The Reunion: Disability Campaigners – full programme transcript (10 April 2016)
The speakers in this programme are as follows:
SM: Sue MacGregor
JC: Jane Campbell
BM: Bert Massie
PW: Peter White
AT: Adam Thomas
WH: William Hague
F: Unidentified female speaker
M: Unidentified male speaker
SM: 50 years ago, back in the 1960s, life for disabled people in Britain was pretty grim. There was very little state provision. The late Jack Ashley, the campaigning Labour politician, and himself deaf, described his generation’s general attitude to disabled people as, “Casual indifference, slightly tinged with pity, bordering on neglect.” Some disabled people were hidden away in institutions or trapped in their homes. A good education was hard to find. Even in the late 1980s, in a decade when schools were mandated to educated disabled students in mainstream schools, a top scholar was refused a place at a grammar school as it wasn’t wheelchair accessible. Disabled people had difficulty getting onto buses and trains. Some could expect to be turned away from cafes and restaurants for ‘putting off’ the other customers. But in the 1970s and 80s, disabled campaigners for better treatment began to adopt the social model, as it was called, which said that it was society, built and run by non-disabled people, which had prevented them from actively participating in a fuller working and social life. Spurning charity and pity, they began to demand rights backed up by legislation. After more than a decade of vocal campaigning, a new law was passed in 1995. For some, the Disability Discrimination Act lacked bite. For others, it did more to improve the lives of disabled people than anything else in the last century. For the first time in Britain, it was unlawful to discriminate against disabled people as employees, customers and citizens.
CA: “It is of course quite natural for many employers to try to get back to a labour force composed just as it was before the war. But there are not enough of the younger men to go around.”
SM: In the first half of the 20th century, casualties of two world wars made disabled people more visible in British society, and potentially more useful. Prime Minister Clement Attlee:
CA: “…most effective service during the war.”
SM: Firms were encouraged to employ disabled veterans.
CA: “…to organise their work, so as to make use of these.”
SM: But many disabled people remained segregated from society. Maggie Davis, a nurse, was left in a long stay hospital after a spinal injury.
MD: “Nothing was private. Your whole bodily functions were exposed to everybody, including visitors. It was so dehumanising.”
SM: Maggie was rejected by her previous workplace and shunted into a hostel for ‘others like her’. Conditions were awful.
MD: “I was just suicidal, to be honest. And the other thing we were all doing was we were all killing ourselves with alcohol.”
SM: Attitudes, even in some of the established charities, could be deeply patronising. When 1981 was dubbed the International Year of the Disabled, pop singer Ian Dury responded with Spasticus Autisticus.
SM: The BBC refused to play it. Maggie Davis’ husband Ken was also unimpressed by the year-long initiative.
KD: “It was disabled people’s reaction in horror to the idea that full participation and equality, which was the slogan of the international year, was going to be carried forward by a coffee morning, and disabled people were not apparently invited at all, at first, and that the second thing was a craft competition to find the best basket weaver. Well, I mean, is that really what full participation and equality was about?”
SM: Towards the end of the 80s, there was still huge room for improvement. Access to public transport was still severely limited. Wheelchair users had to give several days’ notice to travel on the train, and in the guard’s van.
M: “Do you put all disabled people in these things? There’s first class, there’s second class, and there’s sub-human class, and we’re sub-human.”
SM: There was frustration for disabled drivers, too.
F: “I’ve got the premium for you. It would be £224.88”
M: “Yeah. Just out of interest, is that any more than it would be if I wasn’t disabled?”
F: “I regret to say it is, yes.”
M: “It is? How much?”
F: “A 33% loading.”
SM: With the passing of race and sex discrimination laws, people with disabilities began to question why they didn’t have similar rights. Campaigner Mike Oliver:
MO: “All we were asking for was a decent education, the right to work, to be able to access the same kind of buildings and leisure as everybody else, the right to decide what time we got up in the morning, what time we went to bed at night, and the right to decide who we went to bed with.”
SM: The Disabled Persons Act came in in 1986. A year on, disabled people lobbied parliament demanding greater action, and the then Minister for the Disabled, John Major, argued that this wasn’t necessary.
JM: “I understand that people feel very strongly about this, and I understand that they wish to lobby, and I think it’s perfectly proper that they should do so. But I’m bound to say that the discussions that they presumably would wish to take place have already been arranged, and are already taking place in advance of that lobby.”
