Hansard tells me I made 372 contributions in the House of Lords in 2023, a bit more than one a day on average, although given the House only sits for about half the year, generally Monday to Thursday, that must average out at roughly three per sitting day. No wonder it all feels like a bit of a blur, and what I was doing back in January has to be excavated from the depths of memory.
Sometimes – very rarely – I am in control of the subject matter, when I get lucky in an oral question ballot, as I did on private equity’s impact on financial stability, on the health impacts of ultra-processed foods, on the environmental impact of fast fashion, on reusable nappies, on deaths and injuries to Palestinian civilians caused by the Israeli military (back in May), and on decriminalisation of sex work. My next – coming up in January – is on the industrial health issue of silicosis.
I also secured a question for short debate on the impact on food security and biosecurity of agricultural anti-fungicides. Yes, it might sound specialist, but is really important and likely to be attracting more coverage in the new year.
I also asked 198 written questions. I used to say these are questions the government has to answer. I now say it has to provide some text in response. You can judge for yourself from the link how many were actually answered. (To be fair, sometimes quite well.)
And for the first time this year, in my fourth year in the House, I secured a private notice question, when in September the Contracts for Difference energy auction failed to secure any bids from offshore wind.
Bringing influence to the agenda
How do I choose these subjects? Well, you might see something of a pattern of focusing on the interaction between human and environmental wellbeing, an attempt to bring a systems thinking approach into the House, but often it is that I see an issue being neglected, or an NGO or campaign group brings it to me. There is also a sweet spot for oral question issues, where, with up to ten other Lords from all around the House coming in, you want enough contributions for a good debate
But every other contribution in the House of Lords is on a subject that I cannot control. The agenda for the vast majority of my contributions is set by the government with the bills it brings before the House, by events which often provoke statements and questions, and by the subjects for debates chosen by other peers.
One of the hazards of politics is being subjected to ‘whataboutery’ – “why are you talking about that issue when you should be talking about this?” Quite often the answer is “I’m doing both”, but also what I have been talking about is simply what has come up. Otherwise, of course, it may also been being covered by my ‘noble friend’ – in House parlance – fellow Green peer Jenny Jones.
House of Lords: the year that was
Given it is so hard to draw a single conclusion from a year of politics, one way to make an assessment of the year is to pick one highlight per month, so here they are.
January: the second reading of the financial services bill. A chance to focus on how there is far too much finance, and financialisation in our economy and society, how resources going into that sector are not going into the productive or caring economies.
February: the second reading of the online safety bill. A chance not just to reflect on the need for education based on critical thinking, not rote learning, but also on the need for far more democracy. ‘Young people’ are seen by many as the beneficiaries of the bill, but the ‘experts by experience’ are not in the room.
March: in a question on leasehold reform, I got the chance to focus on the positive possibilities of community land trusts, co-housing and other alternative ways of giving people secure, affordable, decent places to live.
April: community energy amendment to the energy bill. I started this amendment on its way back in the depths of 2022 at committee stage, and it was pleasing to see it make it into the bill in this vote in the House. (It was the last Lords amendment standing in ‘ping-pong’, but the House settled for a review of the issue.)
May: a question on the potential establishment of a land use commission. Yes, I was thinking of driven grouse shooting when I asked Lord Benyon about intolerable land uses. But I could have thought of others.
June: are school uniforms fit for the age of the climate emergency? Not the biggest issue, but certainly something to think about. I spent a lot of the year talking about adaptation to the Anthropocene. I got a reflective murmur of agreement around the House to this question – not something the directional microphones in the chamber generally pick up.
July: student fees and higher education reform. A chance to set out the case for education as a public good that should be free at the point of use, and not solely regarded as vocational.
September: in a debate secured by the former Bishop of Oxford, a chance for a long-form setting out of the Green Party vision on migration – working towards a world where no one is forced by move from their home, by war or climate, but where everyone who wants to is free to move.
October: in the debate on the Economic Affairs Committee’s report on net zero, I set some facts straight, and reflect on the utter unjustifiability of new fossil fuel infrastructure.
November: the state of poverty. In the debate on the autumn statement, I reflected on how this parliament is set to be the worst for household incomes on record.
December: a ‘big bang’ finish to the year. My fatal motions that would have thrown out government rules on ‘minimum service levels’ that represent a huge threat to trade unions and the right to strike did not succeed, but at least the resistance is on the record.
Change is a certainty
And what general conclusion to draw from all of that? That our systems are broken, that the UK is in a state of crisis economically, environmentally, socially, educationally.
So what hope for 2024? Well, where we are now is profoundly unstable. Change is a certainty, and that is great news.