Sir Ralph Howell, who died on February 14 aged 84, was Conservative MP for North Norfolk for 27 years, becoming the leading Parliamentary campaigner for "workfare" and the elimination of the benefits "trap" that discourages the jobless from working.
Convinced of the need to provide incentives to work rather than paying people not to, Howell urged successive governments to adopt an American-style system of "workfare". Margaret Thatcher regarded him warmly and was tempted to give his ideas a trial, and at times it seemed that this would happen. But her social security and employment ministers were more cautious, and Howell found himself fighting a rearguard action to prevent them making matters worse; in March 1981 he upbraided Patrick Jenkin for raising child benefit by more for the unemployed than for those in work.
A rough-hewn but agreeable Norfolk farmer, Howell set out his case in his 1976 book Why Work?, which asserted that half the working population would be better off on benefit. He followed it up with Why Not Work? (1991) and Putting Britain Back to Work (1995).
His influence was greatest in the mid-1980s, when he chaired the Conservative backbench employment committee and served on the 1922 Committee executive. During this period he proposed a one-year National Work Service for school leavers, attempted to block social security payments to newly-arrived immigrants and unmarried couples with children, and urged that hippie convoys be subjected to workfare before receiving benefits.
On most issues Howell was well to the Right of his party. He pressed for tax cuts funded by cuts in public sector "overmanning"; voted for the reintroduction of capital punishment; and championed white Rhodesia, which just before UDI he described as "the only patch of civilisation in Africa, except of course South Africa".