A LITTLE HELP FROM THE LORD
28th October: an outstanding day in my life; Radio WM arrived to interview me live for the 7 am news - taxi to News Street early expensive train - Euston taxi to the House of Lords and it was not necessary to knock on the appropriate door, pointed out by the driver. I was expected; spotted before entering and was asked my name - addressed as Sir, relieved of my brief case, conducted to a cloak room by two flunkies, asked to take off my coat, which was placed on a hanger there was a place to hang up ones sword but, I didnt do that. I was taken back to the foyer, an old, almost medieval, immaculate carved ancient oak, high ceilinged with the most magnificent, giant fire place that over the ages had burnt huge coals and timbers to pollute the historic capital but now emulated its past with trick lighting effects here as everywhere you could sit for hours and still discover something new. My brief case was handed back.
Baron Denis Herbert Howell of Aston Manor in the City of Birmingham was informed of my arrival by a loyal servant in this Royal Palace of Westminster. My Lordship welcomed and escorted me to a fascinating, antiquated, wrought iron caged lift here we met up with ex-Lord Chancellor Hailsham; he was hundreds of years old and partly incorporated with this wonderful contraption, the furniture and everything else when they were installed, hundreds of years ago. He would live till the next century. He was so jocular, familiar and friendly and immediately offered the limited lift place to us. We knew three portly gentlemen could not wedge themselves in that small space and would it take our combined weight? Anyhow we returned the courtesy and Denis reverently eased him, by himself into the confined space, pressed the buttons, waved him up and whilst we waited for the empty cage to return.
We stepped out into the most exquisite lounge in the world; it is both ultra-modern and antique in fascinating contrast the clientele certainly of the latter because in the corner was another ancient structure, Lord Longford; he was hosting four or five young men and women. There were other familiar figures from the past but I could not give them names.
What would you like a drink, Michael?
Ill have a whiskey, please. Now it would have been great to stay all day and drink pint after pint of beer but I was very conscious that I was about to perform an important mission; at 69 years my bladder was not strong and my weakness could be grossly inconvenient in the next hour or two.
Single or double? Opportunity conflicted with common sense. I have never drunk whiskey mid day and have never drunk mid day at all when driving, broadcasting or anything requiring utmost concentration another thing what about the perception of those you were about to address?
Ill have a double, please.
You are wise, I happen to know this is a specially ordered consignment and it is perfection Ill have the same.
An immaculately dressed young lady came to our table and asked what she could get for us. Denis addressed her by her first name.
Two double whiskeys please and would you mind getting me a pair of braces? My mind boggled and I added up the time of her travelling to a store and back within an hour- and then I thought what the hell goes on in this place asking a girl like this to go and buy braces? But she brought the drinks, was off again and back within minutes. She had been to the parliamentary shop no cash had changed hands; it was all on the tab. Denis said,
Youll have to excuse me.
I waited and waited, admiring the settings and human relics and contented myself with micro sips of this wonderful liquid it must not be finished until my host returned. After twenty minutes I became concerned. Waiting did not matter just absorb the atmosphere and catch as much physical detail as possible you couldnt be caught staring and I had to conjecture who these people were a number knew who I was. Denis came back ill and I knew he had a serious heart condition. In contrast it was so funny, but one could not laugh. He had come without his belt and his trousers kept dropping. He had tried to put his brand new braces on without taking his trousers off and got most dreadfully mixed up, eventually landing on the floor and luckily rescued.
Denis was exhausted but the whiskey brought him round and after twenty minutes suggested we made our way to lunch. We were met, bowed to and escorted to our table. We had a glass of wine, that and water that was all I allowed myself together with the fish main course only. Denis talked freely. He had been in both the Wilson and Callaghan cabinets and was proud to mention it. Of course was of the right, asserted his support for nuclear disarmament and wasnt interested in my view about anything I was so interested in any morsel of history that I let him go on. Then he said if I wanted any cup final tickets to let him know early (he would not live till the next final). My principled objection did not matter as I would only go to the cup final if the Baggies were playing and as season ticket holders we would have our allocation. Interestingly enough we had drawn the Villa at Villa Park in the next round of the FA Cup gratifyingly he thought we would win.
A few days later I was at the Hawthorns before 6am - three hours before the tickets were on sale - I was too late you had to be there at mid night. I estimated queuing till mid day rough estimates indicated the ticket supply would not be enough. At 11am when the supply did dry up good job I had gone home. So Denis came in useful he was or had been on the Villa Board he got me a couple (I had to pay) the trouble was they were for the home fans end. Chris and Andrew took them with glee even though they had to dress in plain clothes, minus their Albion gear, and keep quiet when Albion scored. You must be joking about scoring, of course not much hope of that it was the end of 1997 cup dreams for the Baggies.
