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Baroness Young of Hornsey: Lord Speaker's Corner

18 April 2024 (updated on 18 April 2024)

Lola Young, Baroness Young of Hornsey, is the latest guest on Lord Speaker’s Corner.

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Lord Speaker:

Baroness Young, Lola, welcome to Lord Speaker's Corner. It's a delight to have you. Could I take you back to your early days? You grew up in a foster home and you have made such a leap from there, that you're now in the House of Lords. Give us a flavour of your early life then.

Baroness Young:

Gosh, how long have you got? No, I'll be brief because, yes, it's something that I've talked about quite a lot because I do think it's important for people outside in particular, but also specifically young people who are in the care system to understand that yes, there's lots of doom and gloom around those statistics, but that ultimately there are possibilities, not to let that define who you are for the rest of your life.

So yes, I was put in the care of a foster mother, white foster mother, elderly woman in North London when I was a baby. My parents were professionals, but they weren't married to each other. And in those days, 1950s stigma, and they were originally from Nigeria, came here to study. And then when my foster mother died, when I was about 14, I then went into children's homes. And that was a very difficult period of my life until I was 18, I had to leave care. Feels like on the stroke of midnight, there's somebody from the council saying, "You're no longer in care, off you go." And I think in those days it was much more difficult than it is today, and it's certainly not easy today. So that in brief, is my childhood.

Lord Speaker:

Give us an insight into your character. Because there must have been resilience there and determination.

Baroness Young:

Yeah. It's interesting, John, because I've been looking at my care notes. I don't know whether you know, but when you've been in the care system, you are entitled to see the records that were kept on you. And I had a certain sense of who I was then and things that I felt at the time. But I was really interested to see that, I'd always thought I was a creative person, for example, and there's references to me making things out of discarded cardboard and drawing portraits and reading a lot. So to me, whenever I talk particularly to young people, I say that thing about reading is absolutely essential. It was books, having an insight into worlds other than the world in which I was living, which was very unusual at that time, and especially compared with my friends. I went to a very good comprehensive school that had been a fee paying grammar school.

So, a lot of quite middle class people around me leading lives that I had no inkling about. But reading books was absolutely essential and it didn't matter whether they were fiction or nonfiction. I wanted to know as much as possible. And I think also for me, although it may sound a little bit strange, popular culture was a big influence on my life. So we were a family, we didn't have very much money, but we had a television and I would see comedy shows and a lot of stuff imported from America. And those were the times when I would see Black people.

So I'd see them on comedies and dramas from the states, but I would also see them getting beaten up in the civil rights movement. And I would also see Black people getting beaten up in South Africa, protesting against apartheid. So all of these things that were going on around me, I like to think that because I wasn't constrained as it were by parents, it wasn't anybody saying to me, "Stop watching that or don't read that." Which isn't to say I was totally free to do anything. But it was a very different context. But that enabled me to see what was going on around me.

Lord Speaker:

Truth to power: I notice that you worked for North Thames Gas and you approached the management and asked, "Why can't women wear trousers?" And you're making a statement today, to me.

Baroness Young:

[Laughter] I hope we've passed the time where it's a statement for women to wear trousers. But it was slightly bizarre that I had to ask permission. That was in 1971, I think.

Lord Speaker:

And you then went into social work. Was that because of your experience early times?

Baroness Young:

Definitely, yes. And it was that feeling that somehow I owed the system something. Eventually I got to a position where I thought, "Well, actually, I don't owe them anything." I'm happy that they looked after me in a moment where I could have been having a really awful time. But I knew pretty soon after taking up that role, it wasn't enough to sustain me in that field of work. Working with other children who'd been through that experience when I was barely out of that experience myself.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. You then left school and went to university, I believe?

Baroness Young:

No, not straight away. No. I was a mature student. I went to-

Lord Speaker:

Snap. I was the same.

Baroness Young:

Oh, really? So I was 32 or something when I went to do a degree and I had a child and was married. So I went actually from school, I went to North Thames Gas Board, then I went from there to the social work role, then I went to drama school. All of that happened before I even sniffed university.

Lord Speaker:

Good. So your degree in dramatic arts, where did that lead you to?

Baroness Young:

Well, to be slightly persnickety, so the course at the New College of Speech and Drama wasn't degree level, it was a diploma, London University diploma. So from there I went into acting. So I became an actor, or actresses as we used to be, but an actor. And I did a lot of rep theatre and did quite a lot of television. And then it was at that moment where I thought, "Well, I feel like all that reading I did as a young person. I'm not sort of building on that." I missed out on university basically, because unsurprisingly, I didn't do very well in my A-levels when I was in the children's home. So it wasn't that space where you could thrive. So yes, I went to... I did a part-time course, part-time degree at Middlesex University, and then went on to do a PhD there and then became a lecturer there, et cetera.

Lord Speaker:

And you were involved in children's TV and radio, and you became very well known for that.

Baroness Young:

Yeah.

Lord Speaker:

And in many ways you were an advocate. How did you develop those skills?

Baroness Young:

So, I developed those skills almost by accident, to be honest with you, because when I became an actor, there was a committee of Equity, which is the actors’ union, it was called I think the Afro-Asians committee. And so all of a sudden I was in this context with other Black people and people of South Asian descent, and we were talking about representation and why wasn't there diversity? So this was in the 70s way before it's become the norm to talk about those things. So it was an activist role, even though at that time I hadn't really realised it. And then from there, I was recommended to take part in Arts Council committees and other work of that nature. And I became one of the go-to people to talk about race and inequality in the arts and creative sector because of that experience.

Lord Speaker:

And you took up the racism aspect where there was a negative view of Black people. Can you elaborate on that?

Baroness Young:

Yes. Well, it is interesting because I've been writing about this recently, so a lot of this is fresh in my mind.

Lord Speaker:

Did you have a 1995 book, Fear of the Dark?

Baroness Young:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so that was from my PhD, which was about the representations of race and gender and sexuality in British cinema. And when I started on that, people said to me, "Well, there isn't really very much or anything on British cinema. Black people only appear in American films." That was the thought. So I went and dug deep in the archives of the British Film Institute and went around seeing these obscure films from the 70s, and actually went back to shortly after the second World War and looked at films of Paul Robeson, for example. And it was really, really interesting. And so what I was trying to draw out were the ways in which we can say that things have changed around race and racism, and that's true. But because progress isn't linear, it's hard to describe what the gains have been. So for example, we can talk now about, yes, there's much better representation visually of black and brown people on television in advertisements, dramas, et cetera, et cetera.

Much better than when I was acting. But by the same token, we still don't have people in those positions behind the camera as it were. So directing, producing, exec producing, script editing, et cetera, et cetera. So there's still battles to be won as far as that goes. I think it's fair to say. And I think having grown up in the 50s here, again, people used to spit at me in the street and there would be all these slogans written on walls, which made it quite clear about where they wanted us to be, which wasn't there in North London. And so that may not happen in the same way. Well, it certainly doesn't happen in the same way now as it did then. But we still have, as we know far too commonly, racist incidents, still deaths, still over representation in the criminal justice system. All of these different things that are different kinds of manifestations, not only of racism, but the ways in which systems, in my view, fail people continually. And so, that I see as my job is to try and make some of these systems work a little bit better.

Lord Speaker:

Doreen Lawrence, who will be coming on the podcast soon. She has almost had a lifetime of advocacy.

Baroness Young:

Yes, of course.

Lord Speaker:

Given her son Stephen has been murdered. Do these campaigns influence society?

Baroness Young:

I think they do because, for one thing, you can't ignore them.

Lord Speaker:

And that's not any comment on Doreen who has done-

Baroness Young:

No, no, no.

Lord Speaker:

Fantastic job.