SM: In 1988, when proposed changes to social security payments loomed, disabled people were especially worried. Around a thousand of them gathered outside the Social Services headquarters in London’s Elephant and Castle.
F: “We are sick and tired of discrimination against us in every place we turn.”
F: “This, I think, is a beginning for us to be understood as a civil rights movement, and not as pathetic objects of charity, staying at home and being good.”
SM: Well, joining me now in the studio are four disabled people who know a great deal about the history of discrimination and legislation. Sir Bert Massie, former chairman of the Disability Rights Commission; Baroness Campbell, Jane Campbell, activist and campaigner, and crossbencher peer; Adam Thomas, a campaigner who was paralysed after a motorbike accident, and Peter White, the BBC’s disability correspondent. And also joining us from Westminster is Lord Hague, William Hague, who as Minister for Disabled People took the Disability Discrimination Bill through parliament 21 years ago. Let me start with you, Jane Campbell, and I should explain that the breathing noise that we hear… it’s fairly quiet, but it is your ventilator.
JC: It is indeed. In fact, in the House of Lords, when I gave my speech after I started wearing it, I announced that I’d gone away in the summer and I’d come back an astronaut, and they seemed to be okay after that.
SM: Let me ask all of you, including you first, Jane, have you been disabled all your life?
JC: I was born with my disability. I have spinal muscular atrophy type 1-2, and when I was born, my mother was told to take me home and enjoy me, because I would be dead within the year. Of course, here I am at 56 and still shouting.
SM: Let me move to Bert Massie. Bert, I know that you contracted polio when you were pretty young.
BM: Yes, there was a number of epidemics after the war, and in keeping with the provision at that time, I spent the next five years in hospital. Can you imagine? Today you wouldn’t get many children spending five years in a hospital. That’s a quite interesting hospital, because once you were basically recovered they would stick you out on a cold balcony, because they thought if you had polio you needed fresh air. But it was bitterly cold, and we’d all be given balaclavas to wear, so we were like an early IRA cell.
SM: Adam Thomas, I think you became disabled as a result of an accident.
SM: You were on a motorbike?
AT: Yes, I was going round a bend doing 45 miles an hour at 16, and got a puncture in my back tyre and skidded off.
SM: But it must have been really tough being a teenager and suddenly, what, quite heavily disabled? You couldn’t walk any more. You were in a wheelchair.
AT: Yeah, I’m paralysed from my high chest down. Many a time my local cinema wouldn’t let me in. They said that I was a fire hazard. And on probably four or five occasions I actually stopped the film starting because I refused to leave. But I had the most amazing family, the most amazing group of friends, and a very, very good employer that spent a lot of money adapting his policies and the way he worked so that I could carry on my job as a kitchen designer, and through that I decided I wanted to start designing for elderly and disabled people.
SM: William Hague, a lot us of a certain age remember you as a teenager getting up at the Conservative party conference and making a name for yourself then. How aware were you of the plight of disabled people, do you think, at that point in your life?
WH: I don’t think, being brutally honest, that I was aware of it much at all. There were arguments about equal rights that were about race and about gender, but they weren’t at that time about disability rights. Once I became a member of parliament in 1989, by which time disabled people were themselves taking up these issues, disabled people, particularly young disabled people coming to see me as a new member of parliament, brought these issues to my attention.
SM: Peter White, let me turn to you, because you’ve been blind all your life.
PW: I like the George Shearing answer to that question, “Have you been blind all your life?” which is, “Not yet.”
SM: And you were a bit of a pioneer in terms of broadcasting as a blind person about others with disabilities.
PW: Well, yeah. When I first went down to local radio – I sort of hitchhiked down to Radio Solent to try and get into broadcasting – the guy who was doing a programme for blind people said, “We’d like you to do a programme for blind people,” and I said, “That’s the last thing I want to do. I want to do rock ‘n’ roll or football, or something.” To be absolutely honest I resisted getting into broadcasting.
SM: But you ended up as the BBC’s disability correspondent. Do you remember changes in attitude in the 70s? Disabled people got a bit more stroppy about their plight.
PW: Oh, absolutely. It was really very noticeable in that when I started, we would be doing things about gadgets and nice hoists and things like that, and really politics didn’t play very much part in it.
