Examination of Witnesses (Questions 39
WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002
39. Good morning. Thank you very much for coming
to join the Committee this morning. It is Mr Peter Vines, who
is the Chairman of the Secretaries' and Assistants' Council, and
Ms Gill Cheeseman, who is the President and former Chairman.
(Ms Cheeseman) That is right.
40. We have got top people here. We are very,
very grateful to you for coming, giving us your time to help the
Committee in the deliberations that we are having, the evidence
taking and ultimately we want to listen first of all to what you
have to say to us in the way of improving the refreshment facilities
and in the process hopefully we shall determine those policies
which will improve the facilities for your members. That is the
most important ingredient in the work that we are doing. As I
say, thank you very much for coming and for helping us in that
(Ms Cheeseman) Thank you for inviting us to come to
41. As you know, we are very anxious to gain
from you your insights into the major difficulties that your members
are facing with regard to refreshment facilities. I wonder first
of all whether there is anything you would like to say in opening
about the particular major difficult areas for your members. We
know, for instance, that the Terrace Cafeteria and increasingly
the Debate Cafeteria are becoming more and more under pressure
and you have made some comments to us in your written submission.
Would you like to make a few opening comments about how you see
us making progress?
(Mr Vines) Thank you, Chairman. We are very grateful
to be able to come here today. Once the notice came out of the
inquiry we held a meeting for interested members and Mr Fox very
kindly came along and briefed members as to the background of
the inquiry. We then had discussions and even produced our own
questionnaire for members and our response is based on those replies.
As you say, we are concerned about the pressure right across the
Parliamentary Estate. We are also concerned that we understand
there are aims for Members' offices essentially to be concentrated
north of Bridge Street which is going to put increasing pressure
on the catering facilities in that part of the Palace, particularly
obviously the Debate, which you have mentioned, and also Bellamy's,
which has been noted as a little quieter now than it has been
but I think that is partly due to an increase in pressure on the
Debate. We are concerned with the coming on stream of Norman Shaw
South that there are really no refreshment facilities there apart
from vending machines and the same really for Norman Shaw North,
which is where the majority of staff are going to be concentrated
again with Members north of Bridge Street. At the moment we find
that the vending machines tend to run short, there is a limited
choice of sandwiches available and if members are going to eat
sandwiches a lot of them will still go down to the Debate or to
Bellamy's and buy their sandwiches and take them away. They have
also had quite a noticeable increase in the number of people at
the Debate who, because of lack of anywhere to sit, are taking
trays up into their rooms at Portcullis House and eating there.
This is easily identifiable by the number of trays and dirty crockery
which unfortunately, and I do not agree with it at all, are then
left in the communal areas outside doors and it causes great problems
for the catering department but this is unfortunately what is
happening. Regarding the Terrace Cafeteria, not quite as many
staff are now using that as have in the past, again by the draw
of the Debate and the positioning across the Parliamentary Estate,
but that has been the subject of a considerable amount of overcrowding
in the past. We do not see that is going to be alleviated by people
moving elsewhere. Also, with the Parliamentary Estate almost being
ring-fenced now, at 7 Millbank offices have been closed and other
parts, the satellite sections, we feel there is going to be a
greater demand because people will now have the opportunity to
come and eat on the Parliamentary Estate whereas before they might
have walked down the road to a sandwich shop if they were on Great
Smith Street, they might have walked down the road and found somewhere
else to eat rather than coming to the Palace, those people. Without
an increase in the total number of staff employed on the estate
there will be greater pressure on the catering facilities provided
because people have more opportunity to use them because we are
all centrally located now. I have in the past done a couple of
mornings with the Refreshment Department and have worked with
them in the Debate cooking at seven o'clock in the morning right
up to 12 following past concerns that we had raised. I have also
worked in the Terrace Cafeteria, again from seven o'clock in the
morning, and then served afterwards as well. The quality of food
is a concern. In the Debate I certainly found there is a very
good spirit and method of working and the cooking procedure helps
a great deal with the freshness of the food because it is cooked
at the top. Preparations below are extremely good. The morale
is very good and care is excellent because the staff see all operations,
those that see you serving the food at the Debate Cafeteria are
also the ones who prepare it and do all preparations beforehand
as well, so they have a great care of the food and they wish to
see it well presented and duly follow the process through right
from chopping, julienne-ing, whatever, of vegetables for the stir
fry right through to the preparation of the meat and then the
cooking and serving of it. They have a great deal of pride in
that. The Terrace Cafeteria, which is a more traditional style
where those who are preparing the food are not necessarily the
ones who are serving it, it has one or two problems with presentation
and one or two problems regarding the quality at the end of the
time there when it comes forward. It was commented on that at
the Members' counter, the express service counter there, the food
is placed there and if it is not used after a certain time it
then comes forward to the general counter section, so that food
will have been out for nearly half an hour in one or two cases
before it is potentially served. It is okay in the case of such
things as steamed potatoes but in some respects it all helps to
reduce the quality there which has been another complaint of the
cafeteria and why there has been a move towards the Debate away
from the more traditional ones.
