openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Cleaners forced to work in empty Houses of Parliament

MPs slam Commons authorities, say outsourced low-paid workers are being put in ‘unnecessary danger’

caroline m.jpg
Caroline Molloy
9 April 2020
Empty green benches in the House of Commons.
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Houses of Parliament/Flickr, CC 2.0

Cleaners, caterers and other low-paid workers are still being made to show up to work in the Houses of Parliament despite the COVID-19 lockdown, openDemocracy has discovered.

Cleaners – including around 60 employed by outsourcing giant Atalian Servest – are being forced to go in day and night, even though parliament is not sitting and there is nothing for them to do.

These workers have asked to be furloughed as they are concerned about catching and spreading the virus both at work and on their commute, say their union, Unite. But their outsourced employers have refused this request.

Speaking to openDemocracy, the Labour MP Clive Lewis slammed employers for forcing the lowest paid staff to continue going in while MPs stay at home.

“It is unconscionable that fellow workers are being forced to come in and clean a building barely in use and put themselves and their families in potential danger,” Lewis said. “Let’s see some common sense in use here. Send these staff home on full furlough pay and if necessary organise a skeleton crew to maintain things. Anything else goes against the spirit and frankly the letter of the lockdown.”

Meanwhile Green MP Caroline Lucas said it seemed workers were being put in “unnecessary danger,” and she would take the matter up with the Commons authorities “as a matter of urgency”.

‘Pointless’ work which poses ‘unnecessary risk’

While over 50 MPs have signed a cross-party letter demanding the Commons authorities “mandate the closure of all non-essential construction sites,” cleaning staff have been told they are being kept there for deep cleaning. But this isn’t happening, according to Unite.

Once at work, they are doing their best to keep apart, and many are currently using up their holiday entitlement rather than leave home for work which they feel is pointless and poses an unnecessary risk. As low paid workers, most will have no choice but to travel in by bus or tube.

“It is wrong that low paid cleaners are being forced to go to work by the Cabinet Office and risking their health and the health of bus workers or other transport workers, by travelling at night to clean an empty building,” Unite regional officer Matt Smith said.

openDemocracy attempted to contact the cleaning contractor Atalian Servest for comment, but a spokesperson was not available. In a statement on its website, the company says it has “compiled specific risk assessments and method statements for our operational employees,” including “new training modules on safe ways of working”. The firm also says that it is “looking at ways in which we can help to protect our employees, particularly those who are high risk.”

Security and catering workers are also being required to go into work, though the House of Commons press office have not yet confirmed specific numbers.

“We are already employing a range of measures, guided by industry best practice, to increase social distancing in our outlets, continuing to encourage the use of takeaway options where possible,” a spokesperson for the Houses of Parliament said.

“There are currently a minimal but essential number of cleaning, security, catering, fire safety and maintenance crews on the Estate, in line with current government guidance.”

The spokesperson added that alcohol sales on the parliamentary estate were suspended from Monday 23rd March and that, over the Easter recess, there is one outlet still serving food. It is unclear at what point which other catering outlets shut.

A letter quoting Michael Gove

Parliament’s outsourced employers are showing staff a letter quoting Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, saying that they are ‘key workers’ who have to clock on, sources have told openDemocracy.

The House of Commons press office confirmed they had written such a letter to those staff they consider “critical to the covid-19 response,” quoting Gove. Parliamentary authorities refused to share a copy of this letter.

The House of Commons press office told openDemocracy that “our priority is to protect the health and well-being of our extended workforce”.

But when pressed to clarify the situation for outsourced workers, and asked how any protection was being enforced, the press office said: “We cannot interfere with their terms and conditions as we do not have a direct employment relationship.”

“However, our reasonable expectation is that these contractors are looked after by their employers during this emergency and this will be considered in future relationships.”

The House of Commons was also unable to tell openDemocracy whether outsourced staff who have been sent home, or who are currently self-isolating, are being paid, and at what level.

Parliament slow to act

Many parliamentary staff are now allowed to be working from home and on full pay. These include directly employed clerks, secretaries, librarians, guides and some catering staff. However, there are deep concerns about the delay in ensuring that these workers were protected and able to abide by social distancing rules. And questions still remain about worker safety, if and when parliament is reconvened.

Parliament did not go into recess until 25 March, nine days after Johnson’s instruction to people to “stay at home” and avoid pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars. openDemocracy understands that MPs were still sitting in restaurants after this date.

Senior parliamentary sources tell openDemocracy there were heated discussions about the issue of worker safety, and that warnings fell on deaf ears during March. They say their concerns received an anaemic response from the House of Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle and others, merely citing the Public Health England advice to “work from home where possible”.

Those who opposed swift action seemed concerned about setting a precedent for remote working and proxy voting, some invoking the memory of parliament’s continued operation during the Blitz. This resistance came as parliaments across the globe were instigating exactly those measures, including the oldest continuously sitting legislature in the world, in the Isle of Man.

During the last few days of the parliamentary sitting session, the Commons arranged for votes to last 30 minutes rather than the usual 15, to encourage social distancing – but MPs still filtered through the same cramped corridor to vote each time.

Even when social distancing started to be introduced in the last week of the parliamentary session, TV footage shows MPs still packed together on the Commons benches.

The Speakers of the Commons and the Lords have now acknowledged that the public health crisis will continue past April 21, when parliament is due to reconvene. The Lord Speaker Norman Fowler yesterday made a formal statement via email to peers, whose median age is 70, advising that work was being prioritised to enable select committees to meet remotely and oral questions to be asked by video link. The Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has written to the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to ask if the government can operate remotely.

The moves follow criticism in Private Eye of the seemingly complacent approach, with one behind-the-scenes staffer telling the Eye: “it is mad. I utterly feel for the staff who have to mingle with them.”

Additional reporting: Adam Ramsay, Seth Thevos and Peter Geoghegan

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