Obituary: William Hilton

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The Independent Culture
A QUARTER of a century has gone by since William Hilton ceased to be a Member of Parliament, after eight years' membership for the safe Labour seat of Bethnal Green. But his contribution was important. In days before "special advisers", a species which now overruns Westminster and Whitehall like algal bloom, Hilton was a fount of experience and expertise in the building industry, on which Richard Crossman and Robert Mellish, the responsible ministers at the beginning of the 1964-70 Labour government, relied.

The construction industry was then at the centre of politics, which made Bill Hilton's experience all the more valuable. It was a pity that the ministers after Crossman and Mellish did not make use of him, and that he became fed up with Parliament and politicians, believing he could make a more valuable contribution in a pivotal role in the Employers' Federation - which he did for two decades until he retired in 1991.

Hilton was born in the small village of Darton, near Barnsley, in the year of the General Strike. His father, who is still alive and was the recipient at last year's annual conference of the Labour Party of the Long Service Award, was a master painter who had to go north to find work, eventually in Saltcoats. Hilton attended Kyleshill Primary School and Ardrossan, where he had an excellent grounding from Scottish dominies, acquiring the Ayrshire accent which he kept for the rest of his life.

After a period as a fireman on the railways, and activity as an angry young man in the National Union of Railwaymen, he got the appointment of Labour Party agent to the late Lord Kirkwood - better known as the firebrand "Wee David Kirkwood" - one of the authentic Red Clydesiders. Throughout his life Hilton acknowledged his debt to Kirkwood, particularly the passionate belief that a decent home was the right of every human being.

From 1952, following Kirkwood's departure from politics, Hilton got the job of Trade Union Research Officer with the National Federation of Building Trades Operatives. Becoming involved in the Labour Party, he stood for East Hertfordshire in 1955 and North Ealing in 1959. Finally he won Bethnal Green in 1966 with 69.7 per cent of the vote, succeeding the well-loved Percy Holman as Labour and Co-operative Member.

I remember his maiden speech on the apt occasion of the Second Reading of the Building Control Bill on 2 May 1966 - I was PPS to the Secretary of State, Dick Crossman, who, because of the regard in which Hilton was held by the Ministry of Housing and not least the formidable Permanent Secretary Dame Evelyn Sharp, had come in specially to the chamber to listen to him.

Hilton, ever a direct man, did not waste time on parliamentary niceties:

Let me try to tell Honourable Gentlemen opposite about the industry we are discussing. Very often we hear people opposing any kind of government planning or legislation for an industry because they say that the industry is well-organised and co-ordinated and can control itself. The building industry lacks almost any crystallisation of capital and control, and this fact must be recognised.

There are 70,000 individual-employing agencies in the construction industry. This is bad enough, but we now have a number of what the unions term "pirates" in the industry, the labour-only subcontractors - who employ about four men apiece. There are 50,000 of them in the country, which means that there are 120,000 employing agencies all competing with each other for labour. There is no elasticity of labour supply in the construction industry at this time.

Hilton went on with great knowledge to discuss the shortage of craftsmen, and the vanishing stockpile of bricks without which no housing programme could proceed.

The tradition in the House of Commons is that a maiden speaker is congratulated by whoever the Speaker calls to follow him or her from the opposite benches. The Member who followed Hilton was the experienced MP for Folkestone and Hythe, appropriately A.P. Costain, himself with a famous name in the construction industry:

I can say with all sincerity that we have never heard a finer maiden speech. I congratulate the Honourable Member for

Bethnal Green upon making such a speech without a note. It is clear he has a good knowledge of the building industry.

Costain was my neighbour on the Public Accounts Committee at the time and I knew him as a friend who did not give praise unless he meant it. He told me the following day he had been deeply impressed by Hilton.

Later, on 25 May 1966, on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill, Hilton made a speech which Jack Diamond, then the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told me influenced policy. Hilton had argued the case in detail for tax incentives geared towards making the building industry more efficient.

Truth to tell, Hilton, who had arrived in the House of Commons in the belief that he could alter things, became frustrated when Bob Mellish, whose Parliamentary Private Secretary he had been, moved out of Housing. He went to Harold Wilson and asked for Mellish's job, or at least a job where he could have an effect on improving the construction industry. Wilson was not unsympathetic to what might have been an outrageous demand from a seemingly self-seeking politician wanting political promotion. He had the insight to realise that this was not what Hilton was about: he actually wanted to do something in an area where he had a very clear idea of what ought to be done.

In 1970 Hilton had no difficulty in retaining Bethnal Green, where he was regarded as an excellent local constituency MP. Indeed, Ron Brown, the present MP for Shoreditch and Finsbury, reports, "Bill Hilton, after he left Parliament, was held in such regard by the local community that he became chairman of the Hackney Hospital Board, where his diligence and work for the people was widely recognised."

It was of Hilton's own volition, albeit that he was uncomfortable by that time with the volatile politics of the London Labour Party, that he decided to change career and make his life in the Builders' Federation. His son, Douglas, says that his father took the calculation that he could be far more effective in a central role with the employers than as an MP with no guarantee of becoming a minister.

Hilton brought the federation to the position of the largest employer covering the building industry, representing in excess of 21,000 small and medium-sized companies. It was his personal achievement that there was the first insurance-backed warranty scheme in the industry protecting not only the builder but also the client. This has been supported by successive governments and local authorities to this day.

In 1979 after negotiations with friends in the Transport and General Workers' Union, Hilton put forward the proposals for a Building and Allied Trades Joint Industrial Council to govern the wages and conditions of work in an industry which was terribly fragmented to the disadvantage of all involved. Again, in 1987, it is the judgement of the federation's present officers that he played a major part in the creation of a national training scheme for apprentices and trainees in the building industry and to this day its merits are recognised.

In 1990, recognising the importance of the European Community, Hilton was a moving spirit in the creation of the European Builders' Confederation which now represents 400,000 medium-sized and smaller firms across the EU.

Hilton was author of a number of seminal books, particularly Building By Direct Labour in 1954, which was much thumbed by local authorities desperate to create more homes quickly. His major work was Foes to Tyranny (1964), which identified the problem which later became known as "the lump" and four years later he published a tome on industrial relations in construction. Perhaps unexpectedly, 20 years later he wrote The Plug Dropper (1986), about his experiences in the building industry, and in 1998 a delightful account of his childhood under the title The Wee Spartans, a moving account of a tough background in the 1930s. His last book, about to be published, is Speakers are Born.

Bill Hilton was a direct man whose ambition was to improve the life possibilities of his fellow human beings. He did not regard politics as a career, still less as a game.

Tam Dalyell

William Samuel Hilton, politician and industrialist: born Darton, Yorkshire 21 March 1926; Editor, Builders Standard 1954-66; MP (Labour and Co-operative) for Bethnal Green 1966-74; National Director, Federation of Master Builders 1970-87, Director General 1987-91; managing director, Trade Press (FMB) 1972-91; managing director, National Register of Warranted Builders 1980- 91; married 1948 Nan Aitken Orr (three sons, marriage dissolved 1985), 1986 Betty Penfold; died Coulsdon, Surrey 12 June 1999.