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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Administration Committee
on Monday 8 November 2010
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Chair)
Mr Mark Francois
Mrs Siân C James
Mr Kevan Jones
Dr Phillip Lee
Mr Shailesh Vara
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Ms Sian Norris-Copson, Chair, Members’ and Peers’ Staff Association (MAPSA) and Ms Julie Spencer, Executive Member, MAPSA, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good afternoon. Sorry we kept you waiting, it is very difficult to be entirely precise about evidence sessions, but you’ re very welcome. Would you care to speak to the notes we’ve already had from you ?
Sian Norris-Copson: Okay, thank you. We asked our members to give us a few ideas following your catering review. You’ve seen some of them. Most of them concern price rises; that is people’s main concern, as you won’t be surprised to hear. There are a few additional comments to the ones you have got. Quite a big one was, "Who do you think the prices are competitive with? Not Tesco, not any of the local sandwich stores, supermarkets or anything. Where are people meant to go to find these cheaper prices within the House?" Quite another thing is, because of the nature of our job, we are often here all day, sometimes quite late into the evening. People are buying three meals a day, and that really has to be taken into consideration; that amounts to quite a lot of money. People also cannot necessarily get out at lunchtime to find this cheaper food, so they are forced to eat here. It’s not even practical, necessarily, to get to Millbank or something like that; that’s a 20minute round trip from Portcullis House. I think, practically, people are "captive"-I think that was one of the words that were used. In addition, opening hours and access were another thing that people pointed out, as were opening hours for things like the Debate and the Terrace. Do both cafés need to be open that late, using that much money? Perhaps if the resources were concentrated on one outlet, savings could be made. Someone else suggested, so things don’t get overcrowded at lunchtime, Members and Officers of the House might like to think about holding meetings at other times and avoid lunch hours so staff could get in and eat their lunch and not have to queue or squat around the side of the restaurant like they do sometimes in the Debate.
Julie Spencer: It does seem that a lot of the tables around the Debate are used for Members’ meetings, as opposed to the use of Members and staff for eating food. So it’s Members sitting there, perhaps at lunchtime, with a few coffees and a glass of water, while staff are unable to sit down and have their lunch.
Sian Norris-Copson: I know sometimes it’s obviously not possible, but it’s just, again, because of our slightly strange working arrangements, something that perhaps people could consider, and perhaps they might not have considered before. It may just ease the queues and the access that we have.
I probably ought to ignore the staffing. We have only had the one comment about staffing, I’m afraid, which was a negative one, but talking amongst ourselves, I think actually the staff do a bloody good job. I think they work very hard in general and are pretty friendly.
Quality of food, as I’ve said, is generally very good. We have a slight thought that maybe things like fruit and salad were a bit expensive, which is not really encouraging healthy eating. We have a lot of promotions on English food, or this or that, but it might be an idea to think about keeping costs down on healthier food. Somebody else has mentioned the cost of the new staff uniforms in Portcullis House. I don’t know if that was something that could be thought about. Given that we are all being asked to save money and cut down, the fact that a whole load of new uniforms suddenly appeared, although they are not very glamorous, looked a bit bad.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the other main comment that we had was about the loss of Bellamy’s; I think it is really too late now, obviously, to do anything about it. However, the point was about the lack of consultation, and I think that cuts across, really, the whole savings programme. I’ve just been in a meeting with Andrew Walker, Director General of Resources, and we and the union brought up the general lack of consultation in advance for savings on things like Bellamy’s, but obviously we appreciate you asking us here today. So not too much else to add, I think.
Chair: Well, thank you very much indeed. You probably understand that the timing of all this has not been particularly propitious. You refer to consultation. In the void that took place between the dissolution of Parliament and the re-establishment of domestic Committees, a strategic decision was taken by the Commission, and in a sense we are now playing catch-up. We are reacting to that on the basis of, I think, all levels of users in this place. I think members of this Committee are very conscious of the many issues that have arisen. This is why we decided that this had to be the first subject that we tackled. We are also aware that there are further moves afoot to eat into-if that isn’t an unfortunate expression-the subsidy that is affecting the catering arrangements in this place. I will ask colleagues if they would like to be first. Mr Russell.
Q2 Bob Russell: The picture given to the outside world by the gentlemen of the press is that this place is full of MPs gorging at heavily subsidised prices, whereas I suspect the gentlemen of the press are actually allowed to make a full claim-I'm sure they would never exaggerate the claim-for the food they have in the Press Gallery. You’ve painted a picture, which is quite worrying, of low-paid staff, which there are, with expensive food, awkward and long hours, and so on. What would be your resolution, bearing in mind you’ve got the conflict of Members of Parliament, who are not viewed in a good light, gorging at the public expense, and hard-working and quite often low-paid staff; how do you balance that?
