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Lord Speaker IFG speech

27 March 2024

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The Lord Speaker spoke to the Institute for Government on 26 March 2024. A video of the speech is avaliable here. 

Thank you, Hannah. It’s especially pleasing to be speaking with Hannah in the Chair as a former Parliamentary Clerk. 

Normally when I speak at events outside Parliament, I spend a lot of time explaining how the House of Lords works. I emphasise our complementary role to the Commons: revising legislation, advising governments, and assisting democracy.  

There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about the Lords. And, therefore, there is still an important job to do explaining our work to the public, especially to young people. Just a few weeks ago, I spoke to over 200 students at the University of Manchester.  In advance, I prepared for all the tough questions – “what do the Lords actually do?”   “Why aren’t you elected?”   “Why are you all so old?” I’m glad to report that it was a good dialogue, and the questions were positive and incisive.  

However, for tonight, I think only a brief explanation about the role of our second chamber will be needed. Instead, I want to tell you about what we are doing in the Lords to challenge misconceptions, engage with the public, and prepare the House of Lords for the future.  

I will also offer some reflections on the continuing debate about Lords reform. Having been around Westminster for almost 40 years – I have some thoughts to share!  


I believe that the Lords adds enormous value to our democracy. But a lack of understanding of our work remains a problem.  

When I stood to become Lord Speaker, I said we needed a vibrant second chamber which is open, transparent and engages with the wider public. Public engagement is one of the most important aspects of my job. 

That’s why I launched the Lord Speaker’s corner podcast in February last year. Podcasts are a central part of the modern media landscape, and the potential to use them to connect with wider audiences is enormous.  

In each episode, I interview a member of the House about their life and work in the Lords. The 15 episodes we have published to date have reached an audience of over 1.5 million across all platforms. 

The podcast demonstrates the diversity of experience and background of our members. It dispels myths and celebrates the talent and diversity in our ranks.   

In a recent episode, Peter Mandelson spoke frankly about his difficulties being outed as a gay man in the 1980s. 

Norman Lamont told me about his attempts to take politics out of the setting of interest rates, a move which foreshadowed the Bank of England becoming independent from government.  

Floella Benjamin spoke candidly about the discrimination she faced in the acting world, and spoke passionately about getting proper compensation for the Windrush generation. 

This podcast is now a vital part of our work to show a vibrant and experienced second chamber. Future episodes will include interviews with Baroness Warsi and Baroness Chakrabarti, two more notable public figures and members of the House. 

Another important area of work is the Learn with the Lords programme. Members connect with schools in person and online, giving young people an opportunity to question peers about the purpose and operations of the House. Last year alone, over 60 members spoke to almost 20,000 students in over 600 schools up and down the country.  

Learn with the Lords continues to go from strength to strength and the feedback from young people and teachers is consistently positive.  

As one teacher said recently, students “relished the opportunity to get a first-hand insight into the workings of the House of Lords” and the session “brought the subject to life, helping students to see how the topics that they read about play out in real life”.  

Our outreach programme now extends to the higher education level. We have just launched a brand-new Parliament for Researchers programme. 

Working with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, I initiated this project to connect researchers and PhD students with peers.  

The intention is to promote a two-way dialogue, with our members being kept informed of the most cutting-edge research for use in committee reports or the chamber, and researchers learning more about how they can engage practically with Parliament. Last Friday Lord Ravensdale, an engineer by background, spoke to over 400 researchers online. This is the first in a series which we expect to grow and develop over time, covering different areas of research. 

So these are just some of the ways we reach out to students of all ages. But what about reaching out to other parts of the UK? This is something I feel strongly about, and that’s why I made it a point of principle to visit every Speaker from the four home nations within my first year in this role.  

On each visit, I was welcomed by representatives from all parts of the political spectrum, demonstrating the desire from the nations to remain in close dialogue with the UK Parliament.  

As a result of these meetings, and with the agreement of my fellow Speakers, we were able to establish the interparliamentary forum.  

This is a group made up of parliamentarians from the four nations, who come together on an equal footing to discuss common issues. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Forum had another productive meeting in Westminster, which included members from the reconvened Northern Ireland Assembly.  

For my part, maintaining these strong relationships with our counterparts across the UK is crucial. 

We must also continue to foster a healthy dialogue with our friends and neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. I was privileged to be the first Lord Speaker to be invited to visit the Oireachtas and address their Seanad. 

