Peering point

BryonyWorthington.jpgBryony Worthington on being a young and female member of the House of Lords

It's been three years since I was introduced into the Lords as a working Peer; and ahead of a BBC Woman's Hour interview today, the producers asked me to comment on what it feels like to be a young woman in a House made up predominantly of older men.

On thinking about it, I realised that on the whole, neither my sex nor age is something I have cause to think about on a daily basis. Now, looking at the bare statistics – 598 men compared to only 182 women, average age of 68 - this might seem surprising that I’m not more aware of how unusual my situation is.

There are a few reasons for this. 

First, I am pleased to report that the Lords is blessed with extremely prominent and powerful women. Our party leader in the upper House, Baroness Jan Royall is perhaps the best example. But also the Lord Speaker, Baroness De Souza and the government Chief Whip, Baroness Anelay are two other very visible female figures. Ten women sit as Shadow Ministers (a third of the Labour front bench) and I share a busy office with three of them plus two men. On average, female peers are more active than our male counterparts (attending 74% of the time compared to 60%) and on a daily basis the proportion of women actually in attendance feels much higher than the statistics would imply. In my experience, while there is still great room for improvement, the Lords is a welcoming place.

As for my age, I can't deny when I first arrived – with my 40th birthday fast approaching – that it was a pleasant and unusual feeling to be one of the youngest members in my new place of work. I was however, acutely aware of being surrounded by people with far more distinguished careers than I – and that I would therefore need to work hard to earn their respect. 

Fortunately, and in part because of the positive impact of the Crossbench Peers, who listen and are swayed by strong evidence and good argument, the Lords can be a very meritocratic place. Through working on the Energy Bill last year, I hope I was able to demonstrate my in-depth knowledge of policy as well as convey some of the passion I feel on the pressing need to secure affordable, low carbon sources of energy.

All that said, the Lords needs reforming – with at the very least clearer rules on the size of the House and the political make up. We have to prevent the sort of stacking of the place that David Cameron has embarked on, which has given the Coalition a clear political majority and undermined the vital role of Crossbenchers. We should also make it possible for voluntary retirement and consider how best to incentivise more active participation in the work of Committee and on the frontbench.

The House of Lords may have a reputation among some in the wider public of being set in its ways, and therefore rather anachronistic. But this is overly simplistic. Most Peers are open to change and provide a vital function in scrutinising legislation and holding Ministers to account. Above all, they are able to offer a longer term perspective on policy making, something that is particularly important in climate change and energy. It is a huge privilege to be a member of the Lords and I hope to make a positive contribution for however long I’m here.

Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow DECC Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @bryworthington

Published 14th March 2014

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