Sian Norris-Copson: I admit it is obviously a very difficult one, but given that, as someone has said, we are all in this together, we need to look for savings, and I don’t imagine the staff are demanding that we keep every single perk.
Julie Spencer: This thing about being competitive, and at prices that are similar to other organisations, has been bandied about. If I can just quote a case in point, if you buy a bottle of this water in the canteen it’s £1.50; if you go into Tesco by the station, you can get three litres for £1. Now, how is that competitive?
Bob Russell: Ours is a better label.
Julie Spencer: Exactly, that’s what I mean. Why have we got special labels if that is making it cost so much more? It’s little things like that. The cost of confectionery, again, is cheaper in Tesco than in our canteen. Why?
Q3 Mr Jones: Can I ask you a question? I know Sir Alan said that they stuck the price rise in between when we didn’t have the Committees, but don’t you think the fundamental point is that this is your members’ workplace? In the steel industry, or anywhere else, if you worked where you had a canteen or subsidised facilities, it was quite in order for the employer to put a subsidy in to ensure that people who work long shifts, for example, could have something to eat. That’s one thing. Also, have you done any analysis of how many people are not eating any more and are bringing in sandwiches from home? I know certainly some of my staff are. You mention in your evidence about the evening meal issue; I think there is an issue there, about staff working late, and then not being able to reimburse members for that meal. Have you made representations around that?
Sian Norris-Copson: We haven’t, no.
Q4 Mr Jones: Do you think that is something that should be looked at?
Sian Norris-Copson: Yes, I do. I think they’re pretty unmoveable on some things, but we need to look at any possibilities, such as shutting down some of the restaurants to save a bit of money or, as you say, buying in cheaper, non-label things. There are probably a whole load of measures that can be taken.
Q5 Mr Jones: What do you actually think though, taking on Mr Russell’s point, about the fact that this is your members’ workplace, and if you were anywhere else there would quite clearly be-and there are, in both industry and offices-employers who provide a subsidy. Why should your members be treated any differently, to the way they would be, say, if they worked for Marks & Spencer, or even in a factory somewhere?
Julie Spencer: I think there should be the same fairness. As you say, it’s a workplace; many times we don’t actually have the time to go somewhere else. We have to pick up something on the run. Particularly if you want a hot meal, there is no point; you can't go out and get a hot meal and bring it in, you have got to have it here. I think particularly as well, with the way that IPSA has been structured-sorry, I mean with the current staffing budgets-a number of our members have seen a salary decrease in real terms. So they’ve actually had a realterms salary decrease and a great hike in prices in the cafeteria.
Q6 Chair: It may be a slightly unreal question, but what is more important, price or access? If one tried to take account of the significantly different income levels that might be found within the whole population of the workforce here, is it better to segregate in order that one can perhaps provide an exclusive area for staff and then again for Members, or is it better-because of the crowding at particular times-that access should be broadened in certain places, although you couldn’t then differentiate between price in the same establishment?
Julie Spencer: I think, probably, broadening access would be better. For example, the Adjournment is often half empty and yet staff are not allowed to go in there. If you wanted to have a special occasion meal, you couldn’t do that. I know this is going against my thing of cheaper prices, but if you segregate establishments, how do you actually differentiate? Have you got to have a certain pass, or something like that? I think that would make things worse.
Q7 Chair: If you have a staff bar, that is presumably a staff bar into which, as I understood it, a Member would only go as a guest of a member of staff, and so on; so predominately the price levels in that particular establishment would be-could be at any rate-different from other places. Thinking of staff bars, where do you think the staff who formerly used Bellamy’s bar are now going? Is it the Red Lion, or the Sports and Social Club, or going home?
Sian Norris-Copson: Sports and Social, or the Lords, I suppose. Perhaps they’re not staying in town at all. I haven’t done an exclusive survey as to where people go.
Q8 Chair: Is this an issue which staff have raised with you, about that particular outlet?
Sian Norris-Copson: Yes, definitely. It is a difficult one obviously to say, "Well you know, we’d rather have a bar than a crèche." It was a difficult one to sell really. But yes. It doesn’t help our image, does it, really? Again, the lack of consultation was the problem with that. If there had been some kind of meeting like this, we could have talked about it. I don’t know what the takings were in Bellamy’s, but I would imagine they were pretty good. So that’s another revenue stream gone.
Julie Spencer: The dining room is available as well, not for members of staff but for Members to hold meetings in.
Q9 Thomas Docherty: Just a quick one. Without getting into the rights and wrongs of it, we’ve had a lot of representations about staff members using areas that really they are not supposed to-for example, Strangers. Have you picked up on that at all? If you have, has it been a result of bars that were previously available not being available any more, such as Bellamy’s? Secondly, do you think staff have adequate training or information about the security protocols of the Palace and how, for example, they are responsible for the guests they bring into the Palace?
