Interview: Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman

Helene Heyman is Lord Speaker in the House of Lords
Helene Heyman is Lord Speaker in the House of Lords

Change is coming to the Lords. While others are losing their heads, the prospect doesn't faze Helene Hayman.

By Alex Stevenson

The Palace of Westminster is like a hotel - some rooms are better than others. The lowliest of MPs settle for a back room somewhere in its intricate corridors. The hacks, myself included, work in shared offices close to the Commons' press gallery. Ministers have grander offices; the more senior the post, the more impressive the office.

The Lord Speaker has a staggering office, all wooden panels and graceful oil paintings. It is like being in - well, a Palace. It's easy to get blasé about working in parliament, but, as I sit down to interview her, the extraordinary grandeur is impossible not to notice. Hundreds of years of history have ensured the person responsible for sitting on the woolsack in parliament's upper House - the equivalent role to Speaker John Bercow in the Commons - gets one of the best offices in the place.


Yet that's not quite right, is it? The Lords may have been around for centuries, but the Lord Speaker role is just five years old. It was created when New Labour's constitutional reforms scrapped the historic functions of the lord chancellor's role, whose rooms the Lord Speaker now occupies. Baroness Hayman was elected as the first Lord Speaker on July 4th 2006. The first of two potential five-year terms is close to drawing to a close; the first impression of an office which is steeped in history and tradition doesn't necessarily bear close judgement.

It certainly doesn't, Baroness Hayman makes clear, when I begin asking her about the shadow of reform hanging over the Lords. The coalition government has pledged to fundamentally shake the place up by introducing a wholly or mostly elected upper House. The threat of this potential shift away from centuries of practice is, surely, of great concern?

"It's interesting you phrase it like that," Baroness Hayman says, smiling. "This House changed and continues to change all the time." She cites legislation from 1958 which allowed women into the Lords and claims a "complete revolution" has taken place since then. 1999 saw the departure of almost all the hereditaries, creating a fundamentally appointed House. The Lords is now much more diverse than the Commons, having nearly twice the proportion of ethnic minority peers. It is better on gender, race, religion, disability. "It's only age I can't bust the stereotype on," Baroness Hayman says, "but we do have some young peers as well".

What she objects to is the idea that the word 'reform' has to be conflated with the word 'election'. She cites many different reform agendas currently being peddled - proposals to abandon the link between the honours system and the Lords, to introduce term appointments, etc. "Ironically," she muses, "most of the proposals for what you would call reform with a capital 'R', ie elected members, have been posited on everything's fine on how the House works..." The point is well made. Still, only one of these agendas is being advanced by the coalition government.

Many observers in the Lords have suggested the Lord Speaker, like everyone else in the upper chamber, is under increased pressure as a result of the question-mark of further reform hanging over the place. Baroness Hayman is at her most comfortable explaining how the work which the Lords does helps make every British person's life better.

"Where are we today? We are doing our job really quite effectively," she claims confidently. The government is being held to account through scrutiny - as in the recent Libya debate, which saw ex-foreign secretaries, an ex-head of the defence chief of staff, ex-permanent secretaries and Britain's former representatives at the United Nations and the European Union, offering their views. Tweaking legislation, getting the nitty-gritty right, shouldn't be ignored either. This can be achieved through "fair means or foul" - either through crossbenchers allying with the opposition to defeat the government, or through more subtle - and often more effective - backroom negotiations.

"One of the things that pleases me most is that in the outside world," Baroness Hayman explains, "civil society knows that if they want to change something in a bill, not the great big high level politics, but the detail that's important to many families or interest groups or whatever, they'll focus on the Lords, because that's where the changes get made."

The coalition government has, ironically, made the success of "Lords coalitions" which can defeat the government much rarer, however. Whereas under New Labour the government was in a minority in the Lords, it now has a 'political majority'. Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers combined still don't have an overall advantage in the Lords. But take away the crossbenchers - who Baroness Hayman points out "vote and attend much less frequently than political peers" - and the "realpolitik" is very different.

The tensions which this created have, so far, manifested themselves most obviously in the enormous standoff over the parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill, which laid the groundwork for the electoral reform referendum now just weeks away. Labour filibustering nearly forced the leader of the Lords, Thomas Strathclyde, to break with centuries of practice (there's that phrase again) and introduce a timetabling, or 'guillotine', motion cutting debate on the matter in hand short.

Baroness Hayman makes her views on the matter clear. "One of the things that's very precious is not having timetabling. It is very precious," she says. "The use of the closure motion and the possibility of timetabling of legislation was something I think everyone came back from the brink on."

This, it's clear, is one issue where she definitely doesn't want to see change. "I think there are things in the culture of the House, in terms both of courtesy and in terms of the level of scrutiny, that we subject legislation to, that are very well worth defending," she continues. "I think a culture that is less confrontational and more consensual is worth defending. But this is a House of Parliament, these are serious policy issues, these are big divides between people. One can't and shouldn't try and deny that."

Baroness Hayman hopes a "modus vivendi" can be found to resolve the situation, but it sounds an awful lot like she is keen on defending the status quo regardless. As a servant of the House, I ask, does that automatically oblige her to resist change of any kind?

"I don't think I defend every jot and tiddle," she insists. As Lord Speaker she's given a series of talks on how the House can improve its performance - by minimising reputational risk, and by examining how the parliamentary chamber works and trying to improve it.

"I love the place. I think it does an important job well. I think it can do that job even better. Therefore if we need to change to do that job - ". She pauses, then shrugs. "Most institutions need to change."

That sums up the problem, doesn't it? Transforming existing working practices, a bit of tinkering here and there, seems a long way from the wholesale reform currently being contemplated by the government. Is that change really necessary? I get the impression Baroness Hayman's views run very deep - in her 15 years in the Lords she has seen the place change dramatically, after all - but her loyalty to the neutrality of the office is immovable.

Nowhere is this more the case than when I ask her a question suggested by a backbencher fed up with question-time in the Lords. It's becoming too political, he complains, with members eyeballing each other and shouting each other down. The government chief whip has the final say in deciding who gets to speak. Is this really fair? Shouldn't she take on the job of imposing some discipline?

"I'm a servant of the House and I do what the House wants me to do," she replies slowly. "The House took the decision that it wanted responsibility at question time to remain with the government frontbench. Unless and until that changes, I will continue doing what the House asked me to do."

That applies across the board. Whatever form the reforms eventually take, they will have to be dealt with on an 'as and when' basis. Until then, the Lords can constantly be improved. And when the storm does break, Baroness Hayman knows they are just the latest chapter in that painfully incomplete "complete revolution".

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