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Maurice Healy obituary

Richard Thomas
·6-min read

Maurice Healy, who has died aged 86, made a real and practical difference to consumers’ lives and to how governments, businesses, regulators and the media finally learned to put consumers and public service users first. He spent more than 40 years knowing which levers to pull and how best to pull them to achieve results.

In 1960, an interview panel was puzzled as to why Maurice, a young, Cambridge-educated classicist at the Board of Trade was prepared to renounce the prospect of a stellar career for the role of project officer at Which? magazine, the shaky infant that had recently been launched by the charismatic social entrepreneur, Michael Young. Maurice explained that he could see the next 35 years mapped out in the civil service and would prefer something more intellectually exciting and challenging.

His first task involved testing picnic stoves on his office floor. But Maurice quickly went on to play a major part in cementing the growth and reputation of the Consumers’ Association, in time taking over the editorship of Which? from its co-founder Eirlys Roberts. As CA expanded, he was appointed editor-in-chief for all the Which? magazines, now also covering Motoring, Money, Gardening and Holiday Which?, developing and refining the approach inherited from Eirlys of hard-nosed research, clear words and engaging design.

Maurice had an appetite for policy and for venturing beyond the needs of his largely middle-class readers. When, in 1975, Shirley Williams set up the National Consumer Council – essentially a campaigning thinktank – with a remit to champion the needs of all consumers, especially the disadvantaged, it did not take Maurice long to work out where his future lay.

He joined the NCC as head of consumer policy in 1977 and served as director from 1987 until 1991. After so-called retirement, he served as a consumer representative on a wide range of governmental and regulatory bodies, including as chairman of the Patients Association.

A government-financed quango without statutory foundation or powers beyond persuasion, the NCC survived and prospered through successive changes of government. Maurice played a key role in establishing the council’s values of independence, intellectual rigour and pragmatism. And its sense of fun.

His articulation of the core consumer principles – access, choice, information, redress, safety, equity and representation – lay at the heart of every NCC proposal. He restated this approach as author of the OECD’s 1994 Consumer Policy Handbook for Economies in Transition. “The principles”, he wrote, “provide a tool for examining market failure from a consumer perspective and so for diagnosing corrective action if it is needed.”

The corrective actions put forward in the NCC’s Treasury-commissioned Review of Banking Services, which Maurice led in 1983, had been swiftly achieved. It recommended deregulation of building societies, abolition of expensive restrictions on cheque-clearing and a framework for electronic banking.

A banking ombudsman was closely modelled on the insurance ombudsman role established two years’ before, for which Maurice had negotiated with the insurance industry to secure a wide jurisdiction for the new body, high maximums of compensation and (crucially) a truly independent governing council.

Maurice later joined and chaired the Insurance Ombudsman Council until 2001, when both schemes were absorbed into the Financial Ombudsman Service. The model survives and has led to many billions of pounds in redress for consumers.

Choice was the principal driver of the NCC’s 1986 report on air transport which, lamenting the lack of competition on routes between London and Scotland, led eventually to wholesale deregulation of the skies across Europe. It is not fanciful to suggest that the revolution in consumers’ access to cheap air travel owed much to Maurice’s input. It was the principle of better information from the users’ perspective that led to the concept of consumer performance standards for public services.

Not least as a council member of the Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) for 14 years (1977-91), Maurice also achieved global impact. The NCC’s Consumer Agenda for International Trade (1983) set out the basis for trade liberalisation as a pro-consumer policy, arguing that reducing or removing tariffs was essential for real value-for-money choice. After retirement from the NCC, he chaired the consumer policy committee of both the British Standards Institution and the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO). In 2001 he was appointed OBE.

Closer to home, he saw the outdated Sunday trading laws in England and Wales as an unjustified constraint on consumers’ freedom. Highlighting that Scotland had no such laws, he took delight in pointing out that shops south of the border could sell Playboy (a magazine) on Sundays but not the Bible (a book), while cathedral gift shops remained open on Sundays. “The family that shops together, stops together” was a rare departure from his rigorously researched policy statements.

Maurice led the NCC’s campaign for reform of the Sunday trading laws throughout the 1980s which, after various unsuccessful attempts to change the law, led to the government setting up the Auld committee, with Maurice appointed an assessor to the committee. Its 1984 report, recommending widespread reform, led to the shops bill of 1986, which turned out to be the only government bill defeated during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Eventually the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was passed, putting in place the current compromise arrangements.

Maurice’s vision, his analytical mind, his challenge, his sense of purpose, his skill with words – his fingerprints were on all the work of the NCC. He demanded research, evidence and logic, but colleagues valued most his humanity, his sense of fun and his generosity of spirit. His leadership style was to inspire his teams to play to their strengths and achieve more than they had thought possible. “Good work, not good works” maybe reflected the insight of this largely lapsed Catholic.

More immediately the parties, the pub lunches, the inexhaustible anecdotes and the pantomimes got everyone to go the extra mile. A serious jazz lover, he bunked off from an international conference dinner in New York to take the UK delegation to hear Stéphane Grappelli at the Blue Note. Discovering that the world’s consumer leaders had meanwhile been ripped off in a Manhattan restaurant brought a typically broad smile to his face.

Maurice was totally committed to his family. He was proud of his Irish roots with strong political and legal antecedents. He was born in Streatham, south London, the son of Emily (nee O’Mahoney), a teacher, and Thomas Healy. After Downside school, he studied classics at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and joined the Board of Trade in 1956 after national service.

In 1958 he married José Dewdney, who survives him, as do two of their three daughters, Jess and Lulu, and a grandson, Rudi. The sudden death of their daughter Kate at the age of 16 doubtless influenced Maurice’s enrolment as a bereavement counsellor in later years.

• Maurice Eugene Healy, consumer campaigner, born 27 November 1933; died 3 November 2020