Two political stalwarts in Wirral were given significant civic honours last week.
At an extraordinary full Council meeting, members voted unanimously to accept the recommendation that former councillor Jean Stapleton should be conferred the title of Honorary Alderwoman in recognition of her many years of public service.
At the same meeting, members also agreed unanimously to award the Freedom of the Borough of Wirral to former Birkenhead MP Frank Field, who served the constituency for 40 years.
Cllr Jean Stapleton served as a Labour Party councillor for the Birkenhead and Tranmere ward for 21 years before standing down ahead of the 2021 local elections.
In considering nominating former councillors to receive the title of Honorary Alderman or Alderwoman, members have to pay regard to the law that says a nominee must be a person of distinction and/or someone who has, in its opinion, rendered eminent service to the place or area. In addition, in Wirral, the council stipulates a councillor must have served for 20 years or more.
In tabling the recommendation in favour, the Chair of the Regulatory and General Purposes Committee, Cllr Andrew Hodson, outlined why he felt Jean was deserving of the honour.
He said, “I worked with Jean on various committees and on a number of other occasions and I have to say, in all that time, she demonstrated that she was a hardworking, no-nonsense councillor. She was totally committed to representing the interests of the people of Birkenhead and Tranmere and this came through not only through what she said during committee meetings but also in personal conversations we had.
“It was a loss to the people of her ward when she made the momentous decision to step down and retire and even though we were on different sides politically, Jean always conducted herself in a measured and courteous manner. Whatever the debate, Jean was always a pleasure to work with.”
Wirral Council leader, Cllr Janette Williamson, recalled that Jean was a significant influence in her decision to seek election herself.
She said, “When I was thinking about standing back in 2011, I was advised to go and knock on Jean’s door and ask her what it was like to be a councillor. So I did – and she found time for me then and she has always found time for me since.
“Jean was an amazing councillor and is a real loss to the Labour group. She is a great friend and is passionate about her hometown and improving it. I was really proud to look up to Jean as a friend, as a mentor and as a colleague and this honour is so very well deserved.”
Six more councillors stood up to support the motion and pay tribute to Jean’s tireless service, Amongst those were serving members for Claughton, the area where Jean lives, who were keen to point out that, though she had stood down as an elected representative, Jean is still very much active in local politics and still as passionate about standing up for people.
Seconding the motion, Cllr Christine Jones, said, “Jean was so welcoming to all new members and was the person everyone went to if they had any questions or problems, whether it was to do with the council or in their personal life. It doesn’t surprise me that she is still active in her community, I don’t think she could stop doing things for the community, she was simply one of the best community councillors we’ve had.”
The decision to bestow the Freedom of the Borough on former Birkenhead MP, Frank Field, was also carried unanimously by council members, many of whom stood up and spoke in support of the motion, which had been tabled by Cllr Moira McLaughlin. Cllr McLaughlin couldn’t be at the meeting in person as she was visiting Frank, who is gravely ill, in London that night.
Frank Field served the people of Birkenhead as their MP for 40 years, as well as holding a number of important roles within Parliament, Government and in opposition. Though born in London, he took Birkenhead into his heart after his election in 1979.
He championed many important campaigns – not just within his constituency but also across the rest of Wirral, Merseyside and nationally – on a range of issues. In particular, it was his unstinting commitment to tackling poverty and supporting the most disadvantaged people in society that was emphasised in many of the comments made by elected members at last week’s meeting.
Wirral Council leader, Cllr Janette Williamson, said, “Frank Field has often been described as a maverick; a free-thinker, never afraid to challenge his party’s leadership, most recently over Brexit. Thinking of ways to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of the poor has been a lifelong passion for Frank – even before entering parliament, he made a name for himself as the Chair of the Child Poverty Action Group.”
The Leader of the Conservative group on Wirral Council, Cllr Tom Anderson, echoed the ‘free-thinker’ comment, adding, “To call Frank Field just a politician is to do a disservice to the man. Over 40 years as an MP and an adopted son of Birkenhead, he was a dedicated public servant, an advocate for his residents, a voice for the people unable to speak for themselves and a great reformer.
“I might not always have agreed with his views, but no-one could criticise his dedication to the borough throughout this 40 years’ service. He is an honorable man with great integrity and a free-thinker, not constricted by ideological dogma.”
Cllr Phil Gilchrist, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on the council, added, “He fought for the town of Birkenhead for more than 40 years as MP and he continues to think of us and regard Birkenhead as his base. He fought for Wirral, fought for people in difficulty, fought for people in poverty. He was a real fighter and we should respect his contribution to the area, wish him well and confer the honour of Freedom of the Borough upon him.”