Sir Lancelot Errington: Civil servant who helped found the Welfare State


Happily married to the same lady for 70 years, Lance Errington – it did not occur to us to call such an unpompous and witty man Lancelot – was a hugely effective civil servant who devoted his working life to welfare and his social life to keeping friendships in first-class repair.

Errington was born in the then ancestral home at Beeslack, Penicuik, the son of Major Lancelot Errington, who was fighting with the Royal Scots in Flanders at the time, and was subsequently to farm at Quinish on the Isle of Mull. I asked him how many servants there were in his childhood. "About 20," came the matter-of-fact reply.

With the prospect of being packed off to the Spartan, cold-bath regime of Belhaven prep school at seven, the family arranged for him to have boxing lessons. Errington told me that boxing had taught him to stay cool and keep a firm grip on his temper.

From Wellington Errington went to Trinity College, Cambridge, winning first class honours in History and entry into the Home Civil Service. With the prospect of war, he joined the RNVR. After basic training, in January 1940 Errington was given command of a mine-sweeping trawler, tasked to patrol the Firth of Forth and the approaches to Rosyth, based in Granton Harbour.

He recalled being at anchor in the Forth of Tay off Dundee when a signal came through that the German invasion fleet was on its way. "Our instructions were to set out to sea, to meet the German Armada, and if necessary to ram the German ships." With a chuckle – Errington often chuckled – he added: "By the grace of God the instruction turned out to be a false alarm."

Seconded in 1944 to work for the Admiralty in Bath, he found himself required to share an office with John Betjeman. With a twinkle, he complained that he would often discover the future Poet Laureate sleeping under his desk after a well-oiled lunch.

Back in the Home Office, Errington was one of a dozen officials detailed to work on the implementation of the Beveridge Report. He was one of the unsung practical creators of the Attlee government's Welfare State, and in particular the Ministry of National Insurance, to which he was to devote his talents. Credit tends to accrue to ministers; it was civil servants like Errington who did the crucial spadework to set up the framework of post-war state pensions and health provisions.

I first encountered Errington when he had been seconded to the Cabinet Office to try to sort out Lords reform. He and his colleagues came up with proposals for a two-tier chamber of voting and speaking peers. Errington was unsurprised when it was rejected by politicians in May 1968. As I had been Dick Crossman's PPS, a fly on the wall, on that occasion, I reminded Errington of it after he had retired to his beloved Fashnacloich in Appin, Argyll. "Lords reform," he grunted. "Mission impossible. Two years I wasted."

Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth, later Clerk of the Parliaments, was a member of the Inner Civil Service Working Group on Lords reform in 1967, along with Michael Moriarty, from the Home Office, and Errington from the Cabinet Office. He recalled, "Lance was an old-style civil servant, correct with ministers, and who did not kow-tow to them. I would go to a complicated meeting with complicated papers, and next day Errington as secretary of the group, would have produced detailed and accurate minutes. It was a genuine honour to have worked with him in those days."

Sir Patrick Nairne, his First Permanent Secretary at the DHSS, told me: "I was responsible for the oversight of this huge department. Lance, as one of two Second Permanent Secretaries, looked after his side of the department very efficiently. Whenever I phoned him, he knew the answer." Errington's mastery of complexity also won golden opinions from Brian O'Malley, the influential Minister of State directly responsible for pensions.

In her diaries Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State, records Errington being at her side in her formal encounters with Treasury ministers on Sunday 4 April 1976: "Lance Errington and Co are fighting magnificently on my behalf ... I can leave it to them to do the infighting."

The last 30 years were a time of extreme happiness for husband and wife, his son Humphrey told me: "She, a potter of no mean talent, established a studio in the former vestry, and he immersed himself in the affairs of the community and church as well as being able to indulge his passion for sailing on board his boat."

It came as a surprise to Whitehall colleagues that this Whitehall warrior should take himself off to a remote part of Scotland. It need not have, since for the next third of a century Errington achieved his wish, to immerse himself and his wife in the West Highlands – according to his son because "he had grown tired of the company of High Heidjins in London, and wanted to live among normal people again."

Lancelot Errington, senior civil servant: born Penicuik, Midlothian 14 June 1917; Ministry of National Insurance 1945-65; Cabinet Office 1965-68; Department of Health and Social Security 1968-76, Second Permanent Secretary 1973-76; CB 1962, KCB 1976; married 1939 Katherine Reine (died 2009; two sons, two daughters); died Kirkcaldy 18 October 2011.