obituaries : Lord Collison

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The Independent Online
Harold Collison, former General Secretary of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, was a man dedicated to the improvement of the working and living conditions of rural workers. Although the NUAW's name referred to agricultural workers it included virtually every worker engaged in rural activities - from poultry and forestry workers to gamekeepers and county council roadmen.

Collison's political leanings were more of the Tony Blair than the Michael Foot persuasion, but he was a dedicated Labour supporter of firm trade unions and he had no hesitation in expressing his views.

Elected as General Secretary on the death of Alf Dann in 1953, he took over the leadership of the union at a critical time as the agricultural labour force was commencing a dramatic numerical decline which has continued rapidly ever since. Inevitably union membership similarly fell, but Collison, like his successors, made every conceivable effort to recruit members despite the falling numbers of potential recruits.

He was born in London in 1909 and first attended Hay Currie LCC School, Poplar, and then the Crypt School, Gloucester, until he was 17 years of age. He started work on a farm in Gloucester as a poultryman and later became a general farmworker. He joined the union and was immediately an active member; in 1941 became the Secretary of its Gloucester County Committee. He also gave his time to the Labour Party, acting as the Stroud Branch Secretary.

In 1946 he obtained employment in the head office of the union in Grays Inn Road, London, and began travelling the country, attending hundreds of recruiting meetings. He became one of the best-known figures in rural trade unionism and, by the time of the 1953 election for the position of General Secretary, he topped the poll with a substantial majority.

At the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress the same year Collison was elected on to the TUC's General Council. He was regularly re-elected on to the General Council every year and in September 1964 he was elected to the position of Chairman of the TUC.

A problem of continuous dispute and acrimony between the National Farmers' Union (NFU) and the NUAW had been, almost from time immemorial, the existence of the agricultural tied cottage which enabled an employer to sack a worker and gain almost immediate possession of the cottage, even if the worker had no alternative accommodation available. Harold Collison attacked this problem with vigour and although during his period of office he was not successful in seeing this scourge removed from the agricultural scene he nevertheless laid the foundation of the 1977 Act of Parliament which eventually eased a lot of the difficulties.

In 1965, at the invitation of the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, Harold Collison was raised to the House of Lords, taking the title of Baron Collison. During this period, in addition to his work as General Secretary of the NUAW (which became by the end of his tenure the NUAAW, the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers), he was a member of the TUC and of the International Labour Organisation (TLO), meeting in Geneva, where he was able to become involved in assisting rural workers throughout the world.

He resigned as General Secretary in August 1969 to take up the position of Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. He continued to devote his time and energies to the House of Lords although failing health during the past few years made him less active. The annual dinner of the British Socialist Agriculrural Society was always held in the Lords under his patronage.

Jack Boddy

Harold Francis Collison, trade unionist: born London 10 May 1909; General Secretary, National Union of Agricultural Workers 1953-69; member, TUC General Council 1953-69, Chairman 1964-65; Chairman, Social Insurance and Industrial Welfare Committee, TUC 1957-69; President, International Federation of Plantation, Agricultural and Allied Workers 1960-76; CBE 1961; created 1964 Baron Collison; Chairman, Supplementary Benefits Commission 1969-75; President, Association of Agriculture 1976-84; married 1946 Ivy Hanks; died 29 December 1995.