Catering and Retail Services in the House of Commons - Administration Committee Contents


5  Individual Outlets on the Estate

Access to facilities

86. As one of our principal aims in producing this Report is to seek means of raising footfall within the Commons' catering facilities, the question of who is allowed to use each was part of our terms of reference. Early in the inquiry, we discovered that a complicated set of rules currently applies, accreted over the years rather than worked out as an holistic package. The rules are confusing and differ from place to place and day to day. They are also, the parliamentary intranet notwithstanding, not always easy to find. For that reason, particularly in a new Parliament in which many new Members have been joined by new staff, we discovered that potential users of the Estate are uncertain of which facilities they may use, when they may do so and whether they may entertain guests.

87. We have also had specific requests for new access to some facilities. Mr Speaker asked us to consider whether dining facilities should be opened to all Members of the House of Lords (instead of, at present, to Peers who were formerly MPs). The Press Gallery has asked for access to a wider range of facilities than it presently enjoys.[68] Staff unions also seek greater access for more House and Members' staff, in particular to the Terrace and the Strangers' Bar.[69] Our guiding principle in considering access to each individual facility will be to extend access where it is possible to do so without compromising the first principle of the service—that it should support Members and those who sustain them in doing the work of Parliament.

Members only

88. Members may use any of the facilities on the Commons part of the Estate and some parts of the Lords' estate, but very few facilities are reserved entirely for Members. The Smoking Room allows access to no-one but Members; but the Members' Tea Room and the Members' Dining Room are open to a limited number of staff, and the Strangers' Bar to a wider market still. Members may also use a section of the Terrace and seats in the Terrace cafeteria are reserved for them and their guests, although it has proved difficult to police these areas. Members also have greater rights than other groups to entertain guests in the major facilities.

Dining rooms

Members' Dining Room

89. On the general question of access to facilities, it is essential to the primary purpose of Parliament that its Members be able to meet informally in private surroundings. The Members' Dining Room provides such surroundings, but is, in per capita terms, the second most highly subsidised facility, behind only the press dining facilities. The Members' Dining Room service is not, incidentally, provided in the same room at all times: the smaller of the two Dining Rooms on the principal floor is used for lunch every day and for dinner on Wednesday; the larger of the two rooms (which otherwise serves as the Strangers' Dining Room) is used for dinner on Monday and Tuesday.

Table 7: Members' Dining Room Usage, By Outlet—Lunch



90. Footfall figures, in tables 7 and 8, demonstrate that the Dining Room is significantly underused, particularly at lunch time, and that use has dropped substantially over the year from 2009 to 2010. The number of lunches served dropped from 103 a week in October to December 2009 to 82 a week in the same period in 2010. Total capacity in both cases was around 240 a week, meaning that weekly occupancy was around 40 per cent in 2009 and down to around 30 per cent in 2010. Daily transaction figures show a similar downward pattern—there were 13 lunch covers on Mondays in 2010 compared with 19 in 2009, for example. Only on Wednesday does the lunch service achieve 50 per cent occupancy, with 32 of the 60 places available filled.

Table 8: Members' Dining Room covers—dinner



91. The evening service fares better, with occupancy approaching 66 per cent on Mondays and Tuesdays, and slightly higher than it was in 2009, but low on Wednesdays, having halved on its 2009 levels. Some 98 covers were served on Mondays from October to December 2010, some 92 on Tuesdays (against a capacity of 150) and only 31 on Wednesdays. That makes 221 covers a week, which even if no Member used the service twice would leave more than 400 not using a service provided only for them on an average week.

92. The clear conclusion to draw is that the lunch and evening services offered in the Members' Dining Room are not attracting sufficient custom from the very small market of 650 Members at which they are aimed. Nor is this a new conclusion: our predecessors of 18 years ago noted that "the Members' Dining Room is seriously underused at lunch time" and recommended that something be done to appeal to more Members.[70] It is deeply depressing to find the situation no better nearly two decades later.

93. The Catering and Retail Service has proposed changes, removing waiter service and offering only a buffet and carvery instead. This would, says the Director of the Catering and Retail Service, save about £145,000 a year by allowing staffing to be reduced by four in the dining room and two in the kitchen that services it.[71] We are not convinced that this is the right approach and believe that the Catering and Retail Service should be looking for means to encourage Members to use the Dining Room rather than reducing the range and quality of what is on offer there.

94. We believe that several factors play a part in the Dining Room's failure to attract the majority of those for whom it is intended. First, and simplest, the fixed price system introduced for evening meals has been unpopular. Secondly, the Members' Dining Room by its nature appears formal and traditional, a style which, even six years ago according to our predecessor Committee was largely considered "rather stuffy" and less appealing than the more informal service of the Adjournment restaurant in Portcullis House.[72] Thirdly, the greater and increasing popularity of the Tea Room at both lunch time and dinner time demonstrates that most Members most of the time seek something quick, light and comparatively inexpensive. Fourthly, we have heard from too many Members that service in the Dining Room is too slow and that they are therefore reluctant to use it.

