Doctor Ashok Kumar: Scientist and MP whose specialist knowledge proved invaluable in Parliament

Ashok Kumar was first and foremost a scientist and secondly a politician. In fact, with the arguable exception of Dr Ernest (Nick) Davies, the Manchester University physicist who represented Manchester Stretford between 1966 and 1970, I cannot think of any MP in my time (1962-2005) as qualified in science – or, indeed, since the distinguished fellow of the Royal Society, Professor A.V. Hill, who represented the University of Cambridge and won a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1922, and quit the Commons in 1945.

A BSc in Chemical Engineering at the University of Aston, MSc in Process Control, PhD in fluid mechanics, research fellow at Imperial College London and research scientist at British Steel (1985-1997) – Kumar's qualification were indeed formidable. "Ashoka" was the name of the first unifying Emperor of India. It has come to mean unity and conciliation – and that neatly summed up Ashok Kumar's character.

He was born in Uttar Pradesh in India, his family moving to Derby with their three sons when he was in infancy. He attended the Rykneld School for Boys in Derby, to which he was forever grateful for a disciplined and academic education, and went on to the Derby District College of Science and Technology. He went through the university system with considerable distinction and ended up as a valued research scientist with British Steel.

A well-liked Middlesbrough councillor, he became a candidate at the by-election in 1991 after the unexpected death of the previous incumbent, Richard Holt. He was supported by two extremely powerful Labour politicians in the area, Joe Mills of the Transport and General Workers' Union and the all-powerful boss of the General and Municipal Workers Union in the North-east, Tom Burlison (later treasurer of the Labour Party).

The choice of a person of Indian extraction was controversial. I remember canvassing for him in Guisborough and having to face up to questions on the doorstep as to why Labour had chosen an Indian. His friend, Derek Foster, now Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland but at that time the Opposition chief whip, told me, "candidly, given racial prejudice in some quarters in the early stages of a knife-edge by-election, not only did Ashok overcome such feelings, but became hugely respected by constituents." Foster, a County Durham MP who knew Teesside well, said that Kumar played a leading part in the development of the North-east.

His by-election victory was over a very formidable and good conservative candidate, Michael Bates (now Lord Bates), who was to defeat him in 1992. Kumar had polled 22,442 votes to Bates's 20,467 with the Liberal polling 8,421. A few months later Bates won by 30,018 to Kumar's 28,454. It says a lot for Kumar that he declined to seek a more winnable constituency, and his determination was rewarded with a substantial margin of victory in 1997, when Labour swept to power.

Given his qualifications and his absolute loyalty to the Labour Party, it is a mystery to me as to why he was not made a junior minister. Perhaps Derek Foster, his former chief whip, put his finger on the answer by telling me, "He was not a parroter of soundbites. He was too much of an independent thinker, and above all would always put the views of his sensible constituents before those of ministers."

Kumar was an extremely thoughtful person. I was a weekly columnist on New Scientist, and almost every week in the Commons tearoom Kumar would sidle up and comment to me on what he had read. Sometimes it was approving, sometimes it was slightly critical, but it was always extremely politely and kindly expressed. For seven years he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Hilary Benn in the Department of International Development, and subsequently when Benn became Secretary of State for the Environment. Benn reflected to me, "Ashok was mild and unassuming, but by heavens he was ferocious in pursuing what he perceived to be the right course of action on significant matters. He was Labour through and through. I think that he took the steel plant closures on Teesside very personally. I will miss his friendship, and that completely distinctive laugh which transcended into a lovely chuckle."

From 1997 to 2001 Kumar was an extremely valuable member of the Science and Technology Select Committee and worked effectively on the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Select Committee from 1991 to 2002, and on the Trade and Industry Select Committee from 2001 to 2003. His technical knowledge greatly added to the quality of their deliberations. His skill was recognised by his appointment by the Speaker as a member of the Chairmen's Panel in 2000.

However, to his credit he was no one-subject politician. I remember listening on 11 January 2000 to a moving passage on the Child Support Pensions and Social Security Bill. In his soft voice, Kumar said, "I will also deal with exotic cases. Some mothers have immense difficulty in getting any cash from dads whom they suspect deliberately work in a country with which we have no reciprocal agreements for social security deductions. Also, absent fathers are assigned the bill for the wrong set of children because they have been misplaced on an information technology filing system. One man was deemed to be the absent father of a child by a woman he had never heard of, from a part of the country he had never visited in his life. It turned out that he had been placed on that file because he had the same unusual forenames and surname given by the mother."

This encapsulates the kind of detailed yet significant situations, usually arising from his own constituents, which he brought to the attention of his parliamentary colleagues. It is not a platitude when I say that many of us really do believe that his premature death constitutes a loss to Parliament. Dr Brian Iddon, MP for Bolton and chairman of the All-Party Chemical Industries Group, recalled, "Ashok was an assiduous member and supporter of the scientific community through his work on the Scientific and Technical Select Committee before 2001, and latterly as an executive member of the All-Party Chemical Industries Group and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. We shall miss him."

Tam Dalyell

Ashok Kumar, chemical engineer, metallurgist and politician: born Uttar Pradesh, India 28 May 1956; educated at Rykneld School for Boys, Derby; Derby College of Art and Technology; University of Aston; MP for Langbaurgh 1991 (by-election) to 1992, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland since 1997; died Middlesbrough 15 March 2010.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Arts and Entertainment
John Hurt will voice Prince Bolkonsky in Radio 4's War and Peace
radioRadio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition