Sir Peter Barclay: Lawyer and reformer who led an inquiry into income and wealth in Britain that paved the way for the minimum wage


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Sir Peter Barclay emerged from worthy but relative obscurity to chair the Committee on the Roles and Tasks of Social Workers at the government's behest in 1981. He later headed the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's Inquiry into Income and Wealth which examined in depth the growing inequalities in British society.

Run under the aegis of the National Institute for Social Work, of which he was chairman (and later president), the job of leading the social work committee was something of the proverbial poisoned chalice, not least as there were contending views about just what those roles and tasks were. (The professional association, the British Association of Social Workers, at one time even had a committee on "iatrogenesis" which considered whether social workers did more harm than good.)

But Barclay's skill as a chair, his charm, good manners and ability not to be flustered, as well as his disciplined attitude toward his committee's work, produced a report in within a year. Alas, it reflected the divisions in the profession. The report was the first to explain social care planning as a part of social work. It anticipated modern notions of social capital by identifying that social workers needed to engage "informal networks" in their job, to stimulate "a continuum of care" which was the range of residential and community options for those needing help. This was the first proper systematic recognition of the use that social workers could make of informal and family carers, mutual aid groups and volunteers in providing social care.

A dissenting report, by Professor Roger Hadley, Keith White and Pat Brown went further in proposing that social work ought to be about community work, while, at the other extreme, Professor Robert Pinker contended that social work needed to be "modest in its objectives" and that its role was a traditional one of case work with individuals and their families.

To an extent, the serious differences in opinion within the committee may have made it easier for the Conservative government to choose to read the report to suit its own ideological purposes. With no justification it took it to imply that the state should scale back its activities, while families and communities should shoulder more responsibility.

In less than a decade this expressed itself in the report by Sir Roy Griffiths and legislation to turn local authorities into "enablers" rather than "providers", with charities and private providers taking over services. The 1991 NHS and Community Act diminished the role of local authorities, and successive governments have continued this apace.

Barclay was born in south London to George, a businessman, and Josephine (née Lambert). His childhood was spent in the Quaker village of Jordans in Buckinghamshire and he attended the unconventional Bryanston School in Dorset. His reading history at Magdalene College, Cambridge, was delayed by wartime service with the Royal Navy. Qualifying as a solicitor, he was only 29 when he took charge of the ailing City law firm of Beachcroft (now the international company DAC Beachcroft) on the death of the elderly partners of the firm, and turned it into one of the City's most successful.

When Barclay became chair of the National Institute for Social Work in 1975 it was not about appointing a sympathetic City person as a figurehead: he was no newcomer to social concern. His firm Quaker roots had imbued him with the public-service ethic. He had worked as a volunteer offering free legal advice at the Mary Ward House settlement in Bloomsbury and in 1972 became a trustee of the Quaker Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust (now the Joseph Rowntree Foundation).

It was his chairmanship of the Foundation from 1996 to 2001 that led him to his most unequivocally influential work. It was no small tribute to his diplomatic skills and personal qualities that he chaired the Foundation's Inquiry into Income and Wealth in 1995 which comprised representatives of both the CBI and the TUC, among others.

Backed by a thorough-going analysis, it surveyed the situations of families, those in work and those out of it, and social security. The report's recommendations included the introduction of the minimum wage and better support for lower-income families. The inquiry had grown out of the deepening poverty and increasing inequality of the Thatcher and Major years and many of its recommendations were ripe for adoption by the incoming 1997 Labour government.

In 1984 he took on an official role when he was appointed chairman of the old Social Security Advisory Committee, whose reports analysed the state of social security, with his advice informing the actions of both civil servants and secretaries of state at the Department of Social Security. For all this time he worked for Tory ministers, and his standing was such that he was invited to be a member of the departmental board of the DHSS. He was awarded a CBE in 1984 and in 1992 a knighthood, which, with characteristic modesty, he was surprised by.

His other roles included chair of the St Pancras Housing Association (founded by his aunt, Irene Barclay) and Horticultural Therapy. He was also a trustee and later chair of Home Start, which works with families with young children. Having lived in London for most of his life, he moved to Bath in 2001 with his wife Elizabeth; his later years were affected by dementia.


Peter Maurice Barclay, lawyer and social reformer: born London 6 March 1926; CBE 1984, Kt 1992; married 1953 Elizabeth Wright (two daughters, one son); died Bath 29 June 2014.