As ambassador for the House of Lords, I have had extensive international engagement with countries near and far – from South Africa to East Timor - all with the aim of deepening the connection between our nations. With division increasing globally, nurturing these ties is critical.  

As well as reaching out nationally and globally, we are also promoting innovations within the House. 

As Senior Deputy Speaker, I launched a review of Lords Select Committees, which looked at every aspect from their resources through to the subjects that they covered.  

The committee structure in the Lords developed sporadically over a number of decades, resulting in a situation where some areas of public policy were extremely well scrutinised by committees, while others were almost ignored.  

The review defined the five key principles for Lords committee work. 

  • Committees should be Cross-cutting, 
  • Comprehensive, 
  • Flexible, 
  • Outward-looking; and
  • Effective. 

As a result, we put in place a new structure of thematic committees that cover every major area of public policy and complement the departmental focus of our Commons counterparts. 

Now our committees have the flexibility and the resources they need to provide first-class scrutiny and reports and, crucially, make use of the full breadth of expertise and experience that resides in our Chamber. They have the capacity and freedom to examine the pressing issues of the day while also looking at the long-term complex challenges facing our society. 

Our digital committee, for example, recently urged the UK not to miss out on the potential 'AI goldrush' that could be delivered by large language models like ChatGPT. Last month, the Industry and Regulators Committee published its report “Who watches the watchdogs?”, raising concerns regarding the independence and accountability of regulators.  

Our Science and Technology Committee has warned that the government’s energy security and net zero commitments are at risk, in a report entitled “Long-duration energy storage:  Get on with it”. The Committee is chaired by Baroness Brown, Principal of the Engineering Faculty at the University of Cambridge and expert on low carbon technology.  

Post-legislative scrutiny is also a key element of our committee activity in the Lords. This work is a particular specialism of our House, pursuing a reflective approach to fill a scrutiny gap often neglected elsewhere. This year we have appointed two such committees – one is tasked with reviewing the Modern Slavery Act 2015, while the other will look at the Inquiries Act 2005.  

Let me turn now to recent changes to our procedures. The House has proved to be more adept and responsive to change than it is sometimes credited with being. 

The COVID pandemic forced Parliament to adapt quickly to different ways of working, and we have now embedded some of these changes. 

For instance, we continue to allow remote participation– including in legislative debates and votes - for some members with disabilities. This marks significant progress in making the House as inclusive as possible.  

A Parliament, however, is primarily a place where people must be able to meet together in person, and which should be open to the public. In that respect, I feel we have quite a bit more work ahead of us to improve physical accessibility within the Palace. We need to retain a focus on this for members, staff and visitors as we take forward the restoration and renewal of the Palace, the strategic case for which was published last week. 

Our ability to adapt our proceedings was most recently demonstrated by changes we made following the appointment of Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton as Foreign Secretary.  

The established procedures for putting questions to a Secretary of State were reviewed to see how they could be used to scrutinise the work of Lord Cameron. Secretary of State questions were moved from a Thursday to a busier Tuesday slot. We also expanded the time made available for such questions by a third. 

In addition to his regular question time slot, the Foreign Secretary has also participated in general debates, including a six-hour debate on foreign policy just the other week. The Commons is seldom able to make time for such lengthy general scrutiny of policy.  

Given the multiple crises we face globally, the fact that the Lords has experts available to consider these matters, informed by a wide range of professional and political experience, is crucial. The respectful, courteous nature of our debate is also an important attribute. 

We have also, within the administration of the House, undertaken a programme of cultural and managerial change, following an external management review. This long-term work continues to deliver significant improvements to corporate governance, transparency and accountability.  

These recent changes to our practices and procedures demonstrate that the Lords is alive to the need for change. We are able to address the issues that are in our hands. But we cannot control all of the factors that affect our reputation. For instance, we are not responsible for appointments to the House, and cannot control its overall size. The criticism we receive often has its roots in this area. 

It is important to acknowledge the political context when considering reform. Studies show that trust in our institutions is low. There is a high level of frustration with our politics.  

Within this context, the system of appointments to the House is seen as a weakness.  

