TRIBUTES IN THE COMMONS

28 February 2000

Madam Speaker (Betty Boothroyd): I regret to have to report to the House the death of Mr Michael Colvin, Member for Romsey, together with the death of his wife Nichola. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will join me in mourning the loss of Michael and Nichola and in extending our deep sympathy to their family and their friends.

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Peter Ainsworth MP (Conservative, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport): May I associate myself with the remarks about Michael Colvin? Among his many other talents, he was a very accomplished artist, and he did a great deal of work on behalf of the arts, both locally and across the country. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have their own memories of Michael. I came to know him best through his work for the arts. I am quite sure that the entire House will join me in sending our heartfelt sympathy to Michael and Nichola's family on this tragedy.

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Alan Howarth MP (Labour, Minister for the Arts): I should like to say that I have the happiest of memories of a visit to York with Michael and Nichola Colvin, and with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) who is in the Chamber. We went to look at the heritage in York, and it was a very happy day. Michael and Nichola were great lovers of heritage, and the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Ainsworth) was absolutely right to make that important point in the House on this particular day.

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John Spellar MP (Labour, Minister for the Armed Forces): I pay tribute to the late hon. Member for Romsey, Michael Colvin. Hon. Members of all parties will, I know, be shocked and saddened by the news of the tragic fire at his home last week. The House will recall that he served with great distinction as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence from 1995 until the general election in 1997, and continued to play an important role in the Committee after that. Indeed, hon. Members will recall that only last Tuesday, on the first day of this debate, he spoke for 25 minutes and remarked that he had been sorry to leave the Committee. We are all saddened that his contribution is lost not only to the Committee but to the House, and our thoughts are with his family.

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Iain Duncan Smith MP (Conservative, Shadow Defence Secretary): With your indulgence, Madam Speaker, I would like to follow that up and say how shocked and horrified Conservative Members were to see the pictures and to understand, finally, by the weekend, that our hon. Friend and his wife, who were both much liked in the party, had perished in the fire. It is especially poignant for me as I listened with interest to his speech and had a small conversation with him afterwards about some points that he raised and also about his hopes and desires for defence and his involvement in it, notwithstanding the fact that he was no longer to be on the Select Committee.

I agree entirely with the Minister's comments. Michael Colvin was liked and respected throughout the House, and especially by his friends and colleagues. During the past few days I have read in newspapers that he never made it to ministerial office, as though that were some badge of dishonour. I am sure that it was not meant like that, but I want to say for the record that, for us in the House and for the general public, being a Back Bencher who is good at the job is just as important as being a Minister, if not more so. That is a badge of honour that he takes with him.

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Menzies Campbell MP (Liberal Democrat Front Bench Spokesman): On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I associate myself with the tributes that have been paid from both Front Benches. Michael Colvin was a man of great personal charm and distinction. I had the honour to serve with him on the Defence Committee for seven years, during which time I got to know both him and his wife. We will remember him in his prime last Tuesday. His passing is something that the whole House will regret very deeply.

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Terry Davis MP (Labour): Michael Colvin was a member of the delegations to both the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. As leader of the delegation, I offer the sympathy of all its members to the family of Michael and Nichola Colvin. Michael Colvin was highly respected in the House for his knowledge, expertise, experience and interest in defence matters. In recent years, as a member of our delegation, he had become equally respected at international level. Indeed, very recently he was elected the leader of federated group of Conservatives and Christian Democrats in the Western European Union Assembly. That was evidence of the respect in which he was held by the members of the Conservative and Christian Democrat groups. He was also widely respected by members of other political groups. I served on the same committees as Michael Colvin and we got to know each other through travelling together to meetings. He embodied the saying that, although people on the other side of the House may be opponents, they are not enemies. The whole delegation will also miss Nichola Colvin, who often came with Michael to our meetings and took a great interest in the work of the delegation. She was a lively person and we shall all miss both of them very much.

