House Of Commons Doorkeeper Lifts Lid On What It's Really Like To Work In Parliament
Every day Sarah Binstead-Chapman gets the bus to work.
When she arrives, she has a cup of tea and some breakfast and changes into her uniform.
She likes to polish her shoes every morning, to make sure they look their best, and her white shirt is always ironed.
When a key part of your work outfit is an item of the Crown Jewels, the rest of your get-up has to be pretty pristine.
Because Sarah’s job isn’t an ordinary 9-5. She is a House of Commons doorkeeper, responsible for both security and ceremony at the Palace of Westminster.
A role that has existed since the 1300s, Parliament’s 37 doorkeepers let MPs in and out of the Commons, committee rooms and other debates, keeping them up to speed with the day’s business and, crucially, keeping them safe.
They are responsible for locking the doors after every division, for the infamous slamming of the door in Black Rod’s face at the state opening of every Parliament and for ensuring the day-to-day security of the 1,000-year-old estate.
When they’re not sitting up until the small hours awaiting the conclusion of a vital debate, doorkeepers can often be found showing groups of schoolchildren and tourists around the Commons and Lords, and you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who knows Westminster better than them.
Sarah’s story is more unusual than most, however, having not only witnessed history in her decade-long career, but being a part of it too.
She found unexpected fame while working the door of the culture select committee on a memorable day in September 2011.
“I was there when Rupert Murdoch got pied in the face, and I tried to catch the guy who did it with a number of other people,” she said.
“You can forget that things go out live, to the live [Parliament TV] feed, so I got back here and everyone was saying well done and that they’d seen me on the news.
“I had to just run after him [the culprit]. A police officer caught him in the end.
“If you work somewhere that makes laws that don’t necessarily please people, then you can have some problems, but that’s part of the job really.”
With the first ever female Black Rod - the most senior official of the House of Lords - due to take up her post next year, and serving under the first Muslim Serjeant at Arms, Sarah is part of a history-making team.
This year, she became the first ever woman to lead the Speaker’s procession at Parliament’s state opening.
“That was the best part of the job for me.” she said.
“When you are walking down and you can see the Queen on the throne, and Prince Charles, and you’ve got the PM behind you and the Speaker, and everyone is watching.
“I just thought ‘You know what, this is awesome’. I was the first woman to ever do it, so I feel quite privileged.
“And this is the heart of democracy, it’s the oldest Parliament. It’s just so nice to come in in the morning, listening to Metallica or something, and thinking about all the historic things that have happened here. I’ve done 10 years and I still come in thinking ‘Wow, I actually get to work here’. I still get a little thrill, coming into Westminster Hall and smelling the history.”
“I started off as a senior doorkeeper, and probably about a year-and-a-half ago I progressed onto being a senior bar doorkeeper,” she said.
“That’s just a little group of three of us who work within the Commons Chamber and just outside it. We take it in turns to lead the Speaker’s procession and we take part in the state opening of Parliament.
“I normally just stay within the chamber pretty much every day, whereas as a normal senior doorkeeper, we would do things like cover committees, cover all the high-profile events.”
Sarah begun her career in Westminster as an attendant, responsible for looking after MPs’ offices, delivering post, checking members’ rooms and getting rid of rubbish.
She moved to London from Sevenoaks, Kent, to be with her now-wife, who works as a counsellor.
“Before I worked in Parliament I worked as glazier for eight years, with stained glass windows,” she said.
“Prior to that I did jewellery design and I’d sort of got stuck in a rut. When I met my wife, that was an excuse for a bit of a career change. She lived in London, so I thought I’d better look for a job and I saw the House of Commons attendant role advertised.
“I thought ‘I don’t really have much experience, but I’m good at chatting and stuff so I guess I’m good at customer service’, so I went for it.
“It was the first job interview I’d had in about 12 years, and fortunately I got it.
“On my second day, I met one of the senior doorkeepers and I just thought ‘What an amazing job’. I didn’t go on a mission to do it, but the longer I worked there the more I realised that a lot of the doorkeepers were ex-attendants, so there was a bit of a progression through.
“I got to know some of the other doorkeepers over the two years I was an attendant, and then an opening came up and I got encouraged to go for it, so I did.”
Every new doorkeeper is measured for their suit by a Savile Row tailor, and given an allowance to buy their white shirts, white gloves, bow ties, breeches, tights and buckle-down shoes.
They’re also given their own solid Britannia silver badge, covered in gold gilt - Sarah’s was made in the 1870s - and a solid gold chain.
“We are the Queen’s messengers and our badge gives us unchallenged access anywhere on the Parliamentary estate,” Sarah said.