95. Our predecessors, six years ago, said "we consider that the time is right to change the style of service in the Members' and Strangers' Dining Rooms. Our preference would be for a brasserie-style restaurant with a simple menu changed on a regular basis, possibly supplemented by a high-quality buffet".[73] The buffet has been introduced, but the suggestion that the style of food and service become more varied and less traditional or even 'outdated' remains valid. There is also an appetite within the Catering and Retail Service, both at management and staff level, to appeal more widely to more Members. The Director of the Catering and Retail Service suggests that "Members choose not to use the Dining Rooms because that reflects the trend throughout workplace catering in the past 10 years or more towards much more casual dining". Members, she says, "have jobs of work to do—they are in their offices working. They may not wish to take the time to go to a dining room and have a full meal".[74] On the staff side, the GMB suggests that change is necessary: "The department should be allowed to offer a more modern fine dining style, with some elements of the traditional. Ways of increasing use of these facilities should be examined so that use is maximised without increasing the cost".[75]

96. We must recognise that change in the traditional service offered in the Dining Room has in the past been resisted by Members themselves, a point made both by the GMB and by our own predecessors in their Report on catering in 2005.[76] It is a simple fact that those who do use the service regularly like it the way it is; the usage statistics suggest, however, that those Members who regularly use the MDR are in a minority, and a declining minority at that.

97. We recommend that the Catering and Retail Service identify means to reduce staffing levels in the Members' Dining Room without entirely removing the table service valued by many Members. We recommend that the service seek to capture more of the untapped demand among the Members for whom the room exists by offering a wider range of simpler, lighter, inexpensive options as well as a few main courses and the buffet currently provided, and we welcome the positive response the Catering and Retail Service has already made to this suggestion.

98. The Catering and Retail Service suggests that an additional £11,000 a year might be raised from the Members' Dining Room by extending access to all Members of the House of Lords. At present, only those who were once MPs have such access.[77] With the caveat that acceptable reciprocal use of Lords facilities should first be negotiated, we agree that all Peers should be able to use the Members' Dining Room at lunch times, and are open to the suggestion that that access should be extended in the evenings, too, perhaps with a limit on the number of Peers who may use the Room at that time.

STRANGERS' DINING ROOM, ADJOURNMENT AND CHURCHILL ROOM

99. Like the Members' Dining Room, the other three main Dining Rooms which offer table service operate significantly below capacity both at lunch time and in the evenings. Unlike the Members' Dining Room, however, take-up of their services increased in October to December 2010 on the comparable figures for 2009.[78] This reinforces our view that what is on offer in the Members' Dining Room is not sufficiently appealing to the Members for whom it is intended and who, we believe, are dining in other facilities, possibly because of the spreading perception that service in the Members' Dining Room is slow.

100. The Strangers' Dining Room, in which Members may entertain guests, is the least subsidised of the four main dining rooms, partly because its gross profit levels are the highest, although it still operates with a substantial subsidy. As table 9 demonstrates, lunch time occupancy barely reaches 50 per cent of capacity, although the total number of covers served per week was virtually the same in October to December 2010 as it was in the same period of 2009, unlike in the MDR where trade has dropped. Mondays and Tuesdays averaged 48 covers (against a capacity of 90) and Wednesdays 64, with Thursdays dropping off to 39. The evening service achieves better occupancy rates—49 (against notional capacity of 60) on Mondays, 48 on Tuesdays, and 71 on Wednesdays. This shows a small increase of 15 across the three days as a whole (see table 10).

Tables 9 and 10: Lunch and dinner occupancy in the Strangers' Dining Room: October to December 2009 and 2010




101. The Churchill Room makes a good level of gross profit, but staff and other costs outweigh sales and subsidy is about two and a half times sales. Lunch time usage is extremely low: with a capacity of 70, it served an average 13 covers on Tuesdays from October to December 2010, 26 on Wednesdays and 12 on Thursdays (table 11). That makes a weekly total of 51 against a notional capacity of 210, or less than 25 per cent. As with the Members' Dining Room, those figures represent a substantial drop on the 2009 equivalents, when the average weekly uptake was 84. The evening service shows better occupancy rates and rising demand on the 2009 figures for Mondays and Tuesdays, if not on Thursdays (table 12). Monday averages for 2010 were 48, for Tuesday 55 but for Thursday 41, reflecting the fact that Monday and Tuesday are the busier nights in the Chamber. The Churchill does not open on Wednesday evenings, being reserved for banqueting.

Tables 11 and 12: Churchill Room, lunch and dinner usage: October to December 2009 and 2010




102. The Adjournment restaurant in Portcullis House also achieves reasonable gross profits, but the costs of running it result in a substantial subsidy. As table 13 demonstrates, lunch time covers for the Adjournment from October to December 2010 were extremely low, and with the exception of Friday (when the restaurant is open to all staff, not just Members and senior staff) down on the comparable figures for 2009. With a notional capacity of 70, the restaurant served 21 covers on Mondays, 36 on Tuesdays, 35 on Wednesdays, 26 on Thursdays and 33 on Fridays when the House was sitting. Uptake was higher, though not substantially so, on days when the House was in recess, probably reflecting the fact that no other Dining Room was open then. That means that only on Tuesdays did the Adjournment reach 50 per cent of its lunch time capacity, and then with 36 out of 70. Unlike the Palace-based Members' and Strangers' Dining Rooms and Churchill, the Adjournment does not do hugely better for evening meals (table 14). With capacity remaining 70, average on Mondays from October to December 2010 was 35, on Tuesdays 53, Wednesdays 38 and Thursdays 27.

