A pioneering disabled activist will make history this autumn when she becomes the first peer to be allowed to take a personal assistant (PA) into the main chamber of the House of Lords during debates.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell has been told by fellow peers – with none of them voting against the move – that she can now be accompanied by a PA, and that her assistant will be able to finish her speeches if needed.
The decision by the Lords procedure committee overturns a standing order dating back to 1707, which states that “no person shall be on the floor of the House” except peers and House of Lords staff.
Baroness Campbell said the decision was “uplifting” and would make her “feel equal” on the floor of the House.
She said: “It is not easy to overturn these ancient standing orders. It is a part of the ritual and tradition of the House of Lords. I take my hat off to this committee and my fellow peers. There was not one objection.”
Since she joined the Lords in 2007, Baroness Campbell has frequently had to rely on fellow disabled peers, such as Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins and Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, to finish her speeches for her when she was unable to continue for impairment-related reasons.
Now she will be able to use her PA to make notes, provide other personal assistance, and complete speeches, although it is likely that only one of the several PAs she employs – who has expertise in public speaking – will assist her with her speeches.
Baroness Campbell told Disability News Service that the move would make a “huge amount of difference” to her work in the Lords, and was an example of “the House of Lords at its best”.
She said: “I really understood that they wanted to do their best but they wanted to do their best for everyone and were not just going to go with the sympathy vote.”
She said that she had “never felt more supported in an organisation than I do in the House of Lords”.
She added: “It is what I have always fought for, having complete control of your life, over the way you speak, the way you conduct yourself.
“It will mean I am comfortable in the chamber. When someone speaks I can get a PA to scribble it down for me.”
She said her work in the Lords had been “really difficult” over the last 18 months, particularly on the hugely complex welfare reform bill, on which she helped lead opposition to many of the government’s proposals.
Without being able to take notes, she had to remember what was said during debates, which was particularly crucial when a minister was replying to one of her amendments.
She said: “Having to concentrate [so hard]practically killed me. I was exhausted. This will take a lot of the pressure off and I would hope I will be able to think and act a lot better.”
Baroness Campbell said she believed this pressure contributed to the serious health problems she has experienced over the last year.
And she said she hoped the decision to allow her to take her PA onto the floor of the House would send a message to other disabled people that “if you really want to do something, you can, there is a way to do it”.
She said: “I like to think I provide some kind of idea of the art of the possible. At a time like this when things are so difficult for disabled people it does send out a message that even in really difficult times, things like this can happen.
“It shows that there are people in this country that want us, need us and are ready to stand by that. This shows that not all in the garden is doom and gloom.”
She added: “If I have my PA by my side I do feel I can conquer the world, and it shows how important personal assistance is for people who cannot for whatever reason manage on their own.”
The committee report says Baroness Campbell’s request for her PA to support her is “reasonable”, because not granting it would “limit and ultimately prevent her from taking part in the work of the House”.
But it says that this “reasonable adjustment” applies only to Baroness Campbell and that any future requests by other disabled peers would have to be “considered afresh”.
Baroness Campbell also welcomed the decision that Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings, would not mention if a speech was completed by her PA.
She said: “It is just me. I am all on my own. This is what personal assistance is all about. It is about facilitating the person to be who they are.”
And she said the decision demonstrated why she opposed the deputy prime minister’s plans for a smaller – and largely elected – House of Lords, as it illustrated how peers “will change and reform, given the right arguments”.
She said Nick Clegg’s plans would mean losing “the highest and the best thinking the country has to offer for a very, very cheap price” and result in a Lords that was “either a mirror of the Commons or something loosely like it”, with more “career politicians”.
She said she had felt “more accountable to the disability movement than probably ever before” since she joined the Lords.
She added: “I think it works incredibly well. You only need to look at the outcome of our work. There is no other second chamber like it in the world.”
2 August 2012