22 Baroness Fox of Buckley debates involving the Cabinet Office

Wed 20th Mar 2024
Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage & Committee stage: Minutes of Proceedings & Committee stage: Minutes of Proceedings part one & Committee stage & Committee stage & Committee stage: Minutes of Proceedings part one & Committee stage
Thu 14th Dec 2023
Thu 21st Jul 2022
Wed 6th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Report stage & Report stage: Part 1
Wed 23rd Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I have problems with all the amendments in this group. Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, would elevate “political or moral disapproval” to be the sole or main factor, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, wants to introduce the concept of materiality into influence. Both these would just create huge loopholes, which would allow public bodies to conceal their boycott activities within other factors. Clever lawyers would find ways of writing papers which support decision-making in, say, local authorities or other bodies affected by the Bill, by reference to a whole load of other factors, to support the claim that they were not “materially” influenced by their disapproval of a foreign state, or that it was not the sole or main factor. I genuinely have a problem with the watering-down implied by Amendments 1 and 2.

I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, said about his amendments. I understand that he is trying to find a way through by removing the reference to “political or moral disapproval”, but I am not convinced that his amendments work either. In particular, I am not sure what the restriction to “that territory” in his Amendment 4 will do. Let us suppose that the territorial consideration is Ukraine, because it has to relate to a particular foreign territory by virtue of subsection (3). Does that mean that the decision-maker must have no regard to what is happening in Ukraine itself? It seems to me that “that territory” can be related only to the territorial consideration referenced in subsection (2). In that case, it would be Ukraine. If, say, Russia is the foreign state you have a problem with, it seems that you can take account of its activities only in Ukraine. You could not take account of activities that were not in Ukraine—for example, attacks from other places, such as the Black Sea, or whether it takes children from Ukraine back to Russia. If you thought that Russia was the territory—still restricting it to one territory—you have the problem the other way around; you could take activities only in Russia, but not in Ukraine, which is the fundamental problem. That creates an interpretive problem.

While these distinctions might not matter if we are talking about Russia and Ukraine, if you try and then relate it to a council or other public body trying to boycott Israel, and relate that to the complexities of the different parts of the territory around the State of Israel, you may end up finding some odd conclusions on how the reformulation might work in practice. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, is a very clever lawyer and I am not, and I may well have completely misunderstood how his amendment is intended to work.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, because this is the first group, I again state that I think that a lot of these amendments are trying to establish what is intended by the Bill, in a probing way. In that sense, they are very helpful for clarification on the language used. It was clear from Second Reading that most of the people who have since tabled these amendments and are speaking now are not in any way defending BDS; it was clear to me anyway. These boycott schemes are censorious and illiberal, and very often, as was stated at the time, the seeding ground for anti-Semitism in public life. In that sense, I oppose them; I am just not clear how the Bill will actually tackle them.

As we speak, just to use an example, the Rio Cinema in London has just cancelled its Eurovision party on the basis that it will not hold it while Israel still has somebody in the Eurovision Song Contest. I do not know whether this is self-declared BDS; it is a charity, and I am not quite sure how the Bill would apply. The point I kept trying to make at Second Reading was that, so often, I feel that the Bill will miss where a lot of the anti-Semitic censorship is occurring, around the periphery, rather than just in terms of divestment and investment, and so on.

I say that because those of us who are interested in tackling those issues need to have as much free speech as possible. I particularly support Amendment 6 from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire—although both his amendments are interesting—which makes the point about

“any person seeking to persuade the decision-maker”.

That is what politics is, is it not? Trying to persuade a decision-maker—lobbying and trying to have an influence on politics—is surely the job we are all in, even if we disapprove of, in this instance, what someone is trying to persuade about. I just get anxious about this being in a Bill; it sets a dangerous precedent.

Points have been made well by other noble Lords about the use of the language of political and moral disapproval; I want there to be far more political and moral disapproval in politics today than there is. It is an entirely good thing to make that clear. I wish there was a bit more “political and moral disapproval” leadership in general, even though many of us arguing that would disagree over what it should be. That is fair, but it is far better than a kind of technocratic approach. Also, if we are to win the hearts and minds of many of the young people who go along with BDS campaigns, we will have to show our political and moral disapproval, and win them over and seek to persuade them. Noble Lords get the point, but it is not clear how the language in the section to which these amendments refer will help us to tackle the problem that the Bill seeks to address.

Baroness Janke Portrait Baroness Janke (LD)
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My Lords, I also wish to speak in support of Amendments 1 and 6 in the name of my noble friend Lord Wallace. As a former councillor, I can imagine that former colleagues will be absolutely horrified at the scope of the Bill. We are talking about how moral and political disapproval cannot be used as the basis of a decision. Many councillors get into politics because they have moral and political views—they want to change the world and do something about things in their own area. I would welcome clarity, as others have asked for, on how it is to be established whether a decision-maker has been

“influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.

What means might be used to actually determine this, in the event of needing to enforce action against it?

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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I want to return, very briefly, to something the noble Lord, Lord Mann, raised earlier. I can understand in the broader sense why universities have been included, because very often it has been universities that have been at the cutting edge of popularising boycotts. They have taken a wide range of forms—and not just in terms of what is sold or invested in. As the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, pointed out, it could be denying people research, not letting Israeli academics come over to speak or whatever. There are all sorts of ways that this happens. So, I understand why the university sector is in scope. My problem is that it is not clear to me how a Bill like this can do anything other than attack academic freedom, which I am interested in defending. I think we have to deal with what is happening on university campuses in a different way.

