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Lords Diary: Baroness Bakewell

4 min read

The first indication of a long day ahead was a notification from House of Lords catering about the extended opening hours of various eateries about the place. All were staying open longer.

Debates, if I’m honest, can involve long hours of boredom prompting resort to tearooms and the consolation of tea and cakes. Alternatively, debates can be provoking, firing up the need for the solace of alcohol. Either way, the House of Lords makes you fat.

Next the car park confirms my worst fears. Not a single space left where I regularly park within the estate. Instead I am directed to the shared underground car park somewhere beyond the Speaker’s House. Given that I expect to be leaving around midnight, and alone, I decide it’s too far to shlep at that hour. Instead I use the nearer public car park below Abingdon Street Gardens. My commitment to voting will cost me £50 when I come to leave around midnight.

It seems to me that the streets are a good place for politics

I arrive to find the amendments to the Report Stage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill already being debated. This is the sixth and final day of debate for this highly contested bill. The government wants to increase police powers and impose fierce limits on the right to protest. I have been protesting in the streets all my life, so I take it personally. It began with Suez in 1956, then in the early 60s I joined the Aldermaston Marches against nuclear weapons – not making the full distance but joining each march for its London leg. Later came the huge march against the Iraq War – ignored, so ignominiously, by Tony Blair. More recently I have marched against Brexit, against Donald Trump being invited to address Parliament, and in celebration of women’s suffrage, wearing ribbons of purple, white and green.

It seems to me that the streets are a good place for politics: you can stop passers-by, and those curious about what’s going on, and give them some idea… your own, of course. The opposition’s amendment naming misogyny a hate crime prompts a fiery speech of support from Baroness Kennedy: there are heart-felt cries of “Hear! Hear!” backing her up. The amendment passes. The evening lumbers on: an amendment challenges the government wish to ban protests that make too much noise: we oppose, successfully. Somewhere late in the evening I tiptoe off to my lonely parked car.

I am currently in the ballot to win an Oral Question to put to Her Majesty’s Government. Humanists across both the Commons and Lords want to change the law on marriage. As co-chair of the Humanist APPG, I want the government to make humanist marriages legal. It’s an outrage that humanist couples have to have a registry office wedding as well as their own dedicated ceremony in order to be legally recognised as married. Change has been on the way a long time. Humanist marriages became legal in Scotland in 2005, in the Irish Republic in 2012, Northern Ireland in 2018, Jersey in 2019 and Guernsey 2021. Only England and Wales lag behind. 

So what’s holding things up here? The delay is particularly odd in the light of two things: first, there is currently a post-Covid backlog of couples waiting to marry, and not enough registrars to go round. Humanist marriage would clearly help with the catch-up. Secondly – and more maddeningly – on 20 December the government announced it would extend legal recognition of civil marriages held outdoors: this, again, is related to Covid infection.

Yet the lazy answer the government constantly gives humanists is that a major change to marriage law is on the horizon so it’s better to wait, rather than make changes “piecemeal”. Isn’t that what the new outdoor wedding regulations are? Meanwhile, humanist marriage ceremonies are on the increase; some 1,200 each year in England and Wales, without legal recognition. For those who don’t want the formality of traditional religions, humanist ceremonies offer scope for personal expression. It’s why I’m already planning my own humanist funeral.

Baroness Bakewell is a Labour peer


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