age of 89. Not the most well known of parliamentarians these days but in his own day he was a real inspiration and, frankly, a reminder of the lack of quality we seem to have in too many of today’s politicians.
I worked with him when I was Head of Campaigns for the deafness charity RNID until 2006. He himself had gone profoundly deaf shortly after being elected as MP for Stoke in the mid 1960s, the result of an ear operation that went wrong. Being disabled nowadays is difficult enough but attitudes back then were truly stone aged, and the widespread assumption was that Jack would have to stand down, presumably to retire somewhere not to be seen much again.
But nobody told Jack about that script and he certainly wasn’t going to accept it if they did. He carried on in Parliament and became a strong campaigner on disabled people’s issues but also on a wide range of others too, such as bullying in the armed forces. He once told me that part of the problem of being deaf and making a speech in parliament was that you not only couldn’t hear other people, but you also couldn’t hear yourself – and that meant you might actually be shouting when you thought you weren’t. So Tory MPs on the other side, while presumably disagreeing with what he might be saying, used to help by giving hand signals to tell him when to raise or when to lower his voice – a bit like a plane coming in to land!
During his time he helped deafness charities and campaigners achieve very significant victories that have literally transformed lives, usually with what seem to be quite minor changes. He forced the last Government to do more on subtitling provision and worked with me when I later moved to the National Deaf Children’s Society to reverse a change that the Government wanted to bring in which would have disadvantaged deaf children taking crucial GCSE exams. His style used to be to sit back, nod politely and offer the offending Minister or senior civil servant a nice cup of tea – before adjusting his cardigan and telling them in a quiet but firm voice, a bit like a teacher patiently explaining to a not-very-clever pupil struggling to understand something, why they were completely and utterly wrong, and really ought to be quite ashamed of themselves, you know. There was no real answer to that, and I saw powerful people responding almost apologetically. And on some occasions changing course.
I last met him in a corridor in the House of Lords in 2008. He was at that time 85 years of age, and frail. He was carrying a thick sheaf of papers about some piece of legislation that he wanted to change, but wanted to have a chat – commanding the security guards to fetch us some chairs. The police who guard parliament are usually ex armed forces and are quite strict. But for Jack they did as they were told. He didn’t just want to change the legislation but he was angry about it – and intended to tell the Minister so later that afternoon.
That was the sort of energy he brought to everything, and through it he made the world a better place for many people who will never know his name. That wouldn’t have mattered to Jack. But it matters to me.