Obituary: Sir Roy Griffiths

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The Independent Online
Ernest Roy Griffiths, businessman: born 8 July 1926; director, Monsanto Europe 1964-68; director, J. Sainsbury plc 1968-91, deputy chairman 1975-91, managing director 1979-88; Chairman, Management Inquiry, National Health Service 1983; Fellow, Institute of Grocery Distribution 1975, President 1985-87; Kt 1985; Deputy Chairman, NHS Management Board 1986-89; Adviser to the Government on the NHS 1986-94; Deputy Chairman, NHS Policy Board 1989-94; Provost and Chairman of Governors, London University School of Agriculture, Wye College, Kent 1989-94; President, Age Concern England 1989-94; married 1952 Winifred Rigby (one son, two daughters); died London 28 March 1994.

ROY GRIFFITHS never gave anything away easily, in thought, in deed or expression; and he enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek gentle chiding of officialdom.

I first met him in his office at Sainsbury's, where he was deputy chairman and managing director, just before Christmas 1982. Sir Kenneth Stowe, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security, had appointed me to head up the support staff for the NHS Manpower Inquiry and asked me to go to see Griffiths to set up the inquiry. Ken Stowe had just returned from what he freely described as one of the most difficult 45 minutes in his official career: he had spent the time in Griffiths' office, inviting him to head the inquiry on behalf of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Fowler, the then Secretary of State for Social Services, but had left not knowing what Griffiths' answer was - Griffiths had given absolutely nothing away by his few words or his facial expression. I managed to persuade Roy that silence was consent and he duly took up office. This illustrates the Griffiths approach perfectly.

Griffiths was also most successful in getting his own way, often against all the odds. For example, he quickly changed the manpower inquiry into a management inquiry, even through the original task had been signed and sealed by the Prime Minister and Secretary of State and their top advisers. 'Manpower is simply a function of management, so the inquiry should be into management,' Griffiths said - and so it was. He did it again over Community Care in 1987. The publication of his report to John Moore, the then Secretary of State for Social Services, was delayed as Whitehall and Ministerial battles raged, over whether local authorities could be trusted to handle community care and contain the cost. Griffiths acted on his own and with perfect timing.

On her way back from making her 'Bruges Speech' on European Unity, the Prime Minister read Griffiths' report and the accompanying official and ministerial papers in full for the first time. That Sunday, Griffiths penned a personal minute to the Prime Minister, pressing his cause with characteristic brevity and decisiveness, which drew admiration even from the case-hardened civil servants. Margaret Thatcher immediately decided to publish and implement Griffiths' report on community care.

During the debate on health reforms in the late 1980s, Griffiths was proud to demonstrate that 'it took a grocer to teach a grocer's daughter the difference between price and cost'.

His quiet and effective counsel during the heat of the debate on the 'market-style' NHS was instrumental in ensuring that the wilder elements of the early diagnosis and treatment were confined to the wastepaper basket. Above all, Griffiths was a passionate advocate of the NHS, which he declared, again and again, to be the finest and most admirable piece of social engineering of the 20th century.

Griffiths proved to be a most amusing and unselfconscious travelling companion during our days on the road for the NHS Management Inquiry. We had great fun preparing the 'Note to Chairman Fowler', which was his brief report to Government. The much-quoted reference 'If Florence Nightingale were carrying her lamp through the corridors of the NHS today she would almost certainly be looking for the people in charge' came from just such a journey, as did 'The NHS is so structured as to resemble a 'mobile': designed to move with any breath of air, but which in fact never changes its position and gives no clear indication of direction'. They were serious, fundamental points, but delivered with an air of amused concern.

But, if Roy Griffiths were ending this piece instead of I, I am sure he would find himself quoting the final sentence in his NHS Management Inquiry Report of 1983:

Our primary remit was not to launch a whole lot of new inquiries but to look at the available evidence. There have been over the years many working reports on, and much discussion about, many of the areas we have considered. The point is that action is now badly needed and the Health Service can ill afford to indulge in any lengthy self-imposed Hamlet-like soliloquy as a precursor or alternative to the required action.

This sums up Griffiths' life and work and I, for one, will make sure it continues and is not forgotten.

(Photograph omitted)