Regardless of that, the reason it is frustrating—and why I am referring to what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said—is that, if you have a conversation with anyone outside this Chamber, if they are like me, they are worried about BDS and anti-Semitic campaigns against Israeli academics. Something has just happened at King’s College London in fact, where an event has been called off, and there is a University of Leeds chaplain in hiding —all these things are going on. Ironically, if anything, this Bill is too narrow to deal with what is really happening. The point that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, made was that the way wording happens, there are ways around it that this Bill will not deal with. He and I might differ about how we would deal with that—I think we probably would. None the less, given what a public authority is, it is understandable why universities are in here—but, as people have said, which bit of the university?

For the Minister to say “Oh, no, it wouldn’t count, student unions”, would be utterly ludicrous. From the Government’s point of view, even if I go with you, why would it not be student unions? That would be mad. They are part of what the public authority of the university is about, along with research councils and everyone else. I am not trying to encourage the Government to wipe up every part of a university to bring them in scope, but to keep saying that they are not in scope makes no sense from the point of view of the public justification for this Bill by Michael Gove when he has argued for it, and anyone else who supports it. So we do need some clarity here.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, this debate has referred consistently to universities, but I do not want the point to get lost that there is an equivalent problem with local government pension schemes, where a succession of bodies take part in the decisions that are reached. Every fund has advisers, in particular advisers on ESG. The trustees are responsible for the decision, but they are under a legal obligation to give due regard to their advisers’ views. Now, because of the encouragement by the Government, the individual funds are not actually investing the money; the money is passed on to a pooled fund that equally has its advisers and its decision-makers. Somewhere in that thread of control, someone is a decision-maker, but I defy the Minister to tell us precisely, in the terms of this Bill, who it is.

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Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab)
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The thing is, though, as we are teasing out, is it not right that the Bill would not stop Warwick University student union from passing a motion in that regard? It would stop the university from acting on it, but no university has ever acted on these things. That is why we are all scratching our heads a little about what we are going to get from the Bill. It was a manifesto commitment—we understand that—but it is not our fault if the Government cannot turn their manifesto commitment into a usable piece of legislation.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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On the Warwick University point, for clarification, the other important thing that happened there was that Warwick University academics refused to sit on a panel discussing the issue of Israel, and so on. That was led by academics. It would not be affected by the Bill. The Minister can say, “Oh, that’s okay, it won’t be affected by this Bill” but that has had a much more damaging impact on the debate around Israel in Warwick University than anything that a few people at the student union did and that the university authorities did not act upon. What the university did not do was support those Jewish students and the organisation that organised that debate, and it let the academics carry on. The question of what the Bill will and will not do, and who will be held responsible, is what we are trying to clarify in this Committee.

Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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My Lords, I did not come prepared with examples about universities—my memory is not that good. However, there have been very many occasions where violence used by anti-Israel students has forced the university to cancel speakers or to charge Israeli and Jewish societies for their own security when an Israeli or a pro-Israeli speaker comes. There are manifold examples of this, and I have dealt with it over the years. If noble Lords do not know about this, they really should.

The comments that have been made by the noble Lords, Lord Mann and Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, take us to the heart of the Bill and why the drafting is so difficult. What the Bill really means to do is clamp down on anti-Semitism in local authorities and universities, but it cannot say so in direct terms; therefore, it goes much more broadly than it needs to, because it is academically dancing around the subject. If I could rip it up and start again, I would have a couple of clauses saying that anti-Israel activity—anti-Zionist activity, if you want to call it that, or anti-Semitic activity—is prohibited in universities and public authorities, because there are no examples of universities and public authorities acting against Australia, to give a fanciful example. Is anyone banning Australian wine because of what happened to the Aborigines? Is anyone banning New Zealand lamb because of the way the Māoris were treated? Is anyone, anywhere, ceasing to use Chinese products? I need hardly go on.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, as others have explained so well, this Bill presents a dilemma. I have long argued that the BDS campaign has seeded a culture of normalising anti-Semitism. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, and I will have to disagree on what that definition might be; however, one of the points about democracy that I agree with him on is that we need that kind of debate. The problem I have is that BDS is an entirely illiberal and censorious boycott campaign; but, on the other hand, this legislation, which aims to ban such boycotts, is also illiberal and censorious. So, what to do?

In the broadest terms, the Bill’s premise could sanction a dangerous trend of government determining in law which political campaigns are legitimate and which are not. I found the Minister’s emphasis on public authorities all speaking with one voice on foreign policy more scary than reassuring. Perhaps she might consider just the smidgen of a possibility that one day, the Government are in opposition and are involved with public bodies that disagree with official foreign policy. It is hard to know whether the Bill would catch them then.

However, if the aim is to rein in public institutions from dabbling in contentious moral decisions beyond the scope of their core responsibilities, which Michael Gove certainly seemed to imply, then we should recognise that, ironically, one reason why investment and procurement strategies have been politicised in recent years is government-backed, top-down directives. Just look at the way that pursuing ESG targets and adopting divisive EDI diversity criteria have distorted investment and procurement decisions, and not all for the good. By and large, therefore, the Government should stop interfering in what is and is not invested in by autonomous public bodies.