“Many years ago, the doorkeepers would also have run messages back and forth to the Royal palaces, so when you got there, the badge would have allowed you access to the palaces as well, because obviously it’s part of the Crown Jewels. I haven’t tried that to see if it still works though.”
The most important part of a doorkeepers’ job is putting names to faces, and they have to be able to recognise every MP immediately. To help them with the task, they’re given a book with every MP’s name and picture in.
Sarah said: “You also should know their constituencies as well if you can, but I’m not quite as good on them.
“If you’re having a division and you’ve got literally hundreds of people charging at you then you’ve got to know in an instant whether they’re a member or not. So initially when you start it can be quite daunting, because when you put the uniform on, everyone is going to expect you to know what’s what.
“It takes a little bit of getting used to. You can only see so much by a picture - it’s the interacting with the members that helps you remember them.
“Sadly, I’ve been here that long I can probably tell a member by just seeing half an ear or something now, because you stare at them all day in the chamber.
“I wouldn’t say it’s stressful, but it can be very hectic and busy.”
The 40-year-old was on duty during the terrorist attack on Westminster in March, when she and five other doorkeepers looked after hundreds of people trapped in Parliament’s Central Lobby when the estate was placed on lockdown.
“When something like that happens obviously that is stressful, but thankfully it’s rare. But we are security, so if things do kick off then we have to deal with it.
“On that day I wasn’t where I normally am - I was on a break when it happened and I got called back down. I went to see what was going on and we ended up basically just looked after probably about 500 people, including schoolchildren, as best we could, until it was safe to leave. We just gave them water and tried to keep them calm.
“That sort of thing does remind you what you’re really here to do, and you have to always be on the ball.
“I got married three days after the attack and it was nearly cancelled. It was still an ongoing situation and two days before the wedding I was having a meltdown. My wife was having a heart attack as well but we got there in the end.”
In normal circumstances, most of Sarah’s time is taken up advising MPs on how long debates or statements are likely to run for - and as long as the House of Commons is sitting, so are the doorkeepers.
“Members will come and ask you all kinds of things and over the years you just become accustomed to knowing how these things work and are able to make good judgements,” she said.
“Not really having a finishing time is quite hard for some people to get their head round, but you just get used to it.
“If Parliament is recalled then we have to come back. If you’re on holiday you have to come back in. We are tour guides as well, so can be in from 8am and go on till after midnight if there is a late debate and that’s not even including any UQs or statements.
“I don’t really have a social life outside work during the week - you have to just forget it. Weekends are usually fine.
“You get so used to the place and succumb to life here, I think if I tried to do a 9-5 job now, I’d go mad.
“But you have to love it. Being a bit hyperactive helps. And lots of coffees.”
Until the early 2000s, all doorkeepers had to be from an ex-military background - having served at least 21 years and reached warrant officer level.
Now, anyone can apply for the role and get training on the job - and Commons Speaker John Bercow has done his best to diversify his team of doorkeeping staff.
“He’s a very nice man,” Sarah said.
“I occasionally see him when we do the Speaker’s procession and we will have a chat. I get on with him. I think he’s a very good, very fair Speaker.”
All new doorkeepers are given training in Parliamentary procedures, restraint techniques and security and evacuation procedures.
They will then buddy up with an experienced doorkeeper who will show them the ropes until they are confident enough to go it alone.
But Sarah says you can never be truly prepared for the real hazards of the job until you’ve experienced them yourself.
“The only way you can really find your way around the estate is to walk around, get lost for a few hours and learn. I think I’ve walked pretty much every bit of the Commons, but it’s like a maze when you first arrive,” she added.
“You get used to padding up with napkins to avoid spilling things on yourself, especially if you’re eating spaghetti bolognese or something like that.
“My badge got my into a bit of danger one day when I had a bowl of tomato soup - it got caught on the tablecloth and I stood up and the whole thing went over.
“Luckily most of it missed me. We’ve also always got a few spare shirts in the dressing room.”
Sarah said there are very few parts of the job she doesn’t like - and won’t be drawn on debates she’s wished would come to an end.
She added: “I suppose it depends what the debate is. But I just like sitting in the chamber and seeing everything playing out. I really like doing the Speaker’s procession, I love doing the ceremonial stuff like the state opening.
“I got to slam the door in Black Rod’s face, which was quite a good one. I gave him a little smile, round the corner, before I did it.
“But it’s all a privilege. I get to sit in the Commons every day. I see the statements coming out, I see the votes, we lock the doors so we take part.
“On some of the bigger votes, when it erupts in the chamber, you are there. You’re literally watching history. Not many people can say that.”