HC Deb 15 December 1960 vol 632 cc730-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

9.58 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)

The subject I want to discuss this evening will not be as controversial as that which has gone before. It is the question of catering at British airports. I am taking the view that catering at British airports is unsatisfactory, and I am asking my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation to take note of that I have no doubt that he will not be too ready to accept my view, but, as I see it, Ministers seldom admit complaints. They follow the rules which are laid down by insurance companies for their insured—"Never admit anything". I think that if he looks at the situation in respect of catering at British airports, he will see some cause for quite serious complaint.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sharples.]

Mr. Shepherd

I do not for a moment imagine that catering at airports is an easy business. I have been involved in catering myself, and I know very well that it is not the easiest of occupations to follow. I realise that there are special difficulties attached to catering at airports, difficulties caused, for instance, by the isolated position of the airport, very often, by the irregularity of hours, by the fact that the customers either want serving in a great hurry or they want to stay half the night. None of these conditions is really ideal for the caterer. Nevertheless, I believe that better standards can and should obtain today at British airports. It is Ministerial policy never to admit anything, but I hope that my hon. Friend will try to do something about the standards which now exist because they are, I believe, damaging to the prestige of this country.

I wish to make clear, also, that I do not criticise B.E.A. or B.O.A.C. I believe that those who, like myself, do a fair amount of travelling by air have come to the conclusion that B.E.A. and B.O.A.C. cater on their aircraft as well as, if not better than, any other airline in the world. I am annoyed sometimes when I find that B.E.A. has not the reputation that attaches to Air France because, without being unkind to Air France, I have found from my personal experience that B.E.A. can beat Air France almost all the time. I do not, therefore, criticise the standards of B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. because, in my view, they have done a great deal in establishing our prestige by the way that they cater for the public with food in the cabin.

Neither do I make criticisms of catering in general in this country. I think that we have raised our standards very considerably during the past ten or twelve years. It is to me regrettable that we have not in airport catering raised our standards but we have, in fact, lowered them during the past ten years.

I regard airport catering today as being in something like the position occupied by railway catering twenty years ago. We all remember the refreshment rooms of twenty years ago—the stale bun and the tired sandwich languishing rather unappetisingly in their glass domes. It is very satisfying to realise that in the intervening years there has been a substantial improvement in the standard of railway catering. Airport catering now stands where railway catering was twenty years ago.

This is a serious misfortune because, after all, our international prestige is to some extent affected by the standards we maintain at our airports. Why has the standard of catering at airports gone down? Perhaps my hon. Friend would like me to instance some of the places where it has in fact gone down. Several hon. Members have come to me during the past week and each has said, "We have got the worst catering in the whole country at our local airport". Of course, they cannot all be right, but it is evidence that several hon. Members believe that the standard of catering at British airports is low.

Two instances will show how standards of catering have deteriorated. Let us take the view held by the eating public of conditions at Northolt a few years ago and the view now held of conditions at London Airport. When B.E.A. did the catering at Northolt I think that it would be true to say that it established a fine reputation. People went to Northolt in the evening to eat at the airport because they thought that the food was so good. I confess that I do not hear of people going to London Airport to eat because they think that the food is good. I do not say that London Airport is an example of the worst kind of catering at British airports, because it is not, but it can be said that it is mediocre for very high prices. That is the first instance of a clear deterioration in the standard of catering.

Some of my Scottish colleagues would have something to say about Edinburgh and Glasgow—

Mr. William Baxter (West Stirlingshire)

Particularly Glasgow.

Mr. Shepherd

Particularly Glasgow, as the hon. Member says—in terms perhaps much less restrained than I intend to use. Although I have not a very extensive experience of Glasgow Airport, the position there does give rise to a good deal of concern to hon. Members and to people who live around and visit the airport.

Let me turn to an airport of which I have a good more personal knowledge, namely, Ringway. I am not exaggerating when I say that five or six years ago—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

Ringway is an airport which is entirely the responsibility of the Manchester Corporation. I cannot answer any points my hon. Friend raises on municipal airports.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman; I did not know that. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) will appreciate the situation.

