Lord Brett: Trade union leader and politician who fought for workers' rights around the world

 

Bill Brett was a large man in every sense. Tall, with a vibrant character and a reputation for forthrightness, he rose from being a railway clerk to lead the workers group at the International Labour Organisation, the UN body for employment standards, where he led the fight against the worst forms of child labour. Having spent years fighting for workers' rights, Brett, always an active member of the Labour Party, would go on to become a junior minister in Gordon Brown's Labour government, one of his responsibilities being to introduce the controversial identity card.

Brett was born in Bury, Lancashire in 1942 to Irish parents. He was fiercely proud of his background, paying frequent trips back to Carnagopple and Curry. He was educated at St Joseph's Primary School and then at Radcliffe Technical College in Manchester. He was a lifelong Manchester United supporter; he once played truant to watch his club but was spotted by a teacher, resulting in a caning. Eventually he would become patron of the Supporters Club; one of his earliest memories was standing in the rain to watch the bodies of the Busby Babes come home. On his retirement he was presented with a Manchester United No 7 shirt – David Beckham's number at the time.

He left school at 16 to become a British Rail ticket clerk. By 1964 he had become a full-time officer for the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, the first of several union positions which included working for the National Union of Bank Employees, the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staff, then in 1974 the Institute of Professional Civil Servants. His involvement with trade unionism came as a reaction to injustice: as far as he was concerned organised trade unionism was the best way of fighting it. He had little time for those who supported the block vote and unballoted strikes.

In 1989 he became General Secretary of the IPCS and a member of the TUC General Council. He oversaw the change in the union's scope of membership to broaden and include leading professionals, resulting in the renaming of the union to reflect such changes to become the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists – now part of Prospect. Attempts to merge the union with others failed, however.

Brett's exuberance and his ability to analyse and cut through any argument to get to the base of any problem stood him in good stead with the fights throughout the 1980s with the Thatcher government, which included the GCHQ dispute. As a British Workers' Delegate to the International Labour Organisation, and a member of the TUC's General Council, Brett made sure that the problems of the British civil servants received a world profile and that GCHQ became a cause célébre with the worldwide trade union movement.

The TUC's General Secretary Brendan Barber met him during that time. "Brett was a big man with a big presence," he said. "He devoted his life to trade unionism but was never the bureaucrat. When Bill was in the room people took notice. He was never short of an opinion and his contribution to any debate was worth hearing."

It was his work for the ILO that established Brett's international reputation. He was to play a central role in the organisation over some 20 years, firstly as the British Worker member of the Governing Body; as Chair of the Group and subsequently of the Governing Body, and then as Director of the London Office. He played a major part in the development of the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Brett also fought hard against child labour. Paying tribute, the leading American trade unionists Penny Schantz and Jerry Zellhoeffer said in a statement: "Bill was unquestionably the strongest and most effective ILO Worker spokesman in recent history. Among his many contributions was the ILO's Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. His contribution will impact for generations to come."

In 1999 Brett was made a life peer, serving in various capacities. In 2009 he became a government whip and junior minister, dealing among other things with ID cards. Later he would act as the opposition front bench spokesman on home affairs and international development. The former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, a fellow former trade union leader, specifically requested that Brett work for him. "He was excellent," Johnson said. "Bill's politics were driven by a fundamental belief in the importance of independent trade unions to a free society."

Peta Steel

William Henry Brett, trade unionist and politician: born Bury, Lancashire 6 March 1942; Assistant Secretary, Assistant General Secretary, General Secretary, Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (formerly IPCS); cr 1999 Life Peer, of Lydd in the county of Kent; married 1961 Jean Valerie (divorced 1986; one son, one daughter), 1994 Janet Winter (divorced 2006; two daughters), thirdly Amanda Milne; died Carlisle 29 March 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own