42. That is a very comprehensive insight into
the problems that we are facing, thank you very much for that.
Ms Cheeseman, would you like to say something?
(Ms Cheeseman) Of course I endorse everything that
Peter said and I think he has covered most of the points that
were raised by our members. The thing that has come forward is
the closure of the Members' section of the Terrace Cafeteria and
anyone who puts their head around the corner will see that it
is not often used and is more often used by Peers than by Members
of Parliament. I am not saying they should not use it but we feel
if the Terrace was open as a whole it would improve because when
it used to be Strangers and there was the Members' Strangers section
and the staff Strangers section, the staff section was actually
much bigger, the serving area was much smaller, I know we are
going back a few years now, but the staff section and the Members'
section were both bigger and very well used. We are quite happy
for the Clubroom in 1 Parliament Street to be left as it is for
Members to use because that is used by Members. Of course now
that Westminster Hall is the Jubilee Café for visitors,
Members' staff and members of the House of Commons' staff are
tending not to use it at all and they are going to the Terrace
or the catering staff now use Bellamy's from half past 11 to quarter
past 12. So those members of staff who wanted to go down for an
early lunch to try and ease the overcrowding later on are now
having to go later because Bellamy's is very busy before twelve
o'clock being used by the catering staff who would have used somewhere
else. Another idea that has come forward is that the kiosk in
1 Parliament Street, which used to be the souvenir kiosk, is standing
unused at the moment, whether this could be turned into somewhere
selling sandwiches and tea and coffee so members of staff can
pop in there to get a sandwich rather than queuing up in Bellamy's
and then holding up the queues for everybody else, that would
alleviate some of the pressure in there. We are not asking for
it to be elaborate or anything but just selling maybe tea and
coffee and sandwiches because some staff members do not want a
full meal and they are quite happy to have more of a snack, maybe
even a hot snack. We understand where the vending machines are
in Norman Shaw there is a small kitchen there, maybe that could
have a couple of microwaves in it so members of staff could bring
in food that could be heated up in the microwave so they could
get their hot snack but they are still not putting the pressure
on the other catering facilities. It would not take much just
to have a couple of microwaves in there. You could do a jacket
potato and bits and pieces in there just for a hot snack.
Chairman: They are all very positive proposals
that you are making to us and we are grateful for them.
43. I think in your correspondence to us you
are not keen on vending machines and the fact that they do not
provide a proper meal. What could you see vending machines doing?
Are there advantages to having them in Norman Shaw or are there
problems with it that could perhaps be put right?
