Select Committee on Catering First Report


The Catering Committee has agreed to the following Report:


I. Introduction

Why hold this inquiry?

  1. In recent times there has been severe pressure on certain refreshment facilities in the House of Commons. This is not a new phenomenon; but the pressure seems to be increasing despite extra capacity provided by new facilities. We were well placed to conduct an investigation into the causes of this pressure and possible solutions. We hope that our findings, although they are addressed to the House Administration and in particular to the Refreshment Department, will be of interest to all those who eat in the House.

2. The House's refreshment facilities cater for a great range of customers, from Members, Members' staff and permanent staff of the House to Members and staff from the House of Lords, members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, temporary staff (including contractors), international parliamentary bodies with branches at Westminster, and occasional users such as civil servants. We have sought to gather views from all quarters. The Chairman wrote to all Members in February 2002; an e-mail was sent to all Parliamentary Video and Data Network (PDVN) users; and we wrote to a variety of bodies representing those who work in the House, inviting comment. A wealth of written evidence was submitted in response. We also held two oral evidence sessions. We are most grateful to all those who contributed.

3. In order to provide statistical information for the inquiry, the Refreshment Department conducted a survey of usage of the refreshment facilities, based on a series of snapshots. For each of the periods selected,[1] information was collected on the category of pass held by each customer, the time at which each customer paid for purchases, the number of guests and whether purchases were to "take away" or to "eat in". A breakdown of the information gathered is shown in Appendix 1.[2]


  4. The Refreshment Department is now consolidating after a period of considerable change, beginning with the total overhaul of the kitchens in the main building of the Palace of Westminster and leading up to the opening of new facilities in Portcullis House in December 2000. In our view, the Department provides an excellent service overall, and we agree with a witness of many years' service to the House that the food has "improved greatly over the last ten years".[3]

5. The new facilities in Portcullis House consist of a cafeteria (the "Debate") seating 182 people,[4] a contemporary-style service restaurant (the "Adjournment") seating 64 people, and a coffee bar (the "Despatch Box"). All three have proved to be very popular. The number of covers served in the House on sitting days rose from 6,000 in 2000-01 to approximately 7,000 in 2001-02,[5] and it seems likely that the new Portcullis House facilities may be largely responsible. If so, it is striking that the opening of new facilities has increased custom in real terms rather than simply diverting it from other outlets.

6. It is only very recently—since May 2002—that Parliament has provided refreshment facilities specifically for visitors, including groups from constituencies and unaccompanied visitors. The new Jubilee Café, which is situated off Westminster Hall, provides seating for 100 people and serves cold snacks, pasties and hot and cold drinks throughout the day. It is too early to measure the impact of the Café on usage of other facilities.

7. This increase in overall capacity in the House has not, however, put an end either to queueing or to difficulties in finding seating at peak times in venues where demand is concentrated. It should be said at this early stage that pressure is by far the greatest in the cafeterias, which are therefore the focus of this Report. We begin by looking at trends underlying the usage of the House's refreshment facilities.


  8. There are now more people working in the Palace of Westminster than ever before. On 1 February 2002, there were 13,406 passholders, 5,605 (42 per cent) of whom held temporary passes.[6] Members of the two Houses and their spouses accounted for approximately 2,460 passes;[7] Members' and Peers' staff held nearly 1,750 passes, contractors approximately 2,400 passes, the press around 450 passes, and Civil Service and other Government staff just over 2,500 passes.[8] Many of these passholders would have cause to be in the Palace of Westminster only very occasionally (e.g. civil servants). These figures do not, of course, include guests.

9. It is difficult to forecast whether the number of Palace of Westminster passholders is likely to change significantly, assuming that no change is made to the types of people entitled to hold a pass. The number of Members of the House of Lords may decrease, depending on reform of the composition of the upper House; but it may be that Members of a reformed House would be more active and would be present on the Estate for more of the week.[9] Furthermore, excluded Members of the Lords[10] might be entitled to continue to hold passes and use facilities in the Palace. It seems perfectly possible that Members of both Houses might want to employ more staff in the future.[11] Both Houses resolved last year to make more financial provision for the employment of staff by their Members.[12] Total expenditure on Peers' expenses in the financial year 2001-02 was £10,014,470, an increase of 19 per cent on expenditure in 2000-01.[13]

10. The Refreshment Department may also need to adapt to deal with the consequences of any reform of the structure of the working week in the Commons. The Leader of the House has submitted to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House suggestions for earlier sittings on a Wednesday and a reduction in the number of Friday sittings,[14] and we expect that proposals may be put to the House before long. The possible changes outlined by the Leader of the House would suggest an ever greater concentration of activity during the day in the middle of the week, with more people using refreshment facilities at lunch times but fewer Members present on the Parliamentary Estate on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and on Fridays.[15] The Serjeant at Arms suggested that "we might be in for a period of great peaks and troughs during the sitting week",[16] and others echoed his comments.[17]

11. Levels of activity during Parliamentary recesses appear to be rising, blurring the distinction between "term-time" and recess.[18] Witnesses representing the Parliamentary Press Gallery told us that their work was "less and less related to what goes on in the Chamber and whether we are in recess or not",[19] and we heard that Members' staff now work longer hours during recesses than formerly.[20] We were struck by the numbers recorded by the Refreshment Department as using the cafeterias on the recess day selected for the survey.[21]

12. Space is at a premium throughout the Estate. The Serjeant at Arms has commissioned a review of accommodation and the use of space in the House of Commons.[22] The final report from this review is expected in November 2002 and, although the review does not cover Refreshment Department premises, our recommendations will need to be seen in the light of the review's findings.

