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Anthony Hewson obituary

·5-min read

Anthony Hewson, who has died aged 73 of heart-related problems, was a campaigner for disabled people, and especially for children, who brought much-needed change and modernisation to a wide range of charities and public bodies.

His involvement in services for disabled children began after his son, Toby, was born in 1981 with cerebral palsy.

Anthony, an engineer, began to devote his time to the school where Toby was a student, Ingfield Manor, in West Sussex, becoming chair of its governing body. He later joined the board and, in 1993, became chair of what was then called the Spastics Society, which owned Ingfield Manor.

The charity, where I worked at the time, had experienced a period of turmoil in the early 1990s, losing its chief executive and finance director. Its coffers had been hit hard by recession, jobs and services had been cut, and there was a need for real leadership and direction. At the same time, many believed it needed to become more inclusive. There was at that time limited involvement and input from disabled people in the development and running of services, or in influencing the direction of the charity.

Anthony helped develop a financial plan to avoid further cuts and closures. He brought a fresh perspective, recognising the need to involve disabled people in decision-making and in service design and development.

Education was always Anthony’s passion, rooted in his experience as a parent. He was driven and persuasive. Colleagues at the charity found his approach heartening: he did not want the status quo – he wanted things to be better. And he made a real point of listening carefully to others’ opinions and concerns. He was determined that disabled people should have better lives and that the charity – the biggest and most influential disability charity in the UK at the time – should lead the way.

He also took a central role in championing a change in the charity’s name, which most disabled people found outdated and offensive. Through a vote of the membership, in 1994 the Spastics Society became Scope.

Under his guidance, Scope developed a closer relationship with the Peto Institute in Hungary, which had pioneered conductive education, an educational technique that helps people with motor disorders, such as cerebral palsy, to improve their motor function and become more independent. The charity was the first to arrange for a group of candidates to undertake the gruelling training to become teachers, or “conductors”, in Hungary, and return to the UK to practise the technique. Before this, children wanting to benefit from conductive education had to travel to Budapest. Today the technique is much more widely available in the UK, and the teaching of it can be studied at degree level.

Born in Findern, Derby, Anthony was the son of Eric Hewson, an engineer, and his wife, Celia (nee Pritchard). After Chard school, Somerset, he began an apprenticeship with Beagle Aircraft in Shoreham, West Sussex. He met Liz Pope in the 1960s and they married in 1971. In 1970 he became an engineer for British Leyland and then, in 1976, for the Citroën/Peugeot group. In 1982 he returned to Sussex to work in the family firm.

After selling the family business in 1996 and stepping down as chair of Scope in 1997, he began to use his skills to support other organisations across the private, voluntary and public sectors. He took up public appointments, including as deputy chair of the Commission for Health Improvement, one of the forerunners of the Care Quality Commission.

In 2000 he became the first chair of the new Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, an amalgamation of a number of organisations responsible for the welfare of children and families involved in family court proceedings. The establishment of the new organisation was fraught with difficulties, and Anthony felt the merger should have been better planned and resourced. He left in 2003, frustrated that he had not been able to achieve what he had hoped. He then became a lecturer at the National School of Government, training senior civil servants.

He continued to work as an adviser and consultant across different sectors, from charities to care home groups. His work included three years supporting management changes at what is now St George’s University hospital NHS foundation trust, one of the largest NHS trusts in the UK.

Anthony returned for a second stint as chair of the board of governors at Ingfield Manor school and chaired the board of Connect, a charity that supports disabled people with communication difficulties. He was chair of the Hornsey Centre for children with cerebral palsy and a trustee at the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). In 1998 he was appointed OBE for services to disabled people. The Peto Institute made him an honorary conductor in 2001.

In 2009 Anthony came full circle to the things that mattered to him most, working with Toby to set up a charity called Just Different. The charity goes into schools and runs workshops by disabled people, including Toby, to raise awareness and understanding among children and young people of disability and difference. To date Just Different has worked with more than 200,000 children and young people, and has expanded its work to provide visits to businesses.

In the weeks before his death he was discussing with friends the potential for launching a campaign to improve educational provision for disabled children. He was deeply concerned that services and conditions for children and their families were becoming worse now than they had been when Toby was young.

Anthony is survived by Liz, Toby, his sister, Elizabeth, and his mother.

• Anthony Paull Maitland Hewson, engineer, charity chairman and advocate of disabled people, born 26 August 1947; died 30 June 2021

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