Taxpayers foot bill of pounds 5.3m for MPs' catering

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The Independent Online
THE COST of food and drink for MPs and staff in the House of Commons has gone up by more than pounds 1m in the year since the general election, figures have shown. The taxpayer paid pounds 5.3m for the bars and restaurants in the House last year, compared with pounds 4.2m in the last year of the Conservative administration.

Next year's total bill for feeding and watering the nation's elected representatives, their staff and guests is expected to come to pounds 5.8m, according to official estimates. Just pounds 800,000 of that will be paid in bar and restaurant bills.

Food and drink in Westminster has always been subsidised. Although staff costs are high because of anti-social hours and the need for taxis home after late sittings - pounds 5.5m has been set aside this year - MPs are still able to eat and drink very cheaply.

A shot of 12-year-old malt whisky in the Strangers' bar, frequented by MPs and guests, costs pounds 1.00. In the Red Lion on Parliament Street, a couple of hundred yards away, the same drink costs pounds 2.25. Carlsberg lager costs pounds 1.50 in the Commons and pounds 2.25 in the Red Lion. The cheapest bitter in the house, Federation Ale, costs pounds 1.25, while the pub's Red Lion bitter costs pounds 1.65. Guinness is pounds 1.70 in Parliament but pounds 2.35 in the nearby hostelry.

The 660 MPs and 2,000 other staff at the Commons also eat well for little compared with what they would pay in a nearby restaurant. On a typical day recently the members' dining room served three-course meals for pounds 7.50. Those who wanted to go a la carte could splash out and spend up to pounds 11.80. The nearest restaurant, The Atrium, charges pounds 20 to pounds 30 for a three- course meal without wine.

For pounds 7.40, an MP could start with grilled squid, pak choi and pickled ginger, follow up with rolled smoked salmon and sole fillets with young vegetables and finish with poached pears and cinnamon ice cream.

An extra pounds 4.80 would buy Cornish crab soup with herb ravioli, roasted monkfish in a coriander marinade with deep- fried aubergine and red pepper relish and lemon and poppyseed parfait with plum compote and cinnamon sauce. House wine comes in at pounds 6.90 per bottle, while a decent claret is just pounds 7.75. On the same day the member could have crossed the road to The Atrium and eaten fresh tomato soup, cod and haddock fish cakes and pear tarte tatin for pounds 20.25 plus wine.

Not surprisingly, few members were prepared to criticise the subsidies, despite a number of inquiries by The Independent. Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, said he had been told the food was cheap because it was supported by receipts from the House of Commons gift shop. He made inquiries before the election which revealed that the four private dining rooms in the House were booked four times as often by Conservatives as by Labour members. "Those dining rooms were used largely for corporate hospitality or to advance the careers of members. If you wanted to bring in pensioners from your constituency you could never get a booking," he said. The Liberal Democrat MP Archy Kirkwood represents the House of Commons Commission, which oversees spending on the House. The total cost of running the Commons came to pounds 77.6m last year.

He said that although he had not yet seen detailed figures on catering, he believed the prices had gone up somewhat recently. However, the subsidies were necessary because MPs needed to stay near by to vote in the evenings. "If you didn't have that you would need to increase the London living allowance for MPs. They are required to stay on the premises almost as an occupational hazard." All the figures were checked by the National Audit Office, he said.