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

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.

Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
News
Lane Del Rey performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
people... but none of them helped me get a record deal, insists Lana Del Rey
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Java Developer

£40000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a...

SAP Functional Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £45,000 - £55,000.

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Functional ...

Javascript Developer

£40000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn