I knew Sir Bert Massie, who sadly passed away yesterday morning, for about a quarter of a century. I first encountered him as Chief Executive of RADAR when he was campaigning for what became the Disability Discrimination Act, for accessible transport and – critically – for accessible housing. Then, somewhat naturally, Bert became Chair of the Disability Rights Commission, leading several years of largely unbroken progress on disability rights. I joined the policy team there in 2001 and became Head of Policy in 2004. It was only then that I got to know and to learn hugely from Bert the man: his history, what drove him and how he did business. Our paths then diverged for several years before I received a call from him while I was on holiday in 2013, asking if I’d join a commission on disability and poverty which the Labour Party had asked him to Chair. I didn’t have to think about it for long. Both before and afterwards he supported and encouraged me and I’ll be forever grateful.
Born to a working class family in Merseyside, Bert contracted Polio and spent much of his childhood in and out of hospitals and special schools. He left school without qualifications, but latterly took classes – which he persauded local nuns to teach him as no schools or colleges were accessible – passing his O levels before going on to study for his A levels at a specialist college. He graduated from Liverpool Polytechnic before completing a Certificate on Social Work at Manchester Polytechnic. Many people claim to have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps – his was the real deal.
This early life clearly underscored his outlook, attitude and approach. He never gave up imagining the world could be a better place for disabled people. At the same time he was a realist and a gradualist rather than a revolutionary, though this was driven by a constant itching for progress rather than complacency with the status quo. I just don’t think Bert believed that there was a ‘magic bullet’ in terms of an ideology, single piece of law or approach that would solve all the world’s ills (and time is proving him right). A consummate negotiator, he was able to work across political party lines with a deep understanding of how politics and government worked: do deals; support the civil servants; become confidante to the Minister. I’ll never forget the way Bert wheeled himself into position to obstruct Tony Blair’s path to his conference speech, securing a handshake and a ‘hello Bert’ in front of the world’s TV cameras before Blair was able to move on. That same operator that secured an education from nuns secured countless commitments from some of the most senior and influential figures of the past 50 years.
Sadly, this approach would see some disability activists cast Bert as being too cosy with government. But as any Minister will tell you, that ‘cosiness’ came with a price and Bert’s legacy is intact.
Despite being hugely well connected, Bert remained rooted in the real world. I’ve never seen him more relaxed and at home than in his native Merseyside where we met as the Labour Disability and Poverty Commission. He would engage in the detail of policy, think and act strategically and politically at the highest levels of society but he was always driven by one thing only – the wellbeing of disabled people. This is why, when some disability activists saw him as the enemy, many more regarded him as a folk hero – as someone forever one of them and on their side. Of course that ‘folksiness’ would sometimes collide with the modern world. Let’s just say Bert could be a man of his generation from time to time….
As for those who doubted Bert’s radicalism, I’ll end with a story about the Labour Disability and Poverty Commission. We had one meeting at Portcullis House in Westminster where we were greeted by Rachel Reeves, then Shadow Work and Pensions Minister. As Rachel removed the cellophane from our sandwiches, she repeated very clearly that our terms of reference meant that we should not put forward proposals that exceeded current spending levels. Of course Bert agreed politely, but as soon as she was gone he was having none of it believing Labour had to challenge the doctrine of austerity and I imagine knowing deep down that the austerity straitjacket would eventual loosen. While our final recommendations included ideas for reducing disability-related costs at source and for making better use of existing resources, slap bang in the middle was a proposal for a new ‘Disability Costs Allowance’ to replace PIP – an idea Bert brought to the first meeting and which frankly was going to be in the final report no matter what, reflecting as it did a lifetime of campaigning. This had a price tag of £Billions and perhaps unsurprisingly the Labour Party sank the report, casting it as little more than a consultation response, despite having commissioned Bert to produce it.
Time will tell whether his idea ever comes to fruition (and I hope Labour might honour Bert’s memory by taking another look), but Bert made very clear his rationale for ignoring Reeves’ advice:
‘We’ve been given this opportunity and we just can’t let disabled people down.’