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Column 473amendment to clarify the definition, to remove any doubt, to introduce precision, to improve targeting and to reduce cost. Why did not the Government do that? Does the hon. Gentleman have an answer to that?
Mr. Hannam : This is not an issue that has suddenly descended upon us. It is one that has been discussed over many years. There is no dispute about the number of deaf-blind. Everyone is agreed about that category. We know that there are 3,200, and some of them are already in receipt of the mobility allowance. The fact that they are is the luck of the draw--the accident of living in an area where there is a helpful panel.
This is not a flash-in-the-pan attempt to get some more money out of the Treasury. The all-party group and representatives of the various disablement organisations have had meetings with three Ministers who have been responsible for the disabled since 1985. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster first proposed the allowance for the deaf-blind in a ten-minute Bill 10 years ago. He agreed in 1986, after a meeting, to discuss the matter with his officials to ascertain how a solution could be found at the margin.
In March 1987, the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when the Minister with responsibility for the disabled, undertook to carry out a survey of both deaf-blind and mentally-handicapped claimants with a view to wording legislation specifically to identify the groups that needed to be covered. At that time there was never any doubt about the merits of the case. There was merely a practical difficulty in finding the appropriate wording. There was never any doubt about the small numbers involved. Equally, there was an acceptance that case law was confusing rather than clarifying the position and that something needed to be done promptly to relieve the frustration and anguish that many claimants were experiencing. The argument that we should await the OPCS report, which we now have, and the review of disability benefits before taking action is spurious in that it delays still further the necessary action that we need to take.
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to join me and the entire House in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) on a succinct, balanced and well judged speech in favour of the amendment. Will he join me in advising the Minister that the cost of extending the allowance would be about a quarter of the expenditure on the mobility allowance, and that that expenditure is less than 1.5 per cent. of the general expenditure on social security benefits?
This is not a fundamental change ; it is fine tuning designed to clarify a long-standing problem. That has happened with other provisions in the Bill relating to mobility allowance, such as the raising of the age limit from 75 to 80. That was a piece of fine tuning or tinkering with the system. That is what the House of Lords wishes to achieve with this amendment.
We are talking not about 100,000 or 125,000 people but about the 7, 600 who suffer from dreadful mobility problems through being deaf-blind or having severe mental handicaps. The cost, at the current rate, would be
Column 474less than £10 million. It would not represent a breach of the Treasury dam--or, as some might say, the damned Treasury. If the amendment is rejected, it will be a severe blow to all those who have worked so hard to help the severely handicapped. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give a positive assurance and, to use his words during a recent meeting with our group, put the necessary provisions on the fast track in the mobility disability benefits review. I shall vote for the Lords amendment, and I hope that all other hon. Members will do the same.
The Minister said that he wanted no lessons in conscience, and I do not propose to offer him any. However, the other place followed the example of Lord Carter and have offered a clear and practical lesson. The amendment is specifically designed to give practical and valuable help to a small group. I remind the Minister that soft words and general principles are of no value to the severely disabled who desperately need the mobility allowance.
The crux of the debate is numbers. The Opposition and some Conservative Members believe the number to be tiny--fewer than 8,000. The disability organisations also believe that. The Minister came up with a figure of 100,000 people who may be affected by the amendment. I ask Conservative Members to bear in mind the methods that he used to come up with that figure. He simply extrapolated certain figures from the OPCS survey and said that 100,000 people would benefit from the amendment. There can be no justification for that conclusion, and the Minister knows that.
I can only tell the Minister--and I am being kind to him--that it is disgraceful to assume that the number of people who would be affected by the amendment is anything like 100,000. He knows that it will affect fewer than 8,000 people, a strictly limited number. He is in statistically dangerous waters in presuming that so many people will be affected ; they will not.
We are trying to help people who are both deaf and blind or who are mentally handicapped. If we cannot cast our votes to obtain a few million pounds to help those people, we will never pass the stage of saying, "Not tonight." Perhaps tonight Conservative Members will take hold of their courage and their conscience and join us in the Lobby to vote to help those in desperate need.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : In Committee, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) put the case for such an amendment well enough to graduate to the Opposition Front Bench tonight. However, I take exception to some of his points. He argues that the worst cases are of people who fail to obtain mobility allowance, but the worst cases are those who received mobility allowance in the past but who are unable to continue doing so. The hon. Member for Leeds, West wants an end to confusion, but it will only add to confusion if the House agrees to Lords amendment No. 2, because the number of persons affected by it is not accurately known. The hon. Gentleman claims that the Mencap analysis is tightly figured, whereas the Government's estimate is crude.