SM: So they became much more… I hesitate to use the word aggressive, but they did become much more pushy about their rights, disabled people.
PW: Well, they were doing what the Vietnam vets had done. They came back from Vietnam and discovered that they couldn’t get into any of the buildings they wanted to go into, they couldn’t get jobs, and they got very angry about that. So UK was borrowing quite a lot of that from the United States.
SM: Bert Massie, do you remember a sort of change of tactics? Because you actually became part of an organisation called RADAR, I remember, way back.
BM: Yes. The organisations had to start taking accounts, certainly in the 80s, that disabled people were saying, “Look, we don’t want non-disabled people setting our policy for us. And actually, if we set it, we get it better.” I think at RADAR, I was the first disabled chief executive they’d had.
SM: Jane Campbell, you must have been campaigning around this time that Bert’s talking about. What are your memories of the time?
JC: When I came across the disability movement and they explained to me the social model. I mean, it was so simple.
SM: Society is being run by the wrong people, in a way. Disabled people should be in charge.
JC: It’s basically saying that you are not the problem. My condition and my person is not the problem, it’s the fact that society is not accessible, and unequal in its treatment towards disabled people. We had a very strong mantra which was, “Nothing about us without us.”
SM: Adam Thomas.
AT: You have to remember, going back to the 70s and 80s, you had millions of isolated disabled people living on their own, either in homes, communities, etc, run by a lot of the big organisations, or people like myself who didn’t know other disabled people other than the people they happened to go through hospital with, getting more angry, more frustrated, more lonely and sad. And it was through seeing people like DAN, the Direct Action Network people, doing demos… That how I woke up. I saw them on the television doing a demo, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”
SM: Did the politicians take notice, William Hague? From sitting inside the hallowed halls…
WH: Absolutely, yes. Certainly some of those were quite eye-catching, and from the early 1990s onwards there was a head of steam developing on this in the political world, taken up first by the Labour party, and a political divide started to open up between a Conservative government that was not keen on more regulation, with some MPs very enthusiastically pressing for legislation and the government not wanting it.
SM: Of course, what was also very effective, Jane Campbell, as you’ll remember, were the demos. Do you recall your first demo?
JC: Well, for instance, we would line the bridge, Westminster Bridge. Normally it was the electric wheelchairs. Now, these wheelchairs, you cannot lift them; it takes five grown men. And there we would stay, and we would stop the traffic. That began to capture the attention of the public, for good or bad.
SM: And did it attract the attention of the police as well?
JC: It certainly did, yes. I remember once the police came, and they brought their vans along in order to bundle us in the back. Unfortunately you can’t bundle and electric wheelchair in the back of a van, so they then walked us down to the local police station. But of course, they couldn’t put us in any cells because they were downstairs, so in the end they would turn to us and say, “Oh, for god’s sake, just go,’ and so we would go away, muttering, “It’s our right to be arrested.”
M: “And to all of you I just want to say that your triumph is that your bill will now be law…”
SM: The early 1990s saw an increasingly well-organised disability lobby. Campaigners here were encouraged by the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States, which provided a good example of what could be achieved.
M: “…all of you have made this happen.”
SM: Disabled Americans now had the right to go anywhere and use most services. But in Britain, disabled people were often portrayed as helpless victims on show’s like ITV’s Telethon. Mike Oliver was among those who attended the loud demonstration outside the TV station in 1990.
MO: “…are begging on our behalf. And if they’re listening, we want to tell you. You don’t have our permission.”
M: “I don’t believe that the disabled people in this country don’t gain from the vast sums of money that are raised. I mean, they must do. The whole thing, surely, is just to make their lives better and happier.”
SM: In the UK, comprehensive legislation was spurned ahead of voluntary initiatives. In 1992, John Major, the Prime Minister, welcomed employers’ efforts to improve opportunities for disabled people at work.
JM: “It is a huge waste of a national and economic resource not to use that particular talent.”
M: “It must be very much better that we go down a path whereby by voluntary means we achieve these sorts of objectives, rather than having to enforce the full panoply of the law.”
SM: More militant campaigners formed the Direct Action Network, or DAN, and tried a bit of persuasion of their own, as Emily Buchanan reported for the BBC.
