Dame Mary Smieton

Formidable Permanent Secretary

When Harold Wilson in December 1962 chose me to go on the Public Accounts Committee of which he was then Chairman, I was summoned to his room. He explained what he expected of me as a member, and then said, with an impish twinkle, "And, for pity's sake, don't ask off-beam questions of those two Dames at Housing and Education - or they'll have you for breakfast."

Mary Guillan Smieton, civil servant: born Cambridge 5 December 1902; Assistant Keeper, Public Record Office 1925-28; staff, Ministry of Labour and National Service 1928-59 (on loan to the Home Office as General Secretary, Women's Voluntary Services 1938-40, to the UN as Director of Personnel 1946-48), Under-Secretary 1946-55, Deputy Secretary 1955-59; DBE 1949; Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education 1959-63; Chairman, Bedford College Council 1964-70; died Twickenham, Middlesex 23 January 2005.

When Harold Wilson in December 1962 chose me to go on the Public Accounts Committee of which he was then Chairman, I was summoned to his room. He explained what he expected of me as a member, and then said, with an impish twinkle, "And, for pity's sake, don't ask off-beam questions of those two Dames at Housing and Education - or they'll have you for breakfast."

Dame Evelyn Sharp, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing, and Dame Mary Smieton, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education, the first and second ever female Permanent Secretaries in the British civil service, were truly formidable ladies, who from time to time did have their male colleagues for proverbial breakfast. To have reached such eminence 40 or more years ago, ladies had to be truly formidable, and they were.

Mary Guillan Smieton was born in 1902, the daughter of John Guillan Smieton, Librarian and Bursar of Westminster College, Cambridge, who imbued his daughter with theology and biblical knowledge. After a period at the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, she went to Wimbledon High School and then on to Bedford College, London, and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she took first class honours in PPE.

She distinguished herself in the open competition for the administrative class of the Civil Service in 1925 - the first year when women were considered for entry to the élite - and opted for the Public Record Office; she never regretted it. She worked extremely well for Sir Ernest Pollock Bt (later Viscount Hanworth), who was Keeper of the Public Records and Master of the Rolls. However in 1928 she decided that she would go into the mainstream rather than make a career in the PRO and was transferred to the Ministry of Labour and National Service.

In the 1930s her sympathies were with the plight of many working people; it was understandable that she should get on famously with Ernie Bevin when he became Minister of Labour in Winston Churchill's government and she had reached a seniority which brought her into contact with the Cabinet Minister responsible.

She "clicked" with Bevin. It was he who was to recommend her to Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations being set up in New York, as Director of Personnel in 1946. She was well qualified for this job, as she had had responsibility for organising the Women's Voluntary Services at the beginning of the Second World War.

On her return in 1948 she came back to her old department; she told me that she had had no difficulty in working both for a Labour government and for the Conservative government, in particular the enlightened Iain Macleod, whose grasp and intelligence she greatly admired.

In 1959 she was plucked out of the Ministry of Labour and made Permanent Secretary to Geoffrey Lloyd, who had been brought back by Harold Macmillan from the political dead and made Secretary of State for Education. His keen interest in technical education quickly showed itself and in 1958 he announced a five-year plan for the development of secondary education in the White Paper Secondary Education for All. It was Smieton's job to oversee the changes implied in the implementation of the White Paper.

Among other steps taken during Lloyd's period of office were the launching of a programme to expand places at teacher training colleges, and the setting up of the Albemarle Committee to make recommendations for improved youth services. With her Ministry of Labour background Smieton made a huge contribution to all the new initiatives to address the problem of the integration of schools and youth services, catering for the needs of school leavers. She was always very conscious that the responsibilities of the state to young people did not end on the day on which they left the classroom.

Where Smieton had difficulty inside the department was with her powerful colleague Sir Toby Weaver, who as Under-Secretary responsible for higher education had hoped to get the Permanent Secretary's post. Weaver was married to the daughter of Sir Charles Trevelyan Bt and thought rightly that he was the greatest expert on higher education. Wisely Smieton left most of the responsibilities involved in the establishment of Macmillan's eight new universities to Weaver and they established a modus vivendi.

A major contribution that she herself made was in the matter of forward budgeting. She set the ball rolling in the early Sixties for the future, more sensible approach to budgeting, and stood up to the Treasury, who at that time insisted on annual decision-making.

On her retirement she became Chairman of the Council of Bedford College and played an active part in the policy of London University. She also found time to be the UK representative on the executive board of Unesco. Later she was to be on the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries and, between 1974 and 1977, when she was a remarkably active and alert 75-year-old, was an active Vice-President of the Museums Association.

For 10 years from 1963, she was a trustee of the British Museum, serving as chairman of the working party looking into the museum's educational services. As such she had a significant effect on the bringing up to date of the previous rather sketchy service, and its creative development.

Tam Dalyell

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