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Chairman of Committees

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2012

Moved By

That the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, be appointed to take the Chair in all Committees of the House for this Session.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his appointment to a role that I am confident he will fulfil extremely ably. As I move the Motion, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara, who today retires from that important office. He was a dedicated Chairman of Committees, and throughout his years in office displayed time and again his good judgment and good humour in endless committees and here at the Dispatch Box.

His roles were many and varied, but he fulfilled all of them with great skill—from his duties on the Woolsack to overseeing major works, most recently the new cast-iron roofs that any noble Lord who was here over Easter will know are desperately needed, answering Oral Questions and resisting calls for a House of Lords cat to catch House of Lords mice. Noble Lords from other Benches will say more about the work that he so ably oversaw, but perhaps I may say a few words about the success of the Millbank House project. It is exceptional these days for building works to finish on time and within budget, but this project managed both, allowing Members to move in as planned after the Summer Recess. I can personally testify to the amount of time that the noble Lord put into liaising with the usual channels and chairing meetings of the accommodation steering group.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, was chairman in challenging times for the House, and in particular for the Committee for Privileges. He chaired that committee with great sensitivity and wisdom, and the more robust complaints system that we developed was crucial in upholding the reputation of the House and its work in difficult times. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing its appreciation of the noble Lord for his work, and in expressing its warmest and best wishes for his future as he returns to the Back Benches.

My Lords, I echo the words of the Leader of the House and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, as the new Lord Chairman. He will be a loss to these Benches but, I am sure, a fine Lord Chairman. Of course, he has a hard act to follow. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, was Lord Chairman of your Lordships’ House for all the time that I have been a Member, and for a fair deal longer. The fact that he will no longer be Lord Chairman seems rather strange to many of us.

In his time as Lord Chairman, he steered the House’s internal and domestic side through many difficulties, but he rose to all the challenges. He was a particular stalwart a few years ago when the House was in the middle of a set of events that led eventually to our adoption of a new system of financial support for Members. Not so long ago he also became an unlikely star of YouTube—but of course not the House’s only star as he was joined shortly afterwards by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, whose turn was also something of a must-watch.

The noble Lord served this House loyally, with great dedication and with huge effort as Chairman of Committees. I know that the officials and staff of the House, like us, enjoyed working with him and held him in high regard. On behalf of these Benches, I thank him for all that he did for the House, and give him our warmest good wishes for the future.

My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to welcome the elevation of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, because the last time I commented in this House on the noble Lord I said that he brought a “superficial academic authority” to his remarks. I make it clear that this was a moment of impulse, instantly regretted, and hope it will not influence my relations with him in his new, elevated position.

I have no problem at all in paying great tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon. I always thought that Brabs brought to his position all the touch and authority of a housemaster at a minor public school—which is exactly what the House of Lords needs in a Chairman of Committees. Noble Lords may get passionate about political issues, but they should see Brabs trying to steer through the introduction of an electronic pass system on the doors, or a new way of going in and out of the car park, or a safe way of crossing from Millbank. This required skill of the highest political order and was always done from the Dispatch Box with the most benign authority. It has been a pleasure to work with him over these years and I am pleased to pay this tribute to his quiet skills, for which the whole House is in his debt.

My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues in the Cross-Bench group, I associate myself with the well-deserved tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, during 10 years of quite outstanding service as Chairman of Committees. Those who have spoken before me are, of course, much better qualified than I to record his many achievements, but what is beyond doubt is that the noble Lord has been in that role throughout a period of considerable change and some unexpected—and, indeed, some unwelcome—challenges.

Beyond the big events with which noble Lords are familiar, I was struck by the noble Lord’s attention to detail. For example, one morning when I came into the building I saw him attending to the door that leads down to the River Room in such a way that I thought that he might be doing his early morning prayers. I could not resist asking him what he was doing, and he then gave me a detailed account of how the locking mechanism on that door was malfunctioning. That attention to detail has served this House to great benefit, most of all in big projects such as Millbank House, to which reference has already been made. The success of that project was due in no small measure to the noble Lord’s conscientious and careful work. It is his equable temperament and good humour that made him so well qualified to address other taxing challenges of immense importance to the House.

However, there are many other unrecorded issues that deserve mention. Many noble Lords will remember the way in which the noble Lord addressed matters such as mice and moths, and even the origin of the bacon that is served at breakfast in this House. Indeed, your Lordships may recall that at the time of the mice in 2010, a report in the Telegraph referred to the noble Lord in the following terms:

“P G Wodehouse, Pinter, Monty Python—none of them could equal Lord Brabazon of Tara for the dry, incisive, and yet irresistibly comic touch with which, as Chairman of Committees … he responded to questions about this most pressing of national problems”.

There is one other matter which would repay dwelling upon for a moment. In referring to it, I invite noble Lords to imagine the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, as he was, without a grey hair in his head. Hold that image in your mind—the noble Lord without a grey hair—because that is how he was before the Peers’ car park was landed on his plate.

We are all extremely grateful to the noble Lord for a job well done. We welcome most warmly his successor, the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, and wish him well in this important post.

My Lords, the mention of prayers gives me my cue to speak from these Benches in welcoming the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, to his position, and in joining in the gratitude of the House to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. Because of his role, he has been an habitué of these Benches, and his whispered commentary on the proceedings of the House have been never less than illuminating—although as a Bishop, and being a terminus rather than a junction, my lips are sealed as to what he was actually saying. He is a person who loves this House and its traditions, and we all, I think, honour him for that.

The noble Lord is also not a hasty and restless innovator. When questioned on the eternal matter of Prayers, about which Members of your Lordships’ House occasionally get somewhat testy and irritable, he said:

“Recent changes to the form of Prayers included allowing a choice from a range of Psalms, which was agreed by the House in 1970, and again in 1979, and one or two other minor changes. It might be a little premature to consider changing them now”.—[Official Report, 31/3/11; col. 1340.]

How good it is that we still have in this House someone who exemplifies that famous 19th century Prime Minister’s view: “Why do you want to change things? Aren’t they bad enough as they are?”.

Motion agreed nemine dissentiente.