Obituary: Jamie Rentoul, senior civil servant

Born: 8 July, 1964, in Bangalore, India. Died: 12 May, 2015, in London, aged 50

Jamie Rentoul. Picture: Contributed

Jamie Rentoul was a civil servant who enjoyed a long and distinguished career at the Department of Health occupying several senior positions. He was prominent in implementing many new policies in the NHS and then served in prime minister Tony Blair’s influential Strategy Unit at Number 10 where his brief was to concentrate on domestic policy: Blair has written that the unit “made a quantitative and qualitative difference to the performance of the government”.

Later Rentoul was appointed director of workforce strategy at the Department of Health. His career was, sadly, cut short by the diagnosis of cancer.

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William James Rentoul was born in Bangalore, in India, where his father worked for the Church of Scotland and later the Church of South India. While many holidays were spent at Ooty, a hill station in the Nilgiris, Rentoul also spent time in Scotland on leave, in Glasgow and Iona. His mother is Scots, and was educated at various schools in Edinburgh. His father is Scots Irish, from a family with a distinguished ministerial tradition in Ireland.

Rentoul’s love of Iona was to last all his life. It was an island that was central to the family – his father had been a member of the Iona community – and Rentoul and his sisters returned to the island often. Indeed, his brother and sisters had been to school on Iona and such was his devotion to the island Rentoul got married on a beach in the drizzling rain. His ashes will be scattered on Iona later this summer.

He was educated in the south and then won, in 1983, an exhibition to read natural sciences at King’s College, Cambridge. He graduated with a First in Psychology. He completed his education by gaining an MBA at Stanford University, California. At Cambridge he won a Blue for football in 1984 and ’85 and remained a keen, and always competitive, athlete all his life – much enjoying skiing, tennis and rock climbing.

From university Rentoul joined the Department of Health where his ability to understand and interpret complex draft legislation and policy statements was smartly noticed and his progress to senior posts was rapid. He was much involved in the complicated legislation for tobacco control throughout the UK and served with distinction under such ministers as Kenneth Clarke, William Waldegrave and Virginia Bottomley. He was involved in general health matters including waiting times, the internal market and access to the NHS.

His time at the Department of Health included a valuable year on secondment at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.

He was always a pragmatist when implementing laws regarding health matters. In 2006 a report suggested that few NHS trusts were meeting their requirements on race equality. Rentoul did not duck the issue and stated, “It is not unreasonable to expect legislation to take a little time to bed in. But we were surprised and disappointed by the apparent extent of the problem at this stage. The duty to promote race equality is not an optional extra.”

In 2008 Rentoul addressed a conference entitled Dignity Matters. He wanted to help the elderly and sick and the carers, saying: “We must make sure people get the nourishment they need, the care and treatment is safe, suitable places which support their independence.”

His career at the Department of Health was devoted to trying to improve the quality of care in the community. He also wanted to enhance the conditions for those who worked in the health service. His experience and knowledge of the inner workings of Whitehall proved invaluable when he was appointed to serve as Tony Blair’s deputy head of performance and innovation for six years and then as executive director of his Strategy Unit.

His responsibilities were widespread. They included helping to develop the government’s policies on criminal assets, electronic networks, GM crops and health in developing countries.

Rentoul is remembered by colleagues as a modest, talented, articulate and invariably discreet man. He had a first-class brain but never flaunted his knowledge. He was a good listener, marshalled an argument with immense care and had a memory for detail and facts that was outstanding.

At his final civil service selection board the panel stopped the interview to ask him if he was always this laid-back. Without missing a trick Rentoul disarmingly assured the panel this was only possible because they had put him at his ease.

He is survived by his wife Rowena, son Billy and his parents Robert and Mary.