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By Ben Guerin
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Interview: Baroness Evans Hopes For Period Of Calm After Brexit And Covid

Baroness Evans said the Lords went through more change during the pandemic than in the past 200 years

4 min read

The Lords has come through one of its most difficult times in modern history. Now, Conservative leader Baroness Evans says she’s hoping for a period of calm.

Having led the Lords through the frantic late-night votes and emergency legislation of Brexit, Baroness Evans had hoped the UK’s final exit from the EU would mean a return to normality for peers. But with the pandemic hitting Britain months later, the Conservative leader of the Upper House faced another historic upheaval.There were, however, some benefits.

“It’s been a challenge having to set up entirely new ways of working and in some ways we have done more in the Lords in two months than has happened in 200 years,” she tells The House.

“We were all pleased to cut back some things around the edges and make some changes, which without the [pandemic] happening would have had people sucking their teeth.”

Despite frequent – and at times comedic – technical hitches, Evans says the hard work of House staff in getting a hybrid parliament up and running meant peers were able to scrutinise and pass almost 40 different pieces of legislation. But while some pandemic-era changes have remained, the Tory cabinet minister insists the vast majority of Members are happy to be back on the red benches.

"Politics is very much a social and interactive game and actually losing that, both from the back bench point of view in being able to hold the government to account, and from the front bench being able to talk to people in the corridor face-to-face, [meant] we started to learn the value of that, having taken it for granted."

Promoted to the role in 2016, Evans is the only person around the cabinet table to have stayed in their job over the last five years, and she hopes emerging from the pandemic will give the government an opportunity to finally press ahead with its domestic agenda.

"The main difference [with 2016] is we have a majority now. Obviously, with all the Brexit difficulties, not having a majority made getting anything done incredibly difficult.

"I still don’t have a majority in the House of Lords but having a Commons that can be decisive and show quite strong will is a huge change. We still get defeated relatively regularly, but having a strong [Commons] to say no, thank you, we have listened to you but we want to stick with this, is from my perspective the biggest change."

While the Lords faced a significant upheaval during the pandemic, Evans is reluctant to use this moment as an opportunity for wider change, resisting calls by the former speaker Lord Fowler to slash the number of peers.

"Generally there is a view that probably overall we are too large. In a way size is a bit of a red herring because you never have all those people in. A lot of people have other jobs; people might just come in for the issues they are interested in.

"Encouraging people to retire is a good [approach] and we continue to talk and look at ways in which we can encourage a reduction. Everyone wants it to reduce but when it comes down to ‘well, you have to go, and you have to go,’ they seem less keen.

Debate about the size of the Lords and the process for new peers has intensified recently following the decision by Boris Johnson to overrule the advice of the Lords Appointments Commission for the first time in its 21-year history after they rejected proposals to give Tory donor Peter Cruddas a peerage. But Evans avoids criticising the PM over the move, saying appointments remain his "prerogative".

"They put their view to the Prime Minister, he considered it and went back and said that for these reasons he didn’t [agree]," she says.

"We have excellent people in the Lords, and I’m sure at some point these things will be looked at, but it’s not the most pressing thing in front of us."

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