Sian Norris-Copson: I don’t think there’s much information available, no. It may be there somewhere. I'm sure it’s there somewhere, but it certainly isn’t in something like a new member’s staff pack or something like that.
Julie Spencer: I’m quite appalled sometimes by the number of visitors who I find wandering around looking for a way out. You ask "Can I help you?" "Oh yes, I was going out." You say, "Well where have you been?" I’ve been here for a long time, so I know the rules, but I am sure that a lot of staff wouldn’t, and as Sian says, there doesn’t seem to be much to say, "This is important"; it should really, in some way, be blindingly obvious to all of us that it’s important, but it needs to be reinforced
Q10 Thomas Docherty: Would you accept the point that staff are now using, for example, the Strangers facilities?
Julie Spencer: I have no idea whether they are or not, to be honest with you.
Sian Norris-Copson: I don’t know whether they can go in unaccompanied; whenever I’ve been in there, I’ve been with an MP, so I’ve never gone in there on my own.
Q11 Chair: If there are no further questions from my colleagues, can I think you for submitting your note, which is very helpful? Thank you for coming here this afternoon and supplementing it, and let me assure you that we are very conscious of the situation that has been created for staff and are trying to find ways of dealing with this sympathetically and helpfully in the context of certain decisions, which may not be reversible in terms of cost cutting within the Palace, but there may be more than one way of skinning a cat, as they say. We shall look very carefully at all of this and we thank you for your input.
Sian Norris-Copson: Thank you
Julie Spencer: Thank you.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Ken Gall, President, Trade Union Side (TUS) and Denise Eltringham, TUS Administrator, gave evidence.
Q12 Chair: Good afternoon. Thank you very much indeed for your attendance. I apologise for keeping you waiting a little bit. We’re only running to an informal timetable, but nevertheless I’m sure you appreciate that some of these things do run over a little bit. Thank you for your submission. Would you like to say anything by way of introduction before taking questions from colleagues?
Ken Gall: No, I think we’d be quite happy just to take questions and then perhaps expand, before we finish, on some of our concerns.
Q13 Chair: Right. What would you say is the biggest issue that we have to look at? There are a number of conflicting things, obviously, confronting the Committee. I prefaced the introduction to the last witnesses by pointing out that we were, of course, playing catch-up to a certain extent with a decision that had been taken perfectly constitutionally by the House of Commons Commission, and we are confronted with the consequences of that and we have had quite a few reactions. What is the most important issue that you think we should be trying to tackle in this inquiry?
Ken Gall: One of the most important issues to me is the risks to the House. One of the House’s corporate goals is to ensure that it has well-motivated staff of sufficiently high morale to ensure that the demands of the House, which are many and various and can occur at any time of the day or night, are met. The way that this decision was taken and the way in which it has been implemented has, in our view, led to a decrease in staff morale. A lot of the staff here, as well as being professional, are extremely proud of the part they play in Parliament. When decisions like this are taken in which their interests seem to have played very little part in coming to the decision, it chips away at that pride, particularly when staff are in the middle of a twoyear pay freeze, they are now paying more for their food, they’ve had very little input into the decision being made; that is not something that is going to increase the morale of staff here. That is a strategic risk to the House which I would say perhaps has not been raised yet.
Q14 Chair: To coin a phrase, we all feel that we are all in this together in the sense of having had consultation, whatever our particular role in the workforce of this Palace is. We are trying to look at ways in which we can meet some of the points that have come up so far. This is why we are treating this inquiry as the first thing we must do.
Ken Gall: If I could just add to that. One of our major problems on the Trade Union Side in terms of the House of Commons savings programme generally has been access to information. In this regard, in this instance, we have found it incredibly difficult to get access to information. Who made this decision to increase prices? On what basis was that decision made? What evidence was used in coming to the figures? We have found it almost impossible to get that information. That is information that, in my view, in our view, should be provided to the trade unions and to staff as a matter of course. Unfortunately we’ve had to go to the extent of issuing an FOI request to get the benchmarking data from the House of Commons authorities. Frankly, that it me is not sufficient. It’s not a way to do business with staff and with their representatives.
Chair: I think it’s probably fair to say that now the Administration Committee has been reconstituted, as it were, in the new Parliament, we should be an interface between the consumer in this Palace and those who are making the final decisions. I hope there will be a more regular mechanism for dealing with this and I think all members of this Committee would feel very disappointed if their views based upon evidencetaking did not carry a great deal of weight in future.
Q15 Mr Jones: It doesn’t surprise me, to be honest. We’ve talked a bit about catering, but what about the other ludicrous decisions that are apparently coming our way-the proposal, for example, that we are charged for car parking. Have you actually been involved in any way-not just looking catering but across the piece-in trying to make savings in this place in terms of either asking for suggestions from your members or even being consulted by the powers that be?
