Select Committee on Administration Written Evidence

Memoranda submitted by Members' staff and House of Commons staff

Yasmin Ataullah, Asad Rehman, Lara Sami, Office of George Galloway MP

  1.  We write on behalf of many Muslim members of staff within the Palace of Westminster with a request for you to consider using halal meat in the Refreshment Department. There are a number of Muslims working within the parliamentary estate, both as House of Commons staff, and as MP's staff.

  2.  We would very much like to be able to choose from the entire menu, rather than always having to opt for the vegetarian meals on the menu. I am sure that the four Muslim Members of the House of Commons would appreciate this as well as the many Muslims working within the parliamentary estate.

  3.  I would be grateful if you would seriously consider catering for the needs of all parliamentary staff by introducing the use of halal meat.

  4.  I am aware that the Refreshment Department already has arrangements for the supply of halal meat when catering for functions sponsored by MPs. As such, I believe that the introduction of halal meat for our canteens would not be too troublesome.

Will Conway, Bar Attendant, Refreshment Department (and GMB Branch Secretary)

  1.  At present the access regulations for Annie's Bar seem outdated. Members understandably resent not being allowed to bring any guests into the bar; efforts to enforce the rule may be met with resentment and hostility. This is also undoing the good work done over time to increase use of the facilities, as some Members are not using the bar at all in protest.

  2.  While appreciating the historical reasons for the limited access, based largely on confidentiality, many have been overtaken by history. There has not been a small majority for some time now, obviating the old need for horse trading between the Whips' offices. Parliament has opened up to the public far more, so Members have more need to entertain guests informally, or to socialise with colleagues. This has added to pressure on areas such as the Strangers' bar.

  3.  The aim should be to make better use of the facility, while preserving the intimacy and rules on confidentiality that exist traditionally, this should be perfectly feasible with minor tweaking to the access rules. To this end, I would suggest that the rules are relaxed to allow escorted ex-members and personal secretaries (pass 9A only) access. This would mean that the clientele would be broadly familiar with each other so that they would not have to be as guarded as when surrounded by complete strangers in the Strangers' Bar.

  4.  In my union role, I am also aware of the pressures on the Department to reduce costs year on year. The cutbacks so far in place have led to an increase in temporary staff. This was coupled with reductions in the directly employed staff and major changes in working patterns. I would ask that the committee bears in mind the advantages of the directly employed workforce over agency staff:

    (a)  The ability and willingness to react immediately to the exceptional demands of Parliament cannot be replaced by a transient workforce.

    (b)  The security implications of poorly checked references giving wide access to the Estate, including sensitive areas.

    (c)  The sheer commitment to good service of the permanently employed workforce, coupled with their experience and knowledge of the sensitivities of Parliament and Parliamentarians cannot be readily replaced.

George Crozier, Liberal Democrats Whips' Office

  1.  In the interests of improving services to those who work on the parliamentary estate I would like to request that you consider changing the current position on refreshments in meeting rooms, such as the Macmillan and Boothroyd rooms in Portcullis House. At present, I understand there is a single rate and set of rules for all users of the rooms. Among other things this requires the user to use the in-House caterer to supply alcoholic refreshment. This is at a rate of £12 per bottle of wine (for the cheapest) stretching upwards. This is a high mark-up for wine that presumably cost the house authorities no more than £3-£4 per bottle.

  2.  What this means is that a purely social event, such as a quiz for often poorly-paid MPs' staff and interns to get to know each other, is actually treated as a profit-making venture by the House authorities, effectively pricing such an event out of being able to supply any alcoholic refreshment. Surely it would make sense to simply charge cost price for refreshments at events of this kind, or to allow the relevant departments some discretion in this matter, or to allow organisers to provide refreshments purchased from outside, so that social events of this kind, which bring people who work on the parliamentary estate together, can take place.