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Bruce George MP (Labour, Chairman, Defence Select Committee): I was touched by the generous obituaries offered by my colleagues for our good friend Michael Colvin. He served on the Defence Committee since July 1992. In 1995, he became the Committee's Chairman, and, after the 1997 general election, he served as my deputy Chairman. Last month, he left the Defence Committee. The death of Michael and his wife is a tragedy not only for his constituents and his constituency association, but for Parliament and the House of Commons Defence Committee. I should like to express the Committee's commiseration and sadness. Michael Colvin's contribution in monitoring the Executive was immense. He was obeyed, even in a trench or in a tent. He was so elegant, but also so wonderful – partly because of his military background – in expressing to members of the military how much the Committee empathised with them. He was a splendid Chairman. I was not able to hear Michael Colvin's final speech, in which he complimented the Defence Committee almost as though he were describing the end of one phase of his life. He said:

'I am sorry to have left the Committee.' [Official Report, 22 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1444.]

If only we had realised that not only had he left the Committee, but that he would be leaving Parliament and life. The death of Michael and his wife is a matter of immense sadness to me. I am still stunned by the news. However, his memory will for ever live strongly and positively in my mind. Michael Colvin always stressed the Committee's importance in providing, and always sustaining, constructive criticism and consensus .... Many of the reports produced under Michael Colvin's chairmanship were very critical of the Conservative Government, and that tradition, which began 20 years ago, is being maintained. He paid tribute to the staff, the advisers and everyone involved with the Committee, and we are all deeply grateful .... Those of us who go to the funeral or memorial service for Michael Colvin will have heavy hearts. We will thank him profoundly for all that he did, and remember him and his beautiful and vivacious wife very fondly.

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Tom King MP (Conservative, former Defence Secretary): I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr George). All hon. Members will appreciate his warm and sincere tribute to Michael Colvin, a dearly loved colleague – whom the House will miss very much. Friday morning's announcement of the tragic deaths of Michael and his wife will have shocked us all. It is an extraordinary feeling to begin the second day of a debate without Michael Colvin, whose contribution to the first day's proceedings was exactly what one would expect – well informed, concerned, and passionately interested in the subject. It is a measure of his standing in the House – he became Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence in 1995, and so had to speak for hon. Members of all parties – that he had just recently been made chairman of the European group. That was typical of the respect and admiration in which he was held.

It is one of the sadnesses of this House that awful accidents from time to time happen to people whom one has got to know extremely well. For example, over the door into the Chamber, I can see the coat of arms of another colleague, Airey Neave, whom we lost 20 years ago. We shall remember Michael Colvin as an hon. Member of outstanding quality and integrity.

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Frank Cook MP (Labour): For several years, Michael Colvin was president of the Palace of Westminster rifle club. I am captain of that organisation. The Members and staff who belong to the club would not forgive me if I neglected to add their tributes to the sterling service that Michael gave for a long time. Many tributes have been made – they were stunning; I do not have the eloquence to match them. Michael and Nichola did not need eloquence; they were eloquence and elegance personified. They displayed great humanity, compassion and care for everyone who crossed their path. They will be greatly missed.

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Nicholas Soames MP (Conservative): I start by joining colleagues from both sides of the House in paying tribute to Michael and Nichola Colvin. Michael Colvin chaired the Select Committee on Defence when I was Minister of State for the Armed Forces. His courtesy and consideration, as well as his firmness and profound knowledge, had a deep impact on me. We all mourn the loss in the most tragic circumstances of someone who brought great expertise to his subject. I shall not say anything further; the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr George), who is the current Chairman of the Select Committee, said it all.

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Dr Julian Lewis MP (Conservative): Many tributes have been paid to Michael and Nichola for their work in Parliament. I inherited most of Michael's former constituents, and I want to place on record that the kindness that Michael and Nichola showed me and continued to show other new candidates was exceptional. It can truly be said of them that they 'were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided'.

Mr Soames: I could not do better than that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for all of us.

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Doug Henderson MP (Labour): I add my tribute to the late Michael Colvin and his wife. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr George) eloquently put into words much of what those of us in the House who knew him have been feeling over the past few days. I have happy memories of visits to the Balkans made with Michael and my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), when we saw all those qualities that have been mentioned. He was well informed, committed and determined, and he communicated those qualities with the greatest charm which endeared him to people not only in the House but everywhere in life.

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Martin Bell MP (Independent): As always, I shall be extremely brief. With the death of Michael Colvin, the House has lost one of the dwindling band of Members who have served in the military and seen active service. That is a loss not just to the House, but to the armed services.

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John Wilkinson MP (Conservative): Perhaps because both my grandfathers were parsons, I feel moved to preface my remarks with a text. It reads:

'I remind the House that the defence of the realm is the paramount responsibility of any Government. Defence policy cannot be determined by Treasury diktat .... Will he'

the Secretary of State

'stand up to the Treasury and demonstrate Britain's lead in Europe by reversing the damaging cuts in the defence budget? We owe that to our armed forces, which remain the best in the world.[Official Report, 22 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1448.]'

