John Garrett

Independent-minded Labour MP
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The Independent Online

John Laurence Garrett, politician and management consultant: born Romford, Essex 8 September 1931; director of public services, Inbucon 1963-74, associate director 1983-87; consultant to the Fulton Committee on the Civil Service 1966-68; MP (Labour) for Norwich South 1974-83, 1987-97; PPS to the Minister for the Civil Service 1974, to the Minister for Social Security 1977-79; Member (Labour), Norfolk County Council 1997-2001; married 1959 Wendy Ady (two daughters); died Norwich 11 September 2007.

John Garrett, Labour MP for Norwich South, 1974-83 and 1987-97, was the most effective parliamentary reformer of his generation. In an age when government dominated Parliament to an ever greater degree, he stood against the tide.

With his equally intellectually nimble sparring partner, Bob Sheldon MP, he managed by adept parliamentary footwork to create statutory independence in 1983 for the National Audit Office, making it responsible to Parliament, not government. This apparently dry achievement not only gave the sharp teeth of 900 accountants to back up the doyen of parliamentary committees, the Public Accounts Committee, but set the benchmark of effective accountability and scrutiny to which all Parliament's committees have since had to aspire.

However, it was when Garrett, again with Sheldon, joined with Norman St John-Stevas that he pulled off the most improbable coup against executive power – the creation of a series of parliamentary committees to cover every department of state. This is now such an accepted part of the parliamentary scene that it is hard to imagine the moth-eaten patchwork quilt of parliamentary scrutiny which preceded it, and the conceptual daring needed to supersede it. Garrett had to use all the experience he had gained as a management consultant with Inbucon to craft the parliamentary scrutiny structure which in essence remains to this day – waiting for the next great leap forward.

The ultimate triumph was delivered in the first days of the Thatcher government, when Norman St John-Stevas pushed the departmental select committees concept through the first Cabinet meeting before the Sir Humphreys could reprogramme the new Cabinet.

At the same time, in the late 1970s, Garrett had used these skills on another front, to try to restructure the "penny-farthing machine" of the Labour Party organisation, although its death wish ultimately proved too strong. As an MP, he was a professional among amateurs. Never a clubby conformist, he could be coruscating about complacent colleagues, for whom getting into Parliament meant "job done". However, those few whom he allowed close to him were to experience the warmth, wit and supportiveness that lay beyond the often crushing intellect.

For many new MPs, including myself, he was the most generous and most challenging mentor we could wish to have. The ability to see form and structure, then concise pathways to reform, were rare gifts in Labour politics in the Seventies and Eighties, though it was Garrett's and Labour's misfortune that his two periods as an MP occurred when they did. In 1974-83 he was a rookie at the fag-end of Labourism's loss of faith, and from 1987 until 1997 he had to endure the crudities of Thatcherism from the opposition front bench.

He retired as an MP in 1997, certain in the knowledge that the label "independent-minded" would not be used as a compliment under a Blair government. Garrett continued to be active in politics around his beloved Norwich, annoying first Norfolk County Council, before going on to irritate City Council colleagues. However, the truth from Labour's point of view is that a great talent had never been stretched in government office.

Garrett's talents extended far wider than politics. A lad from east London, he made it to University College, Oxford, running with Roger Bannister and gaining a First in Geography. Three liberating years studying in California contrasted with a very British national service experience in the RAF upon his return. He wrote profusely, from weighty tomes on economics and management consultancy, through rich evidence to the Fulton Committee on Civil Service reform, to Westminster: does Parliament work? (1992) – still the first book to reach for on the subject. Letters to the editor and think pieces for his favourite Tribune sprinkled the written media throughout his life.

In Who's Who, John Garrett listed among his recreations "dabbling and arguing". Those who were fortunate enough to encounter him doing either should display their scars with pride.

Graham Allen