Brexit Life at the House of Commons

Find out what it's like to work for the House of Commons as the UK prepares to leave the European Union


Imagine a job where you have a front-row season ticket to witness debates that will inform the future of the country—history in the making. As Parliament makes a generation-defining decision on the UK's relationship with the EU, the Hansard team will be reporting every moment of proceedings in the Commons Chamber. But what's it like to be a Hansard reporter during this Brexit marathon?

To produce an accurate report, we need to be present in the Chamber so we can soak up the atmosphere and spirit of the debate. It's difficult to translate someone's speech into the written word if you haven't understood the context or heard the tone of their delivery.

Obviously that atmosphere changes depending on the weight of the occasion. It can feel like attending a lecture, when MPs display their knowledge about the subject at hand, or watching an entertaining play, with the exchange of witty ripostes and on-topic puns.

And just occasionally, when the future of the country is at stake, walking out into the Press Gallery of the House of Commons feels like stepping out onto the terraces at a football match. Not your average soggy Saturday afternoon goalless draw, but a Champions League semi-final second leg.

The Hansard team are used to working late because we follow the sitting hours of the Chamber. But when those hours are extended to allow for the debate of especially significant matters, we tend to work much later and much longer, often for several days in a row. You might expect a certain amount of grumbling and whingeing. But no—it is in demanding times like these that Hansard reporters thrive.

On each of the five days of debate leading up to Parliament's meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement, Hansard will publish the official report of every speech online within three hours of its delivery in the Commons Chamber. The team will then work through the night to ensure that a printed version of proceedings is produced by 6am the next morning. Even when the House sits until 1.28am.

House of Commons Library

Ever since calls emerged in early 2017 for Parliament to have a "meaningful vote" on any EU exit deal, MPs have asked and argued about what that "meaningful" really means. In the Commons Library, we have had a steady flow of questions about the statutory approval process for the Withdrawal Agreement, from when it was first proposed right up to the eve of the planned "meaningful vote" itself.

As the vote drew nearer, we saw a rapid increase in interest (and often confusion) from MPs and their staff about what was happening with the vote. They wanted to know about timing, how amendments might interact with the main proposal, and what Parliament can do in the aftermath of any decision to influence the Government's next steps.

To assist Members, the Library worked closely with the House's Chamber and Committee Clerks to produce A User's Guide to the Meaningful Vote in late October 2018. This was a briefing paper setting out the Parliamentary process, and explaining some of the controversial and unresolved questions about the vote.

The Library also produced a series of blog-style "Insights" to give the wider public a clearer sense of what would be happening in Parliament and what might be expected to come next depending on the outcome of the Commons' decision.

- Graeme Cowie, Senior Library Clerk specialising in Brexit

Exiting the European Union Committee

A hectic few days for the Exiting the EU Committee team leading into the debate as the Committee had agreed to produce a report on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on the Future Relationship negotiated between the EU and the UK in time to inform the debate and vote in the House of Commons.

This report would be the culmination of the Committee's work since the election. It built on its regular progress reports on the negotiations and its analysis of different models for UK/EU relations, and work on particular areas of ongoing and future negotiations such as citizens' rights and arrangements for data sharing.

We had scheduled an evidence session with Stephen Barclay MP, the new Secretary of State, and Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister's Europe Adviser, for the afternoon of Monday 3 December. We needed to make sure that we reflected their evidence in the report.

The previous week was spent analysing first the Withdrawal Agreement that came out on 14 November and then the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship agreed between both sides on 25 November to prepare briefing for the Committee for the session. The team was also working closely with the Chair, Hilary Benn, on drafts and re-drafts of the report.

On the Monday, after more than two and a half hours of the evidence session and a discussion with the Chair, we were back in the office working on the report to incorporate the evidence we had just taken from Stephen Barclay MP and Olly Robbins.

Tuesday morning and the Chair was back in the office first thing with his thoughts on the latest draft that we had sent him late the previous night. We were then able to send a report out to the Committee at lunchtime. Amendments came in throughout the evening on Tuesday, again requiring late nights for some of the team to analyse them and produce a consolidated list for the Committee to consider.

Wednesday morning and, after an 8am meeting with the Chair to discuss the amendments, the Committee began its deliberations at 9am. It had agreed a consensus report by midday (the first time it had reached a consensus on a report since the election).

Next task for us was to prepare the text of the report for publishing, making sure that we had faithfully included all the changes and re-drafts that the Committee had made, and work with the Chair on putting together a press notice to launch the report.