Tables 13 and 14: Adjournment lunch and dinner usage: October to December 2009 and 2010




103. The clear conclusion to be drawn from the figures for the Strangers', Churchill and Adjournment Dining Rooms is that restaurant facilities on the Estate have unfilled capacity, and especially so at lunch time. It is for that reason that the Catering and Retail Service proposes to close either the Churchill Room or the Adjournment restaurant. Doing the former would, it estimates, save about £257,000 a year by reducing staff costs and providing another venue for banqueting. Doing the latter, by turning the Adjournment into a premium coffee, sandwich bar and delicatessen, could yield between £145,000 and £400,000.[79]

104. Both approaches rely on the idea that the current demand cannot be bettered, and that idea rests at least in part on long-term trends, particularly at lunch time, and the point identified above that formal lunching in the workplace has long been on the wane. None the less, we are not convinced that closing services rather than seeking to use them better and attract more custom is the more appropriate solution. It is frustrating to note that this is not a new problem, and that sensible solutions have previously been offered by Member Committees: our 2002 predecessors noted that "Ideally, the Churchill Room would provide a cafeteria service at lunch time while remaining a waiter-service facility in the evening".[80]

105. We recognise that changing times, healthier lifestyles and stricter working practices have reduced formal lunching, and that the four main Dining Rooms which currently offer full table service lunches on the House of Commons Estate collectively suffer from significant under-occupancy. We acknowledge that the Catering and Retail Service has proposed reducing their number to three in order to reduce the cost of providing that service.

106. We believe that offering a wider range of food styles and less formal service in the Churchill Room would help to raise revenues while also reducing costs to some degree. We reiterate the nine-year old suggestion of our predecessor Committee that the Churchill Room might provide a lighter, quicker, cheaper style of service at lunch time and a waiter service in the evenings, possibly including a carvery service.

107. We recognise that remodelling the Adjournment would provide more space for the type of food offer made to all parliamentary pass holders in the cafeterias that are already overcrowded and most popular, but would be reluctant to lose the lighter, more modern style of food and service that has been achieved in that location.

108. More can be done to vary the food styles on offer. At present, customers may broadly choose between cafeteria food or high-quality dining. There is a gap for the provision of mid-level, high street type offers such as pizza, pasta, Thai, Indian, Chinese or sushi, and we recommend that the Catering and Retail Service produce proposals outlining what might be achieved in that respect.

109. The Catering and Retail Service suggests that £33,000 might be raised from extending access to the Strangers, the Churchill and the Adjournment to all pass holders, instead of, as at present, to Members and senior staff of the House.[81]

110. We suggest that widening access to the underused Dining Rooms might also help raise more revenue and is an alternative to simply reducing the variety and quality of what is on offer. To that end, we recommend that members of the Press Gallery be granted access to the Adjournment with the right to entertain three guests (and that the success of that be reviewed 12 months from the date of the Commission's response to this Report), that all Peers be granted access to the Adjournment, the Strangers' Dining Room and the Churchill Room, without guests on sitting Monday and Tuesday evenings but with up to three guests at other times, and that full pass holders be granted access to the Churchill Room and Adjournment Restaurant at lunch time.

111. We recommend that an integrated booking system for the Dining Rooms be introduced as soon as possible, in order that customers turned away from one may be advised which others have tables available.

112. We recommend that Members retain full booking rights for the Churchill Room and Adjournment, and that other user groups may book tables on a first-come, first-served basis no more than two working days before dining. We acknowledge that this may mean Members who seek to book late or turn up without a booking may be turned away. This is an inevitable consequence of widening access, and the Strangers' and Members' Dining Rooms will continue to be available primarily to Members as at present.

Cafeterias

Members' Tea Room

113. Only Members and a comparatively small number of senior House staff may use the Tea Room, giving it a fairly restricted market. The costs of staffing the Tea Room for that small market make it one of the most highly subsidised facilities on the Estate, and the profit margin achieved on the sale of goods in the Tea Room is lower than the average among the cafeteria facilities.[82] The Room's usage figures are more encouraging than those for the dining rooms, although with an average spend per cover of only about £1.60, the potential for raising significant revenues there is fairly limited.

114. Table 15 shows the weekly average number of transactions in the Tea Room each day in October to December 2009 and in 2010. It is clear that use of the Tea Room rose by small but consistent amounts each week in 2010, which, allied with the drop in use of the Members' Dining Room, may suggest some shift towards the quicker, lighter, cheaper choice on offer there. The chart also clearly demonstrates the impact the pattern of the House's sitting hours has on catering facilities—rising from Monday to peak on Wednesday, then tailing off on Thursday and falling precipitately on Friday. The same pattern applies in both 2009 and 2010. Within those overall figures, there are some variations throughout the day—Monday was the most popular day for evening meal times in both years; Wednesday the most popular at lunch times, as well as overall.

Table 15: Members' Tea Room



115. The Catering and Retail Service has made two savings proposals in relation to the Tea Room—reducing its menu, to save £74,000 a year, and closing it on non-sitting Fridays, to save £10,000 annually in staffing costs.[83] Friday trade, even when the House is sitting, is near minimal. There was an average of 43 transactions during its seven hours opening on non-sitting Fridays in 2010, more than half of them during what might be termed the breakfast period. Given the low usage of the nearby Pugin Room in the mornings, recorded elsewhere, we question whether a cold buffet breakfast of the type set out in many hotels might not be offered there as an alternative, requiring a smaller number of staff, particularly kitchen staff. Our predecessors six years ago argued that the Tea Room could close on non-sitting Fridays, another example of a Member-proposed solution that has not resulted in action.[84] We agree that it makes sense to close the Members' Tea Room on non-sitting Fridays, and recommend that the Catering and Retail Service close it earlier than 2013-14, as is presently proposed.

116. We are not persuaded that the menu offered in the Tea Room should be restricted. The Catering and Retail Service's proposal appears to be based largely on logistics—"The space itself struggles to accommodate the current extent of food being served, and shoe-horning in additional food offers has compromised the integrity of the service".[85] This may be so, and it is clearly inconvenient to have the Tea Room served from the busy Terrace cafeteria kitchen one floor below, because of the lack of space available within the room for cooking facilities. But the popularity of the Tea Room, and informal consultation with a variety of Members, suggest that this is a service that the House provides which Members would rather see extended than reduced. We accept that it would be difficult to extend it to any great degree, given the space constraints, but we oppose any proposal to reduce the service offered in the Members' Tea Room.

