Tributes to John Hills
1954 - 2020
Because John died during the period of COVID lockdowns, we missed the opportunity to honour him in a memorial service , and I only discovered much later that this memorial wall has been created. But I am glad now to add my tributes. John worked with me and Jeannie Drake as the three members of the Pensions Commission (2003-06). He brought to that task the qualities that so many others have mentioned from other aspects of his work - intellectual clarity, tenacious attention to detail, and passionate concern for social justice. For John, the facts mattered - and policy had to respond to the facts: in a world where many seek supposed facts to support already determined policy, that is a precious intellectual value. But for John too, the facts told us about real people facing challenges to their economic security and life chances, and public policy had to aim to expand life chances for as many people as possible. We could not have had a better social scientist to ensure that our analysis and conclusions were rooted in academic rigour. But what I will personally remember about John that he was an absolute delight to work with; stimulating, kind, respectful of others and with great sense of fun. Like so many others I was therefore hugely saddened by his death at a tragically early age.
Adair Turner, Chair of Pensions Commission
15 May 2022
My two stand out memories are of John as researcher and teacher. I remember that fantastic book John wrote for JRF about the redistributive power of the welfare state, including over the life-cycle, with the best graphics I'd ever seen. It left a deep impression. As did the fantastic talk he gave at the Department for Work and Pensions Summer School. It was held annually at Kings College, Cambridge. It was run at the time by Jane Millar. John gave a magisterial performance before the massed ranks of civil servants and the 10-12 academics running that year's tutor groups - the likes of Tania Burchardt, Roy Sainsbury and Steve McKay. It was so authoritative. Both the book and the talk made you realise that he was one of the few academics who really knew how to explain what really mattered in social welfare and policy. Thank you John.
Alex Bryson, UCL
23 March 2021
I owe John so much. He created almost all of the important opportunities in my academic career: appointing me to CASE in 1998; telling me to start a PhD; encouraging me to come back after a spell at IOE; appointing me as Deputy Director; trusting me with the Social Policy in a Cold Climate programme; inviting me to join the National Equality Panel. When I left for Manchester, he graciously and enthusiastically kept me involved in CASE’s work. Visiting CASE since, I remember trying to slip unnoticed past his office so as not to disturb him, only to find him bounding out with a huge smile on his face to say hello and find out what had been happening in Greater Manchester, despite the enormous pile of work he was constantly juggling. John was so generous with his time, ideas and enthusiasm, and so he built confidence and enabled people to achieve things they could never otherwise have done. Most of all, though, I owe John because he set such an incredible example. He had a unique ability to see the big picture, but extraordinary precision and eye for detail. He was an assiduous and infuriating corrector of imprecise claims, inaccurate labels on graphs and sloppy generalisations. He had seemingly endless energy and desire for knowledge. Findings were always ‘exciting’ and ‘fun’. And he never lost sight of the point of social policy research – to make people’s lives better. He taught me always to ask ‘so what’ and ‘why does this matter?’. John was an inspiration and a guiding light. He leaves an enormous, unfillable hole. I feel so sad too that John is not here just when he is most needed, to seize the ‘Beveridge moment’ that the pandemic has created. But I feel very lucky to have had his example. Thank you John.
Ruth Lupton, University of Manchester
11 Mar 2021
My condolences to Anne, family, friends and colleagues. I was shocked and saddened to hear that John had passed away. I would not be doing what I am doing without John and Anne. A student on John's MSc research methods course, a PhD associate and research assistant at CASE back in the early 00s, I found John and Anne's 'without ceremony' interaction with everyone at LSE, their welcoming approach, completely inspiring - examples of being in the moment and lives lived fully, coupled with total dedication to the centre's research. John was both an unassuming gentleman and an intellectual giant. I regularly quote the end of 'Good Times, Bad Times': "As a result of all this variation in circumstances over our lives between good times and bad times, most of us get back something at least close to what we pay in over our lives towards the welfare state. When we pay in more than we get out, we are helping our parents, our children, ourselves at another time - and ourselves as we might have been, if life had not turned out quite so well for us. In that sense, we are all - or nearly all - in it together." At the end of my PhD, I had a period of ill-health and lost contact with John, Anne and CASE. However, their influence lives on in my daily work. John will always be an inspiration.
Gerry Mitchell, freelance researcher
17 Feb 2021
I am shocked to hear of John's death. It is a tremendous loss to housing and social policy research in general. His intellectual and personal qualities will be greatly missed.
I first had contact with him over 25 years ago when he was editing the New Inequalities book for CUP and his work has been a permanent backdrop to people working on housing, income, wealth, pensions and the like. I am greatly saddened.
