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Government: Ministerial Changes

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2022

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to lead the tributes to the noble Baroness, Lady Evans of Bowes Park, and thank her for her service as Leader of your Lordships’ House. It was very soon after taking her seat as our youngest female Member that she took up her post in the Government Whips’ Office. I doubt she realised then that her next government role would be as the youngest woman to become the Leader of your Lordships’ House and that she would go on to become the longest serving Leader of this House since 1951; she was in post for more than six years.

Her term of office coincided with difficult times for both the country and this House. Controversial legislation, Brexit and then Covid, which led to both remote and hybrid working, all brought challenges. At times those challenges frayed the normal courtesies this House prides itself on, but I hope we have now been able to work through those to a better way of working today.

Leadership is never easy, and being Leader of the Lords, while an honour that is both fascinating and rewarding, can at times be frustrating and exhausting. Unlike other Cabinet positions, in many ways it is a dual role: as a political leader and representative of the Government in this place, but also as a representative of this House in government. She and I have sat through many, many, many meetings together. I am sure she would agree that some were perhaps more enjoyable than others. But even at times of disagreement, I never doubted her commitment to helping ensure that this House fulfils its valuable constitutional role as a revising and scrutiny Chamber—a role not always welcomed by Governments.

On a personal note, I thank her for her kindness to me, both when my husband was in hospital and, very importantly—I look at the noble Lord, Lord True, as I say this—for sharing the government car for official functions.

I hope he appreciates that, after all these years, a precedent has been set for these arrangements.

The noble Baroness in her maiden speech told the House of her passion for education, particularly state education. As she returns to the Back Benches, I sincerely hope that we shall hear more from her on this and other issues.

I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and thank him for his long service to this House as Deputy Leader. His courtesy and respect for your Lordships and this place is legendary, and we will miss him in this role.

Last, but most certainly not least, I genuinely welcome the noble Lord, Lord True, to his new role as the Leader of your Lordships’ House. As we say in Essex, we already have form, having enjoyed many exchanges on Cabinet Office business and constitutional issues over the past few years. I am grateful to him for our initial conversation today and I look forward to a productive relationship in the interests on this House on a wider range of issues, within this Chamber and beyond—but hopefully, never on Zoom.

My Lords, from these Benches I join the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in paying tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, as Leader of your Lordships’ House.

In the Lords, the role of the Leader, the other party leaders and the Convenor is very different from that of our counterparts in the Commons. For, although we have to engage in robust exchanges across the Floor of your Lordships’ House, we also play a major role in managing how the House functions, whether via the House of Lords Commission, in the appointment of senior staff or, at times, in the management of business on the Floor of the House. We therefore regularly have to set aside party differences and work collegiately for what we see as the benefit of the House.

During the noble Baroness’s tenure as Leader, this collaborative approach was needed as never before in responding to the pandemic. In a matter of weeks, we were able to transform our working practices so that the House was able to continue to function with the involvement of Peers from across the country, even though they were unable in most cases to be physically present.

In driving through these—for us—revolutionary changes in a very short timescale, the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, played an energetic and leading role. In doing so, she displayed the qualities that made her an extremely good working colleague. She was very open to new ideas, but not uncritically; she judged them on their merits. She was decisive, which is not a universal character trait among politicians. She was inclusive, and her door was metaphorically always open for me when I wished to raise a concern. She showed good judgment—by which I of course mean that she often agreed with what I was proposing. She was unpompous and had a great sense of humour. In dealing with difficult issues, not least our response to the pandemic, these were extremely endearing qualities. On issues such as R&R, she followed the common view of your Lordships’ House about how to proceed, against the views of some of her senior colleagues in the Commons. She was a champion of your Lordships’ House in government.

But, in saying farewell to the noble Baroness, it is a pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord True, to his new position. I think it fair to say that the noble Lord’s default position as far as Liberal Democrats are concerned is not always one of benevolence and enthusiasm. Given his experience in Richmond, that is perhaps understandable. However, in my dealings with him on legislation, I find that he is consultative, straightforward and thoughtful, and I am sure that he will bring these qualities to his new role as Leader. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of how the House works, and I am sure he will be a doughty defender of its traditions. I look forward to working with him.

