Frank Cook: Plain-speaking MP who championed the armed forces

 

Frank Cook was most emphatically not a smooth politician. He was spiky and irascible – but always blunt. I liked and respected him. In the eyes of the press gallery some of his Commons speeches may have been verging on the incoherent. But his meaning was perfectly clear. Cook said what he meant and meant what he said. He cared deeply about the armed forces and was a champion of the welfare of squaddies. He was enormously proud that his son had joined the Royal Marines, and he was an honorary captain for his work in the Parliamentary Armed Forces Trust, which took him to suffer the hardships of training in the Norwegian winter.

As one who sat under many chairmen in the Commons standing committees ("upstairs"), and in Westminster Hall, in my experience Cook was one of the very best. He was quick to rebuke MPs who strayed off the subject, and when it came to ministers he was no respecter of persons, calling them to order – and, on one occasion "to stop blethering". He was forthright in denouncing ministers – including Labour colleagues – who hogged limited parliamentary time, and he implemented what he saw as backbenchers' rights.

Cook was Sunderland through and through. In his younger days his heroes were not politicians, but Ivor Broadis, Trevor Ford and Len Shackleton, the fearsome inside trio of the glory days at Roker Park, to which Cook was regular attender as a boy. Later, as MP for Stockton, he became a welcome habitué of Ayresome Park and the friend of George Hardwick, Wilf Mannion and other Middlesbrough greats.

It is difficult to pinpoint Cook's pre-House of Commons career. After De La Salle College in Manchester and the Leeds Institute of Education he became a primary school teacher. He told me that he didn't get on with the head teacher, and became in order a gravedigger, a Butlins redcoat, a barman, brewery hand, gardener, postman and steelworker, promoted to transport manager. At this he was a success and he moved into the construction industry as a project manager with the firm of Capper-Neill. Later, at ICI, he was Wilf Mannion's boss.

He had not contemplated becoming an MP, but in 1983, at the height of the internal problems of the Labour Party, the newly formed Stockton North constituency decided that they wanted the antithesis of the previous member for Stockton, the former Labour cabinet minister turned member of the Gang of Four, Bill Rodgers. It often happens that constituency Labour parties wanted the very opposite of the previous member. And in the change from Rodgers to Cook they certainly got it.

My first memory of Cook's parliamentary interventions was in the debate of 14 February 1984 on Sellafield discharges. Instead of pursuing the fashionable anti-nuclear Labour line at the time, Cook had the courage to commend the minister, the Conservative Patrick Jenkin, for "the great concern" he had displayed in a balanced and steady statement. "Will he accept,"he asked, "that one of the principal reasons for anxiety among the electorate is that so many bland assurances have been given in the past which have been unfounded, as a result of which many accidents have happened?" Cook expressed measured concern about the slower rate of decay than that which had been anticipated. "The minister said there had been increased detritus on the coastline and a much more systematic monitoring procedure."

Cook pointed out that we could not placate an electorate which was becoming alarmed rather than alert until such time as the chemical and radioactive inspectorates were given some form of representation of qualified professional observers and commentators who had no vested interest in the industry. What came home to his colleagues was that Cook had first-hand experience of construction – and first-hand experience is always particularly welcome in the Commons.

In 1987 he was recruited by the Chief Whip Derek Foster, now Lord Foster, to serve in the Whips' office. Foster told me that Cook had quickly grasped the niceties of procedure and from that time on as a Whip, and on the floor of the House, he exploited procedure often, but not always, with considerableeffect. His weakness was occasional bad temper.

Cook's greatest contribution was on the Select Committee on Defence, where he took a particular interest not only in justice for the armed forces but also landmine-victim support and landmine eradication, and he was among the first to highlight in Parliament the plight of many of those who had been maimed on active service. His interest in foreign affairs was specialist and unusual; he had visited North and South Korea and took a view that we ought to understand the problems of the Korean peninsula, about which he knew more than any other MP of the day.

He also took a special interest in the affairs of Laos and Turkey. The latter was the natural consequence of his huge activity in the Nato Parliamentary Assembly from 1987 to 2001, of which he was Vice-President from 1998-2000. One of his special interests was the Lucy Faithfull Foundation for the rehabilitation of sexual offenders, especially in relation to the armed services.

Don Dixon (Lord Dixon), then MP for Jarrow, reminded me that Cook hada superb singing voice. He had the ultimate accolade in Labour circles of being invited to to play his guitar and sing at Welsh Nights during Labour Party conferences.

Lord Foster and a number of his friends pleaded with him not to stand in the 2010 election when his constituency party, with whom he had had a number of troubles, some of his own making and some as a result of mischief–making, selected a new candidate. Standing as an independent, Cook went down to an ignominious defeat. In my last telephone call to him he said to me sadly that he didn't see much point in his life. That was a pity, because he had been a considerable plus to the House of Commons – albeit a rough diamond.

Tam Dalyell

Francis Cook, politician: born Hartlepool 3 November 1935; MP for Stockton North 1983-2010; Opposition Whip 1987-1992; Member of Procedure Committee 1989-92, Defence Select Committee 1992-97; Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall 1999-2001 (Chairman's Panel 1997-2010); married 1959 Patricia Lundrigan (divorced 1998; one son, three daughters), secondly Princess Somsangouane Baldinger; died Stockton 11 January 2012.

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