Malcolm Wicks MP Former SPA Executive member – A tribute

Malcom WicksFor some younger scholars of social policy, the name of Malcolm Wicks may be known simply as that of a Labour MP and former Minister. However, as his contemporaries know well, Malcolm was much more than this and his legacy to social policy is considerable. Malcolm died on 29 September 2012 aged only 65, having served as the Labour member for Croydon North since 1992. Many tributes have been paid to him from all sides of the political spectrum, highlighting his dedication, integrity and decency, as well as his self-effacing wit and intelligence which continued to shine even while he faced the end of his life with enormous courage and dignity

Malcolm belonged to the first generation of the Social Policy Association (and was a former Executive member), having attended the London School of Economics and enrolled on the newly established degree course in social policy in 1966. In a Department headed by Professor Richard Titmuss, Malcolm benefited from the research and teaching of many of the eminent characters who were developing this newly emergent field of study, including David Donnison, Brian Abel-Smith, and Peter Townsend. After graduating Malcolm took the first steps on the academic career ladder joining the Department of Social Administration at the University of York (at the same time that Jonathan Bradshaw also joined the Department). Two years later he left York and took up two appointments – with the Centre for Environmental Studies (where David Donnison was the Director), and as a lecturer in the new Department of Government Studies at Brunel University.

It was at the Centre for Environmental Studies (CES) that Malcolm was part of the team exploring hypothermia and the links with poverty and poor housing conditions. Malcolm later published the findings of the study in his book Old and Cold (1978), and the need to “ensure that all old people have warm homes, regardless of their domestic or financial circumstances” (P.172) was an issue that he remained passionate about, and which he campaigned on with bodies such as Neighbourhood Energy Action. When he later became Energy Minister (2005-08), such matters were also challenges he needed to address from the other side of the debate.

It is interesting to speculate how Malcolm’s career might have progressed had he remained in academe, but events took a different twist. An independent ‘Study Commission on the Family’ was established in 1978 with funding from the Leverhulme Trust, and Chaired by Sir Campbell Adamson. Aged 31 Malcolm was appointed as Director of the Study Commission which existed until 1983, and he went on to direct the successor body, the Family Policy Studies Centre (FPSC) until he left to become a full time member of Parliament in 1992. Both the Study Commission and FPSC described their function as being to draw together and analyse information and research about the family, and to consider related policy questions and implications. They were non-partisan bodies and were not concerned with promoting a particular model of the family, so much as with understanding (and predicting) contemporary trends. The governing councils of both bodies featured an extraordinarily rich resource of public policy experience and knowledge, including – among others – such luminaries as Barbara Wootton; David Donnison; Nicholas Deakin; A H Halsey; Frank Field MP; Rodney Bickerstaffe and William Plowden, who all recognised that Malcolm and his colleagues were breaking new ground.

In many ways both bodies were ahead of their time (think tanks of this nature were a rarity in those days), and particularly so in producing accessible reports and seeking to inform both popular and political debate of major issues around family care; child welfare; employment and the family; changing roles of men and women; one parent families, and marriage and divorce. Malcolm loved the process of press releasing reports and handling the resulting media interest; he realised early on that debate needed to take place on many levels and the research findings featured regularly in the media. Malcolm became equally adept in communicating with the audience of the Jimmy Young show as with that of Radio 4’s Today programme or with the newly emergent Breakfast TV. He was a gifted communicator and many of his colleagues – myself included – learnt a great deal under his tutelage about how to convey often complex messages in simple form and to do so in an engaging and challenging way. For Malcolm, engaging with the media and presenting facts and figures in readily understandable images was also excellent preparation for his next career.

Malcolm always had political ambitions, and had been brought up with Labour politics in his veins; his father (the late Arthur Wicks) had been the last chairman of the London County Council (LCC), and later Chairman too of the Greater London Council. Malcolm contested the Croydon North West seat in 1987, and finished in second place (while securing a massive swing to Labour). Five years later, he stood again and won the seat with a slender majority of just over 1,500 votes, while nationally Labour remained in opposition. By the time of the Labour landslide in 1997, Malcolm’s majority had risen to more than 18,000.

