Labour politician who made his deafness no obstacle to his tireless championing of disadvantaged people
Written by Andrew Roth (who died in 2010)
Jack Ashley helped win greatly increased compensation for thalidomide victims in 1973, and in 2009 returned to campaigning for state aid for the later-life effects of the drug.
The Labour politician Jack Ashley, who has died aged 89 after suffering from pneumonia, was a many-layered hero. Deaf for most of his Westminster career, he was an inspiration to people with disabilities, a battler on their behalf and a relentless pursuer of justice for underdog causes.
The authority that his support gave to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act of 1999, after campaigning against cuts in incapacity benefits – "Enough is enough ... this is a fine bill" – was very welcome to the realists of Tony Blair's government. Being appointed Companion of Honour (1975) and privy counsellor (1979), marks of distinction usually reserved for the most senior politicians, reflected the breadth of support for his work. Being created Lord Ashley of Stoke in 1992 gave him a platform for continuing it after representing Stoke-on-Trent South for 26 years.
His personal courage faced its severest test after he hit rock bottom in December 1967, the year following his entry into the Commons. In the wake of a minor operation to restore full hearing on a punctured eardrum, an infection destroyed his hearing, leaving only the noises of tinnitus.
Despite efforts to repair the damage and a crash course in lip-reading, by Easter 1968 he had decided to quit: "I was an MP with a safe seat and fair prospects. Now I have no future ... One lives in a glass cage. You see lips move, but there's no sound. You see babies cry, but hear no crying." He brought out the searing impact of isolation in deafness in his first autobiography, Journey Into Silence (1973); the second was Acts of Defiance (1992).
He was dissuaded from stepping down by friends – among them the social policy expert Peter Townsend – and his constituents. "On reflection," he said, putting a brave public face on the situation, "I think there's nothing I can't do as an MP. I can put down questions, sit on committees, take part in debates. There's still the problem of machine-gun speakers, of course, but I can catch up with Hansard." Among other problems, he faced colleagues who could not cope with talking to a deaf man.
But the Commons as a whole willed his comeback. In July 1968, he made his first speech since going deaf – typically to introduce a bill to increase pensions for disabled people. Both Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Tory leader Edward Heath had stayed on in the chamber to listen to him.
From then on, it was a tremendous haul to reach near-full effectiveness. He tried hard to lip-read better. In those days his devoted wife, Pauline, was always on hand to supplement his lip-reading with sign language. She helped him overcome his depression, as did his three daughters, Jackie – now a Guardian columnist – Jane and Caroline. By 1977, the government arranged for a Palantype reporter in the press gallery to provide a verbatim account of Commons speeches to a screen at Ashley's side.
Ashley's perseverance helped change the public perception of deafness. At the beginning, he could get into difficulties because he did not know how loud he was speaking. In the Commons, he was helped by discreet signals from the Tory MP Neil Marten, sitting opposite.
There were political consequences, too, as the loyal union-sponsored rightwinger became the leading voice of disabled people. He did not mind whose toes he trampled on, so long as it was likely to help those he championed. "The one thing is never to accept the brush-off from any minister, Tory or Labour, if you are convinced you are right," he said. He saw disabled people as a "vast pool of untapped labour" for whom employment was much preferable to subsidy.
Ashley's fierce determination came from his origins in the slums of Widnes. His father, a labourer, died of pneumonia when Jack was five, leaving his Catholic widow to struggle along on £1 a week. Jack's mother went out office-cleaning to support him and his three sisters.
He left St Patrick's elementary school at 14 to fill large bottles of sulphuric acid at 12s 6d a week. His flair for campaigning was revealed by a leaking roof. The landlord roughly brushed off Mrs Ashley when she tackled him on the subject. Jack went to the Widnes town clerk to obtain a form allowing tenants to claim rebates when landlords let their property fall into disrepair, knocking 40% off their rent. The landlord became ruder. So Jack got another form, made 200 copies and visited all the other tenants to inform them of their rights.
One tenant was so impressed that he persuaded Ashley to stand for Widnes council. He became Britain's youngest borough councillor, at 22, in 1945. His wartime service as a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps had lasted only briefly, since he was discharged because of his eardrum injury.
By 1946, he had had a decade of labouring and crane-driving jobs, and became the youngest member of a trade union national executive. He had fallen ill with appendicitis while shovelling scrap into a furnace at a local copper-smelting works. On leaving hospital, he asked for lighter work for a few weeks. The management refused, so he distributed application forms to join the Chemical Workers' Union. He became a shop steward and led two unofficial strikes.
After evening classes, Ashley won a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford (1946-48). From there he went on to read economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (1948-51), beating Geoffrey Howe and Norman St John Stevas to become the president of the Cambridge Union – the first working-class holder of the post. He refused to wear the prescribed dinner jacket for debates: "I just wasn't going to be bullied into expense I couldn't afford." But he became a fluent speaker, representing Cambridge on a tour of US universities, without losing his Widnes accent.
