One man helping millions: How dogged Sir David Amess changed so many laws from the backbenches

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Our Blower cartoon in tribute to Sir David Amess
Our Blower cartoon in tribute to Sir David Amess

During his 38-year parliamentary career, Sir David Amess achieved more from the backbenches than many ministers do during their time in Government.

By taking up causes as diverse as women’s health, animal welfare, fuel poverty and fire safety, Sir David drove changes to the law that have benefited millions of people.

Boris Johnson said Sir David, who died on Friday after being attacked at a constituency surgery, had “an outstanding record of passing laws to help the most vulnerable”, while Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, described him as “a formidable campaigner”.

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives, told The Telegraph: “David was a fine MP who really understood how much good can be done, how much influence can be brought to bear from the backbenches.

“David’s legacy will be in the thousands of people whom he helped, the causes for which he fought with vigour and enthusiasm, and the huge affection and respect with which he will be remembered by so many.”

Floral tributes included many messages thanking Sir David Amess for his support for numerous issues - Shutterstock
Floral tributes included many messages thanking Sir David Amess for his support for numerous issues - Shutterstock

The son of an electrician and a dressmaker, Sir David was more working class than a host of MPs on the Labour benches.

He once described how he grew up in a house without a bathroom, only an outside lavatory and a tin bath, and no telephone, explaining: “We used to throw open the window and shout loudly at each other.”

He decided he wanted to be an MP at the age of 11, and 20 years later, at the age of 31, he got his wish.

When he was elected as MP for Basildon in 1983, the Plaistow-born former teacher personified Essex Man, a Thatcherite with hard-working parents who believed in pulling himself up by his own bootstraps.

As he set about his business, whether the Conservatives were in power or in opposition, he got things done by fighting for causes that cut across party politics.

Fuel poverty

Perhaps his greatest achievement was the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which forced the then Labour government to publish and implement a strategy for reducing fuel poverty.

He had entered the ballot for Private Members’ Bills - the lottery that allows backbenchers to propose legislation - 16 times before his name was drawn, and admitted that he “suddenly became popular” as various organisations tried to persuade him to pick up their cause.

One of them was Martyn Williams of Friends of the Earth, who talked him through the statistics on poorly-heated homes. Sir David told MPs that one of his own constituents had died in a cold house, which he found “appalling” and cited the fact that up to 49,000 excess deaths occurred each winter, far more than in Sweden and other colder countries, which he described as “an absolute disgrace”.

His campaign began a debate about fuel poverty which was at the time a little-publicised problem, and the Act which was published in his name was widely credited with changing attitudes and government policies towards heating and insulating the homes of the most vulnerable in society.

Among the changes that followed it were winter fuel payments to pensioners and government grants for insulating homes. Sir David garnered such widespread cross-party support that 451 MPs signed his Bill.

At the time the Act was passed, Sir David told MPs that 4 million homes were not properly heated, a figure that fell to 1.2million just four years later, and excess deaths dropped below 30,000 for all but two years of the decade that followed the Act.

Animal welfare

Countless numbers of animals have benefited from improved living conditions thanks to another of the laws passed under his name, the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, which arose out of Sir David’s lifelong passion for animal welfare.

Although animal welfare had been enshrined in law since 1911, Sir David was made aware by the Essex Horse and Pony Protection Society that there was no law to prevent horses being tied up for any length of time.

With the backing of the National Farmers Union, Sir David used the Ten Minute Rule, another mechanism for backbenchers to introduce laws, to pass the Act which made it illegal to “tether any horse, ass or mule under such conditions or in such manner as to cause that animal unnecessary suffering”.

Sir David celebrated by posing with two ponies outside Parliament, below.

Sir David Amess was a huge animal lover - John Cobb
Sir David Amess was a huge animal lover - John Cobb

Last year Sir David was one of the leading supporters of Finn’s Law, officially titled the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill, which increased maximum sentences for animal cruelty from six months to five years and made it easier to prosecute people who attack police dogs and horses. It was inspired by Finn, a police dog stabbed while tackling a suspect, who could only be prosecuted for criminal damage.

In March this year Sir David introduced another Ten Minute Rule Bill aiming to outlaw farrowing crates for sows. David Bowles, of the RSPCA, said: “Animal welfare was one of his main issues and he didn’t sway on that in the 38 years he was an MP.”

He said he hoped Sir David’s latest campaign on pig husbandry would lead to changes in the law and become “one of his legacies”.

A regular entrant in the Westminster Dog of the Year competition, Sir David also worked closely with the Dogs Trust to rehome dogs, campaigned to end puppy smuggling and won several awards for his campaigning for animals.

David Bowles, of the RSPCA, said of Sir David Amess: “Animal welfare was one of his main issues and he didn’t sway on that in the 38 years he was an MP.” - John Stillwell
David Bowles, of the RSPCA, said of Sir David Amess: “Animal welfare was one of his main issues and he didn’t sway on that in the 38 years he was an MP.” - John Stillwell

Fire safety

Sir David was a constant campaigner for improved fire safety, and in particular the installation of sprinkler systems, and was praised after his death by the National Fire Chiefs Council, which said he had played a “key role” in driving up standards.

As chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fire Safety and Rescue, Sir David constantly challenged his own government ministers over building safety, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, and pressed for the retro-fitting of automatic sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings.

The Fire Safety Act 2021, which passed into law in April, brought a larger number of multi-occupancy residential buildings under the protection of laws that require owners and landlords to comply with strict safety standards. It also created a loan scheme for landlords to borrow money for remedial work on dangerous cladding.

Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades’ Union, said Sir David had made “valuable contributions” to fire safety and expressed his “horror” at the MP’s death.

Women’s health

In 2018 Sir David created an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Endometriosis to raise awareness of the condition and improve support for women who suffer from it.

It was a typical act of public service from a man who spent his career identifying and campaigning for causes that needed extra help.

Sir David had no personal connection to the cause; it was raised with him by a constituent during a surgery of the kind he was holding when he was stabbed to death on Friday.

He was shocked to be told that around one in 10 women is affected by the condition, and in February last year his group launched an inquiry that received more than 10,000 responses from the public. It found that the average diagnosis time is eight years.

Jackie Doyle-Price, the Conservative MP for Thurrock who is a vice-chairman of the APPG, described him as a “committed parliamentarian” who brought “dedication and passion” to every cause he championed.

Sir David also served on the health select committee for nine years, playing a leading role in investigating the causes and effects of obesity in the UK.

Raoul Wallenberg

Sir David tried and failed in 1990 to introduce a bill setting aside land for a statue of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Second World War.

With customary doggedness, Sir David simply kept on campaigning until he got his way.

He held a debate in 1996 in which he explained that Wallenberg, who issued protective passports to Jews and sheltered them in Swedish diplomatic buildings, was arrested by Russian forces in 1945, who suspected him of being a US spy, and is thought to have died in Moscow in 1947, in circumstances that remain unclear.

In 1997 a statue of Wallenberg was unveiled by the Queen outside the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London.

Sir David, who has knighted in 2015 for his political and public service, also held numerous patronages and presidencies during his life, including his local branch of the RSPCA, Basildon Boys’ Club and the Music Man Project, which helped people with disabilities to play instruments and which enabled 200 children with learning disabilities to play a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019.

He once said: “It is through active citizenship, through many voluntary organisations... that we demonstrate every day, week and month that we are a truly caring society.”

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