Robin Guthrie: Public servant who overhauled the Rowntree Trust and the Charities Commission

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The Independent Online

What difference might this make to people in the back streets and tower blocks down there?" "There" was Camberwell, where Robin Guthrie began a career that took him next to Peterborough new town, then to York and the Rowntree Trust, back to London as Chief Charity Commissioner, and finally to Strasbourg as Director of Social and Economic Affairs for the Council of Europe. He never stopped asking that question and trying to find the answer to it.

He was born in Cambridge in 1937, and grew up in a pretty old cottage on its southern edge. He had a classical education at Clifton College in Bristol, and also discovered music, a lifelong passion. After Trinity College, Cambridge, he got a Certificate in Education at Liverpool University and then went to the London School of Economics, where he took an MSc in Economics. He was ready when Eric James, previously Chaplain of Trinity and now Warden of the College Mission in Camberwell, invited him there in 1962 to become Head of Cambridge House.

Guthrie threw himself into the task. Large-scale redevelopment was beginning to change a depressed area with poor facilities and a high illiteracy rate. Cambridge House proved a good place through which to confront its problems. He taught in a Brixton comprehensive, pioneered improvement of race relations, and learned how to wrestle with distant bureaucracies. He got married and began the family life that formed the vital background to an increasingly public life.

In 1969 he was appointed social development officer for Peterborough new town, where he was involved in creating The Cresset, a multi-purpose building that included an inter-denominational church and social centre. The task was achieved not without conflict, but he saw to it that "development" meant more than business premises and housing.

Settled at Alwalton, outside Peterborough, in a farmhouse where he could keep sheep, he commuted while working for the Department of Health and Social Security, 1975-79. Work on local-authority funding and research for social services proved a dead end, and he was glad to be invited to York to join the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust. The Trust, hitherto concerned with housing, turned in 1979 towards social change, and Guthrie was appointed director with this as his brief. Over the next decade he transformed the way in which the Trust and other charities saw their work.

The removal of much previously government-funded work to the "private sector" found charities struggling to respond to a vast increase in appeals for help. Guthrie was determined to more than merely respond; his plan was to identify areas of need, commission and publish reports by qualified advisers, and, after consultation, provide the funding to implement their recommendations. Rowntree Trust reports led to the "partnership funding" policy that characterised its work over a whole range of social projects. Sometimes the reports were controversial, but Guthrie saw to it that the research on which they were based was thorough.

In 1988 he was summoned back to London to be Chief Charity Commissioner, required to bring an antiquated bureaucracy up to date, and also to weed out charitable trusts and organisations of doubtful status. Mindful of past frustrations, he insisted that the Commission clarify the law on charities, which led to the Charities Act (1993). He simplified reports and procedures, introducing an overdue IT system; he also oversaw the Commission's move out of London to Liverpool.

In 1992 he was appointed director of Social and Economic Affairs at the Council of Europe. His remit was broad, but powers limited. His first task was to oversee the census that led to the Macedonian Plebiscite. His further responsibilities included demography and migration (not yet the huge problem it has become), social security, health (including illicit drugs) and employment. He ran the European Pharmacopoeia, mounted an international programme on Human Dignity and Social Exclusion, and promoted human rights in social policies.

In 1998 he retired and went back to the comfortable house, wisely retained, on the outskirts of York. There he had hens and a garden; he now found much else to do. Music and the arts were always the counterpoint to his professional work and his many positions in the arts included two stints as a member of the Arts Council between 1979 and 1988, and chairmanships of the Yorkshire Arts Association, the Yorkshire Regional Arts Board and the York Museum and Gallery Trust.

He became the first chairman of the York Early Music Foundation, seeing it become the National Early Music Foundation, and of the Rodolphus Choir, to give promising voices a good start. He was on the council of York University as well from 1982 to 1994 and thereafter a member of its court. As chairman of St John's College, York, he saw it rise to university status. He was also a governor of his local primary school. He helped set up Jessie's Fund to provide music for children in hospices, and was a trustee of the Thalidomide Trust.

Often consulted by those in need of help and advice, personal or institutional, he provided both, courteously but firmly. Passionate as well as compassionate, he wanted not an answer but the answer. Once found, there was no room for compromise or negotiation. A sense of humour went with his sense of purpose, but what really counted for him was to "make a difference".

Nicolas Barker

Robin Guthrie, public servant: born 27 June 1937; Assistant Director, Social Work Service, DHSS, 1975–79; Director, Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust, 1979–88; Chief Charity Commissioner for England and Wales, 1988–92; Director of Social and Economic Affairs, Council of Europe, 1992–98; married 1963 Sarah Julia Weltman (two sons, one daughter); died 12 April 2009.