A charming fixer

Terry Philpot looks at the life of Robin Huws-Jones, a driving
force behind advances in the 60s and 70s.

There is a particular poignancy in the news of the death of
Robin Huws-Jones at the age of 92. He was appointed to lead the
National Institute for Social Work Training at its inception in
1961, which will be replaced in October by the Social Care
Institute for Excellence. Robin was also an active member of the
Seebohm committee whose progeny, the social services departments,
now look, to many eyes, doomed.

Robin’s heyday in social work was when it was beginning to
enjoy a self-confidence and almost anything seemed possible.
Seebohm, whose central idea of “one door on which to knock” may
well have to be rediscovered when the results of the present
planned anarchy of providers and commissioners bears fruit, was the
most ambitious example of this.

The idea of a staff college came by a chance lunchbreak remark
at a meeting of the Younghusband working party on social work
training, of which Robin was also a member. He was at first
reluctant to take on the role of principal (a title which two of
his three successors held) because he lacked a social work
qualification. But he was to steer NISWT from 1961 to 1972 (it
became NISW in 1973). It trained social work teachers for the new
Younghusband courses and senior staff, developed international
links, set up a library, and generally became a centre for debate
and research. It also drew to together managers, practitioners and
academics from health and social services. Robin lived, literally,
above the shop and NISW’s collegiate atmosphere had very much
his stamp on it.

As a Seebohm member he was the fixer – he briefed the
chairperson, held the ring, negotiated, supported and smoothed
ruffled feathers.

Born in Corwen, north Wales on 1 May 1909, Robin’s mother
died when he was two and his father, a draper, took him to live in
lodgings in Liverpool. He left school at 15. While working a
14-hour day at a Liverpool YMCA centre, he took an external degree
at London in economics and sociology. His later master’s
thesis was on the chronic unreliability of school doctors’
assessments of malnutrition, on which entitlement to free school
meals was based. It gained him election as the youngest fellow of
the Royal Statistical Society and deeply influenced the shape of
the school medical service by providing scientific standards for
assessing malnutrition.

After university teaching in Liverpool and extra-mural teaching
in wartime Oxford, he became director of the social science courses
at University College, Swansea in 1948. While at Swansea, Robin
promoted the Lower Swansea Valley project which over 20 years
turned a bleak, toxic and redundant industrial landscape into
parkland with 500,000 trees and many amenities.

As associate director of the then Joseph Rowntree Memorial
Trust, he pioneered retirement communities, developing the Hartrigg
Oaks Retirement Care Community in York. It was here that he and his
wife Enid were to spend his last years.

Robin was a committee man whose charm, persuasiveness, political
gifts and seductive flattery found a socially productive outlet. He
once described to me a mutual friend as being as “cunning as a
serpent, and yet as harmless as a dove”. The same could be said of




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