Lord Walker of Doncaster

Employment minister in the Wilson/Callaghan governments
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The Independent Online

Harold Walker, politician: born Manchester 12 July 1927; MP (Labour) for Doncaster 1964-83, for Doncaster Central 1983-97; Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment and Productivity 1968-70; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment 1974-76, Minister of State 1976-79; PC 1979; Chairman, Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker, House of Commons 1983-92; Kt 1992; created 1997 Baron Walker of Doncaster; married 1956 Barbara Hague (died 1981; one daughter), 1984 Mary Griffin; died London 11 November 2003.

Harold Walker was the no- nonsense, peppery, robust, decisive and outstandingly effective occupant of the chair of Ways and Means, that is Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, between 1983 and 1992. He never flinched from making even political grandees, and on occasion Margaret Thatcher herself, stick to the point. Walker made a significant contribution to the effective working of the House of Commons.

The former Speaker Lord Weatherill recalls his support as invaluable:

He had unrivalled knowledge of backbench Labour MPs. If I'd spent a thousand years studying the Labour Party I would not have been better informed.

One of those backbench MPs, Dennis Skinner, described him as "as sharp as a knife":

He could get rid of a dozen Statutory Instruments in the wink of an eye. I can speak very objectively about his merits because he once chucked me out of the chamber of the House of Commons.

Michael Martin, the present Speaker, rates him as a "first-class" Chairman of Ways and Means:

When I first came into the House in 1979, he was the lead Shadow minister on the so-called Tebbit Bill and I came to rely on his encyclopaedic knowledge on trade-union legislation and industrial-injuries legislation.

Both Walker's parents worked in the hatting industry. His father was a journeyman hat-maker and then, when people stopped wearing hats as a fashion, he had to become a labourer. In the 1930s he took a number of odd jobs. At one time he was a Manchester Corporation rat-catcher, at another time a dustman. Returning from the Second World War, he went into the engineering industry and Harold, born in 1927, the middle of his three children, followed in his footsteps on leaving school at the age of 14.

Harold Walker used to tell us that it was because of the experience of the 1930s and the kind of environment that he lived in that he became a firm socialist. One particular event remained with him all his life. He passed the county scholarship examination at the age of 11, but was unable to go to grammar school, because his family could not afford the clothes and the books that were required. He saw what he later called his less able mates going to grammar school without him. There was something wrong with the system, he thought.

He did his National Service in the Fleet Air Arm and came out at the age of 21 to find himself made works convenor of shop stewards in a firm which made heavy electrical switch gear. Soon, on account of his natural endowment of intelligence, he graduated into middle-management jobs. Alas, these conflicted with his trade-union activities. So he renounced his managerial role, went back to the shop floor to his trade of being a qualified toolmaker and became a shop steward again - which he was on the day in 1964 on which he was elected Labour Member of Parliament for Doncaster.

He defeated Tony Barber, the Conservative Health minister, later to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, by 23,845 votes to 22,732 votes with G.P. Broadhead, standing as a Radical National Liberal, getting 1,201.

As soon as he had his trade-union nomination in 1962 for Doncaster he went and lived there. His election was one of the most spectacular of the 1964 change of government. Barber had been a Member for 13 years, and it was described as one hell of a campaign. In his maiden speech Walker paid generous tribute to Barber and also to Ray Gunter, by that time Minister of Labour in Harold Wilson's government, who had held the seat from 1945 to 1951 but had been defeated that year by Barber by 384 votes.

On 11 December 1964 I listened to Walker making arguably the best maiden speech of the talented 1964 Labour intake:

My constituency is concerned with much more than coal-mining. It is perhaps most famous, among its many reasons for being celebrated, for its horse-racing and its railways. The behaviour of the trains is much more predictable than that of the horses.

At this point Ernest Marples, former Minister of Transport, uttered from a sedentary position so audibly that it was recorded in Hansard: "Nationalise the horses." The Commons had the first taste of the quick repartee for which Walker was later to become famous.

Walker was no dinosaur. He was a shop steward but concerned with the application of technology:

The scientific revolution and the transformation allegedly overtaking our industry seem, somehow, to have bypassed the workshops. Indeed, only yesterday I was talking to one of my honourable friends who was referring

to the fact that he had apparently, as a half-timer, been working at the next factory to my former place of employment. He had recently been passing the factory and had thought how much he would like to see again the inside of the place where he had worked 50 years ago. He sought permission to enter, which was granted, and went into his former workroom and commented to the manager, "Why, it is hardly altered. I worked here 50 years ago and it was like this then." The foreman replied, "It was like this 100 years ago."

The factory to which he referred was part of one of the largest organisations in the engineering industry in Britain on which so much of our export drives depended and which boasted that it was a leader in its particular field. In that establishment Walker told us that there was a skilled craftsman of 70 years of age who, when he was asked to work on a job on Sundays, was carried to and from his work in a taxi: he was so valuable. The reason was that the machine he operated and which was so vital to the company's profits could only be operated by him and only by him because he served his time on the same machine. Walker told the Commons that it might have been funny but it was also tragic.

It was on account of his first-hand experience at the sharp end of industry and his authentic working-class credentials that Harold Wilson promoted Walker in April 1967 as an assistant government whip and the following year to be a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment. This was a rapid advance but none of his contemporaries resented his preferment, on account of his suitability to deal with the industrial problems of the day and not least the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, where power had gone to the then radical Hugh Scanlon.

On 3 April 1974 Walker made his first speech as Under-Secretary in the 1974-79 Labour government. It was on health and safety, one of the subjects that was dear to his heart throughout his time in the House of Commons and indeed in the contributions that he was to make when, on leaving the Commons in 1997, he became a member of the House of Lords. He was a champion of strong encouragement for voluntary action, which he thought was likely to produce more co- operative and perhaps more effective safety committees than would statutory requirement:

If such committees are to be mandatory - I recognise that there is a strong feeling on both sides of the House that they should be mandatory, and I accept that - for goodness' sake let us make them mandatory on all companies over a certain size and not allow them to be set up at the whim or otherwise of individual safety representatives. If there is to be a rule, let it be a universal rule applying to all companies of a certain size but taking into account effective arrangements for consultation on safety which may already exist on a voluntary basis in a particular company or industry.

No Member of Parliament in my 41 years has done more than Walker for the cause of safety in the workplace.

On 21 June 1976 he was the minister who introduced legislation on the job-creation programme. "The basic rationale of a job-creation programme is obvious," he said:

It is, first, that people without work need jobs and, secondly, that there are a range of jobs within the community which for one reason or another are not done. Job creation also makes economic sense as the net costs of the scheme, taking into account income-tax deductions and savings in benefits which would otherwise have to be paid, are considerably less than apparent costs and some valuable work will be done.

His father's difficult experiences when the hat trade evaporated were always with Walker, who was determined to combat the hardships faced by skilled men in engineering or other industries as the need for their trade also evaporated. Lord Weatherill remembers that Walker was so "extremely upset" by the miners' strike of 1984-95 that he declined to be in the chair, since he felt that he might be biased in discussion of the events in the mining industry.

Harold Walker was a keen gardener - Chairman of the All Party Gardening and Horticulture Group from 1997 until his death - and used to bring to Speaker's House for cooking his prized potatoes grown on his allotment in Wimbledon or his garden in Doncaster.

Tam Dalyell

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