Obituary: Owen Clarke, civil servant

Owen Clarke, civil servant and judo enthusiast. Picture: Contributed
Owen Clarke, civil servant and judo enthusiast. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 1937 in Edinburgh. Died: 24 July 2016 in North Berwick.

Owen Clarke who has died aged 79 was a career civil servant who became Controller of Inland Revenue Scotland, but was perhaps better known as a reforming chairman of the Scottish Ambulance Service and also for his work on NHS 24, the new GP contract and for his pioneering work in getting judo accepted as a sport at the Commonwealth Games.

Owen James Clarke was born on 15 March 1937 and grew up in Craigmillar, Edinburgh.

He was the second youngest of five children and the only son. His father was a chef and his mother a cook. The family home was a two-bedroom council flat in which one bedroom was rented to a lodger. The planning of sleeping arrangements required military precision.

Academically precocious, he was offered a scholarship to Edinburgh’s Royal High School but family financial circumstances dictated that he instead accept a scholarship to Portobello High School – where he excelled both academically and in sports. Inspired by his tutors he developed a lifetime love of Shakespeare, the classics and history. On leaving school he was conscripted to the RAF after which he joined the civil service in London, building a career that included becoming an HM Inspector of Taxes, a senior tax investigator, and eventually Controller of Inland Revenue Scotland – retiring in 1997.

As a “taxman”, he was both fearless and fair. He personally boarded the early North Sea oilrigs to resolve tax avoidance problems, but at the same time showed great compassion to families and small businesses facing genuine life problems. He was awarded a CBE in recognition of his service. Shortly after his retirement from the Inland Revenue in 1997 he was appointed chairman of the Scottish Ambulance Service – a post he held until 2003.

He led the transformation of the service – his work being described as having made “an immense contribution” to the way the service operated. He spent many hours with ambulance crews talking to them about their work and asking “ how can I make your job easier to help patients?” It is hardly surprising they adopted his changes with fervour. Subsequently he was appointed to specialist roles in public administration in Scotland including the Scottish Audit Service and troubleshooting investigations into various topical issues such as NHS 24 and implementation of the new GP contract. In 2005 he became a non-executive director of a technology company (Hedra) and chairman of its Scotland advisory board until its change of ownership in 2008. Aside from his public service work, he was a judo enthusiast and returned to Scotland after his early civil service years in London as a black belt, having been coached by the legendary Japanese champion Kenshiro Abbe.

He gave substantial time coaching youngsters before transitioning to administration of his chosen sport. He was one of the three founders of the Commonwealth Judo Association, which was instrumental in judo becoming a demonstration sport at the 1986 Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh. Judo became a Commonwealth sport by the 1990 games in Auckland. His commitment to sporting endeavour in his native Scotland and his enthusiasm for the Commonwealth Games coming to Edinburgh saw him appointed to the executive board of the 1986 Commonwealth Games – a hugely successful event. Clarke was renowned for his sharp mind, determination and considerable personal integrity.

His open transparent manner – particularly in his dealings with people at all levels – differentiated him as a person and leader. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth (Betty), whom he married in 1963, two sons, Graham and Geoff, a daughter Mari and five grandchildren.