Those wise last words are the ever-relevant and classically fitting parliamentary epitaph of our late hon. and gallant Friend, Michael Colvin. His political wisdom was a measure not of his specialist knowledge alone, but of his profound personal experience, human sympathy and understanding, and willingness to listen as much as to speak out.

Michael bore his military professionalism lightly. His formative years as a cadet at Sandhurst, and later in the Grenadiers overseas – at Suez, in Cyprus and in Berlin – set him apart as someone who spoke only when he knew his subject. Few of us understood the international and industrial dimensions of defence better than he did. The phrase defence diplomacy is often used today. Michael, and his inseparable Nichola, made friends for Britain wherever they went. Their untimely and tragic death impoverishes all of us.

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Julian Brazier MP (Conservative): I join others in paying a brief tribute to a remarkable colleague. Michael Colvin was the last member of the Defence Committee to have served in action – coincidentally in an operation in which my father took part. He was a distinguished colleague, a very kind man and a good friend to many of us on both sides of the House. The way in which he and Nichola died is, as many have said, a tragedy that the whole House mourns.

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Mike Gapes MP (Labour): I concur with all the remarks made about Michael Colvin. I did not know him as well as some other people did, but I always found him a most amenable and intelligent man. He is a great loss to the House.

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Andrew Hunter MP (Conservative): To continue in the same vein as other right hon. and hon. Members, I associate myself with, and endorse, the tributes that have been paid to, Michael Colvin. He and Nichola were good friends to me for 25 years or so. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I grieve at their death, and I shall miss them very greatly indeed.

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Laura Moffatt MP (Labour): I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate. I cannot possibly make my speech without saying a word or two about Michael Colvin, whom I considered to be my hon. Friend. He was a delightful Member. I speak on behalf of women Members, because my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and I were the first two women ever to serve on the Select Committee on Defence. After more than three decades, the Committee was a boy zone – to say the least – so it was a tricky one for us to join. Michael Colvin was delightful. He complimented us on our contribution to the Committee not only in the Chamber, but privately. I shall never forget that, because he made our service to the Committee much more special – he made us feel valued. I shall remember him always. I cannot imagine the pain that his family is going through.

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Gerald Howarth MP (Conservative): I should like to start by paying my tribute to Michael Colvin. As many hon. Members have said, he was an outstanding and unfailingly courteous man. Unfortunately, I could not attend last week's debate because I was dining with a senior RAF officer, but I read Michael Colvin's contribution and it was, as ever, extremely well informed. He had immense knowledge and a deep love of the subject, as well as a deep love of his country and the countryside. I had the great pleasure of staying a night with Michael Colvin and Mrs. C – as he always used to refer to his wife – at Tangley House, which they adored. It was not only a lovely house but a lovely home, where two wonderful people lived. It is a great loss for the country, the constituency and the House.

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Mike Hancock MP (Liberal Democrat): I join others in expressing my deep regret at the deaths of Michael Colvin and his wife Nichola. I knew Michael Colvin for nearly 30 years, from when he was first elected to Hampshire County Council. During my time as leader of that council, he and the late former Member of Parliament for Eastleigh, Stephen Milligan, were usually the only Members of Parliament who readily supported the council when necessary. Michael Colvin supported many ventures in the county of Hampshire. He will be missed here, in his constituency, and in Europe, and I stress that Hampshire has lost a staunch supporter. I am sure that the county will at some stage want to record its regret at his death and its deepest appreciation of the part that he played in its life.

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Rachel Squire MP (Labour): I echo the tributes paid to Michael Colvin, who was truly a gallant and honourable gentleman. I also express my deep sympathy to his family, and that of his wife.

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Robert Key MP (Conservative, Shadow Defence Minister): Many tributes have been paid to my honourable and gallant neighbour, Michael Colvin, and his wife. Because he was my constituency neighbour, I would like to add mine. Almost everything has been said that could be said, but I want to add one thing. We grieve, but there is something else: Michael and Nichola were just such fun. We should not forget that. With his unfailing courtesy, generosity, chivalry and cheerfulness in adversity, he was beholden to no man and to one woman: Nichola.