OBITUARY: John Chant

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The Independent Online
John Chant, Director of Social Work for the Lothian Regional Council, was one of the most influential and distinctive voices in the social work profession. Latterly his work was in Scotland, but he was born and bred, and remained at heart and in speech, a Somerset man.

He started life with few natural advantages; born in 1938, he lost both parents at an early age, his mother soon after his birth, and his father when he was 10 years old. Leaving school with little by way of formal qualifications, he was first apprenticed to a Wiltshire farmer, but one day it bore in on him that his prospects there were as empty as the broad horizons of the Salisbury plain, and he quit.

Chant found something nearer his true vocation in psychiatric nursing. After gaining professional qualification first at Tone Vale Hospital, near Taunton, and later through studies at Bristol Polytechnic and Edinburgh University, he became a mental health officer with Somerset County Council first at Bridgwater, then at Taunton as a social worker. Although thereafter he was, technically, an administrator, he retained the ability to assess a problem equally from the viewpoint of the person in need of his help. The capacity to view a situation "bottom up" as well as "top down" was one of his enduring strengths.

In 1974 Chant was appointed Director of Social Services in Somerset. To him fell the task of consolidating into a cohesive unit the staff drawn from three distinct disciplines from the former children's welfare and mental health departments. It was a time when many, inside and outside social services, were unsettled, even demoralised, by the swiftness and magnitude of the changes to the administrative structure. Chant worked hard to build up the morale and competence of his own staff, and to establish their credibility in the eyes of outside agencies such as the magistracy, who resented the subordination, as they saw it, of their sentencing powers to the discretion of social services workers.

At the same time he seized the opportunities offered by joint funding money available from the health authority. One initiative which gave him particular satisfaction was the removal of children from long- stay mental hospitals to specialist care under social services, in small units vastly more conducive to their well-being. This accomplished, he set about securing the same ameliorations for adults similarly confined.

Though not, even then, free from ill-health, he took on in 1981 the secretaryship of the Association of Directors of Social Services. In this role he served as a conduit through which officials of government departments could discreetly exchange practical and professional advice about the development of social services nationally.

After relinquishing this role, he was a member of the official inquiry into the death of Darren Clark, a victim of child abuse in Liverpool. In 1989, he was again called upon as an assessor to Lord Justice Butler- Sloss in the conduct of the Cleveland inquiry into child sexual abuse. The ensuing report owed not a little to the necessarily unattributed contribution of John Chant both in the drafting and the conclusions.

In 1989, after 15 years as Director in Somerset, he moved to Edinburgh, which he knew from his student days, to be Director of Social Work for the Lothian Regional Council. He served also at national level on Task Forces in 1991 on Aids / HIV and in 1994 on Drug Abuse.

Chant was not given to expounding theories of social work but his natural bias was in favour of those whom he saw as undeservedly denied their rightful expectations to a fulfilled and normal life. He said once that his training as a psychiatric nurse had been an admirable preparation for the hurly- burly of local government.

His recreation was angling but regrettably few fish had cause to resent him for it. His abiding solace in a crowded life, lay in the love of his family, his wife Joyce whom he met in their nursing days, and their three children in whom he took so much pride.

John Clark

John Chant was a surprise choice in 1989 as Director of Social Work for the Lothian Regional Council, a post which covered half a million people in the city of Edinburgh and 300,000 outside, writes Tam Dalyell.

Doubts that there may have been about an Englishman in a plum Scottish job evaporated when we saw his quality. As one of his eight local MPs I corresponded with him whenever there was a matter of principle involved and would then phone him to find a warm and compassionate and immensely well-briefed and perceptive man. His philosophy of community care was that proposals must ensure that the totality of resources deployed at any time to address the needs of mentally handicapped people are secured against their needs, however differently they may be used.

The last time I saw Chant was when he came to dinner at the House of Commons during the passage of the Scottish Local Government Reform Bill being discussed in committee. He was heartbroken that this frivolous and ill-thought-out measure should be set to destroy that which he and his colleagues as social work directors have so painstakingly built in the Scottish Regions such as Strathclyde, Tayside and Lothian. Knowing, I suspect, that he himself had not long to live, he parted with these words:

"In the early 1960s, the Queen sent 200 telegrams to people reaching their 100th birthday; last year the Queen sent 3,000 such telegrams of congratulation. I have tried to make the best possible provision in Lothian for an ageing population - but heaven knows what my successor in 2010 will be able to do."

Leonard Ernest John Chant, social worker: born 23 April 1938; Director of Social Services, Somerset County Council 1975-89; CBE 1986; Director of Social Work, Lothian Regional Council 1989-95; married 1963 Joyce Orr (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 24 October 1995.