Lord Morris of Manchester: Labour MP and pioneering spirit of disabled-rights legislation


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When I was invited by Ian Church, editor of Hansard, in my capacity as the then current Father of the House of Commons, to be one of the MPs choosing the most memorable Commons speeches that they had heard for inclusion in his centenary volume, I opted for Alf Morris's presentation – on an autumn Friday morning in 1969 – of his Private Members' Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill.

It was a Parliamentary milestone on the way that this country addresses the problems of the vulnerable. Without Morris's determination and wonderful bloody-minded obstinacy in the face of ministerial blandishments, enlightened approach to the disabled would have been postponed and might not have happened with such purpose.

Allow me to recollect the circumstances of 43 years ago. Morris was drawn number 1 in the annual ballot/lottery for a Private Members' Bill. Immediately, when the ballot result is made public, those in the first five or so of the 20 slots are deluged with suggestions and often pre-cooked bills/proposals from every variety of lobby with promises of support. Morris, however, knew his own mind. He produced his own, then radical, amelioratives for the dignity of the disabled.

Labour ministers were not at all pleased. Fred Peart, the Minister of Agriculture, and then Leader of the House of Commons, whose PPS Morris was, tried, in the interests of his "career", to deflect him. Harold Wilson let it be known that by pressing ahead with his own Private Members' Bill, rather than allowing measures of far-reaching importance to be left to a future Labour government, Morris did not enhance his chances of becoming a minister. Dick Crossman, Secretary of State for Social Services (whose PPS I was), tried first of all to fob off Morris with a series of bills which would get his name "on to the statute book". But Morris refused to be fobbed off.

Crossman became incandescent and spluttered to me and others about this thrawn young MP. But Morris had so much support in the country from disabled groups that the leadership had to bow to his intransigence. It greatly helped that the Chief Whip, the dockers MP Bob Mellish, exploded to the Cabinet: "If we can't support a bill like Morris's, what on earth is the Labour Party for?" Even so, the bill might not have become law in 1970 had it not been for the support of many colleagues, in particular Jack Ashley (see Independent obituary, 23 April 2012), Lewis Carter-Jones (obituary 2 September 2004), his brother Charlie Morris (obituary 19 January 2012) and, inside Alexander Fleming House, at the Department of Health, of the formidable Chief Medical Officer, Sir George Godber (obituary 12 February 2009).

Godber said to me quietly: "You are a chum of Alf Morris?" "Yes." " Tell him not to yield an inch. The time is never ripe. Governments will not get round to tackling the problem of the disabled." To his credit, Wilson imaginatively created the post of Minister for the Disabled when Labour unexpectedly won the February 1974 general election, and made Morris the First Minister.

Never in the history of the House of Commons was more effective use made of Private Members legislation. And from the day of his Bill, a number of us Labour MPs voted, on all matters relating to disabled legislation, as Morris and Ashley advised us.

Alf Morris was the eighth of the nine children of George Morris and his wife, the youngest of six boys. Since their father had been gassed in the First World War, they were raised in straitened circumstances, yet I never heard his brother Charlie, MP for Manchester Openshaw, or Alf, ever complaining about their personal hardships. Their concerns were for others facing poverty. Leaving school at 14 on a Friday, Morris was working in the most junior capacity in a Manchester brewery on the Monday. This was the beginning of a lifelong association with both USDAW and the Co-op Movement. By dint of evening classes, and taking advantage of the courses provided by the Royal Army Educational Corps during national service (1946-48), he clawed his way to Ruskin College, Oxford, and then to a degree at St Catherine's College, which enabled him to become a teacher and lecturer. While still a student, he contested the then impregnable Conservative seat of Liverpool Garston. In 1950 he had embarked on a conspicuously happy marriage to his near-neighbour, Irene Jones, which was to last 62 years. His Parliamentary colleagues were of the opinion that Alf had a marvellous girl supporting him.

