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Tributes: Lord Weatherill

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 8 May 2007

My Lords, it is with great regret that I have to inform the House of the death of Lord Weatherill on 6 May. On behalf of the whole House I extend our condolences to his family and friends.

My Lords, I rise to pay tribute to Lord Weatherill. Bruce Bernard Weatherill, known to all as Jack, made his mark on public life as Speaker of the House of Commons. He reached a far wider audience than his predecessors because his tenure as Speaker from 1983 to 1992 coincided with the introduction of television cameras to the Commons Chamber. He became known to millions for his interventions during Prime Minister’s Questions. In Parliament he was known for his belief in making government accountable and in making Parliament matter.

Lord Weatherill was born in Guildford. His father owned a Savile Row tailoring business and it was into this trade that he was apprenticed aged 17 after completing his education at Malvern College. He remained involved in the family business throughout his life. Commissioned in 1940, he served as a Bengal Lancer during the Second World War. He referred to this period as “formative years” and many of his experiences clearly had a lifelong impact. He was proficient in Urdu, became vegetarian after seeing famine in Bengal and practised meditation. He maintained an interest in the region throughout his life. Noble Lords may recall his interventions in this House on the subjects of the Kashmir earthquake and the readmission of Pakistan to the Commonwealth.

After the war he focused on the family business. In 1964 he won election as the Conservative candidate for the seat of Croydon North-East. He retained his seat until 1992, standing as in independent candidate in 1987 after he had become Speaker of the House of Commons. He served as a Whip in opposition and, in government, as Deputy Chief Whip. He was elected as the 154th Speaker of the House of Commons in 1983. His years of service were marked by a desire to encourage the free flow of debate and the expression of all opinions. He championed the role of Back-Benchers and his tenure as Speaker was sometimes an uncomfortable period for the Government of the day.

Lord Weatherill also made a significant contribution to this House. He was raised to the peerage in 1992 and from 1995 to 1999 served as Convenor of the Cross Benches. From the beginning he commanded tremendous respect from all sides of the House. He was a Convenor at a critical time in the development of the role of the Cross Benches and was always helpful and absolutely fair in his dealings, ensuring that the interests of the Cross Benches were well represented in the usual channels.

Lord Weatherill was always modest about the role he played during the passage of the House of Lords reform Act of 1999, but this House will not forget it. It was in large part due to him that an agreement was reached which allowed the Bill to pass. He used his skills to considerable effect at what was an extremely challenging time for this House.

It is difficult to do justice to a life characterised by such a broad range of interests and experiences. Lord Weatherill will be remembered as a remarkable man; respected by all and missed by many. He is survived by his wife Lyn, their three children and seven grandchildren. I am sure that all sides of the House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to Lord Weatherill’s family and friends.

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the Leader of the House in everything that she said about the late Lord Weatherill, whose death has saddened the whole House. We on this side, who were proud that he was a Conservative, deeply share her expressions of sympathy for Lady Weatherill and the family. They have lost much, but they will know that they were also given much, as was every one of us.

Jack Weatherill was a rare figure; someone who had, as Speaker of the Commons, been for millions the embodiment of that House but who, in coming here and being chosen as Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers at such a critical time in their history, became part of the fabric of this House also. Those of us who saw him well into his 80s, with that crisp, swift, upright walk along the corridors, could have had no doubt that he was a military man in younger days—a cavalryman, indeed, who saw service in India and retained not only his love of horses from those days but some of his habits of life; his vegetarianism, for example, and his practice of meditation. As a horseman, it was apt that he personally sewed the riding breeches used by the king and queen at the Trooping, and it was no accident that the Royal Warrant was given to his firm.

It is as a true parliamentarian—someone concerned for, and about, the standing of Parliament inside and outside these walls and for his great and dedicated service to Parliament—that Lord Weatherill will be remembered. It has been widely commented that he was the Speaker who encouraged, over the heads of many doubters, the introduction of television to the other place—a House, incidentally, that was so much more reluctant to innovate than this House was at the time. That introduction was to the good of Parliament, as was so much that he did. He was rough only with Ministers who preferred the “Today” studio to the House for their announcements. One of today’s obituaries calls him, rightly, a great Speaker. He was famously independent, not always to the delight of the Government, but he won the trust and affection of all Members; his ready wit and light humour were always there to defuse any situation that might risk getting out of hand. He opened up the Speaker’s House to all Members and to their families, and he took pride in the fact that at least once in every Parliament an MP and his wife would have been to dine.

When Lord Weatherill came to this House, he was Convenor of the Cross Benches at a time when a government Bill threatened the removal of 226 Cross-Bench Peers, nearly two-thirds of the then strength of those Benches, which are so vital to the character of this House. As the noble Baroness has outlined, Lord Weatherill played a major role in the compromise that led to the eventual House of Lords Act, moving the Weatherill amendment that shaped that legislation and saw the present House created with massive majorities in both Houses. Out of conflict he helped bring compromise and a House whose performance and independence since 1999 should surely have gladdened him who helped to mould it so much.

For all his great offices and achievements, Jack Weatherill always retained a great humility, symbolised by the famous thimble that he carried to remind him of his origins. For his epitaph, he wanted simply this: that he always kept his word. That he did; and with that word he kept a trust, a faith and a dignity that all of us who knew him will sorely miss.