Baroness Young:

I think they do because the name, I mean, you've only got to say Stephen Lawrence, and there'll be a whole generation of people for whom that will invoke a lot of high emotion. I think the thing is to, and I'm sure Doreen will speak for herself of course, but for someone like me to know that there's that reference point. So, for anybody who wants to get complacent about how wonderfully tolerant and how everybody mixes together, and we have the ideal diverse society, that complacency doesn't really help. What we know is that we have to continually work at it. And I think the work that Doreen's done around that has been phenomenal because it's lifted the profile of that and not only centred it on him, and her, and her family and that tragic loss, but also extrapolated from that to a wider meaning for society. And that's really, really important.

Lord Speaker:

And I well remember the Macpherson Report when it came out and it spoke about institutional racism. Does that still exist in organisations?

Baroness Young:

Yeah, it's an interesting term actually. And when I was doing... I did something called The Young Review, which was looking into the over representation of young, Black and Muslim men in the criminal justice system. And there were lots of references to Macpherson and indeed some of the reports that predated that. So the question was... The question for me is always, 'how does that phrase help us to understand what's going on?' And the moment it doesn't help, the moment when it stops helping us to understand what's going on is the moment when it's outlived its usefulness. So, I think it's possible to identify the ways in which individuals within a system can be channelled into acting in a particular way. So it's not trying to absolve the individual of responsibility, but it's saying that if you work within a particular system, if you work within a command control system such as the police, you have to do things in a particular way.

So if you're a rogue person like me or somebody who wants to be imaginative or creative in a particular way, I know I would never fit into that system. So the moment you fit into that system, you have to ensure that you maintain that institution, that system, or you can buck against it. And if you do buck against it for long enough, then you'll be out on your ear, as it were.

So, I'm really interested in that term, institutional racism. Because now, I would ask, where does it get us when we're talking about what happens to people in certain situations? And for example, I'd go back to COVID, when the moments when we were in the first lockdown and they started issuing photographs of the first people who died from COVID. And me and my friends were looking at this and saying, "Well, wait a minute, there's an awful lot of Black and brown faces in this list. Why is that happening?" And it's too simple an explanation to say, "Racism." I think that's a part of it, but it's how does that play out? What does it mean? Until we can unpack that we won't be able to understand what it is that's happening, what the forces are that have given us that particular situation.

Lord Speaker:

What means do we have of progressing that then?

Baroness Young:

Well, I think we can talk about it in the context of the House of Lords, I think we have an opportunity. The way I see it for me as an individual within the House of Lords, and as you say, coming from this slightly uncommon background, I might say in the Lords, is to give a voice, to have that platform, to use that platform in order to say, "I think we need to look at this in a slightly different way." So how do we look at this in a way that we are asking the right questions? Because if we don't ask the right questions, we're not going to get the right answers, okay. And some of that involves looking back, I'm a great believer in how the past tells us something. Not to say that it determines where we are, but it tells us something about what's gone before, obviously.

But it also tells us where the continuities are and where the discontinuities are. And in those continuities, how is it possible to break them down in such a way that we don't continue on this path? And if I can give an example that's not necessarily to do, not directly to do with racism. But if you think about any one of the scandals that have happened recently, you can talk about Post Office, you can talk about Windrush, you can talk about Grenfell, all of those different things. We always say, "We are never going to let this happen again." And then the next time we say, "We've learned our lesson, it's not going to happen again." And then the next time we say, "We've learned our lesson." Do you see what I mean?

Lord Speaker:

Absolutely.

Baroness Young:

So to me, it that looking back, let's see what it is that we've truly missed. Because these trite phrases don't provide any comfort to the people who suffer from these instances.

Lord Speaker:

Windrush is an example because the history of that, goes way back to 1949. And the people who have come under scrutiny as a result of that. Why do you think that has taken 60, 80 years to get done?

Baroness Young:

Well, again, it goes to that point that I was trying to make earlier, which is when you look back, yes, it goes back to ‘48, ‘49, the Nationality Act in 1948, you can go back further. So the roots of that issue go way, way back. So again, so what I'd be saying is let's look at what pre-dated Windrush, what were the attitudes? What were the predispositions in our politicians? Again, I've been looking back in the 50s and some of the rhetoric around race is absolutely deplorable. So if you build up a culture in its broader sense, or an atmosphere or an idea which says, "Okay, well look, we've got these people here. And it's like, we are not going to work. Somehow we don't work as hard to make sure that they get their rights as we should be working," I guess is what happens.

And once that situation is condoned, it then becomes quite hard to roll back on that. So if there are politicians using certain rhetoric in the public domain, then maybe for a large sway of the public, they'll think, "Well, why should we be bothered about this? It's nothing to do with us. Why should we be supporting these people?" And you don't get that same kind of pushing from the general public that I think that that issue deserves. And if you think about it in terms of the contribution, and I don't say this lightly because I know everybody wants to celebrate diversity when it suits them. But if you think about the contribution towards the building up of the public sector in the post-war period. Whether that's public transport or whether it's National Health Service, et cetera. A lot of those people were key to that.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah.

Baroness Young:

And the interesting thing for me is also that although it doesn't manifest itself in the same way, is that my mother and my father, when they came here, my father came to study microbiology with a view to becoming a doctor, and then was called to the Bar, decided to switch professions. And my mother was in training to be a tuberculosis nurse. And again, whilst they were here, they were working in hospitals, they were working in chambers, they were doing all this work and contributing. And that contribution wasn't fully acknowledged at the time. And even more recently, it's not been given the prominence that it should be, I don't think, in the way that it should be. So it is almost like there's a balance sheet. Well, yeah, you've got these people who are doing good things here, and then you've got your bad apples over there. And we think on balance, not so good.

Lord Speaker:

It takes me back to the 70s and Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech.

Baroness Young:

In 1978.

Lord Speaker:

And by the way, he was sacked by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath. But did that knock back the social progress of Black people?

Baroness Young:

Well, I think yes, it did loads of different things. And actually, I think even before that, there was the notorious conservative MP who made the statement containing the N word in relation to, 'if you want... for a neighbour.'

Lord Speaker:

I think it was a byelection if I remember.

Baroness Young:

Yeah, yeah. That was Smethwick, I think it was.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, Smethwick. That's right.

Baroness Young:

So that was a terrible period. So, actually it's another facet of history that doesn't necessarily get talked about. Because I encounter some young Black people who think that that generation of Black people were not exactly passive, but they weren't active enough. And there were loads of movements within those communities then trying to fight this really oppressive atmosphere because those statements gave legitimacy to the people who would spit at you in the street and throw things at you or call you names in the shops or not let you on the bus or whatever. And so again, it built up that atmosphere. And I know that there was also reinforcement from popular culture then because you had the Alf Garnett thing, you had Love Thy Neighbour, you had all of these comedies, which were based on poking fun at, at best, but being really derisory about and insulting about, at worst, our communities.

So that makes you think, "Well, we are going to stick together because we've got to find a way to survive in this context because we're not going anywhere. And our allies amongst white populations who were there as well, you might remember Blair Peach being killed in that anti-racist march in ‘70... I can't remember the exact year. But was it ‘76? I can't remember. But it was in the 70s. Anyway, a white activist who was killed, and we never really got to the bottom of that. So there's lots of interesting histories, I suppose is a broader point that I would make. And that's an area that I'm interested in too.

Lord Speaker:

Culture and politics, you spent a lot of your life, as you said, adult life in culture, popular culture, radio, TV. Lord Bragg gave a very good speech a few weeks ago in the House of Lords on the relationship between culture and politics. And the historian Simon Schama, he did a very good programme on that, saying that culture can move politics. Do you agree with that?

Baroness Young:

Yes, I do. And in fact, all my... Well, I say all, most of my favourite artists and works of art and ways of working within the arts and creative sector, I like them because they've got something to say about our society, our cultures, our societies I should say. Whether that's a global community that we're looking at or very small community based in a little part of London. So, absolutely. And for me, that's the really interesting thing about culture, because the very word itself is loaded with political connotations, if you like.

