Anything but retiring

Posted On: 
24th January 2013

A minister in the early years of New Labour, Baroness Hollis now fights her party’s corner in the Lords – but admits that the Coalition has some good ideas on pension reform

Baroness Hollis recalls a “dreadful moment” in the October 1974 election when she thought she might win. She was running for Labour in Great Yarmouth, as she had in the February 1974 election.

“It would have been the fastest resignation ever, because I had children of three and one (years old),” she tells The House. 

Fortunately for Patricia Hollis, the voters returned Anthony Fell instead of her, as they did again in the 1979 election.

“I was very happy with the twin track of university and city council life and being on quangos and having my family around me,” she explains.

Hollis was a lecturer in Modern History and Dean of Faculty at the University of East Anglia in Norwich from 1967 until 1990, and served on Norwich City Council from 1968 to 1991. She was Leader of the Council from 1983 to 1988.

“My husband Martin was an astounding philosopher, one of the best in the country. I taught labour history and women’s history. We helped build the university.

“I was being encouraged to apply for safe seats in the 1983 election and I turned them down because I had children, my own slightly frail parents had moved to Norwich and I would have ended up with a constituency in the Midlands or the North, a home in Norwich and a job in Westminster.

“Then Roy Hattersley asked if I would like to go down to the House of Lords. I was due to come in on the 1987 list but Mrs T crossed me off... We [Labour] were supposed to have six places and she decided to have five. So I came in 1990. At that time my youngest was at university so I felt I could.”

The life of an MP, Hollis reflects, would have been “a high price to pay for my personal ambition given that I was happy, busy and stretched”.

She finally came to Westminster 22 years ago, and in 1997 Tony Blair asked her to serve as Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Social Security. She stayed in the department, renamed DWP in 2001, until the 2005 election.

Malcolm died in 1998, just as she was getting to grips with ministerial life.

“On the day the General Election was called in 1997, the results of my husband’s biopsy came back. I was told he had a brain tumour and had a year to live, and I wasn’t going to take up the job,” she recalls.

“Both of my sons at the time were taking their PhDs. Simon was on a Fulbright in the States and Matthew was up in Edinburgh. They both pulled out of their PhDs to come back and help me nurse. Not too many young men in their mid twenties would put their lives on hold for a year to help nurse their father.”

Harriet Harman and Frank Field, the ill-matched duo at the top of her department, were “personally very kind to me,” she says.

“I had a year with Harriet and Frank, and then a year with Alistair Darling and then with Alan Johnson. After the 2005 election he was being moved and there was going to be another new Minister.

“I did not really want to continue, I had had enough of that and I didn’t want to start all over again with a new Secretary of State.”

Hollis’ life of academia and high political office is a long journey from the “warm, and kindly and censorious and judgemental” village where she grew up in the 1950s.

“My father was a farm labourer who got sacked for trying to organise a wage rise and was then recruited by the Transport and General Workers Union. He eventually became a van driver for the RAF. He left school at 12.

“When I was nine or 10, I used to go to the trade union meetings and I would take the minutes as he wasn’t very literate, having left school so young.

“My mother was in domestic service and she left school at 13. She was running the Methodist chapel nearby and so I used to play the asthmatic harmonium. My father was on the parish council, and got a village hall and playing fields, but could not beat the farmers and get council housing. They were afraid it would challenge their grip on tied cottages.”

Hollis describes her father as “radical working class, clever but under-educated”.

“Mother had more respectable pretensions – in some ways she would take on the values of the homes she worked in.”

She moved with her family to Plymouth at the age of 14 and attended the grammar school, discovered the local library and claims she turned to history “because I had a reasonably decent memory”.

“My mother wanted me to leave school at 15 and I was able to stay on and do my A-Levels by working part time in Lyons cafeteria,” she says.

“I used to make the best scones and tea in Plymouth. I quickly found my way into that EM Forster cliché that the past is another country.”

Hollis went up to Cambridge to study that other country at Girton College.

