Examination of Witnesses (Questions 139
WEDNESDAY 15 MAY 2002
139. We welcome you both. I did assure you yesterday
that we would not give you a hard time so you can relax, and we
welcome you coming to give evidence to this inquiry. You know
the background to it and you have already made a submission. We
are just anxious, as dedicated members of the Catering Committee,
to make progress in improving the facilities in the House for
everyonestaff, Members and visitors- and you were at the
opening of our Jubilee Café yesterday. Is there anything
you would like to say to us by way of an opening statement?
(Dr Pond) I think our memorandum probably
speaks for itself, but I would like to add that we and our members
do very much appreciate all the hard work and organisation which
is done by members of the Refreshment Department staff. We think
they do a really excellent job providing quality food at all hours,
and that was underscored by the way they turned out and provided
excellent facilities at the time of the lying-in-state and the
preparations for it, so we are very much appreciative of the service
that is provided.
140. Can I start off by asking you both where
you choose to eat and why?
(Mrs Willows) I work in 2 Abbey Gardens so sometimes
I will go to the cafeteria in 7 Millbank. Once or twice I have
been to the House of Lords, 1 Millbank, the new outlet there,
but often as not I will go to the gym so I will pick up a sandwich
from the cafeteria in Portcullis House and eat it back at the
(Dr Pond) I use most of them depending on who I am
having lunch with and whether I am time tabled and rostered at
lunchtime or not. I think there is no Refreshment Department facility
open to me that I have not used at some point in the last year.
Chairman: You would be a good judge of all the
141. Dr Pond, if you have used all of them,
what do you think about the quality of the food? Does it vary,
and where is it best and where is it worst?
(Dr Pond) I think the food has improved greatly over
the last ten years. We last gave evidence to your predecessor
Committee on 20 January 1993 when we made certain criticisms of
the quality of the food. Those do not now apply: there have been
great strides. I certainly feel, for instance, that the ambience
and the quality of food provided in Portcullis House is, to a
large extent, the measure against which the other outlets are
now judged. Having said that, there is a demand for basic, plain
food well cooked and presented but at advantageous prices and
there always will be, so it is a question of balancing both the
more sophisticated approach we have seen in the last five or six
years, and the need to eat quickly and with due economy.
142. I take your point about Portcullis House
being used in measure but do you think, for example, the more
basic food of the Terrace Cafeteria is of the same quality?
(Dr Pond) I would say it is of the same quality: it
is perhaps not presented in quite the same way but I have no complaints
about the quality of food served in the Terrace Cafeteria.
143. Is it merely a matter of the presentation?
(Dr Pond) Mostly, and the decor and the ambience,
so to speak. I think I annoyed one of your predecessors 10 years
ago by likening some of the then Refreshment Department outlets
to a British Restaurant or factory canteen of the 1940s. That
is a thing of the past, but the surroundings do in some measure
complement the food that is served and, in a way, they reflect
it and mirror it as well.
144. How do you think the presentation could
(Dr Pond) In the Terrace Cafeteria?
(Dr Pond) It is very much still doled out, served
up by servers in what you might call a rather basic way. There
are little touches in Portcullis House like moulds for the rice
and stir fried vegetables which are dished up on the spot, whereas
everything in the Terrace Cafeteria is pre-prepared and served
out. I think we made the suggestion last time that the throughput
in the Terrace Cafeteria could be improved by more self-service.
For instance, last time round we suggested that aided dispense
of drinks should be replaced by self-service of drinks. That has
happened and has reduced the over-crowding there, but the throughput
of clients in the Terrace Cafeteria is so great at 1.00 that it
is very difficult to see how presentation could be much improved
by the present methods.
146. Do you think one of the problems is caused
because both tills are not always staffed?
(Dr Pond) Yes. There have been one or two instances
where colleagues have complained to us that only one till has
been staffed. There are three tills because there is also a relief
till in the Terrace Cafeteria. The third till is very rarely manned
and the two tills do find it difficult to deal with the bulk throughput
at 1.00 but at less peak times, say between 12.00 and 12.30, sometimes
there is only one till staffed and then queues to pay build up
markedly. If there were a relief cashier on hand who could be
called very quickly when queues start to mount, that would relieve
some of the crowding at that point. It would not deal with the
problem of overcrowding in the seating area but it would improve
147. I notice you said you went to the gym,
got a sandwich and went back to the office, and we noticed when
we were over at 1 Parliament Street in one of the bars that there
was a group of people in there who had brought their own sandwiches
and gone into the bar and were sitting eating it. Do you think
we should provide more association rooms and lounges for staff,
as opposed to eating facilities, somewhere where they can go and
sit and have a chat?
