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Obituary: Robert Baxter

Robert James Baxter, civil servant: born 9 July 1945; died 22 March 1993.

WHEN civil servants retire and die after a distinguished career, having reached high rank, they have become visible to people outside the service and colleagues and even politicians can write appreciatively about them. At the age of 47, Robert Baxter died too young for that. The conventions of anonymity and discretion require that his colleagues resist publicising his achievements. Bob Baxter was concerned about the ethics of being a public servant and would have approved of their scruples.

Baxter read Modern History at Oxford, graduating in 1966. He obtained his Ph D in politics in 1970 - but never used his academic title. He lectured in politics at Queen's University, Belfast, and at the University of Wales, Swansea. Later on he could be very amusing about the pretentiousness of academics.

He joined the Civil Service initially as a research officer. In 1975 he was appointed to C3 Division of the Home Office as a Principal Officer, where he was concerned with the exercise of the Home Secretary's responsibilities for mentally abnormal offenders - ordered to be detained by the Courts. Loyal civil servants move uncomplainingly from post to post but Baxter never lost a deep and sympathetic interest in the mentally disordered offender. After a period in the Police Department dealing with police powers and procedures, where he was closely involved in an important review of the needs of rape and domestic violence victims, he returned to C3 Division in preparation to be its head in 1988. He had returned to his favourite subject.

Bob Baxter could listen patiently. He could bide his time. But for psychiatrists like me, working with offender patients such as potentially dangerous individuals in places like Broadmoor Hospital, an encounter with him could be a disturbing, though stimulating, experience. In a Home Office department preoccupied with serving the Minister in relation to public-interest questions such as the risk of re-offending by patients if they were released, one was surprised to be sharply questioned about a patient's rights as well as by the sort of queries to be expected from a Minister's servant.

Baxter accurately anticipated what concerns would inform the discussion about the reform of the 1959 Mental Health Act and the legislation which replaced it in 1983. From his office came a seminal circular (66/90) which spurred the National Health Service, the Courts, the Prison Service and other agencies towards diverting mentally abnormal offenders, wherever possible, away from the Criminal Justice system and prisons towards more appropriate places such as hospitals. His sympathy, knowledge and experience significantly influenced the work of the Review of Health and Social Services for Mentally Disordered offenders (the Reed Committee), of which he was both a member and Joint Secretary. There is good reason to believe that the present new sense of purpose in meeting the needs of mentally abnormal offenders owes much to his unobtrusive work.

While head of C3 Division, another task came his way. Concerns about alleged miscarriages of justice, the cases of the so called Guildford Four and later the Birmingham Six and Judith Ward reached his desk. It is understood that his investigations may have assisted ministers. When the Home Secretary eventually referred these cases to the Court of Appeal, the appeals were upheld by that court.

Bob Baxter was a principled man, not a credulous idealist, but with a hard-headed intellectual's appetite for difficult problems. If his thinking took him in unusual directions and towards disturbing conclusions, he said so. The people whose files and predicaments Baxter considered never knew his name. Those of us who admired his work and counted him as a friend understand that civil servants must be heard but not seen - but the passing of a good man should not go unmarked.

(Photograph omitted)