Baroness Stowell of Beeston writes about her first few months as a Conservative peer. Before joining the Lords, in January, Tina was Head of Corporate Affairs at the BBC and ran William Hague's office when he was leader of the Conservative Party.
‘Who’s the bloke in the tapestry smock?’ is a common question from friends looking at photographs of me with Garter-King-of-Arms taken on my day of introduction and it’s a great excuse for my skit on the discussion with Garter about titles. Did you know every peerage is distinct so the ones who are ‘of somewhere’ are not the first to carry the title of their surname? If you’re first, you don’t need to be of anywhere. That said, everyone is sort of ‘of somewhere’, but if you are of somewhere twice and the first ‘of somewhere’ is before the comma (and by the way, it’s not always the same place as the ‘of somewhere’ after the comma), that’s your title. Are you with me?! When the Clerk read out my full title in all its glory during my introduction ceremony he said: Baroness Stowell of Beeston, of Beeston in the County of Nottinghamshire. I told my Mum that the Clerk said ‘of Beeston’ twice because Beeston is like New York… I know, I know: enough already!
In 2009, after eight years away from front-line politics, I decided to put myself forward as a potential Parliamentary candidate because I wanted to be part of – what I saw as – the Conservative Party’s effort to reinforce, restore (and for some, reignite) people’s belief in the value of doing the right thing. Like many others, I worried, and still do, about people giving up because they can’t see much point going on and/or because they don’t know how to do it. I wanted to be part of a team helping everyone in our country to be ambitious for success and to aim high for themselves and for their family.
And as part of achieving this vision, I believe that all politicians, though I say this as a Conservative, need to make the political system we operate within work more effectively and demonstrably for the benefit of the public.
I didn’t get selected, never mind elected, but out of the blue one day last year I received an unexpected phone call. When the Prime Minister asked me to become a working peer I nearly asked him if he was sure, (as in, “me?”). But ever since that call what I am sure of is this: my motivation in the Lords is the same as what it would have been had I ever made it to the Commons. In fact, my motivation is even stronger because it is clear that the Conservative Party still has a lot to do to convince people we really understand what’s behind their concerns and that we are working in their interest, not our own.
So, that’s how I got to the House of Lords and what I hope to achieve, and now I’ve been here three months, Tim asked me to write a post about what life is like as a working peer.
I arrived in January at the height of the all-night sittings associated with the AV Bill. Much was made at the time of the filibustering amongst Labour peers and whilst that was a bit distracting, the diligence and commitment of peers who argued fiercely, yet always eloquently, about specific clauses and amendments was genuinely impressive. The most contentious was the debate on a turnout threshold to decide the outcome of the referendum. Though I am not in favour of AV (I don’t think it’s an answer to anything and certainly not an adequate response to the public’s lack of confidence in the political system), I do think the way in which the referendum is conducted must reflect the public’s legitimate demand that politics more clearly operate in their interest rather than that of the politicians. I therefore did not support a threshold. (Here’s a blogpost I did at the time explaining my views in more detail.) Obviously the mud-slinging of the last few days rather undermines the purpose of this hard-won clause, but I stand by my view for the reasons explained that it is an important principle.
It is for similar reasons I am actively supporting the Fixed-Term Parliament Bill which arrived in the Lords in March. I spoke in 2nd reading and, very briefly, on the first day of Committee, explaining that – whilst not a silver bullet – fixed term parliaments where the government and opposition have to face the electorate on a pre-determined date whatever the political conditions at that time is a step in the right direction. I plan to speak again in report stage to restate my support for the bill in principle and to argue for five-year fixed-terms (which I expect will be a significant debate).
Before then, this week the Lords will give the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill its second reading. This Bill is another I plan to follow and support because, whilst there are definitely elements to scrutinise and debate, I believe it has the potential to deliver the kind of change people have indicated they want: a greater say in how crime is fought in their own area. Recent evidence (courtesy of Lord Ashcroft) shows the yawning gap between the public and politicians on crime and I think elected commissioners could be effective in helping to bridge that gap: they won’t last long if they don’t.
Social mobility – as part of my wish for everyone to be ambitious for success and to aim high for themselves and for their family – was the main theme of my maiden speech. And, following publication of the Government’s social mobility strategy I have tabled a motion to facilitate a wider debate about the issues it raises.
Also as part of that agenda, I intend to play an active part in our scrutiny of the Welfare Reform Bill and the Education Bill – both essential elements of strengthening social mobility and of our effort to encourage people’s ambitions and their belief in the value of doing the right thing.
As to other things, I’ve agreed to try and take Therese Coffey’s private member’s bill on wreck removals through the Lords after she achieved its successful passage through the Commons (second reading is on Friday 13th May and I hope I still like Therese on 14th May) and I’ve been appointed to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, one of the few permanent Select Committees of both the Lords and Commons.
In three short months in the Lords I’ve made new friends, been reunited with old ones and lost one: Lord Pilkington sadly died only a few weeks after I arrived, but I shall always remember and be grateful for his warm welcome. Indeed, it really is the people, the peers from all quarters – hereditary, life, old, new and from a wider range of backgrounds than you might think – who make the House of Lords what it is: a Chamber packed full of wisdom, experience, and expertise committed to meeting its clear purpose: scrutinising legislation and holding the Executive to account so our laws are applicable, deliverable, and achieve their intended consequence.
As for me and the contribution I hope to make? Well, I will try hard to understand what drives public opinion in the areas I want to focus on so I can help, as far as I can, make sure legislation addresses the root cause of people’s concerns and encourages them to be ambitious for success.
I know I don’t really need to ask for it, but feedback is always welcome.