just a few points to your attention. Our members have expressed concerns about access arrangements for short-term staff, such as interns. We feel that they should be able to access the Terrace at the same times as green pass holders can; also, things like access to the Debate. Obviously we recognise that this is a problem when it is extremely busy, but this rule applies regardless of quieter times, with the exception of recess. So that's just something that we wanted to have addressed, really.

Chair: Thank you. I think I should just say that no one was consulted. We are all in it together, to coin a phrase, in the sense that these decisions were taken in the void period between the ending of the Committees under the old Parliament and the setting up of the Committees in the new. The Commission, as it is entitled, nevertheless took decisions that we are now catching up on. As to the future, there is only one item in the list that is affecting the next financial year so far as the catering side is concerned, and that happens to be the Members' Dining Room. On any other proposal on that very widely drawn list, we are going to have the opportunity of input. In fact it has been stated that the inquiry being conducted by this Committee will help to inform and, I hope, influence what might happen in the future.

Q80   Bob Russell: I think there is a general acceptance that the curse of IPSA falls on staff, possibly more so than it does on elected Members. I'm grateful to you for pointing that out in the "Loyalty Scheme" section—number two. I wonder if perhaps you could spell it out a bit more? Are you suggesting that perhaps low-paid staff, shortly or already to be on IPSA-reduced salaries, would be entitled to a lower purchase price of commodities? Is that what is being suggested?

Lauren Edwards: Yes. We are asking, basically to take into account our below market rate salaries, whether that would be one of the options that you could consider. Some people have been talking about perhaps a staff canteen, but we just think with the pure numbers of staff that we have on the estate, it would just get incredibly busy. That could be an option, just in recognition that MPs' staff are being hit quite hard with the decline in salaries and the rise in catering prices at the same time.

Q81   Bob Russell: If I could ask a second question? On the loyalty scheme at paragraph c), you've highlighted one commodity, which is a bottle of Coke, with quite a substantial mark-up within the estate as off the estate. Are there other examples? I'm just wondering whether perhaps an entrepreneurial member of staff could bulk buy and make a killing.

Shelley Phelps: Even if you bought pasta in the Debate now, which is about I think £3.25, you could buy a pot of pasta for £1.20 in Tesco nearby.

Louise Haigh: There is also confectionary I believe.

Lauren Edwards: Yes. A lot of our members have been in touch to say that prices of standard chocolate bars is now higher on the estate than it is in Tesco, which is just around the corner but leaving the estate can often be quite difficult. Usually, when you're on the estate for the day, you are basically here all day.

Louise Haigh: It's just not clear what the benchmark has been for setting the price. It's not clear whether it's just about removing the subsidy rather than profit-raising.

Q82   Thomas Docherty: First of all, can I ask you to clarify what you understand, or what your members understand, are the access arrangements to things like Strangers' Bar, the Terrace and the Terrace cafeteria?

Louise Haigh: Sorry, which bar was that? Strangers' Bar?

Thomas Docherty: Strangers' Bar, the Terrace as a whole and the Terrace cafeteria.

Louise Haigh: My understanding and, I believe, the understanding of the members is that Strangers' bar access is only as MPs' guests. To the Terrace, I believe we have access on Fridays and during recess periods. What was the other one?

Q83   Thomas Docherty: And the terrace from Strangers' Bar?

Louise Haigh: That is the same: only with an MP, I understand.

Q84   Thomas Docherty: On your submission, you said—and apologies for not getting this properly—on the Fridays, do you have the right to bring guests when you go on to the Terrace cafeteria?

Louise Haigh: No, that wasn't my understanding that we were, but it seems to be administered haphazardly and sometimes MPs' staff are allowed to take on interns or potentially staff that don't have a full pass, and other times they are not. We would like clarification on that.

Q85   Thomas Docherty: When you said in your submission on the point about access to the Terrace for lunch on Fridays, you said, "On some days, staff with interns who're still waiting for their pass will be allowed access and on other days they will not." I take you meant by "on some days" that it is random? It is not consistent to Fridays?