When Sir John Major lost the 1997 general election, he immediately went to The Oval for some immersive cricket therapy. The noble Baroness, Lady Evans, is a great cricket fan. I therefore hope that, with The Oval test starting tomorrow, she will be able to follow Sir John’s example, take comfort in the fact that she will no longer have to worry about the workings of your Lordships’ House and the foibles of its Members and spend a relaxing few days enjoying the cricket.

My Lords, on behalf of the Cross Benches, I associate myself with both tributes that have been paid. We have had a Leader who has led us in very tumultuous times. I will give noble Lords a roll call of these: ignoring the most recent appointments, in her time as our Leader we have had no less than five Lord Chancellors, four Foreign Secretaries, four Chancellors of the Exchequer, three Home Secretaries and two Prime Ministers—and we believe that we live in a very stable system.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, touched on, the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, has had to cope with the Brexit debate, in which there was a huge amount of emotion and passion, including very contradictory emotion and passion. She had to lead the House at a time when, in my view—although I will probably be shouted down by the Brexiteers for saying this—the majority of the House was against her Government’s view and against her.

In the course of the Covid problems and lockdown, there were a number of noble Lords—a significant proportion of this House—who took the view that the draconian powers that were being taken by the Government were unacceptable. It is fair to say, from my own assessment of when I was here, that the majority of those came from her own party—

I will not comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has just said, because if I did, I would tell him that he was wrong.

We are obviously indebted to the noble Baroness. I will take up what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has just said, but in a broader context because, as the Convenor of the Cross Benches, I do not have a party-political affiliation. I have been an observer for three years of the way in which the then Leader of the House, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Lib Dems—alongside the Government Chief Whip, the Labour Chief Whip and the Lib Dem Chief Whip—have worked together, notwithstanding huge political differences, to ensure that the interests of the House were well served or, at any rate, to the best that they could possibly manage. It is very salutary to be in that corridor and to realise how much work is being done by them personally, and by their offices, to ensure that the oils of this engine are efficient and quiet. Very rarely did I hear voices raised, and when I did that was fine too—it is part of a working relationship.

We obviously should be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Evans—and we are. Beyond that, the whole House must recognise that being the Leader, as the noble Lord, Lord True, will be, of this particular bunch of individuals—all of whom are opinionated, sometimes rightly and other times wrongly; all with views about everything, some of which are very strong indeed—is a terrific job to have to do. Unfortunately, when things do not work out, the blame falls on the Leader. So I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, on behalf on the Cross Benches.

I will add a word of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord True. On behalf of the Cross Benches, I say that it is wonderful to have someone now in this important appointment who actually understands the constitution. I ask the noble Lord to forgive me for giving him a patronising lecture in advance of starting, but from our point of view the important thing that the Leader of the House must do, today and for next two years, or for however long he is the Leader, is to ensure that his colleagues in the Cabinet understand that the sovereignty of Parliament includes not ignoring the views of the House of Lords and recognising that it is subject to the sensible limitations called the conventions, which have been hallowed over the years. We wish him all the very best of luck—not merely in office but as he tries to explain this to his Cabinet colleagues.

My Lords, it is a joy to listen to these tributes. I associate myself with them and, on behalf of the Lords spiritual, add our thanks and appreciation to the noble Baroness for her service over this last six years. It is a happy thing that so many of my colleagues are also here to join in that tribute. It has been my privilege to serve in this House through the whole of the noble Baroness’s tenure. I believe that she has brought the gifts of stability and acuity to her leadership and that the House has functioned well in that time. So far as I can judge, she has increased the respect in which this House is held in the wider nation and country.

As others have said, this has been a particularly turbulent period for Parliament, politically and practically, with the outworking of Brexit and the pandemic requiring the House to adopt remote and then hybrid working. The noble Baroness has been a consistent, calm and steadying presence throughout, with a real sharpness and grasp of the issues, combined with a deep courtesy and respect for tradition. The House owes her a debt of deep gratitude for steering us through this time.

I also take this opportunity to give thanks to the service of the noble Lord, Lord Ashton. His and the noble Baroness’s doors have always been open to the Lords spiritual, and we are grateful for the welcome that they have shown to new arrivals on the Bishops’ Benches, the Convenor and the Archbishop of Canterbury in making it possible to host his annual debate.

