As a Conservative government finds itself in political conflict with disabled people, we remember similar troubles 22 years ago. This is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s:
Competent was not an adjective often applied to Major’s administration. Nor, regrettably, was the word ‘decent’, particularly after the government’s behaviour over the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.
This backbench measure, sponsored by MPs from all parties, sought to legislate that access for the disabled was provided in places of employment, on public transport and in public buildings. But when the Bill came to the Commons in 1994, five Tory backbenchers submitted some eighty amendments between them, the clear intention of which was to wreck the proposed legislation by ensuring that the debate ran out of time.
There were suspicions that the backbenchers were acting on government orders, a charge flatly denied by Nicholas Scott, the minister for disabled people, until it was demonstrated to be true; Scott’s department was indeed behind the drafting of the amendments, anxious to scupper the Bill but lacking the courage to admit the fact in public. Calls for Scott to resign came both from the Labour Party and from journalists, including the Independent’s Andrew Marr: ‘He blatantly misled the House of Commons but, more important than that, he was party to one of the shabbiest acts of parliamentary sabotage we have seen for years.’ Even Scott’s own daughter, Victoria, who worked with a campaigning group on the issue, joined in the calls: ‘Resignation would be the honourable thing to do.’
Scott was said to be ‘close to tears’ and to have offered to step down, but was persuaded not to do so; instead he was obliged to talk out the Bill himself, speaking for more than eighty minutes in the Commons as he outlined the government’s honest position that ‘it would cost too much money’.
As he spoke, a demonstration by disabled people outside Parliament saw thirty or so campaigners abandon their wheelchairs and drag themselves painfully up the steps of the public entrance to the House, where their progress was blocked by police officers. It wasn’t the Conservative Party’s finest hour. Professor Stephen Hawking, the country’s best-known scientist, who was afflicted with a motor neurone disease, joined the condemnation: ‘I don’t think any disabled person should vote for the present government unless they do something to atone for the shabby way they killed the Civil Rights Bill.’
There was subsequently some expiation with the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, a weaker measure which made it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities, though without the requirement for access. Steered through Parliament by Ann Widdecombe and William Hague (the latter having replaced Scott), the Act didn’t noticeably improve the Conservatives’ image in the country…