(Mrs Willows) I think that would help a lot. One good
example of that, which is what the staff used to have, is what
is now the Bellamy's Club Room, which used to be the spillover
for staff eating in Bellamy's Cafeteria. They would go there and
it was greatly used and we fought long and hard trying to prevent
the change saying it would be underused and saying it would exacerbate
over-crowding in other outlets and it has proved to be the case.
Somewhere like that is a good-sized space, it is a nice informal
environmentvery much like the atrium in Portcullis House,
and it would help. It is a new style of having informal meetings
over a more relaxed atmosphere. I think that would help a lot.
Going back to the divide for the MPs and the staff in the Terrace
Cafeteria, it is like a symbolic barrier dividing MPs and staff,
and if that could be removed maybe you could make that a more
informal area like Bellamy's Club Room used to be. Then you could
have two distinct areas but for all people who work in the House
(Dr Pond) The success of the atrium in Portcullis
House is very marked as an informal meeting area and quite a lot
of what you might call business meetings of staff, if you have
to have three or four, whereas in the past they would have been
booked into one of the "W" rooms which are rather dingy
and miserable, nowadays tend to take place over a cup of coffee
in the atrium in Portcullis House, and that is a valuable and
much appreciated service.
148. The Secretaries' and Assistants' Council
suggested that the outdoor area known as North Terrace should
be covered and have some seating and some heating installed in
order to extend that type of facility that you have just outlined.
(Dr Pond) I think that is an excellent idea in that
the Portcullis facilities have become victims of their own success
and very overcrowded, and if some improvement to the throughput
of service could be achieved then additional seating out there
perhaps in a tent of some kind would be very valuable indeed and
would be an excellent short term measure.
149. And would ease some of the congestion?
(Dr Pond) Indeed, it would.
(Mrs Willows) And it would be nice to have an outdoor
area like the Millbank restaurant and you could have those burners.
I think it would be a great idea. May I make a couple of points?
(Mrs Willows) Some of our members have said the contractors
coming in cause a huge problem of overcrowding so perhaps that
could be measured in some way, and perhaps the Jubilee Cafeteria
could be open for staff after the visitors' tours have been completed.
151. Following on from that, I think the contractors
certainly during the summer recess are a huge problem. What do
you think about the refreshment facilities being open during the
recess? My staff complain, and I think we have a wider problem
here in the Palace of Westminster in that there is a perception
by some people, that we go off to our country retreats in the
summer and do not carry on a job of work, so I would welcome your
(Mrs Willows) I think you are right. Certain departments
carry onsay, the Finance and Administration Department,
the Department of the Library, the Refreshment Department, carry
on as though it is a place of work but with normal office hours,
so not the long hours. But people do need somewhere to get refreshments
as though it was a normal place of work.
152. And then the contractors cause additional
problems, do they not?
(Mrs Willows) Exactly, and last summer there was a
porta cabin in the outside area. I do not know if they were banned
from using the other outletsI think not but I do not know.
153. So maybe we should have some more portable
(Mrs Willows) Yes.
(Dr Pond) Just a couple of thoughts, Chairman: in
our last evidence in 1993 I was asked about undersea of existing
facilities and in reply to question 72 I mentioned that quite
often our Members passed the Members' Dining Room at lunch time
and found it was only about a third full. A few weeks ago a colleague
and I decided we would go to the Members' Dining Room one lunchtime
and we were the only customers during the hour and a quarter we
were there, being served wonderfully by seven staff. I think the
Trade Union Side feels that there are facilities which at the
moment are dedicated to Members and Officers of the House only
which are underused, certainly at certain times in the Parliamentary
week, which will become worse if the Parliamentary week contracts,
and we feel it would be very sensible to try to open those facilities
to long-serving members of staff who are not Officers of the House.
You might set a threshold of seven years, for instancethe
old apprenticeship. Once a person has served seven years he or
she would be able to use those facilities on the same basis as
an officer of the House. There is a distinction between Officersthe
more senior staffand nonOfficers, who are more junior,
which is rather invidious. We feel that would be helpful and would
also lead to a greater utilisation of facilities which at the
moment are perhaps underused. We do worry about the contraction
of the Parliamentary week because the overcrowding in the Palace,
which is the most serious problem at the moment in the Terrace
Cafeteria, as we pointed out in I think question 56 last time
round, is going to become worse if the Parliamentary week is shunted
up into effectively three days, and that will provide the managers
of the Refreshment Department and your Committee with a real problem.
