Charismatic social services director with a passion for justice
- Terry Philpot
- The Guardian,
One of the most charismatic and influential social services directors of the last 30 years, Brian Roycroft, who has died aged 68 following a heart attack, was, literally, born into the job - at the children's home in Frodsham, Cheshire, run by the National Children's Home (now NCH). His mother and father worked there as houseparents, and Brian and his sister moved with them from children's home to children's home.
He became director of social services at Newcastle-upon-Tyne when the department was created in 1971, and retired nine years ago, but he served not only his adopted city with distinction but also the cause of social work and childcare nationally.
When he took over, there were few, if any, qualified social workers in Newcastle; Brian was instrumental in creating one of the first departments to boast an almost 100% qualified workforce. But professionalism meant more to him than having a qualification, which is why he found the social work strike of 1978-79 so painful and damaging. He allied long experience, enormous energy, commitment and passion with great articulacy, which gave him the ear of government ministers and civil servants, and the respect and admiration of the profession. It made him one of the two or three most forceful advocates for childcare and social work in Britain.
Despite his family background, Brian was, at first, undecided on a job. He had won a fellowship to the Methodist public school, Ashville College; then nat- ional service experience, as an RAF pilot and officer dealing with often uneducated NCOs, persuaded him to do something socially useful.
He trained as a social worker at Birmingham and Leeds universities. In 1957, he became a childcare officer with Hertfordshire, where the novelist and social worker John Stroud was his supervisor. In 1961, he became assistant area officer for the London county council children's department and, three years later, went as children's officer to Gateshead , where he had to buy a bowler hat to wear for work.
Brian became children's officer in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1967. One of his first cases was that of the child murderer Mary Bell, whose biographer, Gitta Sereny, called him "one of the finest social workers in the country" and referred to "his passion for social justice".
Today, with government favouring care trusts and primary care trusts, and social work in danger of being subsumed within the NHS, it is difficult to imagine that very heaven which saw the departments' dawn in 1971. Brian's gifts as a young manager, an increasingly wily politician and a forceful conference speaker were ably suited to the optimism and expanding budgets that characterised the early years, and helped to set the departments on an exciting course.
However, he came to see that the specialist skills and knowledge of childcare workers would be lost in the all-purpose departments. He also came to believe that the later change of role for local auth- orities - from providers to commissioners - distanced workers from their clients, and social services committees from services.
Brian was one of only two members of the Association of Directors of Social Services to serve as both president and secretary, and continued on the national stage even when he left office. For some years, he served on the social and economic committee of the then EEC. In retirement, he took on a number of positions, including the chair of a local housing association he had founded. Until recently, as chairman of the Alzheimer's Disease Society, his expertise was often sought abroad.
Brian had been successfully treated for cancer over the last year, although at one time his prognosis was very poor. However, when I saw him in March, after his chemotherapy ended, he was his customarily optimistic and good- humoured self, as ever enjoying a good malt and gossip. He was planning a big celebration for his 70th birthday next year. "Then I am looking forward to tackling the next 10 years," he said.
He is survived by his second wife Pat, a social worker, their daughter Emma, and the two children of his first marriage.
· Brian Roycroft, social services director, born October 29 1933; died May 24 2002