When you talk about somebody being cultured, if I said, "Oh, John, I always think of you as a very cultured person." You might be thinking to yourself, does she know that I'm a big fan of hip hop? Because you wouldn't say that was a part of that culture. So I'm really interested again in how you unwrap those words and think about what they actually mean. But absolutely, if you use culture as I do, and a lot of people here do, it's an encompassing thing. It's about that world or those worlds of creativity and innovation where an artist or groups of artists want to connect with people and want to say something to people. And it might be saying something about love or it might be saying something about war, but it's there wanting to make that connection.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, it strikes me as something that I experienced in my youth where classical music or opera, that was way beyond us. Did that strike you as the same?

Baroness Young:

Yeah. I mean, in fact, it is interesting. There used to be a club in Hackney called 'Not for the Likes of Us', or 'Not for Me and You' and what it was, was a nightclub that played classical music. So to me, there are these two-way streets, or more than two ways, which one is culture should be all embracing and everybody should have the opportunity to have access to opera, classical music, as well as hip hop and whatever else you like. So there shouldn't be any constraints on that. And by the same token, we know that some of these art forms and cultural forms are valued more than others. So how do we balance between those two? Because often what happens or what seems to happen, we could say that there's a minority of people that really, really enjoy going to the opera or going to see classical ballet.

And the funding that goes into those art forms will seem to many to be disproportionate in terms of the number of people that actually enjoy them. So, what do we do? We then talked about, particularly in the 70s and 80s and into the 90s, the idea that these art forms should be readily available for everybody. So you have outreach programmes, and you try and find ways to say to what would've been traditional working class people. "Enjoy, understand, get some understanding of." But then that also shouldn't preclude those same groups of people saying, "Well, actually what we really like is the music that we make on our phones or that our friends make in the studio or whatever." Or we like the way that people do parkour or street dancing or whatever. Those are also valid cultural forms and people should be able to enjoy a mix of those without being denigrated from any direction.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. You're a crossbencher. Is the non-party space important for you?

Baroness Young:

Absolutely. Absolutely, yes it is. And I think, when I think back on my life and wonder whether I would've wanted to be an MP or something, I can't think of a political party into which I feel I would fit. And obviously if you're in a political party, you're not going to agree necessarily 100% with every single policy.

Lord Speaker:

Or not agree at all. As you say.

Baroness Young:

[Laughter] It's true. As we can observe from the chamber often. But it is the case that you need to have a broad sympathy for that. So I feel much more comfortable being in that space, which is like, okay, you can follow where you think your fundamental values and principles and that you feel you... I can't say represent because obviously we don't represent in that sense. But from our worldviews and from the things that are important to us, I need to be able to feel that I can vote in accordance with that conscience, with that ethical framework to which I subscribe.

Lord Speaker:

In 2009, your focus on modern slavery received prominence. How did that come about?

Baroness Young:

One of those serendipitous things, John. I just happened to be in my office. The phone happened to ring just before I left, and it was a call from the crossbench office saying that Anti-Slavery International wanted somebody to put down an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill of 2009. And I said, "What is it?" It was to criminalise forced labour and domestic servitude and like virtually everybody else, including people in this House. I said, "Well, isn't that already a crime?" And no, it wasn't. Forced labour on these shores. And I mean, we can go into the history of that, and again, I think that's quite interesting and important. But the point was that it was a historical anomaly that we hadn't made legislation on this, and this seemed like the right moment to put that right. And during the course of that, I learned so much.

I learned an awful lot from fellow crossbenches and other peers across the House. I learned how to work with a campaign. I learned how NGOs can play a really productive and supportive role in this and so on and so forth. And I also learned the importance of taking people with me on that journey, if you like. So it was a really good experience and eventually it happened. And again, it was really interesting to see how that Labour government resisted introducing that piece of legislation until the 11th hour. But eventually they saw the sense of it. And as we know, when you put down an amendment, it's not necessarily that it's going to be reproduced in its entirety or exactly the same. So they fiddled about with it a bit. But in essence, that was the start of this country's move towards the Modern Slavery Act, which was six years later.

Lord Speaker:

Sadly, modern slavery is still with us and alive today, but what progress has been made since 2009?

Baroness Young:

Well, first of all, a huge raising of awareness, absolutely phenomenal. And it seems almost impossible to think what the situation was then. Shortly after that amendment, I set up a group – the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability and Fashion, and we used to have a body of people would come along, and it was really hard to recruit members of both Houses into that group, because they couldn't see the point of it, "What's fashion got to do with environment? What's fashion got to do..." So that's where we were in 2010. We didn't even have an inkling of the extent to which fashion was contributing to environmental degradation, the second most polluting industry in the world. And people weren't aware of that. So working again with academics at this time, getting to know what the research was in this field was really important to be able to make the arguments.

So that group was set up and it gradually developed to take on more about the labour problems in fashion supply chains. So to me, because I like clothes, I like fashion, and I always said to people, "I want to be able to buy clothes and think, well, at least I've tried to find out where these are coming from." But most people don't. Now I think we've got, particularly with younger people, I think it's hard to overestimate the number of young people who approach us, me, whatever, wanting to do something about this, including those who work in the industry itself.

And now we've got to a position where British Fashion Council do regularly hold seminars and so on, and are engaged in these areas around environmental sustainability and forced and abusive labour systems. So the raising of awareness is hugely important because then it forces it onto the table of the politicians who may be reluctant for various reasons and say, "Well, we don't want to place a burden on business," and all the rest of it. But actually who's bearing the brunt of the burden of the people who are literally dying in some cases, in some of the most extreme cases of abusive labour practises abroad.

But also, people who are being damaged here. I think people still underestimate the extent to which we have these problems in this country. It's not only about overseas, and it's not only in the fashion industry, of course it's across every business sector.

Lord Speaker:

And you've been a strong advocate of transparency in supply chains. Could you give us a view on that?

Baroness Young:

Oh, my favourite topic, beware. [Laughter] No, I didn't even know what a supply chain was about 15 years ago. So again, that's part of my education and other people's education to understand what these terms mean. But in terms of, again, in fashion, I like fashion not just because I like the subject, but because it's clearer there than it is in some other areas. But you can extrapolate from what happens in that industry to some of these other areas like construction industry for example. And in fact, because it's more difficult. Okay, so we could have a conversation, John, which goes, "Oh, where did we source our uniforms from?" And we can, I know that Parliament is doing some good work on this area, looking at where we get our materials from, where we get our food and tea and what have you, from. So you might be able to say, "Yes, well, with a clear conscience, I can wear all this stuff and I know that it's been ethically sourced."

But if you are walking down the street, how many times do you think, "I wonder where these paving stones have come from?" How many times do you think, "I wonder what the supply chain is for those railings outside?" These are also part of the problem. So in the construction industry, for example, this issue of child labour quarrying in remote areas of countries like Vietnam or India or Pakistan where it's very, very difficult to keep an eye on what's going on, but when you do see the footage of children, eight and nine carrying stones almost as big as they are down the hills, up and down hills, you think, "Do we want to pay that price for having our nice streets to walk on?" So that's putting it in a slightly simplistic way, but I think that people have to understand the extent to which, whilst we all would say unequivocally, we abhor those labour systems. We're all implicated.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, yeah.

Baroness Young:

We're all implicated. So what is it that we can do here in order to try and mitigate some of the worst of those practises

Lord Speaker:

In regard to companies? How do we hold them up to the light?

Baroness Young:

Yes. Well, this is again, one of my topics, and I do have a private member's bill, I'll take this opportunity to flag that up and don't ask me to recite word for word because it's such a long title. But essentially what we are working on, and it is definitely we, and I'll explain that if we've got time in a moment.

Lord Speaker:

Sure.

Baroness Young:

But what we're working on is for commercial entities and also public authorities because we mustn't forget the huge leverage potentially that government contracts and public bodies contracts could have in terms of making corporations face up to their responsibilities. So the idea of this bill is that the commercial entities and public authorities have a duty to prevent environmental harms and human rights in their value chains. So on one level, that's quite simple, and it's easy for me to say, "Okay, from now on, every commercial entity and every public body has got to make sure that they're not doing anything that makes abusive and exploitative labour systems work within their supply chains."

And that's easier said than done. Typically, some industries will have a supply chain that's metaphorically miles long. It is this hyper distributed supply chain. So you've got, even with a pair of trousers, you've got one company will make the fabric. If it's a mix of fabric, the fabric may be made in different places. Another company will supply the buttons, another company, the zips, another might put just the legs of the trousers together and another company, the pockets. So you can see how those commercial companies that are involved in fashion, for example, find it really difficult to understand and monitor what's going on in their supply chains. But they have to take responsibility for it because otherwise what happens when the people who live by a particular river in China find that they can no longer use the water from that river because it's dyed red from the factory up the road that is making clothes, making a whole bunch of red dresses for some fashion chain in this country. We again, are implicated in that practise.

So we have to hold businesses to account. We can say the consumer has a responsibility, sure we can. But then again, you think, even I find it difficult to keep track of these things. So you can imagine a family or people that are pushed financially looking up all of these different companies to see which one is... no, that's not going to happen." So as I say, it is down to these commercial entities and the public bodies to make sure they take full responsibility.

Now, again, I would say it's not necessarily that you expect them to be 100% to know every detail, but by the same token, if something happens in your supply chain and you say, "Oh, I didn't know about that." That's not a good enough answer. If you can say, "Yes, we were aware that there's a gap here and we've been working and here's our record of what we've been discussing trying to implement to mitigate those circumstances." And that would be acceptable if that's a genuine attempt to try and make sure that those things don't happen. But if it's just some tick box exercise, "Yeah, we sent an auditor down there to have a look and everything seemed to be okay." That's not good enough.

Lord Speaker:

Let's take you on young people. In terms of the views of young people, there's quite a gulf between them and older people. And also in terms of political choices, there's such a vast difference from young people and older people. Do you feel that young people are more aware of these issues and will focus on them more in the future, given the problems of globalisation, the financial crash, COVID, that's changed the world and young people now in terms of getting housing, in terms of progress, in terms of the future, it is generally acknowledged they're not going to be better off than their parents in the future.

Baroness Young:

Yes. Again, this is a really interesting question to me because if I can go back to my era, this idea that you'd be better off than the previous generation, I don't remember that being in the air. So what's happened is that this expectation has been driven into people, you must own your own place, otherwise you're not a proper human being, a fully adult human being if you don't own your own property and all the rest of it. And so I'm not saying that's wrong. All I'm saying is we've changed the expectations but not being able to fulfil them. So that leaves people feeling discontent. And I think that breaking up of the problems into these different areas so that people, not just young people, but I think particularly young people, is what you're getting at, will look at individual issues and think, "Well, I understand that. I understand and want to do something about all the people that are sleeping on the streets," that line the streets as I walked here today, which is shocking.

And they want to do something about it. And so what I find, again, is one of the great things about working in the fashion industry is that it's full of young people. It's full of bright young people who want to do things differently. I mean, I've even been involved in teaching students in Italy remotely who begged me to do a session on the Modern Slavery Act. I mean, these are MA fashion students. So it's like this whole idea that young people are not interested in politics, they're not interested in the politics that we've grown up with and that we've handed to them and the world that we've handed to them maybe? But they are interested in how they can make the world a better place.

Now you can say that's naivety or idealism or whatever, but I like to think back again historically, to say that if 120 years ago women had just said, "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have the vote?" "Yeah, but you're wasting your time. Don't bother with that. That's never going to happen." Or enslaved Africans that said, "Okay, well we might as well just accept we're going to be slaves to the rest of our life." Where would we be? It'd be a completely different world. So you have to keep plugging at these things.

So I am very encouraging of young people who want to do things. I get a lot of requests from young people asking if they can shadow or get work experience. And I always try and be positive, always try and sort something out that will help them to get a wider view of not just the issue as it were, but how they can use these instruments like Parliament, like MPs, like peers. We are very underused in many ways. Don't you think John? Because people from the outside know quite what to make of the House of Lords?

Lord Speaker:

Yeah.

Baroness Young:

People, they think, "Oh, wow, really? Can we come along and watch debates?" A number of people who don't even seem to realise they can come along and watch debates is extraordinary. So there's something that things like this session, hopefully we're encouraging more young people to be involved. Because it is their future, isn't it?

Lord Speaker:

Finally, when I was asked to come into the House of Lords, quite a number of my friends said, "What are you thinking? Why are you getting in there?" Why did you come into the House of Lords? And if you're talking to young people, what would you say is the advantage of the House of Lords for you, and its usefulness for society?

Baroness Young:

It is a good question because some people said the same to me. Yeah, some people said the same to me. But surprisingly, quite a lot said, "This is really good," it's because of coming in through that route, okay. I think if I'd come in through a party political route, that would've been a whole other thing. But coming into what was called, the 'people's peers' route, made it very different. And in fact, people were saying, "Oh, can you do this? Will you be able to do that?" So to me, it was much more encouraging. The person I always quote on this though is my son, who at the time was 20. And after giving me huge congratulations when he heard I'd gotten in, he said, "You do realise, mum, you're now part of the problem." So it was like that little reminder to 'keep yourself grounded mother,' and not get ideas above your station.

Because I think you can just rest on your laurels. So to me, right from the get go, I had some very good advice, and I always remember Patricia Scotland saying to me, "Observe, just look and see. You're not on a timeframe. You've got time to learn how things work here." And that was a great piece of advice. So it took a little while for me to understand how I could play a useful role, but what I hope now I'm able to do, I say to lots of different groups and people come to me and say, "Oh, I want to have a screening of a film that's about mental health issues and men, and how we can help open up men." And I say, "Okay, well let's go through the all party parliamentary groups and see which of them deal with mental health and that. And we will invite those MPs and those peers to attend this screening along with some of the panellists that you are suggesting."

And we help them to book a room and all the rest of it and those kinds of things. Otherwise, what better place to have a platform? And I think it's something that John Alderdice said in his interview with you, was that if you ask people to come to the House of Lords, very often they come. And they do come. And for whatever reason, I've had a big fashion company, top top fashion company brought its staff here to have this debate about modern slavery and so on.

And again, they wouldn't normally. Yes, they're big fashion, big in the fashion world, but they wouldn't normally have that access to be able to say "Look, this is what we've been talking about and this is what we want you as staff to promote within your practises." So I think it's an invaluable platform to get things done actually. And I think that the thing about raising awareness is really important because that is another, change of metaphors, that's another rung on the ladder towards achieving what you want to achieve. Because if you can get people behind you, then you can help to change politicians' mindsets.

Lord Speaker:

One of the aims of this podcast is to highlight the experience that's in the House of Lords and the policies that we have where we can have a global footprint on that. And I think you have illustrated that admirably today. So, Baroness Young, thank you for your time.

Baroness Young:

Thank you, John.

 

In this episode

Baroness Young speaks to Lord McFall of Alcluith about her work tackling modern slavery, race and inequality in the creative sector, and why consumers should challenge companies to do better when they source materials.

Baroness Young has extensive experience telling truth to power. From challenging the workplace dress code of her employer in 1971, to pushing for representation as an actor, to calling on major fashion brands to improve their practices, Baroness Young has regularly campaigned for change.

‘It was to criminalise forced labour and domestic servitude and like virtually everybody else, including people in this House. I said, "Well, isn't that already a crime?" And no, it wasn't. Forced labour on these shores… in essence, that was the start of this country's towards the Modern Slavery Act, which was six years later.’

