Lady Ashley of Stoke

Shrewd and energetic political campaigner for the disabled

Pauline Kay Crispin, campaigner: born Liverpool 2 August 1932; married 1951 Jack Ashley (created 1992 Baron Ashley of Stoke; three daughters); died Epsom, Surrey 28 July 2003.

Pauline Ashley was a campaigner who achieved social change, sometimes in her own name and sometimes in partnership with her husband, the former Labour MP and now peer Jack Ashley.

When Jack Ashley lost his hearing in 1967, shortly after becoming an MP, he at first concluded he would have to resign. If he had stuck to that decision, many disabled and disadvantaged people in Britain would now be a lot worse off. Instead he stayed on to become a parliamentary champion of their rights. He was able to do that due to his wife's unflagging support. At one level this was practical - the painstaking teaching of and assistance with lip-reading, the taking of instant notes at meetings to enable him to follow and participate. But it went much, much further.

While notionally she worked for him as a researcher, in reality they operated together as the closest of partnerships - working out their case, crafting arguments, planning tactics. It was Jack's job with his passion and eloquence to put the case over, but its strength was always founded on their joint preparation.

Their first major campaign was in the early 1970s to boost compensation for children who were born disabled because their mothers had taken the drug Thalidomide during pregnancy. From this they learnt how powerful advocacy, persistence and a good eye for publicity could be used to help achieve some justice for a group otherwise largely ignored. They brought these lessons to bear on the campaigns they fought in the rest of the time Jack spent in the Commons (he stayed as MP for Stoke-on-Trent South until 1992) and then carried on when he entered the House of Lords.

The beneficiaries of these campaigns have included battered wives, vaccine-damaged children, haemophiliacs with HIV/Aids, victims of unhygienic hospitals and bullied soldiers, as well as deaf and disabled people generally in many ways. All this was the work of Team Ashley.

Pauline Ashley was born Pauline Crispin in Liverpool in 1932, daughter of an insurance company manager. She won a maths scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, where she also shone at sport, representing the university at hockey. At Cambridge she worked on the student newspaper and one day was sent to interview a leading student debater who had just returned from a successful speaking tour of the United States. This was Jack, and they fell in love. Within a year they were married. And in an early blow for women's rights Pauline set a new precedent by continuing with her university education. Future students at Girton no longer had to choose between marriage and a degree.

After leaving university she brought up three young daughters. She taught maths for three years at Sutton High School, until Jack became an MP in 1966 and she started work with him. Later she resumed her education with a masters in social administration at the London School of Economics. She followed this with a book, The Money Problems of the Poor (1983), which was characterised by the same mix of thorough analysis and commitment to the vulnerable that she brought to everything else.

In the 1970s and 1980s, while still raising a family and continuing to work with Jack, she extended her role in public life, as hospital governor and health-authority member. In 1985 she founded, and then for 10 years chaired, the Hearing Research Trust (now called Defeating Deafness), a charity to promote research into the prevention and treatment of hearing impairment. An under-resourced medical area badly in need of funding has since benefited by several millions of pounds.

The other theme of her work was consumer rights - and particularly how public utilities serve their vulnerable customers. This included disabled people, but also low-income users and those disadvantaged in other ways. She pursued this in a variety of voluntary posts, public appointments and paid employment - as a member of BT's committee on disabled customers, as Chairman of the Electricity Consumers' Committee for the South East, as a consultant to Oftel. Her lobbying led to the first Typetalk service to allow deaf and hard-of-hearing people to communicate via the phone, and Typetalk's first small building was called Pauline Ashley House. It has since grown into a major operation which is part of the daily routine of many people.

Throughout her work she focused on how best to achieve practical change. Always quick to see a promising path through a complex range of confusing options, she earned the respect of others by her thoughtfulness, her pragmatic shrewdness and, not least, her charm. In the last period of her life she was actively pursuing her work with Oftel and with the Public Utilities Action Forum on protecting vulnerable consumers, showing her customary enthusiasm and energy. This made her sudden death at the age of 70 all the more shocking and sad.

Martin Rosenbaum

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