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How Westminster Works: Everything That’s Ever Been Said In Parliament

9 min read

How Westminster Works is a new limited podcast series from PoliticsHome, that takes a deep dive into the history, quirks and peculiar practices of UK politics.

To listen subscribe to the PoliticsHome podcast feed here and get a new episode every Thursday.

Lord Samuel once described Hansard as “history’s ear, already listening”, and for the past 150 years it has been providing a record of everything that politicians say in the Houses of Commons, but the publication has an extraordinary history of its own.

PoliticsHome spoke to current Hansard reporters, editors, and historians about its importance in the modern era, as well as it being a vital tool for aiding our understanding of how democracy has operated since the 1800s.

Although the job of political reporting goes back as far as the ancient Egyptians, the power that scribes had led to a distrust by parliamentarians, who had it banned - and the public gallery could be cleared if MPs thought reporters were taking notes of what they were saying.

Those who sought to print copies of speeches and write about what happened in Westminster could be prosecuted for it, but the invention of the printing press made it harder for the authorities to clamp down on publishing.

The start of the 19th century saw a boom in publications writing about Parliament, of which Hansard was just one - as historian Dr Philip Salmon, from The History of Parliament research project explains: “The extraordinary thing about it is that it's obviously a commercial operation.

“It's unofficial, and people are making money out of it  - it seems extraordinary to us today that you could make money out of reporting on what MPs are saying in Parliament and selling it, but for a good chunk of the 19th century, certainly up until the 1850s most of the publishing houses and printers and enterprising concerns are getting involved in this and making cash.”

It was estimated two million people a week were reading the various reports, but the issue for the scribes of the day was that in the old Commons chamber there was no specific place for them to sit, and they would have to fight for space among the public who came to watch on, and listen over the chatter.

Dr Salmon said there was a turning point in reserving space for reporters: “There's a classic example in 1803 where William Pitt is making this incredibly important speech about restarting the war with France, and so many people have crammed into the gallery the reporters can't get in.

"So the report doesn't appear anywhere, nobody knows what was said. So this is the nature of unofficial reporting.”

One of those vying to write reports was a young Charles Dickens, who just out of school taught himself shorthand and got a job on his uncle’s title; The Mirror of Parliament. 

Hugo Bowles, English professor at the University of Foggia in Italy, wrote about it in his book ‘Dickens and the stenographic mind’, and explained how he taught himself a version of shorthand known as “brachiography” which helped set him apart from other reporters.

But his accuracy came with its own pitfalls, and in 1833 Edward Stanley, who was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, wasn't happy with the way one of his speeches had been reported, and so summoned Dickens to his office and dictated a new one to him.

The author wasn’t entirely complimentary about his time in Parliament, saying in a speech to the Newspaper Press Fund many years later: ”I have worn my knees by writing on them on the old back row of the old gallery of the House of Commons; and I have worn my feet by standing to write in a preposterous pen in the old House of Lords, where we used to be huddled together like so many sheep.”

Dickens was not the only literary figure to dabble in Parliamentary reporting, as Professor Nicki Hessell explains in her book: Literary Authors, Parliamentary Reporters, which covers the time poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge spent in the public gallery at the end of the 18th century, as well as Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt.

Coleridge, better known for writing Kubla Khan and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, hated the punishing hours, declaring: “I shall give up this newspaper business; it is too, too fatiguing.”

Hessell explains the influence it had on him and his fellow authors: “I actually wanted to call my book ‘genius in the gallery’ because there was this idea that you get these geniuses to come in, and they will automatically be really good at this because that's what being a good writer is.

“And I wanted to sort of flip that and say, there are some rules around parliamentary reporting, and some of them don't actually work very well with what we think of as genius .

“Because if you expect accurate verbatim reporting, and creativity is out the window, what does someone like Dickens do with that?”

But despite the success of Parliamentary reporting in the mid-19th century public appetites began to decline as the century wore on, with many titles going out of business.

However MPs became unhappy at seeing their speeches truncated or just unreported entirely, and realised if they wanted an accurate, unedited record of what they had said they needed to help subsidise the endeavour, which is how we ended up with one official report from the 20th century onwards - Hansard.

Charlie Browne, who has been a reporter at Hansard for almost a decade, explains how it is compiled: “So we work in a team of 16 reporters a day and we go in and out of the chamber and listen to five minutes of debate each, which we call a turn.

“We actually stay in the chamber for the five minutes beforehand as well, so we go in in pairs because you could have 650 members in at a time, and you can't keep an eye on them all at once.”

During their five-minute turn they take a log of which MPs speak, as well as things to check like names of companies or quotations members read out, and they then have 45 minutes to type it out and file it to an editor before it appears on the Parliament website.

“And also while I'm in the chamber, I'll be thinking about things that I have to ask a member for right then and there,” Browne added.

“So one of them would be a constituents name, perhaps that's not findable on the internet so I'd send them a note and ask them how it is spelled.”

Bizarrely despite being 2022 those notes to MPs are still passed in a very analogue manner, as Browne explains: “So we actually still send out handwritten notes, we tend not to email unless it's a last resort, because it's the quickest way to reach a member when they're actually in the chamber .

“They might not be looking at their phone, and because of our tight publication deadlines, we need to get the answer as quickly as possible.

“So we have a dumbwaiter outside of the press gallery called the ‘chute’, and we just put a note in an envelope and send it down to the chamber.

“It's quite quirky, and it sounds old-fashioned, but it's actually the quickest way to get the information.”

The job can be made harder by the wide range of voices in the chamber, and in 2017 the SNP’s Alan Brown confessed that Hansard reporters took to passing him notes asking him to write down his questions because his strong Scottish accent was making it difficult to get an accurate record of them.

It’s not just accents, but vernacular and language that can prove challenging too, as the way politicians speak is always changing, and new words are being uttered all the time.

There is even a website which records the first person to utter a word or phrase in the Commons chamber, though it appears MPs themselves are well aware of this phenomenon.

One told PoliticsHome of a plan hatched by a couple of backbenchers to see if they could be the first ones to say obscure and somewhat rude phrases culled from the Urban Dictionary, and slip them past the Hansard reporters.

That idea isn’t anything new – in 2013 the senior Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt, at the time a junior minister in the local government department, used a jolly debate ahead of the easter recess to give what seemed to be a heartfelt speech about hen and cock welfare.

Except it turned out the naval reservist had actually delivered the statement as a forfeit for some dining misdemeanour after a navy training course, and was made to say a rude word repeatedly in the chamber, along with mentioning each of the names of the officers present.

Not everything that happens in the chamber is recorded in Hansard though, as the debate transcripts alone don’t do justice to how rowdy parliament often gets, especially during Prime Minister’s Questions.

The jeers, roars and ‘here, heres’ from the benches behind the party leaders do not make it into what becomes a deceptively sober final report. 

That is perhaps the most interesting part of what Hansard is, because they are reporters not transcribers, they make decisions about what their version of events looks like, which may differ slightly from what actually took place. 

Despite the odd nature of some of the work, Browne says she and her colleagues love their job as reporters.

“If you like problem solving and puzzles, there's so many different challenges on a daily basis that you can solve, and it's quite satisfying,” she explained.

“I like playing with language, and it's really cool to be in debates and in committees and to be sitting there actually seeing it happening.

“But I also just think it’s really important because it’s an access point to democracy, in the time of fake news and disinformation, the official report of Parliament, that's the first point of call. And I feel quite strongly about that.”


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