What determines where people choose to eat?

  13. The Refreshment Department survey did not ask customers why they used a particular cafeteria in preference to another; but we have been able to build up a picture from comments submitted in evidence. Quality of food and convenience are the main determinants, although it is not clear which is the more important. The Terrace Cafeteria is apparently favoured for convenience: it serves acceptable food, most of it traditional in style, but few people said that the food was an attraction in its own right. Nonetheless, it fills fast at weekday lunch times, being the only cafeteria in the main building open to Members' staff and the majority of House staff. For those who want to take a short lunch-break, the alternatives are seen as being either too far away (7 Millbank) or too busy for a quick meal (Debate Cafeteria).

14. The Press Cafeteria is another example of an outlet used for convenience rather than for the quality of food.[23] We were also told that security staff, who are distributed throughout the Estate, preferred to eat in the area where they were stationed.[24]

15. On the other hand, the Debate cafeteria attracts custom because of the quality of the food served, perceptions that it is freshly prepared and assembled to order, and because of the ambience of the covered courtyard in Portcullis House.[25] In trading terms, the Debate has been an enormous success and appears to be especially popular with Members' staff.[26] We heard that staff working in the Westminster offices of the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) favour the Debate because of the "innovative" menus and the attractive surroundings.[27] The IPU also told us that "good quality food, accompanied by good service, will always win out over location", and it called for standards to be raised to a common level across the Estate. The Debate is the most convenient cafeteria for all those who work in Portcullis House and in the two Norman Shaw buildings. Once Norman Shaw South is re-occupied, the total number of Members and Members' staff working in these three buildings will be at least 850.[28] Some 170 House staff are also based in these buildings or in 1 Canon Row.[29] The catchment area is therefore large.

16. It was also suggested to us that the range of facilities now on offer provided an incentive to staff to eat in the House rather than use commercial take-away outlets.[30] The steady shift of Members and their staff away from the southern end of the Parliamentary Estate may accentuate this trend. Whereas it might be fairly easy for someone working in 7 Millbank to walk to a sandwich shop in Great Smith Street or Victoria Street, the distances for those working in the main building or north of Bridge Street are that little bit greater.

1   A Wednesday lunchtime and evening, a Thursday evening, a Friday (sitting day) lunch time and a recess day lunchtime. Back

2   Ev 35. Back

3   Q 141. Back

4   95 of these seats are in the covered courtyard outside the cafeteria. Back

5   Information supplied by the Director of Catering Services. Back

6   Temporary passholders have restricted access to refreshment facilities and cannot escort visitors within the Palace. Back

7   Includes 116 former Members of Parliament and 184 excluded Hereditary Peers. Back

8   Mostly temporary passes: also includes 163 Lord Chancellor's Department staff. See Ev 52. Back

9   Q 95. Back

10   The term "Members of the Lords" is now used in preference to the term "Peers". Back

11   See Q 95. On 5 July 2001, the House of Lords agreed to increase from £37.00 to £50.00 the maximum amount which may be claimed daily by Members of the Lords for secretarial expenses. Back

12   Official Report 5 July 2001 col. 466 (Commons) and 5 July 2001 col. 885 (Lords). The levels of allowances for Commons Members are now based on an assumption that Members will employ three, rather than two and a half, full-time staff.  Back

13   Official Report [Lords], 20 June 2002, col. 191(WA). This figure covers a wide range of expenses, not just staff costs. Back

14   Modernisation of the House of Commons: A Reform Programme for Consultation (HC 440, Session 2001-02). Back

15   See Q 13. Back

16   Q 80. Back

17   See, for example, Q 153. Back

18   Q 74. Back

19   Q 125. Back

20   Q 43. Back

21   Ev 40-41. Back

22   Q 71. Back

23   QQ 23 and 116. Back

24   Q 76. Back

25   See Q 116. Back

26   Ev 36. Back

27   Ev 19. Back

28   Approximately 200 in Norman Shaw North, 150 in Norman Shaw South, and 500 in Portcullis House: See Q 60. Back

29   In addition, 308 security staff are currently based in 1 Canon Row; only a proportion of these staff are on duty at any one time, and some normally work in the main building. Back

30   Q 41. Back

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