Select Committee on Catering Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. First of all, what total does that bring Members and staff up to in Norman Shaw North and South? Also, is it too late to identify space in either of those buildings for more catering facilities?
  (Mr Cummins) Chairman, I have not got the exact figures for Norman Shaw North and South combined, but I can certainly say that Norman Shaw South will hold some 150 Members and staff; Norman Shaw North has, I think, slightly over that number, maybe about 200 in all, so that we are looking at 350 or 400 people there on a day-to-day basis, both Members and staff combined. I am sorry, what was the second part of your question?

  61. Is it too late to identify space?
  (Mr Cummins) I am afraid Norman Shaw South is a real, purpose-built, Edwardian office block of its type. The rooms are all relatively small there, and the configuration is such that I do not think there will be any space or capacity for making any form of Refreshment Department outlet in that building, quite honestly. It is very much purpose-built as office block accommodation, and that is the way it has been planned for the modifications going on now.


  62. We are going to have to rely on vending machines to a great extent, if we are going to make any provision in there, apart from a suggestion that was made by a group earlier today that we may consider: there is, apparently, a small area that they identified as a café-type area where we may be able to put microwaves to help the situation somewhat. That is evidence that we have taken this morning.
  (Mr Cummins) I see. Yes, certainly vending machines would be popular in those buildings. It is quite a long way down from the top floor to get a sandwich or a drink.

  63. As long as we make sure that they are kept refilled.
  (Mr Cummins) Indeed.

Mrs Dean

  64. I presume there are small kitchens over there.
  (Mr Cummins) Yes, indeed. Tea points are planned into both buildings.

  65. So microwaves should not be a problem because we have microwaves in Portcullis House kitchens.
  (Mr Cummins) Yes, I think microwaves will be available there.[1]

  (Mr Walker) Chairman, it is perhaps worth, in passing, making a general point. Mr Makepeace will no doubt give you chapter and verse, but if at any point, anywhere on the estate, we are thinking of putting new kitchens in and professional catering facilities, these days, of course, it is much more of a challenge than it used to be because of all the rules and regulations. We found this as we were building Portcullis House; the rules and regulations that came along while we were building it meant that, for example, we had to put in extra lifts there just to separate the different kinds of food and so on. I am no expert on that, all I know is that every time we think about it we realise, often, the cost is greater than we would have originally thought was reasonable.


  66. Of course, that has serious implications for what is in the financial budget for catering, in any event, in the next three to five years.
  (Mr Walker) It is just one point to bear in mind.

  67. It is a very important point. On the question of access, which obviously is very, very germane to the issues that we are discussing and the resolution of some of these issues, you made some point about contractors and the way in which various groups of contractors are treated in terms of, perhaps, their eligibility. In order to be fair and to treat the different groups in a more fair way, there is a suggestion that we ought to treat some contractors in a different way, giving them more fairness but, obviously, increasing thereby their accessibility to facilities. Have you any comment on that and on access generally? I know you have done a very, very helpful exercise for us on all of the pass-holders and the various grades and categories that they fall into.
  (Mr Cummins) First of all, on contractors, Mr Chairman, there are two separate, definitive groups of contractors. There are the long-term contractors who are on a permanent basis here who administer many of our buildings. For example, they are electrical specialists or engineering specialists and they are hired in by the House to literally run those buildings. That applies across the Parliamentary estate. So I think it would be equitable and reasonable to regard them, really, as having the same access rights as the normal staff of the House. They are here, they are very close colleagues with, certainly, my Parliamentary Works force, for example, and I think it would be unfair, to say the least, to try and stop them having reasonable access to refreshment facilities. They do work a normal working day, some of them arrive, for example, very early in the morning or work a shift pattern late at night. The other group of contractors are the ones who are hired in on short-term, usually building-type, contracts and they come in, obviously largely in the summer recess but not entirely—we try to spread the load a bit throughout the year now. I see no particular reason why that group should actually be given access to our House of Commons Refreshment Department facilities. When they do come they certainly take full advantage of those facilities because what is offered to them in the way of quality of food and, indeed, of price is very attractive to them. However, in their contract they are certainly allowed to bring in what they call their own "chuck wagons", their own refreshment facilities and, of course, throughout the building programme (I have made inquiries) many of them bring in sandwiches or flasks anyway, and that is the normal pattern of their operation here. They very much see the Refreshment Department outlet as an absolute bonus to their normal method of working. So it is certainly feasible that we could actually stop those contractors making any use of Refreshment Department facilities, certainly in the busy times, when the House is sitting.