Column 475However, we know that Mencap's figures are only based on extrapolations of 1971 statistics--and the OPCS survey reveals that earlier estimates were very inaccurate.
The best estimate of the number of handicapped children in institutional care available before the OPCS survey was published was only half the OPCS figure of 5,500. We must conclude that the OPCS estimate is far more accurate than any earlier figures. The figure of 3,200 deaf-blind is not in question, but that of 4,000 mentally handicapped suggested by Mencap is. Although Mencap attempted to ensure the accuracy of its figures, they must be called into question when compared with the OPCS estimates.
My right hon. Friend the Minister was unsure whether Mencap's figures include people in institutional care. On the basis of Mencap's statistics, clearly they do. But the numbers are so small that they should be checked. Mencap's figures show no children at all aged 0 to 14 in residential care, and only five aged 15-plus in hospital or residential care. However, we know from OPCS surveys that more than 100,000 people are in category 10, in institutional care. I appreciate that category 10 cannot be considered in isolation, but that single statistic illustrates the difference in magnitude between the OPCS figure of 100,000 in care and Mencap's figure of a mere five.
If the House agrees to the Lords amendment, it will add to the confusion that the hon. Member for Leeds, West seeks to reduce. Right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House want to help the people who are the subject of the amendment, but they will be helped by a reduction in confusion, not an increase. I ask the Government to get a move on, undertake the review, and then make their proposals. The figures are available, so let the Government run the computer tape and present their proposals by the autumn. The Opposition argue that it will be five years before the Government make up their mind. I do not believe that that is true. The Government could make proper proposals at an early date.
I urge the House to reject the Lords amendment, but to press the Government to make clear suggestions to reduce confusion among the very people we want to help.
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : In welcoming Lords amendment No. 2, I speak, as the House knows, as the basic author of the mobility allowance and also, as the originator soon afterwards, of the proposal to set up the motability scheme. I could not, as Minister, apply the mobility allowance at once to all the eligible groups. They had to be phased into the scheme over a period of time. I readily concede that its benefits have been extended to more people since then. From the inception, as the Minister will know, that was always the plan.
The Lords amendment is of the first importance to thousands of the most severely disabled people in Britain today. It would give much needed help to disabled people with the dual handicap of deafness and blindness, and to those in need of constant supervision due to severe mental handicap and behavioural difficulties.
To be both deaf and blind is a devastating handicap whose effects on mobility are extremely serious. The Lords amendment has been called the Helen Keller amendment, but in fact some of the people it seeks to help are even more
Column 476severely disabled than Helen Keller in that, unlike her, prelingual deafness has left them without speech in addition to being both deaf and blind.
The mentally handicapped people, including many children, who would be helped by the amendment are also, by common consent, very severely disabled. To help both groups, at a cost of £10 million--which is an increase of less than 2 per cent. in spending on the mobility allowance--is a modest proposal that the Government ought to be able to accept in advance of their disability benefits review. It is an urgent proposal of help that merits the same measure of all-party support that it was given in another place.
The Government's position is hard to follow, even for the most well- informed people in this policy area. In fact, Ministers have been flatly contradicting each other. When the Bill was in Committee in the Commons, the Minister for the Disabled said that he felt that case law was dealing already--to a considerable extent--with the aim of the amendment. He reiterated this at a meeting of the all-party disablement group in January 1989, when he said--I quote from the group's minutes--
"Case law is beginning to move in the right direction and define the law on this issue."
So the Minister's position has been that the law as it stands can deal with the aim of the amendment.
By contrast--as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) recalled--Lord Skelmersdale, speaking on the amendment, said :
"On this matter of mobility allowance for the deaf-blind and the mentally handicapped I cannot stress too strongly that they were wanting to act, willing to act, but waiting to act."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 1989 ; Vol. 510, c. 268.] Thus the position of Lord Skelmersdale--also speaking for the Government--is that the aim of the amendment cannot be dealt with by the law as it stands, and that the Government are willing to act, but waiting to act to change the law.
Even if the Minister for the Disabled had been correct in Committee and when addressing the all-party disablement group, he could not gainsay the truth of what my noble Friend Lord Carter has said about the preventable suffering inflicted on the relatives and other carers of severely disabled people by the "harrowing and lengthy" task of going through the appeal procedure. Lord Allen of Abbeydale said that the changes proposed by the amendment would do much to ease despair and frustration. They would save many appeals and much expense ; they would simplify the task of the adjudicators, and would show that Parliament cared.
Let me give brief details of the cases of two disabled people who would be helped by the amendment. The first is that of a young woman who is totally deaf, totally blind and has a mental handicap that causes behavioural problems. All her disabilities are due to rubella. It took four years to secure the mobility allowance for her. She cannot walk alone; indeed, she will not take even a single step alone.
The allowance was first claimed in 1984. It was initially refused, but then awarded on appeal to a medical board. The Secretary of State, clearly unhappy about the award, then referred the board's decision to a medical appeal tribunal, which refused the allowance. That case shows how extremely important it is for this House to make entitlement irrefutably clear.
Column 477The second case is that of a girl of 14. She has severe mental handicap, and also suffers from petit mal epilepsy. She "walks" on her toes with her feet turned inwards, and frequently falls. Mobility allowance was first applied for in 1985 and awarded for three years, but on the renewal claim in 1988 it was refused.
How is it possible, then, for the Minister to argue that the law as it stands is dealing already with the aim of the amendment? Again, how can he possibly defend the Government's absurd exaggerations about the cost of the amendment? Mencap, Sense and the Disability Alliance have very carefully researched the cost of the amendment and have dismissed the Government's talk of an additional cost of £100 million. The truth seems to be that the right hon. Gentleman has lost a battle with the Treasury to secure a much lower sum.
The Government stand accused of using a very crude method of "analysis" by simply adding together a few different categories of disabled people covered by reports from the OPCS. The Lords amendment is very tightly drawn to ensure that it includes only the deaf-blind and the mentally handicapped who require physical control by another person. Very few hon. Members will want to question their compelling claims to help, and I hope that we shall indeed show that this House cares by approving the amendment tonight.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) : I think that I speak for many of my hon. Friends when I say that, although I do not take a detailed interest in social security matters, I have considered them in depth after having received deeply moving letters during the last few days from such admirable charities as Mencap and Sense. All hon. Members have experience of cases where appeals appear not to have been dealt with satisfactorily. I do not, however, intend to detain the House by citing examples from my constituency.
There is considerable doubt about the number of people who would be affected by the Lords amendment. I am less concerned about the cost of the proposed provision. I am much more concerned about ending the confusion and the degrading arrangements that lead to appeal after appeal by these people, many of whom have the duel sensory disability of blindness and deafness as well as being severely mentally handicapped. We must end that confusion.
The OPCS survey provides a springboard for action. We must ensure, whether the number is 8,000 or 125,000, that we provide the right framework of benefits for these people. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security said, none of us knows whether the mobility allowance is the right benefit for some of the folk whom the OPCS survey highlighted as being in need of benefit beyond the level that has already been suggested.
I come to the House not having made up my mind whether to vote for the Lords amendment or to support the Government. It is largely because of my right hon. Friend's fine record as Minister of State in the Department of Social Security that I trust implicitly his commitment at the Dispatch Box tonight to do whatever he can to ensure that that is put right. It must be done this autumn. My right hon. Friend has a particularly fine record in respect of the deaf and the blind. In addition, the Government have a fine record in respect of the mobility allowance. During the last 10 years they have increased it sixfold. During the debate we have heard about the number of
Column 478people who now receive it. However, we must not let this opportunity pass without saying to the Government and to the Treasury that the matter, along with other matters, must be addressed in next autumn's Social Security Bill.
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : I have an interest in the allowance for two reasons. The first is strictly personal. In my own family circle I have a sister who was stricken by polio in 1950. She now spends most of her time in a wheelchair. I also have a nephew who is blind. Therefore, I have personal experience of disability in the home and what it means to those who have to care for the disabled. Secondly, I have constituency knowledge of the difficulty of obtaining the allowance for those who, to the layman's eye, appear to qualify for it with ease. I came into the Chamber only to listen to the debate, but, as all too often happened when the Minister held a different ministerial post, I felt that I had to speak because of the Minister's attitude.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) said that many of the problems are due to inconsistent legal decisions. I put it to him that many of our constituency problems arise even more from inconsistent medical opinions. We have all heard that doctors differ and patients die. Because that is so, whenever someone says to me that his relation has been refused that benefit, I advise him to do as Robert the Bruce did--"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Like Robert the Bruce, people succeed. They do so because they get a different doctor to examine them.
The medical decisions have created not a fuzzy borderline but a broad fuzzy band. It is difficult to know who will fall on one side or who will fall on the other. Like the rest of the House, I waited in vain for the Minister to say that he would try to clarify the degree of disability that was necessary before people could get the allowance.
I listened also to the Minister's explanation of how he arrived at the figure of 125,000 people compared with the caring charities' figure of only 8,000. I heard the Minister say plainly that the Government were not prepared to fund 125,000 new people. I failed to hear him say that the Government would not fund 8,000 people. He seemed anxious to avoid getting an accurate figure. For that reason, my hon. Friends and I will support the Lords amendment.
Mr. Harry Ewing : The House is anxious to come to a decision. I have known the Minister in a previous incarnation in the Northern Ireland Office and now in the Department of Social Security. I say, without being patronising, that I respect him. I am grateful to him for his generosity and his profound apology to me for his rather insulting remark against the background of my sedentary intervention. I apologise for that intervention.
This has been a debate about numbers. In deciding the fate of the Lords amendment, the House will not decide whether it is 125,000, 7, 500 or 4,500 people. That will be decided by the tribunals to which the new group of people apply for mobility allowance. The amendment is not about whether it is 125,000, 7,500 or 4,500 people but about opening a door for a new group of people, those who are profoundly disabled and deaf. The Minister went over the
Column 479top a wee bit in talking about those who need constant attention, including holding their hands. That simplified matters to the extent of insulting those people.
The amendment would enable that new group of people to apply for mobility allowance. The tribunals, or doctors, to whom the applications are made will decide the numbers. The Minister should admit that this is all about money. My position is clear. Until my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) said that he was the architect of the scheme, I did not realise that it was his brainchild. I was on the Labour ministerial team that put it together. I do not care whether it is 125,000. If 125,000 people require mobility allowance, so be it--we should accept that responsibility. I believe that the Minister in his heart of hearts would like to concede that, but he has been told by the Treasury that he cannot.
I am saying to the Minister's right hon. and hon. Friends on the Back Benches that we have a chance tonight--I am not being emotional, but I am appealing to their humanity--through the amendment, to say to the Government, "Look, you open up the avenue for this new group of people to apply for mobility allowance." Whether they get a mobility allowance is a matter not for the House, but for the statutory authorities to which we have delegated the powers to decide those matters. But we must say to the Government that that new group must have the ability to apply for that mobility allowance. I am saying in all sincerity to Conservative Members that everything is to be gained by accepting the amendment from the other place ; everything is to be lost by defeating it. I plead with Conservative Members to join us in the Lobby and to support the amendment.
Of course, in any system that is run by independent authorities, there will be some people who will feel that they are hard done by when they are turned down for an allowance, whether it be attendance or mobility allowance. However, the fact that the numbers have gone up from 95,000 to 580,000 under the Government hardly suggests that we are being unduly restrictive about the criteria that are being applied to the mobility allowance.
My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), both of whom take a close interest in these matters, urge me to early action. I must say, however, that others outside urge me to have a large-scale, long-term review of the whole nature of disability benefits. I reiterate that I seek to balance careful consideration and listening to the views of people outside with not delaying unduly appropriate action. It was said that we are in statistical deep water in this area. There is no argument about the number of deaf- blind, but I cannot agree that the amendment that their Lordships have sent down to us is sufficiently tightly drawn to limit the numbers to the extent that they calculate. I believe that our figures are likely to be more accurate.
I shall finish by quoting what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) said in an oral answer when he held the post that I hold at present. He said :
Column 480"In reviewing their public expenditure programme, the Government keep constantly in mind all claims for extending the scope of this important new allowance every claim for improvement in the scheme must be weighed both against other proposals for adding to the Government's present level of help for disabled people and all other proposals for increases in public expenditure."--[ Official Report, 11 July 1978 ; Vol. 953, c. 1226.]
I ask nothing more than to be allowed the same right, to look at all this in the round and to weigh these priorities. I ask the House to reverse the amendment.
Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment :--
The House divided : Ayes 299, Noes 219.
Divison No. 311] [12.38 am
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Browne, John (Winchester)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick
Buck, Sir Antony
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon John
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Emery, Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Fishburn, John Dudley
Fookes, Dame Janet
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Fox, Sir Marcus
Glyn, Dr Alan
Goodhart, Sir Philip
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)