David Payne: Lord Ashley of Stoke

David Payne The BMJ tends not to commission obituaries of non-doctors. I can understand why. The journal’s print obituary section is already awash with the lives of distinguished doctors from the UK and overseas. It would need to be a lot larger if coverage was extended to eminent nurses, former health ministers, academics, and campaigners, But if its policy was different, I would have liked to see a BMJ obituary of Lord Ashley of Stoke, who died last month aged 89.

Tam Dalyell’s obituary in The Independent described the former MP for Stoke-on-Trent South as a “beacon for the disabled” and “the most significant British politician of the last 40 years not to have held ministerial office.”

He lost his hearing aged 45 when routine surgery for a perforated eardrum went wrong, shortly after being elected to the Commons in 1967. Tempted to resign his seat, his wife Pauline told him: “There are hundreds of thousands of deaf people and seriously disabled constituents in this country…You can use your affliction to make them feel represented.”

Ashley took on the pharma industry over thalidomide and used his skills as a former BBC producer to get interest from national newspapers, particularly Harold Evans’ Sunday Times. He formed an all party disabled group and campaigned to get a bill for the chronically sick and disabled on the statute book, winning the backing of the then chief medical officer Sir George Godber.

Other campaigns followed – bullying in the armed forces,the vaccine damage payment scheme, the judiciary’s attitude to female victims of domestic abuse. He persuaded the UK government to include a stipulation for more subtitles for the hard of hearing in the 1990 Broadcast Bill, and successfully campaigned to get four year funding for cochlear implants. He himself had his hearing partially restored after having implant surgery in 1994.

My first job in journalism was on the Staffordshire Sentinel, and I regularly called Jack for a quote. At the time the local regiment was taking part in the Gulf War and the city’s miners were taking part in a nationwide strike against further pit closures led by John Major’s government.

Pauline always answered the phone and because her husband could lip read, she would forward your questions to Jack before putting you through.

One of Ashley’s three daughters is the Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley, who is married to former BBC political editor Andrew Marr. Yesterday she described how her journalistic household had juggled bereavement with a fascination for the revelations of the Leveson inquiry.

Her father, she said, had worked effectively with the Murdoch press to expose the scandal of thalidomide and his life demonstrated the importance of engaging beyond the Westminster bubble:

“My father’s life showed that MPs do not operate in a parliamentary vacuum. They need to work with networks outside – and this includes good journalists, who don’t have to look over their shoulders at proprietors, or worry about their editors’ chummy chats with ministers.”

The Ashley family has set up a website for people to post tributes. You can access it at http://www.lordjackashley.co.uk/


David Payne is editor, bmj.com