|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Blatch: I rise for the first time in this debate. Having had some experience of local government, I find it deeply frustrating not to be taking part in this Bill. But, given the convention of the House that we do not become involved in every Bill, I have been full of restraint. If we have heard the best intellectual justification for most inelegant language, then I find it rather feeble.
When I was leader of Cambridgeshire County Council until 1985, I was entirely happy to be called the leader of the council. Until that time there was no contention about it. In the May elections of that year Cambridgeshire became a hung council or, as I look back on it now, I prefer to call it an unhinged council. Within hours of taking office the next morning the
It turned out that the leader of the council was hierarchical and anyway at that time we did not have any one party which could claim leadership over the council. So there was a great debate. By the end of the day I became known as "an equal member of an egalitarian triumvirate". I was meant to languish with some gratitude in this new title of mine, but I said, "If I am going to be chairman of anything, I would like to be called chairman".
We went through "chairman", at the Liberal behest, to "chairperson". Then there was a discussion about that, after which we became "chair". We then had another debate which followed where it was decided that "chair" was also hierarchical and unacceptable to the council. So we then went through yet another debate and became "spokesman" through to "spokesperson" and then to "spoke". I had to suffer the indignity of being called "Madam Spoke" at meetings.
I remember on one occasion insisting that if I was going to be sitting in the chair at a meeting and had to be called anything, I would like to be called "chairman". There ensued something like a three-quarters-of-an-hour debate describing me as a disgrace to my gender because I was being offensive to my Liberal and Labour colleagues on the council by insisting on being called "chairman". If it had not been so serious, it would have been absurd; indeed, it was taken to absurd lengths.
It is inelegant. We all know that "man" is a universal term for a human being. As an individual, I have no objection whatever to being called "Chairman" or "Madam Chairman"; they are equally acceptable to me. Similarly, I find the term "Ms" inelegant. When I was a Minister, I refused to call anyone "Ms"; indeed, I preferred to use the christian name rather than "Ms", because I think that that is also inelegant. We have corrupted the language with this kind of political correctness. I find that if offends more people than it pleases. Of course, it pleases the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. It has been on their political agenda for a very long time. However, I believe that it provides a disservice.
I know that the Minister will argue against my noble friend's amendment. There are two Ministers: a lady Minister and a gentleman Minister, and only one of them will respond. I am not a gambling lady, but I will bet that there will be an objection to my noble friend's amendment. I find that rather sad. First, my noble friend has argued the case most cogently; and, secondly, she has also referred to the inconsistencies in the Bill. For example, why is the term "chairman" acceptable in one part of the Bill and yet wholly unacceptable in another part? What is the argument and the intellectual justification for that?
Lord Sheppard of Didgemere: I cannot get enthusiastic for this debate and that probably proves something about business or the private sector. For 10 years I was in the chair--and I choose my words carefully--of Grand Metropolitan and everyone at every level called me Allen.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I knew what was going to happen as soon as I was asked to respond to this amendment. I have to tell the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, with whom, I believe, I maintain a good friendship, that if she is going to develop her argument about ushers and usherettes I have absolutely no intention of being a "Whippet". I think that that would be most offensive.
I was intrigued by this series of amendments. As others have said in this short debate, I am conscious of how sensitive an issue this can be. I shall not mention the various offices I have held, but I was proud at one time to be the chairman of Lancashire County Council. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, discussed the term "chair". I shall return to that point.
I agree that debates on this matter can become heated and fearsome. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would not want that to happen here. I found that I had to change what I called myself when I reached Crewe because otherwise I became locked in sterile debates. Occasionally I forgot to change my title when I was in Lancashire and called myself the chair. Various people objected to that. Or I referred to myself as a chairman south of Crewe and various people objected to that too. When I chaired a committee in Europe I found the term "president" easier.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: We decided to update the terminology used to refer to the presiding officers of the assembly to a usage now recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary. When I acted in the capacity of chairman of Lancashire County Council on several occasions primary schoolchildren asked me how I could be the chairman as they expected to see a man. There is a serious point here as regards children's expectations of our democratically elected representatives.
It is true that previous legislation uses the term "chairman". Where this Bill modifies earlier Acts or makes provisions in the context of earlier legislation, the term "chairman" therefore appears. Alternatively we could have insisted on bringing before the Chamber amending legislation to all previous legislation to enable us to use--this would appear more logical on the face of it--the term "chair" throughout. However, we think it is unpractical in legal or handling terms to ensure consistency across the whole Bill by amending all references to "chairman" to "chair". The references to "chair" are therefore confined to the authority itself.
The authority could also choose to designate the leaders of its various committees as "chair" should it wish to do so, as happens now in relation to bodies established by the Local Government Act 1972. Therefore I think that there is a logic here. I hope that the Committee will not discuss this matter at length on many occasions because I know from past experience how much time that can take. Perhaps it may soothe the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, if I tell her that I wrote down carefully the letters, EMET. Those letters, if pronounced phonetically, sound like a small, industrious animal. I am sure that it is not at all offensive to be an EMET.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: I thank my noble friend for adding to what I said. When she said they called her "Madam Spoke", I made a joke saying "Thank goodness they do not call a spokesman a "spoke"" I cannot imagine that anyone would call a person a "spoke". That sounds extraordinary.
My noble friend mentioned that, apart from being described as "Alan", he was described as "sitting in the chair". I have another friend who, when he became elected leader of his group on the council, said to the lady taking the minutes, "Please, do not describe me as "Councillor so and so, the chair" because I do not consider that I am a chair. I do not like the word; I am not a "chair"; I am a "chairman"". The lady taking the minutes said that she was not able to do that because under the rules and regulations he had to be described as a "chair". Eventually, they came to a kind of stand-off where the minutes said "Councillor so and so was sitting in the chair". That brings me back to the point that my noble friend made a few moments ago.
I listened with care to the explanation given by the Minister as to why in certain places in the Bill it refers to "chairman" and "vice-chairman" as opposed to those places where it refers to "chair". I shall go through all those clauses very carefully to ascertain whether the words are simply being brought in to replace a word that was already there. It seems to me that perhaps different draftsmen were involved; some more politically correct than others.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Blatch that there is a serious point involved here. What we said was not just for fun and an attempt to make the matter look even sillier than it is; political correctness is creeping in everywhere. The Minister said that she hoped I would withdraw the amendment. I was tempted to divide the Committee, not only on this amendment but, at some stage, to divide 26 times. But it is late and she need have no fear that that will happen tonight.
I am sorry that the Minister did not have a "persondate" to accept my amendments. It would have been extremely nice had she been able to do so. I shall certainly check and do all the things I said I would.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page