HC Deb 20 February 1961 vol 635 cc27-31
47. Mr. Boardman

asked the hon. Member for Holland with Boston, as Chairman of the Kitchen Committee, whether, in view of difficulties arising from staffing arrangements in the catering department and particularly in the Members' Tea Room during the all-night sitting of 15th-16th February, he proposes any alterations in the arrangements for future sittings extending into the night.

45 and 46. Mr. Peyton

asked the hon. Member for Holland with Boston, as Chairman of the Kitchen Committee (1) what steps he intends to take to improve the catering arrangements during all-night sittings;

(2) if there have been any losses of staff as a result of their being required to work excessive hours.

48. Mr. Gower

asked the hon. Member for Holland with Boston, as Chairman of the Kitchen Committee if he is satisfied with the arrangements made for staff to deal with late and all-night sittings; and if he will make a statement.

Sir Herbert Butcher

This matter is being referred by me to the Kitchen Committee, which meets on Wednesday, for urgent and careful attention. The main difficulty when so many other positions in the catering trade are available is to attract staff of the right type who are prepared to work under circumstances where there are no fixed hours for finishing duties or, on the other hand, no certainty of regular overtime. Approximately twenty-five persons interviewed for positions on the staff of the Department have declined such terms of employment. It is considered that the long and irregular hours have been the main reason for the resignation of at least six members of our staff.

The Department increasingly relies on certain members of its staff, many of whom have been with us over a number of years and have developed a strong sense of loyalty to this House, to maintain facilities for Members. It is hoped the services of the Department will be satisfactorily maintained should the House decide to sit late on any day this week.

The Committee will, I am sure, give the most urgent attention to this matter at its forthcoming meeting and it would be wrong of me to anticipate any decision it may make.

Mr. Boardman

Is it likely that the department will attract new staff? Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that last Thursday girls in the catering department were on their feet for 21 hours, excluding meal times? Is it not impossible to get people to work in those conditions? When the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee pays homage to the loyalty of the staff, will he not agree that conditions of that sort are just exploitation of the staff and that if such conditions were found outside the House hon. Members would be the first roundly to condemn any employer who imposed them?

Sir H. Butcher

I am glad that the hon. Member has referred to the splendid services rendered by members of the staff. It is a fact that no fewer than three members of the staff suffered from extreme exhaustion during the last all-night sitting. One of the women was sent home by taxi and another returned for work only this morning. I am sure that the hon. Member will realise that the Kitchen Committee is responsible to the House for discharging its duties to hon. Members but is also conscious of its duty to behave as a good employer. At times it finds it extremely difficult to reconcile its different duties.

Mr. Gower

In view of the fact that at least one person had to work excessive hours for two all-night sittings, can my hon. Friend say what steps he is taking to get substitutes for these people in these circumstances? Secondly, can he confirm that a number of staff had to go home by taxi, and if so, were the taxi fares paid by the Kitchen Committee?

Sir H. Butcher

The Department would be most happy to recruit anybody of suitable calibre who is willing to accept the terms of employment. Indeed, we are urgently seeking such people with the help of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour. With regard to the return of staff by taxi, I think I am right in saying that the one person who went home by taxi was somebody whose health was such that this was desirable. Unfortunately, or fortunately, as the case may be, the hour at which the House rose was at a time when public transport was then available, and no special arrangements for the return of staff by taxi were provided.

Mr. Wilkins

If one of the major difficulties encountered by the Kitchen Committee in the recruitment of staff is, as the Chairman says, the long and irregular hours, would he and the Committee give some consideration to the possible enlistment of a permanent night staff, with guaranteed employment, at least until the Summer Recess?

Sir H. Butcher

I take note of that suggestion. We will certainly endeavour to implement it. On the other hand, I ought to point out that we already have nine vacancies on the present staff.

Mrs. Slater

Would the hon. Gentleman consider whether the reserve pool of staff who are normally used for special functions in this House and who, I am told, are brought in at week-ends could be used more effectively in giving the service to which Members are entitled?

Sir H. Butcher

Certainly all steps, including approaching members of the staff to whom the hon. Lady referred, have been made by the manager and the staff officers of the Department, but the fact remains that we cannot compel people to work here if more attractive conditions of employment are available elsewhere.

Mrs. Castle

Is not one of the difficulties in recruiting staff the fact that these loyal members of the staff to whom the Chairman has referred, and who, as he says, are so good in looking after hon. Members, are also expected to come in at week-ends to man-up these private functions on which this administration is relying in order to make a profit out of the catering department? Does not this mean that the staff have to work excessive hours at very poor rates of overtime, and, in addition, that the interests of hon. Members in being enabled to do their job properly are sacrificed to the profit-making activities of the catering department?

Sir H. Butcher

No, the hon. Lady has not fully considered the present method of operating the department. There is no suggestion of profit-making whatsoever. Unless Members had opportunities available here for entertaining their own guests, it would be even more difficult to retain the services of the staff.

The hon. Lady further referred to inadequate rates of pay. May I assure her that it is not a question of finance at all. It is a question of hours and of irregularity and uncertainty that makes staffing problems so acute.