Beyond a concern about the threat to the autonomy of, for example, universities, councils and arts organisations, which was well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and many others, I just cannot see how the Bill can avoid stifling democratic debate. We have heard powerful speeches, especially those critiquing Clause 4 as a gagging clause. However, the provision that prohibits vice-chancellors, chief execs of arts organisations and council leaders from saying that they would support the boycott if it were lawful is in fact Orwellian—and that is not overusing the word. Is it not dangerous to discourage leaders of public bodies from explaining their decision-making processes? Surely it is in the public interest that we know the pros and cons of financial investments, or why they might want to boycott, and so on.

Unlike some, therefore, I am not somebody who goes along with a rather unpleasant cynicism about the Government’s motives. I am happy to accept that the Bill is being put forward in good faith and that it is an attempt to tackle one of the sources of anti-Jewish hatred—BDS-style boycotts. However, despite the intention, clamping down on open discussion, which so much of the Bill does, will make it more difficult to tackle anti-Semitic racism in the public sphere.

Those of us who oppose BDS should hold firm that it is we—or it should be—who are on the side of democratic free speech. In contrast, BDS is a boycott campaign whose very essence is to use regressive censorship tactics to isolate Israel economically and culturally. However, note that this is not about shaming Israel or embarrassing it into taking a different policy decision. We have heard a lot in today’s debate about the past boycott of South Africa—maybe it is an age thing—but that was aimed at ridding South Africa of apartheid, not of ridding the world of South Africa. The BDS movement, however, aims to rid the world of a Zionist state: that is, to eradicate Israel. As people have called for evidence, that is what its founders and much of its literature say.

I think I get why the Government might focus on trying to find a way of curtailing BDS. Today’s boycott culture is pretty grim. I recently encountered those abusive, rather vicious protests outside Zara and McDonald’s, which I was told not to enter and buy a burger from, as it would mean that I was endorsing genocide. It is scary that so many of those young protesters have no qualms about mirroring the 1930s Nazi tactic of blocking Jewish services and businesses with their “Don’t buy from the Jews” slogans. BDS campaigns have certainly created a boycott culture, with anyone associated with Israel being treated in a cavalier, cruel and prejudicial way. There was the terrible incident the other day, when the young Israeli swimming champion was booed and jeered; and Gary Lineker, a leading BBC pundit, casually went along with the BDS demand to kick the Israel football team out of FIFA.

I am all for a robust response to this ugly mood, but this proposed legislation follows a worrying trend: creating criminalising laws as a substitute for political courage in taking on contemporary challenges. I therefore ask the Minister: is the problem the Government seek to tackle a plethora of university senates using BDS schemes to avoid investing in Israel? Hardly. However, there is the huge problem of a spike in anti-Semitic abuse targeting Jewish students—as described so vividly by the noble Lord, Lord Mann—and, by the way, of leaders of those public institutions often looking away. Consider the shameful case of a Birmingham University Jewish chaplain being driven off campus and into hiding after returning from military service fighting Hamas. Beyond these visceral attacks, let us not forget that too many in academia have cultivated the intellectual justification for anti-Jewish attitudes among the young by propagating decolonisation ideology and critical race theory—branding Jews as the embodiment of white privilege and Israel as the epitome of a colonial settler state, and therefore fair game for righteous hatred.

How will the Bill’s restrictions deal with that or help arts organisations tackle pernicious cultural boycotts such as the cancelling of Israeli artists, be it the London theatre that pulled the plug on the Jewish Film Festival, the cancellation of the Israeli hip-hop opera at the Edinburgh Fringe, or the bullying of high-profile artists who have the temerity to announce that they will gig in Tel Aviv? The Bill will not make an iota of difference.

I finish with the story of the Jewish nightclub owner who closed down his nightclub last week, having received a package addressed “Zionist child killer” that contained children’s clothes drenched in fake blood. However, the final straw was the threat to boycott the club. The Bill will make no difference.

By the way, I am delighted to have found so many free speech allies in this House; suddenly, everybody is on the side of free speech. I have not experienced that in the years that I have been here—only in defending BDS. None the less, I do not want to betray that free speech by agreeing with the Government that we should clamp down on it just because I want to fight anti-Semitism.

Conversion Therapy Prohibition (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Bill [HL]

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Friday 9th February 2024

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green. It is so refreshing to have a bit of straight talking and honesty, and an important reminder of the political context for the Bill being put forward—and, in fact, for Bills suddenly jumping up all over the place. There is a political argument going on, and we were reminded of it.

I remind noble Lords that most of us in this House are in the job of conversion, not just the Lords spiritual. If you are in a political party, you want to convert as many citizens as you can to vote for you. As campaigners, we use persuasion to effect change and to win hearts and minds. Despite the qualms of anti-nanny staters such as me, changing behaviour is all the rage in policy circles, not least among the Liberal Democrats. Legislators use sticks and stones and the nudge unit to make us smoke and drink less and walk and cycle more. I note this because we are keen on imposing preferences of how we live on a wide range of issues. I give that as a reminder, as it has been asserted on several occasions: “Who would ever dare impose a way of living on someone? They should live as they want.” If only.

You might say that such conversions are legitimate because they are harmless, but the Bill’s broad drafting does not even attempt to require that any harm is intended or caused. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, reassures us that good faith, harmless advice and so on are not in target. I am grateful for that, but she also says that it is all about motivation. How will the police and prosecutors assess this motivation? They would have to read minds. More likely, they would read social media, or even public speeches such as these made here today, scouring through everything for evidence of motivation. In that way, the Bill will be used to police views and does threaten free speech across a range of social settings.