Portia Dadley, Department of the Official Report

  1.  I am a vegetarian, and I regularly use the Debate in Portcullis House and the Terrace Cafeteria. However, the vegetarian options are often unsatisfactory—the portions are too small, and protein is not always included. Vegetarian meals rarely cost more than £2.00, but I would be happy to pay more for a more satisfying meal. There is also a limited range of vegetarian sandwiches.

  2.  On a more general note, hot meals are usually lukewarm.

Ingrid Davidson, Assistant to Lynne Jones MP

  1.  The lack of recycling facilities is very disappointing. Several outlets sell large glass bottles of water, yet there is no where obvious to return them for re-use/recycling.

  2.  Can the Committee consider making charges, say 15p for polystyrene takeaway boxes and 10p for plastic cutlery (marketed as an environmental levy) and use the proceeds to contribute towards the cost of recycling points?

Libby Dewdney-Herbert, Parliamentary Assistant to Tobias Ellwood MP

  1.  When, occasionally, I entertain somebody for lunch at the House I would appreciate the option of taking them to a dining room with waiter service. When, for example, I am entertaining a local dignitary from the constituency (eg the Mayor) or looking after somebody on Mr Ellwood's behalf, or an elderly or disabled person, I do not think it acceptable that that person should be expected to wait in a queue, particularly at the present time when all the cafeterias are working to capacity. As an example a few weeks ago Mr Ellwood had two guests for lunch who had travelled all the way from Northern Ireland to meet him. He was delayed in a Committee and asked me to take them to the Strangers Restaurant and have a drink with them until he arrived. I did so but was told on arrival that I would not be allowed to sit with them at a table without him, indeed the guests would have to wait outside the restaurant until Mr Ellwood arrived. This caused me some embarrassment and did not appear very professional.

  2.  I know that it is possible to use the Adjournment restaurant during the recess, on Thursday evenings and Friday lunchtimes. Would it be possible to extend this facility or offer an alternative at those times when the restaurant is for the use of Members only?

Peter Harborne, Adviser, European Scrutiny Committee

  A suggestion: earlier opening by the adjournment, with limited two and three course, "prix fixe" menus, from 17.30 to 19.00, to catch those working in the House who want a quick, reasonably priced meal in nice surroundings before going out for the evening.

Brian Harrison, Senior Administrator, Department of the Official Report

  1.  You may already have received some from staff of the Department of the Official Report (Hansard), but as their representative on the Refreshment Department Users Group, I offered to collate some comments and forward them to you.

  2.  Most comments and suggestions were of a trivial nature and would be best dealt with through the User Group or the Refreshment Department's online feedback or suggestion books. However, it was universally felt that there was a problem with the supply of service at night (after 6pm) and especially in the 7 Millbank building.

  3.  It was suggested that even if the provision of vending machines were increased with superior products to that supplied at present, it would help alleviate the problem for our staff who work well after House hours.

  4.  Also, if Portcullis Cafeteria could have it's hours extended, this would enable staff to have a hot meal in the evening.

Mrs Christine Heald, Secretary to Mr Oliver Heald

  1.  Generally. I feel the services we receive are excellent.

  2.  I have a particular comment in relation to the Debate cafeteria in Portcullis House. The lunchtime Access Regulations have been widely ignored since the Debate was opened. Every day Pass-Holders entertain Visitors and Members take more than two visitors through between noon and 2 pm, contrary to Regulations. The serving staff do a wonderful job in keeping the long queues moving and the extra revenue must be welcome, but the table capacity is not sufficient to accommodate the numbers and it makes lunchtime a scrum. Furthermore, the large tables outside the Adjournment are supposed to be reserved for Members and Officers, but this has never been respected. When I raised these points once with a Manager, I was told that he had several times tried to enforce the Access Regulations and had been subjected to verbal abuse, which cannot be acceptable.

  3.  Clearly the Committee will need to decide whether to enforce the access restrictions (which would be heavy on staff time as it would need to be done regularly) or to scrap them altogether. If they are scrapped, more tables will be needed.