Chair: Can I just say, I don’t really want to go down the road of car parking, which raises issues in itself. It has been floated, as it were, in a document which has come from the Clerk of the House and I think we will want to look at that separately rather than in a catering inquiry.
Denise Eltringham: We are in consultation with management over the savings programme. We have monthly meetings with them to discuss the issues, how it’s affecting or could affect staff, and we have requested information. This is where this originally came from. We requested the benchmarking figures as part of this savings programme.
Q16 Mr Jones: I’ve been in your position. There is a difference between consultation where you are being told something and actual real consultation when you are actually being involved in the decision making, and possibly being asked for suggestions. A lot of your members might have suggestions coming forward. What type is it? Is it just you’re being told things, which is one type of socalled consultation, or the other one, which is meaningful and where they are actually trying to involve you in it?
Ken Gall: Specifically on catering, had we been consulted prior to this decision being made, there are any number of suggestions that we might have made: for example, a discount for staff on presentation of a pass; a staff only restaurant perhaps; a tiered system of charges for lowpaid staff. As it is, the decision was taken and yourselves and us are dealing with the consequences of that; it doesn’t set a very good precedent for how the House wants to go about its business if it’s going to take staff with it over the savings programme, which it is advisable that it does.
Q17 Chair: Is pricing or access more important? One of the problems, which adds to the costs of running a catering operation in this place, is the number of outlets that we have, some of which are under-utilised. Is it therefore better that one utilises a smaller number of outlets-and staff of all ranks, as it were, would be using them-or could we be looking at specific areas that are primarily aimed at staff, where perhaps the pricing and the menu structure is more favourable?
Ken Gall: I think the two issues are probably linked. I find it hard to imagine how prices can be increased across the board yet access arrangements stay exactly the same. Thank goodness it’s not my decision to make, but I would imagine that there would be a link between the two. From our point of view, we do get frequent calls, from members of all four unions, for more open access to Commons facilities, but equally we have to be realistic that there are certain areas of the House that have to be left for Members of Parliament to be able to carry out their business. It would seem to me that on Thursday nights, perhaps, at the moment, non-sitting Fridays, recess periods, if you are looking to increase revenue, it would be common sense to allow greater use of those facilities in the House. But my experience of this kind of thing is limited at best, so I wouldn’t like to judge how to run a catering facility for 2,000 or 3,000 people, thank goodness.
Q18 Chair: Do you recognise the extent of the security issue that overhangs us increasingly at the present time in terms of widening access to this place or to different parts of the Palace?
Denise Eltringham: Yes, we do. Going back one step, I think our main concern from the Trade Union Side is that a lot of staff do not have an alternative to go to for catering if they’re working late night, they’re in uniform, they have to be on the premises. I think when the increases in the catering costs came into force people noticed it even more because of the pay freeze and because of the austerity measures that are being introduced. I think the combination of the two things highlighted it even more to the staff.
Q19 Chair: Colleagues any questions?
Ken Gall: If I could just make one comment.
Ken Gall: As I said to you at the start, there is a risk to the House and there is a risk to Members of Parliament in this. My fear is that when decisions are made about the House-specifically about the House and its business-the staff can be just outside the peripheral vision of those who are actually making those decisions. Sitting times are moved earlier, then they’re moved later; we have September sittings, we don’t have September sittings. The interests of staff don’t seem to be very high up the scale of priorities of people making those decisions, and there is an expectation that staff will simply adapt. That’s fair enough, we can understand that. But as I say, something like this-with the lack of consultation, the lack of ability for the unions to make any kind of representation-and being presented with a fait acompli chips away at the pride the staff have here. I would think that would be a fairly common theme from the trade unions. Once that pride in the institution of working for Parliament has gone you don’t get it back, it’s gone for ever. I’m not going to over-egg the pudding here and say that a rise in the price of a Twix is going to lead to the complete breakdown of the Parliamentary service, but it is all adding up together, with pay freezes and savings drives and so on and so forth, to create a lessening of morale among the staff on whom you rely.
Q20 Bob Russell: Very powerful observations there from the President of the TUS, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have made them lightly. What I would say, as someone has been here 13 years now-nowhere near as long as the Chairman-is the ethos and the culture of this place has diminished dramatically in the last few months, which from the Members’ side I put down to the culture created by IPSA. Now that is not is a problem for you. That is a problem for Members here to try and deal with.
Ken Gall: That is a problem for me.
Bob Russell: But clearly the IPSA culture was that this was a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 job; that’s how they see it, or at least that’s my perception of how they see it. What do you think we as the employers of the staff should be doing to try and restore the ethos and the culture that your members feel that they have now lost or are losing?
Ken Gall: Strictly in relation to catering or more broadly?
Bob Russell: Well I think we’re here for catering, but I’m sure that catering is just one aspect of how the job has changed for the worse.
