John Prevett: Actuary who played a crucial role in winning compensation for the victims of thalidomide

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The Independent Online

For more than 40 years John Prevett was known as the Labour councillor who struggled to tinge the voters of the deeply blue Surrey commuter belt with a modest red hue. But Prevett was also the man whose actuarial skills tipped the balance in the battle for humane compensation for the victims of thalidomide.

Prevett's birth, in Glynde, East Sussex, was a near-run thing. His twin brother Peter arrived first and the distressed mother was forced to wait 12 more hours for a much larger John to emerge. Their father, who came from a family of railwaymen, had several postings as a station master in Surrey. The brothers were at John Ruskin College, Croydon when their father was in charge at the nearby Addiscombe station. John's facility in mathematics brought the offer of a scholarship but he was determined to become an actuary and turned down the chance of a university place. (Peter became an entomologist.)

Articled to the insurer, North British & Mercantile (today, Commercial Union), he completed the seven-year professional course in five years – at 22, the youngest ever to qualify. He was made to wait two years before he could practise as a full member of the profession.

Prevett came from a Christian background and at one stage had considered entering the clergy. His beliefs made him a conscientious objector and he refused to do his National Service. He worked, instead, for the Friends Ambulance Unit, with a spell as an ambulance driver in Vienna helping Hungarian refugees who had fled the Soviet invasion of their country. He married Joy, a Quaker, in 1959. He joined the City consultant actuaries Bacon & Woodrow, where he specialised in damages, appearing regularly in court on behalf of clients hoping to increase the compensation offered by insurance companies.

His role in the thalidomide story came about by chance. The editor of The Sunday Times, Harold Evans, was in the midst of a crusade to right the wrongs perpetrated by a drug that had caused hundreds of abnormal births in Britain and Europe. But for almost a decade sub judice rules had prevented them from telling the full story. Meanwhile, many of the parents had accepted a derisory offer of compensation by lawyers for Distillers Corporation, who manufactured the drug.

In 1972, James Evans, the newspaper's in-house lawyer, read a paper by Prevett in the Modern Law Review on the absence of a coherent method by which judges assessed personal injury damages. Prevett had cited a hearing in 1969 in which he gave expert evidence on behalf of a thalidomide boy born without arms and legs. His advice was ignored, with the result that the settlement awarded by the judge was so inadequate that by the time the boy turned 18 he would be living on social security. Recalling the episode in his recent memoir, My Paper Chase, Evans quotes Prevett as saying that Judge Hinchliffe had seemed to be asleep when the Distiller's counsel cross-examined him on the amount of compensation. The judge accepted Distiller's argument that inflation could be avoided in the calculation, "because the government had promised to control inflation."

Bruce Page, who ran the paper's Insight team, saw that Prevett offered a way back into the campaign – the argument could now be addressed as a moral obligation on Distillers without having to touch on the subject of negligence. Prevett became a background member of the paper's campaign team, and Distillers were forced into paying considerably improved compensation. One outcome of the case was that actuaries appearing for injured persons were listened to a little more carefully by the Bench.

In the 1974 New Year's honours list, Prevett was made an OBE for services to the disabled. He accepted, though it did not sit easily with his religious and political beliefs. But he understood that he was part of a wider group, among them the journalists, who had succeeded against the odds in improving the lives of the stricken families. In 1999, the Institute of Actuaries awarded him the Finlaison Medal, one of the highest honours bestowed by the profession, for his work in the field of assessing damages in injury cases.

He was also a pensions specialist, and visited Mauritius for several years to design a pension fund for the sugar industry. His paper "Pensions in Paradise" waxed lyrical on the delights of the island. "He bored us rigid about the place," his son Steven recalled. For more than 40 years, as a commissioner of tax for the Inland Revenue, he adjudicated on taxation appeals.

Outside the office, his financial skills and Christian beliefs drew him into his two passions, local politics and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Early on he had come under the spell of John Collins, the radical canon of St Paul's Cathedral. He recalled being warned by his local vicar to keep away from "that dangerous priest". He joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and worked for Christian Action, both founded by Collins. Over the years, he was active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Redhill, making sure he didn't buy South African goods.

He even managed to introduce the boycott into the august world of the actuarial profession. When South Africa's actuaries offered to host an international conference of the profession, Prevett argued strongly against. There was a vote and the 1986 venue was moved to Bermuda.

When Collins established an educational trust for Southern Africa, he chose Prevett as chairman of trustees; over the years, hundreds of poor students have been given a chance in life denied them by their own government. His successor, Jonathan Bloch, called him "one of the unsung heroes of the anti-apartheid movement." On one of Nelson Mandela's visits to England, Prevett was pleased to meet a fellow freedom fighter.

He became a Labour councillor in Reigate and Banstead in 1963, and the Tory-dominated council even allowed him to become mayor for a few years. On his retirement in 2006, "as an expression of the high esteem in which he was held", the borough made him an honorary alderman. In his retirement, he used his mathematical gifts to solve "killer" Sudoku puzzles, a glass of red wine usually at hand.

Denis Herbstein

John Henry Prevett, actuary and political activist: born Glynde, East Sussex, 6 April 1933; OBE 19794; married (two sons); died Reigate, Surrey 30 January 2010.