  68. That leads us very conveniently on to this question of overall access, because that is a major concern, and certainly a major concern of the groups that have been to see us earlier today. The major problem that is created for us is if people are using the facilities when they have no agreed permission so to use. It is a matter of the policing, really, of the access regulations that continue to trouble us. There has been a suggestion this morning in the context of how can we better improve the use of our facilities by regulating those that have a legitimate right to use them by either the Refreshment Department staff or a member of the security staff being in position to help us to achieve that objective? It was mentioned earlier that prior to the new Terrace Cafeteria coming into being six or seven years ago, under the old system the staff part of the old Strangers Cafeteria was, in fact, serviced by security and there was a man on duty to make sure that people that had got the appropriate pass to go into the Strangers Cafeteria—the staff section—were legitimately entitled to do so. When we moved to our new Terrace Cafeteria, that personnel disappeared. Have you given any thought to how the Board of Management may be able to help us in terms of the policing of this particular policy?
  (Mr Cummins) First of all, Chairman, the Board does recognise that Mrs Harrison and her staff do have a problem with regulating and controlling access. It is very difficult, once someone is inside the door, as to whether you actually serve him or her with some food and need to check a pass, and this sort of thing. It is a difficult area, I appreciate that entirely. Could I just make a differentiation here with my security hat on, that there is a difference between control of security and control of access. Basically, our security staff are here for the security of the Palace and all who work here and visit here. Having said that, I do however recognise that the presence of a security officer may be a tremendous help on some access points, particularly as you say in the Terrace Cafeteria, from the point of view of controlling that access. I am also constrained, may I say, by the cost of security; there is a cost and we watch it very carefully. From that point of view, if we were able to redeploy security staff on to this duty—which I recognise at busy times is a great help—then, I am afraid, there would have to be a bill raised with regard to that policing element. I do not think, in terms of House of Commons or Palace of Westminster security, we could necessarily bear that cost on our security budget.

  69. Mr Walker, would you like to comment on that?
  (Mr Walker) Mr Chairman, only that clearly there is a cost issue but there could be benefits as well, and that would need to be weighed up. In terms of access control, I would suggest two things: one is that the simpler the access rules are the easier they are to police. One of the things the Board says in its own submission is that complicated rules to distinguish between a number of different pass categories could be difficult to administer. So we press the Committee to think in terms of the simplest possible approach. That is the first point. The second is that it may be, in due course, that electronic devices may provide a solution. There would be a cost to that, of course, but it may be possible (as the Serjeant uses electronic devices already to regulate access to certain parts of the building—and now even Members have to carry them to get into and out of parts of Portcullis House, for example—and you can distinguish electronically on the passes between different categories of pass-holder) to think in terms of that for the longer term, but I doubt that there is a very short-term answer.

Tony Cunningham

  70. Two or three things. Mr Cummins, you said you would touch on, later on, some of the thoughts that are going on as far as restructuring of various parts of the estate is concerned, and I would be interested to hear your comments on that, and whether or not you feel there may be some spare capacity as a result of that exercise. Two other questions: one, you mentioned the House of Lords and it is fairly obvious to us that the Lords do use our facilities, particularly, cafeterias. Have you any thoughts on sharing, or what we can do to, perhaps, use some of the House of Lords' facilities which I am told are under-utilised? I know the House of Lords are coming to see us next week, but have you any thoughts on how there could be some quid pro quo as far as the two Houses are concerned? Thirdly, it seems to be that the House's refreshment facilities are becoming busier during recess periods. Is it that more works projects are carried out during the recess nowadays? If it is getting busier, are there the same pinch points which exist in the recesses as they do when the House is sitting?
  (Mr Cummins) Chairman, if I may start by talking about restructuring a little? The basic plank of our accommodation restructuring has been that the Accommodation and Works Committee wish to see Members concentrated both in the Palace and to the north of Bridge Street. This underlies, of course, the move of Members from 7 Millbank up to the Bridge Street area. Having said that, a word about 7 Millbank, and that is that I know the staff there, including Mr Walker's department—

