Forty years on from the first disability rights legislation, its architect, Alf Morris, tells Vern Pitt how he overcame government opposition to reform
“I had to start with a blank piece of paper and a burning conviction,” muses Alf Morris, the architect of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, the first law to recognise disabled people’s rights.
The effects of the act, which placed a duty on councils to provide disabled people in need with community-based services, have been wide-reaching. Morris estimates that the numbers of people helped by the law in the UK exceeds the population of Scotland and points out that the US, Australia and New Zealand have all copied the legislation.
Morris’s burning ambition, however, had simply been to put the issue of disabled people’s welfare onto the parliamentary agenda. He never expected it to become law.
His motivation was rooted in his own family experience. His father lost a leg and an eye in the First World War, but the damage to his lungs sustained from a gas attack eventually caused his death.
“I was born into a disabled family. My father died when I was seven in 1935. My earliest memories are of seeing my father waiting to die sitting in a chair by the fire,” he recalls.
Morris’s family stuggled to get by on meagre benefits; his mother was denied a war pension because her husband’s death was not in combat.
This experience meant that when in 1969 Morris came top of the private members bill ballot, held annually to give MPs the opportunity to introduce their own legislation, he had no doubt what he would do.
The process of introducing the law, however, was “exhausting”. Despite being a Labour MP, Morris was unable to secure support from the then Labour government, and instead had to draft his own law. With the short timescales involved he says he’s grateful he had a knack for parliamentary draftsmanship.
Morris faced not just a lack of co-operation but opposition from within government, as departments worried what Morris’s proposals would cost. Richard Crossman, secretary of state for social services, told Morris his plans were ridiculous. The opposition did not surprise Morris; what did was the popular support he received.
It was this support from outside of parliament that Morris says saved the bill.
With several months of the parliamentary session to run Harold Wilson had called an election for June 1970. Morris says this should have left him “dead in the water”. But then a leader article by the editor of The Sunday Times, Morris’s boyhood friend Harold Evans, said the bill was the only one worth saving before parliament was dissolved. Morris says it pressured political leaders into lending their support and eventually Wilson was persuaded to allow it to be made law before the election. “It was a real cliffhanger,” says Morris.
Even once the bill had become law, Morris, now in opposition to a Conservative government, had to struggle to gain resources to support the plans. Much of his work focused on encouraging local authorities to comply with the law while lobbying the government to increase council funding to support this.
When Labour returned to power in 1974, Morris became the world’s first minister for disabled people, a role he kept for five years during which he introduced four new benefits for disabled people and carers.
Morris is still an active campaigner on disability issues, and regularly questions government policy in the House of Lords. He is reluctant to portray the past 40 years as a complete success, saying there is still a great deal to be done. “The agenda of unmet need is still so much longer than it ought to be,” he says.
He sees some of the same problems in achieving equality for disabled people today as when he was drafting the law 40 years ago. “Not to advance is to retreat. If you stop struggling to go forward then you will go backwards because there are other people who are struggling for those resources as well,” he says.
This article is published in the 13 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Forty years on from the Disability Act