Baroness Serota 1919-2002

Deputy leader of the Lords and social reformer. Time and again in his diaries, the late Richard Crossman salutes Beatrice Serota, who has died aged 83, as his lieutenant. She was his minister of state, first at the department of health in 1968 and then in the combined department of health and social security the following year, and he clearly relied on her efficient and intelligent help and support.

He praises her skill and tact repeatedly, yet perhaps one reason for this was that he did not regard her as someone who was a threat to him. She was always his “marvellous lieutenant”.

Bea Serota was not the sort of politician who made headlines; she was the sort who got on with the job, who found out where the oil-cans were kept and made sure the wheels went on turning. Her two years with Dick Crossman, during a lively and busy time in the department at the end of a momentous decade when issues such as abortion, contraception – and, in particular, the pill – were highly topical, proved to be her only period of office as a government minister, and yet she spent a lifetime in politics.

She was promoted fast into office, over the heads of some of her more experienced contemporaries, after her elevation to the House of Lords as an early life peer in 1967. Harold Wilson appointed her as a government whip almost immediately and then proposed her for the sensitive post of deputy to Crossman – having refused to promote a young Roy Hattersley whom he suspected of disloyalty.

There was some teeth-sucking about this among MPs, not least because she had never been an MP herself, but she was known as a thoroughly competent administrator. She was especially popular in London at that time. She had been a member of the old Hampstead borough council immediately after the second world war and subsequently served successively on the London county council, as the member for Brixton, and the Greater London Council, as the member for Lambeth. Until the end of her life she was devoted to the London suburb of Hampstead, where she lived as an adult and cut her political teeth as a young married woman.

She became chief whip when she was on the GLC, a post that would stand her in good stead later. Her other defining post was as the vice-chairwoman of the Inner London Education Committee, which she held for three years until 1967. It was her distinguished career in local government and the work that she did for children – she was on a number of advisory councils for child care, for training and on the penal system – that brought her the recognition of a seat in the Lords as a recognised authority on the subject. She had also chaired the LCC children’s committee for seven years.

And, at home, she handed out awards to her own children: her son, Nicholas, who would later become the director of the Tate Gallery, was once given a medal by his mother for not tidying his room.

Beatrice had been brought up in the East End, the daughter of Jewish refugees from central Europe. Her future husband, Stanley Serota, whose family had come from Russia, lived next door; they were married in 1942. He qualified as a civil engineer. She was educated at John Howard School and at the LSE, where she read economics and where she later became an honorary fellow. After graduating, she embarked on a career that would be devoted with extraordinary single-mindedness to public service by joining the civil service in 1941. She worked in the crucial Ministry of Fuel and Power through the difficult years of the second world until 1946. when Nicholas was born.

Two years later, she and her husband had a daughter, Judith, who would also later pursue a career in the arts. The existence of her young family did not deter Bea Serota from her commitment to improving the lives of others. Throughout her life she was always prepared to add another to her list of public positions and her record of appointments looks like a definition of the old joke about if something needs doing then ask a busy woman.

She was the chair of the advisory council on the penal system, and she was the first ombudsman for local government. She was a member of the community relations commission and of the BBC complaints commission and she was a governor of the BBC. She served on the Longford committee on crime and on the Latey committee, which led to the lowering of the age of majority to 18. In the Lords, she became a deputy speaker in 1985, and then the principal deputy chairwoman of committees.

And she was widely respected and liked in the Lords as a capable and competent person. She was conscientious, she got on with things and yet, as Dick Crossman identified early on in her political career, she was not going to challenge others because of personal ambition. She perhaps lacked decisiveness, that was what he thought. But this did not prevent her from having a very busy life, involving many decisions about the lives of others.

• Baroness Serota of Hampstead, politician, born October 15 1919; died on October 21 2002.

Julia Langdon, The Guardian