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Baroness Byford of Rothley - Doctor of Laws - Former Conservative Whip in the House of Lords

Oration by Professor Gordon R Campbell

Hazel, Baroness Byford, is a citizen of Leicestershire who has served her county and her country with great distinction. She was born into a political family -- her father, Sir Cyril Osborne, was a Conservative MP for 25 years – and politics is one of the passions that have shaped her life. Another passion is the advancement of women, and this too started early: for her secondary education she attended what was then the St Leonard’s School for Girls in St Andrews, and this was a school grounded in the belief that ‘a girl should receive an education that is as good as her brother's, if not better’. The commitment to the advancement of women has always been apparent in Lady Byford’s public life: from 1961 to 1976 she worked for the Women's Royal Voluntary Service as a member of the county staff, and was county organiser for Leicestershire for the last five years of that period. In the same spirit she serves as Patron of the Women's Food and Farming Union; in the political sphere, she has served as Chairman of the East Midlands Women's Conservative Committee, Women's National Vice Chairman and then Chairman; her work with the Conservative Women’s Organisation, which is the oldest women's political organisation in the world, is another instance of her determination to promote the progress of talented women. You will notice in this litany another pattern, which is of rising to the top of any organization with which she is associated; Lady Byford’s commitment is backed by serious talent.

The third of the prominent passions in Lady Byford’s life is agriculture. When she speaks on this subject in the House of Lords, her words are shaped by deep knowledge of the sector. On leaving school she moved on to the Northamptonshire Agricultural College, and then became a poultry farmer, for many years supplying parent stock to Thornber’s, the firm that was for decades the best name in the sale of day-old chicks. Poultry was the centre of a hub of interests that radiated in many directions, including all types of farming, the welfare of rural communities and the conservation of wild-life. In Parliament Lady Byford’s knowledge of these issues informed her work as opposition spokesman for MAFF (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) and then for DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). It has also made her a natural choice as Patron for organizations such as the National Farm Attractions Network and the Institute of the Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators. Her standing in the world of agriculture is also reflected in her election in 2007 as President of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and her election in March of this year to the Court of the Worshipful Company of Farmers. She was the founding president of LEAF, the acronym of ‘Linking Environment and Farming’; this admirable organization, like Lady Byford herself, is dedicated to an integrated model of agricultural management in which farmers aspire to ‘a viable agriculture which is environmentally and socially acceptable and ensures the continuity of supply of wholesome, affordable food, while conserving and enhancing the fabric and wildlife of the British countryside for future generations’.

These activities constitute a public life that is filled to overflowing, and yet there is more. Some are local activities, such as serving as a Canon of Leicester Cathedral and as President of the Leicestershire Clubs for Young People. Others are national, notably Lady Byford’s work for the Conservative Party. The respect that she commands in that world became visible in 1996, when as President of the National Union of Conservatives she chaired the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth.

Much of Lady Byford’s life has been lived for others, and the nation recognised that service with the award of a DBE. Dame Hazel, as she then became, was to be a short-lived identity, because Hazel soon became a working peer as Baroness Byford of Rothley, in the County of Leicestershire. Recognition can take many forms, and one of the most delightful in Lady Byford’s case is the naming of an orchid after her: Paphiopedilum Baroness Byford is a type of lady slipper, the elegant product of the horticulturalist’s art, and so wholly appropriate to the passions of the lady in whose honour it is named; indeed, it is a terrestrial orchid, and so rooted in the soil, as befits a plant named in honour of a farmer.

Lady Byford is a national figure, but she remains rooted in this city and county. She was born in Rothley, and her father’s stock-broking firm was in Leicester. She attended what was then Portland House School, on the London Road, and so wore the straw boater that was the most distinctive feature of the girls’ uniform. She learned to play hockey on Victoria Park, and later played for the Rangers mixed hockey club on Western Park. Her brother, Peter Osborne, is the chairman of Leicestershire Country Council, and her brother-in-law is Brian Smith, the proprietor of the dairy Kirby and West. Her husband’s family knitwear firm was on Abbey Park Road. Lady Byford is also a strong supporter of this University, and she joined the University Court in 2002. We are now able to thank her for her advocacy and advice, and to recognize her exemplary public service to the community and the nation.

Mr Chancellor, on the authority of the Senate and the Council, I present to you Hazel Osborne Byford, that you may confer on her the degree of Doctor of Laws.

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