Ken Gall: Access to information for staff and their representatives at an early stage, that would be our primary demand. If decisions are going to be made in this area, provide us with the information that we require at an early stage.
Q21 Chair: A Division of the House is taking place, so we will adjourn and resume at 5.50. I think possibly we’ve reached the end of your particular session, thank you very much. I don’t think you will find many members of this Committee who are careless of the attachment that the vast majority of staff in this place have to the institution and we will keep that very much in mind, plus your points about adequate consultation. But I hope that we will be a medium through which you can feel you’ll have access to more information. Thank you very much indeed.
Ken Gall: Thank you.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Mr Will Conway, Branch Secretary, GMB, and Mr Nick Munting, Sous-Chef, Portcullis House, gave evidence.
Q22 Chair: I apologise that we are somewhat depleted, but all Committees in this House overlap with something else, and when a Division comes that does rather torpedo things. Can I thank you first of all for the submission that you’ve made, and also for coming here this afternoon? I apologise that we’re running slightly late. Is there anything you would like to start off by saying to supplement what you’ve said in your helpful memorandum?
Will Conway: I think the main issue is really one of staff morale, in that it’s a feeling of "Why us again?" Year on year we’ve been asked to provide savings and so on. From my point of view, every bar I go into I get asked, "What’s the price the price of beer and how cheap is it?" and so on. But every year, year on year, this Committee and its previous entities has asked us to make savings, provide more services, we’ve had more staff come in, and there is a feeling of "Why us again?" Then it came to a head last week or the week before, with the announcement that you were asking consultants about contracting out. Everything went haywire from the announcement in the morning to 7.30 at night when I was told the name of the new contractor who was going to take over, the actual date they were going to be coming in, when all you were actually doing was asking the consultants to talk to you about the services provided and the possibilities and difficulties of contracting out. Year on year, it has affected the staff. The staff as a whole are hit by the price rises and by the cuts in the House. But it seems to be that catering and retail is a case in point, where they are being taken above and beyond the rest of the cuts in the main House.
Nick Munting: Can I just add to that from the kitchen’s point of view? I’ve been here for a long time, since 1987, and the kitchens are a very professional, organised place of work that we are really proud of. We do our absolute best to represent this place outside as well as in it, working in schools, entering competitions, trying to get the outreach from our point of view, out to kids and people in our industry, to the extent that we have been massively successful over the last couple of years and we have much interest from colleges wanting to work with us, and school children from primary age up until work experience students. We have been doing this sort of stuff for the last 15 years; the rest of the House is just starting to do this sort of work.
On the question of the price increases, we obviously have to deal with this from a totally different perspective to everybody else. I’m in charge of all food operations in Portcullis House, so a lot of my day now is spent deflecting criticism which is directed at myself and my colleagues, and trying to explain the reasons behind price increases without fully understanding them myself, apart from the fact that we’ve been tasked with finding all this money. As Will said, last week was probably the worst week that I can remember in 23 years working here, when the rumours were rife about contracting out; lots of people that had been here a long time were worrying about their jobs, their families. It was a really awful time, and a team of people-I can only really talk for the chefs-who are so passionate about what they do for this building was really feeling quite let down that that was what people were looking at.
We’ve got lots of innovative ideas of our own for increasing revenue. Some of those ideas seem to have been pushed by the wayside. We had various ideas to do with Portcullis House, changing services, adjusting access regulations, etc. However, because of the initial cost implications they seem to have been pushed by the wayside. We are just all quite worried about how everybody is thinking about our part of the Department.
Q23 Chair: Can I just say, on the contracting out point, if we said we were having a catering inquiry which didn’t cover that point, it would have been rather strange, because I think it has probably been covered at every point when there have ever been questions asked about it. I think I go back even further than you, to 1970. Even then people were asking "Why don’t we contract out?" That is simply there because it is an issue, and I’m sorry if staff or anyone else misunderstood that that was somehow a prejudged conclusion. It was most certainly not. It was just there because if you are doing a thoroughgoing inquiry someone is bound to ask you, "Well did you not, in the course of your inquiry, consider that option?" That’s the only reason it’s there. We certainly haven’t considered it as a body and certainly haven’t made our minds up on that issue, or indeed on anything else, but we hear what you are saying.
Nick Munting: That’s good to know.
Will Conway: To be fair, I think it’s one of the things that every three years there is a vague rumour about. In this case, obviously, in the Committee’s paperwork there were calls for consultants to come in. So there was actually a fact there for the people to get their teeth into. It went from one small bit of paper to mayhem, and it wasn’t very well handled by the Department.
Q24 Chair: Or by me, I suppose, as the Chairman of the Committee, you could say, because I obviously authorised the issue of the original document saying what we would be covering. I hope you will accept my assurance as to the exact position.
