HC Deb 02 December 2003 vol 415 cc367-9
32. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on proposals to alter catering arrangements in the House. [140762]

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

In the absence of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) on parliamentary business, I have been asked to reply.

The House of Commons Commission has endorsed the view of the Finance and Services Committee that the current catering subsidy, which is nearly £6 million a year, is unjustifiable and must be reduced. Meals are provided for more than 4,000 pass holders who visit the parliamentary estate daily and the subsidy extends to all catering facilities, including those in the Press Gallery. In the first instance, the Commission is seeking a reduction of £350,000 a year in running costs. The Refreshment Department and the Catering Committee were asked to work out details and the measures recently communicated to hon. Members were drawn up accordingly. Hon. Members' views are welcome and should be directed to the Chairman and members of the Catering Committee.

Mr. Chapman

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his task this morning and accept that the concept of value for money must be pursued. However, given that last year represented the best trading year for the Refreshment Department since at least 1993, is not he as surprised and disappointed as I am that the proposals appear to have been issued without adequate consultation, without apparent consideration for staff and without sufficient justification? Given that they appear to be based on the concept that success means cuts, will the Commission consider the proposals perhaps with a view to increasing the facilities' use rather than discouraging it? Does he agree that the real villains of the piece are the so-called modernised hours that we have adopted and that so many of us would like to be changed?

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Gentleman knows that, personally, I have great sympathy with his last remarks. It is undeniable that if the House decides to change its hours, the pattern of life for hon. Members changes with that. As the hon. Gentleman said, the catering facilities have been widely used in the past 10 years. However, it is only fair to point out that, although their use has increased, there has been a decline from 17,000 to 7,000 covers in the Members' dining room.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Does my hon. Friend recall that when a previous Leader of the House sold us the new hours he assured us that facilities would remain available to Members? Many people view the changes that will happen as a breach of that promise. The proposal got through with only a slender majority.

Sir Patrick Cormack

My hon. Friend will of course accept that I am not responsible for what the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) may or may not have said, but the fact remains that there is a subsidy. It represents only 4 per cent. of the Commission's budget, but it is still a large figure and the Commission is anxious to reduce it. The letter sent by the Chairman of the Catering Committee to Members reflects the Committee's attempt to grapple with this problem and to achieve a £350,000 reduction in the first year, but I urge my hon. Friend and others to make representations to the Chairman of the Catering Committee if they have specific suggestions about how the changes can be revised.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab)

Obviously we ought to look at the top, not the bottom, before anybody loses their job and if any wage cuts are to be made. I believe that compulsory notices have been issued to catering department staff, who are at the bottom of the tier. Is not that premature when we ought to be looking for a change in the hours, which will protect jobs, bring in the income and therefore alleviate all the problems we are seeing at the moment?

Sir Patrick Cormack

The Leader of the House, who is present, will have heard what the hon. Gentleman says about the hours. I pay tribute to the staff, who have served us so well in the catering department and throughout the House. They do a wonderful job and one does not want to think of them being subject to undue anxiety. I am assured that no redundancy notices have as yet been issued, but discussions are taking place with the unions. It is hoped that, if there are any redundancies, they will be voluntary.