I will start with church. I am a secularist, an ardent supporter of lesbian and gay rights, and no fan whatever of religious sexual ethics. The noble Baroness and I agree on religious freedom as a democratic virtue, and I argue that the Bill threatens it. All the world’s great religions are based on predetermined truth claims to which their followers must adhere. Preferences of behaviour and belief are baked in, and, yes, they are often judgmental and require some restraint on personal preferences. Christian teaching on the sacrament of marriage requires suppression of acting on sexual desire before marriage. However loving the church might be to any individual who is gay, the practice of homosexuality is deemed sinful, and therefore anyone who is gay is asked to practice celibacy if they want to be part of the church. You and I might think that such ideas are prosperous, but then the option is to leave the church or the religion, rather than inviting the law in to try to shape religious doctrine.

Every day, in this Chamber, noble Lords recite the Lord’s prayer:

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”


With this in mind, take the scenario of a young Christian who wants to be delivered from evil and to follow the Church’s teaching, and so asks the vicar to pray to help him avoid sexual temptation. Surely the Bill will turn that priest into a criminal, or could do; after all, the Bill makes no distinction between consensual and non-consensual behaviour. What is at stake here should concern atheists, agnostics and everyone, because the Bill jeopardises fundamental principles of secular democracy.

To move on, while it is clear what the Bill means by sexual orientation, how would the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, define gender identity, before she tries to embed it in UK law for the first time? It is, at best, a contested concept. I appreciate that a precise, fixed definition might be tricky, when this particular identity can cover over 100 to 300 genders—transgender, gender-fluid, genderqueer, gender-variant, genderless and non-binary. The noble Lord, Lord Young, is not the only person who gets confused. Are all those to be covered by Clause 1?

As has been explained so well by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, we now have evidence that sexual orientation is being sidelined in the medical and cultural enthusiasm to affirm and champion gender identity. Definitions are also muddled by the forced marriage of “LGB” with “TQI”. There is no connection between being same-sex attracted and a desire to change gender. In fact, many lesbians and gay men feel that homophobic pressure is being exerted on them to drop their exclusive—and, yes, predetermined—sexual preference for the bodies of those born to the same sex.

Can we at least recognise that this is a very complicated and very contentious issue? A Bill such as this does nobody any favours. I ask every political party to keep well away from this. It will poison even more the well of free speech, intergenerational relations and our relations with each other on a topic that is toxic enough.

Elgin Marbles

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Thursday 14th December 2023

(7 months, 1 week ago)

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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, I would like to welcome this excellent short debate on the Elgin marbles. I want to stand back from the specifics of the “to loan or not to loan” argument, and avoid the tit-for-tat row over ownership, because I fear that this technical approach can distract us from why these sculptures really matter. We should not lose sight of the marbles’ value as sublime works of art, the quality of their artistry and what Virginia Woolf described as their “immense and enduring beauty” after millennia. I urge that we refocus the public discussion to the sculptures’ significance in the history of the accomplishments of western civilisation.

I was reminded of this when rereading Tiffany Jenkins’s excellent Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums and Why They Should Stay There. I recommend that DMCS Ministers treat themselves to the book for Christmas. In it, Dr Jenkins details how the 1816 House of Commons Select Committee that investigated Lord Elgin’s proposed sale of the marbles to the nation not only found that he had acquired them legally, but broadened its deliberations to weigh up the sculptures’ aesthetic and cultural merits. It concluded that the marbles’ artistic magnificence was such that their presence in Britain had the potential to spark an artistic renaissance. The context for this appreciation, fuelled by Enlightenment values, was the 19th-century interest in ancient Greece and especially the inspiring classical model of Athenian democracy, which chimed with the democratic spirit of mass society emerging in Britain at the time.

What a contrast with 2023—anti-democratic trends are on the rise, and rather than publicly promoting these artefacts as inspiring embodiments of the world’s first democracy, policy retreats into uninspiring pedestrian legalese. Additionally, it has become fashionable not to celebrate but to demonise western civilisation. The Enlightenment and 19th-century cultural figures are routinely impugned as representing white supremacy, racist privilege, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, the dispute about the marbles has been dragged into the sordid anti-western discourse, and we are told that the return of the sculptures would be a positive act of decolonisation. But like so much of today’s philistine, politicised use of the past to score contemporary identitarian points, it bears little relation to historic facts. The notion that the return of the marbles would be reparation for what was stolen by British colonialists 200 years ago is misleading. When Lord Elgin acquired the marbles, Greece was under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire, not the British Empire. Indeed, the Ottomans were happy to sell them; they were indifferent to 19th-century Hellenism or democratic virtues of ancient Athens or anywhere else, and the Acropolis served as a garrison at the time.

Despite such inconvenient facts, there is growing pressure on all museums to repatriate their artefacts in general. Worse, too many who work in the sector behave as though their institutions are little more than repositories of ill-gotten gains of a shameful, colonial, slave-owning past. We should instead demand that they act as public servants, trusted by democratic society to curate the world’s treasures as guardians of historic scholarship and artistic appreciation.

In this context, it is crucial that the Government urge the British Museum not to fudge the issue in the name of political expediency or diplomatic niceties. I worry that talk of loans seems to do just that. Can the Minister promise to unapologetically defend housing Elgin’s precious marbles within London’s encyclopaedic collections, as an aid to a universal understanding of human culture?

