'Bittersweet' moment as Irene Hays made Dame in New Year's Honours, just weeks after losing beloved husband John

One of Sunderland’s most prominent business people has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Honours List.

Wednesday, 30th December 2020, 10:58 pm

Irene Lucas-Hays, as she is listed on the roll, has received the top honour for ‘Services to Training, to Education and to Young People’ .

Irene, 66, was made a Dame for her huge contribution towards developing young people and helping them flourish in life.

John and Irene Hays of Hays Travel at the Sunderland Echo Portfolio Business Awards in 2019.

But she said: “In these circumstances, with John just gone, it has been bittersweet. When they rang me and said I had been awarded the honour, the first person I thought about was John and he would have been thrilled.

"I know I am getting the honour but the honour is for all the people who have helped these young people over the years to be successful.

"I was overwhelmed when I heard. In all of my careers, I have always tried to help and support young people to be the best they can be."

This is the second honour for Irene who was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2008 for services to local government.

John and Irene Hays pictured in 2019 at the Portfolio Awards where Hays Travel when the Overall Business of the Year category.

But Irene said: “I have never done anything on my own. I don’t think anyone ever does anything on their own. For me, it is all the great people who I have worked with.”

Irene’s illustrious career spanned 42 years in local and national government, as well as the private sector.

She was known by her maiden name Lucas in her public service career, and her married name Hays in her business career.

John and Irene Hays of Hays Travel at the Sunderland Echo Portfolio Business Awards in 2019.

Born in Ashington to a mining family, Irene was Chief Executive of Sunderland City Council and South Tyneside Council and Director General of Local Government and Regeneration in Whitehall.

She held the role of Permanent Secretary in the Department of Communities and Local Government on an interim basis before her retirement.

Irene has a passion for improving outcomes for young people through apprenticeships and support to be the best that they can be.

This has been a feature of her business and public life since she encouraged the first trainees on the Youth Opportunities Programmes of the 1980s while working in leisure in Sunderland.

She has championed apprenticeships nationwide ever since, and with her husband, invested in them (and an Ofsted good-rated travel academy) for decades. Irene is also a powerful advocate of the role that business has in contributing to communities where they operate.

The couple also launched the Hays Travel Foundation which so far has invested over £1million to support young people.

Irene has served on a number of boards and governing bodies, including Sport England, The Football Foundation and the Academy for Sustainable Communities.

She is a non-executive director on the Board of the Department of Education and chairs its Education and Skills Funding Agency.

Irene was instrumental in negotiations to buy the Thomas Cook retail arm last year.

But Irene said it was the young people themselves who equally deserved praise for their achievements.

"It is because they have done such a good job that we have continued to invest in young people and believe in them, because we know they make successful businesses across the country.”

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