Will Conway: Oh yes. I talked to Ms Harrison at quite some length about the issues and it’s hopefully sorted out.
One thing that has again happened year on year is lack of investment in the facilities that we have, in refurbishment. It again seems to have been ignored completely. There are various projects that have been shelved and put back and put back, and so on. They don’t seem to be being addressed through this and, sorry to push my own area, but the fridges in the Strangers bar are 17 years old, and you can’t just carry on and carry on and make do and mend. Things actually need looking at and investment. It seems we are not going to get that money to invest to improve services and just to keep things running. That seems to be one of the victims of this cuts exercise.
Q25 Chair: This Committee is, as it were, rehashing catering again by having an inquiry, because we felt, in view of what had happened in the void period, and the reactions to it, that this was something we simply had to look at first of all, because of the different opinions that we were getting. I think we certainly started on the basis that we’re interested in blueskies thinking in ways of looking at how we can deal with, firstly, a public concern about how much we subsidise the services in this place, and then all the other factors about access for staff who are on different levels of pay, the conditions and everything. We shall look at everything I hope with new eyes, so far as we can be well informed by those who are giving evidence to us.
Nick Munting: On the question of how much food costs, maybe we are missing an opportunity, especially in a venue like Portcullis House, which is very big. We do over 2,000 transactions a day, most of them at lunchtime. We also have a lot of strangers come though that area, and I’ve never really understood why we subsidise strangers’ food. I do understand why we subsidise our food, but I don’t understand why we subsidise the cost of food for people from the outside who are just visiting us. It is not their place of work. Why do we do that? It’s a question we could look at. Maybe there could be a twotier system of charging.
Q26 Nigel Mills: I’m going to have to say, I thought the GMB’s submission was extremely helpful. There were some very interesting ideas on revenue raising and cost saving which I think we will be looking to discuss when we get round to that phase of the inquiry. One of the questions I continually have on this is, from your perspective, do you think there is something missing in the offering? When you all talk do you say, "Why don’t we provide a specialist coffee bar here?" Or "Why don’t we provide a pizza outlet or a ready-made sandwich thing or something?" Anything like that you want to add?
Nick Munting: I think the problem we have is trying to provide something of everything for everyone all over the Estate. For instance, in Portcullis House we do have a specialist coffee bar. Maybe it’s not big enough, but we did come up with ideas to possibly turn the Adjournment restaurant into a larger coffee bar area and lose the Adjournment restaurant. That would provide a saving on staff costs in the evenings, but it would be a service that has gone. I think what we need is for Members to decide what services they want us to provide. We are happy to be here and happy to provide bespoke restaurant services to cafeteria services to vending machines. We can do the lot but we need to have a steer on what you want to us do and at what times of the day or night you want us to do it. We will quite happily provide it, but, as far as I can see, the more we provide, and the longer amount of time we provide it over during the day, the less chance there is of saving any money.
Q27 Mr Jones: This to me is like déjà vu. We’ve been here before in the last Committee when we looked at this. I’ve got to say, I wouldn’t like to knock privatisation off the agenda completely, because that is the only thing that gets Ms Harrison’s and the management’s attention, frankly. I would like to ask a question, because it always seems to me strange; there is a sense of frustration among Members. For example, there is the farcical situation in Strangers, which has now become ludicrous. The quality of the food has gone down, the service frankly is terrible, prices have gone up. In terms of suggestions that you have-you are a professional chef, you obviously talk to chefs outside here-the one thing that we tried to address here before, but which never seems to be addressed, in my opinion, is the ordering of food, for example.
Nick Munting: The ordering of food?
Mr Jones: The ordering of food from the number of suppliers, etc. In terms of these price rises and just generally, what is your involvement? I don’t mean being asked and then it just being noted, but do you really think that you have an input into how this place is run?
Nick Munting: I can’t talk about how this place is run. What I can talk about is how I run my side of the business from Portcullis House. It goes as far as me visiting fishermen down in Hastings and talking to them about the price of fish, and daily phone calls to suppliers. There is a certain amount of leeway that we can use in our day to day work, but there are some hard and stringent rules that we have to stick to because of access for delivery drivers; they need to be pass holders, etc. I know that the Department is looking at a centralised purchasing offsite consolidation centre. I don’t know what sort of effect that is going to have on me personally, and what sort of deals I could do over the phone; I don’t know how it is going to affect that sort of stuff. I think there should be probably a lot more joint services with the House of Lords on procurement of foodstuffs, buying bigger amounts in, getting a better price etc, etc. As for the way the House is run, the only information we get is when we are invited to a senior board all-staff meeting that we go to and we hear that it’s got to be 17% over four years and that amount of money has got to be saved. This information all comes to us and we are just told it.
Q28 Mr Jones: Are you ever asked for suggestions?
