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Government: Ministerial Changes

Volume 704: debated on Monday 6 October 2008

My Lords, perhaps I may be the first after the Summer Recess to welcome the new Leader of the House and Lord President of the Council, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon. We very much look forward to working with her, as we have with her predecessors. We wish her good fortune in that job, particularly offering our support in her dealing with House matters as Leader of the whole House.

I should also like to pay a special tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, who has been tremendously promoted to European Commissioner. It is a post which, I think, surprised her almost as much as me, since, on Friday, I was having lunch with her when the Prime Minister rang her mobile telephone. He, I have to say, was even more surprised to hear that she was having lunch with me. In the relatively short time that the noble Baroness was Leader, she demonstrated most ably how she led for the whole House by finding that balance between representing the whole House and still being a party politician. That should remain as an example for us all. From this side, we wish her the best of good fortune in her post and we hope to see her from time to time in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the good wishes expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I am not surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has gone to Brussels. Anyone watching the skill and knowledge she deployed during the passage of the Lisbon Bill will know that our Commission portfolio in Brussels is now in very safe hands, and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, will have at least one friend when he wants to go over there.

Turning to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, Lady Royall, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, pointed out the skills and attributes needed in a Leader of the House. I think that one is needed above all—to be a good listener. When we recall that the noble Baroness spent so many years working for the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, we know that she must have that skill in spades. She also left a vacancy that has been filled by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. The noble Lord has often been the good soldier Svejk of this Government, going out into no man’s land to defend the indefensible. It is a great encouragement to see that he did after all have a field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack. We wish them both well.

My Lords, on behalf of the Cross Benches I, too, add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, on her appointment as an EU Commissioner. We will feel her absence in the House and we wish her well, while having no doubt that her robust and can-do approach will add immeasurably to the work of the Commission. Our congratulations also go with great pleasure to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, on her appointment as Leader of the House and Lord President of the Council. I will miss my weekly meetings with her, but that is a small price to pay for the work of this place being passed into such safe hands. Finally, but by no means least, I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on his appointment as the government Chief Whip. I look forward very much to working with him in the future.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. I have particular memories of working with her on an education Bill and on various debates. It always struck me that no one else in the House could speak as quickly as her. At the end of one debate I passed her a note with a Gilbert and Sullivan quotation:

“This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter

Isn’t generally heard, and if it is it doesn’t matter”.

I would not quite want that to be my last word about her because it is not absolutely true, and I am sure that she will bring that sharp and engaging way of speaking to her new job. All I can say about the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, is that my hair was once the colour of hers, but it has all gone now. However, I can assure her that I have sired three offspring redheads because the red gene is very strong. Finally, I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on his appointment. We have very much enjoyed working with him.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken today for their kind remarks about my noble friends Lady Ashton and Lord Bassam, and for what they have said about me. I am very grateful. That is perhaps an understatement. Someone once said that a week is a long time in politics. From my own experience of the changes to Government announced by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, clearly a day is now a long time in politics. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, told us that my noble friend was lunching with him when she got the call from the Prime Minister; I was in the swimming pool. It was an enormous surprise.

My noble friend Lady Ashton is unable to be with us today. Her duties as the UK’s Commissioner-designate in the European Commission are already heavy and undoubtedly will get much heavier. I echo and share the tributes that have been paid to her. My noble friend Lady Ashton—I am sure she will be appalled to hear herself called Lady Ashton rather than Cathy—has been for the last year a spirited and dynamic Leader of the House and, of course, a highly effective Minister in your Lordships’ House for a great deal longer. Her enthusiasm was contagious and her energy boundless. She had an extraordinary capacity to master a brief and I watched in awe her handling of the European Union (Amendment) Bill. Although she will, of course, continue to be a Member of the House, she will be missed as Leader and as a constant presence with your Lordships. Our loss is very much Brussels’s gain.

I am deeply honoured, privileged and humbled to stand here as Leader of your Lordships’ House. I believe that we have a strong and exciting government team in the House of Lords and I look forward to working with it. Cathy Ashton—my noble friend Lady Ashton—very much saw herself as Leader of the whole House as well as of these Benches. I entirely agree that that is the role of the Leader of the House, and I shall discharge that role and the privilege of carrying it out to the very best of my ability. The job of the Government is to serve. I have a very high and warm regard for this House. In fact, I love the House of Lords. It is an immensely special place and, as I pledge myself to be its Leader, I pledge myself also to be its servant. My Lords, I look forward to working with you all.