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My journey to the House of Lords

Category: Teaching and research

22 September 2022

Lord Ribeiro

Our Chancellor Lord Ribeiro speaks about his career in medicine, his journey to becoming a Peer in the House of Lords, and what he has learnt along the way.

Arriving in the UK in June 1952 aged eight, I attended a primary school in Streatham, South London. I then attended Dean Close School in Cheltenham in 1957.

I decided to study medicine and in 1962 I moved to the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in London. London’s medical schools, although part of London University, were real entities in themselves and worked and socialised amongst themselves.

I qualified as a doctor in 1967 and began my first salaried job in January 1968 as a House Surgeon to Mr Richard Turner-Warwick at the Middlesex Hospital. Thereafter followed a succession of hospital appointments in London, Essex and in Ghana, as a Registrar and Senior Registrar.

I applied for my consultant job in Essex while a Senior Registrar at the Middlesex Hospital in 1978 and, in January 1979, started working as a Consultant Surgeon at Basildon, Billericay and Orsett Hospitals.

Throughout my training as a surgeon and as a consultant, I maintained an interest in medical politics and held leadership posts in surgery, firstly as President of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland in 1999 and then President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England from 2005-8.  I was then approached to join the House of Lords in 2010, by David Cameron MP.

I was honoured to be awarded a CBE for services to medicine by the Queen in 2003, and later a Knighthood in 2009.

I was fortunate to have a father who inspired me and ensured I had a good education. Following a number of years as an Ambassador for Ghana, he was honoured with the Chancellorship of Cape Coast University in Ghana. I was delighted to be the second member of our family to be similarly honoured, as Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University.

Why I became a doctor

I am often asked why I became a doctor. My initial choice was to be an engineer, but my maths let me down. So, I chose biology, chemistry and physics at A Level, which naturally pointed me to a career in medicine.

As a teacher, my father was key to finding the right school for me. It would have been natural to follow my brother to Dulwich College, as we lived in London, but my father had a teaching colleague from Achimota School in Ghana (it was where I was born, and from where I take my geographical title – Lord Ribeiro of Achimota and Ovington), who had become a Latin Master at Dean Close School in Cheltenham. Serendipity found my father sitting on a London bus next to the Headmaster of Dean Close School. They struck up a conversation – and the rest as they say is history!

In medicine and surgery, one’s ‘bosses', as we called our consultants, became our mentors, supporters and – depending on how you performed – lifelong referees for jobs and positions. In my case my Professor of Surgery, Leslie Le Quesne, was an inspiration, providing professional guidance and encouraging me to undertake research in order to progress in my career.

Research is a discipline which requires a different set of skills from that of practising medicine, and yet it provides the answers to many of the problems one meets as a clinician. In my case my two years of research were formative and beneficial, but my early appointment as a Consultant Surgeon in 1978 meant I did not pursue it to a doctorate, which is something I regret.

My role models

Professor Leslie Le Quesne and Mr Richard Turner-Warwick ('RTW'), and all the consultant surgeons with whom I worked at the Middlesex Hospital, whether in general surgery, orthopaedics, or cardiac surgery.

RTW for inspiring a newly qualified doctor that surgery was the career for him. He was a surgeon’s surgeon, with hands that could turn to any operation. Even though his specialty was urology, he had worked in many fields from head and neck surgery, thoracic and abdominal surgery – a real polymath.

Subsequently as a result of this experience, I specialised as a general surgeon and a urologist.

My year in Ghana as a lecturer in urology enhanced my urological experience, particularly in the management of urethral strictures – of which there were many more in Ghana than in the UK.

I believe role models are essential for mentoring and guidance and we all need a guiding spirit when things get tough. I was able to maintain those contacts even after becoming a consultant.

The House of Lords

I am in my 12th year as a Peer in the House of Lords. Sitting on the Government benches, I have served under three prime ministers – soon to be serving under a fourth.

The Covid pandemic has had an impact on how parliament works and we have only this year reverted to normal sittings rather than virtual sittings.

My interest remains with health matters and currently I have been successful with other Peers in putting forward amendments against forced organ harvesting in China – a crime of forcibly extracting organs from prisoners of conscience for transplantation and profiteering, which results in the death of the prisoner.

I take part in debates which interest me and provide advice to the Government front bench on medical matters when required.

A typical day involves meetings and briefings by Government ministers from both Houses of Parliament to Conservative Peers. These take place on Wednesdays, with similar meetings for Labour and Cross-Bench Peers. Armed with these briefings, Peers are better placed to support or oppose a government line, when the issue in question is debated.

No one day in parliament is the same. Most mornings are given over to responding to emails and letters, and attendances at sub-committees. As a member of the EU Home Affairs Committee, I would attend meetings every Wednesday morning when parliament was sitting, lasting three hours. Following a particular issue (eg illegal migration), we might take evidence from Government ministers, charities supporting migrants in the UK and occasionally from asylum seeking migrants themselves. Our reports are published as a matter of record and for public security.

Much of the work of the Lords in the Chamber is undertaken in the afternoon and at night. Sittings beyond midnight, which was common in 2011 when I started, are now rare.

I have spoken about the persecution of the Uighurs in Xinxiang by the Chinese government in debates on the Medical Devices Bill in 2021 (Organ Tourism and Cadavers on Display Bill), and on the Health and Care Bill in 2022, where I was joined by others in laying down amendments.

On 15 June 2020, I spoke about the Black Lives Matter protests, and the toppling of statues in Bristol. I quoted Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Scotland’s first black Professor at Heriot Watt University who said: 'Do not take down statues – take down racism’, a sentiment with which I agree. I pointed out that a statue of Queen Victoria is still present in Cape Coast, Ghana, my birthplace, from which country slaves were exported to the Americas. Better to explain why statues are there and learn from then, than to take them down.

I believe raising the issue of the Uighurs and the persecution they face in China has informed Government policy, as our amendments on this issue in the Medical Devices Bill and the Health and Care Bill were accepted by Her Majesty’s Government.

If I could offer one piece of advice it would be: Look up – not down. You can always succeed if you raise your expectations.

Black History Month

Published to mark Black History Month, October 2022.

Join us in October as we explore aspects of Black British history and host the Olaudah Equiano Annual Lecture on Race Justice.


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