154. We are grateful for you recognising that.
Indeed, we are worried equally about the difficulties that are
going to arise and the Leader of the House and his Modernisation
Committee see them as a great challenge and therefore we are going
to respond to them as challenges, but we do totally understand
the point you are making. I can assure you that we are equally
making these points to the Committees that are looking into the
modernisation of the House.
(Dr Pond) That is good news.
(Mrs Willows) Following on from that point, with the
Parliamentary week potentially being shortened, it still does
not mean that a lot of staff will not be working on the Monday
or the Friday or the Wednesday evening.
155. But it is going to call for some serious
organisational changes that we all have to gear up for.
(Mrs Willows) Yes. I think our biggest point, which
would alleviate a lot of the problems, is stopping the differentiation
between Officers and the rest of the staff. Some dedicated members
of staff working here for 20 or more years are still denied access
to an outlet where somebody who just comes in at a certain level
and has been here for a week can have that privilege.
156. All the Officers have access to the Members'
Tearoom and I have never understood the reason for that.
(Mrs Willows) Yes. They cannot bring guests but they
can go by themselves, and MPs' spouses can take five guests to
some restaurants and refreshment outlets which staff who have
been here for years cannot go and eat at.
(Dr Pond) For clarity, I do not think we are suggesting
that existing Officers should be denied access to places they
have always used because that would exacerbate the overcrowding
situation. 200 Officers, if they were additionally thrown on to
the Terrace Cafeteria, would be a distinct identifiable problem;
but we do feel that long-serving staff have a legitimate grievance
in this area, and opening up some of the facilities to them would
be very welcome indeed.
157. We thank you for that. You will appreciate
I know that in the last couple of years we have tried to move
in that direction but, as far as we are concerned, it is fresh
thinking: the sky is the limit and this evidence taking and this
inquiry is really going to challenge us to think greatly about
all of these issues, and there is nothing that is going to be
discounted or ignored.
(Dr Pond) In the spirit of the sky being the limit,
may we pick up a point that our good friend, the Serjeant, made
with you last week in that we suggested in our memorandum that,
with advantage, there could be a catering outlet opened in one
of the Norman Shaw buildings, and the Serjeant said that both
of those buildings were purpose-built Edwardian office blocks.
With great respect, that is not entirely the case. Both of them
were built as the operational police headquarters and did include
canteen facilities at one time. Both of the buildings have large
loft areas which are the sort of spaces that might be adapted
with due arrangement being made for people who occupy them at
the moment for a refreshment facility. We feel that the Norman
Shaw buildings, when the South building is reconverted next year,
will accommodate a very large number of Members and staff who
will, I think, want something on site. I worked in Norman Shaw
North for 14 years and it was a desert: there was no social life
to it and nowhere to eat. There was a rather miserable vending
machine on the second floor of Norman Shaw South that used to
eat your money but you did not really want to eat anything that
came out of it! So I think your Committee should seriously consider
something in the upper reaches of those buildings.
158. In fact, was it not bedrooms originally?
(Dr Pond) No. It was a training facility. There were
two large rooms, one of which was a training room and the other
was an indexing room. The bedrooms are in Norman Shaw North, on
the fifth floor. The sixth floor was a very large open attic given
over to storage but which was converted about three years ago
for the public information activities of the Department of the
Library. I know about it because I helped organise it because
I used to be head of public information, but they are very large
spaces and I know there are all sorts of difficulties about converting
that sort of space for refreshment outlets, but I do think it
is something on which a feasibility study might be inaugurated.
159. Thank you for that because we are obviously
concerned about the facilities in the refurbished Norman Shaw
North. You have already made reference this morning to the importance
of making some proper facilities for staff in that building, and
as a result of the evidence we have taken very valuably this morning
we shall obviously want to continue the dialogue with the Parliamentary
Works and the Serjeant at Arms on that particular matter. I think
it would give us tremendous help in dealing with these pressure
(Dr Pond) In the case of Norman Shaw, in addition
there is a wide quadrangle in the middle of the Norman Shaw North
building, and thinking of the conversion of the Great Court at
the British Museum and the success of the atrium in Portcullis
House, it would not take too much imagination to imagine that
fitted out for an eating areawith or without expensive
160. Food for thought, as they say! Your evidence
has been extremely valuable to us, and we are very grateful for
the time you have taken in giving the written submission and coming
to see us today. We are all trade unionists so we have everything
(Dr Pond) Not at all, Mr Chairman. It is a great pleasure
to come and, if we can help in the future, you know where we are.
Chairman: Thank you.