Louise Haigh: Yes. It depends entirely who is on the security on that day.

Q86   Thomas Docherty: If I understand correctly, what you are asking for is, for those days for which you have access, you would like the right effectively to bring guests on to the Terrace?

Louise Haigh: To bring guests that are staff—for example, interns who very rarely have full pass entitlement.

Q87   Thomas Docherty: Do you understand the reasons why interns, who I think you said yourself are on short term, won't necessarily have passes, because they haven't been security cleared? Does that make sense?

Louise Haigh: Yes, but they've been security cleared to get on to the estate and they've been employed presumably by the MP, so they have been cleared in that sense.

Q88   Thomas Docherty: But the staff would then effectively take responsibility for vouching for them? If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is MPs' staff and MPs' researchers would take responsibility for vouching for the interns on the Terrace, and that is the access you want on the non­sitting days and the Fridays?

Louise Haigh: Yes, absolutely.

Q89   Thomas Docherty: My final point, Sir Alan, is that there have been a number of incidents in recent months where MPs' staff have been on the Terrace at night. Do you think that the union has a role to play in raising awareness that staff shouldn't be on the Terrace, and particularly that their behaviour on the Terrace needs to be adjusted accordingly?

Louise Haigh: I think we can certainly play a role in raising awareness but if they are there as guests of MPs—

Thomas Docherty: They're not.

Louise Haigh: Okay. It should be taken into account that a lot of the new intake are former researchers and will be in social circles with researchers now, so a lot do take them on in that respect. Certainly we can play a role in raising that, absolutely.

Q90   Geoffrey Clifton­Brown: I wouldn't want you to go away thinking this Committee wasn't sympathetic with your members, because we have consistently asked questions about the impact of these price rises on your members and that is where I want to question you. I totally understand that, but since we've had the price increases, I haven't noticed any huge decline in the number of staff using the Debate. Have you any evidence of that, and also have you any evidence that your staff have had to stop using it and instead have gone outside and bought lunch at Tesco or whatever?

Lauren Edwards: We have had members get in touch when we asked for their views on the written and the oral evidence that we are giving now who've said that is something they are increasingly doing. The problem is that there is not a lot of other places that you can go. You can go to the Tescos and the Neros, but because of the location of where we work, there is not a local coffee shop necessarily that you can pop out to, so it is the only place really. We have had evidence of people increasingly doing that, of people making their own lunch and bringing it in and that kind of thing. Ultimately, if that happens en masse and that increases, there will be a decline in revenue on the estate.

Q91   Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I don't notice, and maybe I am wrong, the decline in the number of staff using the Debate. If anything, the queue is longer now than it was before.

Lauren Edwards: It may just take a while for the cost to hit. It takes a while for people to change their behaviour.

Shelley Phelps: A lot of people would probably still be queuing up to buy teas and coffees and they are still eating their lunch outside the Debate, but a lot of people are still bringing their own or going out to Tesco to buy things.

Q92   Tessa Munt: I just wanted to check something. I'm not entirely clear about why it is that people who are interns don't always have passes, seeing as how one can get a pass for someone who is on work experience, as I understand it. I'm not entirely sure why your interns don't have passes.

The second question I would like to ask you, which is sort of connected, is that I would envisage that, given the complexity of a pass like this, one can grade it so that you could get some sort of staff discount. That would, of course, require each of you to buy a meal and not to be buying each other's meals. I just wondered if you saw that as being workable—if there was something that you flash across the EPOS system on the till, whether you could limit yourselves to buying a meal each as opposed to buying meals for others also, if you were to get a discount?

Louise Haigh: I presume it could be limited to use, say, once or twice a day for a lunch or evening meal. As for the pass for interns, often because it can be very short term or perhaps they have used their pass allocation on full­time staff, on permanent staff, then a lot of the times, they don't have enough.

Shelley Phelps: As Interns Officer and when we've had interns in the office, one thing I've come across is, for example, in half term, when we had two or three people coming in, and you contact the Pass Office to try and get them short-term passes, the Pass Office often just say it is easier, if they're only in for the Monday to Wednesday or Thursday when the Members are going back to the constituency, for them to have the paper passes for those days and be accompanied by a staff member.

