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House of Lords

Thursday, 15th May 1997.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Charles Leslie Falconer, Esquire, QC, having been created Baron Falconer of Thoroton, of Thoroton in the County of Nottinghamshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Mackenzie-Stuart and the Lord Browne-Wilkinson.

Lord Hoyle

Eric Douglas Harvey Hoyle, Esquire, having been created Baron Hoyle, of Warrington, in the County of Cheshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Baroness Turner of Camden and the Lord Dormand of Easington.

Several Lords--Took the Oath or Affirmed.

Tributes to the late Lady Seear

3.36 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, it is my sad duty this afternoon as Leader of the House to rise at the start of our first day of substantive debate this Session to lead tributes to Lady Seear who died on 23rd April during the Dissolution. Nancy (as everyone knew her) had been a Member of this House since 1971. It is for her service as leader of the Liberal Peers from 1984 to 1988 that we are officially paying tribute to her today. Whatever the official reason, she was a great figure in this House and outside. I cannot possibly hope to do her justice in the time available.

Educated at Croydon High School--that proving ground for so many determined ladies of Newnham, Cambridge--Nancy Seear had a remarkable career in industry, academia, public service, including the TSRB, and this House. Others will no doubt dwell on her career in the Liberal Party and its successors, including her valiant service in elections over many years. Perhaps I may set the scene by recording that she first joined that movement before the war just as Hitler was rising to power in Germany. But it is for her performance in debates that your Lordships will probably best remember her. She was a regular attender in this House and could often be seen here working late at night. Her contributions were always serious and stimulating. She excelled not only in set-piece debates but in impromptu and off-the-cuff interventions. I am sure that many of your Lordships will recall that hers was the first speech in this House to be broadcast on television. She then gave the public an excellent introduction to the fine traditions of oratory in your Lordships' House by speaking, as she always did, entirely without notes.

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Lady Seear was particularly active in the promotion of women's rights--a subject that she approached not from any narrow or trendy ideological base but from her deeply held and driving principles of fairness, equality and natural justice. I do not believe that it is an overstatement to say that the eventual passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was in large part due to her drive and determination. She introduced the predecessor Bill in this House in March 1972, served on your Lordships' Select Committee on that Bill and worked tirelessly for the passage of the final Act. Your Lordships will know that she had been ill for some time before her death. During that period she continued to exhibit her customary virtues of bravery and strength of character. I am sure that all of your Lordships will miss, as I will, the hardworking, no-nonsense style of a lady for whom the word "indomitable" was probably coined.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I rise to associate myself with the sentiments just expressed by the Leader of the House in his tribute to Lady Seear. When I come to look back at my career in your Lordships' House I shall count it as one of the privileges of my time here that for a brief period I served while she was still active in this Chamber. With my relatively inexperienced eye, she appeared to me to be a model Member of your Lordships' House. She was wise, humorous, independent-minded and inspired affection and respect in all quarters. She combined all those qualities with a formidable intellect. This combination made her one of the most effective, if not the most effective, debaters in this Chamber as the noble Lord has observed.

I for one shall always picture her in her characteristic pose, often with her hands clasped behind her back, delivering pithy, witty speeches without a note seemingly effortlessly, yet without a word or argument out of place. She was a delight to listen to as a result. Her addiction to brevity made her a rare bird even in your Lordships' House--someone who almost invariably left one wanting more.

Perhaps the quality that attracted me most was Lady Seear's robustness and willingness to express an unfashionable view. I wonder, for instance, whether any of your Lordships remember a debate in this Chamber on 5th July last to which she made, as was her wont, a distinguished contribution. Part of what she said about the importance of symbolism may have some relevance today. With your Lordships' permission, perhaps I may quote a short part of it. Lady Seear said:

    "Symbolism has fallen away in human personal relationships. The use of the christian name used to mean something; it meant friendship, responsibility and commitment. Today, it normally means that people cannot remember what your surname is--or, in my case, can never aspire to spell it. I suppose that is supported by some extraordinary idea that if we all call each other by our christian names, we are all equal. The nonsense is that the great joy of human relationships is that they are all different; they are all unique and none is exclusive. But calling people by their christian names does not enhance that in any way whatsoever. A kiss used to mean something. There could be arguments about what it meant, but it was meant to mean something. Today, it is just an insanitary habit"--[Official Report, 5/7/96; col. 1706.]