EB: “The disabled have had enough charity. Now, they want civil rights backed by legislation. Their campaign came to a head this week with demonstrations outside parliament. They blocked the main entrance to the House of Commons, giving MPs and members of the public a taste of the frustrations they face every day.”
M: “Westminster bridge, underneath a bus.”
M: “And what have you done to the bus?”
M: “I’ve just chained myself to it with handcuffs.”
SM: The police tried their best to deal with the situation.
M: “You’ve had your protest, but you can’t stay here all day. Do you understand?”
SM: Not everyone approved.
F: “You’d better go home, causing all this trouble. It’s disgusting.”
SM: Victoria Scott, who worked for the charity RADAR, organised in 1994 what turned out to be the largest lobby by disabled people ever held in Britain.
VS: “It was an extraordinary moment, and I think it was a sea change. MPs were faced with disabled constituents who were very vocal, very angry, and very clear about what they wanted. That’s a very hard message to ignore.”
SM: By now politicians and campaigners were often working closely together. Labour MP Roger Berry’s private members’ Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill sailed through to its third reading. At which point, Nicholas Scott, the Minister for the Disabled, intervened.
NS: “…prejudice and misunderstandings and other matters cannot be removed simply by legislation, they do need a very great deal of education and persuasion.”
SM: As did four of his Conservative colleagues, including…
F: “Mr Deputy Speaker, before I introduce my own new clause and amendments, I do think we ought to make one thing absolutely clear. Everyone in this house has one prime concern, and that is for the care and for the disabled.”
SM: The former Labour Minister for the Disabled, Alf Morris, was suspicious about the true origin of the 80 amendments.
AM: “…tell us this morning how many were drafted by the government, and at taxpayer’s expense?”
SM: It didn’t take long to find out that the amendments had in fact all been written by the government, prompting more fury from campaigners, and embarrassment for Lady Olga Maitland, who was rebuked by the speaker of the house, Betty Boothroyd.
BB: “I believe that the honourable lady’s statement fell below the standards that the House is entitled to expect from its members, and I strongly rebuke her for her conduct.”
SM: Nicholas Scott was also in the firing line.
M: “Labour tonight stepped up their campaign against the minister who misled parliament.”
SM: Among the vocal critics was Victoria Scott, who was also the minister’s daughter. Here’s what she said at the time.
VS: “I think it is grounds for there to be an enormous amount of shame on this government that they’ve denied disabled people their rights in such an underhand way. … Professionally, I’m very, very angry. Personally, I feel rather let down, yes.”
SM: The family drama shot the campaign into the public arena. Nicholas Scott didn’t resign, but a few months later in July ’94, he was shuffled out.
F: “RADAR and the coalition of disability organisations always took stands at party conferences, and at the party conference after the Civil Rights Bill I was standing giving out leaflets and somebody came up and spat at me.”
SM: The new Minister for Disabled People was a rising star of the Conservative party.
WH: “I am delighted to join you today. Whatever we announce in the future, we will continue to work towards building an environment where people throughout our country have a much more positive attitude towards disabled people.”
SM: William Hague, you’ll remember that day well. You’ll probably remember saying that. But the fact remained that this was an embarrassing moment for the Conservative party over these amendments, and it was discovered that they’d all actually been prompted by Lady Olga Maitland and several others.
WH: Yes, it was a terrible shambles from the government’s point of view. Deeply embarrassing to my predecessor Nick Scott, who we just heard speaking there.
SM: Well, you were very much a rising star of the Conservative party. You must have wanted to kick some of your bosses over that.
WH: Yes I did, and I was very conscious that if I didn’t handle this well, I wouldn’t be a rising star any more. I remember sitting down my first weekend as the minister with a great pile of all the previous debates, and all of the pronouncements of all of the campaigning groups on this, and just thinking very hard up at my home in Yorkshire about how could we get to legislation that the government could support as well as the parliament.
SM: You had a good ally, though, in John Major, didn’t you?
WH: Well, I had a crucial ally in John Major, who I think until this point had not really asserted himself in the government about it. He had a good deal of sympathy with the campaign for legislation, but there were powerful figures within his government who were against that. These events prompted him to assert himself and his own views, and then to give crucial backup, because I was a minister outside the cabinet, and I couldn’t have done that without being able to call in the big heavy bomber now and again, and he really did that with some of the other senior members of the government.
