Obituary: Mary Tuck

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Mary Tuck was one of the least typical of Home Office civil servants, but she came to represent the best of those parts of the Department's tradition which were concerned with fairness, humanity and intellectual discipline. It is as a civil servant that she will mainly be remembered, and for which she was awarded the CBE, but her time in the Home Office was only part of a varied and productive career which began 25 years earlier and continued for seven years after she left until her death.

She was born in St Helen's in Lancashire, a member of a devout Roman Catholic family which still had memories of poverty and persecution in Ireland. Her faith and her origins were always important to her. She never paraded them in public or claimed any special authority from them, but they contributed to the deep understanding of people and situations, which became a special part of her contribution to professional life.

She attended the Convent School of Notre Dame in St Helen's, where she became Head Girl in 1944 and won an Open Scholarship to read English at St Anne's College in Oxford. Because she was not yet old enough to take up her scholarship, she spent a preliminary year at Liverpool University in 1945-46. After leaving Oxford, she spent a year at the University of Pittsburgh in 1949-50.

Her career began with two years at Government Communications Headquarters, but changed direction when she became Assistant Editor of Vogue in 1952 and a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson the following year. She spent the next 22 years as a copywriter and as a copy marketing research consultant, working with various organisations but mostly independently. During this period she married and had her four children; and she also took a further degree in Psychology at the London School of Economics.

Her career took a new turn when she joined the Home Office as a Direct Entry Principal in 1975. Her first posting was to the Broadcasting Department, but in the following year she transferred to the Research Unit as a Principal Research Officer. She became Head of the Unit (then the Research and Planning Unit) in 1985, and retired in 1989.

The Research and Planning Unit had always occupied a special, and sometimes controversial place in the culture and structure of the Department. Formed as the Home Office Research in R.A. (later Lord) Butler's time as Home Secretary, it was one of the first and largest criminological research organisations in Europe, designed to provide an empirical base for the development of policy relating to the prevention of crime and the treatment of offenders. With the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge, the Centre for Criminological Research at Oxford and other work being done in London, it was also intended to promote the study of criminology as an academic discipline.

Under the previous Heads of the Unit, it had built up a powerful reputation in the academic community, in this country and abroad. It was having an increasing influence on the development of policy and professional practice, although in political circles it was also gaining a reputation for "liberal" thought and a sense that it was beginning to have an identity and approach of its own, separate from those of Ministers.

The situation in 1985 needed delicate handling. On the one hand, the Thatcher administration's Financial Management Initiative and its emphasis on information, evaluation and results gave the Unit a potentially more powerful influence on the formation of the Department's - and the Government's - policies. On the other hand, there was a need for the Unit to demonstrate its own value for money and to avoid any suggestion that it was pursuing its own policies independently of the political administration of the day. It also had to comply with the Rothschild Report and a more managerial approach to the funding of government research as a whole.

Mary Tuck was admirably qualified to tackle this situation. Her background in market research gave her an understanding of customers' expectations and how to meet them, and of how research could be applied to the demands of the moment. She quickly gained the confidence and respect of Ministers. At the same time, she never lost sight of the importance of a longer-term sense of direction and purpose, and of the ability to anticipate and meet future research needs as they might appear in three or four years time. It was largely on her initiative that the arrangements for preparing the Unit's internal and external research programme were put on a more systematic basis, and the wider academic community was for the first time formally involved in its formulation.

Tuck did not think it important to have a long list of her own publications, although her own paper on alcohol and disorder was and is one of the most important contributions to the public and political understanding of the subject. She preferred to encourage the work of others, and most of the distinguished and influential papers produced by the Research and Planning Unit during that period, and many of those produced in universities, owe much to her influence and encouragement.

Her approach was always in one sense practical and based on common sense, but speaking in Oxford some years after her retirement, she pointed out the important difference between the common sense and the scientific view of human behaviour and of what would work in practice. She argued that independent research was needed to support the scientific view, and in a broader sense to sustain the values of citizenship, legitimacy and openness.

Mary Tuck would not accept a description as a feminist, or any other classification or stereotype, but her sensitivity, understanding and example had an important influence on the Department's policies, and its own behaviour, in matters where race or gender were concerned. She was also one of a number of senior women officers in charge of divisions with related responsibilities in the criminal police and research fields who worked together in a spirit of co-operation, without the emphasis on defining responsibilities and defending territory that would have been characteristic of their male colleagues in an earlier generation.

She was an exceptional communicator, able to present information in a lively and often humorous way which caught the attention of public and professional audiences and which always stimulated a lively and productive response. This skill was particularly valuable at a time when the Department was trying to establish a better public understanding of the extent and nature of crime, the character of offenders, and the possible means of dealing with them, through its programme of open days and conferences.

As well as presenting the facts and the issues, she showed an understanding of human behaviour which pointed towards an approach to crime and criminality based on social inclusion and social and collective responsibility, rather than exclusive reliance on law enforcement and punishment (although punishment always had its place). This approach probably found its most powerful expression in her lecture on the dangers of a carceral society, delivered in Australia at a conference to mark the 200th anniversary of the beginning of transportation.

Tuck was no less active in the years after her retirement. She became a visiting professor at Cranfield, a member of the Economic and Social Research Council, a member of the Parole Board and Chair of Victim Support. She was in constant demand as a lecturer, broadcaster and adviser, not least to Lord Justice (now Lord) Woolf in his inquiry into the prison disturbances in April 1990. The values which she represented while she was in the Home Office are reflected throughout the Inquiry's report.

She chaired Victim Support's committee on domestic violence, where her achievement was both to bring together a wide range of diverse, competing and often conflicting interests, and to produce an agreed report which remains the most authoritative and influential statement on the subject in this country and in many countries abroad.

In all the organisations where she worked she will be remembered for her experience - of public service and of life - for her insight and sympathy, and for her warmth, compassion and humour. These were the qualities which she always contributed to the business of the organisation; but to colleagues, staff and fellow board or council members, she was a friend with whom any problem could be shared and any burden would be made lighter. She was deeply serious about the things that were important to her, but she was fun to be with and a wonderful companion.

Mary Tuck's death coincided with her own Church's publication of "The Common Good". It is in effect a statement of the values which guided her personal and professional life.

Mary McDermott, researcher and civil servant: born St Helen's, Lancashire 5 May 1928; married 1955 Robin Tuck (two sons, two daughters); died Warwick 20 October 1996.