Minister for Equalities

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Thursday 20th October 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I think that is a very important intervention and the noble Baroness can see from the House’s response that people agree with it. I have my first meeting with Nadhim Zahawi next week and I will put that on the agenda.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, there is nervousness about using the word “woman”. Last night at the PinkNews Awards, Keir Starmer declared that he would make it a crime to misgender. That means people might use the word “woman”, but nobody will define what a woman is. Maybe that nervousness is because people are frightened of misgendering and getting dragged into the gender wars. Can the Minister assure us that “equalities” means that biological women will not have their rights sidelined by an equalities agenda based on gender identity?

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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Why has he dropped “Women” then?

Economy: The Growth Plan 2022

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Monday 10th October 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I am delighted to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe. One thing that is growing is the strong women brigade in here.

I welcome one aspect of this debate. I want to move away from the focus on the redistribution of a shrinking national cake. The answer is to bake a bigger cake. I am glad that so many noble Lords now profess that they are pro-growth because, until recently, those of us who were arguing for economic development faced lectures that growth was unsustainable, irresponsible, damaging for the environment, a recipe for greedy consumerism and so on.

My problem is that the measures announced in the growth plan are flimsy and insubstantial. The problems we face—here I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham—were foreseeable, but they were denied by all sides politically. Those problems are far greater than the Government or the Opposition seem to acknowledge, even now. If only they could be fixed through the prism of cutting or increasing tax.

I have no doubt that the mini-Budget was a trigger for the present crisis, but we need to be honest that it is not the cause of Britain’s woes. Our stagnated, unproductive economy has deep roots of many years’ standing. For more than a decade, central banks have turned to easy monetary policies and vast amounts of quantitative easing both to keep interest rates near zero and to prop up and sustain a zombie economy. This was not called out by politicians. It could not have gone on indefinitely.

Closing down the UK economy for two years during lockdown, which received all-party support, and now the war in Ukraine have brought the UK economy’s underlying fragilities to the fore. However, the idea that tax cuts are an easy answer is pitifully inadequate—let alone those who blame Brexit; that is just pathetic.

Without things being produced, no wealth is created to generate incomes, profits and tax revenues to pay for public spending, so production is the key. But is the idea of the tax cuts that businesspeople, corporates and wealthy capitalists will spend their untaxed windfalls productively? Why would we think that? Since the 1980s, business has not been short of funds to invest but it has not been entrepreneurial and it has not invested in innovation, better technologies or the skills revolution. Instead, corporate culture itself has become risk-averse, playing it safe and playing with financial engineering.

A furious public are not just in terror about the short-term—their bills and mortgages—but dismayed at the lack of meat on the bone of the plans. Take the energy policy—the energy that we will need to fuel growth. There is no point in the Government loudly shouting, “Let’s frack”, and then whispering, “With local consent”, and continually reaffirming their net-zero targets. Green growth in reality means unreliable energy and eco-austerity. Let us get on with nuclear power. Let us get on with building those houses. At the moment, it is all soundbites. Never mind subsidising old industries, where is the concrete plan to invest in new sectors, with new jobs and new energy solutions? Where is the spirit of risk, courage and experimentation? We must create a new industrial revolution. That is the long-term plan that we need but it is sorely lacking, and the public need to hear more of it.

The public are not fools. They instinctively know that there is no pain-free route out of this. We need some frank talking, and a collective approach to solving the problems, beyond party politics. A huge transformation is needed in the economy, and everybody must be involved in shaping it. The words “Growth, growth, growth” are not enough. A lot more must be done. We must be humble and recognise that we have to take a lead on this but that we need the British public onside to make it happen.

Heatwave Response

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Thursday 21st July 2022

(2 years ago)

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, again, I think that is a matter not for the Executive but for the parliamentary authorities. I am sure they will have heard the noble Lord, who is a most assiduous attender—nobody will have thought of him when people who do not attend very much were spoken about earlier. I think people have heard what he said. Obviously, these things have to be held in balance. Overall, as a parliamentarian and someone who loves your Lordships’ House, I prefer to be able to look somebody in the eye, hear what they say and accept the challenge. I think that is the proper role of Parliament, but I am sure the authorities will consider what the noble Lord has said.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, first, there was a comment earlier that some noble Lords derided concerns about extreme weather. I actually heard those comments and saw them as balanced and proportionate. Will the Minister comment on another danger, which is scaremongering and sensationalism that can create a climate of fear? I watched the news with pictures that were described as, “We are witnessing Armageddon.” Many elderly people, children and so on must have been very frightened when they saw that, so is that a different kind of danger?

Secondly, on infrastructure, it was certainly shown up to be a bit creaky. On Sunday, before the heatwave, the trains I was trying to get were not running because of the weather, and neither were they running yesterday, after the heatwave. Could there be an opportunity for the Government to use their levelling-up initiative to improve infrastructure so that it can cope with weather challenges?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, there were number of points there, and I could quite easily be tempted to go rather further than I should. I said when we were discussing this earlier in the week that I do not really care for project fear in any form. My mother used to tell me the tale of the boy who cried wolf. There is a wolf, actually—there is climate change—but I think it is very important that this be tempered. People can be easily frightened and should not be frightened, because the response that needs to be made is a collective, international response and individuals should not be subjected to unreasonable stress by exaggerated and alarmist reports; there is a balance there.

