Feisty patron of the people

May 22, 1998

Helena Kennedy, first chairwomen of the British Council, cares passionately about the underprivileged and particularly their education which is why, she tells Harriet Swain, she intends to ensure that her feted report on further education is not forgotten.

Helena Kennedy QC has a stinking cold and she needs the loo. Her battle with the cold is lost but finding a loo presents an unexpected challenge. The VIP suite of the British Council (last month Kennedy became the council's first chairwoman) has no toilet facilities. She must go to a different floor. She is outraged. "That's a design fault, isn't it?" she demands of the woman who guides us there. "Is there no loo at all? I don't mind using the gents." No, it seems not even male VIPs are catered for. A tiny figure, she disappears crossly upstairs and on her return marches around hidden corners in the suite just to make sure the information was correct. We have barely sat down when she is off again - this time in search of coffee. She returns having grabbed an entire pot, just in case we need more later.

Throughout all this, despite her cold and needing a coffee and despite not knowing her way around or who anyone is yet, she is continuously calling out greetings to startled-looking staff as she passes by. "Hello," she cries to a distant figure carrying files, "Hello", to someone waiting at the top of the stairs. It is a bit like being on a constituency visit with an MP.

Only, of course, Kennedy is not an MP. She is lots of other things. First, she is a lawyer. She was called to the Bar in 1972 and when she found it hard to find chambers set up her own, specialising in defending those often poorly represented in the judicial system, particularly women. She took silk in 1991. Also, she is chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and passionately interested in education. Last year she produced the Kennedy report on further education, which recommended ways of ensuring that the thousands of disillusioned people who drop out of the education system at the age of 16 are encouraged to return and advance their careers via further education colleges. Some believe this hard-hitting report to have been more influential with new Labour than Sir Ron Dearing's better publicised look at higher education.

Kennedy is also a life peer, concentrating on law reform and children's rights. She is a broadcaster and an author, writing books on law, a celebrated look at women in the justice system, Eve Was Framed, and numerous articles. She has recently become a board member of the Independent newspaper. Meanwhile, she is chair of several committees, mostly concerned with women, children and the law. She is a mother, with three children under 15, and she is a feminist - a word she uses with pride.

But now, at the age of 48, she is more than all this. She has become a symbol of a feisty woman, determined to expose the anachronisms of this country's institutions, and a heroine for the underprivileged. Some of this is to do with her background. From a large Scottish working-class family, she gained her law qualification after state school in Glasgow and plunged into a Bar overwhelmingly filled with Oxbridge-educated males. That she made it that far she has attributed to a father who was determined his daughters should benefit from the education he never had. Hence her belief in education and her genuine feeling for people who have missed out. Those who have worked with her on various committees comment, first, on her inspiring speeches, then on "her empathy with those for whom she speaks". The secret of coping with so many roles and responsibilities, she says, is not only that she is organised but that she cares about them all.

This is not a bad image for the British Council at a time when it, and the government, are trying to present a more caring, sharing image of Britain to the world. As the council's new chair, Kennedy is quite conscious of this. "If Britain is going to present its face to the world and the British Council is its shop window, we have to express what Britain is really like and it is different from what it was 20 years ago," she says. "Women are playing much more of a public role and it is important that that message gets through. Britain isn't homogenous any longer. It isn't masses of men in pin-striped suits who went to Oxbridge and public schools." While she dismisses the "Cool Britannia" idea as a trivialising slogan, she says the ideas behind it are sound. Britain has a lot to offer the world in terms of educational expertise, how institutions are run, issues of multi-ethnicity and reconciling private-sector efficiency with public service. "I think we have gone through a period when a lot of damage has been done to public service because there was not enough value attached to it," she says.

Kennedy is well known for her links to new Labour. The home in Hampstead she shares with her husband, the cancer specialist Iain Hutchison, hosted one of the big election-night parties and a safe seat would have been hers for the asking, had she asked. She did not, feeling her principal role was at the Bar.

So what does she think of the government's performance over the past year? Overall, pretty good, she says, explaining that once you get close to government you realise how much has been achieved in a short time. But there have been mistakes. She describes the Bernie Ecclestone affair, when it was revealed that Formula One racing was exempted from a ban on tobacco sponsorship of sports and that Ecclestone, vice president of the Formula One Association, had given a Pounds 1 million donation to Labour, as "a very unhappy business". "It's important that the government is seen to be at arm's length from those who will directly benefit from government policy." She was also disappointed at the way changes to single-parent benefits were handled, although welcomed the way this was cleared up in the budget.

And "of course" one of her disappointments was that the lifelong learning paper - the paper based on the Kennedy committee's report - ended up green, a consultation paper, rather than white, a blueprint for legislation. "I still think the urgency of drawing back into education the people who have done least well out of it is undeniable and I still feel, for all the efforts of government, more has to be done and the sums of money aren't adequate," she says. "I hope we see that moving fast up the agenda now that some of the initial things on schooling have been dealt with." She also hopes more will become clear with further details about the proposed University for Industry. But she remains worried that this will not give enough help to the long-term unemployed and others outside the system. "Once I get a clear sense of what the UFI is, I will be back getting my claims in to government about what they have to do to fulfil the Kennedy agenda."

Meanwhile, she is reconvening her committee next month to review what has happened since the Kennedy report came out. "I think if you don't chase a report it can end up disappearing," she says. "We want to have a recap on where it has gone and what should be done and make sure it is not forgotten." This is because Kennedy never likes to walk away from something half-finished. She likes problems to be solved - one reason, she confesses, she finds the open-ended work of government frustrating. "You have to keep having checks," she says. "You have to keep making sure you are measuring up to some checklist, even if it is just some mental checklist." She plans a permanent ad hoc group to monitor what the government is doing on lifelong learning and lobby it to do more. One of her key concerns, and one which has brought her some trouble, is that someone should speak up for the cause of colleges amid their more powerful university neighbours. A paragraph in early drafts of the Kennedy report suggested that money should be switched from rich universities to poorer FE colleges. This was omitted in the final report, nonetheless Kennedy has no hesitation in repeating her belief that further education should receive a larger slice of the financial cake. She attacks the higher education world for "going into its traditional mode of self-protection". This is because she recognises the link between money and power.

"Institutions which have less money are far less powerful," she says. And power is what interests her. She has worked her way into many of this country's most powerful institutions from a standing start and is determined they should become more open to the type of person she represents. She believes the structure of organisations can affect people's lives. If the structure is wrong it should be changed. "You have to take an institution by the throat to get it to change," she says. "You have to have a radical agenda for reform."

Throughout her career, she has chosen to work at reform from the inside, and as a result has incited some criticism. Some believe she tempers her radical impulses by pursuing conservative routes to power and risks being seduced by the very institutions she is attempting to change. She accepted her life peerage, for example, in spite of believing that the House of Lords needs reform. But this is because she argues institutions will never change if they remain full of people who cannot see change is needed. She deplores "warm bath" institutions in which members feel too cosy about their position. In any case, she regards stirring up the establishment as not only part of the job but fun. While she has flirted with taking a more direct role in the way the country is run, her brush with government as a new peer has shown her what a messy business it is. Instead, what she really enjoys, she says, is advocacy. She loves the challenge of finding the most effective way of putting a case and tailoring it both to circumstances and to the person who will hear it, sometimes striving to pull at the heart strings, sometimes putting together a cool, perfectly constructed argument. "One of the reasons I find the Bar very satisfying is you have end results", she says. "Cases end. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don't." She is not a whinger on the sidelines. "If you go in somewhere and find there is a problem you change it." She smiles and blows her nose.

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