By Friday, we could take a moment to breathe. The report was published on Sunday morning, so a busy weekend for the media team while the rest of us tried to re-charge batteries. An exhausting but exciting week, all set for more excitement in the week to come.

- James Rhys, Clerk of the Committee on Exiting the European Union

National Parliament Office in Brussels

The House of Commons Office in Brussels has engaged with counterpart colleagues from national Parliaments, as well as European Parliament, Council and Commission officials, to explain the Meaningful Vote process. There is a lot of interest in Brussels, but also a lot of confusion.

Our work has ranged from providing links to House of Commons Library publications and Select Committee evidence sessions, to showing colleagues where and how to access the Order Paper online.

We have also taken the time to speak to colleagues from across the institutions in person; it is much easier to explain the sentence "no motion shall be proposed that the question be not now put" over a coffee than via email. The House of Lords Office in Brussels has also updated colleagues about Lords' consideration of the motion.

- Alison Groves, House of Commons Representative

Private and Public Bill Offices

As Clerk of Legislation, I assisted Members for all parties with the drafting of amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. This included the amendments which led to the so-called "meaningful vote" under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 on approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship of the UK with the EU. Some Members also asked me to check or draft their amendments to the EU withdrawal motion, which was scheduled to be debated over 5 sitting days from 4 to 11 December 2018.

After a late night on 3 December signing off the Order Paper and Speaker's script for the first day of debate on the EU withdrawal motion, I was in very early the following morning to do short media interviews with BBC, ITN and Sky who were given special access to film in the Chamber and Division Lobbies before they opened for Members at 8.00am.

When asked what would happen, I had no idea what would be the outcome of the meaningful vote. But I was sure that it would be one of my most memorable House of Commons moments since the fall of the Callaghan government in 1979.

- Liam Laurence Smyth, Clerk of Legislation

Vote Office

Some Parliamentary occasions still generate a heavy demand for publications in printed form. The Budget is one of these occasions, and over the last 10 days the publication of key Brexit publications has been another.

For the Distribution arm of the Vote Office the work begins in trying to ascertain from limited information the subject content of a potential publication so that likely demand can be considered, and an order placed with APS, the contract printers. Timely and no-fail delivery of highly sensitive papers into the House requires planning which involves APS, CEVA, security and the good services of the Logistics team.

On 22 November the government published its Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. Because of its 580-page size the printer was initially only able to deliver a modest portion of the necessary quantity, and Print Services were required to show their capability by printing and perfect binding 300 copies that could be constantly drip fed to the Vote Office during the day to offset the initial shortfall. When the dust had settled at the end of the day over 600 copies of the full document had been distributed to Members.

Today much of the Vote Office work is digital. The Procedural Publishing Unit (PPU) has been working overnight to publish the Order Paper, both online and in hard copy. This includes the procedural motions required to help the House consider the EU Withdrawal Agreement over its five days of debate.

For the PPU team this often involves discussing last-minute changes to motions with Table Office Clerks, talking with the distribution team to ensure they have all relevant papers, and liaising with the print team to update them on what print jobs to expect and when. The focus is on collaboration and customer service. Although the technical processes are precise, as so often when the pressure is on, the key element of the work is tact and good-humoured teamwork.

When the files for the Business Papers have been signed off they are sent to Print Services who are the last stop on the production line. When the House sits into the early hours as it did on Tuesday 4 December, Print Services will work until 6am or later to ensure the Distribution team has copies for Members and others by the 7am opening time.

- Barry Underwood, Head of Distribution, Vote Office

Journal Office

As Clerk of Papers, I am responsible for "papers laid", which in plain English means documents that Government wishes to draw the House of Commons' attention to, or is required to draw its attention to, or that the House of Commons has ordered to be printed.

Recently those documents included the Withdrawal Agreement and future framework, and other associated Brexit documents. Over the past couple of months, I have met with officials from the Cabinet Office, the Department for Exiting the European Union and 10 Downing Street to provide them with advice and make sure the process of giving the House what it was owed ran smoothly. Thankfully, it did!

On the day of the vote I will be in the "No lobby", where MPs wishing to vote against the Government's motion will cast their meaningful votes. On the face of it this is not difficult; MPs walk past one by one to register their vote, and names are ticked off on tablets so that results can appear online as soon as possible.

However, even the simplest task can become a lot trickier when factoring in the pressure of the situation. Regardless, it is a unique opportunity to be in the room at a truly historic moment and I'm very much looking forward to it.

- Dominic Stockbridge, Clerk of Papers

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