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James Couchman, MP who defended the interests of the licensed trade – obituary

James Couchman
James Couchman - UPPA/Photoshot

James Couchman, who has died aged 81, was a burly and likeable publican who, as Conservative MP for Gillingham from 1983 to 1997, did much to convey to his colleagues the realities of the licensed trade.

A director of Chiswick Caterers, a family firm operating seven brewery-owned pubs, he campaigned for flexible licensing hours and against the diktats of wages councils, tax inspectors and environmental health officers. He once threatened to give up his seat (and his job) if the business was subjected to a co-ordinated visit of tax, DHSS and water officials.

As a long-time employer of Irish barmen, Couchman took a close interest in Irish affairs, becoming a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Body and the Northern Ireland Select Committee. In 1993 he congratulated John Major on what would prove the opening moves in the peace process, while hoping there would not be “any form of amnesty for those people who have been convicted of the most heinous crimes.”

When Lord Young resigned as Trade and Industry Secretary in 1989, Alan Clark accused Couchman, then PPS to Young’s deputy Tony Newton, of having worked in the brewers’ interest to force him (Young) out. Young had intended to implement major changes to the licensed trade on the basis of a report from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, to which Couchman was strongly opposed.

Couchman disclosed months later that he had not publicised his views on the MMC report because his role as PPS to a DTI minister obliged him to remain silent. He had considered it “a bad piece of work by people who did not understand the industry and its ramifications”; its recommendation that brewers be forced to sell pubs they owned in excess of 2,000 was “a piece of interference in the market which seemed inappropriate, unfair and retrospective”

“It was obvious that Lord Young was minded to accept much of the report. So I set myself the task, in a very humble way, of acting as a kind of bridge between my friends and landlords in the brewing industry and the Department for which I was working.”

A former chairman of Bexley Health Authority and an advisor to Pfizer, Couchman took a special interest in the NHS, serving for four years on the relevant Select Committee. Declaring himself a “friend of the pharmaceutical industry”, he filibustered in 1993 against Giles Radice’s Medicines Information Bill, having already had it amended to protect drug companies’ secrets.

Couchman pressed for privatisation of the Property Services Agency after it showed a “flabby, lazy, unimaginative and uninterested approach” in selling MoD land in his constituency to the highest bidder without local consultation. He was furious when in 1994 Medway Port, sold for £13.1 million, was sold on by the purchasers 18 months later for £104 million.

Couchman was opposed to apartheid and capital punishment, and supported granting the right of abode in Britain to key Hong Kong Chinese. He opposed moves to curb tobacco advertising, and voted against the War Crimes Bill.

James Randall Couchman was born at Hemel Hempstead on February 11 1942, the son of Stanley Couchman, a director of the family firm who became president of the Rugby Football Union, and the former Alison Cooper.

His father was friends with Denis Thatcher, having played rugby with him. When in 1990 Couchman’s wife was taken seriously ill, Margaret Thatcher sent a personal note the same evening expressing concern and wishing her well.

Couchman was educated at Cranleigh and King’s College Newcastle, then part of Durham University, where he joined the Conservative Party. Leaving without taking a degree, he taught for a year, then in 1964 went into the oil industry, as a salesman and later a property negotiator.

In 1970 he joined the family business, initially as a pub manager then, after four years, as general manager of the business; from 1980 to 1995 he was a director.

Couchman was elected to Bexley council in 1974, serving for eight years, during which he was twice chairman of social services. From 1981 to 1983 he chaired Bexley Health Authority.

He first stood for Parliament in 1979, finishing well behind Labour’s Giles Radice at Chester-le-Street. Then, prior to the 1983 election, he was selected for Gillingham on the retirement of its veteran MP Frederick Burden; he held the seat by 10,843 votes over the Liberal/SDP Alliance, slightly increasing his majority in 1987.

At Westminster he complained that the General Medical Council considered sexual relations by doctors with their patients a more serious offence than allowing them to die through negligence, and sought an emergency debate when Kent Police were found to be fiddling their clear-up statistics for crime. In 1990 he promoted a Bill to let shops open for six hours every Sunday, saying 60,000 shops were breaking the law and 401 local authorities were not applying it. It failed to gain a Second Reading, but was the compromise eventually chosen.

Between 1984 and 1989 he was PPS to Newton, who was in turn Minister of State for Social Security, Minister of Health and Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster as deputy to Lord Young. He rejoined him in 1995, by which time Newton was Leader of the House.

Re-elected in 1992 by a thumping 16,638 majority over Labour’s Paul Clark, Couchman complained as the economy bottomed out that the banks were needlessly “pulling the plug” on small businesses. He reckoned on his knowledge of the pub trade that “the present times are as bad as any I have known”.

In the landslide of 1997 that brought New Labour to power, Couchman lost his seat to Clark by 1,980 votes, the 16 per cent swing to Labour being one of the highest in the country. No longer involved in the family business, it took him months to find work, discovering that having “former Tory MP” on his CV opened few doors.

Couchman returned to politics in 2005 as a member of Oxfordshire county council. He was cabinet member for social services from 2006 to 2010 and subsequently for finance and property, standing down in 2013.

James Couchman married Barbara Heilbrun in 1967; she survives him, with their son and daughter.

James Couchman, born February 11 1942, died November 16 2023