There was a slightly longer gap than usual between the publication of our last blog post and the one before. I tend to do most of the content planning and editing for the Commons Hansard blog, but this spring things got in the way. More specifically, those things were Brexit and the London marathon.
Between January and April 2019—when the UK was supposed to leave the EU after the first extension to article 50—there were a lot of debates and votes in the House of Commons about exactly how to leave the European Union. You can’t have missed it. It meant quite a few successive late nights in the Chamber. And quite a few tired staff in the House of Commons with a lot of work to do, including the Hansard team.
Front row seats
These once-in-a-lifetime moments are the most exciting times to be a Hansard reporter. You get a front row seat to watch history in the making. I’ve witnessed the biggest Government defeat in history and the first use of the Speaker’s casting vote in almost three decades; any politics nerd would be green with envy.
The thing is, all this extra work also took place during the training period for the London marathon, which probably resulted in lots of MPs and House of Commons staff running a little slower than they’d originally intended. But during the times I did get on the roads to train as I’d intended, it occurred to me that there are significant parallels between the mentality of a Hansard reporter and that of a runner.
Since the advent of timetabling business in the House of Commons, it is rare for MPs to sit for especially long hours. Staff of the House usually know roughly when debates will wrap up. But hours are sometimes extended, particularly in politically turbulent periods. And there might be a lot of votes, which also take up time.
During these marathons, Hansard reporters need to ensure that the quality of work they produce at midnight is of the same high standard that it was at 11.30 the previous morning. Psychologically, this means you have to pace yourself, make sure you take regular screen breaks between the chunks of debate you report (which we call "turns") and get some fresh air. It can be tricky. Like the last few miles of a marathon, the last turn of the day—or night—can often feel like the longest. But good sugary nutrition and fluid intake can help (water and caffeinated beverages only, of course).
Hansard reporters are consistently speedy performers all year round, even when parliamentary business is quieter. Hansard is produced to strict deadlines, so reporters have to work quickly to get their work to sub-editors before publication. Each turn is a sprint. But it’s not just about speed; it’s also about precision. There are a number of hurdles along the way and you have to clear every one. These hurdles could be anything—checking the spelling of a constituent’s name, finding and verifying a quotation, working out exactly what an MP meant to say when their sentence came out in slightly the wrong order or trying to decipher a word muffled by someone coughing. You won’t find the caveat “inaudible” in Hansard. We will find that missing word and clear the hurdle.
Producing Hansard involves a lot of teamwork. This is most visibly evident in our list. Reporters work like a relay team, taking it in turns to complete their chunk of debate. When we hand the baton on, we simply tap our pen on the desk between sentences in an MP’s speech. We’re saying to the colleague with the previous leg of the relay, “I’ll start here.” It’s more like taking the baton than passing it on. And there’s not actually a real baton, which is a shame. But that would increase the chances of accidentally dropping something over the Press Gallery into the Chamber below, so perhaps it’s for the best. (I’ve accidentally dropped a biro before, which amused the Whip on duty, but I was mortified.)
Believe it or not, there is actually a part of the day that the Hansard team call “the run”. Seriously; I didn’t just make that up for this post. If you were to linger in the corridor outside our office near the end of the day’s debates, you’d hear people asking, “Who’s got the run?” The person who “has the run” is the first person not to get a turn at the end of the day. It’s their job to leave the Chamber as quickly as possible as the House adjourns and hurry downstairs to the Chamber. The goal is to catch MPs and civil servants before they leave in order to answer any questions our colleagues might have to help them produce an accurate report of the debate. Sometimes this means picking up some helpful notes from the MP who was speaking. At other times, it might mean asking a Member to confirm the name of the village in their constituency they mentioned in an intervention. Earlier in the day, reporters have the time to get in touch with the MP concerned and hear back from them. At the end of the day, everyone’s off home—so speed is of the essence.
You probably didn’t expect that working at Hansard required such athletic prowess. Speed, agility, stamina and teamwork—all in a day’s work. And not everyone can say that their office marks the final few hundred metres of a World Marathon Major. Although, to be honest that’s not as inspiring as it sounds after 25 miles...