14 Aug 2012

Disability campaigner Lord Morris dies aged 84

In an article he wrote three years ago, Labour Peer Lord Morris of Manchester recalled the bill he introduced to parliament for the chronically sick and disabled persons. It was not so much a boast as a simple statement of fact when he said:  “That law, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, transformed the lives of millions, not only people who were disabled and infirm, but also their families and carers, their neighbours and communities.

Alf Morris was MP for Manchester Wythenshaw when he proposed the bill back in 1969. It was enacted the following year in England and Wales and by 1978 covered the whole of the UK.

The pioneering act gave rights to people with disabilities that they had never had, including rights of access to buildings, including schools and universities. It made the world’s first statutory provision for purpose-built housing for disabled people, and entitled them to help in adapting their homes.

In the House of Commons itself they were forced to remove the ban on guide-dogs for blind visitors being left outside and in the House of Lords they created the “Mobile Bench” of Peers – the removal of the first row of the cross benches to makes space for wheelchairs.

He was then, and remained, a tireless campaigner for those he felt were treated unfairly by society and by successive governments.

Lord Morris said himself that it was his early life that formed his views. Born into poverty, he was the eighth child of a father who had lost a leg and an eye serving in the First World Ward. His father was unemployed and when he died, his mother was refused a war widow’s pension.

During his career he was a frontbench spokesman on disabled issues and the first minister for the disabled in Harold Wilson’s second government from 1974, before he was created a life peer in 1997.

Lord Ashley of Stoke once described his friend and colleague as the most considerate man in the House of Commons – and that never changed. He was quietly spoken and quick to smile, but also determined, remaining a campaigner to the end.

Inquiry into ‘tainted blood’ scandal

His anger at the way he felt people with haemophilia had been treated led him to establish the privately funded two-year inquiry into the “tainted blood” scandal after the government declined to hold one.

As president of the Haemophilia Society, its chair Bernard Manson said he showed “understanding and empathy for those who had suffered or had been bereaved”, and he gained the trust of all those involved.

“Campaigners who have worked with him for many years remember his genuine warmth, kindness, and gentle manner as much as his tenacious parliamentary activity,” added Mr Manson. “His contribution in this area – as in many others – has been unmatched.  He created genuine and lasting change for the better; his passing marks the end of an era.”

Alice Maynard, chairwoman of disability charity Scope, said: “It is for his support for disabled people in all our fights for justice that I will remember him: in the slow, painstaking, behind-the-scenes kind – such as the battle for quality, accessible information – as much as in the more exciting, frontline kind, such as our battle for anti-discrimination legislation.”

‘Genuine compassion’ for disabled people

This was what Lord Morris said the day before the second reading of his disability bill on 5 December, 1969:

“If we could each bequeath one precious gift to posterity, I would choose a society in which there is genuine compassion for long-term sick and disabled people; where understanding is unostentatious and sincere; where needs come before means; where if years cannot be added to their lives, at least life can be added to their years; where the mobility of disabled people is restricted only by the bounds of technical progress and discovery; where they have the fundamental right to participate in industry and society according to ability; where socially preventable distress is unknown; and where no one has cause to be ill at ease because of her or his disability.”

He is survived by his wife Irene, two sons and two daughters.

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