SM: So, Peter White, putting on your journalistic hat now, this was a really hot potato issue for the Conservative party, wasn’t it, and it indeed divided the Scott family? Nicholas Scott was considered to have behaved badly and his daughter Vicky Scott was a campaigner against the government.
PW: That’s right. Because trying to get disability onto the front pages in those days… it’s not so difficult nowadays. It’s been on the front pages for the last few weeks. But in those days, it wasn’t easy to get a story. But here you had father-daughter conflict and the government (unclear 00:21:21), and it got it absolutely on the front pages.
SM: Adam Thomas, as a campaigner, you actually got to know Victoria very well, Victoria Scott.
AT: Yes. She kindly asked me, originally asked me, to come and stuff envelopes as a volunteer for three, four weeks leading up to the first ever lobby of parliament, and so I became the coordinator of the Right Now campaign, the civil rights campaign for disabled people. We managed to get two and a half thousand disabled people to the first ever lobby of parliament, and it was really… the cameras were only interested in the sort of 20 or so disabled people who were chaining themselves up outside.
SM: Including you.
SM: Is that how you met your wife? Somebody told me.
SM: Give us a bit more detail on that.
AT: I was handcuffed to one bus, and it turned out my wife happened to be handcuffed to the bus which was in front of my one, and our eyes met…
SM: And that was it.
SM: Bert Massie, you were campaigning in a much more dignified way. Were you quite jealous of their tactics?
BM: No, the tactics were essential. I don’t think members of parliament on the inside of the house would have really realised what was happening. Then, of course, at this stage William had become the minister, and I was called to his office. Then the tea was poured out, and then everybody left. So it was just me and William, and William said, “Look, I will bring forward a bill, but I need some people to give me some support on it.” And I asked William, “Well, what would be in the bill?” And it was pretty emaciated to be honest. And I said, “Look, I really can’t… You know, I can’t sell it.”
JC: I think we would have hung you.
BM: Yeah, I said, “I can’t sell it and I need more.” And William said, “Look, if you put down amendments, where I can, I will be helpful,” and he seemed quite genuine about this, and we did put a lot of amendments in and got them, in all fairness. But the one thing he couldn’t move on, which was the one thing that disabled people wanted desperately, was an enforcement agency, the Disability Rights Commission.
SM: “You have to do it.”
BM: And William, again, he was quite honest about it. “This is the Tory party; we don’t believe in quangos.”
SM: Is that how you remember it, William Hague?
WH: Well, roughly, yes. [Laughter]. What was going on when I was presenting Bert with a framework that he just called a rather emaciated is I was starting with something that I could build up, a sort of Christmas tree approach to this. “Then we will see what we can add to it,” and end up with a piece of legislation which not everybody in the government might have intended to have at the beginning, but that would nevertheless be an enormous step forward. And the gap at the end, as Bert’s just been saying, was the existence of a commission. I always thought that would come later.
SM: It took a long time.
WH: Well, it took another few years, and it was brought in by the Labour government four years later, and by then I was leader of the Conservative party, and I ensured the Conservatives didn’t oppose that. So we got there. I steadily got more and more government departments into it, as well as the essential framework of requiring reasonable adjustments from employers, and physical changes to buildings and so on.
SM: Jane Campbell, I don’t know… How well aware were you of all this going on behind the scenes?
JC: We were very well aware. The disability movement used to get furious with all these meetings that were taking place without us. One of the things that we did – quite reluctantly, but it worked very well – was that we set up Rights Now, which would allow the traditional charities into the campaign. We were growing in number rapidly. Thousands and thousands of new disabled people were coming into the movement. It was our liberation moment, Sue, and our liberation moment was for disabled people; it was not for those who spoke on our behalf.
VS: “Last year was really an example in how not to defeat a bill. There was egg on their face. They’re going to want to clean up their act this year.”
SM: Victoria Scott summed up the mood of an impatient lobby, but at last the government was ready to legislate.
F: “The government has presented its plans for new legislation to eliminate discrimination against disabled people.”
SM: William Hague, in only his second job in government, introduced his first piece of legislation.
WH: “Taken together, they will represent the greatest advance for disabled people in the history of this country.”
SM: Some campaigners thought something more substantial was needed, and pinned their hopes on Derbyshire MP Harry Barnes.
