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Serota [née Katz], Beatrice, Baroness Serotalocked

(1919–2002)
  • John Davis

Beatrice Serota, Baroness Serota (1919–2002)

by Godfrey Argent, 1969

Serota [née Katz], Beatrice, Baroness Serota (1919–2002), politician and social reformer, was born on 15 October 1919 at 4 King's Road, St Pancras, London, the younger daughter of Alexander Katz (d. 1947), clothing wholesaler, and his wife, Milly, née Witkower. She was educated at the Clapton county secondary school and at the London School of Economics (LSE), where she read economics. The LSE, where she had been fired by the lectures of Harold Laski and Eileen Power, did little to prepare her for her wartime civil service work as assistant principal in the petroleum department—though, as she consoled herself, 'I might have ended up in the section on Drains!' (LSE Magazine, December 1967)—but Laski's teaching did engender a lifelong enthusiasm for politics and for the Labour Party. On 27 December 1942, at the New Synagogue, Hackney, she married Stanley Serota, a 26-year-old civil engineer, and son of Barnett Serota, cabinet manufacturer.

In 1945 Beatrice Serota stood, successfully, for election to Hampstead borough council as a Labour candidate. The demands of the council competed with those of a young family—she and Stanley had two children, Nicholas (b. 1946), and Judith (b. 1948)—before she fell victim to the widespread Conservative gains in the borough council elections of 1949. She returned to local politics in 1952, as a co-opted member of the London county council's (LCC) education committee, and gained election to the LCC for the safer Labour territory of Brixton in 1954. Her political reputation, and the subsequent direction of much of her public life, was determined by her spell as chairman of the LCC children's committee from 1958 until the council's abolition in 1965, implementing the relatively new 1948 Children's Act in an authority responsible for a quarter of all the children in care in England and Wales. She was elected to represent Lambeth on the new Greater London council (GLC) in 1964, becoming chief whip for the Labour group and deputy chairman of the inner London education authority (ILEA). It was believed that she would have chaired the ILEA but for the startling Conservative gains in the 1967 elections, which saw Serota and many of her colleagues defeated in previously solid Labour seats.

This defeat ended Serota's career in local politics, but it was already evident by 1967 that she could gain at least as great an influence through membership of appointed bodies. Though she detested being seen as a 'professional committeewoman' (LSE Magazine, December 1967), she accumulated a record of prodigious service of this sort throughout her public life. She had 'no doubt I have been used as “the statutory woman”' in such appointments, but 'always found it to be an advantage to be a woman' in this respect (interview, 1974, Serota papers). Nevertheless the profusion in the 1960s and 1970s of advisory bodies in the social policy areas in which she had acquired expertise meant that her appointments were never simple tokenism. She served for ten years from 1958 on the Advisory Council on Child Care and for four years from 1960 on the Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders. In 1964 she was an influential member of the Labour Party's committee on crime, chaired by Lord Longford. In consequence she was appointed to the unhappy royal commission on the penal system in 1964, only to become one of the members who aborted the commission by resigning from it two years later, serving from 1966 to 1968 on the Advisory Council on the Penal System which replaced it (she later served a second stint, from 1974 to 1979, chairing it from 1976). From 1966 to 1968 she was a member of the Seebohm committee on local authority personal social services.

Never seeking election to parliament, Serota owed her brief ministerial career to appointment. It is not clear whether her elevation to the peerage (as Baroness Serota) following her defeat in 1967 was effected with a view to her becoming a minister in the Lords, but in February 1969 she was appointed minister of state for health in the Department of Health and Social Security, under Richard Crossman, to the disgruntlement of some Labour MPs who believed that the position should remain in the Commons. She brought to the department her administrative competence, stamina—she told BBC Woman's Hour listeners in 1969 that she would normally return from the office at midnight to face three or four dispatch boxes requiring immediate attention—and an emollience which Crossman generally lacked in dealing with militant nurses or critics of the health service. Crossman's diaries show a consistent respect for Serota as a 'loyal lieutenant, quiet and efficient in the office' (Crossman, 3.810), but he also noted her lack of confidence and her reluctance to take decisions, to the point that civil servants were bringing issues directly to him as secretary of state. By the time of the Labour government's fall in 1970 Crossman had reluctantly concluded that she was 'an ineffective administrator who can't chair a meeting and get decisions taken' (ibid., 930).

Labour's defeat brought a return to quango life. Serota served on the Community Relations Commission from 1970 to 1976 (she was herself Jewish, had represented an area with a large Afro-Caribbean population on the LCC and the GLC, and had been involved in community relations at least since the 1950s, when she was honorary secretary to the Council of Christians and Jews). In 1974 she became the first chairman of the Commission for Local Administration (the local ombudsman service). In 1975–7 she acted as a complaints commissioner for the BBC, and she became a governor of the BBC in 1977. Retirement as both local government ombudsman and BBC governor in 1982 marked the end of a quarter of a century of service in such nominated positions. She was by then well into her sixties, but the end of this phase of her life was probably not simply explained by age. The climate of the 1980s was less favourable to the kinds of bodies in which she had flourished. Looking back in 1990, she regretted the demise of the advisory councils and their equivalents, which 'did act as a buffer between government and public' and had 'had a great value in that sense, both in educating the public, if you like, and in educating government' (interview with Jim Goddard, 9 October 1990, Serota papers). By the 1980s, she feared, government no longer wished to be educated by outside bodies. She remained, though, active in the House of Lords, where she became a deputy speaker in 1985, and in several charities. She was vice-president of the National Council for One-Parent Families from 1971 to her death, and even in her eighties could be found lobbying government on behalf of Family Service Units, 'the national charity [of which she was also vice-president] that works with socially excluded families in some of the most disadvantaged areas in Britain' (letter to David Blunkett, April 2000, Serota papers). She was created a DBE in 1992.