In 2009, Baroness Young worked with Anti-Slavery International to put forward amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill. She talks about the importance of that work and how it has led her to go further, working with the fashion industry to tackle issues in their supply chains and improve transparency.

Discussing why consumers should hold companies to account for the products they buy, Baroness Young explains ‘some industries will have a supply chain that's metaphorically miles long… [companies] have to take responsibility for it because otherwise what happens when the people who live by a particular river in China find that they can no longer use the water from that river because it's dyed red… We again, are implicated in that practise. So we have to hold businesses to account.’

‘If you think about any one of the scandals that have happened recently, you can talk about Post Office, you can talk about Windrush, you can talk about Grenfell, all of those different things. We always say, "We are never going to let this happen again." And then the next time we say, "We've learned our lesson, it's not going to happen again." And then the next time we say, "We've learned our lesson."’  

Baroness Young also explains the need to go beyond inquiries to truly understand issues that face society, explaining ‘these trite phrases don't provide any comfort to the people who suffer.’

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Transcript

Lord Speaker:

Baroness Young, Lola, welcome to Lord Speaker's Corner. It's a delight to have you. Could I take you back to your early days? You grew up in a foster home and you have made such a leap from there, that you're now in the House of Lords. Give us a flavour of your early life then.

Baroness Young:

Gosh, how long have you got? No, I'll be brief because, yes, it's something that I've talked about quite a lot because I do think it's important for people outside in particular, but also specifically young people who are in the care system to understand that yes, there's lots of doom and gloom around those statistics, but that ultimately there are possibilities, not to let that define who you are for the rest of your life.

So yes, I was put in the care of a foster mother, white foster mother, elderly woman in North London when I was a baby. My parents were professionals, but they weren't married to each other. And in those days, 1950s stigma, and they were originally from Nigeria, came here to study. And then when my foster mother died, when I was about 14, I then went into children's homes. And that was a very difficult period of my life until I was 18, I had to leave care. Feels like on the stroke of midnight, there's somebody from the council saying, "You're no longer in care, off you go." And I think in those days it was much more difficult than it is today, and it's certainly not easy today. So that in brief, is my childhood.

Lord Speaker:

Give us an insight into your character. Because there must have been resilience there and determination.

Baroness Young:

Yeah. It's interesting, John, because I've been looking at my care notes. I don't know whether you know, but when you've been in the care system, you are entitled to see the records that were kept on you. And I had a certain sense of who I was then and things that I felt at the time. But I was really interested to see that, I'd always thought I was a creative person, for example, and there's references to me making things out of discarded cardboard and drawing portraits and reading a lot. So to me, whenever I talk particularly to young people, I say that thing about reading is absolutely essential. It was books, having an insight into worlds other than the world in which I was living, which was very unusual at that time, and especially compared with my friends. I went to a very good comprehensive school that had been a fee paying grammar school.

So, a lot of quite middle class people around me leading lives that I had no inkling about. But reading books was absolutely essential and it didn't matter whether they were fiction or nonfiction. I wanted to know as much as possible. And I think also for me, although it may sound a little bit strange, popular culture was a big influence on my life. So we were a family, we didn't have very much money, but we had a television and I would see comedy shows and a lot of stuff imported from America. And those were the times when I would see Black people.

So I'd see them on comedies and dramas from the states, but I would also see them getting beaten up in the civil rights movement. And I would also see Black people getting beaten up in South Africa, protesting against apartheid. So all of these things that were going on around me, I like to think that because I wasn't constrained as it were by parents, it wasn't anybody saying to me, "Stop watching that or don't read that." Which isn't to say I was totally free to do anything. But it was a very different context. But that enabled me to see what was going on around me.

Lord Speaker:

Truth to power: I notice that you worked for North Thames Gas and you approached the management and asked, "Why can't women wear trousers?" And you're making a statement today, to me.

Baroness Young:

[Laughter] I hope we've passed the time where it's a statement for women to wear trousers. But it was slightly bizarre that I had to ask permission. That was in 1971, I think.

Lord Speaker:

And you then went into social work. Was that because of your experience early times?

Baroness Young:

Definitely, yes. And it was that feeling that somehow I owed the system something. Eventually I got to a position where I thought, "Well, actually, I don't owe them anything." I'm happy that they looked after me in a moment where I could have been having a really awful time. But I knew pretty soon after taking up that role, it wasn't enough to sustain me in that field of work. Working with other children who'd been through that experience when I was barely out of that experience myself.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. You then left school and went to university, I believe?

Baroness Young:

No, not straight away. No. I was a mature student. I went to-

Lord Speaker:

Snap. I was the same.

Baroness Young:

Oh, really? So I was 32 or something when I went to do a degree and I had a child and was married. So I went actually from school, I went to North Thames Gas Board, then I went from there to the social work role, then I went to drama school. All of that happened before I even sniffed university.

Lord Speaker:

Good. So your degree in dramatic arts, where did that lead you to?

Baroness Young:

Well, to be slightly persnickety, so the course at the New College of Speech and Drama wasn't degree level, it was a diploma, London University diploma. So from there I went into acting. So I became an actor, or actresses as we used to be, but an actor. And I did a lot of rep theatre and did quite a lot of television. And then it was at that moment where I thought, "Well, I feel like all that reading I did as a young person. I'm not sort of building on that." I missed out on university basically, because unsurprisingly, I didn't do very well in my A-levels when I was in the children's home. So it wasn't that space where you could thrive. So yes, I went to... I did a part-time course, part-time degree at Middlesex University, and then went on to do a PhD there and then became a lecturer there, et cetera.

Lord Speaker:

And you were involved in children's TV and radio, and you became very well known for that.

Baroness Young:

Yeah.

Lord Speaker:

And in many ways you were an advocate. How did you develop those skills?

Baroness Young:

So, I developed those skills almost by accident, to be honest with you, because when I became an actor, there was a committee of Equity, which is the actors’ union, it was called I think the Afro-Asians committee. And so all of a sudden I was in this context with other Black people and people of South Asian descent, and we were talking about representation and why wasn't there diversity? So this was in the 70s way before it's become the norm to talk about those things. So it was an activist role, even though at that time I hadn't really realised it. And then from there, I was recommended to take part in Arts Council committees and other work of that nature. And I became one of the go-to people to talk about race and inequality in the arts and creative sector because of that experience.

Lord Speaker:

And you took up the racism aspect where there was a negative view of Black people. Can you elaborate on that?

Baroness Young:

Yes. Well, it is interesting because I've been writing about this recently, so a lot of this is fresh in my mind.

Lord Speaker:

Did you have a 1995 book, Fear of the Dark?

Baroness Young:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so that was from my PhD, which was about the representations of race and gender and sexuality in British cinema. And when I started on that, people said to me, "Well, there isn't really very much or anything on British cinema. Black people only appear in American films." That was the thought. So I went and dug deep in the archives of the British Film Institute and went around seeing these obscure films from the 70s, and actually went back to shortly after the second World War and looked at films of Paul Robeson, for example. And it was really, really interesting. And so what I was trying to draw out were the ways in which we can say that things have changed around race and racism, and that's true. But because progress isn't linear, it's hard to describe what the gains have been. So for example, we can talk now about, yes, there's much better representation visually of black and brown people on television in advertisements, dramas, et cetera, et cetera.

Much better than when I was acting. But by the same token, we still don't have people in those positions behind the camera as it were. So directing, producing, exec producing, script editing, et cetera, et cetera. So there's still battles to be won as far as that goes. I think it's fair to say. And I think having grown up in the 50s here, again, people used to spit at me in the street and there would be all these slogans written on walls, which made it quite clear about where they wanted us to be, which wasn't there in North London. And so that may not happen in the same way. Well, it certainly doesn't happen in the same way now as it did then. But we still have, as we know far too commonly, racist incidents, still deaths, still over representation in the criminal justice system. All of these different things that are different kinds of manifestations, not only of racism, but the ways in which systems, in my view, fail people continually. And so, that I see as my job is to try and make some of these systems work a little bit better.

