Malcolm Wicks: MP who fought for the young and the elderly

 

When the obituaries editor of The Independent invites me to contribute an obituary of a parliamentary colleague it is my custom to garner opinions from three or four contemporary colleagues of the subject. But since on the occasion of Malcolm Wicks' death the Parliamentary Labour Party is busy in Manchester I went to two BBC producers and two presenters (who must remain anonymous) and asked them why they had Malcolm so often on radio – more often than most ministers. All four responded in identical terms, that Wicks was that rare politician who strived to answer the actual question asked. And they all agreed that whether on social policy or on energy policy, Wicks knew his stuff – and if he didn't known he would say so.

He was one of the workhorses, the unsung heroes, of the Labour government, and I am in a position to know how well he was regarded by leading figures in Scotland of the oil and gas industries when he had responsibility for energy. He was also conscientious in serving his constituents (he was MP for Croydon North West from 1992–97 and Croydon North from 1997). Richard Ottaway, the MP for Croydon South, said of him: "Malcolm left a proud and enduring legacy and he was greatly admired by politicians on all side in Croydon."

Etched into my memory is a June morning in 1996, a period when the Commons was experimenting with morning sittings, when Wicks gave a speech from the Opposition Front Bench on young people after the age of 16. "Fresh thinking is required," he said, "because only a proportion of that age group are in employment. The great majority are in education or training but too many are unemployed or unskilled and often ill-equipped for the jobs that are on offer in a modern economy. Policy must therefore be based on two things. First and foremost we must analyse the characteristics of that age group. Who are they? Where are they in terms of education and employment? Secondly, we need to assess how current policy and practice impacts on that group."

And he proceeded to do just that. Audrey Wise, who as chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security was immersed in such issues, told me, "Thank heavens we have in Malcolm Wicks a Front Bench spokesman who both cares and understands."

Wicks' background should have prepared us. After attending North-West London Polytechnic and the London School of Economics, he was a Fellow in the Department of Social Administration at York University (1968-70), a research worker for environmental studies (1970-72), a lecturer on social policy at Brunel University (1974-77), a social policy analyst at the Urban Deprivation Unit of the Home Office, a lecturer in social policy at the Civil Service College (1977-78), Research Director of the Study Commission on the Family (1978-83), and Director of the Family Policy Studies Centre (1983-1992).

One of his causes was carers. During the passage of the 1994-95 Carers (Recognition and Services) Act he argued the case for the extra resources the government was making available to social service departments. Characteristically he followed up by pressing the Under Secretary, John Brewis. For Wicks, speeches were not enough, and until illness forced him to become absent this year he monitored the legislation in which he had been involved. His work for the elderly earned him the regard of Jack Jones, who in retirement for a quarter of a century was a formidable leader of pensioners' pressure groups.

When Wicks arrived in the House 1992, he and I would often sit next to eachother. As I had been there for 30 years he would flatter me by seeking advice. I suggested to him that as the only MP who had been brought up in the Channel Islands he would have something to say on their tax status ,a delicate issue of the hour. He said with an apologetic grin – he had a nice grin with a twinkle in his eye – "I am interested in bigger islands. Which? Well, Australia and New Zealand. He was a stalwart of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, giving time to visitors from Down Under. He was well-known and well-liked by Wallaby and Kiwi politicians – his affectionate phrase.

Malcolm Hunt Wicks, social scientist and politician: born Hatfield 1 July 1947; MP for Croydon North West 1992–97, Croydon North 1997-; Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education 1999–2001, Department for Work and Pensions 2001–03; Minister of State: for Pensions 2003–05, for Energy 2005–06, for Science and Innovation 2006–07, for Energy 2007–08; Special Representative of the Prime Minister on international energy 2008–10; married 1968 Margaret Baron (one son, two daughters); died London 29 September 2012.

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