Obituary: Baroness Faithfull

One former Thatcherite cabinet minister once said to Baroness Faithfull: "I like you, Lucy, but I think you are wet and weak." She rounded on him: "Wet I may be," she responded, "But weak I am not."

Lucy Faithfull, a woman of great strength and purpose of character, belied by her physical appearance and personal demeanour, was the most publicly distinguished of the remarkable group (mostly women) whose impact on child care is still felt. She was a practitioner, manager and, latterly, a politician rather than a theoretician.

She was appointed by Oxford Council in 1948 (where she served until 1974, the last four years as director of social services) as one of the first children's officers. The Children Act, which created this breed of public servant, was one of the high tides of child care - a complete reshaping of services, a national commitment to children's welfare that tuned in to the general post-war optimism. The day before her death Faithfull was planning how the Act's 50th birthday could be celebrated. It was also the day when mandatory children's services plans - local authority-wide, multi- disciplinary statements of intent - passed into law.

Lucy Faithfull was born in 1910 in South Africa to a nurse and an army officer, in straitened circumstances. Her unhappy boarding-school years convinced her that children need a parent or parent substitute for a satisfactory emotional development. She was six when her father was killed in the First World War and her mother returned to England with her two children.

Educated in Bournemouth and at the Sorbonne (she paid her way by working in a Paris nursery) and with a social sciences degree at Birmingham University, Faithfull was attracted to social work from the beginning. Reading Mrs Gaskell's North and South and seeing, as a child, appalling social conditions pointed the way. She worked as a club leader and sub-warden at the Birmingham Settlement, later training as a caseworker and joining the London County Council as a care committee organiser. Her wartime experiences as a regional welfare officer for the evacuee programme gave her a shaping insight into the deleterious effects of separation on children. She then had a spell as an inspector with the Home Office children's department.

Lucy Faithfull was a reluctant peer. She was not a Conservative Party member and her party allegiance was largely unknown until she went to the Lords. She received a telephone call from Margaret Thatcher, then Leader of the Opposition, to say that Thatcher wanted her to go to the Lords. She demurred. She was, she said firmly, neither suitable nor able enough. There was a long silence on the other end of the line before Margaret Thatcher said: "But don't you realise there are queues waiting to go into the House of Lords?" "But Mrs Thatcher," came the reply, "I'm not in the queue."

She was persuaded by her brother from what would have been a planned retirement of travel and bird-watching and, whatever might have been expected of the first (and only) social worker ever to sit on the Lords' benches, few could have imagined the outstanding, tireless and rebellious advocate that she became. Despite social services often being the poor relation, politically, to health and education and ministers and opposition spokespersons changing frequently, she was consistent and forceful. She fought for the third year for social work training. She helped create and chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, in which capacity she had a seminal influence on the Children Act of 1989.

Two years ago her revolt against the Government's plans for secure training centres for young offenders secured the amendment which allowed magistrates the choice of sending them there or to local authority secure care. She opposed benefit changes, the poll tax, the creation of the Social Fund, and the asylum seekers' bill. She took gleeful satisfaction that government whips affectionately but exasperatingly dubbed her "Lady Faithless". One of her contributions was to draw attention to the implications for families and children in Bills where their interests were not immediately apparent.

Faithfull was possessed of a seemingly dauntless, indestructible energy. "One problem we Conservatives have," she said, "is that we often only speak to ourselves." In the largest conferences, the smallest briefings, she was to be found talking, questioning, listening; she gathered information that led to "a word with the minister", a parliamentary question, a debate, support for (or opposition to) a Bill or a clause. She brought together individuals, she convened meetings. Frequently her barely decipherable handwritten letters were penned on train journeys. While she held many trusteeships, chairs and presidencies - Barnardo's, the Caldecott Community, the National Children's Bureau (which she helped found), the NSPCC - none was titular: she would work, behind the scenes with ministers, on the committee grind. Last year, she helped create, after much public opposition, the Faithfull Foundation, to work with sex offenders.

Lucy Faithfull was a person of great charm and affection; kind, generous and lovable. Her conversation was peppered with anecdotes. She had endearing eccentricities. She loved nothing better than to entertain young people at the House - be they youngsters in care or the children of her friends. She remained in close touch with eight or nine people who were once, as children, in the care of Oxford.

She possessed that rare characteristic, genuine humility, which showed in the ease of her personal relationships. Her Christian faith was quietly held but very deep. "I do not know where I would be without my religion. Life is a triangle - myself, my neighbour and God," she once said.

Terry Philpot

Lucy Faithfull, social worker and children's campaigner: born South Africa 26 October 1910; Club Leader and Sub-Warden, Birmingham Settlement 1932-35; Assistant Organiser of Child Care, LCC Education Department 1935- 40; Regional Welfare Officer (Evacuation Scheme), Minister of Health 1940- 48; Inspector in Children's Branch, Home Office 1948-58; Children's Officer, Oxford City Council 1958-70, Director of Social Services 1970-74; OBE 1972; created 1975 Baroness Faithfull; Vice-President, National Association of Voluntary Hostels 1978-96; Vice-President, Barnardo's 1989-96; died London 13 March 1996.