HC Deb 04 December 1979 vol 975 cc234-42
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on behalf of the House of Commons Commission.

The Commission has given careful consideration to the second report of last Session from the Services Committee regarding the future of the catering services The report covered all the catering facilities in the House, both those for Members and for other users.

The Commission has, in particular, considered the Committee's main recommendation that the Refreshment Department should become a fully fledged Department of the House with its own administrative head". It suggests that, within such a framework, the total number of the permanent staff of the Refreshment Department would be established annually and their wage and related payroll costs borne on the House of Commons (Administration) Vote. Major equipment costs would continue to be paid for out of the allied service Votes and ancillary costs such as heating, lighting and printing would also be met in the same ways as under the present system. The remainder of the operation would be borne on a separate trading account, which would be expected to show an overall profit. …Meal and bar prices would accordingly be based on the cost of raw products together with direct expenses, such as paper products, laundry services, cleaning, the costs of additional (casual) labour and other departmental overheads". The Commission can see no prospect of putting an end to the difficulties which have for many years beset the operations of the Refreshment Department other than by an arrangement of this nature, and has taken note that it has been given power under the House of Commons (Administration) Act to bring such an arrangement into effect. It has accordingly decided to use its power under section 4(3) and schedule 1 of the Act to create a new Refreshment Department as a House Department, and to delegate its functions concerning staff to the head of that Department. It also decided to appoint Mr. John Smillie, the General Manager of the Refreshment Department, as head of the new Department. The Commission proposes that the new arrangements shall be effective from the beginning of the next financial year, that is, from 1 April 1980. The effect of these decisions will be that the head of the Refreshment Department will be in complete control of all the catering staff, responsible solely to the Commission; the executive function of the Catering Sub-Committee of the Services Committee—conferred upon it by Mr. Speaker at the beginning of each Parliament—will accordingly cease.

However, the Commission understands that the Sub-Committee is ready to continue to function and to make its experience and its knowledge of the needs of hon. Members available, in an advisory capacity, to the Refreshment Department—and in matters of great importance through Mr. Speaker to the Commission. The Commission is aware that many administrative details will need to be settled before the new system is brought into operation. Work to this end has already begun. It is happy to record that, as one important step, a new and comprehensive pension scheme has been agreed which, it is informed, is fully acceptable to the existing members of the Refreshment Department.

The Commission considers it of prime importance that the operation of the new system should be subject to the most stringent financial controls from the outset and that every effort must continue to be made to economise in the catering facilities of the House. At the same time, the Commission considers that the Refreshment Department should not be encumbered by any debt accruing from the past. Therefore, it has agreed that the existing bank overdraft, and any further debts necessarily incurred during the months in which the present arrangement remains in force, should be paid off out of the House of Commons (Administration) Vote. The cost of this is covered by the contingency reserve and there is no net addition to public expenditure. A revised Winter Supplementary Estimate will be presented later today.

The Commission is well aware of the concern raised in paragraphs 22 and 23 of the report of the Services Committee, to which reference has been made, regarding the possibility of drastic changes in the nature and use of the existing refreshment outlets and would assure the House that no such changes are at present contemplated.

I express the hope that the new arrangements will put the catering services of the House on a permanent, satisfactory and reasonable basis.

Mr. Foot

I know that the House wishes to proceed to the next business, so let me say to the right hon. Gentleman as swiftly as possible that we agree that the House of Commons Commission deserves the support of the House in carrying through the work of the establishment of the new Department. We are especially glad that the discussion on the pension scheme, which should have been in operation years ago, has now been brought to fruition. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the fullest possible consultations have been held with the Catering Sub-Committee? If he is to seek to secure its assistance in the future, no doubt those discussions have taken place. On the question of the money, I wish him a good press in the Dail Mail.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his expression of good wishes for the new Department. We have been in the closest consultation with the Chairman of the Catering Sub-Committee and the Committee's members. The scheme has their full support. I look forward to receiving the excellent press in the Daily Mail which I am accustomed to receiving.

Mr. W. Benyon

Is not one of the most interesting facts to emerge from this report the small proportion of meals served in the Palace that are served to hon. Members? In those circumstances, would it not be better to consider some form of meal voucher, depending on salary, which could be taxable?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The system should not be complicated unnecessarily. I do not believe that meal vouchers will help. However, my hon. Friend is right when he points out that only a small proportion of the meals served go to hon. Members. Out of the 3,500 meals served daily in the Palace, only 400 are consumed by hon. Members.

Mr. Joseph Dean

I am sorry that I have to take issue with the Leader of the House on his view that the discussions have the unqualified support of the Catering Sub-Committee of the Services Committee. As the one Opposition Member who attended that Committee, I deliberately withheld my support for the proposals, although I did not vote against them.

I have only just obtained a copy of the statement, which says that authority and control over the manager will pass from the Catering Sub-Committee to the Commission. I am not sure that hon. Members would want to serve as nodding donkeys on the Sub-Committee. The statement also mentions financial control. Can the Leader of the House tell me whether additional staff will have to be employed to ensure that financial control is carried out? Mention is also made in the statement of the elimination of past debts. I hone that that does not include the debts of some hon. Members, which are not inconsiderable. I hope that if authority is passed to the Commission, that matter will be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Commission will have responsibility for the Refreshment Department ultimately, but I hope that there will be the most harmonious co-operation between the head of the Refreshment Department, the Commission and members of the Catering Sub-Committee.

I do not anticipate that any additional staff will be needed to exercise strict financial control. Of course, any debts owed to the Refreshment Department by hon. Members will stand. They are not affected by the new arrangements, and I am sure that they will be speedily discharged.