But, at my very famous lunch in the House of Lords, Denis was sure Albion would win very gentlemanly. Sporting and fine - cuz I ated the Villa.
It was getting near to K.O. time for the House of Lords afternoon session and Denis got up only to collapse into his seat his face was contorted and he was in obvious pain,
Michael, Im in trouble, cannot move I shall be quite sometime. I thought immediately of poor Captain Oats in the Antarctic who must have looked better than Denis, and then fast forwarded my mental clock 85 years to the present day. Oh my God, the man is going to die on me this is headline news, this occasion the stuff in my early morning news bulletin spot. When I had given Carlton an interview yesterday, the journalist carefully warned not to say tomorrow as it was for broadcast today. There had been plenty of previous coverage to our impending meeting with the minister.
Denis, just take your time Ill go to the loo. I did not express my desires in the Aston vernacular. It is nice to see where the big knobs hang out but it had been modernised since Prince Alberts day.
Now, I honour my fellow members of the working class and would always defer to a waiter busy in his duties. I tell you the flunkies in this place see you coming, whatever they are carrying they draw into the side, bow their heads and call you sir; it makes you sick. Upon my return Denis had pulled himself together and I help him get unsteadily to his feet.
(I surreptitiously took the half dozen, individually wrapped with House of Lords crested black chocolates from a little dish. Chris and Andrew pounced on these and first taste spat them out they were EU approved; the taste of pure chocolate was not familiar to children as was the milk variety, rejected with distaste as impure by the Brussels Commission.
It was but a short walk down the ornate corridor. Denis said,
Keep your eye on me and when I give you the nod, get up and Ill meet you in the corridor.
I made my way to the small, Strangers door and was led to a small, ornately defined enclosure at right angles to the official seats containing a couple of benches for six people. Denis had just sat down facing me on the opposite side of the gangway not very far away. The whole place was so tiny, and my host spotted me but showed not sign of recognition, he had timed his entrance exactly, although prayers had just concluded. Strange really and I thought he had been on the point of dying he was establishment C of E.
There was a hell of noise raucous shouting and pandemonium declaring a new member a new member about to be introduced double doors to my left were flung open and in comes the new guy flanked by his proposer and seconder and probably a Garter King at Arms or something (he was an official to make sure everything was done right and proper, according to tradition. They were in full regalia and within a few feet of me. They made their way to the Lord Chancellor, sitting on his traditional Woolsack, doffed their hats three times and the Garter King bawled out the name of the newcomer and other verbiage in Norman French and the proceeded to an empty seat where it was proposed the new lad should sit when through the cap doffing procedure to it guided their new colleague to sit on it and then doffed caps to hip. At this point he was truly a lord. This ceremony was dropped and I was one of the last to suffer it. I sighed with relief and Denis caught my eye and indicated it was time to leave he had qualified for his attendance allowance. I stood up and stepped into the aisle and was immediately hurled to the ground by flunkies and pinned down on the floor. I was able to raise my head and hear the entrance of another new guy. Denis Healey, the proposer passed by and I became the first to observe his bushy eyebrows from the ground. When they had reached the Lord Chancellor the flunkies carefully raised me to my feet, apologised profusely and asked if I was hurt, and dusted me down, quite unnecessarily as everything was scrupulously clean. I found Denis fretting and impatient, demanding why I had not come out when he requested as time was getting on. I just said,
Sorry. Taxis were waiting by the exit and we made the short journey to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) headed by John Prescott. We were expected of course, security checked and issued with a pass it was IRA terror we were afraid of then and we were taken to a waiting room. Lynne Jones, my own MP, Chris Mullen and Dale Campbell- Savours were already there.
I pulled a nineteen-twenties Socialist Sunday School, hymn book from my brief case and explained it had been signed by many venerated Labour people including a young Michael Foot 68 years before he became leader (and an updated one when he did). They all signed it; strange though that we had not asked Denis to do that, many years ago.
We were led into a large room with a large rectangular table with a dozen or so legal, planning advisors and civil servants, the principal one was Julie Richardson; I came to know her well but as she crops up later in my story I will tell you more then. Angela Eagle was sitting at its head; she quickly welcomed Denis and the three MPs. When Labour was defeated eighteen years previously Denis had left this very department, then under another name. He continued as an MP and shadow sports minister for thirteen years before his appointment to the Lords. He tried to dominate the proceedings, but Angela insisted on welcoming me warmly; everyone had been following my case in the media and recognised me. However Denis started off demanding blanket control on all hedge heights with fines for non-compliance. It was a simplistic solution, loved by the media that hundreds plagued me with as the policy for our campaign. A little walk along a leafy suburban street, Deniss own would do, asking which hedges would or would not be legal that would demolish any case for such a law. The Civil Servants quickly dismissed that proposal and Denis said very little afterwards. The three MPs floundered but failed to come up with any convincing suggestions even though they had constituents suffering badly from nuisance; this included Lynne.