Q93   Mike Weatherley: I am hugely sympathetic to what you've got here and I congratulate you in making very reasonable proposals. To answer that last question, I have interns that don't have the pass, and they have to be escorted elsewhere, so I see the problem that you come up with on a daily basis. I only have one very small question on the whole thing. What is the capacity of Annie's Bar? How many people? How big is it? I've never been it—I'm new here.

Louise Haigh: Of Annie's Bar? I've never been in it either. I know it is closed.

Q94   Mike Weatherley: I appreciate it is closed now, but if it were open, is it the size of Strangers' Bar? Is it double the size? Is it this room? Does anyone in this room know?

Chair: If I could just contribute to that point, I was going to ask a question as well.

I know, simply because I made a point of going there, that it is unused at the moment. I was very conscious of the fact that we had lost Bellamy's bar and I was asking the question as to whether or not there was sufficient footfall to justify reinstating Annie's Bar as a bar for staff. There are doubts on management side as to whether it would work for that purpose—that particular premises—and whether in fact, as it's an enclosed box, it would find much attraction with people, compared with what the Bellamy's bar had, with the great view out on to Parliament Square and so on. I think if there was evidence provided that there was a demand by staff for a bar that was their territory, we might see whether or not it could be provided. I'm just not sure that the Annie's Bar space is in least bit attractive for that purpose. That is the trouble. I take note of the points you've made in that and I think we just need to see harder evidence rather than mere speculation as to whether or not we would get the demand.

Q95   Mike Weatherley: Apart from the fact that I think there is a lot of demand for another facility on the estate, since people say it to me all the time, I just want to know how big it is. Is it a really small box room or is it a large room?

Chair: It has a capacity of about 50. I am just trying to imagine. It is less than half the size of this Committee room.

Q96   Mike Weatherley: So about the same as Strangers' then?

Chair: Smaller than the Strangers'.

Q97   Nigel Mills: Speaking of someone who has a morning trip to Tesco to buy Coke, chocolate biscuits and fruit juice, I entirely agree that putting the price up on those easily substitutable items is not a clever way of trying to make money in this area. When we had a tour of the catering facilities last week, the one in Parliament Street is a lot less used than the ones in Portcullis House. Do you sense that staff look at menus and choose where they want to eat, or is it always the same place? Would different pricing encourage some people to move over to different buildings? If you knew that Parliament Street was empty Monday to Tuesday, if it was 20p or 50p cheaper, do you think that would even out the demand somewhat more?

Louise Haigh: I absolutely think that the staff look at menus and pricing. I think if you were looking to increase in footfall in one, lowering the prices would greatly increase revenue at Bellamy's.

Q98   Thomas Docherty: I'm curious. Have you had any discussions with your counterparts in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly about their catering arrangements and how they provide for their staff? Having worked a very long time ago at the Scottish Parliament, I know they do provide staff discounts on some things but they don't do it for canteen staffing, if that makes sense. You can get a discount on stuff at the gift shop and so on of 10%, but you don't get a discount on eating there—the theory being the food is subsided as it is, so effectively you get a second subsidy. Have you talked to either the Welsh or the Scots about that?

Louise Haigh: We haven't. As is part of our submission, it's not unusual across the public or private sector to have a subsidised catering arrangement in a workplace. No we haven't had any discussion is the answer to your question, but certainly in previous workplaces for me, there have often been staff canteens or subsidised food arrangements.

Q99   Nigel Mills: Do your members have suggestions for things that are missing from the estate? Do you ever think, "Why isn't there a pizza place or a sandwich place?" Is there anything that you can't get that you would really like to see here?

Louise Haigh: No. Everything that we have come across with our members has been included in the written submission.

Chair: That makes you more satisfied than Members, I think.

Thank you very much indeed for coming to see us and for the submission you've made. We have a little extra time over the next few weeks to complete our inquiry, as we are not under the pressure we thought we were, so we shall deliberate in due course. Thank you very much indeed.

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