Students Tour the Houses of Parliament and the Museum of the Bank of England

On 30th June 2015, four staff took a group of thirteen students, including Year 10 and AS, to visit the Houses of Parliament and the Museum of the Bank of England. Our Scottish guide, Eric, at the Houses of Parliament, explained that we were not allowed to take photographs within the building except in Westminster Hall where we met him. “So don’t think that you can stand at the dispatch box and have your photograph taken,” he said.

“Unless you are a member of the SNP,” said one of the group, referring to the Scottish National Party’s MPs who tweeted a series of photographs of themselves in the Commons Chamber. One that attracted particular ire featured Roger Mullin, elected in Gordon Brown’s old seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, posing as a would-be prime minister at the Dispatch Box.

“That is very controversial,” Eric gently admonished. “I see you have heard my Scottish accent.”

Eric had joined the Civil Service after leaving school and was temporarily seconded to Whitehall where he remained until taking early retirement. As most of his career had been spent in the Palace of Westminster, he was ideally qualified as a guide. And an excellent one he was, too. Soft-spoken and pithy, he took us on a fast trip through British history: the monarchs, the battles, the evolution of democracy. We could not go into the House of Commons because it was in session as a place of work. Anyone contemplating a visit is advised to establish when they can go into the body of the chamber. Eric tipped that Friday afternoon is always a good time.

Eric explained that the Palace of Westminster is so called because at one time it was a Royal Palace, Routine maintenance revealed two tennis balls lodged in the oak rafters of Westminster Hall. Scientific dating showed them to be 500 years old, perhaps knocked up by Henry VIII when he used the Hall as a tennis court.

Eric took us into the Queen’s Robing Room. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth will soon be the longest serving monarch in British history.

“In your life-time, it will not be possible for any reigning monarch to be in this position,” he said.

Her Majesty’s successors are already too old. Before leading us out, Eric pointed to the royal lavatory, or at least to its door.

“The first water closet in London,” he said.

We entered the House of Lords, where we stood, not allowed to sit, between the benches while Eric explained the roles of the two Houses, especially that of the non-elected Lords. Peers scrutinise legislation from the Commons and can delay its passage by up to a year if they are strongly opposed, but they have no right of veto. Eric concluded by saying that it was so important for all citizens who can vote to exercise their right to keep the process of democracy alive.

“Half the world would want the freedoms we have,” he said.

At the end of the tour of about an hour and a half, Eric took us to a committee room where we met Lord Popat’s Chief of Staff. A Cambridge graduate from a state school in Rotherham, he invited us to ask any questions we wanted, the more controversial the better. He apologised unnecessarily for not being on his best form as he had just returned from Glastonbury. We all sat at a horse-shoe conference table and gradually the students asked questions. Issues ranged from the motivation of politicians to social mobility. Did he think that that students from state schools could still gain places at Oxford or Cambridge? Yes. Did he think that while, middle-class males were over-represented at Westminster? Yes. Do all politicians put public service above self-interest? No.

We were there under the auspices of Lord Popat and sorry we were unable to meet him. Nevertheless, we learned that he is a British Asian businessman and politician. He came to Britain in 1971 in advance of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. In 2010 he became a member of the House of Lords as a Life Peer and is the first Gujarati to represent the Conservative Party at Parliament. His Chief of Staff acts as his researcher and eyes and ears. We were grateful to him for his energetic delivery and candour.

After lunch, we visited the Museum of the Bank of England, in Bartholomew Lane, just round the corner of the ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, the nickname of the Bank of England. Its interactive exhibits, such as weighing gold bars and steering the ship of the economy to maintain a 2% inflation target, attracted the most attention, although prior knowledge of abstruse financial instruments, such as quantitative easing, is necessary to gain the full benefit of the Bank’s exhibits.

The College considers trips such as these to be so important as part of students’ broader education. Visits can create a sense of awe and respect for students’ cultural inheritance and sometimes be pivotal in fuelling ambition and drive in them to be part of what they have seen.

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