Lord Speaker:

Doreen Lawrence, who will be coming on the podcast soon. She has almost had a lifetime of advocacy.

Baroness Young:

Yes, of course.

Lord Speaker:

Given her son Stephen has been murdered. Do these campaigns influence society?

Baroness Young:

I think they do because, for one thing, you can't ignore them.

Lord Speaker:

And that's not any comment on Doreen who has done-

Baroness Young:

No, no, no.

Lord Speaker:

Fantastic job.

Baroness Young:

I think they do because the name, I mean, you've only got to say Stephen Lawrence, and there'll be a whole generation of people for whom that will invoke a lot of high emotion. I think the thing is to, and I'm sure Doreen will speak for herself of course, but for someone like me to know that there's that reference point. So, for anybody who wants to get complacent about how wonderfully tolerant and how everybody mixes together, and we have the ideal diverse society, that complacency doesn't really help. What we know is that we have to continually work at it. And I think the work that Doreen's done around that has been phenomenal because it's lifted the profile of that and not only centred it on him, and her, and her family and that tragic loss, but also extrapolated from that to a wider meaning for society. And that's really, really important.

Lord Speaker:

And I well remember the Macpherson Report when it came out and it spoke about institutional racism. Does that still exist in organisations?

Baroness Young:

Yeah, it's an interesting term actually. And when I was doing... I did something called The Young Review, which was looking into the over representation of young, Black and Muslim men in the criminal justice system. And there were lots of references to Macpherson and indeed some of the reports that predated that. So the question was... The question for me is always, 'how does that phrase help us to understand what's going on?' And the moment it doesn't help, the moment when it stops helping us to understand what's going on is the moment when it's outlived its usefulness. So, I think it's possible to identify the ways in which individuals within a system can be channelled into acting in a particular way. So it's not trying to absolve the individual of responsibility, but it's saying that if you work within a particular system, if you work within a command control system such as the police, you have to do things in a particular way.

So if you're a rogue person like me or somebody who wants to be imaginative or creative in a particular way, I know I would never fit into that system. So the moment you fit into that system, you have to ensure that you maintain that institution, that system, or you can buck against it. And if you do buck against it for long enough, then you'll be out on your ear, as it were.

So, I'm really interested in that term, institutional racism. Because now, I would ask, where does it get us when we're talking about what happens to people in certain situations? And for example, I'd go back to COVID, when the moments when we were in the first lockdown and they started issuing photographs of the first people who died from COVID. And me and my friends were looking at this and saying, "Well, wait a minute, there's an awful lot of Black and brown faces in this list. Why is that happening?" And it's too simple an explanation to say, "Racism." I think that's a part of it, but it's how does that play out? What does it mean? Until we can unpack that we won't be able to understand what it is that's happening, what the forces are that have given us that particular situation.

Lord Speaker:

What means do we have of progressing that then?

Baroness Young:

Well, I think we can talk about it in the context of the House of Lords, I think we have an opportunity. The way I see it for me as an individual within the House of Lords, and as you say, coming from this slightly uncommon background, I might say in the Lords, is to give a voice, to have that platform, to use that platform in order to say, "I think we need to look at this in a slightly different way." So how do we look at this in a way that we are asking the right questions? Because if we don't ask the right questions, we're not going to get the right answers, okay. And some of that involves looking back, I'm a great believer in how the past tells us something. Not to say that it determines where we are, but it tells us something about what's gone before, obviously.

But it also tells us where the continuities are and where the discontinuities are. And in those continuities, how is it possible to break them down in such a way that we don't continue on this path? And if I can give an example that's not necessarily to do, not directly to do with racism. But if you think about any one of the scandals that have happened recently, you can talk about Post Office, you can talk about Windrush, you can talk about Grenfell, all of those different things. We always say, "We are never going to let this happen again." And then the next time we say, "We've learned our lesson, it's not going to happen again." And then the next time we say, "We've learned our lesson." Do you see what I mean?

Lord Speaker:

Absolutely.

Baroness Young:

So to me, it that looking back, let's see what it is that we've truly missed. Because these trite phrases don't provide any comfort to the people who suffer from these instances.

Lord Speaker:

Windrush is an example because the history of that, goes way back to 1949. And the people who have come under scrutiny as a result of that. Why do you think that has taken 60, 80 years to get done?

Baroness Young:

Well, again, it goes to that point that I was trying to make earlier, which is when you look back, yes, it goes back to ‘48, ‘49, the Nationality Act in 1948, you can go back further. So the roots of that issue go way, way back. So again, so what I'd be saying is let's look at what pre-dated Windrush, what were the attitudes? What were the predispositions in our politicians? Again, I've been looking back in the 50s and some of the rhetoric around race is absolutely deplorable. So if you build up a culture in its broader sense, or an atmosphere or an idea which says, "Okay, well look, we've got these people here. And it's like, we are not going to work. Somehow we don't work as hard to make sure that they get their rights as we should be working," I guess is what happens.

And once that situation is condoned, it then becomes quite hard to roll back on that. So if there are politicians using certain rhetoric in the public domain, then maybe for a large sway of the public, they'll think, "Well, why should we be bothered about this? It's nothing to do with us. Why should we be supporting these people?" And you don't get that same kind of pushing from the general public that I think that that issue deserves. And if you think about it in terms of the contribution, and I don't say this lightly because I know everybody wants to celebrate diversity when it suits them. But if you think about the contribution towards the building up of the public sector in the post-war period. Whether that's public transport or whether it's National Health Service, et cetera. A lot of those people were key to that.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah.

Baroness Young:

And the interesting thing for me is also that although it doesn't manifest itself in the same way, is that my mother and my father, when they came here, my father came to study microbiology with a view to becoming a doctor, and then was called to the Bar, decided to switch professions. And my mother was in training to be a tuberculosis nurse. And again, whilst they were here, they were working in hospitals, they were working in chambers, they were doing all this work and contributing. And that contribution wasn't fully acknowledged at the time. And even more recently, it's not been given the prominence that it should be, I don't think, in the way that it should be. So it is almost like there's a balance sheet. Well, yeah, you've got these people who are doing good things here, and then you've got your bad apples over there. And we think on balance, not so good.

Lord Speaker:

It takes me back to the 70s and Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech.

Baroness Young:

In 1978.

Lord Speaker:

And by the way, he was sacked by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath. But did that knock back the social progress of Black people?

Baroness Young:

Well, I think yes, it did loads of different things. And actually, I think even before that, there was the notorious conservative MP who made the statement containing the N word in relation to, 'if you want... for a neighbour.'

Lord Speaker:

I think it was a byelection if I remember.

Baroness Young:

Yeah, yeah. That was Smethwick, I think it was.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, Smethwick. That's right.

Baroness Young:

So that was a terrible period. So, actually it's another facet of history that doesn't necessarily get talked about. Because I encounter some young Black people who think that that generation of Black people were not exactly passive, but they weren't active enough. And there were loads of movements within those communities then trying to fight this really oppressive atmosphere because those statements gave legitimacy to the people who would spit at you in the street and throw things at you or call you names in the shops or not let you on the bus or whatever. And so again, it built up that atmosphere. And I know that there was also reinforcement from popular culture then because you had the Alf Garnett thing, you had Love Thy Neighbour, you had all of these comedies, which were based on poking fun at, at best, but being really derisory about and insulting about, at worst, our communities.

So that makes you think, "Well, we are going to stick together because we've got to find a way to survive in this context because we're not going anywhere. And our allies amongst white populations who were there as well, you might remember Blair Peach being killed in that anti-racist march in ‘70... I can't remember the exact year. But was it ‘76? I can't remember. But it was in the 70s. Anyway, a white activist who was killed, and we never really got to the bottom of that. So there's lots of interesting histories, I suppose is a broader point that I would make. And that's an area that I'm interested in too.