  4.  I think this raises a wider point, though, about whether Members and Pass Holders should expect to be able to entertain groups of Visitors to lunch within the House. A recent Mass Lobby of Parliament saw several Members lunching in the Debate with four or five constituents. Should Members be able to offer this facility when they are told that constituents are travelling to Westminster to see them? If the view is that they should, then the services provided will have to be expanded to reflect this. Otherwise, Members should respect the current restrictions on numbers and not lead groups of more than two visitors to expect lunch.

  5.  Similarly, should Passholders view the Debate as a staff canteen or as a café facility to which friends can be invited? Again, there is a revenue point to be considered, but I think it would be helpful if the Committee clarified the purpose of providing the facility of the Debate at lunchtime and set access limits accordingly. I suppose what really irks me that I am one of life's rule-keepers and I have to put up each day with other members of staff—and MPs—flouting the rules.

Christine Hemming, Researcher to John Hemming

  1.  The catering staff work very hard, are pleasant and accommodating.

  2.  The range of foods is British, which it should be, and of high quality.

  3.   The prices are appropriate for the location, the feeding of the less well-off researchers and keeping allowances down.

  4.  Terrace access is appropriate but in summer was allocated inconsistently.

Rowena Macdonald, Secretary, Committee Office, Clerks Department

  1.  I am a Grade C Secretary in the Clerk's Department and I have been working here since January 2001.

  2.  I feel that staff of all grades should be allowed to use the Pugin Room, the Strangers' Bar, the Strangers' Dining Room and the Terrace outdoor seating. Currently, I am only allowed to use these facilities if I am with an Officer of the House.

  3.  Today, a Thursday, I had three guests with me and we dined in the Terrace Cafeteria after 2 pm. It was a sunny day and the outdoor seating was empty as most Members had either gone back to their constituencies or were in the Commons chamber. I asked the guard if my guests and I would be allowed to sit outside to enjoy the view but we were not allowed. As there were plenty of free tables this seemed a great waste of resources and an example of petty rules overriding common sense.

  4.  Similarly, I was not able to take my guests to the Strangers' Dining Room or Pugin Room. This seems unfair and I feel sure these refreshment facilities are losing potential revenue from staff like me.

  5.  If the Refreshment Department wishes to improve its services, the most effective way to do this would be with extra revenue. More money could be made out of staff like me and my guests if the access restrictions to these venues were changed.

  6.  Having lunch with guests in the beautiful environment of the House of Commons is one of the perks of my job that makes up for my low salary. Relaxing the access restrictions would boost morale for staff. It would also prove to me and my guests that the House of Commons is a democratic institution. At the moment it does not feel like that.

Rosemary Mead, Senior Office Clerk, Clerks Department

  1.  Pricing and portions are erratic. Menus throughout, especially in the Terrace, have been the same for years. Salads in the Terrace cafe could be considerably more imaginative and healthy. Soups throughout the cafes are good and a fair price. Jamie Oliver should be invited to come here and revamp the menus with a view to more healthy, imaginative and cheaper food.

  2.  There should be fewer main dishes and types of potato (ie the same three every day) and the same ones should be available on the same day at each of the Commons cafeterias, so that if you were working in Bellamy's you could have fish pie, and you could in the Terrace cafe and Millbank too. There must be a lot of wastage by having so many different dishes and this costs money. Food in dishes such as shepherds pie, fish pies etc seems to weather better on the hotplate than some things which look very dry and to have fewer courses would ensure a fresher turnover.

  3.  On the whole the quality of the fish and meat is good and the fish pies and similar are very good and one couldn't do a better job oneself. The Terrace cafe cooked breakfasts have often run out and are frequently dried and bacon is like leather.

Ann Palmer, Secretary to David Wilshire

  1.  I hugely appreciate what is provided by the "coffee bar" in Portcullis House. My only comment is I would like slightly longer opening hours. I would like better access to the Adjournment other than after hours on a Thursday and on a Friday, the latter is a complete non starter. As everyone has the ability to pick up a phone and book, why can't it be "first come first booked". To restrict who can book at certain times results in empty tables.

