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.” However, for sheer chutzpah, the peers of the realm have potentially topped them all.
It has emerged that a plan to save UK 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 recently by Sir William McKay, clerk of the House of Commons between 1998 and 2002, as he gave evidence to a governance committee examining how Westminster should be run, was met with gasps and open laughter.
The committee chair, former home secretary Jack Straw, asked: “Did you make that up? Is that true?”
“Yes, it is true,” McKay said.
Were the Lords right to be so sniffy, Democratic Unionist MP Ian Paisley asked.
“I don’t think they were; we were very careful in our selection,” said McKay, who had responsibility for catering procurement in the Commons.
Evidence given the following day by recently retired clerk of the house Sir Robert Rogers served only to confirm the peers’ continued protectiveness over their choice of bubbly.
When he was asked why there was not a joint catering service, Rogers said: “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 said: “The champagne?” while Straw added: “We heard a few things yesterday.”
“No, I am not going into the quality of the champagne. People are very possessive about some services. Catering is an absolute classic,” Rogers said.
The House of Lords — which has a ￡1.3 million (US$2 million) annual catering budget — has bought 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 March 31, the House of Lords, which has 780 peers, had 380 bottles of champagne in stock — worth ￡5,713 — in its main cellar and at individual stores on site.
A former leader of the Commons, Peter Hain, said the revelation made the case more compelling for reform of the way the Palace of Westminster was run.
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 ￡200 million-a-year budget.
Yet its work is in danger of spilling a series of uncomfortable secrets about the way the parliamentary estate, where 1,800 people work, 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’ center 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 against three former clerks.
The clerks told the committee: “The history of the administrative modernization 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.’”
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