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A parliament that makes its people welcome

I’m not often in London - once every couple of years perhaps.

It is mildly amusing when I meet people who wonder how on earth one can survive without visiting the “capital” and even more amusing still when I remind them that, actually I already live in the “capital” (Edinburgh).

Anyhow, I do like London as a city and always find trips there stimulating.

My most recent visit was in December when not only did I catch the train to London, I actually visited the Houses of Parliament for only the second time in my life (more gasps of astonishment) to give evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee on the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland.

As I travelled south, I remembered that it was my sister’s birthday. She lives in London and so I gave her a call and asked her if she fancied a day visiting Parliament. “Wicked”, she replied by text so we met up at the public entrance which is where this story gets quite interesting.

I had no idea what to expect as a member of the visiting public (my previous visit having been in the company of a journalist) but what I found astonished and delighted me.

You see, I had the mistaken impression that Parliament would be a tricky place to navigate with all sorts of security issues to contend with.

Not so. Once through the initial security (which is rigorous but speedy), we were given a pass with our photos and invited to proceed to Westminster Hall. From there on we could wander where we liked.

Friendly staff and police answered our questions and we visited the public galleries in the Lords and Commons as well as sitting in on Committee hearings. We could interact with MPs in the lobby and the place was filled the the buzz and excitement of tourists, lobbyists, staff and the media.

What struck me was quite what a contrast this was with how the Scottish Parliament operates. For all that Holyrood likes to promote itself as a visitor attraction, it is actually a very unfriendly Parliament to visit.

If you wish to sit in the public galleries of the chamber or committees you are required to book a ticket. Unlike Westminster, where one can wander at leisure from one public gallery to another, in Holyrood, you are escorted in an officious manner by Parliamentary staff.

At one recent committee meeting I counted four members of staff standing outside the room. In Westminster there are none. Westminster treats you like an adult. Holyrood treats you like a child.

The building is even designed to separate the public from the politicians with MSPs having their own entrance and no casual public access to the Garden lobby (where most MSPs and staff congregate) except accompanied by staff or MSPs.

At Westminster I feel I am in an institution that trusts me, that belongs to me as a citizen and treats me accordingly. At Holyrood I feel a bit like a stranger needing permission and consent from a distrustful bureaucracy.

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