Having been sent a detailed timetable in advance I had an idea of what to expect we'd be doing when - and it was quite the packed schedule. I arrived in good time to get through security for 10am to find the wheelchair entrance full of buckets and the doors not working. The lovely security man quickly cleared out all the stuff that seemed to be related to trying to fix the entrance and got me in through the first door...which was when we realised that the other door opened in the wrong direction and the only way for the security man to force it open was to lean over me on the scooter. Fortunately he was awfully nice when I ran over his feet while scooting under his arm! I like to make an impression when I arrive in places, but marking someone's feet really won't make it onto any 'good impression' list.
Putting aside the trauma of inflicting actual bodily harm on a House of Commons security staff member in front of a load of armed policemen before 10am, things went better after that. We all met up with Alex who was in charge of our group for the time we were there, then went up to the Deputy Speaker's office where we met other staff members, and Nigel Evans himself to chat about the programme ahead over coffee. Then we were privileged to sit in on an interview with Nigel about the relationship between openly LGBT politicians and the wider rights legislation in those countries. It was fascinating to hear the candour Nigel displayed in answering the questions and I felt very strongly that many of the issues he was talking about in terms of acceptance were the same as those faced by disabled people. As he described his experiences I felt a mix of respect for him for speaking out so openly, empathy and hope that it can be, will be different in generations to come.
We were scheduled to go on to an Education select committee evidence session after that, but it had already finished so we went to observe the Culture and Sport committee for half an hour, then on to have some lunch in Portcullis House. I didn't have a PA with me, but the BSL interpreters were really good about checking if I needed any help and Caitlin who was also interning in Nigel's office was a huge help with all sorts of little things I couldn't manage.
In the afternoon we went up into the Stranger's Gallery so we could observe Nigel in the Speaker's role during the Opposition Day Debate. The seats to observe are mostly in really steep tiers, but the upper part of the gallery is wheelchair accessible. However, when sat either in a wheelchair or one of the more comfortable seats that fold away neatly into the floor eyelevel is below the window so its really quite tricky to see, when we discussed our afternoon with Nigel and his team later on he said that explained why I kept disappearing out of his eyeline during the debate! I could only hold myself up properly to sit up and see for very short periods of time before needing a rest. The debate was really quite challenging to follow, both in terms of our ability to observe and being able to understand it. Paul and the BSL interpreters found it especially difficult as the subtitle service wasn't working on the screen on their side of the gallery, and of course when it does work it is so far behind what's actually being said that its impossible to follow the order of business that way. I was trying to explain all the different taxes that were being discussed to Caitlin, who was from Tennessee- bedroom tax, mansion tax, 10p tax rate, spare room subsidy - it was all so complicated I can't remember what the debate was meant to be about!
It was an exhausting day for me as sitting is one of the activities I find most painful and tiring - watching a long, complex tax debate through the time I'd usually be napping was very challenging and we got to know one of the Stranger's Gallery staff especially well as he kept joking that he was going to go and get me a blankie so I could lie down! The fun fact about the Commons that I learnt that afternoon also came from Matt who explained to us the bench he was stopping anyone from sitting on was reserved only for police officers, but that police officers must not be wearing their uniform when they sit there. Westminster is a very odd place, full of all sorts of arcane but fascinatingly weird little rituals.
We finished the day with another chat over coffee about what we'd observed and then, exhausted though I was, it was time to go back to the hotel all too soon. I decided as I was in London I had to find my big girl pants and get brave enough to go places on my own...so instead of a cab I scooted back to the hotel on my own - it was so cold on the bridge I was still shaking back in my room under two duvets!