My Lords, in leading the tributes today to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, I believe we should all acknowledge the personal commitment that she has brought to her role as the Leader of the House—a position which is never easy in a House that values its independence and welcomes the opportunity to deploy its experience and expertise. It is a dual role, as the leader of the government party in your Lordships’ House but, equally importantly, as the leader of the whole House. It is also a role that faces both ways, being both the Government’s voice in your Lordships’ House and the voice of your Lordships’ House in Government. This is also the first time ever that the government party has found itself without an automatic majority in this House, and that requires careful and thoughtful management from all of us. When the noble Baroness took office, just two years ago, she said she was,
“very conscious of the great privilege of being Leader”—[Official Report, 15/7/14; col. 500]—
and that has always been evident.
In paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, I also warmly welcome the new Leader, the noble Baroness, Lady Evans of Bowes Park. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, she brings with her the experience of the Whips’ Office and did not take her seat in your Lordships’ House with the ambition of becoming Leader but with the ambition of serving her party and her country. We have already seen the enthusiasm she has brought to her work, and we wish her well.
I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, would agree that the highlight of her time in your Lordships’ House—so far—has been her commitment and skill in taking through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. On an issue about which some dared to doubt that your Lordships’ House would be constructive, she brought both political judgment and humour to what might have been some difficult debates. Who will ever forget her explanation on adultery? She explained that if she were married to George Clooney, under the then existing law:
“Should I wish to divorce Mr Clooney on those grounds, I would do so on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. In future, if the noble Lord, Lord Alli, was to marry Mr Clooney, and Mr Clooney was to have an affair with me—and who would blame him in those circumstances?—that would be adultery and the noble Lord, Lord Alli, should he choose to, would be able to divorce Mr Clooney on those grounds”.—[Official Report, 8/7/13; col. 146.]
The wit and careful thought she brought to that debate helped us all better appreciate the details. George Clooney has since married, but I am told that the life-size cut-out that once graced her office is still around.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, has been the Leader of the House through some difficult times, including the recent referendum on leaving the EU. At all times, her commitment to the House and her honesty have been clear. On a personal level, I add my thanks to her for being open and candid with me—we have not always agreed, but we have always had enjoyable and cordial meetings. We wish her every success in her new challenge.
My Lords, from these Benches I pay a warm and special tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. She and I first worked closely together on the Bill to which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, referred, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in 2013. I certainly remember very well the evening when she tackled what was a difficult issue with great humour and was able to explain it in a way which, at the end of the day, everyone understood. It received Royal Assent three years ago last week. That was a productive and friendly working relationship, and one that continued not only during our time together in government, when I served as her deputy as Deputy Leader of the House, but since the general election last year when, although on opposite sides of your Lordships’ House, we still had to meet regularly, always with cordial co-operation, albeit that we did not always agree.
The skill that the noble Baroness demonstrated in steering that Bill through the House and dealing with the many difficult issues during her time as a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government put her in good stead to lead your Lordships’ House. During her tenure as Leader, the noble Baroness constantly looked to see how we could improve the ways in which we operate to ensure that we are as effective as possible in how we conduct ourselves—as has been said, it is never easy. I know from our many conversations that she was ever mindful of trying to safeguard the reputation of your Lordships’ House, particularly when we are understandably under so much public scrutiny.
The noble Baroness also recognised some of the shortcomings of our domestic governance arrangements and set up a working group under the direction of the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard of Northwold, to review and make recommendations for new ways of working. The final Motions to put those changes into effect are due to be put before the House on Thursday, and I am sure these new structures will serve as a lasting legacy to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and her determination to ensure that this House always looks to improve itself and to be the best it can be.
I also take the opportunity to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Evans of Bowes Park, to the role of Leader of the House. She takes on this role at a momentous time for our country as the Government negotiate our withdrawal from the European Union. I know your Lordships’ House will take a keen and particular interest in these negotiations as they progress, and I am sure the weight of experience in this House and the very valuable work done by our European Union Committee will be of assistance to her as she represents our House in government.
When I welcomed the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, to her role as Leader on 15 July 2014, I noted that later that afternoon she would have to attend her first meeting of the House Committee. The noble Baroness, Lady Evans, will have to wait a bit longer for that particular perk of office—it will be tomorrow afternoon. Indeed, when I saw on today’s Order Paper the Motion substituting the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, for the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, on a whole range of committees, I recalled that when I succeeded my noble friend Lord McNally as leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers, the previous Chairman of Committees moved a similar Motion and said that he did so with commiseration. Aspiring candidates to succeed me on these Benches may wish to take note.