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I cannot in any way hope to emulate the diction and the force of the noble Baroness's delivery. However, I hope that I have, in some way, served to remind your Lordships of what this House will miss from now on.

In mourning Lady Seear's passing, I am left with just two regrets: first, that I was not here to see her as her party's leader in this place; and, secondly, that she can no longer speak here as was her wont so often. I nearly added a third--that she was not a Tory--but I fear that with her strong Liberal Party instincts that would not have been in her nature.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends I thank the Leader of the House and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for the exceptionally warm words--and in the noble Viscount's case, the exceptionally appropriate quotation of Lady Seear's witty words--that they have spoken. Nancy Seear was a very remarkable woman. I shall make three brief points about her: first, her generosity, and I, above all people, have reason to know and to appreciate that.

In 1988 Lady Seear insisted that she should step down and that I should become Leader of the Liberal Democrats. In a long life during which people have, on the whole, treated me better than I deserve--very few the other way around--I have never known such an act of selfless generosity. It was the more remarkable because she herself had so many of the qualities of leadership. She had worked away in the Liberal Party for decades, through thirsty years, but despite that she had great perspective so that no one was more in favour and no one a more persuasive, constructive advocate of, first, the alliance and then the merger with the Social Democrats.

Lady Seear was, as has been brought to your Lordships' attention, a very impressive speaker who at least appeared to have the gift of speaking totally effortlessly. At the drop of a hat she could produce very sound sense in a beautifully structured form. The sentences were always complete, and you could almost hear the beginnings and the ends of the paragraphs. She could do that on nearly every subject of serious political import. Yet none of her political dedication took the edge off her sense of fun. She was a wonderful companion with whom to share this Bench and to ease the sometimes slow passage of time with semi-sotto voce comments on the practices of this House and the eccentricities of some of its Members. Our exchanges sometimes provoked, I thought, a dignified smile on the face of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for it is one of the characteristics of this House that whoever sits on the Woolsack can hear every word which is exchanged on the Liberal Benches, and perhaps on the Bishops' Benches too. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, will not be so lucky. We shall all be greatly deprived by the absence of one of the most notable and lovable persons in your Lordships' House.

Lord Weatherill: My Lords, I rise on behalf of the Cross-Bench Peers to express our admiration and affection for Lady Seear. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has spoken about her parliamentary achievements, as

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have other noble Lords, and the fact that she spoke without notes. As the Speaker in the other place that was something which always terrified me, because I was concerned that one brilliant thought would tend to lead to another.

I once asked Lady Seear the key to that. She replied--I always remember it--"Careful preparation". It is of course the mark of a brilliant mind to make very complicated issues understood by those of us who are less well endowed. Lady Seear had that great ability. I am not surprised, because I am delighted to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that she was educated at that fine school in my former constituency--Croydon High School.

Lady Seear's parliamentary achievements have been well rehearsed and I shall not dwell upon them. Long before I entered your Lordships' House I was involved, as I still am, with the Industry and Parliament Trust. For some 10 years Lady Seear was one of our trustees. Indeed, she was the senior trustee. Because of her background in personnel management in the early 1930s with C & J Clark, a shoe manufacturer, and the fact that she subsequently lectured on personnel management in the LSE and the London City University, her commercial and parliamentary experience made her invaluable to the trust. She will be greatly missed by us there.

All of us on the Cross-Benches will remember Lady Seear for her robust common sense, the quality of her mind, her kindness, her quiet sense of humour and as a delightful companion at the Long Table. The whole House will remember her with great respect and with great affection.

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