Obituary:Terry Patchett

Click to follow
The Independent Online
That any man or woman today should become a member of the House of Commons reluctantly and, not to exaggerate, against their will, is a rare occurrence. To inherit a 17,500 majority in a safe seat such as Barnsley East in a bad year for a party such as 1983 would be the envy of any Labour hopeful. Yet, Terry Patchett was indeed a reluctant MP.

In Barnsley, history was repeating itself. In 1951 when Frank Collindridge died after he had been nominated during the election campaign there was the hurried selection of Sidney Schofield. In an election a month after the general election, Schofield had a 28,227 majority; yet in March 1953, after some 18 months' experience of the Commons, he insisted on resigning his seat because he did not like Westminster (and in doing so he made possible the long political career of another miner, Roy Mason, now Lord Mason of Barnsley).

In early 1982 Edwin (Ned) Wainwright, the long-serving MP for Dearne Valley, confirmed that he was retiring. At that time Patchett, the National Union of Mineworkers delegate at the huge Houghton Main Colliery since 1966 and a member of the Yorkshire Miners' Executive inner circle since 1977, had the ambition of becoming miners' agent for the Barnsley area of Yorkshire.

Arthur Scargill, the NUM President, was well disposed towards Patchett personally, but Patchett was not his choice for the crucial position of miners' agent; he wanted Derek Reeves. So what better than to hand Patchett the membership of the House of Commons for Dearne Valley as a consolation prize for not becoming miners' agent? Besides, I am told by a then young delegate who was himself present (and is now a parliamentary colleague), at the crucial miners' meeting the feeling had been expressed under "Any other business": "Ned Wainwright was ours: it's a miner's seat; we've a right to Dearne Valley." Patchett demurred. However, disappointed not to be made miners' agent for Barnsley, he caved in and became parliamentary candidate for Dearne Valley. A year later, in May 1983, on boundary changes, he was re-selected for the newly created Barnsley East seat, comprising one-third of the former Dearne Valley constituency, and two-thirds of old Hemsworth.

Patchett confided to his friends that he did not care for the life of the House of Commons and that the Chamber in particular was not to his taste. He said that when he had a Prime Minister's Question Time question on the order paper he could hardly get a wink of sleep the night before. Yet when he did ask a question he tended to be effective as it came from the heart - I never heard Patchett make a juvenile, malign, or silly statement in the House. He thought he owed it to the Yorkshire mining community to represent them with dignity, and he did just that. The House of Commons was better for having this honourable man among so many obsessed politicians.

On arrival he opposed strongly the publication of the memoirs of the Yorkshire Ripper and his family, feeling that crime should not pay. In his maiden speech he launched serious criticism of the Petroleum Royalties (Relief) Bill. He labelled it an "indirect subsidy to the oil industry" whose "extreme cost will be borne by the taxpayer through the cost of the dole". He said its function was "to bring the National Union of Mineworkers to its knees at any price". Patchett condemned the double standards of those who bad-mouthed Arthur Scargill but sang the praises from the tree- tops of Lech Walesa for doing precisely the same thing - defending his trade union.

The 1984 miners' strike was an agony for Patchett. He was fervently loyal to the NUM but appalled at what the strike was doing to the community which had cradled him and in whose service he had spent his life. He told me that he had been assaulted on the picket line by the police in April 1984 for giving no provocation whatsoever. I expressed astonishment, pointing out that in Scotland there had been no such trouble in my constituency because many of the police themselves came from mining families and knew that they had to live with the miners after the strike. I have never seen Patchett so furious. He pointed out that it was not the Yorkshire Police who had done this to him but arrogant young puppies sent up from the Metropolitan Police, who knew nothing about the North of England. If Margaret Thatcher is surprised that some people hated her so vehemently she need look no further than a decent man like Terry Patchett and his reaction to what he saw as her making a difficult situation worse for her own, not even her party's, political advantage.

Patchett spent most of 1985 and subsequent years on the select committee on the Social Services, where he was a conscientious and valuable colleague. He was particularly incensed about the shut-down of his local colliery, Darfield Main. I remember his talking to his colleagues quietly, as was his wont, about a level of crime which had never occurred in South Yorkshire pre-strike and what on earth he should do about a schoolmate, a murdering rapist, freed from a top security mental hospital. He asked us whether he should advocate the return of this man to the community in which the parents of his victim still lived.

Patchett campaigned vigorously against the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill designed to increase the possibility of importing foreign coal. Why should skilled Yorkshire miners go unemployed while 14-year-olds in Colombia or elsewhere were ruthlessly exploited when they should be at school? He urged the Government to reconsider ending the provision of finance to the pressurised fluidised coal combustion at Grimethorpe in November 1988 and held up to ridicule the Bill to privatise electricity as guarding nuclear power against competition and allowing competition for cheaper power only among big companies.

He saw as mad the closure of the reserve-rich Barnburgh Colliery in his constituency and made the charge that safety rules would be watered down. As one who had been active on appeal committees on behalf of the NUM, he probably knew more about mining safety than any other recent member of the House of Commons. This experience is often more valuable than great eloquence.

Terry Patchett may have thought that his time in the House of Commons had been a mistake. His colleagues take a rather different view: that he was a valuable and increasingly unusual contributor to the democratic process.

The last occasion Patchett saw the Palace of Westminster was when he was counted through the lobby at 10 o'clock on 26 February 1996 when the Government won by 320 to 319 votes on the Scott Report. It was typical of his courage and loyalty that he should, against doctors' advice and with no pressure from the Labour whips, have insisted on risking his life to turn up.

Tam Dalyell

Terry Patchett, miner and politician: born Darfield, South Yorkshire 11 July 1940; member, Wombwell District Council 1969-73; Houghton Main NUM Branch delegate, Yorkshire Miner's Executive 1976-83; MP (Labour) for Barnsley East 1983-96; married 1961 Glenys Veal (one son, two daughters); died 11 October 1996.

Comments