Tribute to Professor John Hills

by Tania Burchardt, Abigail McKnight, Kitty Stewart and Polly Vizard

John Hills at his desk

Many colleagues will have been shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the death of Professor Sir John Hills FBA – more usually known simply as John – on 21st December 2020. He was 66, and his untimely departure robs the worlds of academic and applied social policy of an incisive thinker, a brilliant communicator and a man of exceptional warmth, generosity and integrity.

John’s research and policy work centred on poverty, inequality and social security, but fanned out to encompass all aspects of the welfare state, especially social housing, pensions, taxation, and public expenditure. The body of work is too huge to summarise here but one can perhaps highlight three themes. Firstly, John was an early advocate of the importance of a dynamic understanding of poverty and of the operation of the welfare state over a person’s life course. This strand of John’s thinking culminated in Good Times, Bad Times: the welfare myth of them and us, which demonstrated that a middle class family was likely to obtain just as much net benefit from the welfare state as a working class family, taking their lives as a whole.

Secondly, John consistently emphasised the interdependency of different areas of policy (such as social housing and social security), and the importance of seeing the ‘big picture’ of public expenditure on benefits and services as well as policy detail within each area. This was reflected in the programmes of work John led with several generations of colleagues holding successive governments to account on welfare spending, policies and outcomes, from The State of Welfare in 1990 to Social Policies and Distributional Outcomes, which was in the final stages at the time of his death.

Thirdly, the question of winners and losers from different arrangements and policy proposals was ever-present in John’s analysis, including the importance of thinking about how revenue is raised (and about who bears the costs of different taxes and contributions) as well as about how it is spent. This was brought to the fore in Inequality and the State.

John’s outstanding intellectual strength was apparent both in his meticulous eye for detail and in his ability to create clarity in complexity. This went hand in hand with his gift for narrative: he coined the memorable phrases, found the right metaphors, and took his audiences by the hand to lead them through the forest of statistics. This was equally effective in his teaching and in his communication with policymakers and practitioners.

John was engaged and motivated by achieving policy change long before the advent of the ‘Knowledge Exchange and Impact’ agenda, and was much more interested in ensuring the insights from his research reached the right people at the right time than in ensuring that they gained him academic or media kudos. He was the academic lead for the influential Joseph Rowntree Foundation Income and Wealth Inquiry in 1995. He was one of the three members of the Pensions Commission that led to auto-enrolment. He was commissioned to review the role of social housing and articulated a powerful case for its vital importance, heading off attempts to further marginalise the sector. He re-designed the government’s approach to the measurement of fuel poverty. And he chaired the National Equality Panel, which assessed the scale of economic inequalities by characteristics including gender, age, ethnicity, disability, social background and geography which paved the way to strengthening equalities legislation and policy.

Because John’s focus was on improving the evidence to inform policy rather than on personal ambition, he built nurturing and collaborative research infrastructure around him and eschewed fiefdoms and empires. This was apparent in the way that he established and directed the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at the LSE from 1997 to 2016, his successful attempt to secure funding for the International Inequalities Institute in 2015, and his subsequent role as co-director there. One small example of his style: when CASE moved buildings within LSE, he opted for a small office looking onto the lightwell, rather than a large corner office with a view of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, so as to remain physically at the heart of the centre, present and approachable. This was just one of the very many ways in which John embodied his principles in the way he lived, as well as in the work he did.

John’s humanity was a uniting theme in his work and in his approach. He responded to other people – whether sitting opposite him in person or represented as a data point on a graph – with empathy and understanding, and the obstacles that held them back became John’s challenges to solve: from offering guidance and encouragement to a first year undergraduate or a self-doubting PhD student, to devising a way to measure fuel poverty that would ensure help went to where it was most needed. He was committed to ensuring that people’s practical real world experiences fed into empirical research and policy, and promoted institutions and collaborations that took forward that approach.

For each of us, John has been at the centre of our working lives since we came to CASE as pre- or post-docs two decades ago and more. Throughout that time he has been our academic guiding light, our moral compass, and the kindest and most supportive colleague and friend. Our sense of loss is immense. We know we are far from alone. John’s generosity during his lifetime touched generations of students, junior researchers, colleagues and policy practitioners. The inspiration and support he gave ensures that his legacy will live on through them, as well as through his published work and impact on policy, for a long time to come.

