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A Plague On Both Your Houses
Houses of Parliament (London)
Member Name: MykReeve
Houses of Parliament (London)
Date: 27/11/01, updated on 27/11/01 (448 review reads)
Advantages: Free when the Houses are sitting, cheap if they're not, Impressive architecture, See democracy in (sluggish) progress
Disadvantages: Guides during the Summer recess have variable knowledge, Limited access to the building (for obvious reasons)
Visiting the Houses of Parliament is a lot less daunting than the heavy police presence around the Palace would suggest, which is reassuring given that the debates that take place there are carried out on your behalf! However, the means by which you visit the Palace, and the extent to which you can explore it, depend on the time of year you visit.
If you visit the Palace when the Houses are in session, you can visit the Strangers' Galleries of the House of Commons and the House of Lords and watch the debates take place, and lobby your MP by visiting the Commons Lobby. There is no admission fee for visiting the Palace while the Houses are in session.
In the Summer recess (August and September) the Houses are not sitting, and for the last couple of years, you have been able to book tickets to go on guided tours of the Palace through Ticketmaster (020 7344 9966 or www.ticketmaster.co.uk), which cost £3.50. The guided tours walk through the Palace from South to North, through both Houses.
The area of London now occupied by the Palace of Westminster was known in medieval times as Thorney, the island of briars. Despite being an unwelcoming and hostile fen, the location was chosen by King Canute for his royal residence due to the convenient proximity of the Thames for trade and transport. Additionally, Thorney was sufficiently distant from the City of London to separate the monarch from its inhabitants, with whom Kings frequently found themselves in disagreement.
Edward the Confessor decided that the location would be i
deal for the construction of the first Abbey building, Westminster Abbey, and so that he could personally oversee its construction he built himself a residence alongside the river. Nothing remains today of Edward's Saxon palace, however, its location is the present home of the Palace of Westminster.
When the Normans invaded Britain, William I established his first residence at the Tower of London, later moving to the location of the Palace of Westminster. His son, William II, oversaw the construction of the oldest of the buildings still standing in the present day Palace of Westminster - Westminster Hall, which opened in 1097.
The Norman Palace built to replace Edward's Westminster Palace became the English monarch's principal residence throughout the Middle Ages, and inevitably the institutions of Government became collected in the area.
When in residence at Westminster, the King was attended by his court. This Royal Council of bishops, nobles and ministers was the forerunner of the present House of Lords. Over the years, the knights from distant shires and towns were summoned to the Palace to report on the situation in their part of the country. In the 14th century, these knights began to meet with each other, separate from the Royal Council, and this arrangement ultimately led to the formation of the House of Commons.
Since the Palace was never designed to accommodate two legislative bodies, as Parliament expanded, it far exceeded the space available for it in the Palace of Westminster. Throughout the Middle Ages, there was no recognised home for the House of Commons, while the Lords met in the White Chamber.
After a major fire in 1512, Henry VIII abandoned the Palace of Westminster, moving to Whitehall Palace, and leaving the Palace free to develop as a parliamentary building rather than a royal residence. The Canons of St Stephen's, the religious order responsible for the maintenance of St Stephen'
;s Chapel within the Palace of Westminster, were disbanded in 1547, and by 1550, the chapel became the first permanent home of the House of Commons.
In 1834, however, the Palace of Westminster was virtually destroyed by a fire, and the site was comprehensively redeveloped. A public competition to redesign the site was held, and won by Charles Barry, whose design incorporated Westminster Hall, which survived the fire, and the Crypt and Cloisters.
Work began on rebuilding the Palace in 1840, and wasn't actually completed until 1870. This is the Palace that we see today. However, substantial rebuilding work was carried out after bomb damage to the Commons Chamber in 1941, which reopened in 1950.
VISITING WHILE PARLIAMENT IS SITTING
If you want to visit the Houses of Parliament while Parliament is sitting - i.e. during most of the year - you have three options, all of which are free.
Firstly, if you are resident in the United Kingdom, you can write to your Member of Parliament and ask for a permit to tour the building. Each Member of Parliament is given a strictly limited number of permits per year to distribute to constituents wishing to tour the Palace of Westminster. Permit holders visit at a prearranged time either on Monday to Wednesday mornings, or after 3.30pm on Fridays.
Secondly, if you are a resident in the United Kingdom, you can turn up to petition your Member of Parliament. Go to St Stephen's Entrance to the Palace (on the West side of the Palace, on Millbank, opposite Westminster Abbey), and tell the policeman on the door that you wish to petition your MP. He'll direct you through the security checks up to the Commons Lobby, where you give the name of your Member of Parliament. If your MP is in the Palace when you visit, they are obliged to come and see you to discuss whatever matter you want brought to their attention. Obviously, your MP won't appreciate it if you summon them for no rea
son, so don't actually do this unless you genuinely want to discuss political business.