Mr. Shepherd

I appreciate that, Mr. Speaker, but, on the other hand, I would point out to you, Sir, that my hon. Friend's Department pays very substantial grants to Ringway. Although it may be true that the airport is owned by the corporation, the Government spend a good deal of money on it.

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that that will not do to bring the hon. Member into order concerning Ringway Airport. Perhaps he can fly on.

Mr. Shepherd

As you say, Mr. Speaker, I can fly on. I merely content myself by saying that precisely the same conditions which exist at London Airport exist, although perhaps in a more acute form, at Ringway.

Bad catering at airports is so widespread that there are few airlines which can take their supplies from the resident catering establishments. In some cases, they have to go ten, twenty or thirty miles to obtain supplies because they cannot trust the standard of catering at the airports at which they call. It is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs that airline companies have to go to the inconvenience of travelling many miles to obtain supplies which they consider satisfactory enough to feed to their passengers in the cabins. This trouble is due almost entirely to the attitude of the Ministry of Aviation and, as my hon. Friend has been ready to point out to me, of other authorities concerned with the control of airports.

I say that this matter is the responsibility of my hon. Friend's Department because of the method by which concessions are granted. They make absolutely certain that the best caterer is unlikely to be obtained. If I were to choose a method calculated to get other than the best kind of caterer, I should choose the method adopted by airport authorities. Almost invariably they grant the concession to the firm which will pay them the highest annual price for the concession. What happens is not unnatural. The firm that is prepared to go in for this sort of rat race either has to work on very small profits to pay the very large sum to the airport—there have been cases, I believe, where firms have gone bankrupt in trying to do this; certainly, some have gone out of business—or it must take it out of the customers, or both. This is precisely what happens.

I know, for example, that one of the best caterers in London would not go in for the contract at London Airport because of the methods of tendering and because, in the opinion of these people,—and they were qualified to pronounce upon the matter—the facilities available at London Airport did not permit of first-class catering.

I want to see a change in the method. I want my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to alter the system by which contracts are allocated to caterers at airports. We ought to insist upon the highest possible standard of catering and not try to screw out of the contractor the highest sum of money. If my hon. Friend asks the sort of terms on which I suggest that the catering can be improved, I should have no difficulty in telling him.

To my mind, it is not inequitable to propose the following sort of terms. A caterer should pay to the airport authority a rent which can be calculated easily, because the rents for establishments at airports are fairly standardised and well known to most people. Then, the contractor could be required to pay to the airport authority a percentage of the net profit—I emphasise "net profit", not gross profit. In this way, the airport authority would be assured of a reasonable rental for the space which the contractor occupies and it would be identified with the commercial success of the catering. There would be no incentive on the part of the contractor to try to take out of the catering an excessive contract price which he had agreed to pay.

If these methods were adopted, my hon. Friend would be in a position of having to take a little more trouble. There then arises the question of selection of contractor. This is a matter which my hon. Friend would probably prefer not to have to do. I emphasise, however, that the present low standard of catering at British airports is damaging to our prestige and does not justifiably reflect the standard of catering of which we are capable.

I hope, therefore, that tonight my hon. Friend will be prepared to change the system on which hitherto, it seems, airport authorities have worked and to consider the possibility of a system that will encourage the better type of contractor and not rely upon a system which, by its very nature, must tend to encourage the one who is least likely to give satisfaction to the public.

10.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

I appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) about this matter. We are indeed all members of what he described as "the eating public" and, as he forecast, I am certainly not at all ready to accept his views on this matter, although I can assure him that I am ready to admit anything that can be proved more specifically than the case that he has advanced. I do not believe that it is right or proper in a matter of this kind to make sweeping generalisations about bad catering and casual references to "stale buns" and "tired sandwiches".

Mr. Shepherd

My hon. Friend could not have listened to what I said. I did not say that. I referred to that as an aspect of railway catering twenty years ago. I said nothing of that about airports.

