Behind the scenes in Westminster as MP prepares to bid farewell after 40 years

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the celebration of Sir Alan Beith's 40th anniversary as MP. Ref: JCNG cleggbeith 1
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the celebration of Sir Alan Beith's 40th anniversary as MP. Ref: JCNG cleggbeith 1

He has represented his constituency in Parliament for more than 40 years and has been a driving force in helping the south to learn more about Northumberland and its attributes.

But in May next year, Sir Alan Beith will stand down from his role as the Berwick-upon-Tweed MP, and hand the gauntlet over to his successor.

To shed light on what life is like at Parliament, we caught up with Sir Alan at Westminster to see how he champions his constituency.

As part of his current role in Parliament, Sir Alan is chairman of the Justice Committee which examines the expenditure, administration and policy of the Ministry of Justice and associated public bodies.

And I turned up on the right day. The committee was holding a one-off meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, MP Chris Grayling.

Mr Grayling was giving an update on various concerns about prisons including overcrowding, introducing a reserve of prison staff and what is being done about the rise in the number of deaths in prison.

While this was going on, a group of protestors were in the public gallery holding up copies of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Sir Alan later told me that the group, the Howard League for Penal Reform, was protesting, albeit quietly, about prisoners not being allowed to have books sent to them while in custody.

After the committee meeting, I caught up with Sir Alan in the Pugin Room.

He said: “This year has been very different from previous years because I am now part of a party that is in Government.

“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and there are things that I particularly want to get completed before I leave, like having everything in place for the new high school in Alnwick.

“We are also getting real progress on the A1 and that is another issue that I want to see through to completion.

“I also want a real commitment to expand further education, especially after the dreadful decision by Northumberland County Council to cut funding for post-16 transport.

“I’m also working towards the General Election next year and am heavily involved in that, working even harder with our candidate Julie PÖrksen.”

Sir Alan is also chairman of the Liaison Select Committee which comprises all chairmen of the committees at Parliament. It questions the Prime Minister three times a year on anything of importance. “It is one of the most successful parts of Parliament,” Sir Alan said.

“Particularly as we are in Parliament for the first time. It gives us a greater degree of authority.”

And when he isn’t campaigning for north Northumberland, debating issues in the House of Commons, chairing committees and working on constituency demands, Sir Alan is also part of the choir at Parliament that includes everyone from staff who work in the kitchens to MPs and the Lords.

For his weekday Parliamentary duties, Sir Alan has a flat in London which he shares with his wife, Baronness Diana Maddox, who sits in the House of Lords.

As I visited on a Wednesday, I also got the opportunity to see Prime Minister’s Questions, which takes place at noon each week while Parliament sits.

It starts with the Speaker leading a procession to the House of Commons, through the central lobby and into the chamber, with hundreds of people watching.

Expecting an orderly debate with everyone getting their chance to speak, I was in for a bit of a shock.

Sir Alan was asking a question on post-16 transport after Northumberland County Council’s decision to stop funding.

His question was near the end of the debate and what preceded it could only be described as a rabble with MPs shouting out from all sides of the room and others not getting being heard because of the noise. The speaker banged his gavel a few times to call for order, but the MPs clearly didn’t listen.

When it came to Sir Alan’s question, to which Prime Minister David Cameron responded by saying it was a example that ‘Labour costs you more’, the Labour MPs were raucous.

The security for PMQs was also interesting. No phones, laptops, bags etc are allowed in to the public galleries, yet MPs sit in the chamber with their phones out and tablet computers on display – a sign of the times.

After PMQs, it was time to meet the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, to hand over our Gazette Robocalls petition and campaign. Sir Alan helped arrange the meeting as he has regular contact with the commissioner for other Parliamentary duties.

While we had the day mapped out, we found out that things can change quite quickly at Parliament.

During PMQs, Sir Alan had been summoned to a meeting with the Prime Minister at Number 10, so our afternoon discussion in his office had to be postponed.

No sooner had he returned than the bell rang in his office which meant he, and every other MP, had just eight minutes to get through the lobby from wherever they are on the Parliamentary estate, to the Commons to take part in a vote. There are escalators which can be used by the public, but once the bell has been called, only MPs are allowed to use them to prevent them being late for a vote.

Following the vote, Sir Alan had a meeting with the Environment Minister, Dan Rogerson, regarding the fire at Swarland Brickworks, at Thrunton, which meant we were unable to meet up with him again.

His assistant, Gill Cheeseman, also takes on a lot of work, taking calls and researching issues for Sir Alan while he is out of the office.

While we were there, she received concerns about passports being delayed with residents asking for Sir Alan’s help in speeding up the process.

The day gave me a great insight into Sir Alan’s busy life at Parliament, and how the issues which affect us here are taken to London to be debated. It also showed me that so much goes on behind the scenes, that isn’t reported or made common knowledge.

In May next year, when Sir Alan stands down, he will have clocked up 42 years in his seat, one of the longest in Parliamentary history.

During that time he has held numerous posts including deputy leader of the Liberal Party, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lib Dem leader in the House of Commons, Home Affairs correspondent, Liberal Chief Whip and others. He was the first to put his name forward for the the Speaker’s position in June 2009, when the current MP stood down.

And while he has continuously defended his seat and debated the issues that matter for people in his constituency, he’s also had to deal with issues in his personal life. During his term his first wife, Barbara Ward, with whom he had a son and daughter, died in 1998. Two years later, in 2000, his son Christopher also died.

But despite the difficulties, he continued to fight for the issues that mattered and in 2008 he was knighted in recognition of his services to Parliament.

On a lighter note, when he was electioneering during the 2010 General Election, his campaign had to be halted for labour when his daughter, Caroline, gave birth to his granddaughter Ellie.

Next month I’ll be spending a day with Sir Alan in his constituency to see how his work in Parliament is transferred to north Northumberland.