As for trains on Sunday, it would be a fine thing to be able to get to Stansted Airport on a Sunday, would it not? UK rails are stressed to withstand temperatures of 27 degrees, which is the mean summer rail temperature in this country. Obviously, other countries, where the kind of weather we had earlier this week is normal, stress their rails to higher degrees, but obviously if you stress your rails to too high a temperature, you have problems at the lower level and we are told that there is the wrong kind of snow on the line. Network Rail needs to consider, and I am sure is considering, these matters. Three-quarters of UK track is modern and set into concrete sleepers, which helps prevent rails buckling in the hot temperatures, but I am sure the good railway people will have heard what the noble Baroness said.

Covid-19 and the Use and Scrutiny of Emergency Powers (Constitution Committee Report)

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Tuesday 21st June 2022

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I congratulate the Constitution Committee on this excellent report. I certainly recommend that it is read widely in the public sphere because it is important to try to assimilate what happened and to learn lessons. However, before I recommend that it is read, I might have to issue a warning because, despite my long-standing hostility to “Generation Snowflake”-like trigger warnings, I must say that reading the report brought me out in a rash of post-traumatic stress disorder. All those bad memories that I tried to supress were brought to the fore with my horror at the ease with which civil liberties were suspended and intrusive legislation transformed the minutiae of everyday life. This was something I would rather forget, but we cannot forget it. The unprecedented attack on the freedom of ordinary activities for which, overnight, we needed permission to do anything—from walking outside to visiting loved ones in hospital or having a pint with mates—is something that we do not actually want to remember, but should never, ever forget, because we should never, ever repeat it.

The fact that public life was closed down has totally discombobulated society. The report reminded me of all those last-minute changes. I remember when the rule of six regulations were published only 30 minutes before the law came into force, making it a criminal offence to have more than six people gathering outside, because I was organising to have six people gathering outside; I was the seventh and did not know what to do. There was a sense of confusion and panic.

The report notes:

“1 in 5 … did not know what Tier their area was in”.


I never understood the tier system; I got completely confused. It says that

“only 12% knew the correct amount of time a person is required to self-isolate”

if they tested positive, and that

“53% … did not know whether they were allowed to visit other parts of the UK”.

We all felt disorientated at all these things. Family Zoom calls—maybe it was just my family—were full of angst and arguments about what we were allowed and not allowed to do. In other words, the stuffing was knocked out of spontaneous interactions and everybody became totally preoccupied with trying to decipher the runes of what we were and were not allowed to do by the law.

This might not be a constitutional matter, but it matters for the constitution. Individual agency of grown-up decision-makers, and taking responsibility, became the collateral damage of what this report describes. The confusion and conflation between guidance and law was particularly damaging, as described in the report, which says that

“‘guidance’, ‘guidelines’, ‘rules’ and ‘restrictions’”

were used

“interchangeably, in reference to … legal requirements and public health advice”.

Worse, as Kirsty Brimelow QC rightly notes, we had the added confusion of the police being equally unclear and often acting on the messaging of announcements by the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister at press conferences, rather than on the law. As for the consequences of some of this, I think this has undermined confidence in the police as an impartial, trusted body implementing the law. It has also undermined trust in the law itself if it can become such a shape-shifter, with hardly anybody knowing what it was.

I also fear that the use of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to push through so many of the most draconian measures has damaged the reputation of public health advice more generally. One thing the report does not note is the use of the behind-the-scenes, behind-the-backs-of-the-public devices that we use to soften up public opinion in relation to law changes. It is worth reading Laura Dodsworth’s book A State of Fear, which includes the minutes of SAGE meetings and the discussion on the use of behavioural psychology and nudging, so that the public would be faced with the worst-case scenarios and scared enough to comply with behaviour changes backed by legal force. Rushing laws through, justified by fear, obviously leads to a lack of scrutiny. It has been bad for the constitution that we have allowed fear to push through law.

Moving on, I agree with the report that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, with its triple lock, would have been a better piece of legislation to use than the Coronavirus Act 2020, which completed its passage through both Houses of Parliament in just three sitting days. Of course, we all know and understand that these legal changes were made in the context of the very real and justified sense that this was an unprecedented health emergency at the start of 2020, but it is the job of the Government to keep society calm. Hyperactive lawmaking, hyped up by using fear, is the wrong approach.

It was not just the Government. While Parliament was complaining about not having scrutiny over the Government, many people on all sides in Parliament went along with this hyped-up, over-the-top, disproportionate fear-mongering. This in turn created a mood of permanent emergency. Even post the vaccine, the misuse of Section 45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, using the urgency clause for which there is no objective definition, created an atmosphere in which there was no constraint over what could be done. It makes me very nervous now, when I hear people declaring endless emergencies: the climate emergency, the energy emergency, the cost of living emergency. You think, “Oh my goodness; they’re going to bring in emergency legislation for all that, and we’d be locked down for that too”. Some are advocating that we do just that, so I am not exaggerating.

There is a good quote in the report from Professor Hickman:

“Once the true emergency abated … proper legislation should have been put in place. Parliament could and should have insisted on protections such as the ability to amend regulations”.


But Parliament did not, and that is what should have happened. I note that some of us, even if it was a minority, advocated such an approach at the time—not afterwards, as in the report—and were vilified for doing so. Lord Sumption spoke out very early on but was treated as a pariah. When I arrived in this place, I raised certain questions about the legislation; I did so rather anxiously as I was new and arrived here during lockdown. I was treated like a wide-eyed loony libertarian for suggesting a sunset clause in certain legislation and for querying things such as Covid passports. In the House—would you believe it?—a Minister added me and other Members of the House of Lords to a list of Covid deniers for raising this. I felt nervous raising questions or being critical—being not cynical but sceptical.