Thirdly, anyone can sit in the Strangers' Gallery of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Parliament sits until very late into the evening from Monday to Thursday, but doesn't always sit on Fridays - check before visiting. If you visit the Palace in peak times (i.e. mid-afternoon), then you might have to queue outside for around half an hour or so before entering, however, if you visit after about 5pm (Monday to Thursday), you should be able to walk straight in. The only problem you might encounter is with Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday afternoons - to get into the Strangers' Gallery for this, British residents have to ask their Member of Parliament for tickets.
As with petitioning, go to St Stephen's Entrance, and tell the policeman on the door that you wish to sit in the Strangers' Gallery. They will assume automatically that you want to visit the House of Commons, which inevitably hosts more lively and important debates - if you want to visit the Lords, then tell the policemen in St Stephen's Hall immediately upon entering.
For the Commons, you pass through the security checks into St Stephen's Hall, where you are directed to sit on a bench to wait to be admitted. A representative of the Serjeant-at-Arms hands you a ticket, which you have to fill out with your name and address, while you wait to be admitted to the Gallery. Visitors are sent up to the Gallery in batches of ten or so, and have to walk up two flights of spiral stairs to the next security check. En route, pick up one of the leaflets about the House of Commons, which includes a handy, labelled photograph of the view from the Strangers' Gallery - so you can work out where everything is. After checking your bag and parting with your completed ticket, you're finally admitted to the Strangers' Gallery. A
s you enter, pick up a copy of the day's agenda from the table, so you can see what bills are being discussed that day.
You're not allowed to do anything that might disrupt the debate in the Commons below, such as talk or stand (other than to get to your seat), nor are you allowed to read. Essentially, this means that you're limited to listening to the debate. If you've little or no interest in politics, then that's likely to be spectacularly dull, unless you're lucky enough to have chanced upon a lively debate. One television screen at Gallery level allows you to see the MP currently speaking close to, and another lets you see the title of the debate that is currently under way. This second screen gives the current time in the bottom right hand corner, and the time that the current speaker began in the bottom left hand corner.
As you look down at the Commons floor, you can see the Government seated on the left hand side, and the Opposition on the right. Immediately opposite the Speakers' Gallery is the Press Gallery, which is usually empty, unless a particularly lively debate is under way. The bottom row of the Press Gallery is where the reporters for Hansard sit. Hansard is the publication collecting together the entire proceedings of the Houses of Parliament, published daily with complete transcripts of the previous days' debates. If you sit in the Gallery for more than fifteen minutes, you'll see one of the Hansard reporters scurry off with a completed notepad to go and type it up for the following day's edition.
You may think that there's little advantage to visiting the House of Commons over watching it on television on BBC Parliament, however, there are several major differences. Television coverage of the House is exclusively confined to shots of the speaking Member - if you're there in person, you can look at other members, and watch them doze off. Additionally, some of the other mem
bers' comments which sound like indistinct murmurs on the television coverage can be easily distinguished in the House itself, because the television coverage only uses the audio from the microphone nearest the speaker. Once, when I visited, I could clearly hear the Opposition's jibes at Margaret Beckett, when she entered the chamber.
For the Lords, pass through the security checks into St Stephen's Hall, then turn right in the Central Lobby into the corridor leading to the Peers Lobby. The right hand side of that corridor is marked out with a red cordon, and those waiting to visit the Strangers' Gallery of the Lords sit here.
Visitors to the House of Lords Strangers' Gallery are admitted in much smaller groups than those for the Commons - usually only three or four at a time. As for the Commons, you complete a ticket handed to you by a representative of Black Rod with your name and address in the Peers' Lobby. From here, you are directed up a spiral staircase to the Gallery security check. Here, you check your bags and hand over your completed ticket to be admitted to the Strangers' Gallery. On your way up, pick up the leaflet on the House of Lords, and the Notices and Orders of the Day, which details the events happening in the House that day.
The Strangers' Gallery of the House of Lords is a lot smaller than that of the Commons, but the chamber itself is vastly more impressive. The House of Lords is probably less familiar to most visitors than is the House of Commons. Immediately opposite the Gallery is the beautifully ornate Throne where the Queen sits to deliver the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament. At all other times, the throne is surrounded by a brass rail.
As with the Commons, the Lords representing the Government sit on the left, and those representing the Opposition sit on the right. However, there are also non-partisan Lords, who sit in crossbenches
in the middle of the House, and bishops, who sit alongside the Government Lords.
