Obituary: Sir John Boreham

Click to follow
Arthur John Boreham, statistician, civil servant: born 30 July 1925; staff, Agricultural Economics Research Institute, Oxford 1950, Ministry of Food 1951, Ministry of Agriculture 1952-55, General Register Office 1955-58, Central Statistical Office 1958-63; Chief Statistician, General Register Office 1963-67; Director of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Technology 1967-71; Assistant Director, Central Statistical Office 1971-72, Deputy Director 1972-78, Director and Head of the Governmental Statistical Service 1978-85; CB 1974, KCB 1980; President, Institute of Statisticians 1984-94; married 1948 Heather Horth (three sons, one daughter); died 8 June 1994.

PRACTICALLY the whole of John Boreham's professional life was spent in the Civil Service, ending in a key post, that of Director of the Central Statistical Office (CSO), and Head of the Government Statistical Service, which he occupied from 1978 to 1985. But he was neither a typical civil servant nor a typical statistician. He disliked bureaucracy and in all he did was unconventional, original and independent in action and spirit.

He and I shared the view that statistics was an integral part of policy-making, and that statisticians belonged in the front policy line as much as in the backroom. Equally, we agreed that, however important ministers were, statisticians existed to serve the entire community, not just ministers and Whitehall.

Boreham's intellectual strengths were already evident at Marlborough, and Oxford, where he read PPE. After a short spell in agricultural research, he entered the Civil Service. He served in various departments, including the General Register Office, where his special interest in demographic and social statistics found a niche, then went to the Ministry of Technology as Director of Economics and Statistics, a post he held from 1967 to 1971. From then until his retirement in 1985 he was at the CSO - from 1971 to 1972 as Assistant Director and from 1972 to 1978 as Deputy Director. In that year he succeeded me as Director.

Boreham was splendid at his job and a wonderfully stimulating and congenial colleague. His professional strength, as economist and statistician, was evident to all. So were his administrative skills and, perhaps above all, his human qualities. Here was a top statistician quite unlike the usual caricature: he was full of warmth, passion and human caring, interested above all in using statistics to improve the lot of humanity. He was original and liked going off at tangents, as long as the tangents had constructive end-points. He was serious, yet humour and a twinkle always hovered near the surface. He dealt with heavy issues with a light touch.

During those years the statistical service was built up and Boreham contributed massively, perhaps most in relation to social and economic policy-making. The prime ministers we served (Harold Wilson,Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan) fortunately appreciated the importance of statistics and gave full support.

The toughest time for Boreham came after he had become Director in 1978. Then he faced the onslaught on official statistics (part of civil-service cuts generally) insisted on by the new Thatcher government. It was a rough time, and an impossible battle to win, especially when support from within the Civil Service was short of whole-hearted. The quality of statistics - and therefore of informed government - suffered, but Boreham saved a good deal and stuck relentlessly to principles of integrity. Anyhow, enough information had built up to ensure that in subsequent years quality has been restored. Boreham's contributions, nationally and internationally, will stand the test of time.

He was also during those years President of the Institute of Statisticians (1984-92) and of the Association of Social Research Organisations (from 1990), and a Visiting Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford (1981-88), which gave him special satisfaction. The academic world was a natural habitat for someone of his wide intellectual interests.

On retirement in 1985, he hoped to spend more time reading French literature. That was a forlorn hope. He was too widely appreciated professionally to be left to his own devices. Before long he was persuaded to become regional co-ordinator of statistical training in the Caribbean. It cannot have been unpleasant to visit, repeatedly, all the Commonwealth Caribbean islands. Indeed, I know he enjoyed it and, as in everything else, made sure that his proposals had practical results. The same applied in his consultancy years in the Bahamas (1991-93).

Both in work and leisure, 'quality of life' mattered to him, down to the teacups in his office. His choice of a leaving present for me (immaculately bound Mozart, Verdi and Wagner scores) was typically touching, as well as elegant.

Whether in 'retirement' or before, Boreham found time to indulge his love for music - listening and playing - for wide reading, especially of European literature and poetry, and for sport. Cricket and golf came first; and he died while playing golf, after what was judged to be a particularly good tee shot.

John Boreham had a full and rewarding life, and his rare personal qualities will be missed by his friends and colleagues but, above all, by his family, where the centre of his life lay: with his beloved wife, Heather, his four children and 10 grandchildren. In spite of all he did, Boreham was first and foremost a family man.

(Photograph omitted)