New peers on joining and reforming the House of Lords

By Sheila Cook
BBC Radio 4 Beyond Westminster

Image caption, Will these appointed Lords and Ladies eventually be replaced by elected peers?

What are the impressions of four newcomers from outside politics of life in the House of Lords?

The Upper Chamber made headlines recently as a result of the wrangling between the coalition government and the opposition over the bill to cut the number of constituencies and change the system of voting for MPs.

Critics say that the Lords as an institution is in urgent need of reform, and a draft bill to introduce elections for either all or most of the House is expected before Easter.

So what do the four peers make of their new home?

Baroness Bakewell of Stockport

The writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell was one of ten new working peers on the Labour Party's list last November. She left Stockport, her home town, after becoming a student and sees this as an opportunity to become reacquainted with the area.

Image caption, Baroness Bakewell engaged students at Stockport College in debate about the Lords

"I've been honoured at the local college, Stockport College, where they've named a building after me, and I felt it would be good to reciprocate," she said.

On a recent return visit, she asked a group of A-level law students who are studying the constitution what they thought about the makeup of the Lords.

They all disapproved of the 92 remaining hereditary peers, but were divided over how far members should be elected rather than appointed.

Baroness Bakewell is reserving judgement: "I do have a sense that it's the elders of the tribe here… who bring a wealth of knowledge in their later years to vest in this place.

"If it was entirely elected the whole machinery would be different, so I'm going to listen and assess what I regard as the values already prevailing here."

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint made her name as a cricketer and was captain of the England women's side.

Image caption, Baroness Heyhoe-Flint hopes to use her expertise in sports and charity

She is now an illustrious campaigner for the women's game, president of the Lady Taverners charity and a long-standing director of Wolverhampton Wanderers' Football Club.

She was among 27 Conservative appointments last November after David Cameron telephoned her to ask if she was willing to take a seat in the Lords.

"For once I was almost speechless. I was so thrilled, so proud. I will be a working peer. I won't just turn up and nod off."

"I shall be there working and hoping to continue my focus on sports, charity, community, lottery, the area I like to think I may have developed quite a bit of expertise in over the last forty-odd years," she adds.

Her already very busy life has become even busier.

Commuting between London and Wolverhampton, coping with the deluge of new information and trying to remember to make time for meals makes her feel as if she is "on a long-haul flight".

Raj Loomba, who came to Britain from India in 1962, began his working life driving an ice-cream van in Wigan.

Image caption, Lord Loomba was surprised by how late the night sittings can get

He switched to selling clothes on a market stall in Widnes and went on to build up a multi-million pound clothing company.

He now concentrates his energies on the Loomba Foundation, a charitable organisation which helps poor widows and children, and which he set up in memory of his mother, who was widowed at the age of 37.

No stranger to long hours and hard work, Lord Loomba was nevertheless taken aback by the extraordinary late night sittings that he was pitched into as one of 15 new Liberal Democrat working peers.

"I practically walked into the House of Lords from the deep end. But it was good that it happened because it has probably educated me more."

"I was told by not one, two but the entire number of Lords who I interacted with that they had never this seen before."

And what debates will he be most interested in?

"I am not a politician, but I have huge expertise on social problems. The House of Lords is a platform to discuss and understand different sorts of problems."

Tony Hall's appointment as an independent cross-bench peer came about through the so-called "people's peers" system introduced by the Labour government.

Image caption, Lord Hall says it is important to keep appointing Lords, rather than start electing them all

He was proposed by three sponsors, one from each party, and put through a rigorous selection process by the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

He was eventually selected from among hundreds of applicants for his knowledge of the arts and media through his role as chief executive of the Royal Opera House and as a former director of BBC News.

He enjoys the relative freedom of not being subject to any party whip and is convinced of the value of the appointed membership of the House of Lords.

"Whatever reform happens, my belief is it should carry on with an element of appointment of people who would not go through an elective process to be there.

"I think for a legislative process that involves a second chamber to have expertise of that calibre is phenomenally important."

Sheila Cook's Beyond Westminster about new members of the House of Lords is on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 26 February at 1100 GMT, or download the podcast.

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