I look forward to working with the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, for a few more weeks still, and wish her the best of luck in her new role as Leader of Your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues on the Cross Benches, I, too, associate myself with the warm and well-deserved tributes that have been paid to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and wish her well as she returns, as I am sure she will, to the Back Benches. Like others in the House, I confess to having been taken aback by the speed of events last week. The first indication I had that she was no longer to be Leader and Lord Privy Seal was when I arrived at her office at midday on Thursday for one of my regular fortnightly meetings with her to be told for the first time ever by one of her secretaries that she was too busy to see me. Unexpectedly, the meeting had had to be cancelled. As I returned down the corridor to walk back to my office, the expression on the faces of various people whom I passed who already knew more than I did suggested that there was much more to it than that. The sadness at what was happening was very evident.
I know from my many meetings with her during the past year in my capacity as Convener, which I very much valued, how much she cared for this House. Her sudden departure has meant that some of the things that she wished to do will have been left undone, but she has done much, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, to promote and carry through fundamental reform of the committee structure by which the business affairs of the House are to be governed, and that can indeed be regarded as her legacy. She brought home her concern for the traditions and customs of the House to me on a personal level, too. On several occasions, when it seemed to her that I had said or done something that was not quite right, she was quite candid—to adopt the adjective used by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. She would tick me off. I can assure your Lordships that this was always done with a smile on her face, in the most tactful manner. As a newcomer to the arcane arts which I have now to perform on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches, I valued those gentle reminders, and I was grateful for her guidance and encouragement. They were a reminder to me, too, of how much she cared for the traditions and best interests of this House. We wish her well and look forward to the contribution that she can certainly make to our work in the future.
I take this opportunity to welcome most warmly to her very important role the noble Baroness, Lady Evans of Bowes Park. She brings to its responsibilities a very evident spirit of energy and enthusiasm—and, dare I say it, unusually for a Member of this House, she has youth on her side, too. These are challenging times, when those qualities will be much needed. On behalf of the Cross-Bench group, I look forward very much to working with her in my capacity as Convenor, and I wish her all success as she enters into the duties of her office.
My Lords, first, I echo the tributes paid to my noble friend Lady Stowell. I know that she was incredibly proud to be Leader of your Lordships’ House and was unwavering in promoting our role in the parliamentary process. Noble Lords have referred to her outstanding work on the equal marriage Bill in the Chamber, and as Leader she was just as tenacious, making the case for your Lordships within government. She saw an essential part of the Leader’s job as maintaining the legitimacy and credibility of the Lords as a revising Chamber, while also making sure that the Government secured their business. She wanted us to focus first and foremost on complementing and refining the work of the other place, helping to give the public confidence in the parliamentary process. She can be proud that, in her time as Leader, that spirit shone through in everything she did. Indeed, it is greatly to her credit that the legislative programme of the first Conservative Government for nearly 20 years was delivered, despite there being no Conservative majority in this place. As a Whip on several much-debated Bills, I have the battle scars to prove just how difficult that was.
My noble friend was just as relentless in striving to ensure that, as a House, we did whatever was necessary to meet the expectations of the people whom we serve. She worked hard behind the scenes to make sure that the Hayman Bill had a fair wind, and nobody has done more to promote the cultural shift that we have seen with the introduction of retirement, whereby the 50 Peers who have stood down exemplify our ability as a House to adapt. My noble friend will continue as co-chairman of the committee looking at the future of the Palace of Westminster, which is further testament to her respect for this House.
Personally, I am privileged to call my noble friend a friend. She has been incredibly supportive to me since I came into your Lordships’ House, for which I am truly grateful, and was always ready with words of encouragement, serving as a great role model for me. I was fortunate to serve under her and, on behalf of all noble Lords, I sincerely thank her for her service.
Finally, I thank noble Lords from across the House for their messages of support since my appointment. While I am, I know, a relative newcomer, I have a deep appreciation and admiration for the important role that this House plays in governing our great country. I am honoured to have been asked to be a member of the Cabinet by the new Prime Minister, but I am particularly proud to be Leader of the House of Lords—and by that I mean Leader of the whole House and not just the Conservative Benches. I assure your Lordships that I shall work tirelessly to do this House proud, building on the excellent work of my noble friend.