Patsy Calton

Energetic Liberal Democrat MP for Cheadle
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Patricia Yeldon, school teacher and politician: born 19 September 1948; Member (Liberal Democrat), Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council 1994-2002, Deputy Leader 1999-2001; MP (Liberal Democrat) for Cheadle 2001-05; married 1969 Clive Calton (one son, two daughters); died 29 May 2005.

The death of Patsy Calton, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheadle since 2001, after a short parliamentary career played out in the shadow of breast cancer, dramatically underlines the fierce criticism she made in a newspaper interview only three weeks ago.

Calton, who had been re-diagnosed with cancer after beating the first onslaught, said that it had "come as a shock to me to find that I had to fight for treatment on the NHS. I had to fight for my appointments. I've lost track of the number of phone calls I had to make. Everything took so much time and I ended up shouting quite a lot to get what I needed. But not everyone can do that. I'm lucky."

She was bitterly scornful of the National Cancer Plan put up five year ago, with its targets of not more than two weeks from a GP's recognising a lump to seeing a specialist, and a 62-day delay before actual treatment. The MP, speaking with all too much authority, said "The system actually produces delays and it hasn't got any better since I last had treat- ment . . . Ideally, you would have your operation within a few days and your first chemotherapy three weeks later. By the time I got my appointments, it was eight weeks before my first chemotherapy."

She also found her case endorsing recent findings of large inequalities of treatment between North and South and between poor and wealthy areas in the treatment. "The NHS," she said "is supposed to be there for everybody, based on their need, and not on how rich and articulate they are."

Patsy Calton was first diagnosed with cancer in 1997, shortly after she had reduced the majority of a well regarded liberal Tory, Stephen Day, to 3,000, her second attempt after a massive deficit in 1992. It was a measure of toughness and character that she met the diagnosis by continuing both her work as senior chemistry teacher at Poynton High School in Stockport and her local government position as Deputy Leader of Stockport Council.

The entire career had been marked by energetic striving, with the doing of several things at once. Born Patricia Yeldon in 1948, the daughter of an RAF officer, she was initially brought up in Egypt. Educated thereafter at Wymondham College, Norfolk, then a graduate in Biochemistry of Umist (the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology), Yeldon took a teacher's certificate and taught chemistry at north-western comprehensive schools. Having married Clive Calton in 1969, she took time off for the early upbringing of a son and two daughters before going back to the chalkface.

After her first shot at the Cheadle parliamentary constituency, she was elected in 1994 to Stockport Council for Bramhall West. She was phenomenally active there, chairing at various times the council committees for Environmental Health, Appointments (Sub-committee), Community Services and Social Services, before becoming Deputy Leader. This busy life continued, after cancer had been apparently successfully treated with a double mastectomy in 1997. To council work, teaching and the parliamentary candidacy, she added marathon running, and raised £17,000 for charity from it.

In Parliament from 2001, with a majority of 33, she was deputy to Lib Dem spokesmen for first Northern Ireland, then Health. Her leader on Northern Ireland, Lembit Opik, said, "I have never in all my parliamentary career worked with such a rigorous and forensic mind as Patsy's. She was extraordinary and on two occasions compelled the government to withdraw sections of legislation because her analysis had so strongly shown up its flaws".

Again, as on Stockport Council, she ate up committee work, serving on those for House Administration (from 2001), Health (2002), Aviation (2004). She was as busy on Lib Dem party groups, working on those concerned with Sex Equality, the British Council and Sustainable Aviation, and also on the all-party Environmental Quality group. She was impatient, perhaps a little too much so, with parliamentary tradition. In an early interview she spoke sharply about long speeches, wigs and gowns, an inadequate race and gender balance, late-night debates and the absence of notice and government policy briefing notes. "Imagine," she said in conclusion, "on a hot June night, a hot, sweaty, hideous place, into which you put 400 MPs and add the smell of alcohol."

With Calton's death, Parliament has lost one of those devoted, self-driving public servants whose lives refute the ignorant drone "MPs! They're all in it for what they can get." At the recent general election she had increased her majority to 4,020 and last week was brought to the Commons by ambulance to take the oath.

Edward Pearce

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