Audrey Wise, the Labour MP for Preston died of a brain tumour in September, aged 65. Her death is a sad loss for all socialists, feminists and radicals everywhere. Audrey was one of the few MPs who had both the courage to support radical causes even when they were unpopular and who also understood the power of and need for high quality statistical information in order to formulate policies and laws. She also used social statistics effectively outside parliament as part of her many campaigns on community issues. She was a brilliant and incisive speaker, who was concise, to-the-point and always in command of the relevant facts, which she often marshalled to great effect.
Audrey's political achievements and influence were enormous, in the 1970s she was one of the leading lights behind the Institute for Workers Control and spoke at the first ever Women's Liberation conference at Ruskin College about how women's equality was about more than just equal pay and on the need for better working conditions for all. Audrey was an opponent of the Vietnam War and took up the foreign policy causes of Chile and Nicaragua. She also wrote a pamphlet in 1975 documenting the Portuguese revolution (Eyewitness in Revolutionary Portugal). She was a life long active trade unionist and was elected president of USDAW (the shop workers union) in 1991 despite the opposition of the majority of the union's leadership. She fought for women and low paid workers throughout her life both in person (she was arrested at the Grunwick Picket line) and politically in parliament (with Jeff Rooker she successfully amended Healey's 1977 Finance Bill which led to 450 million pounds of additional tax allowances for everybody - with the greatest benefit going to low paid workers and their families).
Audrey's hard work and dedication to detail in Parliamentary committees helped improved everybody's lives in Britain. For example, in 1976 she was a member of the select committee on Battered Wives and Children, whose ground breaking report led to the issue of domestic violence being taken more seriously and to a massive expansion in the provision of Womens' refuges.
However, many people will also remember Audrey for her personal qualities rather than her many political achievements. Audrey was always lively and enjoyable company, she was very talkative and her conversation would often jump from one topic to another. She had a genuine interest in people and their views and a warm humanity. Audrey helped to make the world a brighter and better place and that is all any of us can ever hope to achieve.
Audrey Wise MP will be remembered as a campaigner on a wide range of political issues, particularly but by no means exclusively those related to women and children. We were lucky enough to have her as a guest speaker at the 1999 Radical Statistics conference. Audrey told us of her passionate conviction that statistics are needed to inform political decision-making, as the Government should be accountable to parliament which needs information to make decisions. She also expressed the view that that citizens are entitled to information and the availability of statistics is important to citizens, whether or not they use them. Because of this, she deplored the considerable extent to which parliamentary questions requesting statistics were answered by the phrase 'not kept centrally'.
While she had no formal training in statistics nor any official connection with the statistical establishment, Audrey contributed to improvements in statistics as a by-product of using them in politics and by complaining about their absence when they didn't exist. She did this not only through parliamentary questions but also through the enquiries of the House of Commons Health Committee, of which she was a long- standing member.
She was a major influence on the Committee's agenda, often using ingenious strategies to get it to focus on particular subjects which she felt needed attention. For example, in the early 1990s, Audrey persuaded the right wing but independent-minded Tory member Nicholas Winterton to hold an enquiry into maternity services if the Labour members voted for him to chair the Committee. Among many other issues, the enquiry exposed the inadequacies of maternity statistics and well before 'evidence-based health care' became fashionable, witnesses were surprised to be asked what evidence they had for their statements. Audrey took the two volumes of Effective care in pregnancy and childbirth into every hearing to check on what witnesses said. The report of the enquiry prompted major changes in maternity care. It is usually referred to as the 'Winterton report', but there is no doubt that Audrey was the driving force behind it.
The enquiry was also an example of the way in which she tried to ensure that political statements and opinions were based on information which was as reliable as possible. She was always keen to get to the bottom of the information she had been provided with or which the government had failed to provide and get to grips with the mechanisms or barriers concerned. As one of doubtless many people who Audrey phoned for statistical information, I was impressed not only with her concern to know in detail how the data were compiled, but with her political ideas and her warm humanity. Her death is a great loss on many levels.