Introducing your new Honorary President – Lord Balfe of Dulwich

photo Lord BalfeThis year, it’s been all change at the BDA, as well as a new Honorary Chairman, we also have a new Honorary President – Lord Balfe of Dulwich who we have the pleasure of getting to know quite well in this exclusive interview

DT: Lord Balfe of Dulwich, in a snapshot please tell us about yourself.

LB: I was born in the last year of the war just outside Cambridge, my father was a doctor who trained in Ireland and married my mother who lived in East Anglia. We moved around a lot during my childhood and I can’t say that it was a time that I look back on with any great pleasure, that is until at the age of fourteen when I ended up in a children’s home in Sheffield. I was lucky in many ways because today one constantly reads of problems and abuse in children’s homes, I can only say that I suffered none of that and indeed I was delighted to be in a children’s home and have always felt a great degree of affection and gratitude to Sheffield City Children’s Department.

DT: What has been your career path to date?

LB: I left school at the age of 16, passed the Civil Service Clerical Exam, came to London where, having always been interested in foreign affairs, I worked first in the Crown Agents for Overseas Governments and then went to the Foreign Office. At the age of 23 I went to the London School of Economics having acquired some O and A levels at night school.

After that, my first job was as a Research Officer for the One Parent Families Committee. One of the fascinating things I learnt there was that a disproportionate number of people who have achieved senior positions in society come from unusual background. One of the reasons that public school children do well is the fact that they have had to cope alone from a much earlier age than is usual, so maybe as a consolation my chequered early history helped me later in life.

I moved on to work for the Cooperative Movement and then in 1979 was elected as one of the members of the very first directed elected European Parliament. I stayed until 2004, some 25 years, concentrating mostly on foreign affairs but, as a side interest, followed pensions legislation and became chairman of the European Parliament Members Pension Fund.

From 1994, when Tony Blair was elected as leader of the Labour Party, I had a very difficult relationship with the party, this culminated in 2001 with me being expelled. Although at the time it was rather traumatic, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me as some months later I was invited to join the Conservative Party which gave me a whole new lease of political life.

After he was elected as leader in 2005, David Cameron invited me to become Envoy to the Trade Union Movement in 2007, an unpaid post but one with a desk in the Conservative Central Office and access to the leader. In the period between starting in 2008 and the election in 2010, I arranged over 200 meetings between trade union officials and different members of the Shadow Cabinet and other Shadow Ministers so that by the time we took office, although the trade union movement and the Conservative Party did not necessarily agree, we at least knew each other had some idea of the main concerns. It was during this time I got to know the BDA and was impressed by the way they always put member interests first and did not play politics with their members’ interests.

After the election, I spent two years helping to ‘bed in’ the new relationship between the Government and unions. Then in 2012 the Prime Minister asked me to go the Lords as a working Peer, to which I agreed. I am there three or four days a week, seldom miss a vote and never an important one and contribute to the development of Conservative Party policy in the Lords, particularly in the foreign affairs field where I am a member of the European Union sub committee and also one of the UK delegates to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

DT: You have already had connections over a number of years with the BDA in your Trade Union Envoy role. How did you become involved in the Dietitians Week last year and, again this year?

LB: I first came into to contact with the dietitians in 2008 when I began work for David Cameron and wrote to all of the TUC affiliated unions. I received a very friendly reply from the dietitians who of course take a pride in not being politically affiliated to any party.

After I joined the Lords I was approached and asked whether I would help organise a function in the House of Lords for active members during Dietitians Week, I was happy to do that last year and have done it again this year.

DT: Why did you agree to become the new BDA Honorary President?

LB: I was flattered to be asked, I have always got on well with the officials of the BDA and feel that if they believe I can play a useful role I will try and do so.

DT: What do you think you can bring to the role of Honorary President?

LB: In the past there have been many distinguished Presidents but I am the first one to hold a political office. Many of the royal colleges have presidents who are members of the House of Lords. Having a President who is a member of the House of Lords does mean that you can access Ministers and, within the parliamentary guidelines, it will be possible to help the BDA to get its concerns across at the highest level. I will also be able to use my position to talk to other presidents of sister organisations.

DT: What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities facing the BDA and the wider profession in the future?

LB: The main challenge and opportunity is getting across what the BDA stands for. I had a variety of responses when I mentioned to people that I was about to become President of the BDA, probably the most bizarre one was, “Oh is that part of Weight Watchers!”

I think it is important to get across that BDA members are highly trained professionals they are not part of the lifestyle industry but part of the health delivering profession. The main challenge I identify is helping colleagues to get that message over.

DT: Will you be getting out and about to BDA events to meet members and our partners?

LB: Yes, I hope to get out to events. Obviously as President I have no executive role within the BDA but I do have a sort of constitutional role and so can help project the image of the BDA or be a figure head on occasions when that is appropriate.

I am also looking forward to getting round the regions in due course, if any readers of this magazine wish to make any suggestions as to ways in which I can help raise the profile of the profession I am always pleased to receive letters or emails at the House of Lords.