My Lords, since the Lord President and the Leader of the Opposition have not mentioned it, I start my tribute with the story that Lord Weatherill told so often against himself. He used to say that when he was elected in 1964 as a young Conservative Back-Bencher, he found himself in the gents’ toilets down the other end of the Corridor and heard two of the Conservative knights of the shire talking. One said to the other, “I think this place is going to the dogs. My tailor is in here now”. He loved to tell that story.

As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has said, it would be difficult not to see Lord Weatherill as both a tailor and a solider: dapper, crisp and well dressed. He was a skilled Deputy Chief Whip. Indeed, he has one of the few battle honours that any Opposition Whip could have: he brought down a Government, as the pairing Whip during the 1979 Government. As has been said, he was a respected chairman of Ways and Means, and an even more respected Speaker—our first TV Speaker. The fact that he was able to move from a background as a Whip to Convenor of the Cross Benches is also a clue to his character. He had a personal integrity that allowed him to be at certain times partisan and at other times absolutely neutral. I once attended a dinner at the Pakistan High Commission when he was there, and was impressed by his affection for and deep knowledge of the subcontinent.

I was never in favour of the Weatherill amendment, but admired the skill with which he played poker with the Government of the day. They blinked first. Apart from the epitaph given him by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, it can truly be said of him, “If you seek his memorial, look about you”.

Lord Weatherill was a parliamentarian who had affection and respect at both ends of the Corridor. We on these Benches share the sense of loss that his family must feel at this moment, and send them our deep condolences.

My Lords, the death of Bernard Weatherill—always Jack Weatherill to his friends here—is a sad occasion for the whole House. I express my sympathy, as others have, to Lyn and his children.

Today is a particularly sad day for the Cross-Benchers, because Jack Weatherill was a most distinguished and respected member of the Cross-Bench group. Here in Parliament we think of him as a remarkable parliamentarian, embodying for me the spirit of our democratic Parliament; as a Member of the House of Commons, one of the most distinguished Speakers and a national figure in that office; and as a real star in this House. We on the Cross Benches also like to remember how he was always willing to share his knowledge and experience. He was invariably helpful, often humorous and a source of much wisdom.

I had many contacts with Jack Weatherill myself, in particular because he was one of my predecessors as Convenor of the Cross Benches, from 1995 to 1999. He was a true independent Member and an independent spirit here, as we saw with his role in the last reform of the membership of the House. I learned a lot from him, and can honestly say that I never once failed to enjoy our meetings and discussions. He gave of his experience not only in this House but also more widely, in the organisations and charities that he supported. I particularly remember the Industry and Parliament Trust which he chaired for nine years and supported very effectively, reflecting both his affection for Parliament and his links with commerce and industry—particularly small businesses, since he was not only a great parliamentarian but also, from experience before he entered politics, the best tailor in the House. His interests extended far beyond our shores. He held office in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for many years and had lots of contacts with Parliament, Government and people, particularly in the Indian subcontinent and other countries with close links to the United Kingdom. We shall miss Jack Weatherill very deeply. Parliament has lost a great servant.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I add our condolences to those of other noble Lords who have spoken. We have the title “Lords Spiritual”, but Jack Weatherill was one of the Lords Spiritual in reality. We have heard about the integrity of his life and the thimble of humility; he was a genuinely spiritual person. In addition to the services to Parliament, about which Peers with better right to speak have referred, he cared for the coherence of the whole of society. I think of his work on the Speaker’s Commission on Citizenship, for example, which gave birth to the Institute of Citizenship Studies.

He saw his own contribution to the story in the light of the continuous story of the generations. He looked back to some of the great Speakers of the past; he located himself in a continuing story and saw himself as making a contribution to something in which we all have a share. The Speakership was almost a perfect expression of his gifts.

He was conspicuously fair and inclusive. It was typical of Lord Weatherill that he was the patron of the Three Faiths Forum, and its members were all keen to share him as their own. I remember vividly him describing the first time that he was under fire, not politically but in that period to which the Lord President has referred—the Second World War. He was in a vehicle, the bullets were buzzing around him and it was being driven by a Sikh. The Sikh turned round to him and said, “Put your trust in God, sahib, he’s a very reliable fella”. So we believe, but so, more importantly, Jack Weatherill lived.

My Lords, my first encounter with Jack Weatherill was when he was chairman of Ways and Means in the other place. I had just been made a chairman of a Standing Committee there. I was very wet behind the ears. My first big committee meeting was a housing committee. At a Division, I thought that all the Members were there, I called for the doors to be locked and for the Division to take place. I had locked out the Opposition Whip and the Opposition Front Bench Member dealing with the Bill. A hullabaloo broke out. It was a Thursday morning and I spent a terrible weekend because I knew that I was being reported to the chairman of Ways and Means, whom I did not really know. On Monday morning, I went into Jack Weatherill’s office to see him and confess all, believing that my days of chairmanship were well and truly over. I opened the door and he came in and said, “come along, Betty, come and sit down. I don’t care what you’ve done, but I am totally in support of you. I am on your side”. Throughout the years that I worked with Jack Weatherill, that was his attitude to all those who worked with him. He was totally loyal, committed and supportive. He was my dear friend and mentor. I shall miss him very much indeed.