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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 November, 2003, 10:52 GMT
Is time being called on MPs' perks?
Pint of beer
The average pint might soon be more pricey in the Commons
For MPs, peers, journalists and staff alike the Palace of Westminster has long been the place where cheap booze and cut-price meals could be found in abundance.

The seat of parliamentary democracy is awash with bars, restaurants and cafes - and almost as importantly, few licensing restrictions.

But it seems those halcyon days of plenty for very little expenditure could be about to come to an end.

MPs have been told in a letter from Dennis Turner, the Labour chairman of the Commons catering committee, that prices will have to go up.

The chairman sent a letter to every MP saying that the prices are going to have to go up
Lindsay Hoyle
Labour member of the Commons catering committee

One MP says he has also been contacted by members of staff who claim they have been issued with redundancy notices.

So why the change?

Commons catering chiefs are said to be concerned about the unjustifiable burden on the public purse caused by increased demand for their cut-price fare.

But some MPs, a reported 200 in number, blame the decision to reform the working hours of the House of Commons.

This change ended the centuries-old tradition of late-night debates - and the need many MPs found to remain well lubricated while hanging around into the early hours.

Homeward bound

Ex-Commons leader Robin Cook led the charge last autumn to modernise the working hours.

Instead of working 1400 to 2200 four days a week, the Commons now starts its eight-hour day three hours earlier on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Opponents claimed the new hours would make MPs appear "lazy" and prevent them from gaining "valuable experience" by doing other jobs.

Tony Blair in the House of Commons
Even prime minister's questions have an earlier slot
Now those same critics claim the earlier sittings are to blame for the move to put up costs in the Commons bars and restaurants.

They say revenue has dropped because MPs, reporters and others have no need to seek sustenance at night and are instead heading home.

Labour's Lindsay Hoyle, a member of the catering committee, said the whole situation needed to be looked at again.

Redundancy

"The chairman sent a letter to every MP saying that the prices are going to have to go up," he said.

"He claims they are losing money, but it depends how you cost it. I'd like to have more details to see why we're losing money."

Mr Hoyle, MP for Chorley, said he was even more concerned that staff had complained to him that they had received redundancy notices.

I personally don't agree that food and drink in this place should be subsidised by anybody
Chris Moncrieff
Press Gallery chairman

"Why aren't we seeing the top of the management being reduced - that would make real savings - rather than those at the bottom of the pile on small wages?

"About 200 MPs have asked for the Commons hours to be looked at again. It may be the reason why they are losing money."

Chris Moncrieff, the veteran Press Gallery chairman, also blames the new hours for a fall in revenue.

Drinking culture

"Since the House of Commons decided it was to sit to largely normal office hours, the refreshment department in all its outlets has suffered a considerable loss of business," he said.

Concerns about the catering subsidy go back much further than the change in sitting hours - and it should be borne in mind that the lobby journalists' bar and food facilities are generously subsidised by the taxpayer as well
House of Commons administration spokeswoman

"The morning sessions cut across lunch, and often the House has risen before people have their dinner in the evening.

"Often people do not stay for a meal and instead head home.

"This has impacted on the evening drinking culture, which was once a feature of this place.

"You used to have MPs and journalists waiting around until 2200 or 2300 for a key vote - that doesn't happen anymore.

"It is something that wasn't thought through by the people who wanted a change to the Commons hours.

"So long as the House continues to sit these hours then that situation will persist."

Gravy train

Mr Moncrieff pointed out that the House often rises in the evening between 1900-2000 and sometimes does not sit on Fridays at all.

He added: "I personally don't agree that food and drink in this place should be subsidised by anybody."

But a spokeswoman for the House of Commons Administration said: "Concerns about the catering subsidy go back much further than the change in sitting hours.

"And it should be borne in mind that the lobby journalists' bar and food facilities are generously subsidised by the taxpayer as well."

However, another senior lobby correspondent added: "It's about time MPs were put in touch with reality - taxpayers should not be subsidising their drinking habits.

"After all, it's their polices that ensure how much alcohol costs so why should they not have to pay for it?

"I guess they had better all go out and drink as much subsidised booze as they can before the gravy train stops."




SEE ALSO:
A wakeup bell or the death knell?
08 Jan 03  |  Politics
Axe looms over MPs' marathon nights
29 Oct 02  |  Politics
MPs back Commons reforms
30 Oct 02  |  Politics


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