UK Politics

Fewer top-ups for MPs, Commons bar staff told

Wine glasses
Commons staff will be told to top up glasses less

Commons staff are being told to cut down on topping up MPs' glasses at receptions in an effort to encourage "responsible alcohol use".

They are also to get more training on how to refuse to serve MPs considered to have had too much to drink.

Police were called to the Commons in February, after MP Eric Joyce attacked four politicians in Strangers Bar.

Commons authorities have also said MPs should be allowed to get a taxpayer-funded iPad, costing from £399 each.

The decisions on alcohol policy and "mobile devices" for MPs were made by the ruling House of Commons Commission, chaired by Speaker John Bercow, earlier this week.

The Commission has overall responsibility for Commons staff and says it takes its responsibility to look after them "very seriously".

It has agreed on various changes to get MPs and guests to drink less alcohol, including serving more non-alcoholic drinks and weaker beers and giving staff more training and support "in refusing to serve customers when necessary".

Bar brawl

It also says that, when alcohol is being served at receptions and other events, "glasses would be topped up less frequently" and there is to be a consultation on opening hours of bars on the Parliamentary estate.

Parliament has a long history of drinking dating back centuries but BBC political correspondent Ben Wright, who is writing a book on the history of politics and alcohol, says sobriety has increased over the past 20 years - something politicians put down to shorter working days, fewer late-night sittings, more women MPs and greater alcohol awareness.

But in March Mr Joyce apologised in the Commons for his behaviour in Strangers Bar the month before, having admitted assaulting a number of politicians after drinking "three or four glasses of wine".

He was suspended by - and later resigned from - the Labour Party and has said he will not stand for re-election in 2015.

There have been other isolated instances, or reports, of MPs missing votes or being involved in alcohol-fuelled incidents in Parliament in recent years.

In opposition, David Cameron pledged to end MPs' subsidised food and alcohol to save up to £5.5m - in January it was reported that the taxpayer subsidy for Commons bars and restaurants had gone up to £5.8m.

'Wildly exaggerated'

However the Commons Commission appeared to rule out any additional move to raise the price of drinks in Commons bar - a suggestion raised in its five-year savings plan - saying they had already gone up in recent years and bar prices were now "comparable to high street pubs".

It also confirmed a pilot scheme to allow MPs to swap their laptops for an iPad - something it says can save money and cut down on paper use by MPs. Returned laptops or other pieces of IT equipment could keep down costs by being passed to Commons staff to replace "obsolete equipment".

MPs on select committees would also be allowed an iPad without swapping it for another piece of equipment, if they agreed to have documents emailed to them rather than getting printouts - saving printing costs and making them more environmentally friendly.

The report suggests this could knock at least £50,000 off the cost - based on 100 MPs returning a laptop. But newspapers have estimated the overall cost of supplying every MP with a tablet computer at up to £430,000.

A Commons spokesman said he did not recognise that figure, which did not take into account savings and potential bulk-buying deals. But he added that an overall estimate of cost had not been done because it depended on how many MPs wanted to take up the offer.

The scheme would not be run through the MPs' expenses watchdog Ipsa - as select committees are funded directly by the House of Commons, which would also run the "swap shop" scheme, as its staff would benefit from the returned equipment.

Fig trees

Conservative MP Amber Rudd told BBC Radio 5live estimates of cost were likely to be "wildly exaggerated" - as she had already bought an iPad with her own money, and she assumed lots of other MPs would have done the same thing.

The Commission also confirmed that the cost of maintaining fig trees in Portcullis House - which amounts to nearly £400,000 since they were installed 12 years ago - and of "external shrubbery" will be cut down from about £44,000 a year to £18,500 a year, after the contract was renegotiated. Speaker John Bercow has previously said he was "horrified" at the cost.

However the Commission says the trees help regulate the temperature in the building, humidity, air quality and sound proofing - and would have to be replaced by "expensive and environmentally unfriendly mechanical systems" if the trees were removed.

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