I had won my court case on the basis of the Bournville Trust Covenant a hedge along the boundary is a party hedge but this was scarcely a basis of legislation for all a lawyers paradise, yes; but victims demanded justice without lengthy, expensive litigation. That was the purpose of our representation. Angela then amazed, distressed and annoyed me.
We have not had that many letters from the public that would indicate a significant problem, certainly not as many as complaints as against security flood lights. I took this very seriously. My post bag was full and the phone was ringing all the time. Every caller and every writer were answered with demands to write, phone and attend their MPs surgery and demand in turn that they ask the minister for legislation. I could tell by the tone of the response of my callers that the effectiveness of my proposed action was not believed. Too often, even with the well educated there was not the slightest idea of how, why or when a bill was drafted and made its way to law through the parliamentary process. Frequently the victim said their MP was useless. This was rarely the case and many a constituent was surprised at the assiduousness of their parliamentary member eased along by an enthusiastic media. I was a lone voice at the end of a telephone and although in touch with a score or so every day I realised with dismay what a long, long way I had to go before making an impact with this secretary of state and her department. The minister went on,
Nevertheless, I am concerned about only one victim of injustice.
Finally the words came from the Minister that will reverberate forever in my years.
Michael, will you tell us what you want?
I want the best and cleverest brains in the country to draft a law that will stop bullies such as my neighbour from making the lives of my family and me and dragging us through the courts for years under the threat of losing our home.
Tell us in a very few words what he did. I explained the Stanton misery, although everyone in the room had seen him and his hedge and I concluded by
And now his second row of Leylandii, has reached nuisance height, which he believes is beyond the scope of the Bournville Trust covenant. Angela was profoundly affected by my words
This is anti-social behaviour by a neighbour and Im off to the home office in the morning to see if this sort of thing can be included in the bill Jack Straw is bringing before parliament. This startled all of us five delegates a peer, three MPs and me a victim because we had a brand new approach. The civil servants were loud in their protests.
Minister, you cant possibly do that.
You cant but I can and will because I am the minister and you are not. She had amazing foresight because six years later, almost to the day the high hedges legislation became part 8 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill 2003. This was a Mark 2 bill because we failed to get anything into the 1998 Crime and Disorder bill; Jack Straw would have none of it.
Denis was exhausted and drew the meeting to a conclusion; no one objected. Five of us gathered together to make our way to the lift. Chris Mullin said to me,
Will you please, stop that bloody woman, my constituent, from getting on to me, she thinks I dont care, I do care but she doesnt realise there is nothing I can do about it. In the lift Dale Campbell- Savours said to his fellow MPs,
We must pin Jack Straw down in the corridor.
Taxis were available outside I got into one with Denis; at Euston he said,
My free travel warrant is first class.
My ticket is third class but I will upgrade it if you want to talk. He said it wasnt necessary, but didnt offer to get aboard with me. I was happy at that; I wanted a couple of cans of lager and space to think. Denis had fulfilled his obligation to get a meeting with the Minister. His campaigning life was now complete and I would not have been surprised if told he had less than five months to live. He would not be capable of steering private members legislation through the Upper House. I put a cheque for £25 in the post. He had told some of my fellow campaigners who were making demands on him that he was paid by the public purse; peers only got expense allowances. I rang him up a couple of weeks after to ask him to get tickets for a second round cup match Villa v Albion. Next day he asked me to call to collect them (with the money) and that was the last time I saw him alive. I wanted four tickets but he had imagined they were for Maureen and I; Chris and Andy were grateful even to sit in plain colours amongst the Villa fans and see the Albion lose. Ian managed a single ticket bought from a friend.
Denis regarded his contribution to the hedge nuisance campaign to be over; he was convinced the publicity of Stanton v Jones, and the media publicity so far would, combined with the firm intention of the Minister, that legislation would surely follow. Gone was his enthusiasm to introduce his own bill in the House of Lords; he was a very tired man and as I had observed, a very poorly one. My experience at the Ministry proved that truly massive publicity would be required. I later received the formal information that the government would not introduce legislation. The new government simply did not have the time. Angelas civil servants protests served no purpose as the Home Office had no intention of deeming hedge nuisance as anti-social behaviour; it did not stop Lynne Jones pestering Jack Straw as he was trying t introduce his bill into the Commons. We did find out that Angela had instructed her staff to lay hedge nuisance proposals on her desk by the end of the summer. By that time, a cabinet re-shuffle took place and another minister was in her job - she had received side-ways promotion. At 1998 summers end the only hedge proposals at (the then) DETR were for some tens of thousand pounds for consultation and propaganda leaflets; residents were persuaded to grow the right kind of hedge and not annoy their neighbour. It is so sad that Angela was not around to see that the money was adventitiously spent.