HL Deb 17 March 1994 vol 553 cc379-81

Baroness Faithfull asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will encourage the wider use of the word "convener" (as in Scotland) to describe the occupant of the chair in meetings of central and local government committees, of parliamentary committees and of other public bodies.

The Paliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, in meetings of public bodies the title of the occupant of the chair is generally a matter for those involved to decide. It follows that government intervention in such matters is inappropriate. I would have no less faith in the abilities of the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Children, my noble friend, should she wish to be described differently.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that in your Lordships' House, in the other place and indeed in the country as a whole many women take the chair of committees? Some women—some women only—object to being called "chair"; and wooden in the head though I may sometimes be, I do not have wooden arms, wooden legs or wooden anything else. The word "convener" is used, very rightly I believe, in Scotland to mean the chairman. What legal measures would have to be taken in your Lordships' House to alter the name chair or chairperson to convener?

Lord Henley

My Lords, it was a Member of another place who described the use of the word "chair" as not so much feminism as furniturism. As regards our own committees and Committees of the House, it would be a matter for the House itself to decide. I suggest that my noble friend takes it up with the usual channels, but it would require a change in Standing Orders. I imagine that most people would be perfectly satisfied with continuing with the use of the word "chairman", which, as we all know, covers both men and women. I honestly do think that it is a matter for any individual body to decide exactly which title it should use.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his noble friend Lady Faithfull speaks for a good many women in the House and, I am sure, elsewhere? I am not very keen either on being addressed as if I were an item of furniture. The term "convener" has an honourable history in industrial relations elsewhere and I have had the pleasure of being a convener of shop stewards from time to time. I would suggest that we have a similar arrangement in the House. I see no reason why not.

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I said, it is not a matter for the Government. We already have one convener in this House. I think, certainly from the noises behind me, that most people would prefer to stick with the word "chairman", which is perfectly satisfactory and covers both sexes.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, would the noble Lord be prepared to join other members of the Government to consult the Convener of the Cross-Bench. Peers, who could no doubt give advice from experience on this matter which he would find helpful?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we would always be prepared to consult the Convener of the Cross-Bench Peers. But whether the convener could bind her colleagues on the Cross Benches is a matter for the Cross-Benchers themselves to decide. I suspect that our consultations might have to go somewhat wider than just the convener herself.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, can we not come to terms with the fact that in the English language "man" has two quite separate meanings? One is a human being, as in, "Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward"; the other is a male human being. Most other languages have separate words for the two. Would it not be better to come to terms with that fact instead of always trying to be politically correct?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I would be the last to wish to be politically correct. My noble and learned friend is quite right, in that, as I said, "man" will cover both in this case. I do not actually think it is a matter of any great importance. If I may, I would refer you all to the very famous lines from Shakespeare: What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet".

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, if we are going to start along this path, will the noble Lord put as a high priority getting rid of the hateful word "spokesperson"?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Henley

My Lords, I think the House noted and generally supported the noble Lord's comments. I have no very strong views on this matter. The Government do not feel it is appropriate that we should intervene in what, for example, no doubt the party opposite would refer to its spokesmen as.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that one can take this "person" business too far? Is he aware that on a certain student occasion a friend of mine whose name was Guy Chapman was referred to as Person Person Person?

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in my youth, which was admittedly a very long time ago, to describe anybody as a person was highly derogatory?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lady is quite correct. I understand that her youth was in fact not quite as long ago as the noble Lady would like to think.

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