Obituary: Fred Edwards LVO, RD, DUniv, MUniv, MA, FCMI, Director of Social Work, ecologist, public servant,
Born 9 April 1931, Fred Edwards was an only child, brought up in the council estate of Norris Green in Liverpool. He spent 10 years in the merchant navy, and in 1957 was one of 33 carefully chosen crew to sail Mayflower II across the Atlantic on the 300th aniversary of the original voyage to America.
In 1960 he switched career to become a probation officer in his native Liverpool. He moved to Scotland as director of social work for Moray and Nairn in 1969, later moving to Grampian Region before taking over at Strathclyde in 1976 where he remained as director for 16 years, retiring in 1992.
He played a pivotal role in social work in Scotland during the 1970s and 80s when local authority social work was at its high point, enjoying unparalled injections of resources and attention. Fred brought credibility as a powerful spokesperson and driving force at the head of western Europe’s largest social work authority. He was highly successful in developing social work in Strathclyde, increasing the range, depth and professionalism of services offered by his department during an auspicious period when people such as Geoff Shaw, Dick Stewart and Lawrence Boyle built vision into the council.
Fred brought significant improvements into child care, dismissing some of Strathclyde’s children’s homes as “an industrial process, not a home”. In the field of disability and learning difficulties he widened opportunites, and involved elderly people in planning their own care. He took pride in his “urban guerillas”, the welfare rights and community development workers who encouraged local people to challenge the system, and was a restless innovator in search of better ways of providing services. He had an uncanny knack of predicting big issues, for example foreseeing serious problems with drugs use and Aids.
Although he would not have chosen it to be so, Fred became best known to the public for the role he played during the miners’ strike of 1984-5 when he authorised loans to single miners amounting to £191,000 on grounds of destitution and hardship. These loans were ruled illegal and the decision was taken to hold him personally financially liable. After a vigorous public campaign, the government of the day relented.
He was popular among his staff both for his manifest and unbending commitment to the people he served and for his willingness to roll up his sleeves and lead from the front. He encouraged the principle of regarding an honest mistake or error of judgement as something to be learned from. Child deaths then as now invited savage witch-hunts with junior staff often exposed to intense and unprotected scrutiny. Fred will be remembered as the director who in front of the cameras put a protective arm round an area manager who had chaired a case conference that had returned a child, subsequently killed, to his parents. In an acutely difficult area of work where there are no guarantees and frequently insufficient information, for Fred the hanging offence was failure to care, not a decision taken with integrity, which subsequently proved to have been wrong.
He was tireless in his efforts to professionalise social work and was appointed visiting professor of Social Policy and Social Work at Glasgow University in 1986.
Love God, love thy neighbour
His Christian faith was deeply important to him, although he was not preoccupied with doctrinal issues – public orthodoxy, private heresy was a phrase he often used with a mischievous smile – and had a self-deprecating lack of pomposity about his beliefs: “I had an aspiration to righteousness, but my appetites kept getting in the way” – usually followed by his hallmark burst of laughter. As he grew older he described his faith as having grown more minimalist but more profound. For him, the two commandments to love God, and love his neighbour were core: the former as an antidote to egocentrism, and the latter as being “responsible as far as I can be for the state of the world”. With Fred, action followed words as evidenced by the central roles he and his wife Mary played in establishing a water purification and female literacy project in Cambodia in 2002, which continues to benefit many hundreds of people.
He would say that in his field of work if you wished to make a real difference, you had to be either a saint or a powerful bureaucrat. His was the latter route, and his primary interest was in how to marry his formidable energy, commitment and leadership skills to turning the wheels of power – how to get things to happen. In this he was not shy, and was in his element persuading, inspiring, cajoling, organising, finding common ground. His physical presence and charm, a talent for simplifying the complex, an instinctive understanding of how power worked, and the genuine interest he showed in others helped him to play an highly influential role in many different aspects of Scottish public life. After retiring, he gained a qualification in ecology. Among many other commitments, he chaired Link, the forum for Scotland’s voluntary environmental organisations, until 2007.
In 2005, Fred developed myeloma, an illness he faced with acceptance and humour. He would joke that as a driven man, the thought of eternal rest was very appealing.
He will be remembered with great respect as a deeply caring man who unremittingly spent his prodigious energy and talents in the pursuit of bettering other peoples’ lives, and in adding value to Scottish public life.
Fred is survived by his second wife Mary, and by his two sons David, Mark, his daughter Susan, and his step-sons Niall, David and Duncan.