OBITUARY:Ronald Matthews

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"I was utterly candid with Matthews. I told him straight that I sensed he would always prefer Kenneth Robinson, decent and immensely knowledgeable about every nook and cranny of the Health Service, to me. None the less, instinct also told me that we could get on and work together. He did not demur, on either score."

That was Richard Crossman's description to me of his first meeting with Ronald Matthews, whom in his diary for Saturday 2 November 1968 he describes as "a really conscientious, nice, efficient man, who will establish continuity and who is obviously going to be a first-rate private secretary". So it proved.

Sir Kenneth Robinson, the Minister of Health (1964-68) to whom Matthews had previously worked, told me, "Matthews was immensely hard-working and loyal. He was full of valuable initiatives and ideas about the Health Service and they were all good ones."

Matthews was faced with the problems of adjusting, not only to the merging of Health and Social Security, Alexander Fleming House and John Adam Street but also work centred on Cabinet and Whitehall above departmental routine. Added to this, Matthews had to cope with an issue alien to his civil service experience - reform of the House of Lords. Crossman, who was now Secretary of State for Social Services but had been Leader of the House, had been made residually responsible for this by Harold Wilson; it was to end up in fiasco.

As the MP Parliamentary Private Secretary to Crossman I had a great deal to do with Matthews as civil service Private Secretary. In particular he was a chum when it came to telling Crossman what he ought to hear and what he did not want to hear. I admired Matthews's unflappability, never better portrayed than when he told Crossman, "You must be careful. You know, if you are too rough with people, if you always talk to civil servants as if they are agin you, they won't do their best for you." The fact that Crossman quoted this remark in his diary reveals that he took it to heart, as he did much of what Matthews said.

Ronald Matthews left Kingsbury County School in 1939 to follow family tradition in the civil service and become a clerical officer in the Ministry of Health. Ever gutsy, he volunteered for air-crew duties at the outbreak of the Second World War. After a late-night "panic" about doctors' pay, I asked Matthews how he kept so calm. There then emerged a whole history of which none of his political colleagues had had an inkling.

Matthews had been the pilot of a tow glider carrying troops of the First Airborne Division over Arnhem. His plane had been crippled, one of his crew shot through the heart; the wretched parachutists were sitting ducks for machine-gunners on the ground. Matthews bailed out on to soft ground, luckily avoiding some tomato glasshouses. Lucky again, he was taken prisoner and not shot on sight like so many others. After some months in a prisoner- of-war camp near Konigsberg, East Prussia, he was "liberated" by the Red Army.

With a self-deprecating chuckle he made the aside that, after first- hand experience of General Manteuffel's panzers and Marshal Zhukov's fusiliers, not even Mr Crossman in full flow could upset him.

In British public life, an MP in government can be very close to a civil servant for two years or more and suddenly, with change of power or ministry, the relationship is cut off completely. However in 1972 I asked Keith Joseph how he liked Alexander Fleming House. Part of his response was to sing the praises of Ron Matthews, who was proving so good at dealing with the complex re-organisation of hospitals and other aspects of the Health Service. I later heard that he had inspired typical trust in the difficult position of establishments officer dealing with personnel.

I saw Matthews on the London Underground shortly before he retired in 1981, already concerned about his dear and supportive wife Bunny's illness. He said, "I've had a marvellous and constructive life for one who never went to university and so lucky - compared to my mates left upside down in the ditches around Arnhem."

Tam Dalyell

Ronald Sydney Matthews, civil servant: born Kingsbury 26 July 1922; Clerical Officer, Ministry of Health 1939-59 (RAF 1940-46), Principal 1959-67, Assistant Secretary 1968-73; Private Secretary to the Minister of Health 1966-68; Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Social Services 1968-69; Under-Secretary, Department of Health and Social Security 1973-76, Deputy Secretary 1976-81; CB 1978; married 1945 Bronwen (Bunny) Shaw (died 1989; one son, one daughter); died Wimborne, Dorset 25 May 1995.