There is no mention in the report of free speech. You cannot have a constitution report without noting that, although no laws were brought in to attack free speech during this time, free speech suffered by behind-the-scenes methods. I look forward to at least having a discussion about the forthcoming Bill of Rights, which will apparently put free speech as a core societal value; we need to protect it.

This is not over yet by any stretch. I worry that the Government have got a taste for the extensive use of secondary legislation and a lack of checks on executive powers. The new Schools Bill, which I am following at the moment, has rightly been criticised as a power grab to, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Baker, increase

“the powers of the Secretary of State and the Department for Education in a way unprecedented since 1870.”—[Official Report, 23/5/22; col. 689.]

Talking of schools, it is only now that we are admitting, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, mentioned, the devastating impact of school closures on young people. We should never forget the human cost of these constitutional changes.

It is interesting to note that, at the moment, there is a panic about those pupils who have not returned to school. That might have something to do with the fact that they were told that school was not so important after all; we locked the gates and education became a secondary matter. Guess what the Government’s response to the increased non-attendance of children at schools is? It is to bring in illiberal legislation that threatens to fine parents. I worry that the legislative track we were on is not over yet.

I make my final point as baroness of Buckley, which is in north Wales; I could not but mention the impact of the legal divergence between the four parts of the United Kingdom. The whole constitutional decision to have legal divergence was completely unnecessary and created a fragmented mood in the country. The mood was almost competitive between the different jurisdictions. My very own north Walian leader, Mark Drakeford, wanted to prove that he was harder on lockdown than anyone else, and Nicola Sturgeon was competing with the UK Government. There were massive arguments in our family about what was an essential good or not, because we lived one mile apart on either side of the border between England and north Wales. If you went on a train, you had to dodge between having your mask on or off as you went down the track. It was ridiculous.

Legal divergence was also bad for scientific advice. If the Welsh jurisdiction said that its science showed one thing, and one mile away the science showed something else, why would any member of the public trust anything that was proved to be scientific evidence? The whole thing became, to be frank, farcical.

Tensions were exacerbated when the country faced a big challenge. Legal divergence has been hugely bad for the union in general and, as I said, was unnecessary. It would have been far better to have had a UK-wide response that we all united around.

Having said all that, I hope there is never a UK-wide response like this again, because I say: never again. This report gives us ample evidence as to why we should think that.

Elections Bill

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Baroness Verma Portrait Baroness Verma (Con)
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My Lords, I am only saying that I have had no objection to it being a photo ID. The implication seems to be that we, as communities, would object and become disenfranchised but I have not found that. This is the only point I am trying to raise.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma. She has raised some of the issues that have prompted me to speak today. I have had a slight change of heart or mind—or my mind has been changed—which is why I am speaking, rather than repeating everything that I previously said.

My concerns about these photo IDs have fairly consistently been that there is no evidence of voter impersonation; it is not an issue. I do not like any move towards a “show us your pass” society. I worry about the unintended consequences of the Government pushing voter ID. In itself, it implies a problem which might then undermine trust in the democratic process. In particular, I echo the query from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, about the consequences of people being turned away from polling stations. I have raised that before.

I am not very good at paperwork. I am the kind of person who gets it wrong. We have only to look at the best-intended interventions in Ukraine, or in Poland with the issuing of visas to Ukrainian refugees, to see that paperwork can go wrong. I am concerned about people turning up with the wrong thing and being sent away when they only have that day to vote. It would imply to fellow citizens that something dodgy was going on—that they were cheating, rather than just having the wrong piece of paper. What does the Minister advise in this instance?

In following the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, the problem is that we have probably got to a point where the ship has sailed regarding trust in democracy. Something has gone wrong. A constant theme in commentary on elections is that too many people seem to think it impossible for their side to have lost without implying that the other side has somehow won by cheating or that the vote was manipulated. I have been quite shocked by the commentary around the vote in Hungary, in which it has been implied that the only basis on which Orban won was become something dodgy happened and that it was unfair. That was said about Brexit, about Trump’s win and about Biden’s win. In all those instances, there have been implicit or explicit accusations by losers that somehow cheating has happened. There is a broader problem of the undermining of trust in democracy, which I think a lot of people in this Chamber and outside it have created, but it has nothing to do with voter ID.

When I started to talk to people after my speeches at Second Reading and in Committee, I was absolutely inundated by those who said that they disagreed with my opposition to voter ID. Those were not the cut-and-paste emails, which we all receive, or from organised lobby groups. They appeared to be from ordinary people. Pundits and loads of people contacted me—some I knew and some I did not. I have had more correspondence on this than on anything else.

I tell your Lordships this because I was taken aback, but when I started to talk to people, they said that because there is a big debate about trust in the democratic process, for whatever reason, they want reassurance that the ballot box is secure. People said that their motives were about protecting the vote and respecting democracy. I do not know that it can be described as fake news when the Government say there is a discussion about the democratic process, because it seems that there is. I suppose that has happened in the name of transparency, accountability and trying to be honest, so when people say that they want to shore up democracy through ID, I want to take at least some notice.

Another thing that was said, which fits in with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was that they felt insulted by the idea that showing ID would put them off voting. They said, “You think we have such a low view of democracy, that we are so easily put off voting. The problem is that we go out to vote and when we do, people tell us we voted the wrong way.” That was their problem.

