Sir Ralph Howell: Norfolk farmer and Tory MP

Ralph Howell was an outspoken and unashamed right-wing Conservative from farming stock, and a successful farmer in his own right. He recaptured Norfolk North for the Conservative Party in 1970 and held the seat until 1997.

Well-regarded within the party, Howell served on the executive of the 1922 Committee from 1984 until 1990. His main expertise and interest lay in what he saw as the malign interaction of the tax and social security system, which made it more beneficial for half the working population not to work, and he regularly urged the case for raising the tax threshold, publishing a well-argued statement of the case for such a move, Why Work?, in 1976. He became a strong advocate of "workfare" and a stern critic of welfare scroungers.

In 1988, anticipating what was later to become a Blairite policy, he attempted unsuccessfully to introduce a Bill to bring in compulsory national identity cards. He also wanted to block social security payments to newly arrived immigrants and childless couples, and became an advocate of a year's compulsory National Work Service for all school-leavers. More publications followed: Why Not Work? in 1991 and Putting Britain Back to Work in 1995.

His final effort was a Right to Work Bill, introduced in 1996 with support from MPs of all parties. Based on his belief that most unemployed people want to work, it suggested the state should be the employer of last resort, offering work to those who could not find a job. There were moments in the 1980s, particularly when he ousted Jim Lester from the chair of the Conservative backbench employment committee in 1983, when it looked as if his views might prevail. Margaret Thatcher had a considerable regard for him and his ideas, but her ministers were wary and he remained a prophet in the wilderness.

Ralph Frederic Howell was born in 1923 and educated at Diss Grammar School. He joined the RAF in 1941 and served as a navigator and bomb-aimer with Bomber Command. He ended the Second World War a Flight Lieutenant. When he was demobilised in 1946, he began farming, with 90 acres to his name. He ended with an 800-acre holding near Dereham and other holdings. From 1963 until 1980 he served on the Board of the Mid-Norfolk Farmers Trading Company, and in 1973 he became an underwriter at Lloyd's.

He served as the local chairman of the NFU, but alongside his farming interests engaged himself in the Conservative Party. He was the founder chairman of the Dereham Young Conservatives in 1947, and became a leading light of the South West Norfolk Conservative Association, serving as its chairman, 1961-65. He had also been elected to the Mitford and Launditch Rural District Council in 1961.

The Conservatives had lost North Norfolk by 53 votes in the 1964 general election and Howell was chosen in February 1965 to win it back. With the Labour tide running strongly in March 1966, it proved too difficult a task. The Labour majority widened to 737, but Howell was thought to have done well. In 1970 he took the seat by 4,684 and retained it at six general elections before standing down in 1997. In 1974, he was nominated to serve in the European Parliament and served on the assembly of the Council of Europe 1987-97.

Howell served on the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, the Social Services Select Committee and the Employment Select Committee, but his more influential role was played on the backbench committees of the Conservative Party, where he served as vice-chairman and secretary of the Employment Committee before becoming its chairman in 1984. In 1987 he stood down in order to become chairman of the Agriculture Committee, but lost that job a year later when he inadvertently gave his supporters the wrong time for the vote! From 1979 to 1983 he had also been vice-chairman of the backbench Finance Committee, where he proved a strong advocate of tax cuts to be financed by cuts in what he saw as the bloated bureaucracy of the NHS.

Although in most things an orthodox right-winger, arguing for the whites in Southern Rhodesia and the Turks in Northern Cyprus, Howell remained his own man. He was ready to criticise ministers when they had things wrong, and he abstained in protest against the poll tax on many occasions. He sought tougher legislation on the trade unions than James Prior, the Secretary of State for Employment, was ready to contemplate, and was deeply critical of the Government's deal with the trade unions over contracting out in 1984.

Predictably he was a founder member of the 1992 Group, but he enjoyed the respect and a good deal of affection from a much wider constituency in the party as a man who had served country, constituency and party well.

John Barnes

Ralph Frederic Howell, politician and farmer: born 25 May 1923; MP (Conservative) for North Norfolk 1970-97; Member of the European Parliament 1974-79; Kt 1993; married 1950 Margaret Bone (died 2005; two sons, one daughter); died Norwich 14 February 2008.

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