“I made some good women friends, and I found most of my friends were very clever Jewish men who were also outside the British class system. We got our first class degrees together and left the Hooray Henrys to get on with their rowing.”

Her social conscience was fired up during a two-year scholarship to the States in the early 1960s, which included stints at Berkeley and Columbia in New York.

“My American boyfriend was the chairman of the Student Non Violent Organising Committee so I was doing a lot of civil rights work,” she recalls.

“We were trying to get voter registration in Mississippi and what was happening was the redneck whites were denying food coupons to blacks trying to register to vote, so they were being starved out of their rights.

“My job in Berkeley was to go round all of the supermarkets and use a cut-glass English accent which I invented for the purpose and get cans of baked beans and tomatoes and so on to truck down to Mississippi.

“The only truckers I could find were Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters who were simultaneously being prosecuted for corruption by Bobby Kennedy. Alliances were slightly confusing.

“Then in the long summer I worked down there, riding buses and singing we shall not be moved outside prisons and being moved on by burly sheriffs.

“I was safe – I was white, I was female, I was English, so I was never at risk. But I remember George Wallace with his restaurant on the front of which it said ‘turkey dinners 99c and guaranteed no niggers’, or seeing lavatories at filling stations ‘white gents, white ladies, coloured’.

“In the States the truth was if you were white you had freedom and that meant that I finally got rid of the chips on my shoulders I had been carrying through Cambridge, being from a working class background.”

On the theme of inequality, this time rather closer to home, Hollis says she found the Lords “a much easier place for a woman” than the Commons back in 1990.

“Any woman under the age of 50 was treated either as a niece or a god-daughter or if you were very gorgeous as a potential mistress.”

Among the Baroness’s many areas of knowledge is pensions, with her time in opposition and on the frontbench allowing her to become something of an expert in the area.

“I was on the frontbench doing social security from 1991, because it was regarded as techy and difficult, and I was also doing local government and housing, which I knew more about. There were only 70 of us (Labour peers), and 800 hereditaries against us so we all had to do everything. It was great fun.

“We would regularly try to run ambushes at night. We would have a vote at 9pm and the Government would expect that everybody would have gone home. I would have to get to the exact amendment at the exact time and all our troops would come in at five to nine and we would keep them in cupboards plied with gin.”

Hollis said her technique for getting Tory support for some of her suggestions in the days before the Blair administration was to “make it possible” for them to vote with her, “by reducing the ideology and tribalism”.

“You can win votes, as I was lucky enough to do on pension sharing in divorce in 1995, with the help of Conservative Peers like Detta O’Cathain. I have won more recent votes on women’s pensions with the help of Gillian Shepherd.”

Even when she was in Government she could not win by whipping the vote, “only by argument and persuasion”. “It means that the Chamber was where it mattered; and you had to persuade the House that you knew what you were talking about, that you were sincere and well-intentioned.”

Once Labour got into power, they mishandled their approach to the changes needed in her department.

“I think it was very difficult having a Minister for welfare reform, which was the big driver in the department, with a Secretary of State over the top,” she says.

“The civil servants could not be clear about who was responsible for what. It was not a sensible way to structure the department irrespective of the personalities.”

The clash of personalities led to both Harman and Field being sacked.

Fifteen years on from that first reshuffle, Hollis is still as interested as ever in pensions, and particularly in getting the best deal for women.

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat, is “a first rate Pensions Minister,” she says.

“I am absolutely delighted with what he is doing and the new single state pension is something I have been campaigning for for eight years. It will help address pensioner poverty, particularly for women, get rid of means testing and make it safe to save. It is a ‘win win win’.”

“That is not to say there are not areas where the Treasury had too strong an interest and we may have to challenge that when it comes through as a Bill.

“With means testing you get fraud, error and above all people don’t claim. Something like a third of pensioners don’t claim because of stigma.”

Finally, the pensions expert has a warning for those still working but not saving.

“It is the case that if we are living longer you either have to contribute more or work longer or both.

“Otherwise you are going to have a very poor old age.”