Alf Morris was one of the most important politicians of post-war Britain. Yet many will not have heard of him or truly appreciate the work that he did. He represents an era where people felt they could do good things through the political establishment. Not only that, they went out and actually did good things. He will be missed and must not be forgotten.
Morris introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 into Parliament as a Private Member’s Bill. It was the first Act approaching anything like anti-discrimination legislation for disabled people in the world. In 1974, he became the world’s first Minister for the Disabled (later Minister for Disabled People).
He was involved with the Disablement Income Group from its early days, the first pressure group founded by disabled people to fight for better conditions for disabled people. Later he would use his position in government help create the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR). He was a key campaigner during the 1990s for real anti-discrimination legislation, which eventually came to pass in 1995. He was made a Lord in 1997 and continued to push for what he believed was right. As his biography shows, he had a wealth of achievements outside the sphere of disability, too.1
A brief history
Alfred Morris was born into a poor family in Manchester, part of a slum district that was not cleared until after the war. His father had been injured in the Great War, meaning the family had very little income. His mother was left to bring him and his siblings up on her own, a difficult task in a dwelling whose roof leaked and where poverty surrounded them.
When at their lowest ebb, his mother wrote to the local Labour MP for help. When he came through for them, she told Alf that every election he would hand around flyers and help wherever he could. It was a connection to the Labour movement he never lost, and a debt he never felt he could repay. His involvement in politics did not come from some lust for ministerial power but for concern for his fellow citizens whom he knew could so easily fall into the same hard times as his own family.
Yet Alf was incredibly bright. He did well at school and after the war his mother was moved to a new housing estate as part of the 1940s slum clearance schemes. His grades were good enough for him to get an office job in the local factory rather than having to work on the shop floor, a move which guaranteed him (relatively) more opportunity for career advancement than his peers.
He was too young to fight during the war, but spent his military service in Palestine during the 40s. He joined the local Co-operative movement, and later won a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, an educational establishment for young working class men to prepare them for university. He later went to Oxford to study for a Bachelors degree, and even found time to stand for election as an MP during this time.
He was unsuccessful, but in 1964 he won the seat of Whythenshawe in Manchester. Quickly he established himself as an able politician and was made PPS to Fread Peart at agriculture.In 1967 he was sacked from the government. He was sceptical about Britain’s planned entry into the European Economic Community (later the EU) because he felt it would unfairly weaken the economies of Commonwealth countries to whom Britain still had moral responsibility. In particular he was concerned for Australia and New Zealand farming; later he would travel to both these countries and form a strong partnership with both.2
1969 was perhaps the most famous year. He introduced two Private Members’ Bills3 and got both through the House successfully – the only time this has ever happened. The second was on sterilising milk. The first was on services for chronically sick and disabled people. It placed a statutory duty on local authorities to provide services to disabled people and to know how many disabled people were in their area. This sounds so simple, yet it simply was not done before this time. Further, it was the first Act to recognise dyslexia as a condition, and a condition which society placed barriers against at that.
A number of clauses within the Bill were never truly enforced. A key theme of Morris’s campaigning after 1970 would be to have the Act strengthened and amended. In 1995, after the failure of his own Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill (re-introduced many times by his Parliamentary allies), the government was finally forced to produce its own legislation against the discrimination of disabled people.His mark is clear in the other legislative advancements for disabled people. The 1981 Disabled Persons Act (Dafydd Wigley’s PMB); the 1986 Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act (Tom Clarke’s PMB). And he was personally involved in the creation of Invalid Care Allowance (later Carers’ Allowance), Mobility Allowance (later the mobility component Disability Living Allowance), and the Non-contributory Invalidity Pension (later Severe Disablement Allowance and non-contributory Employment and Support Allowance).
The latter was to be the first benefit paid to a housewife who could not work. Despite the problems with the system, it was 1977 before women were recognised in such a way by the social security system. Alf was key in making sure this happened.
Everyone I have spoken to about Alf Morris has said positive things – not simply because they respect his achievements and involvement in disability rights over the past 50 years, but because they have genuine warmth for a man who touched many lives. One anecdote which appears in his biography and has been recounted to me by others appears to be a favourite of his.
During the drafting of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill, Dick Crossman, the Secretary of State for Social Services, told Alf that he couldn’t have provision for dyslexia, because dyslexia “didn’t exist”. “Well, then”, replied Morris, “it won’t cost you anything”.
Disability, like race, gender and sexual orientation, became a concern for social liberals from the 1960s onwards. Morris, with his experience of disability in his family, was determined to make sure that disability be recognised. Society discriminates against those with health conditions. Yet with many simple changes to the way the majority behave towards the “chronically sick and disabled”, everyone can be included in society. Everyone can have the chance to play, to be schooled, to work and to participate in the things that the “not-yet-disabled” take for granted.
At the Department of Health and Social Security during the 1970s, Morris became the first minister for disabled people in the world. He set up numerous committees to investigate the problems experienced by disabled people. This had not been done before. As ridiculous as it sounds, it wasn’t until 1967 that the British government ever bothered to even count the number of disabled people in the country. It was people like Morris, constantly pushing the issue in the House of Commons that made this a reality.
But Morris means more than this. Like the other great campaigner – and yes, I do mean great – Jack Ashley, Alf Morris came from poverty to become an Oxbridge educated minister, fighting for the corner of those unable to gain access to the political process. Although he spent most of his life in politics, nobody could accuse him of not understanding what it is like to live a normal life. Certainly not as a poor person.
This is the point which we must take away. Politicians today are accused of being aloof. People claim that Parliament is corrupt and nobody can solve anything. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we elect people to Parliament with ideals, with experience and with talent, things can most certainly be changed for the better.
As the history of disability policy in Britain shows, things can change if pressure is applied on the right people and with the right allies. Morris was one of those allies. The question is whether things can change quickly enough for those suffering today. Despite the major changes in the 1970s, it took until 1995 for true anti-discrimination legislation to be passed, and even then it fell well short of the demands of disability rights groups. Today, thousands are being denied access to services on the grounds of “priorities” and “cost” – despite the fact that Morris’s legislation puts a duty on all of us to provide services for those who need them.
Ultimately, the war is never won. But if we give up we allow those who would destroy Morris’s good work go unpunished.
1 Derek Kinrade, Alf Morris, People’s Parliamentarian (London : National Information Forum, 2007). Most of the information in this post can be found in Kinrade’s excellent book, which I recommend anyone read if they wish to know more.
2 Morris would hand over Australia’s “birth certificate” to the Australian Parliament. The anti-discrimination legislation in both countries is heavily based on Morris’s work in Britain. For Morris’s sacking, see The Times, 12 May 1967, p. 1, and weeks preceding.
3 A Private Member’s Bill is a Bill introduced into the House of Commons by an individual MP. They are not introduced by the Government, and the Government has no obligation to support them. Each year a ballot is taken, and the first six or so will get time on Fridays for debate. Only the top one or two stand any realistic chance of being made into law and, because the government may be hostile to them, very few ever make the statute books. Bills can also be introduced under the “10 minute rule” where an MP makes a 10-minute speech followed by the introduction of a Bill. Some of these, if they fit with government priorities or are relatively uncontroversial, might make it into Law. In 1969, Morris got first place in the ballot and introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill 1969. He also introduced the Bill on milk. To get two Bills through the House in one session is a minor miracle. It had never been done before or since.
See also: The signature comes from Peter Townsend Collection, University of Essex, Disability Alliance, 75.03, Letter from Alfred Morris to Irene Loach, 16 March 1976.