HB: “The problem is, it is a very small step indeed for disabled people. It is not getting them anywhere. It is barely taking them much past that Rubicon, and it can be constructed in such a ways that it, as it were, pushes them back into it.”
SM: William Hague defended his bill.
WH: “I believe the government’s proposals are clear, in that they give people specific obligations and rights, in a way which the bill presented by the honourable member for Derbyshire North East would not; they are workable in that they provide for flexibility and practical solutions to distinct problems, and the honourable member’s bill does not; and they are fair in that they end discrimination while considering the interests of others, and the honourable member’s bill does not.”
SM: Bert Massie of RADAR at the time identified a key flaw.
BM: “The bill at the moment really has no enforcement powers and it has no monitoring powers, and that’s really like the government passing a law and giving nobody the power to enforce it, so that’s a crucial thing in the bill which is missing.”
SM: This campaigner said there were gaps in the government’s bill.
F: “It says nothing about transport, it says nothing about access, and it’s totally unenforceable. It’s a con, and we’re not having it.”
SM: Reporter Alison Holt:
AH: “As the demonstrators marched across Westminster Bridge in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament, about 30 blockaded the road. People in wheelchairs handcuffed themselves to the radiator grills and handrails of buses on the bridge.”
M: “If it takes a court appearance to get disabled people their civil rights in this country, then that’s what I’m prepared to do.”
AH: “It took police, using bolt cutters on the handcuffs, half an hour to clear the road.”
SM: On the 8th November 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act became law.
M: “It’s now illegal for employers to discriminate against disabled people. There’s been a 20 year campaign to get the new law in place. But while government ministers insist it does give disabled people genuine rights, there is by no means total agreement among disabled people themselves.”
SM: Well, that’s something we’ve already highlighted. There was a lot of angst going on, and a lot of aggro. But William Hague, as the minister who steered the Disability Discrimination Act through, you must have felt pretty happy about it?
WH: Well, I’ve always said it’s my proudest achievement as a member of parliament. That’s partly because of performing this Houdini-like act of escaping from the impossible problem of the government being opposed to it and parliament being in favour of it, but it’s mainly because it has made an important difference to the lives of millions of people in this country. So it wouldn’t have happened without the campaigning and without the various efforts of the other people on this programme, and many others. So yes, it was a big highlight of my 26 years in parliament.
SM: It did affect, I believe, six and a half million people, but small business – was it 20 employees or under? – didn’t have to employ disable people or make allowances for them.
WH: Well, there were. You can imagine the sort of arguments we had in the cabinet. And I was mainly opposed by the ministers who were in charge of the big economic departments.
SM: You mean the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
WH: Yes, Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, in charge of the big… you know, the Treasury, the Trade and Industry department, on grounds of new regulation, new quangos. So some of these things, like where to draw the line on small businesses, were the political compromise that emerged from that. And that meant this legislation had all kinds of deficiencies from the campaigners’ point of view. Nevertheless, it had a very important effect even with its admitted deficiencies.
SM: And Jane Campbell, what did you think had been achieved at that moment of the passing of the bill?
JC: Well, on the positive side, for the first time in our lives, we felt that we had a right as a full citizen to participate in society. But the next big job was to get it implemented, and that’s been quite a rough road.
SM: Let me move to you, Adam Thomas. What did you make of the bill once it was published?
AT: I was, shall we say, a lot more militant in those days than I am now. When the legislation came out, it wasn’t what we wanted. We thought it was tokenism. Personally, I wanted the act to be repealed, and I wanted the other side to bring it in, because they were the ones who’d been fighting with it, or working with us for so long… and I didn’t want the Tories to get the credit.
SM: But do you think now that it was a good thing?
AT: I do, yes. The Disability Discrimination Act is fantastic, and it’s still not everything that we want, and I am sad as an individual that it has taken so long to get where we are with it.
SM: Bert Massie, your thoughts on this stage of legislation?
BM: Well, I described the first bill as emaciated. It did get some flesh put onto it. When the bill was first published, you had the right to get onto the bus, but if you couldn’t get onto the bus, the right was no good. So by specifying how buses are made, now all buses are low floor. In the first bill insurance was very weak, and I heard on the grapevine it was actually William and Peter Lilley who pushed insurance into the bill, because the insurance companies were determined to stay out of it.
