Queues for action: Everyone has the right to go to Parliament and see their MP in person. Penny Lewis joins the lobbyists to watch democracy in action

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The Independent Culture
If riled, why stop at writing letters? Spend an afternoon lobbying your MP in Parliament. In 1852, after the reopening of the House of Commons, it was usual for members to sprawl on the benches, lie supine or even face down. How things haven't changed. Here is an open invitation to lever your member into an upright position.

Barry and Pugin's new House is now a bit grey round the edges, as expected. But black and gold liveried doorkeepers still pad round their set route of corridors trying to winkle out MPs: 'A hot and bothered constituent awaits you in the lobby, Sir'. And yes, that sharp-edged invitation card could have your name on it.

Every member of the public is entitled to request an audience with their MP if Parliament is sitting: from 2.30pm Mon-Thurs until the house rises (9.30am-3pm on Fridays). However, the later you arrive the greater the risk of your MP having run home for cover. If you're going alone, it is wise to make an appointment; en masse there's not much point, but you are asked to inform the Sergeant of Arms, head of security.

Well organised lobby groups tend to gather first at the Methodist Central Hall in Storey's Gate, just off Parliament Square. As long as your cause isn't anti-Methodist, you may hire it - at a price: a minimum of four hours costs from pounds 48 for a small room to pounds 1000 for the Great Hall. Built in 1912, with ornate plaster-work, domed ceilings and sturdy loos (why is it that the more antiquated the plumbing the better the flush?), the hall has served lobbyists for over 15 years. The idea is to meet fellow fired-up campaigners, swap tactics and receive an address from a group leader. For some, confronting an MP can be intimidating; in fact, campaigners usually know far more about their subject than their member of parliament. Occasionally, it's an all-day affair, at which the group hosts a pre-booked lunch and is happy to have you back afterwards to compare notes or generally let off steam. Otherwise, packed snacks and drinks are a must.

The hall, capacity 2,350, is frequently full: lobbying is popular by the nature of its rather dignified crocodile approach. Noisy demos and marches will have difficulty getting access to the House of Commons, so it pays to slide in quietly. If it's a nationally felt cause with campaigners arriving from afar, then sympathetic lobby organisers will dispatch crocodiles from (say) Scotland and the Scilly Isles first.

Queuing requires patience, but you are showing support even if you can only stay a short while. If the media are hovering with giant candyfloss microphones and the ubiquitous lens, you will be sure to be jumped on if you rip off your T-shirt to reveal your beliefs tattoed across your chest. If you prefer anonymity, you can dig fervently around in your bag for a lost peppermint.

Once in the Central Lobby, you have to fill in the necessary green card, and wait; no tannoys or pagers. When your MP finds you, he or she may only have time for a quick chat on a side bench, or may take pity and invite you for tea - it has been known. The joy of a mass lobby is safety in numbers and a great sense of solidarity.

The next big lobby for the House to accommodate is Compassion In World Farming's 'Ban Live Exports' on Tuesday. Live export of animals hit the headlines this week. Order more teapots.

For details of CIWF's lobby on 28 June call 0730 264208 / 268863. To book the Methodist Central Hall call 071-222 8010.

(Photograph omitted)

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