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Speaker’s Statement

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 13 April 2021

I regret to have to report to the House the death of the right honourable Cheryl Gillan, the Member for Chesham and Amersham. I know hon. Members in all parts of the House, including the Deputy Speakers, are, like myself, in shock. They were great friends of Dame Cheryl. I know the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the right honourable Member’s family and friends.

Cheryl was a Member of this House for nearly 30 years. In that time she made an outstanding contribution from both the Back Benches and the Front Benches, and as the first woman to be appointed as Secretary of State for Wales. She was a doughty defender of her constituents’ interests, most notably in her long campaign against the High Speed 2 rail line, and she was the champion of the private Member’s Bill that led to the Autism Act 2009. Above all, she will be remembered as a friend and mentor to many Members—especially new Members—on all sides of the House.

I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to five former Members who passed away while the House was in recess: Peter Ainsworth, Ian Gibson, Robert Howarth, Paul Marland and Baroness Williams of Crosby. Our thoughts are with their families.

I will now take brief points of order to allow for tributes to our esteemed colleague.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know the family will appreciate your words. As the House knows, Cheryl passed away on 4 April, courageously fighting against the odds with cheerfulness and bravery.

Cheryl, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), now a Deputy Speaker, and I came into the House together 29 years ago and became firm friends. I attended the funeral of her beloved husband Jack in 2019 and I was in touch with her throughout her illness. It is with enormous sadness that I am privileged to pay tribute to such a special person.

After several jobs in the Conservative Opposition years, Cheryl was appointed Secretary of State for Wales and was much respected for singing the Welsh national anthem in the Welsh language. After leaving Cabinet, as you said, Mr Speaker, she stepped up her opposition to HS2. There was not a debate or question in this House on the matter where she did not speak. After the House changed the rules, on 19 January this year, Cheryl was able to make her final speech, fittingly, on consideration of Lords amendments to the High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Bill. Despite her advancing illness, she was in her usual feisty form, denigrating the whole HS2 project. I know that the opportunity meant a huge amount to her. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing the House to change the rules.

As you said, Cheryl campaigned alongside autistic people and their families for many years and successfully introduced the Autism Act 2009. She was also a champion for people with epilepsy, raising the profile of the condition throughout her parliamentary work. Cheryl rejoined the Public Accounts Committee after the 2019 election and many a permanent secretary feared the force of Cheryl’s direct and well-informed questions, but it was working with Cheryl on the 1922 executive, so ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), that I observed her real qualities. Her bright mind always enabled her to calmly put things into perspective and provide quiet, sensible and sound advice. She had a real sense of caring for people, particularly when they were in difficult or sad circumstances. She would always be there, offering them words of comfort.

In saying farewell to Cheryl—her family and friends, her constituents and staff—the whole House has lost one of its hardest working Members. She had an enormously generous heart. She was always prepared to have a kindly word for anyone in trouble. Above all, she was a fierce and effective defender of the interests of her constituents in Chesham and Amersham. People such as Cheryl, who enter politics for the very best of reasons, are rare indeed and she will be sorely missed.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I was so, so sad to hear of the death of Cheryl Gillan at the age of only 68. Sometimes politics can feel like a hostile environment, which is why Cheryl was so important as somebody who was just completely warm, non-judgmental, vivacious and outgoing. She called us all “darling” not because she had forgotten our names, but because she wanted to put everybody at their ease.

When she came to the House in 1992 as one of 336 Conservative MPs, she was one of only 20 women, so she was very much a pioneer of women’s presence on the Tory Benches. Over the three decades she served in the House, she very proudly and protectively watched over the growing flock of Tory women MPs.

It was very energising to work with her on her autism campaigns. It was admirable to see her being such a thorn in the side of the Government, fiercely championing her constituents in their opposition to HS2. Above all, I know she will be missed by her family, to whom I extend my deepest, deepest condolences. We really, really will miss her. I can hardly believe that she is not on the green Benches today. She was such a presence in the House, becoming a grandee in the 1922 committee, but never grand.

