This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
On the afternoon of 25th February 2008 an air of sadness permeated around the House of Lords Chamber after the death of Baroness Darcy de Knayth was announced. Fittingly prior to the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill debate some heartfelt tributes were given by those assembled. Baroness Wilkins spoke of her friend’s contribution ‘to the passing of every piece of disability legislation passed over the last thirty years’. The future Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza used terms of affection such as ‘Kinswoman’ who ‘voted on the basis of conscience’ and ‘embodied the spirit of the cross-benches’. Summing up Earl Howe urged his fellow peers to remember her wisdom and ‘refreshingly positive approach to life’.
In our latest disability blog, we shall look at those achievements and the legacy it has left. Overcoming anguish and adversity with an endurance and empathy that saw her become both a Paralympian and Peer.
CHILD OF PRIVILEGE
Davina Marcia Herbert was born in 1938 into a world of gentry that even then felt from a bygone age. A descendant of a baronetcy that dated back to the 14th Century, the family home was Styche, a Georgian mansion in Shropshire. At the age of five, her father died at war and she was bestowed the title of 18th Baroness Darcy de Knayth. As a debutante she caught the imagination of numerous society pages who christened her ‘Catch of the Season’. She married publisher Richard Ingrams in 1960 and the couple had three children in short succession. But tragedy struck four years later when they were both involved in a car crash near their home. The accident killed her husband and left de Knayth paralysed from the chest down. In rehabilitation a strength of mind and body was fuelled by a determination to remain an active mother but as time progressed a broader purpose took hold leading to new fields of individual endeavour.
A SUCCESSFUL MAIDEN
Such was her dedication to physical competition that the Baroness found herself in Tel Aviv in 1968 representing her country in the Paralympic Games then known as the International Stoke Mandeville Games. She won a gold medal in swimming which was presented by Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan. Four years later a bronze medal in table tennis was added in Heidelberg, Germany. By this juncture she held the distinction of also being a budding Parliamentarian. At the beginning of the sixties she had been admitted to the Lords as one of sixteen new hereditary peers and in April 1970 she delivered her maiden speech. This would take place amidst the intrigue of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill debates with its legislative success still hanging in the balance. It was noted that benches were moved to allow her wheelchair access into the chamber. When the time came to speak her impressive oratory belied any noticeable inexperience. Stressing not platitudes but practicalities essential to the lives of those she now wished to represent. The bill was passed as Darcy de Knayth’s influence on the Act was heralded by many political commentators. Justified by several late amendments tabled on travel & leisure.
BARONESS DARCY (DE KNAYTH)
I myself am a widow with three young children, and because I am disabled and in sole care of them I am entitled either to a small car or to a considerable grant towards the upkeep of my own car. This is in addition to the conversion grant and the other concessions allowed to most disabled drivers. The disabled wife is in virtually the same position as the widow, the divorced or the separated woman. Life for the disabled is expensive, and the disabled wife receives no disability pension, although if she is sufficiently disabled she will now qualify for an attendance allowance through her husband's contributions.
(9th April 1970 – Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill - 2nd - Reading – Read debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1970/apr/09/chronically-sick-and-disabled-persons)
‘THE WHEELCHAIR BRIGADE’
Baroness Darcy wasn’t the only peer making their rookie debut in this now famous debate. Baroness Marsham & Viscount Ingleby also addressed the House for the first time from what Lord Crawshaw called the ‘mobile bench’. This ‘gang of four’ all had disabilities and identified themselves as crossbenchers not encumbered by party lines. They soon became known as the ‘Wheelchair Brigade’ renowned for a crusading spirit to enforce extra provisions for the disabled community in the statute book. An area of concern for the group was the lack of recreational services available to those deemed handicapped. In June 1974, an opportunity arose to raise this issue to a greater audience as a debate on sport included Prince Charles making a much-publicized Parliamentary appearance. The Baroness seized the moment condemning the ‘not for them’ attitude that was prevalent amongst coaches who seemed to fear social contact with those considered physically inferior. Modesty permitted her not to make any reference to Paralympic achievements instead celebrating the deeds of Norman Croucher, an amputee who had climbed The Matterhorn earlier that year. It was pressure politics at its most effective and by the eighties the sporting and leisure industry had incorporated her vision.
