Obituary: Gordon McMaster

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The Independent Online
"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the coming into force of the provisions of the Disabled Persons Act 1986 relating to the appointment and rights of authorised representatives, the assessment by local authorities of the needs of disabled persons, and the procedures to be implemented when a person is discharged from hospital." This was the long title of the Bill which Gordon McMaster, under the 10-minute rule kite-flying procedure, brought in on 17 April 1996.

Some MPs find a niche for themselves within months of entering the House of Commons. From his first weeks in Parliament Gordon McMaster established himself as a champion of the rights of disabled people, of whom with his huge, 18-stone frame he felt himself to be one.

His Bill encapsulated the essence of McMaster's spirit and raison d'etre in politics. It was designed to be a significant step forward in the campaign "Time to Care". It would have given disabled people, people with mental illnesses and those with learning difficulties the right to have an advocate, the right to be consulted on their care, the right to be represented, and the right to have a proper assessment of their needs. McMaster believed that a 30-minute meeting involving advocacy could rescue someone from a lifetime of misery.

McMaster told the House on that moving occasion - because his sincerity, obvious personal experience and concern did make him a moving speaker to whom his colleagues listened - placed emphasis on the Citizens Charter. He wanted to empower disabled people, people with learning disabilities and those with mental health problems to have a say in their own lives and, where they could not have that say, to have an advocate to speak for them.

Every day people are discharged from long-stay institutions and find themselves in a metaphorical lions' den because their needs have not been assessed. There are increasing numbers of mentally ill people in prisons across the length and breadth of the country because there was nowhere else to send them. McMaster contended that advocacy, consultation and above all the assessment of needs before discharge would do much to avoid that situation.

He would often tell us that if we were to take a walk along the streets of his beloved Paisley any night of the week we would see people that community care had failed. It had given them only cardboard homes and cardboard hopes. The nation would be shocked at newspaper headlines about another murder or tragedy involving someone who had been discharged from a long-stay institution.

McMaster would talk late into the night with his friends, telling us that the natural reaction to blame community care was wrong. It was not the concept of community care that was wrong for him, but the lack of support and assessment. It was a great disservice to Britain's 6.5 million disabled people, the hundreds of thousands with learning disabilities and the 7 million carers that they faced this plight. It was also an appalling waste of talents and abilities of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, including young people who would be willing to be voluntary advocates. What McMaster asked was that something should be done for disabled people who have been, as he put it, "done unto".

Gordon McMaster was seen by his many friends in the House of Commons as a genuine socialist and a thoroughly decent man. Another of his campaigns was against the use of Temazepan, the terrible "jellies" as they are known, on the street.

McMaster was born in Johnstone, part of the Paisley South constituency, of a father who was a parks superintendent and a mother a clerkess. After leaving Johnstone High School he followed his father's profession to Woodburn House Further Education Centre, part of the West of Scotland Agricultural College, where he got a City and Guilds in Horticulture. As a beekeeper, I know at first hand how profound McMaster's knowledge of flowers had become. He trained as an apprentice gardener with Renfrew District Council and became a horticultural technician, a craftsman gardener and then lecturer in horticulture at Langside College.

He told me that he became a member of Johnstone Community Council at the age of 21 by sheer chance and, at 22, he became the youngest chairman of any council in Scotland. After that he got the bug for public life, being elected to Renfrew District Council in 1984, as its deputy leader in 1987 and its leader in 1988; his qualities of authority and bustling other people along to get things done became apparent to those with whom he worked.

In the words of Tom Clarke, the Culture minister, he had "unreserved commitment to people considered the underdogs, especially the disabled". His Growing Concern project for young people in Strathclyde with learning disabilities, which he ran from 1988 until 1990, "became a model for other parts of Britain. He made horticulture interesting for disabled people, and through horticulture increased their confidence."

I remember that as soon as Gordon McMaster's candidature was announced following the death of his friend and mentor the late Norman Buchan I did a joint meeting with him in the unlikely venue of Hatchard's bookshop in Paisley. Amazingly, it was well attended and what came through was the affection in which this enormously bulky and cheerful young man was held by the senior citizens of Paisley. They just liked him very much.

The affection was requited by their favourite son. In his maiden speech on 12 December 1990 McMaster said:

I remember the bus journey that I used to take from my home town of Johnstone to my work in Paisley every morning. It was quite a job to get on a bus 15 years ago. The streets were throbbing and bustling with people all going to work in the mills and the large factories. A school leaver taking that same bus journey today would see decay, dereliction and despondency.

Paisley is famous for the Paisley pattern: it is known throughout the world and it was at the forefront of the textile industry, which employed many thousands of people from the town and surrounding areas. Now it employs no more than a few hundred. The massive mills that once housed those thousands of workers now stand as idle and rotting monuments of the industrial decline that we have seen during the past decade.

It was McMaster's mission as part of a Labour government to do something for and about his home area.

He was made Scottish opposition whip in 1992 and two years later such had been his success that he was made assistant to the redoubtable Don Dixon, now Lord Dixon of Jarrow, the Deputy Chief Opposition Whip. He was a natural whip and I and my colleagues were very happy to follow what he asked of us. He had a natural, if somewhat brutal, charm - one of the elusive qualities of party managers. At that time I saw him as a potential chief whip in a Labour government.

One cannot escape the awful feeling that, had it not been for a cruel mugging on the streets of London last month which left greater scars than most of us knew about, Gordon McMaster would have been with us for at least a number of years and would rendered unfulfilled service to Parliament and country. His colleagues and huge number of friends are overwhelmed with sadness at his premature passing.

Tam Dalyell

Gordon James McMaster, horticulturalist and politician: born Johnstone, Renfrewshire 13 February 1960; Lecturer in Horticulture, Langside College 1980-86, Senior Lecturer 1986-88; member, Johnstone Community Council 1980-84, chairman 1982-84; member, Renfrew District Council 1984-91, Leader 1988-90; Co- ordinator, Growing Concern Initiative, Strathclyde 1988-90; MP (Labour) for Paisley South 1990-97; Opposition spokesman on disabled peoples rights 1995-97; Scottish opposition whip 1992-94, Assistant to Deputy Chief Opposition Whip 1994-95; died Johnstone 28 July 1997.