Members plan to liven up bleak House

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WAITING PATIENTLY in the dreary queue at the St Stephen's entrance to the Palace of Westminster, Chris Roberts from Springfield, Missouri, stood with a copy of Charles Dickens' Bleak House. It was not, Mr Roberts stressed, a guide-book.

"I'm a politics student over here in Britain for a semester," he explained, "and I wanted to sit in on Question Time. I had heard the line can be quite long, so I got here early."

Mr Roberts might have had a specific reason to queue up in the cold, but most of the hundreds of thousands of people who annually shuffle slowly along do not. They consider the Mother of all Parliaments as nothing more than another tourist attraction, albeit one that costs nothing. But yesterday it was revealed that those within parliament plan to transform the Palace of Westminster into an all-singing, all-dancing attraction that will charge up to pounds 6.50 for in-depth tours during the summer months when the houses are in recess.

There will be tours of the Royal Gallery, visits to the robing rooms and trips to the division lobbies. Under the plan, currently being considered by the Commons administration committee, tourists will be further lured by up-market souvenirs, ranging from pencils to brooches. At the moment they can buy little more than a few postcards.

"It is a very exciting project. We want to ensure that we offer the very best," said Peter Jennings, the Serjeant-at-Arms in the Commons. "We believe that what we plan to put on offer will represent very good value for money."

A spokesman for the Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, said: "The Speaker is very much in favour of the scheme though it needs some more work on it."

Specially commissioned research has suggested that up to 80 per cent of visitors to London visit the Palace of Westminster. But while free public access to Parliament is a fiercely defended democratic principle, many observers admit there is currently little to offer the tourist.

Unless on an organised tour sponsored by an MP, tourists currently have no choice but to queue up until a place in the public gallery becomes available. Sometimes the wait can take what seems like for ever.

Yesterday was a case in point. Even on a cold March morning it took more than an hour from joining the queueuntil, eventually, one was allowed into the gallery.

On the way there were security checks, more waits, the need to sign a written promise "not to use opera glasses" and a trudge up five flights of stairs. Finally one was confronted by a sign demanding that, on entry to the gallery, there be no clapping or cheering.

Fat chance of that. Yesterday the seat of democracy was thrilling to the Hon Member for Boring-on-Sea's fascinating insights about the breaking of manifesto pledges on the level of taxation on household fuel.

In the public gallery the tourists looked bored. Down below the Honourable tourist attractions looked equally bored. Another member stood up and said something about small businesses. Everyone jeered, then he sat down.

The tourists in the public gallery looked bemused. Then they got up and trudged back down the five flights of stairs, being careful on their way not to either clap or cheer.

So had it been worth it? "It is very different in Germany," said Kraus Holger, visiting with his girlfriend.

"There you can only watch from behind glass. I don't know much about politics, I am only here for the sightseeing."

George Elkaim, from Paris, was equally non-plussed. "It is all right. I could not really understand everything they were saying," he said.

According to the Serjeant-at-Arms, the only contentious issue in regard to the plan for the Palace of Westminster is over whether to charge an entrance fee.

Only a cynic, of course, would suggest that was because if people had to pay to visit, no one would bother.

securing a ringside seat

United States: Tourists in Washington may visit the Capitol throughout the year at no charge, although in summer and school holidays they may have to queue for several hours in the open air. One way for Americans to bypass the queues is to secure an invitation from their local Congressman. Visitors are allowed into the House and Senate chambers and canwander the public corridors unescorted.

Australia: The futuristic parliament building in the planned government complex in Canberra is open to visitors for much of the year. Tourists must join organised groups and are given a guided tour, which intersperses information aboutAustralia's history and political system with details of the building's architecture and decor.

India: It is easy and straightforward to gain access to the Indian House of Commons. The only thing a tourist requires, besides a passport, is a letter of introduction from one's embassy or high commission in Delhi.

Germany: Germany's modern Parliament building, by the Rhine in Bonn, is a major tourist attraction and there are coach parks all around to cope with the daily torrent. Soon, the present Bundestag building will fall vacant, before being converted into a conference centre. At its new premises, the Reichstag in Berlin, Parliament is likely to become even more popular.

China: China's parliament, the National People's Congress, meets just once a year, in March, and only diplomats, journalists and other accredited observers can gain access to the Great Hall of the People to witness proceedings.