  2.  The cold choice at the Terrace cafeteria is ghastly, so I never eat there. The sandwiches everywhere are tasteless—try a new supplier, such as Pret a Manger, their sandwiches cost more but taste of something. I don't mind paying the true price for something worth eating or drinking.

Keith Porteous Wood, Researcher for Lord Avebury and Dr Evan Harris

  1.  I commend the in-house made soups, especially in Portcullis House, as absolutely marvellous, and

  2.  Can I ask that soups be available throughout the day even between lunch and dinner for those who may have had to miss meals through no fault of their own.

Chairman of the Public & Commercial Services Union (PCS),

House of Commons Branch No 060026

  I apologise for the late submission in giving evidence to the Administration Committee inquiry into the House of Commons Refreshment Department Services. The trade union side (TUS) recently gave written and oral evidence to the Committee. On reflection, the PCS believes that certain aspects of the TUS evidence, in particular the PCS input, warrants additional explanation. The PCS would be grateful if you could bring the enclosed comments to the attention of the Committee.


  The PCS is by far the largest union within the House of Commons. Its representation covers catering, support, administration and management throughout the House's Departments. The PCS is well-qualified to voice the concerns of staff across the House in general.

  As far as House staff and catering users are concerned, there is a lack of information as to where a catering subsidy ends and financial viability starts, when one tries to access the pricing policy of the Refreshment Department (RD).

  Some years ago, there was an understanding that the House made a block grant to cover the RD's staff salaries. This negated the Department having to cover costs in relation to staff wages through a pricing mechanism. All other RD running costs were to be met by income generated through sales of food, alcohol, banqueting and the gift shops. The PCS would welcome a response to this particular situation, through the Committee's eventual report.


  The current pricing policy is rather skewed in favour of poor nutrition when compared to the aim of a well-balanced diet of vegetables, fish etc.

  If you visit the Terrace cafeteria, you will see a classic example of menu pricing:

  For £2.90 you can have seven items that can form a cooked breakfast, ie fried bacon, fried sausages, fried hash browns, fried eggs etc. All high in fat and cholesterol! Should one prefer grapefruit, prunes or figs, these are classed as "compote" and priced (highly) accordingly. Porridge at 40p is the saviour!

  When it comes to the lunchtime meal the RD take a different stance. The Government health advice of eating five portions of vegetables a day seems to have bypassed the RD management, with a policy of charging 40p a portion for vegetables. You would have to pay £2, even before you have chosen your main item! It is not an exaggeration to say that you would end up paying £5 plus for your lunch. This is far too expensive.

  The RD has strong purchasing power, so items like carrots, sprouts, beans etc would be purchased at far less than £10 per 50kg, therefore the amount of profit on portions at 40p each is enormous. Broccoli and cabbage are also attracting huge mark ups. The RD menu available to staff could hardly be classed as "haute cuisine", although to be fair it is cooked to a good standard. There normally is a meal available each day for under £2, but this is reflected in the contents. In general, a reasonable lunchtime meal should cost no more than £2.75. Vegetables should be priced in the region of 15p to 20p a portion. A good variety of vegetables would not go amiss either.

  At the end of the day, it is up to the individual to choose what they consume whether it is breakfast lunch or dinner—but there should be a degree of persuasive marketing in steering people to the healthy alternative—contrary to what is practiced now.


  The number of people working in the House together with visitors has steadily increased, to a point that in peak times (12.30-2.00 pm) overcrowding in the cafeterias has reached crisis point Many staff just cannot stagger their lunch break around peak times, so they just have to endure endless queues, which, in real terms, shorten their lunch break somewhat.

  A breakthrough in resolving the lunchtime accommodation crisis could be made by a joint approach with the House of Lords, in using one of their floors in No 1 Millbank. This building has recently been purchased by the House of Lords at a sum reputed to be £60,000,000; a huge sum for a large building. To many, it is hard to fathom why such a building was purchased.