Nick Munting: Yes, we came up with lots of suggestions some months ago.
Q29 Mr Jones: What happened to them?
Nick Munting: There were suggestions made about the redevelopment of Portcullis House. It’s now over 10 years old, the kitchens are in a poor state of repair now. I think you are due to have a tour tomorrow. They might not look that bad to the naked eye, but when you’re working within these areas every day, you know they are in need of repair. Some of the ideas that were put forward for Portcullis could enable us to change the services quite dramatically and maybe offer some savings. But there would be an initial cost to that sort of work to the House. As I understand it, it just seems now that the management board is all about "Where do we save the next penny?" I understand that we want to try and look after people’s jobs, but sometimes you have to invest for the long term for us to be able to provide you with what you need.
Q30 Mr Jones: The last consultant we had in, for example, talked about that coffee bar, and one simple thing he pointed out was the fact of the queues. He said "The reason why it’s not working properly is because you’ve only got two people there and if you’re going to run a coffee bar you need three." Simple things like that, which I thought was quite sensible, have still not been taken on board.
Nick Munting: It’s like the Terrace kitchen. When that was redesigned, it was designed to feed 800 people, and it probably does twice that much, at least. We are now working in areas that are being over-used because they are popular, which is good for us.
Q31 Mr Jones: I agree on contractors. I’ve raised this before: why on earth should this House, during the summer and other times, pay for subsidised meals for contractors who come onsite? When we’ve raised it before in terms of, as you suggested, having two levels-which is quiet common in industry, where you have contractors going onsite-again we were told it was all too difficult. It is things that like that that need to be looked at, both controlling volume and trying to get costs down.
Nick Munting: I think on the question of money we should look at how we increase revenue, how we make more money. It was quite interesting, when some time ago I suggested that the House of Commons memorabilia should be sold to the outside, and then a few weeks ago we read that Number 10 is selling it outside.
Q32 Mr Jones: Quite right, that’s been raised before.
Nick Munting: There should be a shop down by Boots, underneath St Stephen’s Tavern, selling this stuff. I know it would devalue the brand slightly, but there is an amount of money to be made there, I think.
Chair: I can say to you that there is certainly more that a gleam in my eye that we could do something along that line. It is only an adjunct to the catering inquiry, but I don’t think it’s going to be forgotten.
Q33 Thomas Docherty: Will, I have two questions. You really are at the chalk face of the first question. One thing that has been raised with us repeatedly by colleagues outside this is Strangers bar, and Strangers terrace, both from a security point of view and just the sheer volume of people. Standing behind the bar, what is your impression as to the problem that is causing this? Why have we suddenly got so many more people trying to use those facilities than we had before? Just to speed up the time, the second question, which is kind of related to it: we have also been approached by colleagues, and I note you’ve made similar suggestions, about the Terrace Pavilion bar. Obviously I appreciate you aren’t a structural engineer, but from your professional viewpoint, how difficult would it be to perhaps link the Terrace bar to the Strangers bar in some way to provide a more rounded service, a-?
Will Conway: A buffer. On the first issue, about the sheer volume, there are various different things. Since the election, a lot of new young Tories have come in who are obviously more pubtype drinkers. So for the first time since I’ve been here it hasn’t been a totally Labour majority bar. There is also, obviously during the summer, the incredible weather, which made an awful lot of difference. We are also seeing a lot more Members bringing in their staff, which is causing problems of its own and is very difficult for us to deal with behind the bar. The knockon effect is that once people get used to coming into the bar they think they have got a right to come in on their own. So that creates its own problems again, which we deal with, but sometimes it has a knock-on effect, and the customers who should be getting served are not getting served as quickly as they should. Obviously it is putting on extra pressure on us behind the bar.
On the Terrace Pavilion bar, that was-although no one noticed-opened at the beginning of the summer. I don’t think it’s been opened with any real will from the management in the Department. Years and years ago both bars would be pretty much equally busy. I think members have got out of the habit of using it. It has got a place. If it was open properly all day-or opening at 5.30, closing at 6 and then opening again at 8 pm-so that, now that the teas have gone up, members could bring guests in to have teas out there, not for 20p a cup, so you are actually making a bit of money, and take those guests out on the Terrace, it would be a desirable venue. If you get people back into the habit of using it during the day you can then flow it into the evening so it provides a sort of buffer for Strangers, although with a slightly different range. It would be very difficult, and we’ve tried for years, to get draught beer out there. It’s incredibly difficult to do because of the temperatures. Although we have got cellar type fridges, having draught beer is particularly difficult to run. I think with the will, not letting banqueting eat into it all the time, and giving it one real proper go, we could see if we can actually make it work. I got called something by an Evening Standard journalist, but I can't remember the actual word-I think the word means waiting to die-when I sat out there one particular rainy night with no customers. But you are going to get that, and you are going to get times when the weather is awful and people aren’t going out there, and we have got to put a little into it to get something back. I do think if you really try then hopefully the service in the Strangers would be better, because you are offering another service which would pretty much mirror what’s in the Pugin Room; however, instead of being in the Pugin Room, you’ve got a desirable venue on the Thames offering a pretty much unique service. Hopefully the staff who aren’t doing anything in the Pugin Room would go down, and it wouldn’t take any investment because all the facilities are already there, from the tea point of view, and it’s all set up for the bars.
