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

3  The Catering and Retail Service

The purpose of the Service

22. The remit of the Catering and Retail Service is to "meet the needs of Members, staff and visitors to the Parliamentary Estate".[9] The service employs 286 full-time equivalent staff.[10] Its cost, around £14 million (with about £8 million returned in sales, and, therefore, a subsidy of about £6 million), is entirely funded from the House of Commons administration budget.[11] Most of the outlets provided are also available, however, to members and staff of the House of Lords and other non-Commons user groups, such as civil servants, police and security officers, and members of the Press Gallery. Until 2008, the Refreshment Department was a stand-alone department headed by its Director as a member of the House of Commons Board of Management; since then, it has been merged into the Department of Facilities, and board-level membership resides with the Director General, John Borley.[12]

23. The primary reason for having a catering service at all must be to assist Members, their staff and staff of the House in ensuring that Parliament's work is done, a purpose which is assisted by the proximity of catering facilities to the offices in which they work. Without that purpose, there would be no reason for the Catering and Retail Service to exist. Because of that purpose, its primary motivation cannot be purely commercial or profit-based, but it should be provided as cost-effectively and as efficiently as possible.

Who eats where?

24. The service faces the difficulty that its 'market' is comprised of significantly different user groups working at frequently unusual and different hours and on substantially different pay scales. Around 13,000 people hold passes allowing access to the parliamentary Estate, and by implication to the catering facilities within it. A rough breakdown of the major groups is contained in table 1.
Table 1: Passholders on the parliamentary Estate
Pass typeNo. Pass typeNo. Pass typeNo.
MP649 Peer758 Civil servants1,686
MPs' staff1,498 Peers' staff517 Media436
Ex-MP348 Ex-Peer83 Contractors1,312
House staff2,000 Lords staff975 Temporary796
Ex-officer17 Staff of 2 Houses 1,468Other 501
TOTAL 13,268

Table 1: derived from figures supplied by Serjeant at Arms, 4 November 2010.

25. The particular position of Members means that a number of facilities, or sections of facilities, are set aside entirely or wholly for their and their guests' use, although the 650 Members represent only 5 per cent of the total internal 'market' for catering facilities. The nature of this workplace makes that necessary, but we are keen to stress that Members should not forget the needs of their own staff, the staff of the House and the other users of the service who support us in our work and the House of Lords in theirs.

Rising demand

26. Demand for catering services within the House has risen over the past two decades. Around 900,000 meals or snacks were served annually in the early 1990s; last year, that figure rose to just under 1,700,000.[13] Several factors explain this growth in demand. First, the number of Members' staff has expanded consistently. Members "should not expect to be able to accommodate more than two members of staff comfortably at Westminster" according to the Administration Committee's 2005 review of accommodation on the Estate.[14] There is continued pressure for that average to be breached, and a growing use of interns and part-time staff has increased the number of people on the Estate.[15]

27. Secondly, styles of eating have changed over the past 20 years so that the rising number of transactions may represent a significant growth in grazing and snacking throughout the day. The Director of the Catering and Retail Service told us that this "mirrors trends observed in other workplace catering situations, where work is increasingly conducted in informal meetings, semi-social situations scheduled throughout the day, often in communal areas such as the catering facilities and accompanied by a tea/coffee or light snack".[16] The opening in 2000 of Portcullis House, with its wide and airy atrium and restaurant, cafeteria and coffee bar have considerably accelerated that trend within the parliamentary Estate.

28. Thirdly, the House has, over time, become more regular in its pattern of work. As the Director notes: "The days when Members and their staff were simply not present on the parliamentary Estate during recesses are long gone".[17] This trend will only continue with the reintroduction of September sittings to break the long summer recess.

Sitting hours of the House

29. The greatest single factor affecting demand for routine, as opposed to banqueting, services has always been and remains the sitting hours of the House of Commons, and the business being transacted in the Chamber on any given day. The current standard sitting pattern—until 10.30 pm on Monday and Tuesday, until 7.30 pm on Wednesday and until 6.30 pm on Thursday—means that demand for dining services, in particular, peaks early in the week, then tails off. Considerable peaks and troughs exist, with the highest peaks concentrated into the 50 hours between Monday and Wednesday lunch times. In other words, business is briskest, particularly in Members' facilities, on the days when the Chamber sits late and is likely to be considering substantive business requiring votes.

30. The present Parliament is less than a year old, and 232 of its 650 Members entered at the 2010 general election.[18] The pattern of behaviour of the new Parliament is not yet established, but it seems clear that, to greater degree than used to be the case, more Members for seats distant from Westminster have their main home in London than in their constituencies. This creates more reasons why, when opportunity permits, more Members will choose to go home than stay within the Palace precincts in the evening hours. The new expenses rules introduced by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) are also having their effect, and not always in a manner wholly foreseen. The 128 Members who live closest to Westminster, for example, received no additional accommodation allowance after the May 2010 general election.[19] This meant, for most, a considerable commute to their homes, giving reason not to remain within the precincts if they were able to get away.

31. The Procedure Committee is inquiring into whether the present sitting hours of the House should be altered, and we have asked it to consider the positive or negative impact on catering business and staffing of any change it proposes. We note that any move toward '9 to 5' on Mondays and Tuesdays would reduce demand for evening services and would require decisions to be taken about the level to which outlets such as the Members' and Strangers' Dining Rooms continue to operate and the level of subsidy required to maintain them. It would also have an impact on revenues raised during the daytime from visitors and other users.

9   Ev 61 Back

10   Ev 66 Back

11   See Ev 61-63 Back

12   See House of Commons Commission, June 2007, Review of Management and Services of the House of Commons: Report by Sir Kevin Tebbit KCB CMG, HC 685. Back

13   Ev 53-54 Back

14   Administration Committee, House of Commons Accommodation, Third Report of Session 2005-06, HC 1279, para 105. Back

15   Survey of Services 2010, Report by FDS International, House of Commons, February 2011, pp. 40-42. Back

16   Ev 54 Back

17   Ev 54 Back

18   Two more have since entered as a result of by-elections. Back

19   Recent rule changes are reducing this number to 97. See footnote 1. Back

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Prepared 10 May 2011