Select Committee on Catering Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 39 - 56)




  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 important task.
  (Ms Cheeseman) Thank you for inviting us to come to the Committee.

  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.

Mrs Dean

  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.

Tony Cunningham

  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, Chairman.


  47. Yes.
  (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.

Tony Cunningham

  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.

Mr Thomas

  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 today.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. We are most grateful.

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