London, Feb. 18: They are some of the most exclusive restaurants and bars in Britain. Access is limited to a small membership — and prices are astonishingly low.
Now for the first time the general public is to get a chance to sample the fine cuisine and rare wines previously reserved for MPs, peers and their guests in the extensive catering facilities of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Since parliamentary hours were reformed two months ago and most night-time sittings came to an end, the House of Commons catering committee has been faced with steeply declining takings and is planning to open the bars and restaurants of Westminster to the public at night.
The previously unseen delights of the exquisite Churchill grill room, the Thames-side private members’ dining rooms, and the glorious Bishops’ Bar in the House of Lords could all be open to the public.
MPs have still to decide whether to raise the very low and heavily subsidised prices when members of the public are admitted, but it is thought that the resulting bad publicity would make this unlikely.
Takings in the restaurants are 30 to 40 per cent down since MPs stopped sitting at nights, except on Mondays. Even the once-crowded bars are now largely deserted, except for the press gallery bar, which caters for thirsty journalists.
When MPs used to sit regularly at night, the bars and restaurants were always crowded. The famous Strangers’ and Annie’s Bars, often the scene of late-night intrigue among beer-guzzling Labour MPs and Pimms-drinking Tories, boasted just five bored-looking research assistants and one MP between them on one night last week.
Dennis Turner, the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East and chairman of the catering committee, is drawing up the proposals. He said: “We are going to have to make radical changes if things continue. We haven’t analysed the figures properly yet, but they are well down and it is pointless opening the bars and cafes if no one is using them.
“This is supposed to be the ‘People’s Palace’, so allowing people who are, after all, our constituents and the people who elect us to dine here seems a logical step.”
Turner is suggesting that the catering facilities could be opened at first to guided tour parties. “Because we now work in Parliament in the mornings, it is almost impossible to show constituents around, which was the traditional duty of an MP. Maybe guided tours at night could be combined with using the dining facilities.”
Although he wants members of the public to use the facilities, he does not favour more large corporate events being held at the Palace of Westminster. “Many organisations, especially charities, already hold functions at the Commons sponsored by MPs so I think we would not want to expand that greatly,” he said.