Debates in the House of Commons are often noisy affairs. As a Member of Parliament makes a speech, others will intervene or shout out in response. Sometimes it can be difficult to hear certain words or names. At other times, an MP might quote a letter from an expert that isn’t publicly available—or a conversation with a constituent, whose name is Vivien Wild or Ann Smith (or is that Vivienne Wilde or Anne Smyth? Like an Agatha Christie whodunnit, it is almost always the spelling you least expect.)
All those things need to be checked before they are published in the Official Report.
The need for speed
Working to Hansard’s tight publication deadlines (everything said in the House of Commons Chamber is online within three hours) means that, for reporters, speed is of the essence. MPs often leave the Chamber soon after speaking or once business has moved on. Chasing up facts by phone or email can prove challenging given the hectic schedules of MPs and their staff. And Hansard reporters have to continue with their jobs, too, each covering multiple five-minute chunks of debate over the course of a day.
One of the quickest ways to check un-googleable details is by sending a handwritten note. For example, we might ask for: a copy of an MP’s speaking notes to clarify a particularly nuanced point on pensions legislation; the correct spelling of their cat’s name; or verification of exactly which colleague they had in mind when they mentioned their “honourable Friend”.
You might think it strange that we still use pen and paper in the digital age. But just imagine: a single email can get lost in an inbox that receives hundreds of messages a day and phone calls often go unanswered. A hand-delivered note to an MP while they are in the Chamber almost always receives an immediate response.
A mini post box
We send messages in many public parliamentary meetings, like Public Bill Committees and Westminster Hall debates—where we rely on our Doorkeeper colleagues (the Commons access and security team) to pass notes back and forth. But for debates in the main Chamber, which are most likely the ones you’ve seen on TV, we are physically removed from MPs, up in the Press Gallery.
That’s why we send those notes via The Chute. (It’s one of those silly bits of jargon that you can hear is upper case, right? There are a few terms like that in Hansard. That’s why we want to describe this stuff to you—to make our processes easier for everyone to understand.)
The chute is a small, lift-like structure—similar to a dumbwaiter in a restaurant—that carries items from upstairs, just outside the Chamber, where we Hansard reporters sit, to downstairs in the Chamber. When we’re in the Press Gallery, we keep our ears open to every point we might need to verify. If we think we’re unlikely to find the information we need online, we scrawl a note, pop it in an envelope and send it via the Chute to its recipient as we leave the Gallery, using it like a mini post box with super-express delivery!
Checking the Chute
When the Chute reaches the Chamber, a Doorkeeper delivers the note to the correct MP. With any luck, that MP will then enclose a copy of the quotation they were reading, scribble a reply to a specific question or even simply let us know they’ll respond by email. Once they’re happy for the envelope to be returned, the Doorkeeper sends it back up to us in the Chute.
By the time that happens, the reporter who sent the note might be back at their desk, so it’s important that we work as a team, each ‘checking the chute’ as we leave the Chamber to pick up any notes and deliver them to our relieved colleagues.
So the next time you see an MP sit down after making a speech in the House of Commons, don’t be surprised to see them being passed a brown envelope by someone in a waistcoat, long-tailed coat and bow tie. The Hansard team will be behind the scenes (only marginally less well dressed...) awaiting their response, so that the correct information can make its way into the Official Report, and Vivian Wylde from No. 56 can rest assured that that Vivien Wild from down the road doesn’t get the credit for her local fundraising efforts yet again—or, worse still, the notorious Vivienne Wilde from round the corner.