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March 8, 2013 / Hannah

PMQs

I went to the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. Tickets are in high demand (see the end of this post on how to get one) and it’s normally necessary to be invited by an MP, but Amy (fellow POSTie) and I managed to score some since POST employees are categorised as House of Commons staff – bonus!

Passing through central lobby (whose grandeur never fails to impress me, even after several visits), we relinquished our bags to security and joined the queue for the public gallery. We’d been assigned to the Serjeant-at-Arms private box, which sounds very grand but was actually behind the main gallery and further away from the action, so to speak. Still a lovely perk though, and added to the sense of occasion. I’d seen the House of Commons chamber once before on a school trip about 15 years ago, so I wasn’t surprised by the fact that it looks almost cramped in there – much smaller than you’d imagine. The public gallery though, which is never shown on TV as far as I can tell, was unexpectedly enormous. Above the chamber, behind (presumably bulletproof) plexiglass, are rows and rows of public seats, all the same familiar green as the members’ seats below. Throughout the session, a huge variety of spectators filed in and out – people in school uniforms, suits, jeans and t-shirt and some very opulent thawbs – all expertly herded by stern-faced ushers in full morning dress. It felt a little like going to the theatre.

The sense of ‘going to the show’ didn’t end there. Public spectators are strictly prohibited for making any kind of “noise, demonstration or disturbance” during debates, but the same rule most certainly doesn’t apply to the MPs below. I hadn’t watched a televised debate for quite a while, so PMQs was a slightly startling reminder of how rowdy they can be. We came in at the tail end of some robust questioning of the Northern Irish Secretary by various Northern Irish MPs, during which David Cameron arrived to a chorus of “‘raaaaay” from his side of the chamber, and “raaaaaaaarrghhh” from the other. Soon, he and Ed Miliband were trading potshots from each side of the table, spurring each other on to ever more elaborate insults and rebuttals, while backbenchers heckled from the sidelines. Meanwhile directly opposite our box, Mr Speaker lounged on his chair with a look of amused tolerance, interjecting occasionally to admonish the Members when they shouted too loudly.

It was great theatre, with both party leaders clearly playing to the crowd  – anyone who caught it on the radio/TV will remember Cameron repeatedly likening Miliband and Ed Balls to ‘croupiers in a casino’, and his backhanded compliment to Bob Russel on his waistcoat. A few times I found myself laughing out loud along with most of the other spectators, though I have to admit the whole thing left me feeling a little bemused. I see the need for opposing parties to closely scrutinise and question each other’s policies, but reasoned debate seemed to have slightly fallen by the wayside in favour of bombast and point-scoring.

Things quietened down after PMQs however, when – in the midst of an undignified mass exodus of MPs and spectators – William Hague got up to read his statement on Syria. As you’ve probably seen in the news, the main thrust was that the UK will be stepping up its involvement in the conflict, supplying armoured vehicles and other supplies to opposition forces. The response from the Shadow Home Secretary was more measured than what we’d seen previously: he outlined the points with which he agreed, and posed a serious of questions. Unfortunately I had to leave for some interview prep before this item of business had concluded, but I’m glad I stayed for the start as it made me realise that not all Commons debates are as boisterous as PMQs.

Once we’d retrieved our bags, Amy and I discussed our impressions of the debate on the walk back to Millbank. Strangely perhaps, we both felt it had given us a new appreciation of the fact that a lot of the work that the government and Parliament do happens away from the cut and thrust of the chambers. Behind the scenes, in the offices and meeting rooms of the Palace and Portcullis House, select committees (more on these later), ministers, peers, civil servants and parliamentary staff are working on all the things which later get debated: drafting legislation, subjecting it to scrutiny, briefing minsters… I’ve been incredibly impressed by the amount of work, detail and evidence gathering that goes into select committee reports such as the one on the Draft Communications Data Bill which I’ve been using a lot for my work. I’m looking forward to attending some of the public evidence sessions held by select committees, as I’ve been told they’re very different from Parliamentary debates: watch this space!

 

How to see debates in Parliament:

The best source of up to date information is Parliament’s website. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Entry to nearly all debates except for PMQs isn’t ticketed, but is open to the public on a first come, first served basis. The agenda for parliamentary business is here (remember to check out what’s on in the House of Lords and other venues as well!)

If you see something you want to attend, or you simply want to see democracy in action, you can just turn up at the Cromwell Green entrance to Parliament on St Margaret Street. Be prepared to go through security and then to queue for the chamber once you get inside – leave plenty of time and bear in mind that ‘hot topic’ debates usually attract more visitors and hence more queues.

 

How to see Prime Minister’s Questions:

PMQs is held on Wednesdays at 12pm. Pretty much the only way to get tickets unless you work for Parliament is to be invited by an MP. Unless you know one personally, the best bet is to write to your local MP – if you’re not sure who that is, check here: http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/

Be prepared to wait a few weeks for a response/tickets, and to be flexible about which week you attend.

If you’re thinking of visiting Parliament and you’ve got a question you can’t find on the website, feel free to drop me a line!

 

 

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