Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract: From a boy down the mines to Commons Deputy Speaker
'There was hot and cold water, a bath and a flush toilet. I'd never seen one before. I thought this was a palace'
Saturday 03 November 2012
Geoffrey Lofthouse was the first (and only miner) chosen as a Deputy Speaker in the House of Commons. And after he was made a life peer, he become deputy chairman of committees in the House of Lords. So no autobiography was ever more aptly titled than his From Coal Sack to Woolsack (1999).
Lofthouse, from the village of Featherstone in Yorkshire, had a hard childhood. When he was six, his farm labourer father died while playing darts at the pub. Two days after the funeral, the farmer evicted Lofthouse's crippled mother and her five children from their cottage, and they went to live with his grandparents in a terrace called Stewpot Row.
His maternal grandfather, who brought him up, was a shaft sinker in the Ackworth Colliery. Lofthouse wrote in A Very Miner MP (1986): "After we left Stewpot Row, Grandma Fellowes never left her bed. She'd been born in that end terrace house, had reared 12 children there and when she heard they were going to knock it down, it just broke her heart."
Lofthouse was always perfectly turned out when on public duty. He remembered: "Tony Benn has a cracked mug in his room. One night he riled me. I thought of my granddad and his mates. 'Tony,' I said, 'I take exception to intellectuals like you. You dress scruffily and drink out of cracked cups, as if that's the mark of the working class. You ought to observe Arthur Scargill. He's a left-winger, but he's always smart. But then he's a working-class lad.'" (Lofthouse could not, in fact, abide Scargill's politics, and was a strong supporter of Denis Healey for the leadership of the Labour Party.)
In 1935 the family moved to Purston, near Pontefract: "I thought this was a palace. There was hot and cold water, a bath and flush toilet, I'd never seen one before." He never ever forgot the plight of people living in similar hard circumstances. At 14 , he went to work at Ackton Hall Colliery in North Featherstone, known as Masham's after the millionaire landowner, the first Baron Masham. Long after, Lofthouse supported many of the initiatives for the disabled led by the present Lady Masham, Baroness Masham of Ilton.
At the beginning of the Second World War , Lofthouse, as a miner, was in a restricted occupation, stayed in the pit, and met many of the conscripted "Bevin Boys" serving in the mines, including Geoffrey Finsburgh, later Conservative MP for Hampstead, who in 1986-87 served with Lofthouse on the standing committee on the Coal Industry Bill. Lofthouse recognised that Finsburgh sympathised with miners after experiencing pit life. Lofthouse himself was very popular with Conservative members of Parliament, because of his lack of rancour and exquisite manners.
He married Sarah Onions in 1946. It was an exceptionally happy marriage and she became a familiar figure in the House of Commons, acting as his secretary; she was also an excellent guide for constituents and others visiting Wesminster. Lofthouse was distraught when she died in 1985 and did not contemplate marrying again.
The couple progressed through local government. Lofthouse worked at the coal face until 1970, when he became personnel manager at Fryston Colliery. He did not consider a parliamentary career until his great friend Joe Harper, died. Lofthouse was 55 when he arrived in Westminster and made his maiden speech, championing small towns, in December 1978: "The inner cities have their problems. Quite rightly, money has been forthcoming from government to assist them. We have similar problems of decay and dereliction but because they are smaller scale it is easy to dismiss them." He continued to lobby for small towns, with some effect on Conservative ministers, who were impressed by his sincerity of purpose, and had more influence on Labour ministers. The small towns of Britain owe him a good deal. But Lofthouse thought his biggest achievement was his breakthrough in getting compensation for miners with emphysema after pressing over 15 years, using private Bills to lobby ministers.
As Deputy Speaker from 1992, Lofthouse was one of the most acceptable occupants of the chair I can remember in my 43 years as an MP. He was a stickler for courtesy. He thought the largest single change in the House of Commons, over the 19 years he was a member, was the result of televising the chamber. He opposed it because he thought it would change the atmosphere of the House. Members wanted to be seen by their constituents and were keen to jump up and down with no serious question in mind. He feared it would discredit the proceedings of the House. By the time he left, he was sure it had done just that.
He regarded Prime Minister's Questions as a farce, and lamented that much courtesy had gone from the House: "In my early years, members would never dream of walking out straight after they had made a speech or missing the beginning of a debate. And a member would never dream of referring to another member and not telling them in advance."
Lofthouse was in the chair for the Maastricht debate in 1993 when the government was first defeated, one of the most exciting debates of recent times. The atmosphere was electric. Lofthouse had crossed his fingers that the vote wouldn't be even, so that he would not have to cast his vote. In the end, the defeat was decisive, and he commented wryly: "I think I would have been less than human not to feel privileged to have been the one to stand up and declare the defeat of the government. A little more pleasure certainly went through my bones."
In 1997 Lofthouse accepted the prime minister's offer of a seat in the House of Lords.
No account of him would be complete without reference to his enormous enthusiasm for rugby league, a rough game that he played vigorously until he was 50. He was the chairman of the All Party Rugby Group.
Geoffrey Lofthouse, politician and miner: born Featherstone, Yorkshire , 18 December 1925; MP (Labour) for Pontefract and Castleford 1978-97; Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker, House of Commons 1992-97; Kt 1995; created 1997 Baron Lofthouse of Pontefract; Deputy Speaker, House of Lords from 1998; married 1946 Sarah Onions (died 1985; one daughter); died 1 November 2012.
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