In 1964 he won Wythenshawe – overturning a Conservative majority of 1,039 to a Labour majority, over Mrs Eveline Hill, of 4,577 – and doubled his majority in 1966. He was to hold the seat for the next third of a century. His tenacity of purpose came to be admired, in particular by another teacher,Fred Peart, MP for Workington and successful First Minister of Agriculture in the 1964-70 Government. When Peart was promoted to be Leader of the House in 1967, Morris went with him. They were both deeply opposed to British entry to the Common Market. The pro-marketeers, like myself, found that we could have comradely discussions devoid of rancour with Morris. But from 1969 in the Commons, and then in the Lords, Morris was identified with the cause of the disabled, described by Terry Philpot.

In the House of Lords, Morris made the best use of his elevation. I spoke to Tony Lloyd, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, with whom Morris had cooperated on Gulf War syndrome and Lord Archer of Sandwell's Investigation into blood disease. Lord Lloyd told me: "Alf Morris was much-loved in the Lords. He never gave up. He understood what was meant by 'people in need'. Alf went on worrying about people until the last weeks of his life. He was also one of the funniest of men, ever ready with a good quip."

Morris's work for the disabled has an international dimension. Among many countries who have studied his work in depth are the People's Republic of China and Australia, where Morris's friend, the former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, copied almost in toto what Morris had done.

Tam Dalyell

Alfred Morris, politician: born Manchester 23 March 1928; contested Liverpool Garston 1951, MP Manchester Wythenshawe 1964-97, Parliamentary Secretary at DHSS with Responsibility for the Disabled 1974-79; Life Peer 1997; married 1950 Irene Jones (two sons, two daughters); died London 12 August 2012.

Alf Morris's appointment in 1974 as the world's first Minister for Disabled People would have earned him a lengthy footnote in any history of government or social care, writes Terry Philpot. But his steering of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (another world first) through Parliament will place him at the front rank of legislators who have made a continuing difference to the lives of millions.

The Bill only narrowly received the Royal Assent in May 1970 when it survived in the "wash up" period before the general election to give local authorities a duty to assess the individual needs of disabled people and those who were mentally ill.

There was support in the home (the Post Office engineers installed 70,000 telephones in the first decade in their spare time at a nominal charge); provision of meals at home or elsewhere such as community centres; assistance in obtaining radio, TV, library or other recreational services; provision of recreational and educational activities outside the home; help in obtaining travel to participate in these activities (the Orange Badge parking scheme was introduced); and home adaptations and access adaptations to public buildings. An appeals system for service veterans' pensions was also established.

In fighting to bring the Bill through Parliament, Morris displayed a tenacity that he employed to good effect for the rest of his parliamentary career. When Labour unexpectedly returned to office in 1974, Harold Wilson made him Under-Secretary for Health or Minister for the Disabled. During this period, he phased in the mobility allowance and several other disabled benefits.

Out of office, he was a leader in the long struggle for disability discrimination legislation, which the Tories managed to defeat 14 times (he introduced the bill in 1991) and which was only secured by the Blair government.

He could clash with colleagues, as he did with Labour's then education spokesman, Neil Kinnock, over education for disabled children. He fought Pontins holiday camp in Blackpool when it would not accept learning disabled children; he got the government to award another £40 a week to women widowed as a result of war before 1973; and he stood against cuts in pensions and benefits. By raising private funds, he established two independent inquiries, one on Gulf War syndrome; and the other on the situation of those who had been infected with HIV or Hepatitis C from contaminated blood through the NHS – and the dependents of those who had died as a result.

The 1970 Act set off a train of legislation and benefits – incapacity benefit, the non-contributory invalidity pension, mobility allowance, Motability, disabled housewives' allowance and the carers' allowance – all of which he had a hand in. But, as important, his dogged determination for more than nearly half a century changed the social and political culture for disabled people, securing their rights as citizens, rather than inadequate handouts as supplicants.