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

2  Catering to the House

13. The media refer frequently to the Westminster village. In fact, with more than 13,000 pass holders on the parliamentary Estate, the House of Commons, beyond the public, televised face of its Chamber and Committee rooms, more resembles a small town. The task of feeding thousands of people daily, with differing incomes, with many and varied demands, and at often unpredictable hours, falls to the Catering and Retail Service. There is much comment, accurate and otherwise, on the fact that the House contains a variety of restaurants and bars, and that the service is provided at public subsidy. The service, which employs nearly 300 people, has one of the highest profiles of any provided by the House, and is among those most commented upon by Members and others.

14. We set the following terms of reference:

  • to review access to catering and retail services, including considering opportunities to widen access to under-used services, and the risks and benefits that might arise;
  • to consult on what Members, their staff, staff of the House and other users of services need and prefer;
  • to consider the relationship between the House of Lords' and the House of Commons' catering services; and
  • to consider how catering and retail service might be improved without requiring the expenditure of additional resources.

15. As we launched the inquiry, in September, two linked changes in the way the service is provided were occurring, which have informed much of the comment we have received from Members, staff and others. First, the service was, at the instruction of the House of Commons Commission—without consultation with this Committee or the Finance and Services Committee—raising its prices to raise an extra £1.267 million a year. Secondly, the Commission approved plans to reduce spending on the House administration by at least 17 per cent over the next four years.[2] The Catering and Retail Service was asked by the House's Board of Management to identify savings or new revenues that would reduce its annual subsidy by up to 50 per cent.[3]

16. The Catering and Retail Service has put forward specific proposals intended to make savings by 2014-15, as requested, and we shall comment on each in due course.[4] From the outset, however, we believe that the Service can be provided more cost-effectively and efficiently than it is at present. Our approach towards how that may be done has been to consider how demand and revenues may be raised and the Service made more responsive, rather than its seeking to reduce or close facilities simply on grounds of current footfall or cost. As the Director of the Catering and Retail Service, Mrs Sue Harrison, has told us, demand has risen consistently over the past decade as the number of staff based on the Estate has grown.[5] For that reason we are reluctant to see facilities lost rather than used more efficiently and effectively.

17. Ours is far from the first inquiry into this subject: our predecessor committee produced a similar Report in 2005, and Catering Committees produced further reports in 2002, 1994, 1990, 1979, 1967 and 1966 and so on deep into the past.[6] Some of the themes that we identify here have arisen before, particularly as regards the range and exclusivity of services provided largely or wholly for Members, such as the Members' Dining Room, and the need or desire for more low-price, quick-service facilities, such as the Tea Room and the Despatch Box. It is frustrating to discover that previous Committees have over the past two decades correctly identified problems that still exist—the decline in formal lunching, the slowness of service in the Members' Dining Room, for example—but to which the House's management has not yet found a solution.[7]

18. Two questions in particular arise again: whether the House is best served by providing its catering service in house or should contract out some or all of it; and how much subsidy is justifiable. We shall turn to both in subsequent chapters, but enter two early notes: we recognise the difficulties that would be raised and costs incurred by any move towards outsourcing the service; and we note that many workplaces subsidise catering to a significant degree.

19. We have received formal submissions from Members of Parliament, their staff, staff of the House and other users, such as members of the Press Gallery. We have, as individual Members, received many more informal submissions from all those groups. We have taken evidence from the Catering and Retail Service, from user groups across the House, and from entrepreneurs from outside the House on how the Service might better fulfil its potential. We are particularly grateful to four witnesses from the commercial sector for sharing with us, at our request, their expertise: Duncan Ackery, Hamish Cook, Oliver Peyton and Rupert Ellwood.

20. This Report is based on more information than we have been able to publish, since specific financial information about the service may require to remain commercially confidential if future steps are taken to restructure the service. That information will be made available to the House of Commons Commission, to which we report. Published evidence not printed with this Report is available on our Committee's web pages.[8]

21. We have been advised by Jon Hewett of EP Business Evolution and are grateful to him and to his colleague, Sally Houston, for the considerable work they have done in analysing financial information, identifying witnesses and guiding us in drafting this Report.

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3   Ev 77 Back

4   The proposals are listed at Ev 76-84 Back

5   Ev 53 Back

6   In reverse order, see: Administration Committee, Second Report of Session 2005-06, Refreshment Department Services, HC 733; Catering Committee, First Report of Session 2001-02, Refreshment Facilities in the House of Commons, HC 832; Catering Committee, First Report of Session 1993-94, Refreshment Services for the House of Commons, HC 75-I; Catering Sub-Committee, First Report of Session 1989-90, The future development of Refreshment Facilities in the House, HC 234; Session 1978-79, HC 120; Session 1967-68, HC 46; and Session 1966-67, HC 384. Back

7   HC (1993-94), para 6.1; and HC (2005-06), para 68. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 10 May 2011