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