This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
In the early hours of the 1st April 1966, BBC cameras covering the General Election captured the moment Jack Ashley was confirmed as the new Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent South. Just a year later after complications with a routine ear operation he was left completely deaf. This would be the beginning of a public life like no other as he became a tireless equal rights campaigner for the disabled. This blog shall focus on the key moments in a Parliamentary career which spanned six decades and considered no barriers.
Jack Ashley was born in Widnes in 1922, as a child he lost his father. Like many of his peers, education was sacrificed to gain employment in the town’s burgeoning chemical industry befitting their municipal motto of Industria Ditat. The solidarity of trade unions soon appealed and just out of his teens he was made a shop-steward for the Chemical Workers Union. A determination to better himself led to a Cambridge University scholarship where he became Union President. After making an impressive maiden speech in the Commons in the spring of 1966, Anthony Buck MP commented on Ashley the student;
I would also like to mention the earlier maiden speech by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). He and I were at Cambridge at the same time. I recall that he was the first President of the Union to spurn the stiff-fronted shirt and appear at a session in a lounge suit—great tribute to his courage. I thought myself that it was a little "old hat", but it was a foretaste of the boldness manifested in his speech today.
Struck by Lightning
It was a standard perforation procedure that left Ashley without hearing capabilities which he likened to being ‘struck by lightning’. In a nod to his roots he recalled the last voice he heard was rugby league commentator, Eddie Waring. As the new reality dawned, doubt afflicted this most driven of men. To continue in politics, he needed a cause, and this was to take on the responsibility of becoming the spokesperson of those with disabilities. Before returning to Parliament, he attended a Trafalgar Square rally for the disabled where he stood shoulder to shoulder with his new comrades. He used the platform of his much-anticipated comeback speech in July 1968 to highlight the equality divide in the disablement care structure;
That discrimination which is exercised against disabled men is even worse in the case of women. The disabled housewife is, believe it or not, entitled to not one penny, even though she may be totally paralysed. This is an astonishing state of affairs. The consequences for a totally disabled paralysed housewife are simple and quite direct. She can either pay for someone to come in and look after her and her husband and home, which, of course, cannot be afforded by people on a low income
This Is Your Life
By the seventies the inspiring story of a lip-reading politician had made Jack Ashley a household name. This new fame even saw him presented with This Is Your Life Big Red Book on the popular television show. But celebrity didn’t quell his fighting spirit and he used journalistic skills honed at the BBC to work alongside The Sunday Times to expose the tragic injustice of Thalidomide drug usage. Despite obstacles faced in presenting his argument Ashley was still able to invoke the emotive nature of a campaign that required a great sensitivity. As early as 1972 he was making his fellow Parliamentarians aware of this issue with no quarter given.
We are debating today a great national tragedy, none the less poignant because it happened 10 years ago. This is one tragedy in which the passage of time instead of healing the suffering actually heightens it, for children who were robbed of the magic of their childhood by a manmade disaster are now approaching the highly sensitive and emotional years of adolescence without arms, without legs and, in some cases, without organs. Adolescence is a time for living and laughing, for learning and loving. But what kind of adolescence will a 10-yearold boy look forward to when he has no arms, no legs, one eye, no pelvic girdle and is only two feet tall? How can an 11-year-old girl look forward to laughing and loving when she has no hand to be held and no legs to dance on?
The Palantype Effect
Back in university, Ashley met his future wife Pauline. She was of paramount importance in the rehabilitation process with her exemplary sign-language skills. Parliament also aided communication channels by arranging a Palantype reporter in the press gallery to provide verbatim accounts of chamber discourse to screen next to Ashley’s side. On the opposition benches, Neil Marten assisted with hand signals when required. A small act of empathy that rose above traditional party-lines. However, by 1988 the Conservative Government had begun a programme of public service cuts that Ashley considered to have detrimentally affected the disabled community, and he decided to go on the offensive.
In the opposite corner, Minister for Social Care, Nicholas Scott who was attacked for an ambivalence towards disability poverty;
I read the report as carefully as the Minister, and I accuse him of being selective. The report also explained that some of the people whom he thought were not deserving of special help were people who have difficulty reading newspaper print or following conversations when there is a background noise, and who cannot walk 200 yards without stopping or suffering severe discomfort. Those are people with severe problems and the Minister is utterly wrong to try to dismiss them. The speech of the Secretary of State was even more disturbing. He claimed that expenditure on benefits for disabled people had risen by 90 per cent. in real terms in 1979. The Minister of State made the same speech at his press conference. The Minister and the Secretary of State omitted to mention that most of that increase was due to the rise in the number of disabled people and in the number claiming benefit.
Last Stand in the Lords
Journalist Jackie Ashley, who also happened to be his daughter described her father as, ‘the champion of the underdog’. Receiving a peerage in 1992 he would go on to address the Lords Chamber on subjects that varied from domestic violence to speaking out over fungicide benomyl cases that left rural born babies without eyes. Once established in the Upper House, he much benefited from a cochlear implant allowing him to hear again. Despite the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, the crusader instincts hadn’t dimmed as he fronted an All-Party Group on Disability seeking a New Deal for British disabled persons with an emphasis on independent living. In 2005, he laid out the tenets of the bill with a characteristically bullish oration;
The purpose of this new bill is to propose enforceable rights to independent living for disabled people. We have come a long way in the past 30 years or so from a patronising, pitying attitude to disabled people, but without full rights to independent living we fall well short of our goals. Independent living means disabled people having the same choice, control and freedom as any other citizen. It means providing practical assistance based on their own choices and aspirations
Integrity, Industry and Individuality would best describe the life and times of Jack Ashley. Known for his modesty he would never have been concerned with the egocentricity of leaving a legacy, but the sheer weight of Disability Discrimination legislation passed on his watch pay testament to that. Shortly before he passed away in 2012, Baroness Royal joked of cloning Ashley and that is the best tribute that could be given to a truly inspirational man who in silence found strength.