Chris Hamnett, King's College London
22 Jan 2021
John Hills - so much can be said about him and it may still not be enough. He has been an inspirational role model for me, and an informal mentor, who shaped my thinking about how to be an engaged academic and public intellectual. He also brought me into the CASE community at the beginning of my PhD. This, and his faith in my work, have been invaluable in pushing through in the dark moments of the PhD journey. For instance, I remember a seminar in my first year, where I presented very tentative ideas of my research, felt very unsure about what I was doing at the time. He came to me afterwards, telling me how proud he was to have me at CASE - and gave me the necessary confidence that I can do this. This was so characteristic of John - to always see the potential and positive abilities in people! And whenever I saw him on the CASE corridors, he would have a friendly word and smile for me, no matter how busy or overworked he was.
He is deeply missed, and all my best wishes go to Anne and his family. I feel priviledged to have known him personally.
Nora Ratzmann, LSE Social Policy - CASE
18 Jan 2021
As so many of the comments here illustrate so beautifully, the pleasure of working with John - even if briefly, and a long time ago - stays with you throughout your life. This completely matches with how I know and will remember John, and I've been so heartened and moved to see how so many people share this experience: you've found the words where I can't, and have explained this so eloquently.
I first met John what seems like an age ago now, when I was lucky enough to be in his MSc seminar group for Social Policy several years ago. We all came from a vast range of backgrounds and many (like me!) felt a strong sense of impostor syndrome, but he made everyone feel they had an equal part to play in the Social Policy 'family.' He clearly had an amazing knowledge and talent of his own, but the thing that shone through most of all was his faith in our *own* talents and abilities: his strong feeling that we all had something to contribute.
Even when many of us went on to do other things outside of LSE, my former course colleagues and I would often remark about how approachable and engaging he continued to be - he had this remarkable ability to remember everyone he taught, reply to emails and always ask about how we were all doing, where we were now, etc! John's confidence in others (even when they lacked it themselves) is what inspired me and I'm sure so many others to go on to work in academia and do PhDs now.
It's so heartening to see my experience wasn't unique and that he's touched the lives of such a diverse range of people - so thanks for sharing your comments, it's been so helpful to read them. My thoughts are with Anne and the family at this difficult time - you're in all our prayers.
Tom Stephens, CASE
15 Jan 2021
Dear John. Devastatingly sad news.
John was Social Policy Giant, whose outstanding scholarly work on pensions, poverty and inequality had significant impact. He gave so much to the academic community. An inspirational colleague who was a pleasure to work with. Supportive, kind and modest. John will be missed terribly.
I first met John in the mid-1980s when we worked together in STICERD, LSE. Good times. We take John and his incredible contribution with us, in our work and in our hearts.
My condolences to Anne and the family.
Maria Evandrou, University of Southampton
11 Jan 2021
John left a lasting impression on me during the brief time we overlapped at IFS. An example for us all, he was a model not only of professional skill and intellectual honesty, and of good humor, but, even more, of sheer decency.
Michael Keen, International Monetary Fund
11 Jan 2021
John loomed large over CASE, both directly through his presence and in the way that he set inspired so many of us. He was an exceptional figure in social policy, and at the same time so warm, approachable and supportive. His genuine commitment to improving disadvantaged people's lives shone through his work, and was reflected in his achievements. An immense loss.
Aveek Bhattacharya, CASE
08 Jan 2021
Everyone probably has just a few people who have touched their lives and really made a difference. John was one such for me, though I doubt he would have been aware of it. I first met him about 25 years ago, when I was the Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, when I found myself on an advisory group for a research project he was leading on about 'private welfare and public policy'. Later, to my surprise and delight, he invited me to join the CASE advisory committee, I also had the privilege of being a 'User Fellow' with CASE, which was a wonderful experience.
John was always very kind. He gave me confidence in myself and in my ideas - or rather helped me to work through which of my ideas were worth having confidence in! But far more important than his impact on me was his impact on public policy. He had a rare talent for conveying brilliant, insightful analysis in ways which were clear, accessible and engaging.
My sadness at losing him in this untimely way is not just personal but that his skills and contribution to public life are still so very much needed. My condolences to Anne, his family, colleagues and many friends.
Sally Witcher, Inclusion Scotland
07 Jan 2021
John carried out a number of projects for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation when I was the Research Director (1986-2002) including taking the lead in the JRF's Income and Wealth Inquiry. His academic contribution to social policy developments was wide ranging and significant and in addition to that he was a great person to work with and a lovely guy.
