Dame Sheila McKechnie

Director of the Consumers' Association

Sheila Marshall McKechnie, campaigner: born Falkirk 3 May 1948; Health and Safety Officer, ASTMS 1976-85; Director, Shelter 1985-94; Director, Consumers' Association 1995-2004; OBE 1995, DBE 2001; President, BEUC 2001-04; died London 2 January 2004.

Sheila McKechnie was a big woman - in every sense. Her untimely death at 55, after a long private struggle with cancer, takes away an assertive, sometimes dominant, champion of the public good.

She had a rare ability to focus on the absolute essence of the causes she espoused. Tall, attentive, with a deep, gamy voice and that kind of radical earnestness that embraces humour and stops short of zealotry, she always commanded attention. She was sometimes overheard, and never overlooked.

Martin O'Neill MP, who knew her from their student days in Edinburgh, remembers "an attractive, red-haired, hard-nosed girl from Falkirk" who was little changed when she gave trenchant evidence for the Consumers' Association to the Select Committee he chairs more than 30 years later. At Edinburgh University, where she studied Politics and History, she was touched by the student radicalism of the late Sixties, but never captured by its more infantile posturings. Her own radicalism came from her thoughtful working-class parents, and she never disavowed it. She would not be patronised, and she would get on.

She did this in her own way, neither sentimentalising her roots nor clinging overmuch to the hierarchies and compromises of party politics and the trade-union world. She could have made a lifelong contribution in either, but at the cost of too much trimming to nostrums she preferred to challenge.

After a second degree from Warwick, in Industrial Relations, she worked in health and safety protection for the trades unions, first the small Wallpaper Workers Union and then, for nine years, with the then ASTMS. From Clive Jenkins, its General Secretary, she learned the values of publicity and sound research - along with other secrets of trade-union leadership he probably never intended to reveal.

Then she became the public face, and the private dynamo, of Shelter. This powerful NGO, with deep and emotional support, put the problem of homelessness into public debate, with Des Wilson as director. But by 1985 he was long gone. Shelter was riddled with factionalism, just as, in the heyday of Margaret Thatcher, the plight of the homeless and the dispossessed was intensified. McKechnie was approached to take over as director. She was shaken by what she found, which she described with characteristic bluntness as "functioning more for the benefit of those who worked in it than for homeless people". She created appropriate management structures, forced the organisation to be professional. In her time at Shelter its funding base increased tenfold.

To conduct a successful rearguard action against the housing policies of a twice-elected government secure in its own fierce ideology, Sheila McKechnie needed the sharpest profile. Public-sector housing was shrinking, homeless young people less able to access benefits. Then in the late Eighties the collapse of the private-housing boom left millions of home owners with negative equity too. McKechnie and her allies fought everywhere on this stricken field.

"Why aren't we in the papers today?" she would demand of Jessica Morris at Shelter, and her indignation filled the airwaves. Conservative housing ministers such as Sir George Young discovered in private meetings that the abrasive campaigner was also formidably well-briefed.

Then a new opportunity arose, when the Consumers' Association sought a successor to John Beishon in 1994. The headhunters called in to help compile a shortlist did not include her in the list of industrial and financial suits they recommended. The strongest might have been chosen, but withdrew. McKechnie was called, and chosen forthwith; the first woman director. She could see that the organisation was not punching its weight, as she told the senior managers.

She knew what she wanted: a campaigning team that would empower the consumer, not just with better goods, but with better and safer services as well. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday to mark her arrival just nine years ago she was typically explicit. The targets were environmental damage, mendacious advertising, failure to regulate financial services and the privatised utilities, and oversight of health, housing, education and transport.

This seemed an abrasive agenda to some at CA, especially when coupled with new product developments that took some of its own products and endorsements closer to the marketplace.

She won through because she was honest as well as devastating. She respected CA's tradition while altering its role. The founders' group around Michael Young had been ostracised under her predecessor. She wooed them. The Council warmed to a director who said the same in public as in private. So did the President and the Chairman throughout her time, Lord Howe of Aberavon and Brian Yates, though neither was cut from her Calvinist cloth. She found good managers, and only occasionally feared their ambitions. She would have preferred, perhaps, to be her own director of campaigning, but on the policy side she knew where to find wise heads, including her former tutor at Edinburgh, James Cornford.

"Even as a student," Cornford remembers, "she was never one of the 'enragés', but a woman of powerful concentration and thought." So, when staff or colleagues found her looking up at them to say, "Quite honestly this is a load o' nonsense", they knew that some serious nonsense analysis was in the offing.

She was never just the formidable engine of destruction that her opponents saw. Some of the marketing decisions of her earlier years - sponsored credit cards and the like - were quietly dropped. Some campaigns changed targets with the times. She came to understand the European consumer organisation BEUC, and the subtle effectiveness of its long-term director, Jim Murray, better on acquaintance. In 2001 she became its president, from which eminence she was a powerful voice in Brussels. Bankers and bureaucrats, key Commissioners and quack "consumers" were all in her sights.

Her campaigns are the stuff of legend now. She arrived at CA just after the fateful linkage of the BSE epidemic and non-variant CJD in the human population. She thought the subsequent precautions too little too late, and campaigned for a Food Standards Authority that was open, independent and transparent. After the change of government in 1997 she got it, but was initially dismayed that a scientist, Sir John Krebs, was appointed to chair it, rather than a consumer figure. Krebs could see that she was "hostile to scientists when she thought they stood in the way of what people need", and produced a body of such transparency and forethought that she came to accept it, and him, as the public good she desired, although they never agreed about GM foods. A European Food Safety Authority followed.

The Carbusters campaign was a classic victory over an entrenched cartel that had believed it had the Government in its pocket and the buyer in its power. McKechnie was incensed that the purchase of a car, the second largest most people ever made, should be so distorted. CA imported cars to demonstrate how that cartel worked, set up a website to help customers get a real market price not an inflated one, and famously invaded the Motor Show itself with her own stand to protest the Great British Rip-Off.

Prices did fall, and this year the cartel in servicing and spares will go too. In subsequent alliance with Value Direct, CA took on the high-street retailers as well. White-goods man could be as dangerous as white-van man, she thought, and in equal need of restraint.

The unfinished campaign on financial services engaged McKechnie most. It brought out all her scorn, and fury. For here were the ultimate necessities, a roof over your head and future security, being cynically mis-sold, often without redress. Naming and shaming the sellers of endowment mortgages, finding ways of regulating consumer credit and defining unfair commercial practices, both in Britain and the EU were Sheila McKechnie's final crusades. The "fat cats" of financial provision will never sit easily while that campaign continues.

She had lived in the shadow of recurrent cancer for more than half her time at CA, but she continued to think ahead. Last autumn, when the cost of directory enquiry was privatised upwards in inverse ratio to its speed and accessibility, she called her old friend the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry again. "We really have to go for them on this," said the familiar growl to Martin O'Neill.

Now that deep voice is silenced. With it the jokes, the self-searching, the contradictions. The public woman lived an intensely private life, with her devoted partner of 27 years, Alan Grant. She was honoured as DBE, and since 1998 had been a director of the Bank of England, but knew that a woman was a woman a woman for a' that. She took no favours, lived simply. As she told her longest-serving colleague and deputy, Kim Lavely, when she arrived at CA, the only change in her life style would be that she could double her stake at the races.

The office Jaguar and the round-the-world trips were neither wanted nor used. She raised the stakes in her own life as she increased the dividend of wellbeing for millions of her fellow citizens.

Phillip Whitehead

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