TERRACE CAFETERIA

117. The Terrace Cafeteria is one of the most popular facilities on the Estate. It also, in pure cash terms, requires by far the largest subsidy because of its high staffing costs. The Terrace cafeteria achieved a gross profit of 28 per cent in 2009-10. A gross profit of between 35 and 45 per cent would be appropriate for this type of cafeteria in most workplaces, most of which would provide it at some subsidy.[86] The price rises introduced last year will take the 2010-11 gross profit margin closer to, if not within, that range. In spite of its high volume of sales, the costs of staffing the Terrace Cafeteria again outweigh takings by a considerable degree. We are concerned to see that the number of transactions there dropped on every day of the week between October to December in 2009 and the same period in 2010, and we assume that this is a direct result of the price increases. The same pattern is apparent in other cafeterias used primarily by staff. The Director of the Catering and Retail Service told us that average spend is up and that the items no longer being purchased are of the 'optional' variety—the bar of chocolate or bag of crisps.[87] None the less, it would be regrettable if trade were lost from the very people the cafeteria is intended primarily to serve—our staff and the staff of the House.

Table 16: Terrace cafeteria



118. At present, about a fifth of the Terrace Cafeteria is reserved for Members only, behind a barrier which, when it was introduced a decade or so ago, was intended to be moveable at times of high demand in the 'public' section and low demand in the Members' section. This has never happened, and it is hard in any event to see how it could be done easily in a full cafeteria. The Terrace provides the only full-scale private cafeteria space for Members (and guests), and it is therefore necessary that the barrier be retained most of the time. That said, we see no reason why the Members-only area of the Terrace cafeteria should not be opened to all users on days when the House does not sit, including recesses and non-sitting Fridays. There is no reason to move the partition; a simple reversible Members Only/Open Access sign will suffice. We suggest that Members themselves be mindful, particularly at Tuesday and Wednesday lunch times, that sitting in the 'public' section while Members-only seating remains unused may be depriving someone else of somewhere to eat.

119. The Catering and Retail Service proposes to save £81,000 annually in staffing costs by introducing self-clearing systems in the Terrace cafeteria, and in the Debate in Portcullis House; at present, trays and plates are cleared up by staff.[88] Self-clearing systems already operate in the Bellamy's and 7 Millbank cafeterias. We recommend that the Catering and Retail Service make an estimated saving of £81,000 a year by introducing self-clearing to the Terrace and Debate cafeterias. We see no reason why this should not be done long before the planned start date of 2013-14.

DEBATE

120. The Debate cafeteria in Portcullis House is the busiest facility on the Estate, achieving the highest revenue in 2009-10 from the largest number of covers, at 454,000. Gross profits at 26 per cent sat below the 35 to 45 per cent range appropriate for a facility of this type.[89] Staff costs were considerably closer than in any other major outlet on the Estate to revenue raised, but were none the less higher. The Debate is one of the most cost-effective facilities on the Estate, but as it, too, loses on every cover served, that achievement is purely relative. Last year's price increases will raise the gross profit level and make the outlet more cost-effective.

Table 17: Debate Cafeteria, Portcullis House of Commons



121. The downturn in transactions seen in the Terrace Cafeteria is considerably more marked in the Debate cafeteria(see table 17), and differs in one quite alarming respect. While the analysis of the Director of the Catering and Retail Service that sales of main meals are holding up while sales of 'choice' items such as chocolate bars are falling appears to be borne out by meal time usage statistics for the Terrace Cafeteria, there has been a significant drop in lunch time trade in the Debate.[90] This is the cafeteria most popular among Members' staff, and we have heard from Members' staff representatives that a combination of their comparatively low salaries and the price increases are encouraging staff to bring in their own food or purchase from nearby, cheaper supermarkets. Transactions during the 12 noon to 3 pm lunch time period between October and December 2009, before the price rises, totalled 4,720 during a sitting week; for the same period in 2010, they totalled 4,107. That makes a drop of 613 transactions at the busiest time of day, and it seems at least likely that that means a drop in the number of main meals being sold, not just side items. A 13 per cent fall in the number of transactions seems to us to be a matter of concern, particularly as the Debate is, once again, the place where most Members' staff might be expected to eat.

122. Arising from that last point is the question of whether there ought to be a restaurant for staff alone, which Members are not permitted to use. A staff-only restaurant might offer new options—lower prices for staff, for example, or a discount or loyalty scheme of the type described in paragraphs 73 and 74 of this Report. It has never in the past been the House's practice to provide facilities which Members may not use, however, and although our counterparts in the House of Lords have a restaurant designated primarily as a staff restaurant—the River Restaurant—there is no prohibition on Peers, or indeed Members of this House, using it.

123. We recommend that consideration be given to closing the Debate in the evenings owing to the much-reduced demand at that time of day and the availability of sufficient capacity in the Terrace cafeteria to absorb that custom.

BELLAMY'S CAFETERIA

124. Bellamy's cafeteria, in 1 Parliament Street, is another facility in which usage appears to have fallen considerably since the prices were raised last August (table 18). The cafeteria largely serves the staff of Members based in the building, and staff of the House from that and neighbouring buildings. Its staffing costs were more than double the revenue raised, and once total costs are taken into account, the subsidy on the service was considerable. Overall weekly covers in a sitting week between October and December 2009 were 3,385; in the same period for 2010, the total was 2,512. That makes a drop of 873, nearly 25 per cent of transactions. Once again, we doubt that this precipitate fall can be accounted for only by the non-sale of side items: this must mean that staff—largely Members' staff and House Library staff in that location—are no longer buying as many meals. The significant drop in lunch time use of the Debate and Bellamy's cafeterias supports the case that staff, and in particular Members' staff, have been substantially discouraged from using facilities as a result of the price increases introduced during last summer's recess. The Catering and Retail Service needs to reverse this trend as a matter of urgency, and we have elsewhere suggested staff loyalty or discount schemes as one potential means of doing so.

