Tom Burgner

Monday 10 September 2001 00:00

Thomas Ulric Burgner, public administrator: born Berlin 6 March 1932; Principal, Department of Economic Affairs 1965-69; Principal, HM Treasury 1969-72, Assistant Secretary 1972-76, Under-Secretary 1976; Secretary, National Economic Development Council 1976-80; Head of Public Enterprises, Gropu 1980-85; Head, Industry, Agriculture and Employment Group 1985-89; Secretary, Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals 1989-95; Independent Assessor, Department of Health 1995-96; married 1958 Marion Chasik (died 1996; two sons); died London 14 July 2001.

At first glance, Tom Burgner seemed an unlikely candidate to play a key part in the quiet revolution that was to affect the world of social care in the second half of the 1990s. His professional background up to this point had been very different. For the main part of his career – some 20 years – he was a senior civil servant, mainly in the Treasury.

Born in Berlin in 1932, he and his elder sister were brought to England in 1936 from Nazi Germany by their mother. Their father followed– just in time – two years later. Beginning with no English at all, Tom went from primary school in Finchley, north London, to Haberdashers' Aske's and then to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he read English.

His career began, in 1955, with 10 years in industry (the National Coal Board, followed by the Association of Chemical and Allied Employers). After a short spell at the ill-fated Department of Economic Affairs, he then had a long and distinguished career at the Treasury from 1970. His time there included posts as head of the Exchange Control Division, a secondment to the National Economic Development Council as Secretary and Administrative Director and, from 1980 to 1985, head of the Public Enterprises Group where he helped oversee the arrangements for the privatisation of British Telecom. In 1989 until formal retirement in 1995 he was Secretary to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of UK universities.

It was only in "retirement" that he became involved with the health and social care world. When he was appointed – by the Department of Health and the Welsh Office in 1995 – to the job of Independent Assessor for the review of the regulation and inspection of social services, it was hardly surprising that care-home owners, local and health authorities, users and relatives were apprehensive. Despite his lack of professional familiarity with this subject area, it soon became apparent that there was no real cause for concern.

Burgner was a cousin of Hilda Abraham (daughter of Freud's close associate Karl Abraham) who set up the first NHS psychotherapy clinic in 1948. His wife, Marion, who died in 1996, was a psychoanalyst and Burgner was a trustee of the Anna Freud Centre: thus he had some knowledge and background in the realities of human frailty.

From 1995, he was launched into the strange world of regulation. He went out on inspections and saw a wide variety of practice in different settings all over England and Wales. He devoured vast quantities of print from all quarters, including the massive response to the Department of Health consultation exercise.

He carried out the work with meticulous care, concentration and unfailing modesty and good-humour. During his time in the Department of Health, Marion became ill and died. He remained calm, clear, cogent but also warm, caring and committed. It often seemed nothing short of miraculous to those working alongside him that he carried on in such a dedicated fashion.

The Burgner Report (The Regulation and Inspection of Social Services, 1996) encompassed the whole of domiciliary care; nursing and residential care homes for adults and children; boarding schools; fostering services, as well as day-care services for under-eights in England and Wales. Written with clarity and precision, it was well argued, impeccably organised and had its own intrinsic logic. When he spoke, he captivated people by his endearingly modest demeanour and his persuasive conviction. In a deregulatory climate, his report was a ringing endorsement for the need of the state to reinforce its protection for some of the most dependent people in society.

He then became in 1997 the much-respected Vice-Chair of the Relatives and Residents Association. He devoted a considerable amount of energy, both intellectual and physical, to the last in trying to save the organisation from collapse.

He became involved in inspections of services for the Health Advisory Service and said it was the hardest work he'd ever done. He was the obvious choice to carry out the Longcare Inquiry into two privately owned residential care homes for adults with learning disabilities in Buckinghamshire where there had been some serious abuse. His 1998 report, as always, was practical, compassionate and focused, and re-emphasised the importance of proper protection. It stressed the need for decent responsible care and resources for vulnerable people in residential care, whose voices are so often ignored.

From 2000, he chaired the External Reference Group for the National Care Standards Commission, a public body set up following the Burgner Report, and was delighted to have been recently selected as one of the NCSC members. He was a power for all that was good, humane and honourable in society. For someone who appeared such a David, he turned out to be quite a Goliath but in David's clothes.

Judy Downey

Tom Burgner served as Secretary (chief officer) of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) for the six years 1989-95, writes David Harrison. I knew him well throughout that time, and particularly during my tenure as CVCP Chairman, 1991-93, when I was Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University.

There was much to do at CVCP in the early 1990s and Burgner carried a particularly heavy burden. In 1988 Parliament gave polytechnics freedom from Local Authority control and in 1992 further legislation following the general election gave them university titles. When the polytechnics became universities they wanted to join CVCP, and the question was what the new CVCP was going to look like. The Committee of Directors of Polytechnics (CDP) had readily united behind a single policy – to win university status. The CVCP on the other hand had a history going back 75 years and it was not minded to change its work or even its style overnight to accommodate new members.

This was the negotiation facing us, and it was here that Burgner's fine mind, Treasury experience, and the thoroughness that goes with the best civil servants was the greatest assistance to me. The new CVCP was formed in October 1992 without bloodshed.

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