William Powell, Conservative MP who pushed through a Bill extending copyright to computer programs – obituary
William Powell, who has died aged 73, was a good-natured and reasonable barrister who was Conservative MP for Corby between 1983 and 1997. Though loyal to Margaret Thatcher on most issues, he served after her overthrow in 1990 as PPS to the Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, who had mounted the challenge.
Rated “fussy” and “churchy” by parliamentary sketch writers, Powell supported Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, rugby tours of South Africa, and free NHS dental and eye tests. He was one of the few barrister MPs to support Lord Mackay of Clashfern’s attempts to reform the provision of legal services.
Powell opposed the televising of Parliament, giving tax relief on private health insurance, the ordination of divorced men, and the War Crimes Bill.
In 1985 he piloted through the Copyright (Computer Software) Amendment Act, which extended copyright protection to computer programs. He went on to press for a common copyright law in Europe, meeting resistance from the French, and in 1990 supported Michael Colvin’s Bill to tighten the law against hackers, complaining that the Government should be doing more.
Having won a new seat expected to be a Labour marginal despite the end of steelmaking in Corby, Powell – who blamed the previous Labour government – worked hard to revive its town’s economy. In 1989 he celebrated its “resurrection”, with unemployment down from 7,000 to 1,800.
Over his Commons career, he reckoned his greatest achievement to be the success of the campaign to build the A14, connecting the M1 and M6 with East Anglia, to near-motorway standard. His constituency’s East-West transport links were appalling, and Powell also had a personal interest: the new road would speed him to Corby from his home at Fowlmere, south of Cambridge.
Powell’s passions were horse racing, travel, 18th-century history and the politics of the United States, with Abraham Lincoln his hero. He leaves a formidable library.
William Rhys Powell was born in Colchester on August 3 1948, the son of Canon Edward Powell and the former Anne Newton. He was educated at Lancing College and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, chairing the university Conservative Association.
Graduating in 1970, he was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn the next year. He practised at the criminal Bar on the South East circuit until 1987, confessing as he hung up his wig that juries had too often not been interested in the arguments he put to them.
In his early days at the Bar he doubled as research assistant to Sir Harwood Harrison, MP for Eye in Suffolk.
Powell was adopted just before the 1983 election as candidate for Corby to take on William Homewood, the sitting Labour MP for Kettering, which included much of the new constituency. With Labour slipping to one of the worst defeats in its history, Powell took the seat with a majority of 3,168. Against the odds, he would hold it by 1,805 votes in 1987, and 342 in 1982.
In his maiden speech, he warned that “some alarming decisions on defence” would have to be taken unless the economy began to grow.
For a year from 1985, Powell served as PPS to Timothy Raison, Minister for Overseas Development,
In July 1988, he led the calls for the prosecution of the paediatricians Dr Marietta Higgs and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt after 121 children on Teesside had been removed from their homes following their incorrect diagnosis as victims of sexual abuse.
Powell served in turn on the Procedure, Foreign affairs, Science and Technology, and Agriculture Select Committees, and for 10 years on the Joint Parliamentary Ecclesiastical Committee. He chaired the all-party groups for the Gulf, Italy, Taiwan, Mongolia and Tunisia, and from 1992 to 1995 the Council for Arab-British Understanding.
Early in 1993, he called on John Major at PMQs for heads to roll at the Department of Social Security over the “extremely maladroit” letters it was sending to the elderly over plans to end the payment of their pensions in cash at post offices. He called the proposal “one of the most serious political misjudgments which has been made”.
That July, he surprised colleagues – and delighted the Government’s opponents – by forecasting during a debate on the Budget legislation that the Conservatives would lose that week’s Christchurch by-election ... as they did.
Powell was swept away in the New Labour landslide of 1997, losing Corby to Labour’s Phil Hope by 11,860 votes. He went back to the Bar, joining Chambers in Peterborough and also qualifying as an arbitrator. Rated “an experienced litigator, with excellent oratorical skills”, he built a mixed common law practice specialising in personal injury, employment and motoring offences.
Powell was a popular member of Chambers who went out of his way to mentor pupils and work experience students. He could often be found in the clerk’s room recounting colourful stories of his time at the Bar and in Parliament.
William Powell married Elizabeth Vaudin in 1973; she survives him, with their three daughters.
William Powell, born August 3 1948, died March 23 2022