Report on Serendipity Group Meeting - Houses of Parliament tour, Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Featured ImageIt was a cold, grey February morning when a group of us met outside the Visitors' entrance to the Houses of Parliament, but fortunately I'd been in the area the day before and had been able to take advantage of the sun to get some better photos. After going through airport-style security checks, we waited in Westminster Hall, until our tour started.

Westminster Hall is the oldest building in the Houses of Parliament and the only part of the ancient Palace of Westminster which survives in almost its original form. The Hall was begun in 1097 under William II (Rufus), the son of William the Conqueror, and was completed two years later. It is the area where the Lying-in-state of the monarch, Heads of State and very occasionally major public figures takes place. Westminster Hall was the only place where photography was allowed.

Our tour guide, Helen McIver, arrived promptly at 9.15. We couldn't have wished for a better guide; she was knowledgeable and very enthusiastic. We had to visit the House of Commons first, as the security people and sniffer dogs needed time to do a thorough sweep of the area before the MPs arrived.

It was likely to be a busy day, as amendments to the Brexit bill were being debated before the vote later that day. Helen pointed out the 'prayer cards' which MPs use to reserve a seat whenever they think it's going to be full. She was surprised to see that the Labour seating area displayed very few of these cards. Apparently Dennis Skinner always reserves the same seat.

She pointed out the heraldic shields around the walls. There are 42 heraldic shields in the House of Commons Chamber commemorating each of the MPs killed during both World Wars: there are 19 shields for MPs who fell during the First World War and 23 for those killed in the Second World War. There is also a shield over the South Entrance in memory of Airey Neave MP, who was killed by an IRA car bomb in 1979.

After the green seating and wood panelling of the House of Commons we were then given a tour of the far more lavishly decorated House of Lords, with its red leather benches and at one end a huge gilded Royal Throne. Helen showed us where a mark had been left by Winston Churchill's signet ring when he hammered on a table to make his point during a particularly rousing debate.

The House of Commons had temporarily moved into the Lords during World War Two after an incendiary bomb hit their chamber and set it on fire; another hit the roof of Westminster Hall. The firefighters couldn't save both, and a decision was taken to try to rescue the Hall, as it was by far the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster. They did manage to save it, but the Commons Chamber was completely destroyed.

At the end of the tour she suggested we return to Central Lobby before 11.30 to see the arrival of the Speaker. Both the Commons’ and the Lords’ Speaker formally open their respective Houses each day with a ceremonial procession from their official residences within the Palace to their respective Chambers. Police along the route to the House of Commons call out ‘Speaker’, to signify that everyone should make way for the Speaker’s procession. In Central Lobby, where there may be members of the public, the police inspector on duty shouts "Hats off, Strangers".

After this we had a welcome break in the Jubilee Cafe before we went to meet Nigel Adams back in Central Lobby. He gave us tickets to allow us access to the public galleries in the Commons. As we were guests of our MP we were shown to benches above the opposition MPs rather than those behind the £600,000 glass screen, erected from floor to ceiling in 2004. Unfortunately not long after the screen appeared a couple of Fathers 4 Justice members sat in the same seats as we did and lobbed condoms filled with purple flour at Tony Blair, then Prime Minister. Seems like a waste of £600,000 of taxpayers' money.

Many MPs had gone by the time we arrived, but I did spot a few well known faces on the government benches: Ken Clarke, David Davis, Ian Duncan Smith, John Redwood, and of course Nigel Adams. I also heard Alex Salmond speaking at one point, and possibly Nicky Morgan, and I did spot Diane Abbott making an entrance (perhaps she'd been out to top up her medication to ensure she didn't have to miss another important vote?).

Although we had seen John Bercow a little earlier in the ceremonial procession to the Commons, he had been replaced by a deputy speaker, Eleanor Laing, by the time we arrived to observe the debates. There was quite a lot of movement in and out of the Commons, and we heard frequent interruptions, as well as objections that certain MPs were 'hogging the floor'.

A fascinating tour and well worth an overnight stay in London to be able to attend.
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