SM: Insurance for what?
BM: Insurance companies as a matter of policy said disabled people were a greater risk. They had no evidence, and they just put the premium up. We were just cash cows for insurance companies.
TB: “To begin with, obviously, we will take the legislation as it is and try and make the improvements that we tried to do during the passage of the act itself.”
SM: The disability lobby thought they had an ally in Labour. In this interview with Peter White, the new Labour leader Tony Blair promised to beef up the Disability Discrimination Act if his party won the ’97 election.
TB: “…certainly do not rule out the prospect of a civil rights piece of legislation at a later stage.”
SM: But once Labour was inside Number 10, sympathy seemed to drain away. A leaked internal memo suggested that cuts to disability benefits were on the cards.
F: “…of disabled protestors made their way up Whitehall and staged a noisy demonstration at the gates of Downing Street, hurling red paint on the pavement and railings, chanting that Tony Blair had blood on his hands.”
TB: “It cannot be right to be spending as much money as we do, ever rising bills, more, and more, and more, and more, whilst people who are in poverty often don’t get the help that they need. We now, through fraud within the social security system, lose an amount every year equivalent to the building of 100 brand new hospitals.”
SM: Jane Campbell felt ambivalent about her elevation.
JC: “I’ve just been appointed to the government’s task force on civil rights. This is a complete irony. How can we have civil rights if our benefits are taken away? The benefits actually get us out of bed in the morning to try and get those civil rights.”
SM: But the Labour government did find a way of enforcing disability rights.
F: “The rights of disabled people will be enforced by a special commission under plans published by the government today. The independent body would promote equal opportunities, advise people of their rights and sponsor legal cases.”
SM: The commission kept tabs on how well the law was being observed. In 2004, the deadline arrived for shops and businesses to make their premises more accessible. But there was a problem.
M: “Just days before new laws to improve access for disabled people come into force, the 6 O’Clock News has learned that many high street businesses still aren’t ready. The Disability Rights Commission found that disabled people experience problems gaining access to shops in four out of five cities surveyed. Access to nearly a quarter of the stores was poor or very poor, and problems getting around the high street added an average two hours to disabled people’s shopping trips.”
F: “If shops are accessible and I can reach everything, it’s all just so easy, and the world feels like a nice place and I feel like I’ve had a good day. And then other times I just come home and I’m just like, ‘Why did I leave the house this morning?’ ”
SM: It was the Disability Rights Commission’s job to enforce the law, and some companies were taken to court.
M: “Now, in the first of a number of cases, the Disability Rights Commission is taking legal action against the high street chain Debenhams, and the Spirit Pub Group, for failing to make what it sees as reasonable provision for disabled people.”
SM: Alison Lapper, a disabled artist born without arms, was famously portrayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in a sculpture by Marc Quinn.
AL: “They’ve had 10 years, now, to get their act together. We haven’t just sprung this on them.”
SM: On the 20th anniversary of the act last November, Barbara Lisicki, a strong supporter of direct action, felt little had been gained despite the efforts of so many.
BL: “When the disability movement was at its starting point, there was a real sense of collective solidarity, and that’s all gone. Organisations have been cut because they’ve lost their funding. Some people thought, ‘Well, we’ve won with the Disability Discrimination Act.’ We didn’t win. It was never a victory. All that I ever said to people… At least now the government agrees with us that discrimination happens.”
SM: Well, Jane Campbell, it seems that the euphoria which came with the passing of the bill dissipated quite quickly in the new millennium.
JC: It became evident that if this piece of legislation was going to work, you needed to promote it, you needed to enforce it, and you needed to help disabled people take cases, and that’s why the Disability Rights Commission was so important, and that is why, when it was closed six years later, we were just beginning to get somewhere.
SM: What you were referring to was the Disability Rights Commission being subsumed into the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
JC: Absolutely, far too early.
SM: What’s your feeling about it now, William Hague? Obviously you were very proud of the legislation. Do you feel it’s been watered down?
WH: Well, the legislation has been added to further, but there are still major problems. There are problems of attitudes, and problems of hate crime, and there are places that have not observed the legal obligations to provide equal accessibility.
SM: Well, if governments want to touch disability benefits… There has been quite a row about PIPs –
WH: Quite a row.
