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Hansard: just my cup of tea

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New to Parliament

Brand new to Parliament, I arrived at my [hot] desk eager to get to know everyone and the work that they do. After all, coming straight from the private sector, this is a very different world. But where to start? Tea. Tea is always the answer. And thanks to my awesome team mates it was suggested that I see and do a few things: a tour of the Archives, floor walking programme roll-outs, Prime Minister’s Questions. And Hansard.

I had no idea what work Hansard were involved with and how they fitted into the parliamentary process, but a quick Google search found a financial institution, an actor, and an abundance of work and blogs from all over the world. Lots of reading was required, so more tea was needed—obviously.


Everyone I’d spoken to was entirely positive about their experience of shadowing Hansard, so I set about the task of making contact. Success! An email returned to my inbox and I celebrated with another tea. Earl Grey this time, as it was the afternoon. And biscuits.

From what I’d gathered online and from speaking to others, it seemed that Hansard essentially transcribed debates in the Chambers and Committees. Working for the Digital Service now and having been in IT-related roles before starting in Parliament, my first reaction was, “Why don’t robots do this? They can do everything else, right?” I was soon to be disproven.

My afternoon shadowing was split into two halves: first with Charlie, who was reporting the Commons Chamber; and then with Richard, a sub-editor.

Phil shadowing Hansard sub-editor Richard


After a brief introduction, I had more of an idea of what went on. Everyone had their own allocated five-minute slot (Hansard call it a “turn”) in the Chamber, neatly timing and noting when each slot started and ended so that nothing was missed. I watched Charlie making notes. At this point, I was still somewhat sceptical about how hard this was. Surely we could have had a lovely cup of tea, sat back and enjoyed the debate. But apparently Hansard reporters are supposed to concentrate in the Chamber.

When we left the Chamber and returned to Charlie’s computer, I realised where the true value in Hansard lay.  I challenge anyone to try to do this at home: we tried to report the spoken word verbatim, just to see what the result would look like. It wasn’t great and would rarely make sense to a reader. Although this didn’t happen in every sentence, it did happen enough for me to realise that we speak in a way that makes sense to other people because communication relies on much more than just words: context, tone and even gestures.

Speech is often full of errors and grammatical inconsistencies because it generally doesn’t matter; our brains pick up on key words and content to make sense of the meaning. With the written word, the reader doesn’t have all those extra cues and context. The words alone have to convey meaning. It’s the Hansard reporter’s job to do this, while keeping their report as close to the words that were actually said as possible. I was no longer sceptical…


I spent the second half of my afternoon with Richard, the sub-editor, who was pulling together a block of five-minute turns, much like a patchwork quilt. But again, that’s harder than it sounds.

Richard’s job was to knit the turns together without the aid of hearing the debate (although he could listen back to check certain bits if anything was unclear), ensuring that they were consistent in style. He faced the odd interruption too, with reporters popping in to check and clarify parts of their turns with him. So Richard was now not only creating a patchwork quilt—he was doing so while standing on a Swiss gym ball. But he was always calm and dealt with all the questions thrown in his direction.

Home for tea

My afternoon came to an end as I hung my borrowed and much-worn blazer back on the coat stand (men’s dress code in the Press Gallery). And what an afternoon it was. I met an amazing team—a very talented one at that. If you’ve just started working on the parliamentary estate, ask if you can shadow them for an afternoon. It’ll be well worth your time and they make you feel very welcome.

Now that I’ve shadowed them, surely the only thing left for me to do is to get my name in Hansard? The phrase “cup of tea” has already had 202 mentions since the start of the decade. I have some catching up to do.

Work in Parliament and fancy shadowing the Hansard team? Email Owain Wilkins for more information.

Photo credit: Helen Sikkes Lowe

If you use Hansard, please let us know what matters to you. Click here to take a brief survey and for a chance to meet the Hansard team.

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