Janet Lewis, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
07 Jan 2021
I'm deeply saddened to hear of John's passing. I had the good fortune to work closely with John during my time with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, most notably on the programme of research that informed JRF's Income and Wealth Inquiry in the latter part of the 1990's. John's intellect, his respect for colleagues and his ability to clarify the key points from complex data, were all amply demonstrated in his role as Advisor to the Inquiry. We also shared a passion for hill walking. I remember him proudly showing me a wall chart studded with numerous pins marking the Lakeland 'Wainwrights' that he had bagged. It is many years since our paths last crossed but John made a lasting impression.
Derek Williams, Joseph Rowntree Foundation - retired
06 Jan 2021
John was a hugely significant figure on successive REF sub-panels and all of us on the 2021 panel were all looking forward to working with him during the forthcoming exercise.
Aside from his extraordinary contribution to social policy, we'll remember John above all as a generous, kind and principled colleague - someone of unfailing good humour who could be relied upon to give thoughtful guidance and advice.
John's death comes as a great shock - and a great loss - to us all. He will be deeply missed and our thoughts are very much with his colleagues, friends and family at this difficult time.
Nick Ellison, REF Social Work and Social Policy Sub-Panel
05 Jan 2021
John's departure is a tremendous loss to the world of social policy, and to evidence-based policy making in the UK.
I was very lucky to be asked by John to be on the National Equality Panel in 2008. There, I saw his fantastic analytical mind, his commitment to social justice, his ability to put complicated arguments so simply, and his generosity and humour.
John was always a commanding example of an academic devoted to making the world a better place way (in an evidence-based way) long before "impact" became quasi-institutionalised. He was a huge inspiration to me, and I am profoundly grateful to him for all our interactions.
Mike Brewer, The Resolution Foundation
05 Jan 2021
John Hills was a kind and inspiring professor, he was always a helpful seminar tutor to us. He devoted his life to fighting poverty and inequalities, we are really sad for his departure and we send our condolences to his family.
Carolina Garcia, Natalie Gordon, Tom Stephens, Raffaele Ciula, LSE alumni
31 Dec 2020
I am deeply saddened to learn that John Hills has passed away. He was my professor when I studied social policy at the London School of Economics, and was a brilliant teacher, scholar and mentor. He was the one who first taught me about the root causes of poverty and inequality, along with the policy levers that can effectively address them. I am deeply grateful to have learned from him, as I have carried his lessons with me throughout my professional career, and I will continue to do so.
International Trade Union Confederation
30 Dec 2020
John sponsored me to join LSE and CASE in 2009 and I remember well our first chat in his room above the library. We discovered a joint fascination with weather and climate (his father was a weather forecaster). His concern with climate change was strong and constant (as is Anne’s) and his sole-authored Fuel Poverty Review of 2012 should be added to his remarkable record of impacts on government social policy.
As well as a distinguished, creative and meticulous scholar, John was a remarkable team leader: supportive, straight, always approachable. He was a modest man, accepting a small dark office when CASE migrated to the Lincolns Inn Fields building. His outrage at egregious poverty and inequality in a rich country remained undimmed and guided all his work. John exuded moral authority and integrity, yet without a trace of arrogance or self-righteousness . This was combined with a warm sociability - he always attended and enjoyed LSE social functions, including quiz nights in the upstairs room at the George.
For all this and much more, he was not just greatly admired, but genuinely loved by students and colleagues who surrounded him. He was a wonderful man, taken away far too early, and he leaves a huge gap in our lives.
Ian Gough, CASE
30 Dec 2020
I was so terribly sad to hear this news. My first encounter with John was when he wrote a chapter for the 1999 British Social Attitudes Report (co-written with Orsolya Lelkes, another contributor to these tributes). It focused on public attitudes to the welfare state, and illustrated his desire to understand not only the reality of benefit levels and what they meant for recipients, but how they related to public perceptions of benefits and the role that political parties play in influencing these - a subject to which he returned in Good Times, Bad Times in 2015. As a relatively junior researcher at NatCen at that time, my abiding memory of John was of his being a delight to work with - responsive, considerate and respectful. I recall being quite worried about how much we had edited one section of his chapter and being quickly reassured by him that it was a vast improvement on his original version!
I was delighted to be asked some years later to join the Advisory Board for CASE and through that got to know the breadth of work being carried out by the Centre, initially under John's leadership and subsequently that of Tania and now Abigail. John's work exemplified the highest quality, and most impactful social policy research and his presence I know will be sorely missed by so many. My best wishes and heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.