Table 18: Bellamy's cafeteria, 1 Parliament Street


125. Significantly more than half the Bellamy's trade occurs between 12 noon and 3 pm, and the fact that trade is substantially lower before and after those times has prompted the Catering and Retail Service to propose that £54,000 a year in staffing costs be saved by opening the cafeteria only during lunch time.[91] Lost breakfast business could probably be largely transferred to Portcullis House, and afternoon business is negligible. We agree that the Bellamy's Cafeteria should open only between 12 noon and 3 pm in order to reduce the costs of staffing an all-day service by approximately £54,000 a year.

126. It may be worth the Catering and Retail Service considering whether the unused space in 1 Parliament Street offers some potential for evening banqueting facilities. For example, the various Members' Dining Clubs might choose to use the discrete back room if a suitable menu were on offer, thus releasing banqueting rooms elsewhere for more commercial purposes. The same point applies to various other potentially under-used or presently unused facilities on the Estate, most notably the Dining Room space in Moncrieffs and some of the meeting rooms on the first floor of Portcullis House, which might easily be converted for evening use as small dining rooms.

7 Millbank

Portcullis Cafeteria

127. Around 650 members of the House's staff are based at 7 Millbank, which contains two cafeterias. Those staff work principally for Select Committees, for Hansard, for PICT and in finance, administration and human resources roles. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is also housed there, as is the secretariat of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Both the ground floor Portcullis Cafeteria and the 6th Floor Cafeteria attract substantial subsidies, raising the question of whether it is appropriate to operate two outlets in a building that appears, on the face of it, unlikely profitably to support just one.

128. As with the Debate in Portcullis House, the price rises appear to have had a very substantial effect on footfall in the main cafeteria, the Portcullis (table 19). Total transactions in a sitting week for October to December 2009 were 5,031; the comparable figure for 2010 is 3,715. In other words, the number of covers served has dropped by 27 per cent, and the figures for the lunch time period, 12 noon to 3 pm, are also substantially down, implying, as in the Debate, that main meals as well as side items are no longer being purchased. In short, to some degree, some staff of the House have been priced out of the cafeteria that serves them and almost them alone.

Table 19: Portcullis cafeteria, 7 Millbank



129. The Catering and Retail Service suggests that £10,000 a year might be saved in staff costs by ending evening service in the Portcullis Cafeteria and closing it at 5.30 pm instead of 9 pm.[92] Usage figures demonstrate that between 27 and 40 covers were served on evenings between October and December 2010, but the Director of the Catering and Retail Service tells us that more than three-quarters of those involved items which are also available in the building from vending machines, such as sandwiches, chocolate bars and coffee. As few as two transactions a night are for items provided only by the evening service.[93] We recognise that ending the service will inconvenience those few members of staff who use it, who will instead have to make alternative arrangements or spend more time crossing to the Palace to use facilities open there. We see no reason to retain the evening service at the Portcullis Cafeteria in 7 Millbank given the small number of transactions carried out there each evening, and we note that staff in the building have previously been advised that they would lose the service if it was not used. We support the proposal to save £10,000 a year by closing it at 5.30 pm.

6TH FLOOR CAFETERIA

130. The 6th floor cafeteria offers a smaller and different service, built around coffee bar type services in the morning and afternoon and a limited range of hot lunch time food. It also offers the only outside eating space in that building, a small terrace overlooking St John's Church in Smith Square. Its loss in cash terms is not as considerable as in most other venues, but the level of subsidy required far outweighs current takings. Once again, the price increases appear to have influenced a significant reduction in the number of covers. Average weekly use in a sitting week in October to December 2009 was 915; in 2010 it had fallen to 716, or by about 22 per cent. Lunch trade is down over the year, too, but not by as substantial a percentage.

Table 20: 6th Floor Cafeteria, 7 Millbank



131. It is questionable whether a building containing 650 or so staff can support two catering facilities. The Catering and Retail Service proposes to save £58,000 a year by closing the 6th floor cafeteria, albeit with the possibility that the premium coffee service which it offers might be incorporated into a refurbished Portcullis cafeteria, which does not at present offer that.[94] We accept that the joint cost of running two full-time facilities in the building is too high and that steps should be taken to reduce it. The case that 7 Millbank cannot support two full-scale cafeterias is a compelling one and savings can clearly be made there. We support the Catering and Retail Service's proposal to close the 6th floor cafeteria, which will save an estimated £58,000 a year.

Moncrieffs

132. The Press Gallery is comprised of about 300 journalists, of whom about 170 have desk and offices provided for them by the House and on the premises, within the Palace of Westminster and, unlike most MPs' offices, close to the Chamber. Journalists who are not members of the Gallery also have access to the Estate, and approximately 440 media passes have been issued.[95] The Gallery has traditionally been provided with subsidised catering facilities of its own, although access to most of them has been open to all pass holders in recent years. At present, the Moncrieffs suite—named after a distinguished former Press Association correspondent, Chris Moncrieff—includes a cafebar, a self-service restaurant and a table-service restaurant.

MONCRIEFFS TABLE SERVICE

133. The dining service provided to journalists is by some distance the single most highly subsidised service per cover on the whole House of Commons Estate. The service is restricted to members of the Gallery and their guests. In other words, the House is providing at public expense an exceptionally highly subsidised dining room for the employees of a variety of private sector organisations, for whom it also provides free accommodation, heating, lighting and so on.

