Joan Bakewell takes stock of the Lords, the work we do and ever-changing perceptions
This is not a piece about heavy duty government bills or our outstanding attack on the wretched things. It is one for a recess holiday: a lighter look at the House of Lords both from within and without.
As many of you will have noticed, I lead a double life. I have my steady commitment to what our front bench is doing; I turn up to vote, sometimes to speak and sit on a committee or two. I also have a life outside of the House – an ongoing career making television and radio programmes. And I have recently published a book.
Both worlds richly inform one another. I get intellectual satisfaction and personal friendship from each. But when they overlap, it can get tricky. In the interviews that now go with publicity for a book, I am often asked about the Lords. What’s it really like? Do many turn up? Journalists of the lighter sort are truly amazed when I explain that on any given voting day there will be upwards of 400 members around the House.
It has made me realise that there is profound ignorance about the House and what it achieves. I’ve tried to do something about it – only to be jokingly quoted regarding the lack of sex. Am I right? Perhaps there are silky trysts going on in the further reaches of the committee room corridors.
A lot of blame for this misrepresentation rests not with my loose tongue but with the red robes. Or rather photographs of the Opening of Parliament with a crowded chamber universally draped in ermine. It gives the impression we dress like that all the time. Media organisations moved by malice or laziness use the same stock image over and over. It damages how we are seen by the public.
Then there’s the view of the thinly attended House, with a few members apparently drooped in sleep. Astonishment follows when people realise other Peers are working in offices, committees, and meetings. And that the concealed speakers for the hard of hearing mean shoulders lean towards the back of the benches. I trust that should we decamp to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, we will look more modern and even more alert.
A big educational job needs to be done to inform people what we do and why it matters so much. Those who’ve been on the schools visiting scheme will know what eagerness there is to question and challenge us. I have on occasion been so grilled by keen sixth formers that I’ve reeled away from the encounter badly in need of a stiff drink. But we need to keep on talking: the school project is an excellent way of correcting so many of the misconceptions.
I think Tanya Gold did us proud in her recent Guardian Weekend feature article. I knew her reputation and that she could launch a waspish and witty attack if she didn’t like us. But Tanya genuinely seemed won around by what she found in her three months here. Now we await the outcomes of the BBC documentary, currently being filmed and which will air later this year. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security though – waspish asides make for interesting headlines.
Many in the media rightly see the Lords as a source of good stories. Great, when positive about us forcing the government to U-turn on Tax Credits. Excellent, when negative about the subsequent enquiry under Lord Strathclyde trying to curb our powers. But too often the stories are about expenses, subsidised meals, and attendance. I do however, like to see crisp analysis of members outside interests, especially where it concerns involvement in private organisations involved in public services like health and education.
As I ricochet between my two lives – inside and outside the House – it’s easy to understand why people say “they don’t live in the real world”. The Lords is a place of deep comfort: an outstanding library, impeccable manners, and genuine politeness. Members speak in clear and logical sentences, and don’t all shout at once. People - well, all bar a few – aren’t rushing around clutching polystyrene cups of coffee, heads locked onto mobiles, earplugs dangling. No youngsters declaring “cool, cool!”
In fact, there’s barely any young people here at all. I know the country has an ageing population, but the Lords seem to be rather ahead of the pack. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much. Time spent with my own generation sharing the same values and memories of our country’s past, and seeking to add something of substance to the passing parade. When it changes – and change it must – there will be much to regret. But then, life’s like that!
Baroness Joan Bakewell is a broadcaster, writer and Labour Peer in the House of Lords. She tweets @JDBakewell
Published 16th February 2016