However, it is also a strength. Many experienced people in the House would not have stood for election perhaps, in part, because their career would not have allowed for it. One such person is Astronomer Royal Lord Rees of Ludlow, who discussed this point with me in the latest episode of the Lord Speaker’s corner podcast. Many wouldn’t have the time or inclination to go door-knocking for a particular political party. Such people typically value their independence, as opposed to any political alignment or membership. The combination of different talents, backgrounds and interests in our House is important.  

Indeed, I see our membership as consisting of three distinct streams: those who know how we got here; those who have a feel for where we are now; and those who have a sense of how the future might play out.  

When all three streams are flowing then the expertise and insight of our members combines to make us the best think-tank in the country. 

A recent study by the UCL Constitution Unit found that over half of all changes to Bills originate in the Lords.  

One such example happened just a couple of weeks ago, when the government announced plans to introduce legislation to stop foreign state ownership of British newspapers.  

And where did they get this idea? From an amendment proposed by the Chair of our Communications and Digital Committee, and former BBC executive, Baroness (Tina) Stowell, during our consideration of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.  

The Spectator’s editor, Fraser Nelson, said last week on this:  

“Principle was put in front of money by backbenchers in the House of Lords, who said that, if there wasn't a law stopping newspapers being bought by foreign powers, there should be. So they proposed one. This is the whole idea of a second chamber filled with people who do not see politics as a stepping stone: they are free to speak on principle. Free to introduce laws, when needed, whether the government likes it or not.”  

As Fraser says, this is an example of where the composition of our Chamber is an asset, demonstrating the influence and expertise in the House. 

Other commentators from across the political spectrum agree. Ian Dunt, in his book, “How Westminster Works...and why it doesn’t”, says: “The Lords is everything the Commons is not. It has no majority, so the government does not control it. It values expertise and careful deliberation over partisanship. And perhaps most importantly of all, it controls its own timetable.” 

It is of course through the Commons, and through general elections, that the Government is ultimately accountable to the electorate for its performance. Because our House is appointed, our detailed scrutiny of legislation doesn’t encroach on that core accountability of the Commons. There is, therefore, a key constitutional value to having an appointed House within a bicameral system. 

As Lord Speaker, I am impartial, and it is for the government to consider in more detail any proposals for change. But any plan for a wholly or partly elected House could have unintended consequences for our constitutional balance. And, of course, the more radical the change then the harder it is to discern what the full impact of reform would be. 

History informs us that recent attempts to pursue wholesale reform have failed. Such plans failed to resolve the fundamental constitutional tension that would exist between an elected Commons and a wholly or partly elected upper House. 

However, incremental changes to composition, often developed or implemented with cross-party support, have tended to enjoy more success.  

Given this history, what are the steps that the Government and Parliament could take to reform the House?  

On appointments, it has been suggested that the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) could have more powers to challenge nominations.  

But HOLAC has also been constrained in its ability to appoint expert Crossbenchers. From 2001-12, for example, HOLAC nominated 59 independent members. Then in 2012, the Prime Minister issued a directive to HOLAC limiting these appointments with the result that only 15 of these peers have been appointed in the following ten years.  

Diversity of membership also has to be an important consideration in developing plans for change.  

Again, if we were releasing the constraints on HOLAC then we could perhaps give the Commission a renewed focus on seeking to ensure that new appointments reflected the diversity of our population, extending across all nations and regions of the UK.  

A good start may be to list the hometown of nominated peers when publishing political lists of new members, as is done for New Years honours. This could begin to challenge any notion that the House is dominated by the interests of London and the south-east.  

There remains an issue regarding the size of the House, which is significantly bigger than the Commons. Since 2016, 45 new life peers have been nominated in resignation honours lists. A former Leader of the House has proposed that the practice of creating peerages in resignation honours lists should cease, the reason being that Prime Ministers can no longer be held accountable for their nominations after they have resigned.  

As with any change, it is ultimately for the Prime Minister, the Government, and Parliament to decide the way forward.  

My hope is that any Prime Minister considering reform will first ‘seek to understand.’  

Seek to understand the strengths of our membership. 

Seek to understand the value of our detailed scrutiny of legislation.  

And seek to understand the strengths of cross-party working, and the value of consensus.  

I want to end on this note. Modern politics often becomes too heated, thereby clouding judgements and driving polarisation.  

But I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with Peter Hennessy, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, who told me that “the role of the House of Lords is to provide the light, rather than the heat”.  

Looking ahead as we face complex domestic and international challenges, it is vital that we seek to keep that light shining brightly. 

Thank you.