I have thought about it a lot and am still not sure but I am prepared to consider some compromise, particularly on Amendment 8. It does the job by letting us have some ID, as wide a range of IDs as possible so we do not have the problem of turning people away at the ballot box. It is also important to recognise that, whether we like it or not, there is a debate about how much we can trust the democratic process, so if there is a way of reassuring people—although I wish we had not got to that point—then maybe we should think about this.

I would like to know what the Minister thinks about the dangers of undermining our trust in democracy by pushing this too hard. Is there a compromise that the Government can make that would, relatively speaking, satisfy all people? Even the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said he might reluctantly go down that line, despite it going against what he wants, which is to get rid of it altogether.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Portrait Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (Con)
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My Lords, I did not participate in Committee but I intervened a couple of times, most notably when the noble Lord, Lord Collins, tried to pray me in aid to something I did not say. I want to put my position on the record and, bearing in mind the strictures from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, I will be quick.

I want to add a cautionary note about this group of amendments. My caution is absolutely not because I want to restrict participation in our elections in any way. The reverse is true, as evidenced by the work we have done in the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, a follow-up report to which was published a week or two ago. I was lucky enough to chair that committee and place on record my thanks to the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Collins, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and my noble friend Lady Eaton. The committee did important work and I made sure that I personally sent the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, a copy of our report last week, as he had made a powerful speech during the last stage.

I argue that our primary objective has to be to ensure that people use their vote. I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, about declining turnout. While I understand that you cannot vote unless you are on the roll and have ways of voting, we have failed to persuade people that their vote is worth using, as evidenced by the figures laid out in the earlier remarks by the noble Lord.

I suggest that there are principally two reasons why people go out to vote. The first is that they see the act of voting as having their say—“to chuck the rascals out” is the famous phrase that is often used. We need to find ways to encourage more people to think like that, and about what is meant by being a citizen, and by rights and responsibilities. I am afraid that the Government’s response to our work to try to encourage citizenship education can so far be described only as desultory. I think I speak for all members of our committee when I say that we do not intend to give way on this. However, equally, nothing in these amendments deals with the question of participation. That is the problem, and that is what I am really interested in getting at.

Elections Bill

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage
Wednesday 23rd March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Elections Act 2022 View all Elections Act 2022 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 96-V Fifth marshalled list for Committee - (21 Mar 2022)
Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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I listened closely to the noble Lord’s speech, and it is perfectly true that he made a very long and important argument about the specifics, but he also expressed a general preference for proportional representation.

I wish to make a very simple point, which I think came across very well in what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said. He described how, even under the strict chairmanship of Lord Jenkins, it took 12 months of what he called “immense complication” to look at these issues. That is precisely the problem with all this. It is dangerous to confess to ignorance in this very learned and expert House, but despite covering politics in various ways for 40 years, I have never been able fully to understand or explain all the different voting systems that clever people keep coming up with, and that is an argument against them. If somebody who is paid a salary to try to understand these things still finds them complicated, there is something wrong with them. All right, I am stupid, but I make the point that it is very important for the buy-in of a democracy that people can understand what is being said, what is being offered and how to perform the operation they are invited to perform. They can do so under first past the post, but under proportional representation they cannot, broadly speaking. Therefore, I oppose these amendments and support the Bill.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I used to be a full supporter of first past the post, very much in the spirit of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in relation to accountability. However, over recent years I have started to see a problem that I wanted to raise—I am not just doing this as counselling. Because of the whole of Clause 11, we have been invited, in a way, by the Government to discuss electoral systems, and that is one of the problems with the way it has emerged. I would not be discussing it if they had not brought it in, but now that everyone else is discussing it, I will join in.

I was minded to support Amendment 136 until I realised that it was an amendment that would overturn a referendum, which struck me as not a good idea and not likely to fit in with my general position on these things. It is perhaps ironic to those people in this Committee arguing for proportional representation that I was elected using that method in the European elections and came top of the list. I do not know if people think that was a fully democratic system, because a lot of people did not think that I should have been there at all, or elected in that way, when I stood only for very particular reasons, as we know.

These are the problems with first past the post in 2022 that I cannot get my head around. Through this Bill, we want to reassure voters that elections are watertight in terms of fairness and that they represent what they want as voters. In a number of debates, we have discussed our worries about different clauses that might be seen to be disenfranchising voters—sometimes I think these are overwrought worries, but they are worries none the less. It seems to me, however, that first past the post, in lots of ways, makes many people’s votes redundant and represents a frustration with what is happening politically.

I remember that before the 2016 referendum I was invited to a think tank gathering at which most of the people were supporters of remaining in the European Union. They assumed that I was as well, because that is what nice think-tankers did. They said that one problem they had was that the referendum would not be taken seriously if they did not get a big turnout, so what could they do to get a big turnout? The consensus in the room was that it must be emphasised that a vote in the 2016 referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime vote where, for once, every single person’s vote would count. They went out and argued that very successfully and the nation said, “My goodness, for once my vote really will count.” As a consequence, people took it seriously that they were being asked to make a big constitutional decision and that this was one election where every individual vote meant something. In the build-up to the referendum, it led to grass-roots discussion groups being set up around the country, family conferences and people getting together with their research. People took the whole thing extremely seriously and there was an atmosphere of vibrancy and buzz, with people saying, “What should we do?” as they assessed the pros and cons. People rose to the challenge that their vote counted, an idea which I think really resonated.