1. In business terms Parliament is no ordinary institution.
There are enormous capital costs involved in maintaining the fabric
of a treasured national building. Allocating these costs as in
any ordinary business to every activity conducted in the Palace
of Westminster would produce results showing all of them to be
prohibitively expensive. However, there is no serious call to
vacate the Palace for a purpose-built, cost-effective 21st century
meeting place elsewhere.
2. An institution which comes together in full assembly
for only 34 weeks while maintaining staff costs and other overheads
for 52 weeks will find it hard to break even. Of course the House
has an obligation, not least in the current economic circumstances,
to bear down on its running costs. But there is nothing unusual
about a subsidy for catering services in a place of work.
3. Members form only a small, albeit vital, proportion
of employees on the parliamentary Estate. So this report is also
about the needs of many more numerous groups, be they parliamentary
staff, Members' staff, visitors, press, civil servants from Whitehall
and contractors' staff. Their needs are varied; so too are their
4. The Commons Catering and Retail Service's aim
to perform efficiently and effectively is subject to a number
of influences. Being fully operational for only about 65 per cent
of the year has already been noted. The hours of sitting, largely
dictated by the Government, also affect the situation. The more
that they are moved in what is loosely called a family friendly
direction, the greater the loss of revenue to the Catering and
Retail Service. If Members and staff are free to leave the precincts
in the evenings, the greater the likelihood that they will go
home (where that is possible) or eat out. The IPSA ruling of 2010
that 128 MPsrecently amended to 97could no longer
claim the cost of additional accommodation has already made this
more of a reality.
5. By the same token morning sittings would drastically
reduce the opportunity for constituents to undertake much valued
tours of the Palace. This would mean a further reduction in demand
for refreshment and souvenir items.
6. The increasing need for tight security coupled
with tradition has made the House very cautious about the extent
to which its facilities might be subject to more open access when
not required by Members. Visitors pour into the Palace for tours
during parliamentary recesses. Such tours might easily be enhanced
by lunches or teas. By extension lunches and teas themselves might
be offered to the public without the need for Member sponsorship.
To maintain a self-denying ordinance in this regard simply means
that overhead costs continue to be borne without any compensating
revenue. If security needs are met and accounted for in the prices
charged, the House need not hold back from considering whether,
in line with other prestige venues, it should not seek an outright
7. A report from a Commons Select Committee has to
be cautious and respectful if it crosses the line which divides
its responsibilities from those of the House of Lords. Yet to
have two separate catering and retail operations within the same
building must be a source of extra liabilities for the House.
It could only be by agreement, but a merger of the two organisations
would surely yield savings. An integrated service would have the
potential to create a more diverse range of outlets. This might
increase footfall across the Estate.
8. The sale of souvenir items raises a substantial
amount of income. At the moment they can be purchased only at
sites on the parliamentary Estate. The freedom of the Catering
and Retail Service to choose the most advantageous sites is curtailed
by English Heritage. The best place for a souvenir shop is the
final point on the route followed by the visitor. In the case
of the Palace of Westminster this point is unquestionably Westminster
Hall. This is not an option which has to date found favour with
English Heritage. There is similar disapproval of the souvenir
stall which was put into St Stephen's Hall. Whilst this produces
a healthy revenue it is absolutely not in the right spot to maximise
earnings from what might be termed passing trade.
9. Stately homes and other such attractions would
testify that a reliable way of making money from tour groups is
to provide a place of refreshment prior to the point of exit.
It defies credulity that the Jubilee Cafeteria at the northern
end of Westminster Hall manages to buck this trend. Part of the
problem is signage. The Jubilee Cafeteria's existence needs to
be more boldly advertised. Here again English Heritage's influence
has, or is perceived to have, stood in the way. However, it is
now time to make a clear decision to override this advice.
10. As this report will show, the catering subsidy
cannot be controlled or reduced, let alone eliminated solely by
a policy of ever-increasing prices and closure of outlets. The
Catering and Retail Service will end up by chasing its tail. A
workplace subsidy for catering is nothing out of the ordinary.
At Westminster the greatest volume of transactions comes from
thousands of modestly paid staff. Their needs should be looked
after at reasonable prices. Many of the outside bodies which book
refreshment facilities for the purpose of lobbying MPs are charities.
It would be unfortunate if they were priced out. Members themselves
are well disposed to providing hospitality for their constituents,
who appreciate sharing the privilege of tea, lunch or dinner in
the Palace. Contrary to myth, MPs do not have an expense account
for this purpose. Part of the culture of Westminster is that groups
of Members form clubs which dine on a regular basis. These contribute
useful income to the Catering and Retail Service. The hike in
banqueting prices has impacted harshly on these groups and they
now look to eat elsewhere.
11. Suppressing demand is a depressing and ultimately
self-defeating way of cutting costs in the complex community of
differing needs which makes up a modern Parliament. Provided that
prices charged relate to appropriate benchmarking, there ought
to be no complaint if the retail sector is the greater generator
of additional revenue to help the Catering and Retail Service
meet (and possibly exceed) the stiff overall cost reduction target
it has been set. If there is a risk to the reputation of Parliament,
it must be met and answered.
12. Taking into account all these considerations,
this report seeks to identify a positive way forward.
1 Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, The
MPs' Expenses Scheme, HC 501, March 2010, p. 25; and Independent
Parliamentary Standards Authority press notice of 25 March 2011. Back