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RIP Alf Morris

August 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Not sure that labour has anyone like this any more.

Lord Morris of Manchester obituary

Labour politician who was a dogged campaigner on behalf of disabled people

Four years after the introduction of his pioneering Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act of 1970, Alf Morris, Lord Morris of Manchester, became Britain’s first minister for disabled people. Morris, who has died aged 84, earnestly and doggedly battled for the rights of disabled people in the UK for many years, while also serving as the longtime Labour/Co-operative MP for Manchester Wythenshawe.

He remained justifiably proud of his record. In 2007, speaking in support of the welfare reform bill, he could claim: “All our current disability benefits are founded on legislation promoted in my years as minister for disabled people from 1974 to 1979: incapacity benefit, the non-contributory invalidity pension … the mobility allowance, the disabled housewives’ allowance and the carers’ allowance – all of them were aimed at reducing the socially handicapping effects of disability.”

Morris was born in Ancoats, Manchester, one of the eight children of Jessie (nee Murphy) and George Morris, a signwriter who was gassed and badly wounded in the first world war; he died when Alf was seven. “I know how a whole family’s life is affected if one member is disabled,” Alf recalled.

He was educated locally and at 14 began work as an office boy in a Manchester brewing firm. After national service (1946-48) in the Middle East, he attended Ruskin and St Catherine’s colleges, Oxford, then took a postgraduate certificate in education at Manchester University and taught in the city.

Morris then began an eight-year stint as an industrial relations officer with the Electricity Council, while he pursued his political ambitions, which may have flowered early when his local MP, Harry Thorneycroft, succeeded in securing a war widow’s pension for his mother after a three-year battle. “When you’re old enough, you’ll be giving out leaflets for Mr Thorneycroft,” his mother told him.

He joined the Labour party at 16 and became national chairman of the Labour League of Youth at 22. In 1951 he contested Tory-held Garston, in Liverpool, before being selected for south Manchester’s Wythenshawe constituency, which he failed to take in 1959, but won in 1964, helping to provide Harold Wilson with his tiny majority.

At his first party conference speech, in 1957, Morris had attacked “a society which allows people to make millions of pounds in a day and other people to exist without even the price for coal”. On arriving in the Commons, he became the parliamentary private secretary and confidant to the anti-EEC agriculture minister Fred Peart. His initial big achievement was to win the private member’s ballot in 1969, introducing his chronically sick and disabled persons bill, which obliged local authorities to help their disabled residents. The bill secured royal assent in May 1970, just before the fall of Wilson’s government. He successfully introduced the Food and Drugs (Milk) Act that year and, later, the Police Act.

When Labour unexpectedly returned to office in 1974, Wilson made him undersecretary for health and the first ever minister for disabled people. By 1976, Morris was able to phase in the mobility allowance and other benefits for disabled people. Soon, both he and his brother Charles, a fellow junior minister, were in the Privy Council.

In office or out, Morris continued to pursue his objectives. He opened the UN discussions that led to the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 and introduced his travel concessions for the unemployed bill in 1982. He supported Tom Clarke’s disabled persons bill and, when it became an act in 1986, he complained that Margaret Thatcher had ordered it not to be applied until resources became available. He backed Lords amendments to give disabled people more help to live in the community and, in 1988, warned that the Tories’ new Social Security Act would cut help for disabled people.

Quiet and determined, with a mercurial streak, Morris was difficult to categorise: he supported a nuclear weapons freeze and David Alton’s efforts to curb abortion; and was committed to the centre-right faction Labour First. His He welcomed a bill to strengthen the Hearing Aid Council and, in 1991, drafted the civil rights (disabled persons) bill to outlaw discrimination on grounds of disability.

In 1996 his main emphasis was in getting through the Commons the disabled persons and carers (short-term breaks) bill, already steered through the Lords by Lord Rix, but at 68, in anticipation of a serious operation, he told his constituency that, after more than 30 years as their MP, he would not be standing again. By then, he had built up Manchester’s largest Labour majority. In 1997, he was made a life peer as Lord Morris of Manchester. Two years later, he backed his old friend Jack Ashley, Lord Ashley of Stoke, against the government’s effort to cut benefits under the welfare reform and pensions bill.

In his 70s, Morris once more showed his supreme skills as a parliamentary tactician by outflanking successive governments on their resistance to repeated calls for two inquiries. He was the honorary parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion, which had been demanding an official public inquiry into Gulf war syndrome, and compensation for its victims, since 1997. In 2004 he set up an independent inquiry into the matter, financed by £60,000 in private philanthropy, which concluded that the damage to veterans’ health was “indisputable” and that the Ministry of Defence should set up a special fund to make compensation payments.

Three years later, Morris – who was president of the Haemophilia Society – set up an independent inquiry under the chairmanship of Labour’s respected former solicitor general, Lord Archer of Sandwell, into the contamination of blood with HIV and hepatitis C, inadvertently given by the NHS to thousands of haemophiliacs in the 1970s and 80s, leading to many deaths.

Morris was proud in 2005 to introduce to the Lords the former Labour education secretary, his niece Estelle Morris, as Lady Morris of Yardley.

He is survived by his wife, Irene, whom he married in 1950, and their two sons and two daughters.

• Alfred Morris, Lord Morris of Manchester, politician, born 23 March 1928; died 12 August 2012

Categories: Obituary
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