After going on the Houses of Parliament Tour last summer I decided that I'd definitely be going back to sit in the public gallery... so that's what I did today. I went and sat in the House of Commons public gallery.
It's actually pretty easy to get in. I was a bit surprised because you don't need to book or show any ID or anything. You can literally just turn up at the door and they'll let you in. [Note: You do need a ticket for Wednesday mornings though, because that's PMQs.] It's a bit intimidating when you first get there because the visitor entrance is guarded by a couple of cops with big machine guns, but all you've got to do is talk to the little skinny guy in front of them who gives you a big green ticket. If you flash that at the cops then they'll let you past.
Once you've got past them it's easy... it's just an airport-style security scanner and a camera, which they'll use to take your photo and put it on a pass, which you have to wear around your neck. After that you can walk straight into Westminster Hall.
Westminster Hall is almost worth going for alone. I've written about it previously though, on the post about the tour, so I won't bore you with the same stuff here (read that post). It was a lot emptier this time round though because they used it as the waiting room on the tour, but this time there was just a trickle of visitors like me. Happily that means you've got more time to admire the ceiling and the little plaques on the floor, which tell you about all the famous trials that happened here -- for people like Guy Fawkes and Charles II. It's quite something to think that they know the actual spot where Charles II sat in his seat.
Westminster Hall is the only room in the whole place that you're allowed to take a photo of -- so make sure you remember to do that. Because once you're through the doors at the end cameras are banned.
After that you go into St. Stephen's Hall, which contains a little shop and some seats. This is the waiting room. A pretty lady in a suit gives you a little card which you have to fill in with your name and address (remember to bring a pen), and then you just sit down and wait for a place to open up in the gallery. I was told that the queue for the Commons can sometimes last as much as 2 hours, but I was lucky because I got waved through after five minutes. It probably helped that I turned up five minutes before opening time.
A big burly bloke leads the group up some stairs and takes away the cards, and then you have to hand over all your cameras and phones to the cloakroom. You can take some pen and paper inside with you, but that's about it. Anything electrical gets taken away. Remember to have a look on the cloakroom desk as you walk past as well, because that's where you'll find a copy of the Order Paper. It's a big white thing about A4 size, and they give them away for free. It's basically just a little book that lists all of the subjects that are up for discussion that day, with the times that each of them begins. It also lists a few of the questions and the names of the MPs who will ask them.
When you first walk into the public gallery you get a bit of a thrill. I don't know why. Maybe I'm just a saddo, but I thought it was quite good. The gallery is at the top and the back of the Chamber, so the MP's seats stretch out below you. The Speaker's chair is directly ahead, facing you, whilst the Prime Minister's place is on the left. You are literally looking down upon the MPs heads. The Gallery runs around the sides too, but you are not allowed to go into those -- you are strictly limited to about ten rows at the back. The Gallery opposite, on the other side of the room, is reserved for the journalists and court reporters.
Because of the way that the Gallery appears to hang over the Chamber, you can only see about half of the seats. You get a great view of the Speaker, the front benches and the big table with the golden sceptre, but anything south of that is blocked from view. Unfortunately that means that you can't see where the Lib Dems usually sit (not a great loss!).
One little annoying thing was the big glass screen that they've constructed between the Gallery and the Chamber to protect the MPs. It's so thick and big that you can't actually hear the MPs speaking -- their talk gets piped in through the speakers. They got a load of TVs dotted around too playing BBC Parliament.
The most famous people that I saw talking today was Caroline Spelman, Ben Bradshaw and Simon Hughes. I might have seen John Redwood as well but he didn't stand up and say anthing, so I couldn't tell. If it was him, then his hair has gone grey from when I last saw him on the telly. Maybe he's stressed out.
John Bercow was in the Speaker's Chair too.
The first half hour was filled up with countryside questions about meat and abbattoirs, and how to make life nicer for farmers. After that they moved onto catholics getting murdered in Nigeria. Then it was the Leader of the House's go, who read out his plans for the Queen's jubilee celebrations.
As you can imagine, it's difficut to stay awake for that kind of stuff, and the guy next to me actually started slipping over like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, eyes struggling to stay awake. After about an hour I could feel me slipping too, so I had a nice little stroll back through Westminster Hall.