(Ms Cheeseman) I think the point to make is they are
not an alternative to cafeteria food. Some people will just want
a sandwich to take back to their desks and vending machines are
important in that way, especially provided there is food in there
when people want to get a sandwich. Some staff members will work
and suddenly look at the clock, see it is two o'clock, realise
they have not had anything and need a quick sandwich, they are
important for that, but I do not think they should be used either
in place of hot snacks, like jacket potatoes and things that happen
in the Debate, or as a hot meal. Some staff do not finish at five
or six o'clock and have long days. They might only do that three
or four days a week but if you are working in the House from eight
or nine in the morning until eight or nine at night you do really
want a hot meal at some time be it lunchtime or maybe a bit later
on, although I think people tend to go for lunchtime and then
have a snack before they go off. The trouble with the Houses of
Parliament is people work such different hours and it depend on
whether the House is sitting or in recess. Members' staff in recess
now tend to work longer hours than they used to. I do think vending
machines are an important point but should not be an alternative
to the cafeteria food.
44. Do you have problems with them not being
filled up sometimes?
(Ms Cheeseman) Our members do complain.
(Mr Vines) Yes, that point is raised.
45. A question about refreshment areas. Sometimes
they are not just used for eating but they are used for meeting
places. Do your members have any comments on that? Would alternative
meeting places reduce the demands on the cafeterias?
(Mr Vines) I am not really sure that they would. I
think it is a problem that has been felt to some degree with Bellamy's
and quite considerably now in the Debate where Members, Members'
staff, will pick up a cup of coffee, trundle down at eleven o'clock
and have a short meeting there. They do not have to book a meeting
room, they can get four or five people around a table, have a
cup of coffee, an informal chat in a fairly relaxed atmosphere.
From that point of view it is going to restrict it to a point
but hopefully those are generally occurring outside of general
eating times when you have yet to have the main rush of people
coming in, so I would not consider it a major problem but it is
something that people need to be aware of, that particularly in
the Debate and the Atrium at Portcullis House that is becoming
a major use for it.
46. Just one point following on from that. I
know you noticed as well, Chairman, when we were in Bellamy's
Bar that there was a group of people in there who had obviously
taken their own food in. I am not sure that they would get away
with it in the Red Lion. They had taken their own sandwiches and
tins of Coke and were sat there eating and drinking what they
had taken in. One can only presume that that was the case because
there was nowhere else for them to go and eat their own food.
(Mr Vines) I have not actually seen that myself or
particularly heard of it.
Tony Cunningham: It was the day we visited,
(Mr Vines) Obviously it does occur. There are shortages
of communal relaxation areas so that could well be the cause of
it. Whatever space you provide will always be used by something
or someone somewhere.
48. You mentioned making the smoking area in
Bellamy's non-smoking. What is the general feeling? Mine is fairly
strong, as most people know, I would ban smoking from all eating
areas. What is the feeling you get?
(Mr Vines) The smoking area at lunchtime is reasonably
well used and it is used at other times. It is the only covered
place where people can go and smoke and there are people who smoke
after a meal. It is used quite a lot, not just by Members' staff
but you will see quite a few other staff of the House, catering
staff and also security staff use it, they are becoming quite
predominant users of Bellamy's now, those three groups.
49. I just wondered what impact you felt the
proposed modernisation of the House would have on eating facilities?
There is talk of changing the recess periods, the House meeting
much earlier in the morning, would that affect the staff side
at all and perhaps put less pressure on evenings and more on the
day? How do you imagine that might affect it?
(Mr Vines) I do not really think it would have that
great an effect. Staff are here during recess anyway. There is
a certain number who work from home. I think with that the numbers
who are present are likely to increase rather than decrease. Breakfast
is available for those who wish to have breakfast anyway, although
there might be some alteration with some people coming in slightly
earlier if the House is sitting earlier who will only have breakfast
as a major meal and then have a snack lunch and then away and
there might be a knock-on effect from that point but in general
lunchtime is the main pressure point, although there are some
pressure points in the evening, particularly Westminster Cafeteria.
It would be interesting to see if the hours of the House did change
that breakfast might become more popular.
50. You have not mentioned Millbank at all.
Is that used by staff?
(Mr Vines) It has been in the past. Again, it is the
distance to travel to get there to use it. Now Members are coming
away from there we did put in the written evidence that the average
lunchtime is 30 to 40 minutes and if you are going to spend seven
or 10 minutes walking there and then the same time coming back
you are away from your desk for quite a period.
