Baroness Pike

Conservative minister and Chairman of the WRVS
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Irene Mervyn Parnicott Pike, politician: born Castleford, Yorkshire 16 September 1918; MP (Conservative) for Melton 1956-74; Assistant Postmaster General 1959-63; Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office 1963-64; created 1974 Baroness Pike; Chairman, IBA General Advisory Council 1974-79; Chairman, WRVS 1974-81; DBE 1981; Chairman, Broadcasting Complaints Commission 1981-85; died Kelso, Roxburghshire 11 January 2004.

At the time Mervyn Pike was elected to Parliament on 19 December 1956, it was still not easy for a woman, even one with her record of service to her party and in local government, to get into the House of Commons.

Pike accomplished this feat in a high-profile by-election at a time when the political going was not altogether easy for the Conservative Party. It is a striking fact that she was only the 70th woman to be elected to the House. She was unusual also in being the managing director of a manufacturing company. When she became a life peer in 1974 her coat of arms included a Castleford fine stoneware teapot proper.

She made an impressive start in the House, almost immediately becoming PPS to Pat Hornsby-Smith, and after the 1959 election she became a junior minister. The Labour MP Jean Mann somewhat unkindly wrote: "We did not see Miss Pike's qualifications, for her voice was not often heard, even at Question Time."

It was not until after the 1964 election that she began to forge her way up the (now shadow) ministerial hierarchy, eventually achieving a place in Edward Heath's Consultative Committee, speaking on the social services. After a year in the Shadow Cabinet, to widespread surprise, she stood down, apparently on grounds of health, and she did not find a place in Heath's government. Instead she chaired the Conservative backbench Health Committee, mostly supportive of the reforms that Keith Joseph was introducing as Secretary of State for Social Services, which echoed her own thinking, but quite capable of taking a line against the department if she thought it right. She was, for example, a staunch supporter of Tam Dalyell's efforts to secure legislation for organ transplants along the line suggested by the MacLennan Committee.

If her political career was something of a disappointment, her decision to become Chairman of the WRVS in 1974 took her back to the voluntary sector, in which she had much to offer. She was a woman of strong character, self-assured, quietly effective in speech and action, but with a modest charm that fell rather short of the charisma that carried Margaret Thatcher past her in the shadow ministerial stakes.

In the judgement of a much younger colleague in her last parliament, she was "a very capable woman who suffered undoubtedly from the discrimination that was then prevalent". Even so, there remains something of a mystery that a woman of her ability did not go further in politics.

Irene Mervyn Parnicott Pike was born at Castleford, Yorkshire, in 1918, the daughter of the chairman of a firm manufacturing domestic pottery. She was christened Mervyn after a close friend of her father who had been killed only days before she was born; he was to have been the child's godfather. She was educated at Hunmanby Hall in Yorkshire and took a degree in Economics and Social Psychology at Reading. After graduating in 1941 she was commissioned into the Women's Auxiliary Air Force for the Second World War and worked on the recruitment and training of aircrew. On demobilisation, she joined the family firm and was appointed its managing director. Almost immediately, however, she developed her political interests, moving on from election to the parish council to the Rural District Council and, from 1955 to 1957 the West Riding County Council.

In parallel she moved up the voluntary side of the Conservative Party, representing Yorkshire on the Women's National Advisory Committee, 1953-61, and on the National Union Executive, 1955-57. In 1951 she fought Pontefract, but made no impression on the massive majority of the sitting Labour MP. Adopted for the marginal seat of Leek in Staffordshire, she halved the majority, but failed to take the seat by 1,059 votes.

She made the final two for the by-election in Leeds North East in the spring of 1956, despite local grumbles that the only choice given to the constituency executive was between a Jew and a woman. They picked Sir Keith Joseph, but, if her single status was held against her, it did not prevent her selection to succeed Anthony Nutting at the safe seat of Melton.

It was not an easy campaign, since Nutting had resigned in protest against the Government's intervention at Suez and the United States had subsequently forced British forces to withdraw. The Conservative Party had also temporarily forfeited much middle-class support. It was generally felt that she had done well to limit the damage. The Conservative vote fell by almost 11,000, but her majority of 2,362 was comfortable enough and the subsequent general election brought her a majority in excess of that enjoyed by Nutting. She retained the seat until she stood down in February 1974.

Macmillan appointed Pat Hornsby-Smith to be junior minister at the Home Office in January 1957 and she in turn chose Mervyn Pike as her PPS. After the 1959 election she was appointed Assistant Postmaster General. The department was uniquely a ministerially run nationalised industry and a monopoly. Her ministerial boss, Reg Bevins, tended to take the credit, but Mervyn Pike was a major force behind the modernisation of the post offices during his period in office.

The age-old system whereby counter clerks specialised was abolished to the benefit of those queuing. They also put through the Post Office Act, which separated its finances from the Exchequer and made it financially autonomous. In March 1963 she was promoted to be Henry Brooke's junior minister at the Home Office, a job that she retained when Sir Alec Douglas-Home took over the Government in October 1963.

In opposition she shadowed Tony Benn as Postmaster General and after the 1966 election entered the Shadow Cabinet to speak on social services. Work that she had done in earlier years with the National Council of Social Services, the Child Guidance Council and with handicapped children gave her a real insight into the job and her CPC pamphlet Needs Must (1967) emphasised that they were causes of poverty other than "feckless work and reckless breeding" and that those affected were the widowed, single mothers and the old.

She believed strongly in meeting the needs of the family through targeted payments rather than deal with them by using family allowances and claw-back as the Government proposed. But, at least in Richard Crossman's eyes, her major assault on the minister concerned was too partisan to enlist the sympathies of those Labour Members who doubted the wisdom of the Government's approach.

Lord Hayhoe, then working on social security at the Conservative Research Department, believes that, when she stepped down in 1967, the move was made by mutual agreement. Certainly she was never bitter about it and would later speak publicly of Heath's thoughtfulness. She was herself very kind to younger people and Hayhoe recalls agreeable gatherings clearly arranged to encourage younger members of the party in their political careers. She continued to preside over the Conservative Systems Research Centre, which did valuable research on the possible introduction of VAT.

To a young MP in a neighbouring constituency, Ken Clarke, she seemed a woman of formidable aspect, who belied her appearance by being perfectly approachable, very nice, and very sensible; and, he adds, very popular in her own constituency.

Leaving the Commons was a decision she took with regret, but her appointment to be Chairman of the WRVS in 1974 made it necessary; and Heath made her a life peer in his retirement honours. At the WRVS she not only ensured that the organisation adjusted to the realities of modern warfare, but directed its efforts to an ever-expanding role in the community. When she gave up the job in 1981, she was appointed DBE.

Between 1974 and 1979 she also chaired the general advisory committee of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, and in 1981 she began a four-year term as the first Chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. After her final retirement she went to live in Scotland, where she could indulge in her favourite relaxations, walking and gardening.

John Barnes

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