By Baroness Hayman
When the position of Lord Speaker was created in 2006, it was clear that the House was cautious about the Speaker's role in the Chamber, but enthusiastic about the representative and ambassadorial aspects of the job. Alongside my procedural, domestic committee and security responsibilities, I have, therefore, made external engagement, particularly with young people, a high priority.
The current debate about the House's future makes public engagement all the more important. The outreach programme has both improved understanding of Parliament, and increased accountability between the public and members of the House. I have been made aware of this through many speaking engagements and visits.
The Peers in Schools programme has continued to flourish, with a record 260 visits this year. Some 30,000 young people have been involved since its inception. Other activities have included: the annual chamber event in December, when 200 state school students from across the country debated four options for reform of the House; and the fourth Lord Speaker's Woolsack Fund competition organised through the Hansard Society.
This year a record 499 young people participated in the "Peer Factor" competition. The aim was first to make students think about what the Lords was for and who they thought could contribute to that work. I was encouraged that amidst the footballers and popstars nominated, the three winning entries were for a teacher, a former charity chief executive, and a refugee caseworker.
The large group of new peers since the general election has brought a breadth of expertise and external experience. But their numbers have also made us reflect on both the size of the House, and the current lifetime nature of membership. The House's ability to cope with larger daily attendances than before has been tested. And the advent of coalition Government has challenged previous understandings of how we conduct our business.
Taken with the Government's plans to change radically both the size and the composition of the House, this has brought uncertainty and strains.
This volatility was apparent when the House came close to losing one of its fundamental strengths - freedom from the guillotining of debate - during the long and contentious proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. As ever, the House proved resilient, and looked to generate its own solutions to these problems.
There was an extremely positive debate last month on the Leaders Group's report on changes to working practices. The Group had been set up in response to the work undertaken by members following a Lord Speaker's seminar held with the Hansard Society. It focussed on improving practice and performance as a legislative chamber.
This is a key part of rebuilding trust in Parliament. We have to go beyond what has been achieved in improved and more transparent internal governance, and the reform of a deeply flawed system of financial support.
We need constantly to seek ways of doing our job better - holding the executive to account; contributing to the production of good legislation; providing expert Committee inquiry - whilst, at the same time, making the public aware of the work we do. I was encouraged that in the long debate on the Government's House of Lords Reform White Paper and Draft Bill, the focus was on fundamental issues of accountability, legitimacy, effectiveness and the constitutional implications.
The debate has moved on in the 15 years that I have been a member of the House, from a sometimes unquestioning defence of the status quo to broad agreement that the House needs to reform in order to improve further, although with widely differing views as to how that can best be achieved.