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Obituary: Rt Hon Lord (Jack) Ashley of Stoke CH

23 April 2012

Lord Ashley

Jack Ashley, who died at the age of 89 on 20 April 2012, was an outstanding parliamentarian, a fierce and effective champion of disability and human rights and a funny, kind and modest man. The first deaf MP, Jack paved the way for others in Parliament and elsewhere to confound expectations and become leaders and agents of change.

Jack was born in 1922 to a poor couple in Widnes. He was only five when his father, a night watchman, died. Leaving school at 14 to work as a factory labourer, he became a shop steward six years later and was a local councillor by the age of 23.

He gained a scholarship to Oxford and another to Cambridge, where he displayed what he called his “rebellious nature” by becoming the first president of the union to refuse to wear evening dress during debates.

1951 was an important year for Jack, who stood for Parliament for the first time - and lost. He did get a job as a producer at the BBC, making mainly current affairs and documentary programmes. Far more importantly, that year he married Pauline Crispin, who he had met at Cambridge and with whom he had three much loved daughters.

Jack eventually became an MP, for Stoke-on-Trent, in 1966. He was noticed immediately and many assumed he would become a minister. However in 1967, when he was 45, he became profoundly deaf as a result of a routine ear operation.

Jack feared, and many assumed, that he would have to abandon politics. Instead he learned to lip-read, helped by Pauline, and became the UK’s first completely deaf MP. In the Chamber other MPs, including political opponents such as Ted Heath, helped him to take part in debates by turning to face him or giving him cues about his own speech.

In this spirit of cross-party cooperation he founded what is now the All Party Parliamentary Disability Group in 1968.

However, political foes are just that. Jack was always outspoken and forceful. “That bloody Jack Ashley”, as he quickly became known, at first worried that opponents would be fearful of looking mean in attacking him. As his confidence returned and his combative nature was once more on display, such concerns fell away.

Jack soon became well-known outside Parliament as a powerful and passionate advocate for disability rights. His Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, presented in 1983, was the first piece of anti-discrimination legislation considered by the UK Parliament.

As a private member’s bill, without the support of the government, it fell. There were to be more than 10 further attempts before the government finally brought in its own legislation, in 1995.

Jack was made president of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (now Action on Hearing Loss) and in 1985 he and Pauline founded Deafness Research UK. In 1993 Jack’s hearing was partially restored by a cochlear implant a year after he ended 26 years as an MP and became a life peer, Baron Ashley of Stoke CH.

Jack played a leading role in campaigns about thalidomide, which resulted in increased compensation for those affected and improvements in drug safety. He campaigned on other compensation issues, such as vaccine damage to infants, the transmission of HIV to people with haemophilia and the arthritis drug Opren.

With Pauline he shared a strong belief in justice for women and he became the first MP to raise the issue of domestic violence in Parliament. He also campaigned and secured changes to the law on rape.

Pauline died suddenly in 2003. Jack described her extraordinary “clarity of mind and powers of concentration”, acknowledging her huge contribution to his parliamentary work. “We shared an anger against injustice which meant that we worked in harmony on subjects about which we both felt deeply.” Pauline described him as “bloodyminded”.

Seeing them together felt like witnessing John Donne’s two souls which were one; the stiff twin compasses; the ideally matched twin hemispheres. As Neil Kinnock said: “When I see ‘Mr and Mrs Jack Ashley, Companion of Honour’, I know that Companion is in the plural.”

Even in his 80s and in poorer health, Jack continued to be a vigorous and effective champion of disabled people in the Lords, sponsoring a number of private member’s bills on anti-discrimination legislation and social care.

The Disability Discrimination (Amendment) Act 2005, fixing many of the flaws of the existing legislation, mirrored his 2002 Disability Discrimination (Amendment) Bill. Through a number of Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bills, Jack then turned his attention to establishing a right to independent living.

Jack was a Labour man through and through but a man of immense principle; admired and well-liked, he was never an Establishment figure. He fought vociferously against the Labour Government’s Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill of 1998-99, which limited entitlement to incapacity benefit and subjected it to means testing.

Jack’s 45 years in Parliament mark a time of immense change and emancipation for disabled people. The benefits to help with the extra costs of disability; the benefits that provide an independent income to disabled people unable to work; anti-discrimination legislation, Jack was responsible for or instrumental in so many of them.

While his fierce opposition to injustice won him thousands of admirers, here and around the world, his humour, kindness and unfailing good cheer also won him many battles - and many friends.

As Donne also said, any man’s death diminishes me. But this man’s life changed for the better the lives of many thousands of disabled people. We owe it to him to defend his legacy with passion and effectiveness. In this way, we will remember him.

Agnes Fletcher, was researcher to the All Party Parliamentary Group from 1997-2000. The group has been supported by first Radar and now Disability Rights UK for most of its existence.