Mr. Rippon

I understood my hon. Friend to suggest that airport catering was much in the same state as railway catering twenty years ago. I have had no evidence from my hon. Friend of any specific complaints and, therefore, I must confine my remarks to the mote general matters of policy which he has raised. I do not accept the premise of my hon. Friend's argument, namely his allegation that the methods of tendering result in a low standard of catering at airports.

The responsibility of the Ministry of Aviation for catering, as I have indicated, is confined to those airports, about twenty in number, which the Ministry owns and operates. The policy is to provide a public catering service at all airports, and, as my hon. Friend recognised, the nature and scope of the service are naturally dependent upon the volume of traffic. As he readily admitted, that causes certain difficulties. At one end of the scale there is London Airport with three main restaurants and a number of buffets, and also cafeterias for spectators. At the other end there are places like some of the more remote Scottish aerodromes where provision, if needed at all, is confined to a coffee bar or snack service.

But, whatever the scope of the service, the approach is the same. It is to secure through concessionaires a public catering service adequate to the needs of the passengers. I understand that the burden of my hon. Friend's argument is that the method by which we secure these concessionaires or caterers is unsatisfactory. The method employed to obtain concessionaires is by competitive tender, that is by invitation to tender which is sent to all caterers thought likely to be interested and—this is important—also capable of undertaking the job satisfactorily.

This is quite different from open tendering which implies advertisement and might well result in applications for the concession from men of straw or people willing to go into the business as a speculation. On the other hand, although we adopt this system of selective tendering, as it were, there is nothing to prevent anybody who may have been overlooked from applying for the tender document. I found no evidence of complaint about this system of selective tendering, which is, I submit, on very broad lines.

As for the basis of tendering, under this system the caterer is normally invited to tender on the basis of his agreeing to pay to the Ministry a percentage of his gross takings. He is free to offer whatever percentage he thinks appropriate, and it is customary to quote separately for food, drink, and tobacco. There is a clear objection to a flat rental basis; because retail trade at airports should be continually growing and the percentage method gives a corresponding financial benefit to the advantage of the taxpayer.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend added a percentage of the net profits, but I do not feel that an alteration of that kind would result in the better catering that he claims is necessary. Normally, other things being equal, the concession is awarded to the highest bidder. My hon. Friend is right on that point, but the ultimate test is which offer is likely to give the best financial return together with the requisite standards of service to the public. As the revenue actually received depends upon the standard of service, there is a clear relationship between the two. It is also important to have regard to whether the standard offered is too expensive, or too low, for the passengers with whom we are dealing, and it has not been by any means the invariable practice to accept the highest bidder. Indeed, the tender documents make it quite clear that The Minister gives no undertaking to accept the highest or any tender. So much for the general practice in regard to entering into contracts. I quite understand that it is with the results that most hon. Members and the "eating public" are concerned—the standard of service and the sort of meals they get in airport restaurants and snack bars up and down the country. Catering is an art and there will always be room for improvement. There will always be days when things do not go exactly right, but I am bound to say that I have found very little evidence of complaints.

The number of complaints reaching the Ministry is comparatively small. Aerodrome commandants—at London Airport the general manager—are responsible for investigating these complaints and they have regular meetings with concessionaires. At London Airport there is a monthly meeting. There is always an item on the agenda headed "Complains", and I am told that for the last three months there has been none. It is an express term of the contract that the caterer must comply with the Ministry's reasonable requirements, and, in fact, we approve the prices charged.

One difficulty which my hon. Friend mentioned was that of buildings. That is something which has nothing to do with the caterers, and it is true that at many airports we are still having to make do with passenger buildings of wartime and temporary construction. From time to time, those deficiencies in accommodation will reflect in standards of catering, and even at London we cannot yet provide the full range of services which we should like for the long-haul passengers, although we hope to do so when the new terminal buildings are completed.

I can only conclude by saying that if any hon. Members have any specific complaints about the catering arrangements at any of the Ministry's airports, I will undertake to look into the matter to see what can be done to bring about an improvement.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Ten o'clock.