Serota's social philosophy was rooted in her early local government work. She summarized it in the late 1960s: 'surely the major test of any society which prides itself on being “advanced” and compassionate … is the provision it makes for those who can contribute little to production and who require extensive care from others' (text of talk, Public responsibility and the care of the mentally handicapped, 1967?, Serota papers). Her principal concerns—children, young offenders, the chronically sick, the mentally ill, single parents—all fell into this category. All were somewhat marginalized in the classic Beveridgean welfare state, and Serota's approach to social policy both reflected and helped shape the modernization of welfare practice in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1963 she had bitterly opposed the dismemberment of the LCC's children's service, and its devolution to the London boroughs from 1965, on grounds reflecting the Fabian influences of her youth—the greater scope and efficiency of a large authority, the higher calibre of its officers, etc. The subsequent record of some borough children's services in London rather supported her case, but she moved away from a straightforward faith in the benevolent public authority as her public appointments became more varied. She became increasingly impatient with the 'symptom-oriented' approach of the 1940s welfare state (lecture at the Sutherland Dental School, Newcastle, 7 March 1970, Serota papers), rejecting particularly over-reliance upon 'obsolete' institutions—hospitals, children's homes, asylums, prisons—which removed the needy from society. She considered the replacement of institutional care by community care to be one of the 'major changes' in welfare provision since the 1940s ; the significance of the recommendations of the 1969 Seebohm committee on the personal social services, which she helped shape, lay less in their organizational proposals than in their 'wider concept of social services directed to the well-being of the community as a whole, not only coping with social casualties' (note to Richard Mills, September 1993, Serota papers).

Serota derived from this social philosophy a strong faith in the voluntary sector not always evident in the labour movement, believing voluntary organizations to provide 'a vital form of local participation in the professional services' (Public responsibility and the care of the mentally handicapped). From her early days in local government she had displayed a concern for the service user reminiscent of the pioneer women on Victorian local bodies, seeing the provision of a handrail near an old people's home in Hampstead in the snowy winter of 1947 as 'my greatest achievement in life', and installing 'proper waiting facilities for mothers, somewhere to put the prams, somewhere where they could feed a baby' in every LCC children's office (interview with M. Anderson, 16 July 1969, Serota papers). The fear that the expansion of public authorities threatened this user-oriented approach—that 'the gulf between the governors and the governed can grow as the services become more complex' (Co-operation in child care: the role of the elected member, 15 Nov 1967, Serota papers), encouraged her to take on the local ombudsman role in 1974. It was 'in many ways … a lonely office' (speech at York, 8 Sept 1977, Serota papers), dealing with local authorities still recovering from the 1972–4 reorganization and resistant to further scrutiny. Serota's own misgivings grew as it became clear that she was spending much of her time dealing with planning complaints from owner-occupiers, while 'the less fortunate and the most vulnerable … do not know we exist' (The local ombudsman and local government, speech of 26 Oct 1978, Serota papers). She experienced similar disappointment as penal policy moved away from her emphasis upon the involvement of the community, 'to which the offender must in any event eventually return' (address to seminar on the treatment of young offenders, Belfast, 19 May 1977, Serota papers). The liberalizing Longford report of 1964 had displayed her influence in proposals for family courts, for an emphasis upon rehabilitation in sentencing policy and for 'the transformation of prisons into institutions for social learning' (Crime: a Challenge for us All, Labour Party, 1964), but the report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System in 1978, under Serota's chairmanship, which urged a reduction in maximum penalties for serious crimes, brought press outcry and was followed by a tightening of criminal sanctions in the 1980s. Serota believed that the '“short, sharp, shock” should be left in the past where it belongs' (The length of prison sentences, address of 1 Dec 1977, Serota papers), and found it hard to accept in 1990 that 'even today we lock young offenders away' (Goddard interview).

Serota remained actively committed to the goals and methods of post-war liberal social reform down to her death, from peritoneal haemorrhage and a ruptured aorta, at the Royal Free Hospital, Camden, on 21 October 2002. 'Perhaps the reforms of the 50s and 60s were over-optimistic', she mused in 1990, 'but you have to be over-optimistic to achieve any change at all' (Goddard interview). She was survived by her husband, Stanley, and their two children. Her son, Nicholas, was director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery from 1976 to 1988 and of the Tate Gallery thereafter; he was knighted in 1999.

Sources

  • LSE Magazine (Dec 1967)
  • R. H. S. Crossman, The diaries of a cabinet minister, 3 (1977)
  • The Times (22 Oct 2002)
  • The Guardian (22 Oct 2002)
  • The Independent (22 Oct 2002)
  • Daily Telegraph (23 Oct 2002)
  • Serota papers, BLPES
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • BLPES

Sound

  • BL NSA, Labour oral history project, interviews with L. Brodie, April–May 1995, F4785–F4787
  • BL NSA, current affairs recordings

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1967, repro. in LSE Magazine
  • ‘P. H.’, pen-and-ink drawing, 1969, BLPES, Serota papers
  • G. Argent, photograph, 1969, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs, 1969, Empics, London
  • group portrait, photograph, 1987, Universal Pictorial Press and Agency, London
  • obituary photographs

Wealth at Death

£467,784: probate, 30 Jan 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
British Library of Political and Economic Science
(1849–)