BARONESS DARCY (DE KNAYTH)
Participation in sport has great social value for both handicapped children and adults, enabling them to make friends and join in activities with their contemporaries. It can help to keep the disabled family united by providing a shared interest, and can, in turn, integrate the disabled family into the community by means of that interest. Furthermore, it can influence society's attitude to the disabled. It is good publicity value. If an able-bodied person sees what disabled people can do in the field of sport, if he meets them and talks with them and discovers that they have many interests and ideas in common, he begins to understand why the disabled desire to become fully-fledged members of society, although alas! at the present moment some members of the community are not yet attuned to seeing the disabled actively participating in sport in public.
(13th June 1974 – Sport and Leisure- Read debate in full https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1974/jun/13/sport-and-leisure )
NOTHING LIKE A DAME
To improve the lives of the young was a prime objective of Baroness Darcy’s aspirational initiatives. She was never afraid to face up to any political parties that stood in the way of these principles. The freedom of being a crossbencher suited this unrestricted attitude but on occasion voting preferences would come under the spotlight. This was the case in 1990 when her vote was decisive in defeating a government proposal to abolish grants for deaf and dyslexic students coupled with their right to claim income support and housing benefit. The nitty gritty of throwing in a last-gasp amendment to bend the will of a bill was now considered her raison d’etre. Much contention existed over Conservative policies including a plan to scrap the Independent Living Fund which was hugely beneficial to the disabled community. So, in times of trouble the ‘Mobile Bench’ of Darcy and Marsham came together to help turn the tide. In an acrimonious atmosphere, the Baroness still retained a wry sense of humour shown when she joked of those on the opposing side trying to gain favour with chocolate biscuits. National treasure status was confirmed later in the decade when she was made a Dame for her services to the cause.
BARONESS DARCY (DE KNAYTH)
My Lords, I should like to support the amendment very strongly, but briefly. Once again the noble Baroness has made a very strong case. I congratulate her on her persistence. If retrospective consumption of chocolate biscuits is necessary, I am sure that we shall all do that.
ICA is paid direct to the carer and therefore surely the important factor—as both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord have said—is the amount of time that the carer has to give. It is the chunk which is taken out of the carer's life which is important and not whether that time is being spent on two people or on one.
I hope that now we shall indeed hear that the Minister has had the opportunity to look at the matter again and finds that this is an extremely sensible amendment, and that he will be able to give a positive reply.
(15th April 1991 – Disability Living & Working Allowance Bill- Read debate in full https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1991/apr/15/disability-living-allowance-and-1
INTO THE MILLENIUM
As the century came to an end, times were changing within the Upper House. Reforms brought in by the new Labour Government meant the time was up for many hereditary peers. But Baroness Darcy had done the hard miles and the great respect that earned was illustrated by a victory in the Hereditary By-election brought in by new legislation. Realising that the Lords was ripe for change she stated, ‘this House is seen as too male, too old and too much from the south-east of England, with insufficient ethnic diversity’. The likes of Jack Ashley and Alf Morris were now chamber contemporaries forming a disability rights ‘Supergroup’ to amplify the call for more equality. Into the millennium, she led a campaign to ensure that the NHS was sufficiently funded to care for disabled admission requirements. But entering her twilight years the routine of attending Parliament became increasingly difficult due to her ill health. An undisclosed illness eventually took its toll but in the aftermath of her death the many obituaries celebrated a life less ordinary.
BARONESS DARCY (DE KNAYTH)
As a paraplegic, I know only too well that you cannot skimp and save on personal care, medical supplies and, for example, incontinence equipment. I know that everyone has talked about incontinence pads but that equipment is extremely important. We know about the problems which arose when there was a hiccup or a cut-back in the community in relation to the incontinence service. People were reusing paper sheets, drying them on radiators. You end up with infections; your skin breaks down; and you may get pressure sores. If that happens, you then have to go into hospital because you cannot be looked after in a care home. Pressure sores cost the NHS millions of pounds per year. Therefore, it is very important. Skimping on care or equipment leads to a need for real nursing care and much personal cost and at huge financial cost to the NHS. I hope that the Minister will have a very good think about this one.
(26th April 2001 – Health and Social Care Bill - Read debate in full - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/2001/apr/26/health-and-social-care-bill#S5LV0625P0_20010426_HOL_198)