terptree: Passing of Lord Morris of Manchester

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Monday, 3 September 2012

Passing of Lord Morris of Manchester

Friends of the Forum and former board members will have been saddened to hear of the passing of Lord Morris of Manchester, one of our patrons and a constant supporter. He kept in regular touch, and we met at the House only a few weeks ago. He was invariably solicitous, making light of his own obvious health problems. We shared Lancastrian origins and each of us was born into poverty, little more than a year apart. His experience of life at the bottom informed his entire outlook. The story is familiar but I want briefly to again put it on record.

To understand the origins of his political life it is necessary to go back to November 1935, when his father died. The First World War left George Henry Morris blind in one eye, with a shattered leg, and lungs lacerated by mustard gas. He had become unemployable in 1930, when Alf was only two years old, and for the next five years the family subsisted on his meagre war pension and a small input from one of the older children who was in employment. It was not nearly enough and Alf has never forgotten the day when his mother, faced with eviction by their private landlord from a slum in Ancoats, and crying inconsolably, said “there’s no future for us now”.

Jessie Morris faced life in a workhouse, and young Alf was told he would have to be put into a home. It was not an uncommon plight in families like his, where disability was synonymous with poverty. For the most part disabled people were second-class citizens who might be ‘put away’ or hidden at home. In the Morris family, to make matters even worse, the cause of George’s death was ascribed to heart failure and deemed not to be war-related, so that Alf’s mother was refused even a ten shillings-a-week war widow’s pension.

Of course, the tide turned. The family were rehoused thanks to the intervention of Canon Shimwell from Jessie’s local church, and after three years she got her pension through the endeavours of her local MP, Harry Thorneycroft. Alf did exemplarily well at school and in 1953, after study at Ruskin and St Catherine’s Colleges in Oxford, gained an MA degree, and went on to become Labour & Co-operative MP for Wythenshawe in 1964.

Five years later fate intervened again when Alf came first in the annual ballot for Private Member’s Bills, giving him the right to parliamentary time for a bill of his choosing. Remembering his roots he determined on a bill to vouchsafe social equality and improve living standards for disabled people, an undertaking that broke entirely new ground and was not welcomed either by the Treasury or Richard Crossman, then the Secretary of State for Social Services. Alf did not expect his bill to reach the Statute Book, regarding it rather as a marker that legislation was urgently needed. But the time was right. Drafting proved complex from the outset and became more so as the bill went through the long parliamentary process, but it remarkably survived to receive the Royal Assent on 29 May 1970, when it was saved by Harold Wilson’s decision, even at the cost of measures of his own ministers, to provide parliamentary time for it to become law before the General Election in June of that year. It finally had 29 sections and amended 39 other Acts of Parliament, as well as legislating in areas where previously there was no legislation of any kind to amend.

Alf’s strategy was to begin with a mandatory duty on local authorities to inform themselves of the number of disabled people needing assistance, and then to provide them with information about relevant services, both from local authorities and departments of state. The bill provided as of right new and wide-ranging practical assistance in the home and help in the fields of education, employment, housing, outdoor mobility and personal social services. It set out statutory requirements for ensuring access to public and social buildings, the world’s first special educational provision for deaf-blind, autistic and dyslexic children, and provisions relating to war pensions, extending the right of appeal.

The Act touched on practically every aspect of the lives of disabled people and services they needed to achieve their full potential. It had a commitment to transforming not only the quality of life but also the status of disabled people in British society, proclaiming that they had as much right as everyone else to take part in all the activities of life, and challenging public and private authorities to meet their needs. Dr Duncan Guthrie, who had helped Alf with the administration involved in drafting his bill, greeted it as the Magna Carta of disabled people worldwide. Major members of the Commonwealth – Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa - who had promptly rallied to Britain’s cause in war, were now equally zealous in replicating this seminal legislation, quickly followed in 1972 by the United States and ultimately by countries all over the world.

Alf’s legislation, which has since been extended by its inclusion in two international charters, has been of undoubted historic and global significance. It first began to take effect in 1972 and since then has assisted countless millions of disabled people. In March 2011, the Act was celebrated at Westminster Abbey by a Thanksgiving Service, the only other parliamentary legislation to be accorded such an honour since the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833.

Alf went on to become the world’s first Minister for Disabled People from 1974-79, and promoted a raft of new measures to improve the lives of people with disabilities, physical and sensory alike, not least by spearheading the introduction of the Mobility Allowance and then helping to facilitate the provision of four-wheeled vehicles through the economically viable Motability Scheme. He also set in motion the thrust for disability rights which eventually came to fruition through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. He achieved this against a background of severe economic difficulties. His priority as a minister was to improve the lot of disabled people rather than save money.

His determination to champion the rights of disabled people, both in this country and throughout the world, persisted through his 33 years as an MP, and continued following his elevation to the House of Lords in 1997. In particular, from 1989 he pursued an unremitting struggle to win compensation for people with haemophilia infected – often fatally – following treatment with contaminated NHS blood products. And in his longest campaign, he espoused the cause of troops involved in the 1991 Gulf War who, fit and well when they were deployed, subsequently developed a range of medically unexplained illnesses.

Resisted by successive governments, he continued to press the case for remedial compensation for them, broadening the argument to a moral crusade which argued that service personnel uniquely contracted with the state whereby they were prepared to lay down their lives for their country in exchange for adequate safeguards and compensation in adversity. This principle, which flew in the face of centuries of historic tradition, became known as the ‘military covenant’. It was given expression in the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme introduced in 2005.

Alf enjoyed particularly close ties with Australia and New Zealand and, among other awards, held both the Order of Australia (AO) and the Queen’s Service Order of New Zealand (QSO). He also held numerous honorary appointments in disability charities. Other campaigners, over time, have built on Alf’s legislation, but the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act remains on the statute book as the revolutionary cornerstone of provision for disabled people.

As a politician Alf manifested the precious quality of integrity. To quote from my biography:
“His gentle kindness is legendary. Yet when faced, as he often has been, with policies that negate social justice, the determination of his opposition has been extraordinary, even fiercely combative, in keeping always with an immutable political philosophy. He is famous for his extraordinary persistence.”

I will continue to remember him fondly as a champion of those needing help.


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