Lady Tumim: Campaigner fearless of authority in her efforts to reform charity law

Lady Tumim, who died suddenly last Thursday, was a formidable public campaigner for changes in the management of charities and reform of the law respecting charities, but she was also an ebullient, vivacious and fun-loving person who enhanced and enriched the lives of her friends and family. Winifred's courage was her most obvious trait, but even when her movements were restricted because her husband, Sir Stephen Tumim, was discovered in 1990 to be on an IRA hit-list, she refused to behave with what she thought was undue solemnity. Life presented her with plenty of challenges to her sunny disposition, but despite her upright carriage and high-mindedness, she never lost her sense of humour or her sense of proportion.

Winfred Letitia Borthwick was the eldest of four children of Lt-Col Algernon Malcolm Borthwick, chairman of the family meat-importing business, scion of an ancient Scottish family (whose grandfather had been elevated to the peerage, but died just before the letters patent were issued) and Edith Wylde Addison, who inherited her father's house, Wethersfield Place in Braintree, Essex, where Winifred was brought up. Her father had a good war, and having been awarded an MC, stood as an unsuccessful Tory candidate in the 1945 election (mirrored by Winifred standing, unsuccessfully, for the SDP in Wantage, Oxfordshire, in the 1983 election). Winifred was well acquainted with family misfortunes, as her second brother, born when she was almost seven, lived only a month; and both parents were killed in a freak car crash caused by gales in 1975.

She went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she read PPE and took her degree in 1958. At Oxford she met Stephen Tumim, born in 1930 in Oxford, where his father Joseph was a Clerk of Assize of the Oxford Circuit. The Tumims were Sephardic Jews with as long a history in England as the Borthwicks boasted in Scotland. Winifred and Stephen married in 1962 and lived in a wonderful historic Georgian house overlooking the river in Hammersmith. River House had belonged to Lytton Strachey's cousin, Mary Hutchinson, and parts of it were decorated by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

The Tumim's first child, Matilda, was born the next year. The next two daughters, Emma (1964) and Olivia (1968) were born profoundly deaf, and this completely changed Winifred's life. She and Stephen devoted themselves to finding out everything they could about the condition, and what could be done so that the children could as normal a life as possible. Their efforts were successful; and they both achieved considerable expertise, with Winifred doing a diploma in linguistics at SOAS in 1979, while Stephen was chairman of the National Deaf Children's Society from 1974 to 1979. She served as chair of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf from 1985-92.

Owing to health problems, Stephen, though a successful barrister, decided not to apply for silk, but became a part-time judge in 1977, and a year later a full-time circuit judge. They would have carried on in this low-key way but for Douglas Hurd appointing him in 1987 as the third Chief Inspector for Prisons, initially slightly disappointing those who had hoped for a zealous prison reformer to get the post. Whitehall regarded Stephen and Winifred as clubbable members of the establishment, and got quite a shock when the bow-tied, half-moon spectacled, Beefsteak and Garrick member with a passion for Thomas Love Peacock wrote a succession of reports vociferously damning conditions in the prisons he'd inspected, and began his (ultimately victorious) campaign against the practice of "slopping out."

Winifred ably reinforced Stephen during the tenure of three more Conservative Home Secretaries, David Waddington, Kenneth Baker and Kenneth Clarke, until the fifth, Michael Howard decided he could not bear this thorn in his flesh, and not only sacked Stephen in 1995, but refused to recommend him for the usual knighthood.

This outraged Winifred, who knew all too well what the job had cost them both. Stephen had become the darling of the media, but his frequent appearances on television and on the front pages of the newspapers meant that he was also a high-priority target for the IRA. The security forces took the threat so seriously that the Tumims were forced to sell River House and move to a more easily secured house in Westminster. For two years Stephen was driven everywhere in an armoured car with police escort, and visitors to their country cottage at Pusey, Oxon, were greeted by men carrying sub-machine guns, who also accompanied them when they came to lunch or dinner with friends in the country (as I can testify). Stephen found more comedy in this than Winifred did; but she never gave any sign of dampened spirits. Winifred was grimly determined that Stephen should get his honour, and he did – only the year after Michael Howard dispensed with his services. She herself was made CBE in 2003.

Winifred again showed herself a force of nature in 1996 when Stephen was elected principal of St Edmund's Hall, Oxford, and I remember her moving the furniture of their lodgings around almost the day they moved in. Stephen, though adored by the undergraduates of Teddy Hall, fell foul of some of the older fellows, who liked Winifred even less; he gloomily resigned in 1998. It was her ironic resilience that made him see the funny side of this unpleasant episode in their lives, and kept it from crushing his mood. By the time Stephen died in 2003 while they were on holiday in the Galapagos, Winifred had already become the more active public figure of the two. Her entry in Who's Who lists about 20 causes with which she was associated.

She had chaired the Forum on Children and Violence, established after the Bulger murder case in 1993 to examine the well springs of child violence against an atmosphere in which the red-top papers were baying for retribution. Another area in which she interceded was the prevailing trend to irrational policy-making about teenage pregnancy, and from 2000 Winifred chaired the Independent Advisory Group on Teenage Pregnancy. In 1996, when the National Lottery Board was slated for making grants to organisations concerned with prostitution, gay rights and deporting immigrants, she wrote a thunderous letter to The Times, saying that the last thing charities needed "is busy ministers deciding which charities get grants. An independent board might raise a few eyebrows, but that is the price of living in a plural democracy and is a matter for celebration rather than criticism." Clear-sighted, Winifred could be refreshingly blunt.

She could also be bossy, but she made a virtue of it. She was already a substantial presence in the voluntary sector in the 1990s, and clear in her own mind about its problems. With 160,000 organisations involving a million and a half volunteers and turning over £17bn, it was obvious to her that standards of good governance were important – and often lacking.

Both the Charity Commissioners and the umbrella-group National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) were agitated about this, and in 1992 Winifred chaired a joint task force for them to examine the role of trustees. The task force discovered that only a third of serving trustees understood either their duties or their liabilities. Even the people who thought they ran the charities often, in fact, did not – she called this misapprehension "mad chair disease."

In her own work with charities for the deaf, Tumim had created an exemplary management model that joined up professional know-how with the commitment of volunteer workers, and her report for the NCVO promulgated this widely. She chaired the NCVO itself from 1996-2001, and for the last three years of her time in office led its working group on charity law reform. The principles of charity law then still derived from the preamble of a 400-year-old act; but there was resistance to change both in the legal profession and in the charity world. None the less, the task force presented a report in 2000 calling for a radical overhaul of charity law, and the Downing Street strategy unit agreed, resulting in the 2006 Charities Act.

What made Winifred so effective as a campaigner was her willingness to challenge authority – always just a little unexpected in someone of her background and circumstances, and something she had in common with her husband. Her energy could be overwhelming – it sometimes seemed as boundless as her heart. She loved painting (and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from 1992-96), music, food, drink and vigorous conversation – her twinkling eye always indicating an inkling of self-irony. The day before her death she went to the Welsh National Opera's La Traviata in Oxford, and she died at the end of a dinner party at which she'd very much enjoyed arguing politics with her hosts.

Paul Levy



Winifred Letitia Borthwick, campaigner, born 3 June 1936; Chairman: Royal National Institute for the Deaf, 1985–92; OBE 1992, CBE 2003; married 1962 Sir Stephen Tumim (died 2003; three daughters); died 5 November 2009.

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