There is no reason why anti-discrimination should be the cause of the Left. So says William Hague in this interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act, noted yesterday on ConHome.

Hague has often described this measure as his “proudest political achievement”, but here reveals “the internal but largely hidden arguments” he had to win in order to get it onto the statute book.

Ken Clarke, as Chancellor, and Michael Heseltine, as President of the Board of Trade, though regarded as progressive, left-wing Tories, opposed the Act because they thought it would place additional burdens on business.

Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo, though more right-wing or Thatcherite, supported the measure, as did, crucially, the Prime Minister, John Major.

Hague promoted the Act in moral terms: he said it was the right thing to do because it would promote equality of opportunity. While working on the Act, he met many disabled people who were making enormous efforts to play their part in the workplace: “I’ve always had no sympathy ever since then with people who are not disabled, but are idle.”

ConHome: “You’ve described this act as your proudest achievement. Perhaps you should begin at the beginning and say how you got interested in this subject.”

Hague: “Well, I got interested in it because I very abruptly became minister for disabled people, in 1994. I was already in the Department of Social Security, which at that time had the responsibility for this.

“A charming man called Nick Scott was the previous minister, but he’d got into quite a lot of difficulty about it, one way or another, because really there was a bit of a stand-off between the Government at the time, and the House of Commons.

“There was a majority in the House of Commons to have disability legislation. The Government was opposed to it, and he got caught, really, between a determined rock and a very hard place.

“And suddenly in the reshuffle of 1994 I was moved up from Under-Secretary to Minister of State, and made responsible for policy on disabled people, with this difficult political situation, and also it was a fascinating conceptual problem, and political-philosophical problem of what you do about disability discrimination.

“So I did two things. The way I got into it was I went to meet disabled people in my constituency, before I got a lot of official briefings, and listened to a cross-section of disabled people.

“And of course disability includes physical disabilities, but it also includes people who are hard of hearing, people who are blind. It’s not just about wheelchairs. It’s about employment of people with all kinds of impairments. And so I got quite a varied group of people together.

“And then I went to America at an early stage, where a very interesting thing had happened. Traditionally the Left presses for disability legislation and the Right opposes it. But in America, this had changed. The Americans with Disabilities Act had come in, and had been enthusiastically signed into law by President Bush, Bush 41, in 1991, and so in the world’s leading market economy, with a Republican administration, a landmark piece of disability legislation had come in.

“I went to America within a few weeks of becoming minister and studied that. And I basically drew up the Disability Discrimination Act in the plane on the way back. The framework of it was what we put together on the plane back from Washington in September 1994.

“On the Right of politics, of course we are opposed to excessive legislation. But on the other hand, we are in favour of equality of opportunity. And there is no reason why anti-discrimination should be the cause of the Left. We do not stand for equality of outcomes in life, but we do stand for equality of opportunity – or we should.

“So I thought the time had come when disability discrimination legislation should be embraced by the Conservative Party. And that would bring the UK up to where America was going. It would hopefully give new opportunities to millions of people. And it would end this stand-off between Government and Parliament, because the Government would swing behind the disability legislation.

“And that led to quite a lot of internal but largely hidden arguments. I suppose one can talk about them a bit more now 20 years afterwards.”

ConHome: “Yes. We want to know who was against it in Government and how you encouraged them to see the light.”

Hague: “Well there was quite a split in the Cabinet about whether we should do this. And then a long battle of attrition for several months.”

ConHome: “So who were your main allies?”

Hague: “Well, this is a fascinating thing, because again you might think there’d be a sort of Left-Right split on this. There was, but it was the other way round.

“My main ally was my boss, the Secretary of State for Social Security, Peter Lilley. And so were several other more, what shall we call them, Thatcherite members of the Government. Michael Portillo, I remember being in favour of it. This would not universally hold true. This is a generalisation.”

ConHome: “It’s interesting, though, because it isn’t what one would immediately have anticipated.”

Hague: “There were other people who spoke very well for it at the time. William Waldegrave, who I’m not sure where you would place on a spectrum in the Conservative Party.

“But the main opposition to it was from the economic departments, who were traditionally seen as more progressive Conservatives. I don’t really want to finger-point, but at ConservativeHome you will have the resources and historical memory to work out who this was.”

ConHome: “So Ken Clarke.”

Hague: “The Chancellor and the President of the Board of Trade were not keen…”

ConHome: “Ah. And Michael Heseltine.”

Hague: “…were not keen on this legislation.”

ConHome: “Well they’re hard-headed fellows.”

Hague: “To be fair to them, they were determined to avoid more regulation.”

ConHome: “Yes.”

Hague: “And they thought we already generated a lot of legislation.”

ConHome: “Did they come round in due course?”

Hague: “Well they did come round in due course.”

ConHome: “What was the Prime Minister’s line?”

Hague: “Well that was the key ingredient. I had the Prime Minister on my side. John Major.”

ConHome: “From the beginning?”

Hague: “From the beginning. And without that I could not have done it.”

ConHome: “Had you actually discussed anything with him before he promoted you?”

Hague: “I think on the day he appointed me we did discuss how it was time to move the Conservative Party to this position. Not in any detail. In a reshuffle there are 50 ministers moving.

“Of course you see the Prime Minister for about three minutes. He says go and get on with it. But I think we had a sentence or two about it’s time to move on to a Conservative Act on disability discrimination.

“And he really took a lot of time and trouble over reconciling the Cabinet to this. Which I needed because I was a Minister of State, I wasn’t in the Cabinet. He really spent hours in individual meetings telling the Cabinet that this is something we had to do. And I spent many hours in Cabinet committees, arguing for each bit of it.

“For instance, I did not have agreement in the initial draft to include transport facilities. And a lot of people were still saying, ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, you cannot impose this requirement of access on stations, on taxies, on buses. Think of the expenditure.’

“And I was saying, ‘Actually if you’re saying it’s phased in over a long time, new designs of buses are coming along, taxies can be adapted, stations every time they’re redone can have a lift. Of course it’s impossible to do it in a year, but over a decade you can do it.’

“And an extremely helpful person was Steve Norris, who was then a minister, a junior transport minister, but he was the one designated to work with me on this, and he was incredibly helpful, for example at ensuring we could include transport. Disability rights without transport have a bit of a large gap. That’s one example. Each one of those things would be weeks of discussion and negotiation within the Government.

“The extent to which education could be included was a major argument. This was a new thing for the Government and it was already in its 16th year. And big new things are always a bit difficult to get through once you’re in the 16th year of government.

“So I had to work hard in Cabinet committees but I had the ace in my back pocket to play now and again, which was, OK, I’m going to set the Prime Minister onto that. And that is how it became the Conservative policy.

“At that time some Labour backbenchers were promoting another model of the legislation, which they called the Civil Rights Disabled Persons Bill. So I had to block the Civil Rights Bill at the same time as promoting the Disability Discrimination Bill. We couldn’t have both.

“The key attribute of their Bill, to boil it all down, was an enforcement commission. The one thing I could not get – I got 90 per cent of what I wanted from the Government in the end – was a rights commission, to enforce disability rights. It required people to go to law if necessary to assert their rights.

“So I had to block what the Government hadn’t agreed to and promote our own Bill. This did involve me being ready to filibuster in committee. So this was the only occasion in my time in Parliament I prepared a 24-hour speech.

“When I was about an hour into it, and they could see I was only a fraction of the way into it, they decided this was going to be hopeless, and made a big song and dance about me blocking it, rather than try to overcome me blocking it.”

ConHome: “What was the feeling in the parliamentary Conservative Party? There would have been some people who just didn’t like the word ‘discrimination’.”

Hague: “Once I had the Cabinet, the MPs didn’t cause a lot of trouble. The party did then swing behind it.”

ConHome: “Obviously, on its merits people supported it. But was a fairly strong motive also the desire no longer to be seen as the nasty party?”

Hague: “Yes. Its time had come. Really what I was doing was recognising that. Was the Conservative Party really going to fight the ‘97 election on top of all the other problems completely against legislation on disability rights? I think the MPs in general could see that. But we were able to do it in our own way, in a way that was phased in.”

ConHome: “You had this concept of reasonable adjustment.”

Hague: “Reasonable adjustment was at the heart of the employment provisions. An employer would have to make a reasonable adjustment to allow a disabled person to work in their business on an equal footing.

“That was a big breakthrough. This was a new concept in employment law. So it did end up as a landmark piece of legislation. It’s been added to in various ways, the enforcement commission that came along under the next Government. It absolutely wrote into law a change in attitudes to disabled people.

“The real power of such laws is that they lead a change in attitudes. In a society that wants to make full use of its human resources, as well as be fair to people, that change in attitudes to disabled people was necessary. It was quite an inspiring year, quite apart from the legislation, spending most of that year with disabled people.

“It really brought home that disabled people are usually people of remarkable abilities, who happen to have one disability. All those other abilities should be brought out, should be developed, as for all the rest of us. I’ve always had no sympathy ever since then with people who are not disabled, but are idle.

“There are disabled people who work so hard to compensate for or overcome. Which is why I think it’s a Conservative thing to support those people. There are people who do amazing jobs with disabilities.

“To take a political example, David Blunkett being Home Secretary as a blind man, mastering all the briefs and reading all the documents, where a reasonable adjustment was made. In the case of his job, they prepared in braille what he needed to read.

“There are people in many walks of life who are inspiring like that. So the rest of us have no excuse when there are disabled people who can do such tremendous things. This is why I came to feel so strongly about it.

“And I’m proud of it because it affected that. It pushed along the change in attitude to disabled people. And it was a politically very tricky thing to steer through. So I felt I really had to use, not every trick, but every manoeuvre that I’d ever learned, to get this thing onto the statute book.”

ConHome: “Do you think the Conservative Party still has an electoral problem of being seen as the party of the rich? You haven’t used the term ‘compassionate conservatism’, but there is an element of compassion in this.”

Hague: “Well there is an element in its broadest sense. However I’ve never seen this as compassion. This is helping people who really want to help themselves. This is people who want to work and who want to be able to work and contribute to society.

“So it’s not compassion in the sense of ‘We’re going to look after you’. The Conservative Party has always had with some parts of the country this problem of perception. But I think that’s true of Centre-Right parties the world over.

“Clearly it’s not an overwhelming perception or we wouldn’t have won the last general election. We are able to say two million more people in work. That was crucial at the general election we’ve just had. And I see disability legislation as part of that tradition.

“In practice it’s Conservatives who can create the most opportunities for people at all levels of income. Now there is still a job to do here, because 20 years on, there are more disabled people in work than there were then, and the rights we brought in on physical access and everything else have made an enormous difference, but there’s still quite an employment gap in terms of income in particular.

“And you may be talking as part of this commemoration to the current minister, Justin Tomlinson – he’s a very good minister and his focus is to halve the gap now in employment rates, and hopefully therefore also in income, to reduce the gap in income for disabled people.” [Tomlinson will write for tomorrow’s ConHome.]

ConHome: “Do you think the Disability Discrimination Act has been slightly overlooked, in fact?”

Hague [after a pause]: “I don’t know. I’m a modest guy. I don’t expect firework displays every few weeks. It’s well-acknowledged among disability organisations, it’s well understood in Parliament, that this was a Conservative Government that did this.

“I’ve heard the Prime Minister mention it on many occasions. The fact that ConservativeHome’s doing articles about it suggests it’s not too overlooked.”