(Ms Cheeseman) I think the Millbank Room is used by
staff on a Friday when there is more opportunity to have a longer
lunch. As Peter says, it is 10 minutes to walk down there, or
just over, and 10 minutes to walk back and there just is not the
time to do that.
51. You would not want that to feature strongly
in any reconfiguration of the present arrangements?
(Mr Vines) There is certainly a need for it because
the cafeteria there is serving the staff of the House and there
will always be demand for it. The Millbank Room is well used at
lunchtime, it is the evening when it is not quite so well used
but I think that is mainly because the change over of the access
regulations has not been very well broadcast. I think if more
staff knew that it was available to them and guests in the evening
then it would have a lot more use. We recently put out a notice
to members of the Polish week which otherwise would not have got
to quite a few of them. We are trying to encourage people to use
Millbank and generally increase awareness.
52. Thank you. If there were three particular
policy areas that you would wish the Committee to pursue to achieve
the improvements that you seek for your members, would you be
in a position to identify them for us?
(Mr Vines) The first one would be to ease right across,
although we would not wish to be seen to be encroaching upon the
prerogative of Members, the division in the Terrace Cafeteria
and the Members' express service, it would be of assistance to
staff and the quality of the food if that were to go and for more
open seating for everyone. We have noticed Members are quite happy
to eat mixed with everybody in the Debate and also Members will
eat quite happily in Bellamy's. We do appreciate, as Gill said
earlier, the Clubroom is used by Members, it is the one place
that they can eat quietly and only with Members, so one appreciates
they have that facility just north of Bridge Street, but in the
main Palace Members do have other places that they may eat privately
if they wish. That would be a great help that would not cause
too much trouble or too great an expense in any alterations.
(Ms Cheeseman) Another idea that was put forward that
may ease the pressure in the Debate is there is an area outside
with a few tables and chairs on it.
53. I wanted to ask you about that.
(Ms Cheeseman) Whether that could have a marquee sort
of arrangement or a cover over it, like the Terrace marquee, with
some heating in that, that would put some extra seats in there
to help with the Debate because at the moment that seems to be
an unused space.
54. That is the all-year seating referred to
in your paper?
(Ms Cheeseman) Yes. With an awning or cover on, so
it can be used in the winter and in the summer.
55. Is there anything else you would want to
highlight? You mentioned the Terrace Cafeteria and the all-year
seating on the Portcullis House.
(Mr Vines) Depending on the room made available and
how Members feel, we have mentioned earlier in the written evidence
the possibility of a salad bar or something similar, not necessarily
in the Club Room but somewhere else, because it is an extension
of the hot counter somewhere and you have to follow through the
same service. If anywhere could be found for something similar
to that. To continue on with Gill's comments earlier, the seating
in the Atrium in Portcullis House really is at an absolute limit.
They could not possibly put, with safety reasons in mind, a single
table anywhere else in that area; it really is absolutely full.
Again, bearing in mind the number of extra officers coming in
on-line from Norman Shaw, that is going to be the first port-of-call;
the Atrium is a general thoroughfare now to the main building
from Norman Shaw, from Portcullis House and from No 1 Parliament
Street. It is a very busy area. If there is some way that this
extension on to the north terrace by Portcullis House could be
made that would be excellent.
56. We could go on and continue this discussion
because there are so many facets to it. May I thank you, on behalf
of the Committee, for giving up your time to come and give us
your thoughts. We do much appreciate them. The whole focus and
priority of our Committee and this inquiry is to bring about improvements
to our refreshment facilities and, obviously, to your staff, to
your members. So we do thank you for coming and, of course, you
will, in due time, receive the outcome of our deliberations. Let
us hope, collectively, we can bring about the changes that we
all want to see.
(Ms Cheeseman) Thank you very much, Chairman and Committee
Members, for letting us come and give some oral evidence to you
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. We are