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John Ward obituary

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During his two decades at the National Consumer Council, John Ward, who has died aged 83 of heart failure, brought about improvements in practice and law from which many now benefit. John widened the notion of consumer protection beyond its focus on shoppers’ rights, taking in previously neglected areas such as public services.

These ranged from simple ideas such as paying utility bills at local post offices (thus helping their survival) and plain-language explanations for tax returns and insurance forms, to setting up consumer organisations for previously underrepresented groups.

At the Home Office community development programme set up by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960s, John developed the blueprint for a community-based advice and advocacy system that became AdviceUK. In the early 70s he worked at the National Council of Social Service (now NCVO, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations), where he persuaded WEA, the Workers’ Educational Association to put on courses in welfare rights, a radical concept for that time, later to be widely adopted.

John joined the NCC as head of its social policy unit soon after Shirley Williams, then secretary of state for prices and consumer protection, set it up in 1975 to provide an independent voice for consumers, especially those from a disadvantaged background.

For example, local authority housing departments were embarrassed into improving their one-sided tenancy agreements, setting out tenants’ rights and responsibilities in clear language, removing archaic language such as: “The bath shall be used for the purpose for which it is intended.” Further work on private-sector tenancies led to changes in the law so as to prevent the unfair loss of rental deposits paid by tenants, and stricter safety legislation was applied to private houses containing multiple bedsits.

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Running through his work were the themes of representation, information and advice

During a time of much hostility towards users of social and public services, the NCC investigated the underuse of public services, such as why those most in need of a doctor were often the least likely to want to “trouble” one, and why some of the people most in need of state benefits did not apply for them.

The council published the first guide to NHS patients’ rights, including the right to ask for a second opinion. Other surveys showed how the most vulnerable people, such as patients with dementia and children in local authority care, needed to be listened to.

Running through this work were the themes of representation, information and advice. John instigated and supported a range of representative and advisory bodies such as the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, to help council tenant involvement in the running of estates, pulling together the Money Advice Association and advisory groups for consumers caught up in county court proceedings. He chaired the Greater London Citizens Advice Bureaux (1985-91) and the London Advice Services Alliance (1990-96).

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One spectacular success came form his work with the Plain English Campaign, founded in 1979 and led by the redoubtable Chrissie Maher, with the backing of the NCC, which hosted, backed and publicised annual plain-English awards, dishing out booby prizes, the “Golden Bull”, to the worst gobbledygook offenders and special awards for the best writers of plain English. The eminent judge Lord Denning handed out the prizes in 1982 and himself nominated the Home Office for a Golden Bull for obscure drafting of legislation. (They declined the invitation.)

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The media coverage of the awards swiftly changed official practice despite some diehard reactions such as that from one official who told John, in all sincerity: “But surely people will feel patronised if we use such simple wording!” In 1981, the government asked Sir Derek Rayner to review official forms, which ultimately resulted in 58,000 being rewritten and simplified. Commercial bodies followed suit.

Work on the Plain English Campaign eventually led to the performance standards of John Major’s Citizen’s Charter

Three former prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair – all praised the campaign. Such relentless work eventually rubbed off on the Major government, in the form of the Citizen’s Charter, which set performance standards for individual services, with redress systems for consumers if things went wrong.

John was born in the North Yorkshire village of Hudswell, near Richmond, son of Elsie (nee Johnson) and William Ward, a local postmaster. He began his education at the one-room village school. After grammar school and national service as a psychiatric nurse, he obtained a social science degree from Birmingham University during the 60s and won a Fulbright scholarship to study for a master’s in social work at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania.

After retiring from NCC in 1996, John returned to his Yorkshire roots, acquiring a home in Richmond, where he could indulge his passion for gardening and for local community regeneration activities, still participative in his later years. John’s first marriage, to Helen Ogilvy-Webb, ended in divorce. In 2005 he married Caroline Woodroffe.

Caroline had run the Brook Advisory Centres, the first in the country to provide contraceptive advice to young unmarried people. The couple divided their time between Richmond and their home in Highgate, north London, entertaining their many friends at both, until John’s failing health necessitated their remaining in London.

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He is survived by Caroline, his son, Matthew, from his first marriage, two grandchildren, and by Caroline’s children, Jessica and Nick.

John Ward, community worker and consumer advocate, born 13 October 1938; died 13 October 2021