Baroness Masham: “There’s no point in being in the Lords if you’re not going to get involved”
Paralympian, campaigner and Westminster’s longest-serving life peer – Baroness Masham has led the charge on disability, health and penal reform issues in the House of Lords for nearly 50 years. But, as she tells Gary Connor, the job’s not done yet
It doesn’t take very long to realise you can’t go anywhere with Baroness Masham of Ilton quickly. Not because she uses a wheelchair – accessibility in the House of Lords has improved a great deal since Masham first arrived as a peer nearly 50 years ago – but because everyone we pass along the wood-panelled corridors near the chamber insists on stopping to say hello; from doorkeepers and security staff to fellow peers.
The crossbencher is one of the most familiar faces in Westminster. She’s the longest-serving female peer and – although there are a handful of hereditaries who joined before her – she’s held a life peerage longer than anyone else in the House.
Masham has been a wheelchair user since a riding accident in 1958. Two years later, she embarked on a successful career as a Paralympic swimmer and table tennis player, competing and winning medals at the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Games. The facilities in those days, she says, were a far cry from the state-of-the-art Olympic Villages we see today. “They’d thought of everything other than the accommodation. When we got to Rome [in 1960], the Village had been built on stilts, so they had to call in the Italian army to get 400 wheelchairs up the steps.”
She won a gold and four silver medals at the 1960 games for swimming, as well as a bronze for table tennis. But the gold failed to make it back home. “The awful thing was that it got lost in the Trevi fountain. We had dinner there and I lost it. I think it dropped down. Wasn’t that terrible?” Asked if alcohol had played a part, she laughs and promises that she “hardly ever” drinks. “It was never seen again. But I got another one,” she says, referring to the gold she won for table tennis at the ‘64 Tokyo Games. Masham says she still enjoys the odd game, but has to be careful. “I have to watch my shoulders – I’ve worn them out because I played so much.”
The invitation to join the House of Lords in February 1970 came as a “total, total surprise” to the then Susan Cunliffe-Lister, who was living in Yorkshire and campaigning for better facilities for disabled people. She says she decided to accept the “challenge” after Harold Wilson suggested she joined as a crossbencher. That came as a relief to someone who has “never been party political”.
Her first impressions were of a “very friendly and helpful” place that could at times be challenging to negotiate in a wheelchair. “We had to do long, complicated routes because it’s an old building.”
Only eight weeks after taking the oath, she made her maiden speech during the second reading of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill. It was the first legislation in the world to recognise and give rights to people with disabilities, and is now regarded as a ground-breaking step on the road to equality.
On that same day, two other wheelchair-using peers – Baroness Darcy de Knayth and Viscount Ingleby – also spoke for the first time. Another, Lord Crawshaw, was already a regular contributor. The four worked closely together over the years and were affectionately referred to as “the mobile bench” because one of the crossbenches was removed to make room for them. “They still call us the mobile bench now,” Baroness Masham laughs.
The group did much to put disability issues on the political agenda in the Lords. “I think they didn’t know so much, I don’t think it was on their radar,” she explains. “I could bring outside incidents into parliament as examples. I did a lot of campaigning up in Yorkshire, and founded the Spinal Injuries Association.”
In 1972 she was joined in the Lords by her husband, David, who had inherited the title of Earl of Swinton on the death of his grandfather. A Conservative peer, he served as deputy chief whip in the Lords for four years in the 1980s.
Frequently, husband and wife found themselves in opposite division lobbies, including one “big triumph” when an amendment Lady Masham had tabled to ensure mentally ill people who had been detained had a right to statutory aftercare. She won by three votes.
Her husband left the Lords after the 1999 reforms that saw the vast number of hereditaries lose their seats, and he died in 2006 after a long illness. Masham recalls that the Lords was a good support network at the time, but laments the fact that the bigger the House gets “the fewer people you get to know” on a personal level.
She’s championed often unfashionable causes over the years, and recites stories of the numerous cases of prisoners she’s helped and visited. She was a co-founder of the APPG on HIV and Aids back in the 1980s, when the stigma about those who had been infected remained.
The health service continues to be Masham’s dominant interest now. She praises the current health and social care minister, Lord O’Shaughnessy – “quite energetic and interested” – but her current concerns centre around the NHS’s ability to continue to attract skilled professionals after the UK leaves the European Union.
She wishes that the Home Office would work more closely with the Department of Health “for the good of the people” to convince EU nationals to stay. “We need them, that’s a worry,” she says.
Masham is no fan of Brexit, and was a “passionate” campaigner for the UK to remain a member of the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum, not long after she joined the Lords. She runs a farm and a riding school in Yorkshire, and is worried about the fate of her mostly eastern European employees.
Her views on Europe were formed when visiting Germany in 1947. “I saw the awful results of the war,” she tells me. Her father, Major Sir Ronald Sinclair, was in charge of part of north Germany for the Control Commission. She remembers visiting Hamburg, driving through the rubble and someone pointing out to her that houses with crosses on meant that people were buried inside.
She wonders how much attention the government is paying to what members of the Lords are saying on Brexit, and says she despairs at some of the anti-Europe rhetoric she hears in the chamber and elsewhere. “I have to keep myself from getting really annoyed. I just hope now that we’ll still work out, we’ll be friendly. We can’t be enemies, that would be terrible.”
During her nearly 50 years in the House, Masham has seen many peers come and go. She says the debates are as good as they always were – “and the passion, I like a bit of passion”. She is, however, critical of those who are given a seat and rarely attend. “I don’t think there’s any point in being here if you’re not going to be involved,” she says.
Change in the Lords is on the horizon. The ‘restoration and renewal’ of the Palace of Westminster will mean peers will have to move out soon for several years, and many will never return. Masham predicts that many will choose to use that as a good point to retire. So does she ever think about leaving? “Oh, I will retire at some stage,” she says. “But I want to see the Brexit thing through first.”
She promises that she still enjoys the Lords, and would leave if that ever changed. “If I didn’t think there were things to do, I wouldn’t come. I’ve always tried to campaign for different things, and things keep coming up.”