I would like to just briefly mention the loss of Shirley Williams, who was a Member of our House from 1964 to 1983. I briefly crossed over with her when I came in in 1982. To my young and pregnant self, despite the acrimony and bitterness between the Labour party—I was a Labour MP—and the Social Democratic party, of which she was a member, she warmly welcomed me to the House. She was an extraordinary politician and an extraordinary intellect. She was vilified by the press for her wild hair and overflowing handbag. She, too, was a woman in a man’s world, and a champion of social justice and an instinctive feminist. I extend my sympathies to her family, too.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for this opportunity to pay tribute to a great friend, Dame Cheryl Gillan, and to the former Members who have sadly passed in recent days. I am grateful to colleagues on both sides of the House for the warmth of their remarks about Cheryl both today and in the days since she died, on 4 April.

Mr Speaker, you mentioned Cheryl’s kindness to new Members. I was a beneficiary of that in 1997. As an Education Minister in the previous Parliament, she was very active in making sure that those of us with an interest in and a passion for education got involved in dealing with the first piece of legislation from that Government.

Much has also been made of the great work she did in promoting the interests of women in the House of Commons. I would also want to add that I ended up being perhaps the greatest beneficiary of her sterling qualities in the few years she spent as vice-chairman of the 1922 committee. I certainly benefited from her great unflappable qualities. She was a very smart, very stylish woman and always there to give support. As soon as something happened—we had one or two emergencies in the last few years—a call to Cheryl would immediately settle my nerves and I would know that everything would be done as well as it could possibly be done.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I feel privileged, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, to extend our most sincere condolences to Dame Cheryl’s family, and to all her many friends both across the House and beyond, on the extremely sad news of her death.

I feel very privileged to have served with Dame Cheryl on the Public Accounts Committee over the past year. Despite our engagements being mostly remote during this very extraordinary time, I learned a great deal from listening to her as she held civil servants to account. She was always elegant, always gracious, but woe betide any Department for Transport official who arrived unprepared for her dignified and tenacious grillings on the progress of HS2.

It has been a pleasure to hear the memories of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) with their own experiences and obviously long association with Dame Cheryl. I feel quite acutely the loss of what might have been. Despite her long service in this House—I was surprised to find that she was only 68, not because she looked older but because of how long she had served—she had a great deal more to give. She has been taken from us far too soon. For those of us who are much newer to the House, I feel we have lost the great potential to have benefited from her wisdom, gathered over many years. I would like to take the opportunity once more to extend my sincerest condolences.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Like my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), I was elected in the same year as Cheryl in 1992 and knew her for over 30 years. As a shadow Minister and then a Minister, she was, like so many women, probably underestimated because she did not employ sharp elbows to get in front of her colleagues. When I was Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee and then the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, she always made well-informed, principled, shrewd and wise contributions to our inquiries as well as, indeed, advice to me. She knew how to get far more out of witnesses than most people because she was also gentle and polite. She became, particularly in later years, one of my most trusted friends.

She was an exemplary employer of her staff, who were devoted to her. She was terrific fun and, as has been said, she was a champion of women in politics. When she lost her beloved husband Jack, she raised a fund in his memory for Women2Win, which has helped promote more women into Parliament, as a mark of how much he had supported her in her political career.

Her failing health and then cancer were particularly bitter for her, because while outside the covid measures the House now allows proxy voting for MPs who are expecting a baby or have just had one—she would call them women, I have to tell you—we still do not give proxies to people who are incapacitated by sickness. Perhaps we should have a campaign to rectify that and call the campaign “Cheryl’s Vote”. We will sorely miss a trusted colleague and a dear friend.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I associate myself in full with the comments of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), save the bit about the 1922 committee, which I have obviously not had the privilege—a dubious privilege, in my case—of serving on. Cheryl was, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and others have said, a member of the Public Accounts Committee. I have to confess, Mr Speaker, that I pursued her to join the Committee, and you would not have realised that she was dealing with this serious illness unless you knew. The amount of work she put in would put many other Members to shame. I really valued her intellect, her robustness and her good fun. We did sometimes disagree, but with Cheryl we always disagreed well. If we can take anything from the way she did things here, we can all learn from that hard work, that intellectual curiosity and that ability to work with people—even with those with whom she disagreed—in a gracious matter in these times.

I will miss her enormously. I cannot really believe that she has passed. It is also extraordinary to realise that only two Conservative women MPs elected prior to me are still serving in this House. Her loss is a loss for women in this place, too. I pass on my condolences to her family, her staff and her many friends.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. There are few people in politics you can consider a real friend, but Cheryl Gillan was exactly that: a real friend to so many people in this place, and in so many ways. She shaped and influenced so many of the things that have taken up a lot of our time in recent years. She was a huge friend to this House when a number of us, cross-party, were working on the complaints procedure. Cheryl was a stalwart a member of the 1922 committee who was determined to get it right—to provide the right level of protection for those who felt they had been wronged in these Houses of Parliament, and equally to be fair to those who serve here as elected Members. She was always absolutely determined to do the right thing, and always in a kind way.

