Obituary: Baroness Birk

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The Independent Online
Whenever the date approaches for the nominations of new life peers there is some anxiety in the upper house about their new companions. And when the names are announced of this most distinguished of quangoes there is muttering in the Bishops' Bar and even in the Library. "Why him? Why her?" There were no such queries when Alma Birk was elevated in 1967. She was well known in the Labour Party, but more importantly in public life in several spheres.

She was an experienced magistrate and especially concerned with the problems of juvenile crime. She made this the subject of her maiden speech. She said: "I would like to see a bigger probation service, better paid, because a probation officer is sometimes the only person with whom the young person can create a stable relationship, which is absolutely essential." And she asked for more research into the causes of alienation from society of many young people - a cruel problem still unresolved.

But this was only one aspect of her many-faceted life. She and her talented husband Ellis (a distinguished lawyer) shared a sensitivity for what is vaguely called the arts - for music, theatre, ballet, pictures, cinema. This was not snobbish expenditure but an alertness for the encouragement of young unknowns. Their support, both personal and financial, for so many causes was generous and diverse - the open-air theatre in their beloved Regent's Park for instance, where they lived in Hanover Terrace for many years.

She was born Alma Wilson, in 1917. Her parents ran a successful greetings cards company and unlike some contemporary politicians she never pretended to have any roots in personal poverty. What she and Ellis Birk (they married in 1939) cared about most was that other people should be able to enjoy all things good and beautiful and not be blinded by poverty or disability. Perhaps they were the heirs of William Morris and Bernard Shaw. Certainly they both supported the Fabian Society for many years.

Alma's commitments in what is now called a caring society were only one side of her exhausting life. There was much personal quiet kindness and generosity which remained anonymous.

I first met Alma Birk in 1953. I was down the drain because my husband, Dr S.W. Jeger, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, had died suddenly in his early fifties. I was a candidate for the by-election and somehow I had to live between the funeral and polling day. Transport House appealed for volunteers from beyond the constituency for what was regarded a marginal battle. One morning a slim young woman more elegantly dressed and with a cleaner car than was usual appeared outside our Somers Town committee rooms. The loudspeaker on her car actually worked and her voice was the most attractive on her rounds. And her thoughtfulness included ensuring that the miserable candidate had something to eat - especially on polling day.

Of course Alma knew about election strain. She fought three times without success (Ruislip-Northwood once, in 1950, and Portsmouth West twice, in 1951 and 1955). After these personal disappointments she never grudged helping other candidates to win.

After graduating at the London School of Economics she successfully fought for a seat on Finchley Borough Council (Thatcher country) and became leader of the Labour group. But politics were only part of her life. She wanted to write. She told me that she felt as if there was printer's ink in her veins. Her first job after leaving the LSE was as a columnist on the Daily Herald. She was no dilettante - she was strict about deadlines, accurate in research, and always fair in judgement.

This led on in the Sixties to her appointment as associate editor of the exciting, venturesome magazine Nova. It was successful in its time but times outgrew it in the view of the backers.

There must have been some kind of dynamo within Alma Birk's slim frame. She cared lovingly for her family (two children and six grandchildren) and for friends famous and unknown. Somehow, she managed to cope with too long a list of commitments to record. But her work included being a Governor at LSE, a prison visitor at Holloway, a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Theatres Trust and Holocaust Memorial Committee; and in 1969 she was appointed chairman of the Health Education Council - a full-time job which never provided any excuse for neglecting the many other responsibilities, which included generous hospitality.

In the House of Lords she was appointed Baroness in Waiting (government whip) and then to the Department of the Environment as Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State in 1974 and in 1979 as Minister of State to the Privy Council. She was happiest as the chief opposition frontbench spokesman on the arts, libraries, heritage, and broadcasting. The long list never daunted her and every speech was carefully researched and clearly expressed.

For people who didn't know Alma Birk this must seem to convey a serious lady - too good to be true. Nobody was less like an academic good-doer. She was always good company, witty, amusing and friendly. She never forgot to ask about ailing colleagues and to follow up their needs without telling. We have missed her in the House for some time. But on three-line whips her frail figure walking with a stick was to be found chatting her lively way through the division lobby when some others would have stayed away because of lesser ailments.

In the House of Lords we are short of noble ladies with gleaming, Rossetti gold-auburn hair and a serene countenance together with a rare combination of brains, elegance, warmth and experience. Alma Birk left us too soon.

Alma Lillian Wilson, journalist and politician: born 22 September 1917; leader of Labour group, Finchley Borough Council 1950-53; Associate Editor, Nova 1965-69; created 1967 Baroness Birk; Chairman, Health Education Council 1969-72; Baroness-in-Waiting 1974; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment 1974-79; Minister of State, Privy Council Office 1979; Opposition frontbench spokesman on the environment 1979-86, arts, libraries, heritage and broadcasting 1986-93; President, Association of Art Institutions 1984-96; President, Craft Arts Design Association 1984-90; married 1939 Ellis Birk (one son, one daughter); died London 29 December 1996.