Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Baroness Farrington. Let’s get straight to it.
Joe Young: What do you think of the changes to the County Council divisions that are going through for next year?
Baroness Farrington: I’ve not studied them in enough detail to be able to make a judgement. And the same with the Boundary Commission on Parliamentary boundaries. The one thing I would say on Parliamentary boundaries is that a lot of people registered to vote when we got to the referendum and they are not included in the boundary proposals.
Do you think that’s a mistake?
Well, the Government’s argument was that the boundary commission couldn’t complete their task in time if they did it. I think it’s quite clear that the majority of those who are being disenfranchised are in areas who are being changed.
So what was it like at the Congress of the Council of Europe?
I was at the Congress of the Council of Europe at the Standing Conference for Local and Regional Authorities. It was a fascinating time to be there of course because all the changes going on in central and eastern Europe. One of the things that interested me enormously is that the Council of Europe produced a charter for local and regional self-government, giving people the right to determine policy locally and raise funds.
It’s something I think is long overdue – the Government has committed to it but when it comes to structure for local government and regional government and sub-nation states, like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I am saddened by what’s happening. I like the idea; I’m a total supporter of regional devolution in England.
I think what they’re doing by imposing a structure with an elected mayor, and what they’re doing with devolving responsibility but not fundraising, in a way, is phony. I think that decisions have been made for England on the basis of London and the South East. I’m a great supporter of Sadiq Khan, but what’s being proposed for the English regions isn’t the same.
What do you think of the Lancashire Combined Authority proposals?
From what I’ve seen, I think it’s good. But, with the caveat about not devolving the power to implement what I believe to be genuine regional self-Government
So would you like to have seen something along the lines of the referendum in the North East?
Well, I supported it; I was a member of the Government at the time. To me, the biggest failure was to give it relevant powers and responsibilities to make people feel it was a good idea.
What was your first reaction when you found out you were going to be a member of the House of Lords?
Well, the potted history is when Neil Kinnock was Leader, he asked if I was interested in going in. Before I was able to go in, there was a by-election in Ribble Valley and I was asked if I would put myself forward to be the candidate. It was a turbulent time, and I said yes, and Neil explained to me what he thought the result would be in Ribble Valley, and I agreed with him.
What did he say?
It was like trying to get Ebbw Vale to vote Tory.
So I knew I would lose, and huge swathes of the Labour vote went to the Lib Dems as a protest against poll tax. During the campaign I spent quite a bit of time with John Smith, who told me Neil had told him he was going to ask me to go into the House of Lords, and he said if we lost the next General Election and he became Leader, he would put me in. John died. To my utter amazement, whilst Margaret Beckett was acting Leader, John Major suddenly gave her three seats in the Lords. One of them was Derek Gladwin, one was Alf Dubs, and the other was me. She wanted a woman from the North West with local government experience. So I’m in the Lords because of Margaret Beckett, and the total surprise was being third time lucky!
So following on from Alf Dubs, do you think the Government’s response to your question in the Lords on refugee funding was satisfactory?
No. Because it isn’t a question of one-off spending. If the local community know that there is additional funding for education and health and services, there’s less likely to be antagonism and resentment against refugees, and people from other European countries. One of the most interesting things to me is to watch the movement of the Polish community, particularly as I represented Ribbleton and Brookfield. The Priest there is now Polish – the changes have been incredible.
So would you reform the House of Lords if you could?
At the moment, ultimately the power is with the House of Commons. I believe in a second chamber, because the work we do in the Lords is to scrutinise in detail bills, and to make suggestions to the Government about how they ought to be changed. The best example of that is with the tax credits. But before having a representative, by election directly or indirectly, second chamber, and given that we don’t have an elected president to arbitrate between the two chambers, I believe that first we’ve got to decide on unicameral, bicameral, and do you want the Commons to remain the ultimate responsibility?
I believe in a second chamber, because the work we do in the Lords is to scrutinise in detail bills, and to make suggestions to the Government about how they ought to be changed.
Do you think it should remain the ultimate responsibility?
What I would say is it’s up to the Commons to look at the power between the Executive and the Legislative. I’m not saying in the end the Government can’t have its say, but because of the Commons structure, there is too little time given to the Commons as opposed to the Executive to consider the detail.
If you could wave a magic wand and make one change to politics, what would it be?
It would be an acceptance by the government that the relation between the electorate and the local authority, and what they want, should be stronger. We’ve seen, to me, a diminution of all genuine local government.
What would make you support electoral reform?
It would depend on the circumstances. What it was being done for, how it was being done. In 1972, I was about to stand to be a Councillor and we had an agent then, in Preston Labour Party, called Harry Jackson. One of his bits of advice for becoming a politician, even at a local level, was ‘don’t ever say “I would never”’ as circumstances could change beyond recognition.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us – it’s been an absolute pleasure!