The British public has endured the expenses scandal, a cabinet minister describing police officers as plebs and a Labour MP sending an allegedly snobby tweet about “white van men”.
But for sheer chutzpah, the peers of the realm have potentially topped the lot.
It has emerged that a proposal to save taxpayers some money by making peers and MPs share a catering department has been rejected “because the Lords feared that the quality of champagne would not be as good if they chose a joint service”.
The disclosure, made last week by Sir Malcolm Jack, clerk of the Commons between 2006 and 2011, as he gave evidence to a governance committee examining how the palace of Westminster should be run, was met with gasps and open laughter. The astonished chair of the committee, former home secretary Jack Straw, asked: “Did you make that up? Is that true?” Jack responded: “Yes, it is true.”
Were the Lords right to be so sniffy, asked another committee member, Democratic Unionist
MP Ian Paisley? Jack, who had responsibility for catering procurement in the Commons, responded: “I don’t think they were; we were very careful in our selection.”
Evidence given the next day by the recently retired clerk of the house, Sir Robert Rogers, only served to confirm the peers’ continued protectiveness over their choice of bubbly. When he was asked why there was not a joint catering service, Rogers responded: “It would be very difficult to get a joint catering service. I must be very careful for a number of reasons what I say here.” Paisley then asked: “The champagne?” Straw added: “We heard a few things yesterday.” Rogers replied: “No, I am not going into the quality of the champagne. People are very possessive about some services. Catering is an absolute classic.”
The House of Lords – which has a £1.3m annual catering budget – has bought in more than 17,000 bottles of champagne since the coalition took office, enough to give each peer just over five bottles each year, at a cost of £265,770. As of 31 March this year, the House of Lords, which currently has 780 peers, had 380 bottles of champagne in stock, worth £5,713, held in its main cellar and at individual stores on site.
A former leader of the Commons, Peter Hain, said the revelation only went to make the case more compelling for reform of the way the palace of Westminster was run. “Parliament can sometimes be a complete pantomime of itself and I am afraid this is a case in point. The case for continued reform is now overwhelming,” he said.
The governance committee is taking evidence as part of a consultation over whether the palace of Westminster should be run by a clerk who also has duties to advise on constitutional and legislative matters, or should be split up, with a corporate-style chief executive taking over responsibility for the £200m-a-year budget. Yet the committee’s work is in danger of spilling a series of uncomfortable secrets about the way the parliamentary estate, on which 1,800 people are employed, has been managed.
The committee taking evidence from MPs, peers and former clerks of the Commons has heard tales of mice running through the MPs’ tearooms, perennially overflowing urinals, a visitors’ centre with a permanently leaking roof, and an account of how even the clerk of the Commons’ jaw dropped when he first heard what MPs had been able to claim on expenses.
The question of future governance has pitched three key reformers – Hain, former home secretary David Blunkett, and the chair of the public accounts committee, Margaret Hodge – against three former clerks who served consecutively between 1998 and 2011. The clerks told the committee: “The history of the administrative modernisation has, in our view, resulted in a house service fit for purpose, with one point of accountability in the office of the clerk and chief executive.”
The three senior MPs told the committee in a submission: “We fundamentally disagree ... From the presence of mice all over the house, including in the members’ dining room and other venues where food is consumed, to long visitor queues and bungled pay negotiations, we do not consider the house service is at all ‘fit for purpose’.”
Tory MP Andrew Tyrie also told the governance committee about his frustration at the ambivalence among management towards keeping the palace in good order. “Someone very senior came into my office and said, ‘You know, Andrew, the management of this place is not all that bad. It all functions pretty well’,” said Tyrie. “He made to move to the door and part of the door handle came off in his hand. I said, ‘That has been coming off every few months since I got the office four years ago.’”
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