Organising a Meeting in Parliament

What every bag-carrier needs to know to avoid the pitfalls

Cometh the hour, cometh an improbably named All Party Group, several foreign embassy officials, a phalanx of fruity young blonde ladies who work in PR, heated exchanges with the Banqueting Department, and headaches all round.

As a loyal bag-carrier in the service of your boss, from time to time you will be required to undertake the tasks and the horrors consequent upon organising a meeting in Parliament to highlight the importance of an issue that your MP thought fundamental when he or she got elected in 1865, but hasn’t thought much of since.

Straightforward? Is anything ever easy in the Houses of Parliament? Never fear, though, for help is at hand in the comforting (and, some might say, corpulent) form of Dean Trench. Heed his words of wisdom.

1. The dreaded words

If your boss holds an exulted position in any All Party Parliamentary Group, you can reasonably expect to be disturbed in your afternoon perusal of the political blogs by your employer, flanked on either side by two gushing Cheryl Cole look-alikes. You realise too late that the representative from the Pressure Group in Favour of Nice Stuff has done the dirty on you and sent out two buxom lovelies with expense account access to wine, dine, and expound breathlessly how wonderful it is to have your flattered MP onside. He may have had the command of all his egotistical faculties at the soup stage, but by the time the cheese course arrives they will have persuaded the hapless elected representative that he is the most significant figure in the battle against injustice since that Mandela chap.

“So,” your boss will conclude as they continue to stare adoringly up at him, “I said we’d host a small gathering for them in the House of Commons and you’d be happy to make all the arrangements.”

As no less a sage than Homer Simpson once said: “D’oh!”

2. Handling the officials

As nice as you might think it will be to spend three weeks working closely with the gorgeous Jessica and Jocasta (as they will inevitably be called) from the PR firm called by the organisation to handle their promotion, don’t think for a moment that either their charms or their expenses will extend as far as you. In fact, aside from the initial siren call to your boss’ ego, expect their input to be minimal. You’re on your own, son.

Hosting receptions for country based All Party Groups can be even more stressful but in many ways much more fun. Although the language barrier is often a bit of an issue (their English will, however, be much better than your Urdu) they too have to deal with irate politicians at their end and will often sympathise with your organisational plight. On top of this, you’ll all be able to say, “I’d trade my kidney for a cigarette right now” in each other’s languages by the end of it all; and they’re seldom adverse to the suggestion of strategy meetings held in London boozers where you can moan and unwind. Be sure to enter these in the diary as “meeting with Embassy officials to share international best practice.” Result!

3. Booking a room

What sort of Commons room you want depends very much on the event. If it’s a stand-up drinkies and canapés jobby, then one of the smaller dining rooms will do. If you’re going for something more lavish with over sixty guests, try and book one of the Terrace rooms or the Members’ Dining Room. The larger rooms get booked up many months in advance, however, so go as early as possible for these.

The Banqueting Department, who handle the bookings and food and wine list, will require you to get your order in for what you want a couple of weeks in advance so don’t irritate them by leaving it to the last minute. In fact, now’s the time to send a shout out to the tireless employees in Banqueting whose stoicism in the face of MP irrationality and bag-carrier incompetence would have sent lesser mortals running screaming in the direction of the nearest Trappist monastery long ere now.

In terms of booking food and booze, and unless you’ve got an unlimited budget which is unlikely, go minimal. Most guests will be there to network and chat, and providing them with the sort of largesse last seen at a Caligulan orgy will be both expensive and wasteful. Calculate the number of guests you’re anticipating and ask advice from Banqueting as to how much you are going to need food-wise. As to wine, Chateau Westminster Pier is the vino available to you, and you have two choices as to vintage: red or white. How many bottles you are going to need depends on whether you’re organising on behalf of the Shoreham-by-Sea Temperance Society or an event that may well contain a high-level of trade union officials, so use your common sense.

4. Guest list and mailout

Liaise with the Embassy, charity, or PR organisation on who they want to invite but make sure you vet the list before undertaking to print five hundred letters. Make sure you remove:

  1. The mad: There are some events and some individuals who react in similar ways to oil and water when occurring in the same place. For example, any organisation hosting a reception on extending a woman’s right to choose should omit from their list MPs who are stridently in favour of reducing the upper limit on abortion to a couple of weeks. There is a time and a place for debate on issues such as these: the Chamber during the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Lord knows we’re all in favour of free speech, but remember that you can be in favour of a free and frank exchange of views whilst simultaneously being against a violent smackdown over the smoked salmon that culminates in one of your guests wearing a tray of canapés. You don’t want the only press you get to be a couple of sniggering diary columns and a fulsome write-up on several blogs, complete with mobile phone footage.
  2. The bad: The W4MP legal team won’t allow me to go into this in detail, but you know who you are.
  3. The dead: Your boss might be under the impression that this event is going to do for its subject what Paris did for the Hilton brand but even given this, the dead will not be rising to attend, so make sure you winkle them out of the guest list to avoid embarrassment all around.

Once you’ve got a working list its time to do what every bag-carrier does best: a menial task. Enlist help from fellow staffers and borrow interns to cut down on the time and paper cuts involved in this process. Bribe them with the promise of free entry to the event; the words “free booze” can take you a long way amongst your bag-carrying brethren in the House of Commons.