Alison Park, ESRC
30 Dec 2020
John cropped up in most of my jobs—as I'm sure he has for anyone who has worked in the broad fields of inequality and public policy. Long after his association with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, his thoughts on the measurement of poverty—sometimes niggling number-crunching issues, sometimes big picture concepts—remained influential. In Whitehall during the New Labour years, his work on social housing made waves, and then he had even more direct influence as one of three members of the Pensions Commission, which paved the way for a higher basic state pension and the "auto-enrolment" savings scheme, and achieved a very rare bipartisan policy consensus in the process. His comprehensive report for the National Equality Panel became a sort of inequality bible (I had the pleasure of working with him to boil down all the key facts and figures into this Guardian infographic ) and was practically influential in the 2010 Equality Act. During the austerity years, his book Good Times, Bad Times remade the case for an embattled Welfare State as something nearly all of us would need to rely on during some stages in life. But as much as all these important intellectual and practical public policy accomplishments, the intellectual community he fostered could be his most formidable legacy of all. Having been on the advisory board of CASE over the last few years, I've been able to see first hand the warmth and inspiration which John stirred in his closest academic colleagues.
Tom Clark, Prospect Magazine
28 Dec 2020
I have been struggling with what to say for a few days. I can only add my own deep appreciation for the support John gave me when I was a civil servant, and more recently in securing s a fellowship at III. John had a terrific skill of sharing a sharp intellect and wisdom to policy makers in ways that were most likely to drive social change. He was approachable and warm, lovely to be with, and generous with his extraordinary intellect. He is already sorely missed and a great loss to LSE, and social policy. My thoughts are with Anne.
Naomi Eisenstadt, International Inequalities Institute
28 Dec 2020
Rest in peace. A professor with a deep interest in sharing knowledge and creating a better world. I fondly remember that he lent me the book: "Changing fortunes: income mobility and poverty dynamics in Britain" by Stephen Jenkins to understand some issues and get to know his country better. I also remember his insistent question in our conversations: Why? Why? Why?, seeking with this to reach the deep origin of things. In a thesis that is still in process, Professor John is one of the professors who keep motivating me the most. Thank you.
Domingo Faustino Hernandez Angeles, Tecnologico de Monterrey Mexico
24 Dec 2020
John was someone who I spoke to as much about the Lake District and hill walking as about economics and inequality. The breadth of his humanity was inspiring and he will be deeply missed.
Robin Burgess, LSE
24 Dec 2020
I've been associated with CEP since 2001, and have encountered John many times since then - perhaps especially when he was chair of the National Equality Panel. He has always struck me as a very authentic person who wore his considerable talents and achievements very lightly. LSE loses a person of huge intellect and kindness, although his personal and intellectual contributions endure, not only from his work but also in the lives of many other people who he influenced. I offer my sincere condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.
Sandra McNally, CEP
24 Dec 2020
As a PhD supervisor and mentor, John mastered a fine balance between being intellectually critical and demanding while also being encouraging, supportive and gentle. I am most grateful for his recent support for my forthcoming book with BUP (he was incredibly supportive and trusting when I felt stuck, and thus helped me to move on). I am sad that I cannot celebrate its publication in May with him any more. Grateful that John accepted my invitation and came (by train!) to give talks in Budapest and in Vienna. Thank you for everything, dear John!!!
Orsolya Lelkes, Vienna Austria
24 Dec 2020
John was a brilliant and kind colleague. I remember eloquent chats over current affairs, the root causes of Brexit, and inequality preferences. He will be greatly missed!
Joan Costa-Font, LSE
23 Dec 2020
Impressive intellect and major contribution to social policy with real policy impact. Also lent me 20p when I was stuck for a bus fare leaving SPA conference in Sheffield. A real gent .... and I got the chance to pay him back. He will be missed.
Dan Finn, University of Portsmouth
23 Dec 2020
I had the great opportunity to have John review my PhD Major Review, as well as work with him to teach a course on Social Economics and Policy. John is a great mentor, a sharp intellectual, a great teacher, and a generous and kind person. John always put his students first, and was always very interested in hearing everyone's opinion. I enjoyed working with him, and I've learnt so much from him. He will be sorely missed.
Grace Chang, LSE
23 Dec 2020
John gave so much to ensure that CASE and STICERD were wonderful communities to work in. His academic and policy work combined compassion and rigour. The world is poorer now he has gone but he leaves us with many important writings that we can remember him by. I will miss him greatly but I am also grateful to have had the chance to work alongside him in STICERD for more than 25 years and I will never forget the energy and positivity he always brought with him.
Tim Besley, LSE
23 Dec 2020