Tania Burchardt, Abigail McKnight, Kitty Stewart and Polly Vizard

Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics and Political Science

12 Comments

  1. What a wonderful tribute, demonstrating both John’s academic and personal impact. He was brilliant to work with. Condolences to all of you and everyone who worked with John.

  2. John’s untimely death is a huge loss to the social policy community as a whole and to so many of us, individually. John had a towering intellect but was always incredibly modest and unfailingly supportive to others, including myself. In reading the beautiful tribute posted here from Tania, Abigail, Kitty and Polly, I hope that we might not only reflect on memories of John but also seek to emulate such a shining example of how to work and live. My sincere condolences go to his family, friends and all those who grieve his loss.

  3. Sadly I didn’t know John Hills personally. In these times of ever increasing poverty and vast social inequality his work has been immensely significant for both social policy and politics. His death is a huge loss.

  4. A lovely and very moving tribute, thank you. I was particularly struck by the comment that John ‘responded to other people – whether sitting opposite him in person or represented as a data point on a graph – with empathy and understanding’. Very true and a rare quality.

  5. I still can’t quite take in that John is no longer with us. The wonderful tribute from his colleagues at CASE – Tania, Abigail, Kitty and Polly – says it all really with regard to him both as a person and as one of the social policy giants of his generation.
    The quality of his research, analysis and writing meant that he spoke with an authority that was unmatched – a quiet, calm authority that made sure he was listened to by those who make social policy as well as those who study it, especially in the areas of poverty, inequality, social security and taxation. Colleagues on the Labour benches in the Lords who knew John and had benefited from his wisdom expressed deep sadness at the news.
    As a member of the National Equality Panel I can testify to his skills as a chairperson and, in the words of fellow member Tariq Modood, ‘the democratic and collaborative way he chaired the panel’ to which John himself contributed so much.
    Despite his knighthood and many other accolades and despite his many acclaimed books and reports he remained a modest and fundamentally decent person, as the CASE tribute from those who knew him much better than I did underlines.
    The significance of his loss to social policy both as a field of study and as a practice is enormous.
    My condolences to his family and colleagues for this devastating lose. I hope it will be possible to honour and thank John at a public, collective event at some point in the future.

  6. Yes, such a fitting tribute, thank you. John was just the best academic snd the nicest person I came across in my long time in Social Policy. His loss will be felt across the subject and far beyond – though I am sure his legacy will live on.

  7. Very nice and moving tribute. It was with shock and sadness when I heard of John’s premature death, when he was at the height of his powers. Working with him on the National Equality Panel I came to respect and admire him as a researcher and policy intellectual and also the democratic and collaborative way he chaired the Panel. I see from the tributes that this was how he ran the CASE research centre and his research teams and more generally. Its a sad loss to those who knew him and intellectually to Social Policy and the policy research and advocacy in relation to social welfare. He will be much missed.My condolences to Anne and family.

  8. A fine tribute that captures John’s humanity, his passion for a fairer world and the personal support and encouragement he gave to younger colleagues. And indeed to older ones like me when my wife became seriously ill. Like Ruth I find it difficult to come to terms with the loss of a close colleague and personal friend. My memories are of long walks in his beloved Lake District with his Anne and my Ann exchanging thoughts on how to improve the world and what was the best route to the top of some peak.

  9. I did not know John, directly, but was obviously, like everyone, so wowed by his work and, almost as significantly, the obviously lack of self importance and non pompous manner in which he carried out and disseminated his work. A great loss.

  10. A very moving tribute that entirely captures both John’s distinctive contribution to social policy and his personal warmth and generosity. John was a great supporter of the SPA, often attending annual conferences, delivering a brilliant opening plenary in 2012 (refusing to cancel despite feeling quite unwell) and also chairing the Association’s first Policy Forum (on pensions) a few years later. I was looking forward to John’s thoughtful and reassuring presence on the REF panel this year, and still can’t quite believe that he’s not going to be with us. A huge loss indeed.

  11. I was very taken aback when I first heard of these sad news. We had the pleasure to have John as a guest speaker at the University of Edinburgh a few times over the years. His presentation of ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ was one of the most engaging talks ever in our long running seminar series. The book itself is on my list of best social policy books of all times and I always highly recommend it to my students. UK social policy has lost a giant. Thanks to his colleagues at LSE for this moving tribute.

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