134. This is clearly not sustainable, but we recognise that journalists in the Gallery have a need to dine guests sometimes, and hold valuable political events, including their monthly lunch, attended by senior political figures, such as the Prime Minister. The Catering and Retail Service has proposed closing the table service area of Moncrieffs as a savings measure, and we agree that it should do so, with the proviso that members of the Gallery should instead be able to dine in the Adjournment.

MONCRIEFFS SELF-SERVICE CAFETERIA

135. The self-service restaurant opens only at lunch times and serves an average of around 100 covers Monday to Thursday, but up to 150 on Fridays, which is Fish and Chip special day (table 21). Formerly open only to the Gallery, it is open now to all pass holders, but it suffers from being in a comparatively unknown part of the Palace which is also difficult to reach, principally by one small lift or one steep staircase from the Colonnade. Use of the cafeteria has increased over the past few years since access was opened to all passholders. In 2009-10, the gross profit achieved was only 21 per cent, the lowest in any of the Estate's outlets. Staff costs again outweighed revenues considerably to make the cafeteria the most heavily subsidised of all the cafeterias (though less so than the dining rooms).

136. Price increases appear to have had less impact on Moncrieffs than on other cafeterias, with lunch time covers broadly similar in October to December 2009 to those in the same period of 2010, perhaps reflecting both the 'captive' nature of the main client group, the journalists, and the fact that they are probably better paid and perhaps less price sensitive than either Members' or House staff.

Table 21: Moncrieffs self-service restaurant: Covers served October to December 2009 and 2010


MONCRIEFFS CAFEBAR

137. The cafebar is the most cost-effective of the three parts of the Moncrieffs service, and one of the more cost-effective of all the Estate's facilities, albeit still at a comparatively small cash subsidy. It operates throughout the day and into the evening on sitting days, with a coffee bar service in the mornings and afternoons, and alcoholic drinks also available throughout the day. Daily covers for the measured periods in 2009 and 2010 were broadly similar, though slightly down overall in 2010. Trade peaks at lunch time, but is fairly steady throughout the day, but falling to fairly low levels after 5.30 pm. It obtained a gross profit level of about 34 per cent, significantly lower than would be expected in an outlet serving this range of goods: by contrast, within the House, the 6th Floor cafeteria at Millbank has a 52 per cent gross profit rate, and the Despatch Box's GP is 74 per cent.[96] Staff costs were, unusually, lower than the total revenue taken, one of only four locations on the Estate where this is true.[97] Overall costs, however, outran revenues, resulting in an overall subsidy for the cafebar.

Table 22: Moncrieffs cafebar


138. The Catering and Retail Service proposes to close the cafeteria (while keeping the cafebar open), saying that that, combined with ending table service, could save an annual £155,000. The service also suggests that the space vacated by the service could be used to provide catering staff with meals, which could take another £48,000 off the subsidy; at present, staff eat in a variety of cafeterias and attempt to avoid the busiest periods (when they are, of course, likely to be at work anyway).[98]

139. We are not unsympathetic to these proposals, but believe that more, and more creative, work needs to be done to identify the best use of the Moncrieffs space. Retaining the cafebar, perhaps with a slightly enhanced service to make up for the loss of the self-service part of the suite, is sensible, particularly if its costs can be reduced or revenues raised sufficiently to push it into profit rather than the comparatively small loss it currently incurs. Raising the gross profit level achieved there will go some way to doing that.

140. Losing the self-service restaurant facilities altogether would, though, run counter to our belief that the service may be able to use what it has to raise new revenues rather than shutting services down. We have suggested that the Catering and Retail Service return to us with proposals on whether that space might be used in the evening as a banqueting area for Member-only groups, such as All-Party Parliamentary Groups or dining clubs, or for other private events, which in turn might relieve pressure on profitable banqueting rooms elsewhere in the House. If significant savings can be made by consolidating staff meals into a single area, then it should be done; but, as the Press Gallery has pointed out, if staff meals are served between, say 11.30 am and 12.30 pm, there must be at least some case for continuing to operate the kitchen already running to serve anyone who wants to eat in the same space at 12.45, if there is sufficient demand.[99]

141. We also see some potential in the presently under-used bar area in Moncrieffs, not least because of the demand among Members staff for a replacement for the Bellamy's Bar in Parliament Street and the long-gone Annie's Bar. Indeed, we suggest it may be time to revive the name "Annie's Bar", and to rebrand the cafebar area to promote among staff of both the House and Members the fact that it is no longer set aside purely for use by the Press Gallery. The name Moncrieffs would remain, of course, for the remaining cafeteria service. We recommend that Moncrieff's cafebar be renamed Annie's Bar and promoted actively by the Catering and Retail Service to Members' staff and staff of the House as an alternative to the bar lost last year when the nursery was constructed in 1 Parliament Street. We recommend that closing time in the bar return to matching the rise of the House for a trial period of six months, from 10 October 2011, to see whether demand for an evening service exists in that location.

142. We note the various proposals the Catering and Retail Service has made on altering the service provided in Moncrieffs. We are not yet minded to agree that the approach proposed is the correct one, and ask the service to return to us with alternative proposals on the basis outlined in paragraph 140.

Despatch Box

143. The Despatch Box in Portcullis House bears the distinction of being the only outlet on the Estate actually to return a net profit rather than requiring a subsidy. Gross profit was a healthy 74 per cent, a figure in line with the return expected in high street type coffee bars. Usage figures for October to December 2009 and 2010 show a slight fall in the number of transactions recorded in the latter year, and since prices were increased. Price levels remain below high street equivalents, however. Trade is fairly steady throughout the week, although like most Commons outlets it peaks on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and drops on Fridays. The busiest periods, predictably enough, are early morning and lunch time, but mid-afternoon trade is also consistent and steady. The Despatch Box location in the Portcullis atrium, surrounded by tables where informal meetings may be held, clearly plays a significant part in the venue's success.