On his return, he was interviewed for the student newspaper Varsity by a maths student from Girton College, Pauline Crispin. Six months later they were engaged. When Girton rules blocked their marriage, Ashley pursued the college's head, the Mistress, with his typical relentlessness. The couple married in 1951.
That year he contested the north London constituency of Finchley, long before Margaret Thatcher captured it. Unsuccessful there, he became a BBC radio producer (1951-57) before moving on to television, involved in producing Panorama for current affairs and Monitor for the arts. Later, one of his big campaigns would be for subtitling for TV programmes.
After reaching the Commons when Wilson sought re-election in 1966, Ashley became parliamentary private secretary to the foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, another rightwing loyalist. He was the only Labour MP backed by a union – the General and Municipal Workers – fully to support Barbara Castle's union-reforming In Place of Strife white paper, published in January 1969. But the following month, he was willing to rebel when the Wilson government refused to provide pensions to disabled housewives, even voting for a Tory bill on the subject.
He demanded of education secretary Ted Short that more research be done into teaching deaf children, including finger-spelling. In 1970, he called for special research into dyslexia and strongly supported Alf Morris's Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.
Labour's defeat that year did not slow Ashley's increasing concern with disadvantaged people. He crusaded against phoney cancer cures, in support of old age pensioners, and for funds to be made available to realise the provision of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.
In 1972, in tandem with the Sunday Times and its editor, Harold Evans, Ashley's relentless attacks on the Distillers Company for its inadequate compensation for thalidomide victims gave rise to his reputation as a reformer. Together they ignored legal attempts to gag them. As chairman of the all-party Disablement Group, he used every parliamentary device to keep up the pressure, supported by the Speaker, Selwyn Lloyd. The following year Distillers agreed to part with more than £20m.
When Labour came back into office after the February 1974 election, Castle, now health secretary, made Ashley her PPS. Two years later, the Guardian could point to reforms that owed much to what Ashley called his "bloody-mindedness" in five areas: non-disclosure of victims' names in rape cases; the rights of battered wives; the ending of fuel disconnections for elderly people; a royal commission on the legal profession; and civil liability for damages such as those due to thalidomide victims.
He was always looking out for the interests of underdogs, such as soldier victims of bullying or negligence. Another target was forcing giant companies to pay for the damaging side-effects of drugs like Opren, Halcion or Debendox. A third abiding concern was how negligent big institutions, notably hospitals and prisons, could hide behind crown immunity, making them impervious to reform.
Ashley had still other objectives. He was a long-time enthusiast for televising the Commons. He was a Eurosceptic, backing the team of Peter Shore and Gwyneth Dunwoody for leader and deputy leader in 1983. He was strongly anti-apartheid, slating Thatcher in 1985 for appeasing its South African advocates. He was elected to Labour's national executive committee for two years (1976-78), missing election by only 9,000 votes in 1979 as the party moved to the left.
Before he stood down as an MP, he fought one big battle against the Tories' minister for the disabled, Nicholas Scott. In October 1988, Ashley claimed that Scott had ignored an official report which doubled the number of disabled people in the country and emphasised the way poverty compounded the effects of disability. His last major Commons battle, in 1990, was over the service victims of nuclear tests.
In John Major's 1992 dissolution honours list he became Lord Ashley of Stoke. Soon after his arrival in the Lords, he announced his opposition to "life sentences on brutalised women like Kiranjit Ahluwall and Sara Thornton. Driven to extremes by sustained violence, they received the same sentence as calculating, cold-blooded murderers."
In 1993 he campaigned on behalf of babies born without eyes, often in rural areas where the fungicide benomyl was used. That was also the year when Ashley began to hear again, thanks to a cochlear implant.
In 2007, he introduced for the second time the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) bill to provide a comprehensive scheme to enable disabled people to live independent lives on the basis of guaranteed all-around support from local authorities, the NHS and others. He knew the government would not accept the expensive project: in refusing, Lady Royal hailed his "unceasing efforts over many years in furthering the interests of disabled people", adding that although she was an opponent of human cloning, she would make an exception if it were possible to clone Jack Ashley.
Undaunted, he put the bill to the Lords for a third fruitless time in 2009, proposing it as: "a 'New Deal' for Britain's disabled people. They have suffered neglect and even ostracism for too long. It is time that they came in from the cold." At the same time, he was seeking state aid to address the later-life effects of thalidomide, writing in the Guardian: "Justice is not time limited. It is an absolute. When a grievous wrong is done, those who have suffered need respect and help throughout their lives, not just while the rest of us can be bothered to pay attention."
Pauline died in 2003. Ashley is survived by his daughters.
• Jack Ashley, Lord Ashley of Stoke, politician and campaigner, born 6 December 1922; died 20 April 2012