The House of Lords has come in for criticism in recent months, in some cases deserved, but often as the product of a prevailing cynicism – and the House is an easy target, given how few people know about it. Yet what is worth stressing is the value added by the House to the political process – not least the legislative process. One of the essential conditions for achieving what it does is the experience and expertise of its members.
By the nature of the House, we lose some members each year. 2015 was notable for the death of some distinguished peers. They included two former Chancellors – well-known sparring partners – in Lord Healey and Lord Howe of Aberavon (pictured). Geoffrey Howe was an especially active member of the House, regularly attending until he retired shortly before his death. We worked closely together in promoting the work of the House. He was tireless and persistent, his manner hiding a sharp determination. There were other notable losses. Baroness Platt of Writtle was a distinguished engineer – she worked in aeronautics – before becoming chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Lord Williamson of Horton was a distinguished civil servant who served as Secretary-General of the European Commission; in the House, he was convenor of the cross-bench peers. Lord Moser was a leading statistician. Baroness Rendell was well-known as crime writer Ruth Rendell. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu had served as the chair of English Heritage, among other public activities. Lord Molyneaux had been an unassuming leader of the Ulster Unionists. Lord Mackie of Benshie was an expert of agriculture, but was also a wartime hero who was described by one peer as the bravest man he had ever met. Lord Mustill and Lord Griffiths were former law lords.
David Williamson was someone I saw regularly. We both tended to have lunch in the Bishop’s Bar. He was extremely interesting in recounting his experience in Brussels and in Whitehall. He was so insightful that I persuaded him to pen an article for The Journal of Legislative Studies. He is just one of several peers we have lost over the years who were excellent dining companions in the Bishop’s Bar – Lord Dearing, as one would expect, was always keen to discuss higher education (and, as a Hull University graduate, to hear how the university was faring) and Lord Biffen was wonderfully funny with his insightful reflections on politics and politicians.
They are among peers whose deaths were a great loss to the House. They were committed to public service. Two others that I particularly miss are Lords Weatherill and Newton of Braintree, who served as my sponsors when I was introduced into the House. Bernard (always known as Jack) Weatherill died in 2007 after distinguished parliamentary serevice: he had been Speaker of the Commons and served as convenor of the cross-bench peers. He was as funny as he was modest. (He always carried a thimble to remind him of his background as a tailor.) Tony Newton had been a successful Leader of the House of Commons. In the Lords, he was full of sage advice and was not afraid to challenge his own government. Even in 2012 when he was seriously ill, and needed an oxygen tank close to hand, he still turned up to move amendments.
The House has had some members who have not distinguished themselves, but the House has contributed massively to legislative revision through the dedication and knowledge of peers who have committed themselves to public service.