Malcolm’s policy legacy has many dimensions, but perhaps his greatest achievement is the result of a Private Member’s Bill while he was an opposition MP. The 1995 Carers (Recognition and Services) Act, for the first time, gave people caring for relatives and friends and providing them with the daily support they need to continue to remain in the community, the right to an assessment of their own needs. The 1995 Carers Act was an important first step in ensuring that the rights and needs of carers were recognised in legislation and it created a significant foundation for subsequent policy and practice. Four years later a national strategy for carers was introduced for the first time ever, and would never have happened without the Wicks Act.

His focus on carers issues came as no surprise; his work with colleagues at both the Study Commission on the Family and later the FPSC on the role of family carers provided some of the first research evidence on the nature and value of care provided by what he termed as an unseen and largely ‘forgotten army’. On a copy of the Act which he gave me when it received Royal Assent on 28 June 1995 he has written in the margin ‘no longer forgotten?’ Support for carers is still far from perfect, but the fact that it is now virtually unthinkable for social care policy not to include carers in any developments, and that people are far more ‘carer-aware’ when looking at policy impact, owes much to the legacy of the Wicks Bill, and the first foothold that it established for carers legislation and policy measures.

Malcolm’s political career did not advance as high as many of his friends and colleagues believed it should have done. He was appointed as a shadow social security minister in 1995 but following Labour’s victory in 1997 he did not – inexplicably – immediately achieve ministerial office. He was appointed in 1999 as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Education and Employment, where his responsibilities were primarily for lifelong learning. He went on to hold ministerial office in three departments over the next nine years (holding pensions, energy and science portfolios). Curiously, he was never appointed to the Department of Health where his contribution on issues of care and support would have been invaluable.

Throughout his time in parliament, Malcolm drew on his knowledge and understanding of social and public policy. His maiden speech in the Commons on 13 May 1992 was characteristic in quoting personal experience gleaned from the streets of his constituency. The speech drew attention to the needs of people who were unemployed, homeless, or struggling with mental illness, while also reflecting on the wider context and the continued relevance and challenge of the Beveridge Report on social insurance that was then approaching its 50th anniversary. Indeed, Beveridge’s ‘five giant evils’ were a recurrent element in Malcolm’s narrative both in his earlier academic policy analysis, and in his political concerns, and featured notably in another key speech that effectively provided the matching bookend of his political life 20 years later. Speaking at a seminar at the House of Commons organised by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) on 24 April this year, Malcolm set out a vision for a 21st century social welfare system in a lecture on ‘rights, wrongs and responsibilities’. He began, as he often did, by looking back at the lessons of history (something that relatively few of his parliamentary colleagues appear to have much awareness of), and citing once again the giant evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness that remain to be vanquished. He pointed out that a modern Beveridge would surely have also recognised long term care as one of the important risks to be covered by social insurance through a sharing of costs between the individual and the State.

Malcolm’s premature death cut short his career, and his opportunity to continue to shape debate and develop a new model for welfare based on a clear contributory principle has been sadly curtailed. Nonetheless, he should be, and will be, remembered for changing the quality and nature of public policy discourse, and for making that rare crossover from academe to politics, while always keeping in touch with the reason he was there. As he wrote in an article for the Political Quarterly this year, constituency work always “reminded me (should I need reminding) why I was in politics”. No one who knew Malcolm will doubt that he was in politics for any reason other than to make a difference to the lives of his constituents.

Melanie Henwood OBE

Malcolm Hunt Wicks 1 July 1947 – 29 September 2012. He is survived by his wife Margaret, his children Roger, Caroline and Sarah and by 7 grandchildren. Donations in Malcolm’s memory are being made to Carers UK via www.justgiving.com/malcolmwicks