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Sunday, April 19, 1998 Published at 18:45 GMT 19:45 UK


First sports minister dies
image: [ Denis Howell was the UK's first minister of sport ]
Denis Howell was the UK's first minister of sport

Lord Howell - the former Labour sports minister Denis Howell - has died after suffering a heart attack at a charity fund-raising dinner on Saturday night. He was 74.

Lord Howell was taken to Solihull Hospital in the West Midlands after collapsing last night. He died on Sunday after a night in intensive care.

Lord Howell's son, Andrew, speaks about his father
He was giving a speech at the British Motorcycle Museum in Bickenhill, West Midlands, in aid of cancer research, when he became ill.

The former MP for Birmingham Small Heath achieved lasting but unsought fame as Mr Rainmaker during a parched period of 1976, when he was put in ministerial charge of coping with a severe drought.

His appointment coincided with the advent of heavy rainfall so that within 10 days of Harold Wilson giving him the job, he became known as Minister for Floods.

Lord Hattersley pays tribute to his former colleague
But the former Denis Howell, who represented his constituency in the Commons for more than 30 years, was also a tireless crusader on sporting issues, and campaigned vigorously, though in vain, for Birmingham to host the Olympic Games.

Such was his continuous and high-profile commitment to sport that many people still mistakenly regarded him as Minister for Sport as long as 10 years after Labour lost power in 1979.

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Lord Hattersley, also paid tribute to the former sports minister.

"He was the great minister of sport, perhaps the only minister of sport we have had in the sense of a national figure," said Lord Hattersley.

"But he was a great deal more than that, he was a real Labour man, he was a real democratic socialist of immense principle, immense conviction, immense energy.

"And he was I suppose above all other things a Brummie. He called his autobiography `Made in Birmingham', which is what he was, and he was I guess one of the greatest sons of that great city. It's very painful news."

Councillor at 17

Lord Howell was born on September 4, 1923, the son of a gasfitter and storekeeper. He was educated at Gower Street School, and Handsworth Grammar School, both in Birmingham.

He started work at the Hercules bicycle factory at the age of 15, was a member of Birmingham City Council at 17, and an MP at 32. He served twice as Minister for Sport from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1979.

He was the first person to given the role of sports minister by Harold Wilson and was responsible for some of the organisation for the 1966 World Cup held in England.

Unlike most Labour MPs, Howell had business interests in a variety of companies, particularly those involved in sports promotion. He was also a top football referee.

His thoroughness and enthusiasm made him the ideal man to head the Central Council of Physical Recreation's two-year inquiry into the sponsorship of sport, culminating in the Howell Report of November, 1983, which produced no fewer than 73 recommendations.

He was also a prominent trade unionist. He was president of Apex, the white-collar union from 1971 to 1983, even during his period as a government minister.

Along with Shirley Williams, then another "right-wing" Labour Minister, he created a furore in 1977 by appearing on the picket line outside Grunwick Processing Laboratories in North London, the scene of violent trade union protests about conditions in the factory.

Lord Howell underwent major heart surgery in 1989, but recovered sufficiently to pursue his normal, active political career and often made his point known in the House of Lords.

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