Cheryl was a great friend to my constituents in South Northamptonshire as she fought so diligently on their behalf and on behalf of her own constituents and others against HS2—but we will leave that there for now, Mr Speaker. She has been a true friend. Perhaps most of all, she was someone who loved to hug. As the Mother of the House said, Cheryl called everyone “darling”, but she also hugged frequently. We do not do enough of that either.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) that Cheryl was harmed by the fact that she was always so keen to give, yet only lately, when she was very ill, did this House enable her to vote by proxy and take part virtually. We need to think about that. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should call it “Cheryl’s Vote”, and I hope we will make progress on it.

I send my deepest condolences to Cheryl’s family and friends.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Cheryl and I entered the House on the same day in 1992, delighted and a little surprised to find ourselves on the Government side following that election. The Conservative party has lost a loyal, hard-working and mainstream advocate, the likes of whom we see too seldom these days. Parliament has lost a great defender of our values and traditions, someone who worked tirelessly across party lines to make our democracy work better for everyone. We MPs on both sides of the House have lost an almost unnaturally good-natured, kind and generous friend. Her charm could lure Front Benchers into a very false sense of security, which they seldom fell for twice, and her bravery in the face of a long and difficult illness is truly an inspiration to all of us.

If the importance of public service is judged by independence of mind and sound judgment, if the success of public service is measured by the level of respect in which any MP is held by their constituents, and if the value of public service is reflected in the esteem in which any of us is held by our parliamentary peers, with Cheryl’s untimely death we have truly lost a great public servant. She will be enormously missed and even harder to replace.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am a new Member of this place, but even in my very brief time in politics, Dame Cheryl had a profound impact on me. I first met her when she came to Aylesbury to help me campaign from her neighbouring constituency. We had HS2 in common. With her was her much loved dog, Jimmy, who brought her so much joy after the loss of her husband.

Cheryl walked the streets with me, she shared a choice comment or two with a heckler in the post office, and then she sat down with me in a pub to tell me what was what. Despite having known me for barely an hour, she offered me space in her office were I to be elected. She was as good as her word: in my first month here, I camped out alongside her, benefiting not just from a desk and some space, but from her wisdom. I vividly remember when she heard me discussing a proposed email in response to a particularly vitriolic correspondent. She came and stood quietly behind me and said, “I think you could just say, ‘I remember meeting you very well.’ He will get the message.” She was, of course, right. I did not hear from him again.

Dame Cheryl gave me and many of the 2019 intake valuable tips that have already stood us in excellent stead. She was always willing to give her time, and even so many years after coming to this place herself, she was willing to share the benefit of her long experience with us. We newbies will miss her too.

Dame Cheryl cared. She cared profoundly for her constituents, she cared for fellow Members of this House, and she cared greatly for her staff, and they cared greatly for her. It is my honour to have been asked to work with them in the coming weeks. Thanks to your kindness, Mr Speaker, three of Dame Cheryl’s staff sit today in the Public Gallery. They are all of course desperately sad at the loss of not just their boss, but a great friend and mentor. They know how much of an impression Dame Cheryl made on everybody with whom she came into contact, and they have expressed to me their gratitude for being able to be here to hear your words and those of other right hon. and hon. Members in tribute to Dame Cheryl’s extraordinary service to Chesham and Amersham, the entire county of Buckinghamshire, her party and her country.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Dame Cheryl was a great constituency MP, as we have heard. There have not been many happy days over the past two years, but in May 2019 I joined Dame Cheryl and her assistant, Mel, for a picnic on the banks of the River Chess with our mutual friend, Paul Jennings. It was a wonderful day. Her eyes sparkled, the mayflies danced, and I just say this: she will be much missed by many in her constituency, and the River Chess Association would like, through me, to pass on its great thanks for all her service to it over the past decade.

May I thank the House? We are always at our best when we come together and the House certainly has come together. I say on behalf of myself and the Chairman of Ways and Means that Dame Cheryl will be missed on the Speaker’s Panel.