Friends, family, colleagues and other admirers of the deaf peer Jack Ashley have paid tribute to the integrity, determination and “bloody-minded passion” of “one of history’s great civil rights leaders”.
A memorial event in Westminster that celebrated the life and achievements of Lord Ashley – who died in April – was attended by many of the country’s most influential disabled figures, and addressed by both the Labour leader Ed Miliband and his brother David, a close family friend of the Ashleys.
The family also announced that the Commons speaker, John Bercow, was setting up an annual Jack Ashley lecture on disability issues, with the first one set to take place this autumn in Speaker’s House, his official Commons residence.
Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds, a thalidomide survivor, said she and fellow survivors would be “forever indebted to him” for his commitment to securing compensation for her and the other “thalidomide children”, and that he would be remembered with “great affection”.
She added: “Above all, Jack Ashley, Lord Jack Ashley, was, is and always will be a man for all people.”
Ed Miliband called Lord Ashley an “extraordinary man” who displayed “extraordinary courage and determination”, and said: “I don’t think that you could imagine somebody who embodied more of the qualities you would want in somebody who would be an MP, a peer, a councillor, or indeed a friend.”
He said there were “millions of people who are living and will live better lives” because of Jack Ashley’s campaigning.
His brother David, a friend of the peer’s daughter Caroline for nearly 30 years, paid tribute to his “passion, integrity, honesty and humanity”.
The memorial heard how Jack Ashley had lost his hearing and begun to experience severe tinnitus in 1967, initially announcing that he would step down as an MP, only to be persuaded by his constituents to stay on.
He learned to lip-read, and rebuilt what had been a promising political career with the support of his wife, Pauline.
The memorial event heard that, as a result of his work on Alf (later Lord) Morris’s chronically sick and disabled persons bill, Jack Ashley set up the all-party parliamentary disability group (APPDG) in 1969, and later worked closely as chair of the group with the disability charity RADAR (now Disability Rights UK).
Agnes Fletcher, who was a researcher for the APPDG and was director of policy and communications at the Disability Rights Commission, said Jack Ashley was a campaigner “from his heart to his head and his fingertips”.
She said: “Jack rejected sentimentality – he wanted action and not words.”
She described him as “patient and persistent”, a “consummate communicator” who could be “lacerating in his righteous indignation” and was “adored” by all the researchers who worked with him.
Fletcher said he was “inviting disabled people into the corridors of power” through the APPDG “long before the concept of co-production” was adopted by politicians.
She concluded: “This wonderful man changed for the better the lives of many thousands of people. We owe it to Jack to defend and build on the legacy with blood-minded passion and persistence. That will be our tribute and our thanks.”
Ashley worked as a profoundly deaf MP for 25 years, and later partially regained his hearing through a cochlear implant after he became a Labour peer.
Lord [Neil] Kinnock, the former Labour leader, said Jack Ashley was “a hero”, paid tribute to the “tenacity, vitality” and “raw courage” that “gave him the lifelong will to achieve liberating victories for others”, and described how he had fought against “the way that ordinary people are hurt by the misuse of power”.
He also described how Jack Ashley’s campaigning work on the chronically sick and disabled persons bill in 1969 pulled him “out of the isolation and exile of deafness… He became a projectile against the causes, the effects, the privations and deprivations of disabilities.”
He concluded: “He established foundations to be built on here and emulated across the world.
“He was one of history’s great civil rights leaders and among the finest parliamentarians of any age.”
Lord [Bernard] Donoughue, a close friend of Jack Ashley’s for 50 years, said he had been “most struck by his integrity, dedication and determination to change things for the better” and that at their last meeting earlier this year he was “still funny, still no-nonsense, never a victim, always a champion”.
Another close friend and fellow peer, Lord Morris, described Jack Ashley as “a peer and yet peerless”, and said: “The world is a poorer place for his passing.”
David Livermore, former chair of RNID, said he was “an inspiration to deaf people, a deaf person right at the centre of the political life of this country”.
Lord Ashley’s daughter Jane said her father was “like a silver bubble rising up in the water that just could not be pushed down”.
Lord Ashley’s grandchildren read extracts from his 1992 autobiography, Acts of Defiance, and some of the tributes that have been left on the website set up by the family to celebrate his life.
Among the leading disabled figures who attended the memorial service were Sir Bert Massie, Dr Rachel Perkins, Phil Friend, Liz Sayce, Alice Maynard and Lord [Colin] Low.
High-ranking members of the Labour party who attended included Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman, Jack Straw, Douglas Alexander, Frank Dobson and Chris Smith.
There were also politicians from across the political divide, such as the Liberal Democrats Stephen Lloyd, himself a deaf MP, and Baroness [Shirley] Williams, the crossbench peer Lord [David] Owen, and the Conservative ministers Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling.
3 July 2012