We also welcome most sincerely the noble Lord, Lord True, to his post and look forward to working with him in his new role in the coming months and years.

My Lords, of course I echo the tributes made so eloquently to my noble friend Lady Evans of Bowes Park, which I shall not be able to match. I wholeheartedly add my own, and am only sad that she is not here to hear the warmth of feeling towards her in the House—but I am sure that she knows that, and has known it, and will see it in Hansard.

My noble friend served your Lordships’ House as Leader for six years, and did so with determination, tenacity and always great good humour. I can bear out what was said—that she consistently and forcefully made the case for your Lordships’ House within government. I have to say that, having had the benefit of being on a Cabinet committee with her, I heard some pretty robust language there when she has been defending your Lordships’ House and its place in our national life. She always defended this place. On a personal level, as noble Lords have already said, she has been a source of great support not only to many of my noble friends but to people across the House. She has provided leadership and morale in difficult times.

Even from my noble friend’s earliest days in the House as a Government Whip, as has been alluded to, when she came leaping forward from being a junior Whip, she acted without fear or favour. I remember an occasion when the late Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon was not abiding by the speaking limit in debate. Despite his concerted attempts to continue, the noble Baroness finally quelled him. Anybody who knew the great Paddy Ashdown will know that it was not very easy to quieten him down.

My noble friend’s sheer dedication was very much the reason for her longevity in the role. She was the youngest Leader in modern times and, as the noble and learned Lord said, it was daunting. Imagine being so young and looking all this august and fearful company and having to lead. She was the first Leader to serve under two different Prime Ministers since Lord Shepherd and the longest-serving female Leader, as well as the longest-serving Leader of the House since the first Viscount Addison, who left office in 1951. Even Viscount Addison beat her by only 31 days. To think that she slogged away for six years and then missed that record by only 31 days—I wonder whether she will ever forgive me.

As other noble Lords have said, it has been a turbulent time, with Brexit and Covid and all the more recent events with the war. The House has lived through exceptional times. I totally agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said about the experience of Covid and the sudden and different ways in which we had to operate, which was not something that many Peers liked. The thing I hated most since I became a Minister was sitting at my table, trying to answer questions.

My noble friend led and she was instrumental in seeing that the work of the House should and must go on. The hybridisation of the House was one of the most dramatic and sudden changes in history. She led that and led the way in ensuring the House could function safely and embrace the technology and, while many of us were comfortable at home, she and her team were here in Parliament every single day that the House was sitting. For that continuity, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude.

My noble friend is always fun to be with, and that is a very important quality in politics. I hope we in this House never forget, for all the gravity and seriousness of the things we deal with, the importance of fun, fairness and respect. She is an exceptionally generous and kindly person, as has been said and as many can testify. I offer, with all others who have spoken, our thanks to her and best wishes for the next chapter of her life.

I would also like to take a moment, as others have, to pay tribute to the outgoing Government Chief Whip, my noble friend Lord Ashton of Hyde. He will hate this because he is not that sort of person, but the role of Chief Whip is not for the faint of heart and he has undertaken it with characteristic compassion and diligence. I know I speak for the whole House when I wish him the very best for the future. We look forward to seeing him around the House—especially on voting days, Henry.

Finally, I thank those from across the House who have spoken to me, sent messages of support and been kind today about my appointment. However, I say emphatically that this is not a time to talk about me, and particularly not a time for me to talk about me—in any case, that is not something I am ever very keen on doing. I will do my utmost, I pledge to noble Lords, to uphold the ethos and traditions of this House that I love. I want this House, on all sides, to be a happy and comfortable place where, for all our differences—passionate and proper differences—every Peer feels that their views are valued. I look forward to working with noble Lords across the House to meet those responsibilities.

My Lords, I join with colleagues in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, for her dedicated service. I acknowledge her as the longest serving Leader of the House in almost 70 years. I became Senior Deputy Speaker shortly after she took office in 2016 and enjoyed working with her both in that role and now as Lord Speaker. Since 2019, I have also had the pleasure of working with the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, and in particular I worked closely with both as we adapted our procedures during the Covid-19 pandemic. I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, and indeed to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for their warm and constructive engagement across the years. I offer them my best wishes for the future.