5. A cut-out-and-keep checklist for the day

The day has finally arrived! You’ve been in work since 8am, the Embassy has already been onto you three times and it’s only 8.15, and the reception’s not for another ten hours. Whilst you wait, make sure you have the following bases covered:

  1. RSVP list: Whether you or the Embassy/PR company/charity are in charge of this, have a quick look through to check that everybody who should be is on it. If you haven’t already done so, add the names of your Mailout Wombles.
  2. The Man With A Van: Some organisations like to provide promotional materials and will dispatch a dude with a crackly mobile and a none-too-certain grasp of London geography to deliver these to the Commons. Make sure you know when and where he’s arriving and that security are aware that he’s coming. In the current climate the police take a dim view of large vans roaring straight through the barriers and you don’t want to spend an afternoon on the other end of a baleful glare from the Serjeant at Arms explaining that Barry was only engaged in delivering 5,000 condoms to highlight the importance of safe sex whilst he languishes in the cells.
  3. VIP arrival time and police clearance: “Do you know who I am?” is a roar that is, surprisingly, rarely heard within the Houses of Parliament, largely because of the short-shrift given by the House officials to any MP presumptuous enough to use it. However, those coming from outside who are labouring under the impression that they are a Very Important Person may be unaware that attempting to march straight past the security barriers whilst trumpeting this refrain is the quickest way to ensure that they soon find themselves stripped naked, bent over, and hearing the unhappy sound that is the snap of the plastic glove. Ensure that all your guests know the procedure before they arrive to avoid offence and indignity.
  4. It’s in the diary: This might sound obvious, but do make sure it is in your boss’ diary. The chances are he or she hasn’t thought about it since their lunch with Jessica and Jocasta some months previously. It is entirely likely that there will be much chuntering about “not knowing anything about it, I didn’t agree to this!” upon you reminding them of their obligations.

6. Managing the reception

There are several distinct eras to every reception, and here’s what to do during each of them:

  1. 6pm – meeting and greeting: Loiter outside the room smiling welcomingly at the guests. You will be assisted in this regard by Jessica and Jocasta until the under-secretary of State for Fish and Crustacean Welfare turns up. Then you will hear a bang as they both cross the sound barrier in their dash to schmooze him, and then you’re on your own.
  2. 6.30pm – speeches: Usually your boss, as the host of the reception, will introduce a selection of worthy speeches from senior personages in the charity or at the Embassy. Impress on each of them that all the guests are desperate to meet them one-on-one so not to impede their roaring desire to tell them how great they are by making the speeches too long. You might think that the MPs and luminaries will successfully translate this as, “I don’t want you droning on for too long and cutting into valuable boozing time.” They won’t.
  3. 7pm – inhaling the free stuff: Everyone’s arrived, the speeches are over, and it’s time for you to enjoy yourself. Partake of the wine and canapés and entertain yourself by watching your mate from down the corridor impress Jessica by tales of his friendship with “Gordon.” Debate with his boss as to whether it would be churlish of either of you to inform the breathless Jessica that “Gordon” is, in fact, his intern from the LSE.
  4. 7.30pm – the first casualties: There’s always one that ruins it for the rest of us, eh? You can usually clock which guest is going to have an attack of the George Bests at roughly this stage in the evening, so be prepared to jump on the grenade by backing him into a corner and listening to his slurring anecdotes whilst smiling benignly and passing him orange juice every time he demands a whiskey.
  5. 8pm – chucking out time: The party’s over, folks. Be on hand to shepherd the reluctant guests in the direction of the exit whilst heckling your mate from down the corridor as he disappears behind a pillar with Jessica.
  6. 8.30pm – post-mortem in the Sports and Social: Treat your Mailout Wombles, Embassy comrades, and anyone tangentially involved in the Banqueting Department to a bracing pint of Spitfire in the Sports. They’re worth it.
  7. 11pm – retrieving the miscreants: This is traditionally the time where you will be required to show out several guests who you assumed made it out at 8pm but instead went to ground only to be discovered by an irate policeman several hours later. Put on your best, “how can I help you, officer?” smile and be prepared to miss the last tube.

7. The morning after the night before

Ever got that sinking feeling after you’ve had a “small” gathering in your flat the previous night? You know, that feeling you get when you wander into your living room the next day to find a huge red wine stain in the middle of the floor, one of your friends snoring behind the sofa, and slices of pizza firmly stuck to the wall?

The physical manifestations may not be the same, but as with everything a simple “thank you for your help” can go a long way to assuage the damage caused by misbehaving guests, unpleasant articles in the diary columns, and stolen crockery. Spend the day writing out cards to all your helpers, and make a small sacrifice to the gods and ask that next time you be spared this trauma.

Then cancel all your boss’ lunchtime engagements for a month. Because you’re worth it.

Dean Trench


[Note from the Editor: those of you who are tempted to imagine that the ‘comforting’ Dean has covered almost all the finer points of booking rooms, etc, but may, perhaps, have overlooked one or two of the smaller and relatively insignificant details could do worse than check out the information available on ‘Catering & Retail’ and ‘Accommodation’ under the heading ‘Facilities’ on the home page of the Parliamentary Intranet.

Added 22 October 2008