Mr. Freud

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, with losses of the Refreshment Department in excess of turnover, it would be cheaper to allow us all to take what we now purchase, though that would admittedly result in a substantial washing-up problem?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that helpful contribution.

Mr. Rost

If taxpayers are being asked to write off past losses of the Refreshment Department, may we at least have an assurance from the Leader of the House that there will be no question of any further subsidies from public funds for catering in the Palace of Westminster?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is the sincere hope of the Commission and myself that the Refreshment Department is now on a reasonable basis, given the peculiar conditions and hours that have to be worked by employees and the services that have to be provided. I can give no guarantee, but I hope that no future subsidy will be needed.

Mr. James A. Dunn

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement and his proposals. May I suggest that they are the end product of submissions made by the Committee of which I had the honour to be Chairman in 1974? Notwithstanding those recommendations, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the future role of the Catering Sub-Committee? There are many problems that cannot be resolved by administration alone, including, for example, the adjustment of prices within the House. The Sub-Committee has a future and a role to play, and I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider his decision immediately.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I hope that I have indicated that the Sub-Committee will have a constructive role to play, but we are on new seas and we shall review the situation as it develops. Adjustments can be made. I pay tribute to the work of the Committee on which the hon. Gentleman served and the subsequent Committee of 1978–79. A number of Committees have made suggestions, but this is the first time that something has been done about the recommendations.

Mr. Porter

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to economy, but will he also direct his attention to the question of quality? I noted with interest his reference to raw products and paper products. I had the opportunity to eat both at lunchtime today.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is not my responsibility to plan the meals, but I shall pass on my hon. Friend's comments to the Catering Sub-Committee.

Mr. Cryer

Will the new arrangements ensure that the press facilities, including food, drink, printing, heating and lighting, are charged fully to the press owners and that the current subsidy, which must be in excess of £50,000 a year—a fact generally omitted by the Daily Mail, incidentally—is met? Will the Leader of the House ensure that under the new arrangements the subsidy to the private dining rooms is brought to an end and that, in the interests of open lobbying, the list of bookings of those dining rooms is brought into the open?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman's question about private dining rooms is a matter for consideration by the Refreshment Department, which must have discretion as to the charges made.

With regard to the press, labourers are worthy of their hire, and members of the press are worthy of their meals. They render services to the House and I believe that they should be given their meals on the same basis as everyone else. I hope that that view will get me a good press in the Daily Mail.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that there is a Ten-Minute Bill after the next statement, before we turn to the main business of the day. I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side of the House.

Mr. Churchill

Will my right hon. Friend consider the nonsense of keeping catering staff here late into the night and often into the early hours of the morning, and the large number of taxis that are kept waiting in New Palace Yard to take them home? Surely we can move into the twentieth century with vending machines and microwave ovens.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff of the Refreshment Department, who work very long hours for the convenience of hon. Members. They realise that we work long hours and they respond. We should be satisfied with that and thank them for their efforts.

Mr. Cyril Smith

As the longest-serving member of the Catering Sub-Committee in the House, may I suggest that the Leader of the House should reconsider his answer about subsidies to the Press Gallery in view of financial arrangements made with the Press Association about subsidies to the Press Gallery? Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear that the debt that is to be paid off by the Government under the new arrangements has accrued over many years and is not a debt that has been incurred in any one year? Is he aware that some of us have reservations, and have expressed them in the Catering Sub-Committee, about the management of the Refreshment Department and that, while we wish the Department well, we wish that a different form of management had been considered by the Commission?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman is right about the debt having accumulated over many years. The interest charges—£600,000 a year—were becoming out of control. They were a large part of the so-called subsidy on hon. Members' meals.

I will not reconsider my decision on the Press Gallery, because the relationship between the Press Gallery and the Refreshment Department has been a source of much friction and it is important that the new Department should get off to the best possible start, with the least possible complication.

Mr. Neubert

As the amount paid in wages is now half as much again as the income of the Refreshment Department, will my right hon. Friend confirm that if there should be any subsidy it will be largely directed to payment of staff who work long, late and unenviable hours in order to provide a much-appreciated service in response to the demands of the Palace of Westminster as a place of work?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

My hon. Friend has put the case extremely well. In adopting the new arrangements for the Refreshment Department, we are following the example of other legislatures in similar positions, such as those in Australia and Canada.

Mr. English

The right hon. Gentleman said that all the staff will come under Mr. Smillie, but I presume that he means that all staff concerned with financial control will come under the Accountant and not the head of the Refreshment Department. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will confirm that.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm that the wages of the employees of the Catering Department will now, in conformity with the spirit of the House of Commons (Administration) Act, if not its direct words, be raised so that they equal those of similar employees in the Civil Service of the Crown? Finally, will he confirm that in all cases prices will conform to those in Civil Service First Division messes?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Accountant will, of course, retain his normal financial responsibility. As to wages and prices, it would be quite wrong of me to lay down the law on such matters when it is precisely to deal with those matters that we are setting up this new Department of the House.

Mr. Faulds

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to have to make this point, but would it not be advisable to let those of us who have served on the Sub-Committee, who may know more about it than other hon. Members, make a comment?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may think and feel that way, but that is not so of necessity. I called a former Chairman of the Committee, and I cannot be expected to remember all those who have served on the Committee through the years.

Mr. English

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) may have forgotten that you called at least three Opposition Members who at one time or another have served on the Catering Sub-Committee.

Mr. Speaker

A lot of hon. Members are anxious to speak in the debate on immigration, including the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds).