Having worked in Parliament for three politically turbulent years, I am mindful that catering may not feature highly among employees’ concerns.
With nine restaurants covering most preferences, some would even argue that I should be embarrassed to bemoan the current offering.
Before I criticise, a brief note of gratitude is due. I have always found the Commons’ catering staff to create a sense of community that benefits life for everyone in Parliament. In addition to being very nice people, the catering team are particularly keen with requests for feedback. So it is in that spirit I bring forth one almighty grumble.
At present, many observant Jews and Muslims are unable to enjoy food at Parliament’s restaurants as no halal or kosher meals are provided. I wanted to find out why this was the case, so I arranged a meeting with Commons’ management – producing unexpected answers.
I prepared for the meeting by reading the “Responsible Catering” document available on Parliament’s intranet.
However I was surprised to learn that the absence of kosher food wasn’t solely based on the practical considerations detailed in the document, but on an ethical basis that goes well beyond what is publicly disclosed.
Apparently, their menus are governed by guidelines set by stakeholders including the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association.
As such, the management team had concluded that providing non-stunned meat (read: halal or kosher) would “unfairly prejudice those who support ethical slaughter”. They added that the Commons catering team “could not be seen to be take a position” on the issue.
I accept that there is a debate to be had about the ethics of non-stunned meat. However I do wish that the Commons’ concern over “prejudice” extended to individuals of faith who currently cannot eat in Parliament’s canteens. As for “not being seen to take a position”, I think it will be obvious to many that a de-facto ban on non-stunned meat in the cafeterias goes further than any legislation that governs the wider public.
Over the past few months, I have channelled my catering-related angst through a totally unscientific survey of would-be kosher and halal diners.
One couple who had previously worked in Westminster told me that kosher meals were readily available at their new workplace – the European Parliament. Conscious that “the EU does it, so Westminster should do it too” is no longer the preferred political hill to die on, I sought further testimony.
More troubling were the friends who told me that they aspire to work in Parliament, but that the lack of kosher or halal food deters them from doing so. This may seem far-fetched, but it was a common response.
The obvious compromise is to outsource pre-prepared kosher goods from wholesalers. This has been the preferred method of the US Congress and the French Parliament, and it would ensure that chefs adhere to their “ethical” guidelines whilst enabling strictly observant Jews and Muslims to eat on site.
Some will of course suggest that religious types should simply bring in their own food from home, but this is surely at odds with the ethos of a taxpayer-subsidised service that strives be inclusive. It also seems particularly harsh given that the solution is so simple.
I ask only for one shelf in one of the nine parliamentary canteens to be reserved for a selection of kosher and halal goods. I stress the specific detail of the request because I fear some may think that I aim to secure a franchise of Reubens’ deli in Portcullis House. Alas, I am not.
As I said from the outset, I am only too aware that bigger things are going on in Parliament. I acknowledge that nobody stands to benefit from an ethno-religious culinary dispute in Westminster.
I do, however, believe that it is reasonable to suggest that Parliament’s catering services offer a small amount of food that observant Jews and Muslims can enjoy.
I hope that they will soon choose to do so.
Jay Stoll is a senior parliamentary assistant to a Labour MP