The House of Lords is considerably warmer inside than is the House of Commons, which is an unfortunate repercussion of the differing times of their construction. The Lords dates back to 1870, where the Commons was rebuilt (with air-conditioning) in 1950. Inevitably, this means that you often see the older members of the House nodding off on the backbenches.
As with the Commons, visitors are not allowed to read, nor to do anything that could disrupt the debate in the House below. However, these rules don't seem to be so strictly enforced as in the Commons, so you could probably get away with talking in a muted whisper.
Also, as with the Commons, television screens at Gallery level allow you to see the Lord currently speaking up close, and allow you to see the title of debate currently underway.
NOTES ON SECURITY
So, if you visit both of the Houses of Parliament, you have to go through three security checks. At the time of writing, these security checks are extremely tight - far more so than they were when I last visited the Palace while Parliament was sitting, in 1998.
The first check, at the entrance to St Stephen's Hall is similar to airport security checks. You place your bags, wallet and keys on a conveyor belt to go through an X-ray machine, while you pass through a metal detector. Before you're allowed to pick up your possessions from the conveyor belt, you're frisked by a policeman.
At the Commons Gallery security check, you have to check in your bags, mobile phone and umbrella, before passing through another metal detector, and undergoing yet another frisking.
At the Lords Gallery security check, you have to check in your bags, mobile phone and umbrella. However, there is no metal detector here, nor are you frisked again... so if time is pressing when you visit, and you only have time for one
of the two chambers, the House of Lords will take less time to visit.
There is a small shop as you enter St Stephen's Hall, which remains open until 5pm when the house is in session, selling souvenirs of the Palace, and booklets about its history. Notably, the shop doesn't sell parliamentary bills or material pertaining to the politics of the house - these can be found in the Parliamentary Bookshop on the corner of Parliament Street and Bridge Street.
When you're visiting the Houses of Parliament, you are inevitably bound to see Members of Parliament that you recognise walking the halls. The last time I visited, for example, I saw Keith Vaz, the first Asian Minister of Parliament to sit in the Commons, and the man who was controversially involved in securing passports for the Hinduja brothers, in St Stephen's Hall.
VISITING IN THE SUMMER RECESS
If you want to visit the Palace of Westminster during the Summer recess, then you have to buy a ticket for the guided tours that operate in August and September. The tours ran in both 2000 and 2001, and are likely to run in future years, but Government has yet to decide whether this will be a regular event.
Tickets for the tours can be booked through Ticketmaster (020 7344 9966 or www.ticketmaster.co.uk), and cost £3.50 per person. You book your ticket for a specific half hour period, and have to get there about twenty minutes or so before the tour is scheduled to begin. Pick up your tickets outside St Stephen's Entrance to the Palace, and head south along Bankside to the entrance south of the Palace, joining a queue outside of the building, where your guide gives a basic introduction to the Palace's history.
Most of the guides work for the Houses of Parliament and have a good understanding of the plan of the Palace, however, their knowledge of the art in the building or of the political process varies enormously. I went on a
tour of the building in September 2001, and discovered that I actually knew more about the British political process than my guide did - in fact, she actually asked me to answer questions put to her by other members of the group!
There are around twenty people in each group. The groups are supposed to proceed around the Palace in order, and your guide gets a little flustered if questions from people in your group hold her back. As you enter each room, the guide gives you a brief description of what happens in that room, before asking if you have any questions with an expression that suggests that there had better not be.
The guided tour begins at the Norman Porch Entrance, where the Queen enters the Palace on the State Opening of Parliament, and essentially follows her route from there to the House of Lords. You pass first into the robing room, where Her Majesty is dressed in her robes, and then pass into the Royal Gallery.
The Royal Gallery is beautifully decorated with a massive mural of the Battle of Waterloo on the wall along one side, and one of Trafalgar along the other. Light pours in through stained glass windows above the murals bearing the coats of arms of Kings and Queens of England and Scotland. Massive royal portraits look down from the north and south walls. In one corner of the gallery, a selection of historical documents are displayed, including the Bill of Rights, the death warrant of Charles I, and a warrant for the arrest of Oliver Cromwell.
From there, you head north into the Prince's Chamber, the ante-room to the House of Lords. It's a small room - two tour groups can just about squeeze in at the same time - but a very ornate one.
The House of Lords is very impressive up close, it seems far more like a chapel than a legislative chamber, with the ornate gold-covered throne and canopy on the south wall, and the intricately carved wooden figures. It is difficult to believe that the Lords is the
highest court of appeal in the land! You're not allowed to sit on the benches, but you can perch on the edge of the woolsack - literally a big red sack full of wool - where the Lord Chancellor sits.
