I write this, my fifth and final annual letter to members, at the end of an eventful and significant year. As over the whole five years of my term of office, it has been a privilege and an honour to serve the House.
When the position of Lord Speaker was created in 2006, it was clear that the House was cautious about the Speaker’s role in the Chamber, but enthusiastic about the representative and ambassadorial aspects of the job. Alongside my procedural, domestic committee and security responsibilities, I have, therefore, made building a sustainable programme of external engagement, particularly with young people, a high priority during my term of office.
The current debate about the House’s future makes public engagement all the more important. This year the outreach programme has continued to make a strong contribution to improving public understanding of Parliament. It also increases a sense of connection and accountability between the public and members of the House, as my experience through many external speaking engagements and outreach visits to Manchester, Portsmouth and Bristol has made me aware.
The Peers in Schools programme, in particular, has continued to flourish, with a record 260 visits this year. Some 30,000 young people have been involved since the programme’s inception, and I am grateful to all the Peers who have travelled across the United Kingdom to undertake these visits, warmly welcomed by schools, and to the many new members who have shown enthusiasm for joining their ranks.
Other activities for young people have included:
- the annual chamber event in December, when 200 state school students from across the country debated four options for reform of the House
- Lord Winston’s lecture for young people, delivered in a packed Robing Room last month, entitled “Politicians’ Problems and Doctors’ Dilemmas”
- the fourth Lord Speaker’s Woolsack Fund competition organised through the Hansard Society.
This year a record 499 young people participated in the ‘Peer Factor’ competition. The aim was first to make students think about what the House of Lords was for, and then nominate individuals who they thought could contribute to that work. I was encouraged that amidst the footballers and popstars nominated, the three winning entries were for a teacher, a former charity chief executive, and a refugee caseworker.
The River Room seminars have proved a powerful showcase for the expertise in the House by bringing together a group of peers with specialist experience to debate and discuss issues with senior media commentators. Three seminars took place this year: on the interaction between religion and politics; the 2008 economic crisis revisited; and the global risk register in the 21st Century. They were fascinating occasions, as was Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield’s masterly Mile End group lecture, on ‘Cabinets and the Bomb’, and the discussion that followed.
This year Westminster was on the world stage for two great state occasions: the visits of Pope Benedict and of President Obama to Westminster Hall. Both were extraordinary events and ones that will live with me and, I suspect, with many other members of the House for many years to come. The staff involved in these demanding undertakings, viewed by millions globally, delivered memorable events flawlessly, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
The past year has again seen much overseas activity. As well as work in support of the IPU and CPA, I have met Speakers from a range of countries - Montenegro, Kenya, Armenia, Russia and India - and the Presidents of Hungary and the European Parliament. I visited Albania and Montenegro last autumn, and attended the meeting of the Association of European Senates last month. At the end of this month, I will co-chair the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, which is held this year in London. These contacts make me aware of the deep and widespread respect for the UK Parliament and cause me to reflect on the responsibility that brings, both in terms of supporting emerging Parliamentary democracies and safeguarding the quality of our own.
It was also a year in which we have welcomed a large group of new members to the House. They have brought a breadth of expertise and current external experience to our legislative and scrutiny work. But their introduction has also made us reflect seriously on both the size of the House, and the current lifetime nature of membership. On a practical level, the House’s ability to cope with larger daily attendances than we have ever seen before has been tested. And the advent of coalition Government has challenged some of the previously accepted understandings of how we conduct our business. Taken with the Government’s plans to change radically both the size and the composition of the House, this has brought uncertainty and strains. This volatility was particularly apparent when the House came close to losing one of its fundamental strengths - freedom from the guillotining of debate - during the long and contentious proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.
As ever, the House proved resilient, and looked to generate its own solutions to these problems. The Procedure Committee’s recommendations on the retirement of members have been accepted and there was an extremely positive debate last month on the Leader’s Group’s report on changes to our working practices. The Group had been set up following work undertaken by members in response to a seminar I held with the Hansard Society on strengthening the House. It focussed on looking at ways in which we could improve our practice and performance as a legislative chamber.
I remain convinced, as I wrote last year, that this is a key element to rebuilding trust in Parliament. We have to go beyond what we achieved in terms of improved and more transparent internal governance, and the reform of a deeply flawed system of financial support. We need constantly to seek ways of doing our job better – holding the executive to account; contributing to the production of good legislation; providing expert committee inquiry – whilst, at the same time, making the public aware of the work we do. I was also encouraged that in the long debate on the Government’s House of Lords Reform White Paper and draft bill, the focus was on the fundamental issues of accountability, legitimacy, effectiveness and the constitutional implications of the proposals. The debate has moved on in the fifteen years that I have been a member of the House, from a sometimes unquestioning defence of the status quo to broad agreement that the House needs to reform in order to improve further, although with widely differing views as to how that can best be achieved.
My thanks go to the many people who have supported me in the five years I have been Lord Speaker. I should particularly record my thanks to the Clerks of the Parliaments with whom I have worked, the Chairman of Committees and the Deputy Speakers, all the staff of the House who have helped, most particularly those in my private office, and many individual members who have been so generous with their time and energy in support of the outreach programme.
It has been a unique pleasure and privilege to serve the House as the first Lord Speaker, and to act as its external face and voice in many different settings. In a few days we will know the identity of the next Lord Speaker. I hope that he or she enjoys the role as much as I have and I offer them my best wishes and wholehearted support.
13 July 2011