Tea, talk and telly for visitors to Parliament

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The Independent Online
A tourist centre is to be opened in the Houses of Parliament selling T-shirts, videos, pens and House of Commons whisky. Visitors will be able to watch debates on closed-circuit TV as they take tea in a cafe. "Audio tours" of the Palace of Westminster, like those in art galleries, will also be available. The visitors' centre is to be installed on the site of the staff cafeteria off Westminster Hall, the venerable heart of Parliament, where a tactile model of the Palace will be built for blind constituents.

"At the end of the tour constituents are usually tipped out into the rain without even a cup of tea. There aren't even proper toilets," said a spokesman for the Accommodation and Works Committee, which is considering the plans. "At the souvenir kiosk we will need to go into the T-shirt and cheaper pen market. We have to bear in mind that a lot of visitors will be children."

MPs organise tours of the Palace for 100,000 constituents a year. Tourists, hoping to catch a glimpse of the House, queue up on the pavement outside for tickets to debates.

The official route includes the Commons chamber, the Queen's robing room and the Woolsack, on which the Lord Chancellor sits. Visitors have until now been barred from cafes and the Westminster curio kiosk without an authorised escort.

Some constituents have complained at the restrictions. The audio tour is likely to run through the history of the palace, its architecture and House of Commons procedure. Most tours are conducted by research assistants, MPs or authorised tour guides who charge about £15.

English Heritage said it would reserve judgement until it had seen the final proposals. The centre would be situated on the site of the old stables adjacent to the Hall, where Charles I was tried for treason and Henry VIII is reputed to have played tennis - leaving balls lodged in the rafters until this day. It is the only surviving part of the original Palace of Westminster. The rest was destroyed by fire in 1834.

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