The guide stops you before you leave the Lords and gives a very brief explanation of the Lords' role in debating Bills proposed by the Commons, before you head through the Peers' Lobby to the Central Lobby. The Central Lobby is absolutely beautifully decorated. The four mosaics representing the patron saints of the United Kingdom above the doorways at the four main compass points are particularly impressive.
From here, you continue north to the Commons' Lobby, where members of the public come to petition their Members of Parliament. Particularly notable here is the imposing statue of Winston Churchill, whose left foot has been worn down, because Conservative MPs traditionally touch it for luck before giving a maiden speech in the House. The archway beside Churchill's statue is the only part of the bomb-damaged House of Commons to have been retained. The doors in the arch are familiar to anyone who has seen the State Opening of Parliament - you can clearly where Black Rod strikes the door in order to summon the Commons to hear the Queens' Speech.
From here, you head into the No Lobby, which is situated to the east of the House of Commons, and runs the length of it. When a vote is called in the House, Members of Parliament have only a limited period of time to register their support or disapproval of it. Bells ring throughout the Palace, in the Ministries along Whitehall, and in several nearby pubs(!) to summon MPs, and they have to pass through either the No or Aye lobby to register their vote. It's an archaic process, but one which has been maintained, in order that the Members have more of an opportunity to mingle with each other.
After passing through the narrow doorway at the north end of the No Lobby - t
he doors cannot be fully opened, to ensure that no more than one member at a time passes through - you head back south into the House of Commons Chamber.
The first thing that strikes you about the Chamber is that it is a good deal smaller than it appears on television. In fact, there isn't enough room for the 659 current MPs to all fit in the House at once - only 437 can be comfortably seated there. As with the House of Lords, you can't sit on any of the benches, however, you can go and touch the dispatch boxes that the lead members of both sides of the House lean on during each debate. These dispatch boxes contain holy books of every religion represented by MPs, and each new MP must be sworn in touching one of the boxes.
Also worthy of note are the two red lines that run along the centre of the room. These are precisely 2.5 metres apart - the length of two drawn swords. Members of Parliament cannot speak in the House if they pass the red line on their side, and are therefore theoretically unable to attack each other... other than with their tongues!
The mace which sits on the table beside the dispatch boxes when the House is sitting is notably absent, so there's no opportunity to "do a Heseltine" - a great disappointment!
From here, you head back to the Central Lobby, and West into St Stephen's Hall, on the site of the original St Stephen's Chapel, where the House of Commons used to sit. Although the chapel was destroyed in the fire of 1834, the brass studs where the Speaker's chair used to be can still be seen on the floor. One thing to look out for here is the statue of Lord Falkland, a one-time Member of Parliament, whose sword has been broken ever since it had to be cut to release a suffragette who chained herself to it in 1908.
Finally, at the western end of St Stephen's Hall, you head north into Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace, dating back to 1097. The first Eng
lish Parliament met here in 1265, and although the roof was rebuilt in the 14th century, the hall managed to survive both the 1834 fire, and the Blitz completely intact. The hall has seen many important moments in London's history - Thomas More, Charles I and the Gunpowder Plotters were all tried here.
Westminster Hall is only used today for public ceremonies, though the Grand Committee Room off the hall is, at present, used in a trial scheme where MPs can discuss non-partisan issues in parallel with the House of Commons.
The tour ends here, and visitors make their way past the shop, at the far end of Westminster Hall, out into New Palace Yard, which offers great photo opportunities of Big Ben!
Whichever way you choose to visit the Palace of Westminster, it's a truly fascinating place to walk around. Every facet of the building is steeped with traditions, many of which even have a historical explanation! As you walk around the Palace, you get a real feeling for the building's role in history, and the heavy burden of history placed on currently serving Members.
If you're strapped for cash in London, popping in to see democracy in action, in its glorious, ponderous, argumentative, raw state is a truly fascinating experience, and unlike many of London's main tourist attractions, is absolutely free.
The guided tour during the Summer recess obviously offers poorer value for money, but is much more interesting - it's fascinating to walk through the Houses of Parliament at ground level, and lean on the despatch box from which the Prime Minister answers questions every Wednesday afternoon, or perch on the woolsack in the House of Lords, or even touch Winston Churchill's shoe by the entrance to the House of Commons. The guides' knowledge varies enormously - mine knew little about the art and political machinations of the Houses of Parliament, but knew a great deal about the trad
itions, and what happens at the State Opening of Parliament.
So, visiting the Houses of Parliament is really worth doing if you're visiting central London on a weekday - though not many British people seem to bother, most of the visitors are foreign tourists! Do bear in mind though that at weekends the place is very closed, so all you can do is admire the Gothic architecture from the outside.
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