Lord Speaker:

Culture and politics, you spent a lot of your life, as you said, adult life in culture, popular culture, radio, TV. Lord Bragg gave a very good speech a few weeks ago in the House of Lords on the relationship between culture and politics. And the historian Simon Schama, he did a very good programme on that, saying that culture can move politics. Do you agree with that?

Baroness Young:

Yes, I do. And in fact, all my... Well, I say all, most of my favourite artists and works of art and ways of working within the arts and creative sector, I like them because they've got something to say about our society, our cultures, our societies I should say. Whether that's a global community that we're looking at or very small community based in a little part of London. So, absolutely. And for me, that's the really interesting thing about culture, because the very word itself is loaded with political connotations, if you like.

When you talk about somebody being cultured, if I said, "Oh, John, I always think of you as a very cultured person." You might be thinking to yourself, does she know that I'm a big fan of hip hop? Because you wouldn't say that was a part of that culture. So I'm really interested again in how you unwrap those words and think about what they actually mean. But absolutely, if you use culture as I do, and a lot of people here do, it's an encompassing thing. It's about that world or those worlds of creativity and innovation where an artist or groups of artists want to connect with people and want to say something to people. And it might be saying something about love or it might be saying something about war, but it's there wanting to make that connection.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, it strikes me as something that I experienced in my youth where classical music or opera, that was way beyond us. Did that strike you as the same?

Baroness Young:

Yeah. I mean, in fact, it is interesting. There used to be a club in Hackney called 'Not for the Likes of Us', or 'Not for Me and You' and what it was, was a nightclub that played classical music. So to me, there are these two-way streets, or more than two ways, which one is culture should be all embracing and everybody should have the opportunity to have access to opera, classical music, as well as hip hop and whatever else you like. So there shouldn't be any constraints on that. And by the same token, we know that some of these art forms and cultural forms are valued more than others. So how do we balance between those two? Because often what happens or what seems to happen, we could say that there's a minority of people that really, really enjoy going to the opera or going to see classical ballet.

And the funding that goes into those art forms will seem to many to be disproportionate in terms of the number of people that actually enjoy them. So, what do we do? We then talked about, particularly in the 70s and 80s and into the 90s, the idea that these art forms should be readily available for everybody. So you have outreach programmes, and you try and find ways to say to what would've been traditional working class people. "Enjoy, understand, get some understanding of." But then that also shouldn't preclude those same groups of people saying, "Well, actually what we really like is the music that we make on our phones or that our friends make in the studio or whatever." Or we like the way that people do parkour or street dancing or whatever. Those are also valid cultural forms and people should be able to enjoy a mix of those without being denigrated from any direction.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. You're a crossbencher. Is the non-party space important for you?

Baroness Young:

Absolutely. Absolutely, yes it is. And I think, when I think back on my life and wonder whether I would've wanted to be an MP or something, I can't think of a political party into which I feel I would fit. And obviously if you're in a political party, you're not going to agree necessarily 100% with every single policy.

Lord Speaker:

Or not agree at all. As you say.

Baroness Young:

[Laughter] It's true. As we can observe from the chamber often. But it is the case that you need to have a broad sympathy for that. So I feel much more comfortable being in that space, which is like, okay, you can follow where you think your fundamental values and principles and that you feel you... I can't say represent because obviously we don't represent in that sense. But from our worldviews and from the things that are important to us, I need to be able to feel that I can vote in accordance with that conscience, with that ethical framework to which I subscribe.

Lord Speaker:

In 2009, your focus on modern slavery received prominence. How did that come about?

Baroness Young:

One of those serendipitous things, John. I just happened to be in my office. The phone happened to ring just before I left, and it was a call from the crossbench office saying that Anti-Slavery International wanted somebody to put down an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill of 2009. And I said, "What is it?" It was to criminalise forced labour and domestic servitude and like virtually everybody else, including people in this House. I said, "Well, isn't that already a crime?" And no, it wasn't. Forced labour on these shores. And I mean, we can go into the history of that, and again, I think that's quite interesting and important. But the point was that it was a historical anomaly that we hadn't made legislation on this, and this seemed like the right moment to put that right. And during the course of that, I learned so much.

I learned an awful lot from fellow crossbenches and other peers across the House. I learned how to work with a campaign. I learned how NGOs can play a really productive and supportive role in this and so on and so forth. And I also learned the importance of taking people with me on that journey, if you like. So it was a really good experience and eventually it happened. And again, it was really interesting to see how that Labour government resisted introducing that piece of legislation until the 11th hour. But eventually they saw the sense of it. And as we know, when you put down an amendment, it's not necessarily that it's going to be reproduced in its entirety or exactly the same. So they fiddled about with it a bit. But in essence, that was the start of this country's move towards the Modern Slavery Act, which was six years later.

Lord Speaker:

Sadly, modern slavery is still with us and alive today, but what progress has been made since 2009?

Baroness Young:

Well, first of all, a huge raising of awareness, absolutely phenomenal. And it seems almost impossible to think what the situation was then. Shortly after that amendment, I set up a group – the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability and Fashion, and we used to have a body of people would come along, and it was really hard to recruit members of both Houses into that group, because they couldn't see the point of it, "What's fashion got to do with environment? What's fashion got to do..." So that's where we were in 2010. We didn't even have an inkling of the extent to which fashion was contributing to environmental degradation, the second most polluting industry in the world. And people weren't aware of that. So working again with academics at this time, getting to know what the research was in this field was really important to be able to make the arguments.

So that group was set up and it gradually developed to take on more about the labour problems in fashion supply chains. So to me, because I like clothes, I like fashion, and I always said to people, "I want to be able to buy clothes and think, well, at least I've tried to find out where these are coming from." But most people don't. Now I think we've got, particularly with younger people, I think it's hard to overestimate the number of young people who approach us, me, whatever, wanting to do something about this, including those who work in the industry itself.

And now we've got to a position where British Fashion Council do regularly hold seminars and so on, and are engaged in these areas around environmental sustainability and forced and abusive labour systems. So the raising of awareness is hugely important because then it forces it onto the table of the politicians who may be reluctant for various reasons and say, "Well, we don't want to place a burden on business," and all the rest of it. But actually who's bearing the brunt of the burden of the people who are literally dying in some cases, in some of the most extreme cases of abusive labour practises abroad.

But also, people who are being damaged here. I think people still underestimate the extent to which we have these problems in this country. It's not only about overseas, and it's not only in the fashion industry, of course it's across every business sector.

Lord Speaker:

And you've been a strong advocate of transparency in supply chains. Could you give us a view on that?

Baroness Young:

Oh, my favourite topic, beware. [Laughter] No, I didn't even know what a supply chain was about 15 years ago. So again, that's part of my education and other people's education to understand what these terms mean. But in terms of, again, in fashion, I like fashion not just because I like the subject, but because it's clearer there than it is in some other areas. But you can extrapolate from what happens in that industry to some of these other areas like construction industry for example. And in fact, because it's more difficult. Okay, so we could have a conversation, John, which goes, "Oh, where did we source our uniforms from?" And we can, I know that Parliament is doing some good work on this area, looking at where we get our materials from, where we get our food and tea and what have you, from. So you might be able to say, "Yes, well, with a clear conscience, I can wear all this stuff and I know that it's been ethically sourced."

But if you are walking down the street, how many times do you think, "I wonder where these paving stones have come from?" How many times do you think, "I wonder what the supply chain is for those railings outside?" These are also part of the problem. So in the construction industry, for example, this issue of child labour quarrying in remote areas of countries like Vietnam or India or Pakistan where it's very, very difficult to keep an eye on what's going on, but when you do see the footage of children, eight and nine carrying stones almost as big as they are down the hills, up and down hills, you think, "Do we want to pay that price for having our nice streets to walk on?" So that's putting it in a slightly simplistic way, but I think that people have to understand the extent to which, whilst we all would say unequivocally, we abhor those labour systems. We're all implicated.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, yeah.

