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

7  House of Lords

Two Houses; two services

176. It may seem surprising to anyone outside the parliamentary Estate that it houses two entirely separate catering organisations, one for the Commons and one for the Lords. The Lords' service is on a smaller scale, with fewer facilities and fewer staff. It, too, runs at a loss. The subsidy was £1.547 million in 2009-10, and is expected to reduce over the next few years.[116] The Lords, like the Commons, recently raised prices in its outlets.


177. The Commons Director General, Facilities, told us that a "significant amount of joint procurement does [...] already occur, and ICT improvements (including improved electronic point of sales equipment, cashless payment, web based functions and room bookings; and refrigeration temperature monitoring) are already being delivered through a bicameral Facilities ICT programme".[117]

178. The Commons service purchases more than 4,500 food, beverage and souvenir products, and more than 1,000 other commodities and supplies. Around 160 suppliers provide these goods, including more than 40 small businesses which supply specialist ingredients or bespoke souvenirs. Contracts with suppliers are generally let for three years, with the option of a one-year extension. Much procurement is done jointly with the House of Lords, and bicameral contracts include those for fruit and vegetables, dairy, eggs, laundry, agency staff and some cleaning. Individual chefs help to draw up contract specifications and daily orders for fresh food are made by sous chefs in each outlet. Chefs are not, however, authorised to appoint suppliers or do business with unapproved suppliers.[118]

179. The last management review of the Commons service, conducted by Sir Kevin Tebbit in 2007, noted that "On the face of it, there is a strong case for combining the two Departments and forming a single bi-cameral joint catering organisation for Parliament. But this has not found favour with the two Houses so far".[119] The Director General of Facilities also told us that the House management would "explore the potential benefits of combining further services across the two Houses".[120] The GMB suggests economies of scale might be achieved by more co-operation in areas such as storage and purchasing.[121] Mr Rupert Ellwood, now a private sector contractor but a former banqueting manager in the Lords, suggested there was "definitely an opportunity for more joined-up thinking", suggesting that both sides of the Estate could be more closely allied for events at weekends or otherwise outside Parliamentary sitting times.[122] The Director of the Catering and Retail Service agrees that savings can be made by encouraging more joint procurement by the two Houses, and we recommend that the Catering and Retail Service's proposal to save an estimated £116,000 annually through closer co-operation and more joint procurement with the House of Lords be pursued.

Joined-up thinking

180. We would go one step further, however, and argue that the greatest efficiencies and economies of scale would be achieved by negotiating a suitable merger of the two services. Such a merger would also offer greater opportunities for diversifying the range of what is in offer across the whole Estate. We accept that our colleagues in the Lords may fear an effective takeover by its larger partner, and we stress that it would remain essential for some separate facilities for Members of the two Houses to be maintained for the obvious business reasons. But we see little commercial reason and no constitutional reason why two organisations should serve what is effectively a single market of Members, staff, and staff of the two Houses, and the journalists, civil servants, police officers and others who work across Parliament. It ought also be possible, in an integrated operation, to increase the variety of what is offered through the larger range of outlets available.

181. Legislation already exists enabling the creation of joint departments across the two Houses, and the existence of the Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology department, which serves both, demonstrates that there is no bar to shared staff and facilities in purely administrative, if not in all areas of work. Indeed, the fact that PICT is a comparatively new service provided jointly and the provision of catering a very old one provided separately is in itself suggestive: if the two Houses were today charged with creating a brand new refreshment department from scratch, we think it highly unlikely that anyone would think it sensible to create two of them.

182. Joining the two catering services would, of course, require political as well as administrative agreement between the two Houses. We recommend that the House of Commons Commission and the House Management Board begin discussions with their counterparts in the House of Lords on the feasibility of providing a joint catering service for the two Houses.

116   HL Deb, 23 November 2010, WA305. Back

117   Ev 92 Back

118   Ev 84-86 Back

119   Sir Kevin Tebbit, Review of Management and Services of the House of Commons, June 2007, HC 685, para 253. Back

120   Ev 92 Back

121   Ev 97 Back

122   Q 202 (Ev 34) Back

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Prepared 10 May 2011