Picture of a rally for disabled rights in Trafalgar Square

Progress and setbacks in the fight for civil rights – #DDA20

Disabled activists wanted the same rights as everybody else. In 1994 an MP’s civil rights bill was making its way through Parliament and campaigners were holding lobbies and rallies to keep up the pressure on all MPs. Activits were left disappointed when the law was defeated. 

Former MP Roger Berry – who introduced the civil rights bill – and Victoria Scott – who worked in parliament to try and change the law – talk about their work to secure legislation. 

This blog is shared as part of a series of stories to celebrate the campaigners who fought for civil rights. You can find out more on our website or on social media using #DDA20. 

Roger Berry

Picture of former MP Roger BerryRoger was the MP who proposed a civil rights bill which galvanised activists to lobby Parliament and hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. The ‘Berry Bill’ was defeated.

In 1992 I became an MP by defeating the person who, two months earlier, had blocked a civil rights proposed by Alf Morris. A year later the number of second readings of Private Members’ Bills was increased from six to seven. In the ballot for these bills I was fortunate enough to come seventh. Since I had been planning with Alf Morris to persuade a lucky colleague to take up his Civil Rights Bill, I now had no hesitation in offering to do that myself.

I knew that for years the movement had been campaigning for equal rights. What I didn’t know, until we first met, was that Rights Now! had a campaign strategy up and running. This included a lobby of Parliament in March 1994, and a big postcard campaign that ensured MPs knew the views of disabled constituents.

Lobbying Parliament

TPicture of a lobby of Parliament in Westminster Hallhis lobby of Parliament was, according to MPs who’d been around a long time, the largest they’d ever seen. It provided clear evidence of the need for things to change – like most places in the Houses of Parliament at the time, it was inaccessible! Many MPs who hadn’t been engaged in the debate were being forced to address the issue for the first time.

I never expected the Government to do other than seek to block the Civil Rights Bill and it was no surprise when they denied MPs a vote on the Bill. There was public outcry at the manner in which the Government had blocked the Bill. For this reason the Government felt it had no alternative but to reverse its position and we now saw the remarkable spectacle of it finally embracing the principle of legislation! The campaign was having an effect.

After the Disability Discrimination Bill had been published a rally in Trafalgar Square was called to demand the real thing. At the rally many spoke: MPs, personalities, and, most importantly, disabled activists. A march down Downing Street had a profound effect, not least because the media covered it, representing the strong feelings of disabled people.

It’s important to engage with Government, but it’s extremely helpful if there are people making one hell of a fuss outside Parliament. We’re a democracy and MPs have important roles to play. But we didn’t make progress on disability rights because of speeches. We did it because of the campaign being run outside Parliament. That‘s what made the difference then. And that’s what can make a difference now.

Victoria Scott

Picture of Victoria Scott taken in front of a bookcase

Victoria was research assistant to the All-Party Disablement Group inside Parliament and worked with the Rights Now! coalition of disability activists and organisations to pass a civil rights bill into law.

It was an incredibly exciting time and Roger Berry’s Private Member’s Bill played a huge role. Ahead of a lobby of Parliament in support of Roger’s bill, I remember a red postcard campaign by Mencap to make MPs aware of the views of disabled constituents. Walking through Parliament one day, I saw a flustered MP opening his post and hundreds of these postcards falling to the floor. I got a real feeling that we were going to pass a civil rights bill into law this time.

I felt less confident about how many hundreds of people would be able to turn up to the lobby of Parliament. I was very aware of the various barriers in place – transport to get to the lobby or the need to install ramps, heaters, and induction loops. In the event, the day was monumental and historic, not hundreds but thousands of disabled people and carers turned up to make their voices heard.

Rally in Trafalgar SquarePicture of activists and campaigners calling for disability rights heading down Whitehall in London

MPs who thought they could get away with quietly opposing the Bill quickly realised they couldn’t, because their own
disabled constituents had made their way to Parliament. Seeing disabled people in the heart of Westminster was inspirational. Seeing MPs who had been strong disability advocates, such as Jack Ashley and Alf Morris, in the midst of all these disabled visitors was incredibly moving.

The rally at Trafalgar Square was memorable in a number of ways for me: the people and organisations whose doors we’d been knocking on for decades with very little success were suddenly reaching out to us, asking to speak from the stage.

I had real hope that Roger’s bill would pass. Real hope is exciting but I underestimated the lengths to which the Government would go, including underhand tactics and sacrificing their own Minister. It later transpired that the wrecking amendments added to Roger’s Bill had been drafted by the Minister’s civil servants. Obviously there was a deeply personal aspect to the campaign as my father was Minister of Disabled People at the time. It was a tough time for us, but it got the papers focused on the issue and helped keep the pressure on.

Find out more about the activists and campaigners who fought for civil rights and about the Disability Discrimination Act.