HC Deb 07 April 1952 vol 498 cc2289-92
65. Mr. Herbert Bowden

asked the hon. Member for Woolwich, West, as Chairman of the Kitchen Committee, what were the average losses per meal served in the Members' dining rooms, public rooms and Press rooms in 1951.

66. Mr. Lewis

asked the hon. Member for Woolwich, West, as representing the Kitchen Committee, if he is aware of the grave public disquiet at the fact of Members of Parliament receiving subsidised meals; and whether he will make a full statement on the prices charged to Members of Parliament in the Members' dining rooms, cafeteria and tea rooms, showing comparisons with prices charged for similar articles in outside catering establishments.

Mr. Steward

In answer to Question No. 65, the average losses per meal served when the House was sitting during the year 1951 was as follows: Members' rooms, 5d. approximately; public rooms, 4½d. approximately; Press rooms, 3s. approximately. In reply to Question No. 66, I am aware of the misleading reports which have appeared in the Press, that Members of Parliament are receiving subsidised meals. That these reports have been grossly exaggerated is well known to those who are in possession of the facts.

The year ended 31st December, 1951, shows a trading deficit of £21,488, only £3,236 of which was actually lost in providing meals for Members, the staff and Press whilst the House was sitting. Included in that figure is £1,019 paid as overtime to staff working after 11.30 o'clock at night at double-time rates payable under the Catering Wages Act. Incidentally, the cost of providing catering staff when the House is sitting late is usually greater than the revenue received therefrom.

The main loss on the running of the Refreshment Department occurs during the periods when the House is not sitting as a result of a decision of the Kitchen Committee made on 17th October, 1945, whereby the regular staff are paid full wages in respect of periods when the majority are not rendering any service to the House.

Of the first 61 days of this year—that is to say, 1st January to 1st March—the House sat on 12 days and six half days only. Wages were paid for the full period. Only a magician could avoid a heavy loss, which for that period amounted to just over £5,000.

I am offering no comment as to whether or not the decision to pay the staff all the year round was a right one, but there would appear to be an argument for some modification to be made, in regard to payments to staff who obtain employment elsewhere, during certain weeks of the year, and at the same time are drawing full wages from this House for which they render no service.

According to the information available, over 50 per cent. of the waiters and cooks obtain certificates from the Manager of the Department certifying that payment for insurance stamps has been deducted from their wages, which enables them to receive their full remuneration from outside businesses during certain Recess periods. As there is every reason to assume they are well paid when being employed elsewhere, I do not think it would be unfair if they were asked to accept a lower rate of wage from the House as a retainer, during such periods of outside employment.

I have no authority from my Committee to state they are in agreement with my views, but I hope to bring this important matter before them at an early date in time for the long Recess period, August-September. If this problem is approached in a just and reasonable manner by both sides, the Refreshment Department's deficit might well be reduced by several thousands of pounds. I appreciate that it is arguable as to whether or not something should be done in this respect.

It may interest the House to know that during the four weeks ended 29th March—that is, the week before last—when the House sat full time and was provided with meals, the Refreshment Department has, so far as can be ascertained, paid its way and shown a small profit, which is a complete answer to the assertion that Members' meals are being subsidised. Bearing in mind that overtime to the amount of £335 14s. 5d. was paid as a result of the House sitting so late during that period, the result is not unsatisfactory.

With regard to comparison of prices with outside catering establishments, I would say without the slightest hesitation that prices charged for meals in the House of Commons are on a par with those charged by catering establishments providing similar types of meals. The proof is that the percentage of gross profit on trading now being earned compares favourably with the figure which the independent investigating committee of inquiry in its report dated 7th November, 1951, suggested should be made, following their six months' examination of the activities of the Refreshment Department.

The prices being charged to Members are certainly not lower than they should be. On the contrary, they are much higher than many Members can afford, bearing in mind the heavy personal commitments so many of them have to meet. The Kitchen Committee are giving this their attention, for they are fully alive to the fact that too high prices can mean a lessening of turnover and thus contribute to a bigger deficit.

This year's deficit should be considerably less than 1951. Our aim is to wipe it out altogether. To what extent we shall succeed remains to be seen. The House can be assured, however, that the Kitchen Committee will spare no effort in its endeavours to provide a satisfactory meals service to the Members and staff of the House and the Press Gallery at the least possible cost to the taxpayer; but the task is not an easy one. I hope the Press will take full note of the facts given today and will agree that such phraseology as "The Catering Scandal of the House of Commons," which recently appeared in a national newspaper, is untrue and unjust.

Mr. Lewis

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will be welcomed in all quarters of the House so far as the facts are concerned? Is he further aware that all decent opinion in the House will be in favour of the latter part of his statement, to the effect that it is about time the Press printed the truth? Is the hon. Gentleman also aware that all Members on this side of the House, and many Members opposite, are finding that the charges in the Members' dining room are so high that they are being driven out of the Dining Room to eat in the Tea Room, as is shown by the figures in his answer to a recent Question of mine?

Mr. Anthony Marlowe

In view of the statement which the hon. Gentleman has made with regard to the heavy extra expenditure involved in catering wages when there are late night Sittings, will the hon. Gentleman send the bill for that excess to the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing)?

Mr. George Isaacs

As the hon. Gentleman has given figures with regard to the loss in the Dining Room and the Tea Room, will he give the loss in regard to the Smoke Room?

Mr. Steward

I could not give an answer to that without notice, but I am pretty certain that it made a profit.

Mr. Lewis

Is the hon. and learned Member aware of the fact that I asked a Question similar to that which has just been put to the hon. Gentleman, and if he looks at HANSARD for last week he will see that the Smoke Room has not lost anything at all.