A while ago Christina Farley of Highfield School in Letchworth came for work experience with me in Parliament. It turns out she is also the Political Editor of the school’s newspaper and she has written a fantastic article about her experience, so in good in fact I thought it deserved sharing:
The London Underground on a Monday morning is more like a sardine tin than anything else. Amongst the smart, suited men, obviously well-travelled on the labyrinthine Tube, (but keeping a low profile lest someone should mistake them for bankers) I felt more at home with the overwhelmed tourists, conspicuous by their concerned glances at the Underground map, their alert expressions whenever the station name was read out, and their fearful “what if I miss it” lunges towards the door whenever the train stopped.
The entrance to St. Stephen’s Hall; the hall is now used for major public ceremonies. The bodies of monarchs, consorts and distinguished statesmen also “lie in state” here. These have included Gladstone, King George VI, Sir Winston Churchill and most recently Queen Elizabeth the late Queen Mother.
But somehow I made it (thanks Mum!), and at a quarter past nine found myself standing outside the Houses of Parliament, where I would be spending the day at the office of Oliver Heald, Conservative MP for North East Hertfordshire. When I met him at his surgery earlier in the summer, I was surprised to find him approachable and encouraging, saying he was always impressed when meeting Highfield students, and how much he enjoys coming to talk to the Sixth Form each year.
In the Visitor Centre, I was handed a badge with the date and my mug-shot on it, to ensure I couldn’t sneak back the next day. I then made my way to St. Stephen’s Hall, where my tour of the Houses of Parliament would begin. The building is nothing if not impressive. Thick stone walls and ornate decorations lend the place a gothic splendour, yet despite the building itself and the ancient rituals observed within, the winds of change are blowing in Westminster; on the tour, our guide informed us of proposals to make the Lords a fully elected House, which has wider implications for the future, when we will be old enough to vote.
History Fans will be interested to know that St. Stephen’s Hall is also the place where Sir Thomas More was condemned to death.
Not everything on the tour was serious, however. I can’t possibly complete this account without passing on some of the fascinating trivia that peppered our visit. If you watch BBC Parliament (which, of course, you do) you’ll see that there are red lines in front of each of the benches. When a speech is in progress, MPs must stay behind these lines, which are exactly two sword-lengths apart; this tradition is thought to be the basis for the phrase “to toe the line” and dates back to a time when the Members carried weapons. Debates today are perhaps less dangerous, if not more cordial. Another ceremony from ye olden days (performed since the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, when Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the then-King James I) involves the Beefeaters, “bodyguards” to the Queen, performing a traditional search of the cellars beneath the Houses before the state opening of Parliament. To these “factlets”, I can add my own observation; the House of Lords smells of sausages. (At least, it did on the day I visited – I suppose they have to feed those hungry Lords and Baronesses with something).
Having seen The Robing Room (used by the Queen on the day of the state opening of Parliament to don the Imperial state crown and robes), wandered in awe through the red and gold House of Lords, and even had the opportunity to stand at the dispatch box in the House of Commons, and imagine for a minute that I was… it was back to reality and life as a mere intern.
A night-time view of the stunning central atrium at Portcullis House.
I was met in St. Stephen’s Hall by Martin, Oliver Heald’s Researcher, before going through the underpass to Portcullis House. If The Palace of Westminster is the stage, then Portcullis House is one of several sets of artists’ dressing rooms, providing accommodation for 210 MPs and their staff. Although incredibly different in style from the Houses of Parliament, the ship-like Portcullis House has a charm all of its own. I couldn’t help but feel relieved, however, that I wasn’t left to find my way to the office alone; the “light oak” walls and doors mean every corridor on every floor looks exactly the same as every other.
After sorting some post in the office, and discovering that Highfield’s very own Sally Etchells was also an intern that day(!) we were taken to the atrium, where Martin explained the “Summary Agenda” – the “order of service” for the day’s Common’s debates – and the lawmaking process (see previous and future editions of the YAP). All this as, much to our excitement, we sat at the next table from Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor.
Then to lunch, and some absorbing political discussions, before we took our places in the Strangers’ Gallery to watch the afternoon’s debates unfold. Especially recognisable were Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat MP and participant in the previous week’s controversial Question Time, and John Bercow, the recently-elected Speaker of the House of Commons. The rest of the afternoon was spent in a Parliamentary Select Committee, of which there are many for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is their main function to investigate and report on issues in detail; while some look at areas of specific interest to government departments, others carry out separate inquiries.
As we left the Committee, we were greeted by a breathtaking view of Portcullis House at night, the shallow baths in the centre of the atrium reflecting the yellow light from the steel and glass in a slightly Christmassy way. Then it was back on the Tube, tired – very tired – but knowing that today’s experience had been extremely special.