Sheila McKechnie described herself as a ‘fully paid up member of the awkward squad’. This mind-set, combined with formidable research and a commitment to constructing watertight argument, meant that her campaigning powers were legendary.
She drew on these skills throughout her life – as a child, her mother remembered her ‘fizzing at injustice’ – resonating with most impact during her career at Shelter and the Consumers’ Association.
Her trade union career began in 1972 when she became Assistant General Secretary of the Wallpaper Workers’ Union. Two years later she went to the Workers’ Educational Association as tutor and in 1976 joined the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs as National Health and Safety Officer. She was instrumental in turning health and safety issues from minor concerns into major issues.
This ability to make headlines came into its own when she joined Shelter as its Director in 1985. Sheila turned the organisation around to make it once again a strong and potent force in tackling homelessness and its causes. It was here that she co-founded the Foyer Federation, which has since provided holistic support to hundreds of thousands of young homeless people.
In 1995 Sheila moved on to become Director of Consumers’ Association, now Which? Her many successes include mounting campaigns on mortgage mis-selling and car prices, as well as tackling standards in the food industry. Her work on food issues led directly to the setting up of the Food Standards Agency in 2000.
She was awarded an OBE in 1995 in recognition of her services to housing and homelessness and in 2001 became a Dame of the British Empire for her work on behalf of consumers. Sheila died of cancer in January 2004 at the age of 55.
The Sheila McKechnie Foundation was set up a year later, in memory of the immense contribution she made to campaigning in the UK.