144. The success of the high-volume, high-profit margin coffee bar prompts the question of whether more such facilities would be similarly profitable. Certainly a number of the submissions we have received have suggested that there is some latent demand for 'good' coffee, and the additional sales of tea, muffins, biscuits and the like by a small number of staff provide potential for profit.

145. Premium coffee is available to the press in Moncrieffs, but there is none elsewhere in the Palace. Various locations have been floated for such a service in the past, including the former Annie's Bar, but none has the space available in Portcullis House. The Catering and Retail Service has proposed turning the current souvenir shop in Medals Corridor, next to the Terrace Cafeteria, into a takeaway coffee bar, for which the nearest seating would be either on the Terrace, in the cafeteria, or more probably back at a desk. It is suggested that such a service might contribute about £42,000 a year to help reduce the overall subsidy.[100] We are not convinced that the souvenir shop is the ideal location for a new coffee bar, but see the force of arguments that there is latent demand for such facilities and would support the creation of more of them, either within existing facilities or in new locations, including in the Palace of Westminster itself.

146. Removal of the gift shop in favour of a coffee bar would require replacement of the gift shop elsewhere. The end of the Line of Route in Westminster Hall is the best possible location for a gift shop.

147. We note the Catering and Retail Service suggestion that installing an espresso coffee machine in the Strangers' Bar could raise footfall there during the quieter daytime hours, and we recommend that that be done regardless of whether the souvenir shop is converted to a coffee bar. Provision of an espresso machine in the Smoking Room might serve the same function.

Pugin Room

148. The Pugin Room, although overall costs were comparatively low in cash terms, also required a subsidy because sales were substantially lower. Although the Pugin Room is open from 9.30 am, considerably more than half its business is done after 3 pm, with afternoon tea and pre-dinner drinks the principal component of that business. After 10 pm, however, business is minimal—an average of 6 transactions on a Monday, 7 on a Tuesday and 3 on a Wednesday, which hardly justifies the cost of keeping staff on late.[101]

149. The Catering and Retail Service has proposed making the Room a bar only, or reducing staff costs by opening later and/or closing earlier than is currently the case.[102] We reject the proposal that the Pugin Room should become only a bar. The present range of service should continue to be provided. We note the service's proposal to reduce opening hours because of comparatively slack business before lunch time and later in the evenings. We recommend as an alternative that access to the Pugin Room be granted until midday to all Peers and staff of the House for a trial period of a year to enable the service to test whether demand may rise to fill the slacker early hours. Given the minimal transactions recorded after 10 pm even when the House is sitting, we see no reason why the Room should not close at no later than 10 pm on any night.

Jubilee Cafeteria

150. The Jubilee cafeteria, off Westminster Hall, is provided primarily for visitors to the Estate, including tour groups. It seems remarkable to us that one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world could manage to run its visitor cafeteria at a loss, but that is indeed the case at Westminster. Again it is staff costs that primarily result in the need for subsidy:, they, uncharacteristically come in below overall sales, but once central costs of management, HR and finance, plus sundry costs of supplies and so on are added to the account, the cafeteria made a loss last year. To be fair to the Catering and Retail Service, it is not entirely its fault that a tourist cafeteria in a prime location is not turning a profit. Signage directing visitors into the cafeteria from Westminster Hall is less than prominent, tourists are unlikely to realise in the absence of signage inside and outside the building that there is a cafeteria at all, and the prospect of waiting in the lengthy queues that often build up at Cromwell Green is hardly likely to encourage casual use of the cafeteria. In addition, considerably more could be done to sell souvenirs through the cafeteria, and the current drab and uninspiring decor of what ought to be a spectacular room needs urgent attention. We recommend that more visible and more informative signage be erected in Westminster Hall to ensure that visitors are more aware that there is a cafeteria there, at the end of their tours, and that they are welcome to enter it.

Bars

Strangers' Bar

151. Since the closure of Bellamy's Bar in 1 Parliament Street, the Strangers' Bar has been the primary 'public' bar available to users of the Estate. Of other bars available, the Sports and Social Club is run mainly as a bar for staff of both Houses, and falls outside the Catering and Retail Service remit. The Smoking Room bar is provided for Members only.

152. The Strangers' Bar promises to be profitable following the price rises introduced last August, when prices for drinks were aligned with those applied in a mid-market high street pub chain. In 2009-10, the bar made an operating loss, but only after central administrative and management costs were taken into account; it would otherwise have turned a small profit. It is one of the few outlets on the Estate in which revenues outweigh staff costs, and it appears likely that it will in 2010-11 be closer to or in profit. If so, despite the discontent that has been recorded by many over the loss of Bellamy's Bar, which was replaced by the House's new nursery, the House would have one profitable bar instead of two loss makers.

153. Little change appears to be required in the popular service offered by the bar. The principal issue that raises concern is access to what is a fairly small space, and one which can become extremely overcrowded, particularly on summer's evenings.