  71. Including myself!
  (Mr Cummins)—very much value the Refreshment Department's services within 7 Millbank. It is a bit of a walk and it is not much fun in the winter, that is certain, to get from one building to the other, and it takes valuable lunch time to make that journey and back. Therefore, I know, from my own department's presence in 7 Millbank, that the facilities are very much valued, both during the day-time and by those staff who work into the evening and late at night. Can I just say that the late-night working will increase once Hansard becomes part of that building, which takes place later this year. So they, given their transcribing role, for example, certainly work up until the rising of the House and very long after as well. So some form of refreshment facility, even if it is only a vending machine, would be very welcome to them. Having said that, I am at the moment heading a consultancy which looks at the whole of our accommodation within the House of Commons with regard to making sure it is used to the best ability. This does not, I may say, include the Refreshment Department but it certainly includes Members' accommodation, staff accommodation and all that goes with it in the form of CPA, IPU and all the rest of the users of accommodation here. Before we look, for example, at even the possibility of acquiring extra accommodation here, I need to assure both the Board of Management and the House of Commons Commission that we are using our accommodation here to the very, very best effect. That study has just started and it is going along quite well. I do not know what it will produce in terms of availability of accommodation. It is just possible it may throw up some areas which I, for example, do not yet know about, which may be able to be put to use in the future for additional facilities, for example. One example of that is we are looking very carefully at the press area, which is a relatively unknown area from the point of view of an independent study. I know Mr Makepeace is doing a feasibility study on the cafeteria areas of the press, but we want to look at the press area as a whole and, again, make some recommendations on that. So there is quite a lot of restructuring and potential restructuring going on, but the whole nub of it, really, as far as Members and staff are concerned, is that Members will be concentrated in the Palace and north of Bridge Street and staff will be centred in the Palace and in 7 Millbank, as a general statement.


  72. That study report will obviously be very important to the Refreshment Department.
  (Mr Cummins) Indeed, yes. It will certainly be made known to the Board of Management and to Mrs Harrison in that area. Might I say a word about the House of Lords?

  73. Yes, please.
  (Mr Cummins) I know the House of Lords have an entirely different staffing level from us; their level of operation is by no means as concentrated, and I think they feel that their operation, certainly for example in summer recesses, is by no means as full as the House of Commons is during the recess period. I think Andrew is going to say a word about that in a second. There is certainly a feeling among the staff, and the Board recognises this too, that there is a great temptation for the Lords to use our very good facilities. For example, they are much taken with Portcullis House. They agree with us, it is a very popular and well-used facility. Who can blame them, really? Having said that, there is the possibility of a quid pro quo if they put their minds to it. I think we should at least encourage, if I may say so, the House of Lords to consider opening at least a facility of some description during, for example, the summer recess to allow their staff access to refreshment within the House of Lords as opposed to coming down and using whatever facilities may be open in the House of Commons. Of course, I am very much aware that not all the facilities are open the whole time during the summer recess—obviously, staff need leave and Mrs Harrison needs to close for all sorts of purposes. So facilities are not as plentiful here in the recess as they would be during the normal sitting time.

  74. That is very helpful.
  (Mr Cummins) I think Andrew would like to say a word about recess working in general.
  (Mr Walker) I was very interested in the question about recesses, and paragraph 2 of the Board's submission—I know it is only a brief comment—acknowledges this. Perhaps, one of the most significant changes in management terms of the past five years is that we have seen staff of the House—increasingly Members' staff—and, to some extent, Members themselves, present during recesses, whilst at the same time—for example, during the long recess in the summer—we have the summer works programme usually going on which means there are often a lot of contractors on site; and as the Serjeant has just remarked, we also have some of the House of Lords staff around who may be looking to use our facilities because their own are not available to the same extent in the recesses. We do think this presents quite challenge and there is probably not a simple, straightforward answer. It may mean asking the Lords whether they would be prepared to open some of their outlets a little bit more during the long recess, for example. In terms of the reasons for what is going on and the trends, the reason for what is going on is the nature of work in general and so the trend, we believe, will continue towards more and more activity on the Parliamentary estate during the recesses. Departments such as the Serjeant's Department, my own Department and any of those departments not linked to the work of the Chamber and Committees, are getting busier; but even those linked to the work of, for example, Committees are finding that staff are coming in—more and more of the Clerks Department, for example—during recesses. Depending on what the House decides to do on the modernisation front—and we await with interest developments there—it looks as though we are going to see more but shorter recesses. We believe that is likely to mean the pattern of absence from the Parliamentary estate will be disrupted, which will mean there will be less difference again, and I think we are going to have to now think about starting to treat recesses much more like term-time to ease pressure, not just on catering operations but all House services, and they may have to be increasingly available. So the Leader of the House's proposals, if they are accepted, may accelerate this trend. The Board is monitoring that very closely and the departments of the House which provide services will obviously respond to the need, and I think that has to include catering.

