St Stephen’s Hall, Houses of Parliament – some rights reserved by UK Parliament
Despite understandable security measures, it is still easy to visit the Houses of Parliament and watch the proceedings.
I went there this week. You basically present yourself at the Cromwell Green entrance, which is halfway along the building by the big statue of Oliver Cromwell. At the gate, they tend to ask you why you want to come in – but you just have to say “I want to go to the public gallery of the House of Commons (or Lords)” and they’ll let you in (having checked that the queues are not too long). You then get given a green card and are seen by a policeman who gives you a little briefing. You then go through the inevitable airport security check and you are in.
It’s worth noting that it is your right as a citizen to enter Parliament and ask to see your MP at the central lobby. You are advised to book an appointment with your MP for such a meeting, but you don’t have to. Of course, he or she might not be in Parliament if you turn up unannounced, but all UK residents have a right to walk into parliament for such a purpose or to watch proceedings.
Once you are in you do have a surprising amount of freedom to linger and wander through the place, without any “shooing along” from officials. There are officials and security guards around, but it is really quite surprising how free you are to “mooch about” and admire the various paintings, plaques, ceilings etc. You get to stroll through Westminster Hall, which is magnificent and the most historic part of the present Parliamentary buildings. Charles I was tried there.
You eventually arrive at St Stephens Hall, which is used now as a corridor or waiting room, but in its own right is a most magnificent room. On this site was St Stephen’s Chapel, which was used as the Commons chamber until 1834. The historical murals are outstanding. It’s a good place for people spotting, as many of the great and good walk up the corridor to get to the chambers and committee rooms. In half an hour this week I spotted: Bill Gates (Yes! Bill Gates!), the Home Secretary, Eric Pickles and various Labour MPs. Dr Liam Fox walked back and forwards down the corridor about five times over the period, perhaps indicating that he has a lot of time on his hands.
Having rested on the comfortable benches and admired the murals, you are eventually given a pass for the gallery, having signed a pledge not to create a disturbance therein.
Some very nice people usher you up the steps and remove anything which might do any harm to our elected representatives or other people in the gallery, like sharp instruments or, in my case, a hardback book (?).
You are then sat in the Commons chamber with only a multi-million pound piece of perspex between you and….well it happened to be Treasury Minister David Gauke speaking from the dispatch box when I got in there.
Witnessing some of the less enthralling moments of the Commons is all part of one’s education as a citizen, I think.
Dear old Gauky had the unenviable task of getting approval for a report to the EU telling them that we are trying very hard to make our economy converge with other EU countries’ economies, even though we’re leaving the EU. I kid you not. Peter Dowd replied for Labour with an excellent speech – if you read it. Unfortunately he read it very badly – making what I think is called a “fluff” about twice a sentence. Oh dear.
I then witnessed an adjournment debate. This was a debate on the need for justice for the Ballydugan Four led by Jim Shannon MP.
We were then asked to stand in the public gallery as “Madam Deputy Speaker” declared the session terminated, and the grand golden mace was ceremonially removed from its position at the dispatch box.
Yes, this is all a bit arcane. But it is only right that citizens see Parliament at first hand, if they can spare the time and expense to get to London.