154. The access regulations for the Strangers' Bar are worth quoting full as an example of the difficulty many staff perceive in knowing where they may go and when. Access is allowed for:

Members of Parliament, Officers of the House of Commons, Peers who were former Members of Parliament, SCS Members of Office of Parliamentary Counsel, all with up to 3 guests. The Trade Union Side Administrator and Staff News Editor may use the Strangers' Bar with up to 2 guests when carrying out their official duties. Staff of the House who are grade B1 or B2, former Members of Parliament who have served a minimum of 10 years and retired Officers who had served a minimum of 30 years may also use the Strangers' Bar but may not take guests there. Staff of the House and Members' staff are authorised to use the Bar on non-sitting Fridays and during recesses, no guests.[103]

There is no security officer at the door of the Strangers' Bar to check who goes into it. Precisely how the bar staff are supposed to judge which ex-MPs served for 10 years or which retired officers served for 30 is unclear. There is no Editor of Staff News, a publication abolished some years ago. Although staff at grade B1 and B2 may use the bar, a blackboard above it informs them that only Members and Officers may buy drinks. Clearly the regulations require simplification.

155. Even before closure of the Bellamy's Bar in 1 Parliament Street the Strangers' Bar was frequently overcrowded in the evenings, particularly in the summer months when the Terrace is also heavily used. Since Bellamy's closed, pressure has grown worse on a bar that is by no means large. Tempting as it is to offer more open access, sheer practicality prevents any evening extension, a position supported by the GMB, which represents the bar staff.[104]

156. We appreciate that the bar staff have difficulty in enforcing the regulations on access in the bar, but we believe that those regulations are increasingly more honoured in the breach than the observance. There is a clear need for access to both the bar and the Terrace to be more vigorously policed. We recommend that the security officer based at the entrance to the Terrace be tasked with ensuring that those on the Terrace have the right to be there, by challenging at the door and by ensuring that patrolling officers monitor users of the Terrace regularly. We further recommend that the Strangers' bar staff be encouraged more vigorously to challenge those who do not have that right, including guests of Members or of staff who are or may be present in the bar without their host.

157. Since the purpose of the bar is to allow parliamentarians to meet and talk, we are persuaded that access for Members of the other House should be extended to all Peers, not just those who used to be Members of this House: it is hard to see what business purpose creates two classes of Members of the House of Lords. We regret that the small size and overcrowding of the bar mean that that extension of access has to be balanced by some restriction for another group. The principle that access should be on the basis of business need requires that that restriction apply to those less senior House staff who, unlike Members' staff, have previously been allowed access during Monday to Thursday, but are, technically at least, not permitted to buy drinks. We recommend that access to Strangers' Bar be allowed at any time for Members and up to three guests. Officers of the House and Peers should have access without guests on Mondays and Tuesdays, and with up to three guests for the remainder of the week. Other staff of the House, staff of Members and members of the Press Gallery should have access to the bar and the Terrace on non-sitting Fridays and recess days.

SMOKING ROOM

158. The Smoking Room provides a bar that Members alone may use at present. Takings are small. The cost of staffing the bar more than outweighs the revenue raised. Average covers served in the room, which opens from 3 pm until after 10 pm on Monday to Wednesday, and earlier on Thursday, were, in October to December, 2010, some 36 on Mondays, 42 on Tuesdays, 26 on Wednesdays and only 5 on Thursdays.[105] It would be possible to operate the Room largely without permanent staff: hot food or alcohol vending machines could be provided, for example. We recommend that the Catering and Retail Service offer options on how to run the Smoking Room (which might usefully be given a new name) with the minimum staffing necessary in order to reduce the costs of the service, and taking into account our previous recommendation on the possibility of introducing a premium coffee service. We recommend that Members be able to entertain up to three guests in the neighbouring Chess Room.

159. The House's savings programme is scheduled to reduce the administration estimate over the next four years. Few of the specific proposals made for savings or income generation by the Catering and Retail Service are scheduled to begin within the next financial year, and we believe that this provides an opportunity to test some of the options we have outlined above. The service will be in a position to trial such proposals as: introducing enhanced coffee bar services in, for example, the Strangers' Bar and the Smoking Room; altering access arrangements; and introducing self-cleaning systems more quickly than is presently planned.


68   Ev 99 and 100 Back

69   Ev 94 and 100 Back

70   Catering Committee, Refreshment Services for The House of Commons, First Report of Session1993-94, HC 75-I, para 6.1. Back

71   Ev 78 Back

72   Administration Committee, Refreshment Department Services, para 68. Back

73   Ibid, para 73. Back

74   Q 293 (Ev 49) Back

75   Ev 97 Back

76   Ev 97, and Administration Committee, Refreshment Department Services, para 39. Back

77   Ev 83 Back

78   See tables 9 to 14. Back

79   Ev 79 Back

80   Catering Committee, Refreshment Facilities in the House of Commons, para. 28. Back

81   Ev 82 Back

82   Analysis of Catering and Retail Service figures provided by Jon Hewett. Back

83   Ev 80 Back

84   Administration Committee, Refreshment Department Services, Second Report of Session 2005-06, HC 733, para 66. Back

85   Ev 80 Back

86   Analysis of Catering and Retail Service figures provided by Jon Hewett. Back

87   Q 112 (Ev 20) Back

88   Ev 80 Back

89   Analysis of Catering and Retail Service figures provided by Jon Hewett. Back

90   See Ev w 9 Back

91   Ev 81 Back

92   Ev 82 Back

93   Ev 82 and Ev w 13 Back

94   Ev 81-82 Back

95   See Table 1. Back

96   Analysis of Catering and Retail Service figures provided by Jon Hewett. Back

97   The others are the Strangers Bar, the Jubilee cafe and the Despatch Box coffee shop. Back

98   Ev 81 Back

99   Ev 99 Back

100   Ev 84 Back

101   Ev w 16 Back

102   Ev 80 Back

103   House of Commons intranet, 7 February 2011. Back

104   Ev w 8-10 Back

105   Ev w 17 Back


 
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Prepared 10 May 2011