Roland Boyes

Photographer and Labour MP
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The Independent Online

Roland Boyes, politician and photographer: born Holmfirth, Yorkshire 12 February 1937; MEP (Labour) for Durham 1979-84; MP (Labour) for Houghton and Washington 1983-97; married 1962 Patricia James (two sons); died Peterlee, Co Durham 16 June 2006.

Sir Benjamin Stone, founder of the National Photographic Record Association, Birmingham glass and paper manufacturer and "royal photographer" for the coronations of Edward VII and George V, put together a remarkable and unique collection of photographs of people in the House of Commons during the years 1895-1909 when he was Conservative MP for East Birmingham.

A century later Roland Boyes, Labour MP for Houghton and Washington, emulated him. Helped by Sue Davis, who had retired as director of the Photographers Gallery, and with backing provided by Kodak and Hasselblad, who provided film and cameras for the project, Boyes followed in Stone's footsteps - in spite of the very difficult rules and regulations imposed by the Serjeant at Arms's department. Boyes's book People in Parliament, published in 1990, consists of photographs of great quality.

Sir Patrick Cormack, chairman of the History of Parliament Trust and of the All Party Arts and Heritage Committee, describes Boyes's photographs as "extraordinarily sensitive" and recalls his "happy knack of capturing his subjects in a homely pose".

Boyes's charm in obtaining photographs enabled him to persuade Margaret Thatcher at the height of her power to invite him, a robust Labour MP, into her inner sanctuary. Boyes told me that she brushed away various conditions which her security wished to impose with the remark that she would be obedient to such an expert photographer whose work she admired. That was quite an achievement for a Labour Member of Parliament in the 1980s.

Roland Boyes was born into the family of a lorry driver. He went to Wooldale Infant and Junior School. He recalled that there was no "namby-pamby" attitude to education:

You got smacked and pushed around and you were force-fed maths and English because the whole objective was to get people into grammar school. Sutcliffe [Charles Edward Taylor Sutcliffe, the headmaster] was a very hard man but he got results and I have to pay tribute to him.

At their home at Holmfirth, near Huddersfield, well known as the venue for Last of the Summer Wine, his mother reinforced Sutcliffe's discipline by saying in her broad Yorkshire accent: "I don't want my lad to wear overalls."

When Boyes was 10, he became ill with spinal meningitis, which was later to exempt him from National Service, so he missed taking the 11 plus and went to a secondary modern school. At the end of his first year, however, his mother received a letter offering him a grammar-school place. Her immediate reaction was: "Get rid of that cornet and forget about being a member of the brass band." She wanted nothing to hinder his education.

So he went to Penistone Grammar School, where the head, Edward Fisher Bowman, ran an academic sweatshop but took a personal interest in every one of his pupils. Boyes won a scholarship to Leicester University, but hated his year of chemistry because he was made to feel socially inferior on account of his accent. After a couple of years' supply teaching in Yorkshire he went to Coventry Teachers' Training College; it was there in 1952 that he met his wife, Patricia James, who was his constant support in politics and, in the last 11 years of his life, an angel.

Boyes followed up his teaching qualification on a part-time basis with a master's degree in Economics at Bradford University. This enabled him to obtain a research post in Durham County Council's social services department, which led to a position as assistant director of social services, working for Peter Trietline, the pioneering director of social services in Durham.

His eventual successor as MP for Houghton, Fraser Kemp, remembers:

In 1978, as a 19-year-old, I went to the selection meeting for membership of the European Parliament in the Durham Council Chambers. Roland Boyes made an inspirational speech on the need for working people to have representation at every level and his eloquence and passion sticks with me to this day.

As a member of the indirectly elected European Parliament, 1976-79, I continued my contacts with officials of the parliament in the early 1980s. Asked which of the new British directly elected members was making an impact, all of them mentioned Boyes.

As an MEP from 1979, Boyes was well placed in 1983 to succeed to the Houghton and Washington constituency, one of the eight Westminster constituencies in his area, on the retirement of Tom Urwin, who had been chairman of the Trade Union Group and a minister of state in the Wilson government.

Crucially, Boyes had been the secretary of the Easington Constituency Labour Party, which was represented by Jack Dormand, the PLP chairman. Legitimately, Dormand pressed Kinnock for Boyes's early promotion to the front bench as an environment spokesman. This surprised some of his colleagues, because of his reputation for bluster in the House when he first arrived. Even when he was defending his constituents like those threatened by the closure of the Herrington Pit, Boyes could injure his case by being offensive. He had a habit of leading with his chin. On 18 February 1988, I remember, after Douglas Hogg had wound up the proceedings on the prevention of terrorism, Boyes couldn't contain himself:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does not Erskine May state that, once someone goes mad at the Despatch Box, that person is out of order?

The Madam Deputy Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, put him down in seven words:

I am quite familiar with Erskine May.

Partly because he had formed a number of friendships in the American Congress, Neil Kinnock in 1988 appointed Boyes to the frontbench defence team. However, tragedy was about to strike. His friends were puzzled by Boyes's inability to find words and his close friend Sam Galbraith, MP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, himself a distinguished neurosurgeon, in March 1995 persuaded Boyes to go to a London specialist. He was told that he had irreversible Alzheimer's.

From that moment, he set in train an immensely admirable project. He contacted MPs and friends and many others to get together money for research into this terrible disease. He had always been in close touch with the Royal Society for Chemistry and through them made contact with the Institute for Ageing and Health. The result was the financing of an imaging suite, in which there are cameras and microscopes devoted to the work of the Alzheimer's Research Trust Network. Based in Newcastle General Hospital, Dr Elise Rowan conveys how hugely grateful she and her fellow researchers are to Boyes's initiative.

His wife Pat told me:

Roland succumbed to Alzheimer's in 1996. Though he died on Friday, he never knew that there was a Labour government in 1997, or that his parliamentary neighbour Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

Had he not been stricken so cruelly, I believe Boyes would have been an asset to that Labour government.

Tam Dalyell

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