Mrs Dean

  75. You mentioned the study that your department is conducting. When will the results of that be known?
  (Mr Cummins) That will be known in late October.

  76. I was just wondering how that would tie-in with what we are looking at. Two questions about capacity: we know that the most difficult times are probably from 12 o'clock to 2 o'clock in the canteens, and that is where there is the greatest problem. Could space be found for a canteen for security staff in the rooms allocated to security officers?
  (Mr Cummins) It is conceivable it could be, Chairman, but I think it is worth putting the security staff into perspective; we have about 430 security staff here and that is shared between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and there are three separate shift patterns, so the number of security staff actually around at any one time is not actually that great. Given that they are spread throughout the Parliamentary estate and that they very much like to try and eat where they are actually stationed, from the point of view of getting the benefit of free time or time between shifts, I personally doubt whether the establishment of specialist cafeteria, for example, for police or security staff would be a profitable or a workable possibility. I know that police officers do value being able to go to the nearest cafeteria and not being forced into any particular area.

  77. In fact, you have answered part of my question, because they work three shifts and, therefore, they are not the biggest culprits for having fixed hours during which they have to have their lunch.
  (Mr Cummins) Indeed that is so.

  78. That leads me on to the next question. Could you clarify the reasons why some House staff have little or no discretion about the lunch-hours that they take?
  (Mr Walker) Perhaps I could pick that up, Chairman. The Board of Management memorandum did mention that some House staff do not have a lot of discretion. That will not be the majority but it will be a not insignificant number. Just to take you through who that might involve: for example, many of the staff on the direct labour force for the works (but there are only 70 of those, or something or that order, so you are not talking about very large numbers there); those whose work is closely connected to the Chamber or Committees which tend to break for lunch will themselves be constrained to the same kinds of lunch periods that Members themselves, who are working in those Committees or in the Chamber, would take. So, for example, currently on a Thursday, those involved most closely with the Chamber are clearly limited to the normal lunchtime period. So that is what the Board had in mind. That would not be anything like the majority of the staff of the House, many of whom have significant discretion. However, like all organisations, people tend to want to eat between the 12 and 2 o'clock periods because that fits with normal working patterns, and it is very difficult to regulate to try and achieve much of a greater spread. There is one particular point, and that is that were we to use a pricing mechanism to try and get a broader spread across a broader period in order to reduce the peak, the Board of Management is by no means opposed to that but would point out that there would be concern among staff if those who did not have much choice about when they took their lunch had to pay more than those who did have some choice. That is the sort of caring-for-staff issue which, as responsible employers, we ought to take account of. Can I mention one other point about the police? We do not employ the police but we do have a duty to feed and water them because they are on site all day, or some of them are. The House is going for accreditation as an Investor in People. Each of the departments of the House has already achieved that, but we are now seeking to do that for the House as a whole. One of the things they will look at is the extent to which we integrate those of our agents and servants—in this case the security staff—who may not be our own employees but, nevertheless, are part of the whole ethos of Parliament. Whilst there is not a rule that they should be able to eat with the rest of us there is something to be said for encouraging a common culture between such individuals and the staff of the House, Members' staff and, indeed, Members themselves.

Mr Thomas

  79. One thing that occurred to me, Chairman, is the number of temporary contractors. The number of passes issued during the summer recess was given as 2,000. If we do see the modernisation of the House, if we see more work in the summer recess and if we see us coming back in September, then there will be a crisis, will there not, if we have current levels of access to catering facilities and if we continue to allow, particularly, building contractors to have that access? If Members and other staff all come back in September there is going to be a real problem. Would you agree with that?
  (Mr Cummins) Yes, I would, Mr Chairman. We are looking now at the possibility of the Modernisation Committee's recommendation for September sittings of the House, and in contractual terms that would mean that we would have to scale down the public-evident work of contractors during, maybe, the September period, and then start up again at the end of September, perhaps, during the Party conferences. That would be a time when—Mr Thomas is absolutely right—if the present accessibility for contractors to Refreshment Department areas were maintained then there would be an awful overcrowding problem. I think this would be one reason why we would have to look seriously at denying building contractors the right to use our facilities certainly during that period.

1   Note by witness: The availability of microwave ovens in the Norman Shaw Building has subsequently been confirmed. Back

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