Baroness Young:

We're all implicated. So what is it that we can do here in order to try and mitigate some of the worst of those practises

Lord Speaker:

In regard to companies? How do we hold them up to the light?

Baroness Young:

Yes. Well, this is again, one of my topics, and I do have a private member's bill, I'll take this opportunity to flag that up and don't ask me to recite word for word because it's such a long title. But essentially what we are working on, and it is definitely we, and I'll explain that if we've got time in a moment.

Lord Speaker:

Sure.

Baroness Young:

But what we're working on is for commercial entities and also public authorities because we mustn't forget the huge leverage potentially that government contracts and public bodies contracts could have in terms of making corporations face up to their responsibilities. So the idea of this bill is that the commercial entities and public authorities have a duty to prevent environmental harms and human rights in their value chains. So on one level, that's quite simple, and it's easy for me to say, "Okay, from now on, every commercial entity and every public body has got to make sure that they're not doing anything that makes abusive and exploitative labour systems work within their supply chains."

And that's easier said than done. Typically, some industries will have a supply chain that's metaphorically miles long. It is this hyper distributed supply chain. So you've got, even with a pair of trousers, you've got one company will make the fabric. If it's a mix of fabric, the fabric may be made in different places. Another company will supply the buttons, another company, the zips, another might put just the legs of the trousers together and another company, the pockets. So you can see how those commercial companies that are involved in fashion, for example, find it really difficult to understand and monitor what's going on in their supply chains. But they have to take responsibility for it because otherwise what happens when the people who live by a particular river in China find that they can no longer use the water from that river because it's dyed red from the factory up the road that is making clothes, making a whole bunch of red dresses for some fashion chain in this country. We again, are implicated in that practise.

So we have to hold businesses to account. We can say the consumer has a responsibility, sure we can. But then again, you think, even I find it difficult to keep track of these things. So you can imagine a family or people that are pushed financially looking up all of these different companies to see which one is... no, that's not going to happen." So as I say, it is down to these commercial entities and the public bodies to make sure they take full responsibility.

Now, again, I would say it's not necessarily that you expect them to be 100% to know every detail, but by the same token, if something happens in your supply chain and you say, "Oh, I didn't know about that." That's not a good enough answer. If you can say, "Yes, we were aware that there's a gap here and we've been working and here's our record of what we've been discussing trying to implement to mitigate those circumstances." And that would be acceptable if that's a genuine attempt to try and make sure that those things don't happen. But if it's just some tick box exercise, "Yeah, we sent an auditor down there to have a look and everything seemed to be okay." That's not good enough.

Lord Speaker:

Let's take you on young people. In terms of the views of young people, there's quite a gulf between them and older people. And also in terms of political choices, there's such a vast difference from young people and older people. Do you feel that young people are more aware of these issues and will focus on them more in the future, given the problems of globalisation, the financial crash, COVID, that's changed the world and young people now in terms of getting housing, in terms of progress, in terms of the future, it is generally acknowledged they're not going to be better off than their parents in the future.

Baroness Young:

Yes. Again, this is a really interesting question to me because if I can go back to my era, this idea that you'd be better off than the previous generation, I don't remember that being in the air. So what's happened is that this expectation has been driven into people, you must own your own place, otherwise you're not a proper human being, a fully adult human being if you don't own your own property and all the rest of it. And so I'm not saying that's wrong. All I'm saying is we've changed the expectations but not being able to fulfil them. So that leaves people feeling discontent. And I think that breaking up of the problems into these different areas so that people, not just young people, but I think particularly young people, is what you're getting at, will look at individual issues and think, "Well, I understand that. I understand and want to do something about all the people that are sleeping on the streets," that line the streets as I walked here today, which is shocking.

And they want to do something about it. And so what I find, again, is one of the great things about working in the fashion industry is that it's full of young people. It's full of bright young people who want to do things differently. I mean, I've even been involved in teaching students in Italy remotely who begged me to do a session on the Modern Slavery Act. I mean, these are MA fashion students. So it's like this whole idea that young people are not interested in politics, they're not interested in the politics that we've grown up with and that we've handed to them and the world that we've handed to them maybe? But they are interested in how they can make the world a better place.

Now you can say that's naivety or idealism or whatever, but I like to think back again historically, to say that if 120 years ago women had just said, "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have the vote?" "Yeah, but you're wasting your time. Don't bother with that. That's never going to happen." Or enslaved Africans that said, "Okay, well we might as well just accept we're going to be slaves to the rest of our life." Where would we be? It'd be a completely different world. So you have to keep plugging at these things.

So I am very encouraging of young people who want to do things. I get a lot of requests from young people asking if they can shadow or get work experience. And I always try and be positive, always try and sort something out that will help them to get a wider view of not just the issue as it were, but how they can use these instruments like Parliament, like MPs, like peers. We are very underused in many ways. Don't you think John? Because people from the outside know quite what to make of the House of Lords?

Lord Speaker:

Yeah.

Baroness Young:

People, they think, "Oh, wow, really? Can we come along and watch debates?" A number of people who don't even seem to realise they can come along and watch debates is extraordinary. So there's something that things like this session, hopefully we're encouraging more young people to be involved. Because it is their future, isn't it?

Lord Speaker:

Finally, when I was asked to come into the House of Lords, quite a number of my friends said, "What are you thinking? Why are you getting in there?" Why did you come into the House of Lords? And if you're talking to young people, what would you say is the advantage of the House of Lords for you, and its usefulness for society?

Baroness Young:

It is a good question because some people said the same to me. Yeah, some people said the same to me. But surprisingly, quite a lot said, "This is really good," it's because of coming in through that route, okay. I think if I'd come in through a party political route, that would've been a whole other thing. But coming into what was called, the 'people's peers' route, made it very different. And in fact, people were saying, "Oh, can you do this? Will you be able to do that?" So to me, it was much more encouraging. The person I always quote on this though is my son, who at the time was 20. And after giving me huge congratulations when he heard I'd gotten in, he said, "You do realise, mum, you're now part of the problem." So it was like that little reminder to 'keep yourself grounded mother,' and not get ideas above your station.

Because I think you can just rest on your laurels. So to me, right from the get go, I had some very good advice, and I always remember Patricia Scotland saying to me, "Observe, just look and see. You're not on a timeframe. You've got time to learn how things work here." And that was a great piece of advice. So it took a little while for me to understand how I could play a useful role, but what I hope now I'm able to do, I say to lots of different groups and people come to me and say, "Oh, I want to have a screening of a film that's about mental health issues and men, and how we can help open up men." And I say, "Okay, well let's go through the all party parliamentary groups and see which of them deal with mental health and that. And we will invite those MPs and those peers to attend this screening along with some of the panellists that you are suggesting."

And we help them to book a room and all the rest of it and those kinds of things. Otherwise, what better place to have a platform? And I think it's something that John Alderdice said in his interview with you, was that if you ask people to come to the House of Lords, very often they come. And they do come. And for whatever reason, I've had a big fashion company, top top fashion company brought its staff here to have this debate about modern slavery and so on.

And again, they wouldn't normally. Yes, they're big fashion, big in the fashion world, but they wouldn't normally have that access to be able to say "Look, this is what we've been talking about and this is what we want you as staff to promote within your practises." So I think it's an invaluable platform to get things done actually. And I think that the thing about raising awareness is really important because that is another, change of metaphors, that's another rung on the ladder towards achieving what you want to achieve. Because if you can get people behind you, then you can help to change politicians' mindsets.

Lord Speaker:

One of the aims of this podcast is to highlight the experience that's in the House of Lords and the policies that we have where we can have a global footprint on that. And I think you have illustrated that admirably today. So, Baroness Young, thank you for your time.

Baroness Young:

Thank you, John.