Q34 Thomas Docherty: Just a quick follow-up on the issue about the Members’ staff and so on coming in, who realistically do you think should have primary responsibility for policing, to use the phrase, access to the Strangers bar and the Terrace?
Will Conway: Security; it’s security basically. When I first started we just had the handilynamed PC, Peter Clark, who was virtually permanently ensconced on the back door to the Terrace. He knew all the Members, he knew the staff. We’ve got the difficulty now that the passes don’t show so much what you are, but you can see if they’ve got the green bit on them. You used to be able to tell who a Member’s spouse was through the numbering on their pass, but we can’t do that now, because they have all changed slightly. However, we can tell who Officers are. So we can tell Officers, Members, Peers. You can tell them pretty much immediately, but other staff you can’t tell and we don’t have the time to ask them one at a time. Members taking out or bringing in more than three guests, we don’t mind it when it’s quiet, but when it’s busy, half a dozen or 10 people all coming in poses problems. They shouldn’t really be getting past the door in my view.
Q35 Tessa Munt: I wanted to ask you some questions if I may, Nick-actually, my first question is probably to both of you. I presume there is a maintenance schedule which does the emergency, urgent and routine stuff, and your fridges and your kitchens are on some sort of schedule, would you know what that was?
Nick Munting: Yes, I have a weekly maintenance report. So, whenever I have a problem with a piece of equipment I phone it through, report it, get a reference number and wait for the guys to come and fix it. It’s a contracted firm in Portcullis House.
Q36 Tessa Munt: Okay, so that’s responsive maintenance, what about proactive maintenance.
Nick Munting: No, not as far as I know. There has never been any preventative maintenance that I’ve known of, and I’ve asked for it before.
Will Conway: When John Borley first started a couple of years ago, one thing that was highlighted in my talks with the Estates Department was that the rolling maintenance programme was virtually non-existent. It had just been overtaken by events, and it hasn’t really been put back or ever got going. It is something that the place is crying out for.
Q37 Tessa Munt: Sorry, I am slightly dismayed to find that, but thank you anyway. My second question, Chef, is, are your salaries commensurate with outside?
Nick Munting: It depends on the grade and the jobs. At the moment, when you look at salaries outside, we are not doing too badly. But there are not many jobs on the outside at the moment, which adds to the worries that I was telling you about earlier. When you look at catering grades, and we talk about pay, we do feel that we are treated differently to the House, across the staff, because we are treated separately and our pay and our grades are completely different to everybody else on A to E. So it doesn’t matter how much management responsibility comes with my job, and how many staff have to report to me, I’m treated differently to all other Departments across the House, and we have had this question of catering pay over the last 18 months.
Q38 Tessa Munt: Can I just clarify-are you saying differently less or differently more?
Nick Munting: In my opinion, my job would be worth a higher A to E grade than it is under a CG grade.
Q39 Tessa Munt: Okay, fine, thank you. Can I ask you one last question, Chef, and that is-I’m not sure, because I can’t find it in the paperwork and I must have missed something-what exactly are your responsibilities? I know you’ve referred to Portcullis House.
Nick Munting: Well I’m a Sous-Chef of the House of Commons kitchens, so at any time the Executive Chef can decide to pick me up and move me to a different area. I’ve run most areas now across the Estate.
Will Conway: Nick is basically in change of Portcullis House.
Q40 Tessa Munt: So all of the catering aspects.
Nick Munting: All the food in Portcullis House.
Will Conway: On the back of house side of things.
Q41 Tessa Munt: What is your food GP?
Nick Munting: Our GPs up until a couple of months ago, before the price increases were set in stone, and when we had targets to work to-
Q42 Tessa Munt: What was your target?
Nick Munting: We had to get 27%. But the price increases have confused all the food GPs and we’re getting no information.
Q43 Tessa Munt: So you don’t sort out your own-
Nick Munting: I’ve got no way of telling you what our food GP is at the moment since the prices went up.
Tessa Munt: Thank you
Q44 Nigel Mills: Do you think it’s higher or lower than it was?
Nick Munting: Well I do know that we are making more money and I’m aware that we are doing slightly fewer customers
Chair: Any more questions? Well, if not, thank you very much indeed. I think it’s been a very useful submission and a very useful exchange that we’ve had, and we are grateful to you for coming and giving your evidence to us.
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