  In an ideal world, the House of Lords and House of Commons, through a joint venture, would create new catering facilities on the ground floor with room for 300 plus covers at any one time. Open to all staff from both Houses, this would indeed solve the problem in hand. At first glance, this may all seem fanciful, but the PCS believe it is something that merits serious consideration.


  This area is without a doubt under used, simply because of the restriction as to who can and cannot use it. It is an anachronism, well past its sell by date. It has been suggested that this area be opened up to all staff of the House, although it is a logical step in improving seating availability—In the wider context of catering outlets, there is, we believe, a better alternative for the facility.

  The Press Gallery cafeteria should be fully opened up to all by it becoming a designated sandwich bar together with associated sundry items. The House has a demand for such a facility, for "made to order" as well as stocked supply sandwiches, rolls, cakes etc and perhaps soup sold in cartons. The Terrace cafeteria sandwich area would then be replaced by a better beverages/drinks bar, instead, as currently arranged, people milling in the corner, jostling for either a tea or coffee outlet.

  The running costs of the House are readily met from the public purse, but for some reason, when it comes to meals and food in general, any purported subsidy is met with hysteria from certain parts of the media. Such comments are totally inaccurate and as such, compound the public belief of those working for the House being feather bedded, when in fact the opposite is true. As a group, the vast majority of RD staff are the lowest paid employees. There is no mention of this in the media!

  The PCS and GMB unions are currently seeking to redress the anomaly of this particular group being disadvantaged in pay terms, compared to the rest of their colleagues across the House, by being placed on the common pay bands A-D. It could be said RD staff are themselves subsidising the Department through low wages.

  We believe that all issues raised in this submission together with suggestions as to how to resolve them, will be for the benefit of all.

14 December 2005

Finnian Rook, Assistant to Adam Holloway

  1.  The Debate, Bellamy's and The Terrace all serve healthy food. This is very much appreciated. If less healthy alternatives were provided, I would be tempted by them. I think the Administration Committee holds a responsibility to continue to promote healthy options and therefore influence many people's eating habits.

  2.  The Debate serves a jacket potato (or pasta) option, which is generally the lowest priced hot-food item on the menu. Even if prices have to rise, I think it would be appropriate to keep one low-priced option available. Many people working at the Houses of Parliament are on low wages, or are volunteers, and it makes working in central London more viable if there continues to be at least one low-priced healthy hot food option.

  3.  All of the catering staff seem professional. I'm in no doubt that their friendly attitude and good quality service encourages members and staff to use their facilities.

  4.  I hope that the atmosphere and friendly approach of the staff would be taken into consideration as a factor, if reducing the number of staff at peak periods was considered by the Administration Committee.

Linda Rostron, Department of the Official Report

  1.  I work 4pm to midnight Monday to Thursdays and 2 pm to 7pm on Fridays for the Written Answers Unit of Hansard.

  2.  I found that once Members of Parliament left No 7 Millbank for other offices on the Parliamentary estate, the catering facilities available to members of staff in the evening decreased significantly. The Millbank Room restaurant, for example, was soon closed leaving vending machine sandwiches if lucky. It is not always practical or safe to walk on a dark evening to the main building in order to get a hot meal. I think it a mistake to split people up in this way as it leads to isolation and disunity. It is better to mix people up and treat all equally.

  3.   I am pleased to say that from May 2005 (approximately) Portcullis cafeteria (7 Millbank) has been opened in the evenings as an experiment. Long may this continue and may the choice of food available increase.

Doug Sauvé, Researcher, Tony Lloyd's Office

  I'm generally very satisfied with the Refreshment Department, although I believe that "the Adjournment" should be made open to all pass holders (not just grey pass holders) on Thursdays and Fridays. I've noticed that it often appears empty before one o'clock on most days and would benefit from being open to a wider clientele.

Diana Thompson, Secretary to Andrew Robathan

  I just wanted to express my concern about the number of visitors permitted to lunch in Portcullis House each day. There is absolutely no monitoring of this at present.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 14 February 2006