SM: – Personal Independence Payments. Is there a sense that one cannot take away any sort of benefit for disabled people without a huge row?
WH: Well, I think successive governments are finding that, actually. You were playing some archive footage of disputes in the time of the Blair government. That’s been true again this year under a Conservative government.
SM: What would you advise the present government to do?
WH: I’ve retired from doing that.
SM: Oh, go on.
WH: I’m not going to give them any advice, and they’ve already said that they will stick to things that came before this budget, and I think they’re recognising there that it would be very difficult to get such things through parliament anyway.
SM: Adam Thomas, what do you think, as a disabled person still needs to be done? Have you experienced things that have been awkward, even recently?
AT: Yes, but not nearly as much as in the old days. The, “Does he take sugar?” syndrome hasn’t happened in a long time, and when it does, it really does flummox me.
SM: Like what?
AT: Oh, meeting me for the first time and saying, “What’s wrong with you?’
SM: What do you say to them?
AT: Society. Which is what I’ve been saying for 20 years. There’s nothing wrong with me. If you design the steps correctly or turn them into a ramp, then I can join in with society as well as anyone else can.
SM: Jane Campbell, are you angry still?
JC: Oh, I think I’m always going to be angry, Sue, it’s in my nature. It’s great that William Hague still recognises we have a long way to go, because as of this week I’m on a select committee that’s looking at the Equality Act 20 years on to see whether it’s basically working for disabled people in the way that we envisaged. And guess what, Sue, 50 recommendations. I mean, little things like why aren’t we switching the taxi regulation on to say that taxis have to take a disabled person? I can be sitting in the street and hail a taxi, and it drive past me and go and pick an able bodied person up.
SM: You’ve seen that happen lately?
JC: It happens all the time.
BM: Oh, yes.
AT: It happened to me two days ago.
JC: But if they enforced the law, they wouldn’t be able to do it any more.
SM: Peter White, how do you see it?
PW: I take a slightly different line, because I think right from 1997, although Labour had supported that bill, it was a matter of months before they began to talk about cutting benefits; Mr Blair mentioned fraud. There’s very little evidence of fraud – of course there’s some; there always is – but there was always a risk with the bill that governments of all colours would say, “We’ve given you your rights, so we don’t have to give you as many benefits.”
SM: Do you think attitudes have changed to disabled people in Britain as a result of legislation?
PW: Not as much as some people would have you believe. We’ve had this old shibboleth of the Paralympics. Now, I’m someone who’s excited by the Paralympics, I’ve covered it a lot, but it’s made people think that because they cheer Jonnie Peacock winning the 100m, they’ve somehow done something in terms of changing attitudes. They haven’t.
SM: Attitudes, Bert, have they changed for the better?
BM: I think they have changed for the better, and quite considerably, but I think the Paralympic thing is misleading. What we had with the Paralympics was two images of disabled people, one as a superhero, and at the same time the government were trying to soften up the population to make benefit cuts. So we had another narrative coming from government of benefit scrounging scum. I think the one thing where attitudes have improved a bit is disabled people, as distinct to the 50s and 60s, are out there now, and you’ll see them in the restaurants now, and I think that does actually take away the fear and the anxiety of the non-disabled population.
WH: I think 20, 21 years later, the attitudes of most people in this country, including most employers, are radically different from in the 1990s and 1980s, but you can’t put your hand on your heart and say we treat disabled people equally in every respect.
SM: And what’s it been like for all of you, re-living those days? Has it been good getting back together again, Bert Massie?
BM: Well, it’s been good to get together, of course. But when I was reading the papers for that time in preparation for the programme, I remember just how exhausted I felt at the time. You know, being in the House of Lords at 2 o’clock in the morning was quite common, trying to get amendments through. Listening to how far we have to go, I think perhaps I need to find that energy again.
SM: Adam Thomas?
AT: To be honest, they were the best days of my life. I was allowed to witness the most incredible piece of history.
SM: And Jane?
JC: Well, for me, it just keeps that fire stoking within my belly, because that’s why I’m continuing to fight. I can’t not do it. It’s the revolution, and it hasn’t quite come to its fruition yet.
SM: Jane Campbell, Bert Massie, Peter White, Adam Thomas, and William Hague, thank you all very much indeed.
(End of recording)
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