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17 Mar 2009 : Column 839

As I said in Committee, and as Ministers need to remember, when the RNIB lobbied Parliament in October, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is responsible for disabled people, spoke in very positive terms about how and when blind people would be given access to the mobility component rather than whether they would. The new clauses offer a perfect answer to both those questions. I thank the Clerks and Mr. Speaker for their advice and help with tabling them and for giving them a chance to be considered. It is time for the mobility component of the disability living allowance to live up to its name. It is time for us to right the wrong and to give blind people a chance.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) has put his case very well and powerfully, as he did in Committee, when I was interested to listen to what the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), had to say. The Minister will know that both he and the hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who is in his place and has campaigned on this issue for a long time. The hon. Gentleman was also right to pay tribute to the RNIB for its work, and I know that he has had many meetings with it. It has had a campaign of meetings with Ministers to discuss the issue in great detail, and I, too, have had meetings with it.

We have made it clear in our discussions with the RNIB that we support the proposal in principle and have no objection to it. The stumbling block was always how it was to be financed. Members will know about the state of the nation’s public finances, which was discussed at great length on the previous group of amendments. That has presented the problem of where the money for the proposal will come from. The RNIB has done a good job with the Government of working out a scheme to establish who would be eligible for the increased allowance. That has set out the funding requirements.

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman cut to the chase and tell us whether he and the Opposition will support the new clause in the Lobby tonight if it comes to a vote?

Mr. Harper: I have only just begun, and if the right hon. Lady will allow me, I shall get on with my remarks. Her question will be answered when I get to the end of them.

Paul Rowen: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the nation’s finances, but does he accept that the job of the Government, and even of the Opposition, is to set priorities? If something is just and fair, the money must be found.

Mr. Harper: I am just coming to my remarks about that. The Government accepted that the funding of the change was an issue to consider. The Minister said in Committee:

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It is worth putting on record that he said that the Government estimated that the additional benefit expenditure would be

although he said that the Department estimated that the ongoing costs of administration would fall to about £2 million a year quite quickly. He said that there would be an annual bill of £45 million, which would rise in the years to come, and that funding on such a scale could not be found from the measures in the Bill. He said:

That was in Committee just two weeks ago. He then paid tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West and the RNIB. He said that the Government could not support the new clause at that stage, but that he and the Government would continue to consider the matter. The hon. Gentleman welcomed that.

As late as yesterday, at Work and Pensions questions, the matter of funding for the proposal came up twice. It was raised once by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), who is in his place, and again by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), whom I do not see in his place. The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister to tell the House why the Government had so far not supported the change, and he drew attention to the fact that we would be debating it today when considering the new clause. The Minister said that he was grateful that the matter had been raised, and added that

At that moment, as if by serendipity, in walked the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Minister said that when talking about finance, he was always reassured to see the Chancellor. He then made the case that the Government needed to examine the matter carefully and would continue to work with the RNIB. He said that he hoped to be able to support the measure when resources became available. If the Under-Secretary can make any progress on that today and give us some good news, the position will clearly have changed since yesterday and it would be helpful if he could state whether resources have been made available and from where they have been found.

7.30 pm

When the Under-Secretary was asked in a written question how quickly the change could be made if the Government accepted it, he replied that any change would require a change to the legislation—that is what we are debating—and that time would be needed

He also said that, consequently, the earliest implementation of the proposal, if it were accepted, would be 2010-11. Perhaps when he responds, he will say whether that remains the case. If the Government accept the new clause or find another way of effecting its substance, will that time scale still apply?

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To summarise our position, we have never objected to the principle. Indeed, I have worked closely with the RNIB and we have said that if a way could be found to provide the funding, we would be pleased to do that. To date, the Government have been unable to find the funding—and were unable to do so as late as yesterday. I hope that the appearance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at an opportune moment yesterday might have broken the logjam.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman claiming in all seriousness that the official Opposition, having considered the matter for some time, could not find £47 million of public expenditure for the purpose? Is that the problem?

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman should recognise that, as the official Opposition, we cannot find any money because we are not in government. We do not know the state of the public finances. If we won a general election, we would face a deficit of more than £100 billion in the current financial year, and probably £200 billion next year—the worst public finance figures that the country has faced—and that is only what we are told. When one is in opposition and thinking about how we would behave in government, one has to reserve judgment until we know what we will find.

Roger Berry: The hon. Gentleman is prepared to support substantial tax cuts for the very wealthy, which cost far more than £47 million. Why cannot he find £47 million to help blind people?

Mr. Harper: I have just explained that we have never objected to the proposal in principle. If the Government tell us how they can fund it, and where the money will come from, we will be happy to support it. The hon. Gentleman’s question should be aimed at the Government, who said for several months and years that they supported the proposal in principle but they have not been prepared to find the funding. They are in government and responsible for making decisions today. We may be in government in due course and, when we are, we will be responsible for the decisions.

I have set out our position clearly. Other hon. Members want to speak and we then look forward to listening to the Under-Secretary, who will sum up.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): First, I think that, mischievously, I should declare an interest because I am a vice-president of the RNIB. However, because a couple of people have appeared to stalk me and ring up newspapers in the past four years, I should also declare that I have an alternative method of funding transport. I shall not, at least for the moment, be a beneficiary of any change that the Government may or may not announce tonight.

There has been the most incredible collective campaign that I have experienced for a long time, and I hope that hon. Members forgive me if I embarrass one or two people. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) deserves a medal for his tenacity and commitment, supported ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and many other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). I
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say a big “thank you” to those who have spent years dedicatedly committing themselves to the campaign and ensuring that successive Ministers have got the message and have been able to work on their Treasury colleagues. Above all, I thank the RNIB and all those who have campaigned with it to make the proposal possible.

A listening Government, who are prepared to hear the argument and respond, together with a campaign, which is committed and rational as well as tenacious, can achieve enormous change. I feel it in my bones that tonight we are fulfilling something that Barbara Castle started in the 1970s when Alf Morris campaigned vigorously for the first introduction of mobility support. We seem to make our best announcements in our twilight hours, so it is difficult for anybody to know anything about them. Nevertheless we may be taking a further historic step tonight.

I explain to the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) that, in commending the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who did a sterling job on the matter when she was a Minister, we must recognise that we are not simply scrabbling about to find money to hand something out, but liberating people by enabling them to leave their homes safely and explore not only a social life, but training and get a foothold, before they are entitled to the access to work resources. It also enables them to become more independent and have dignity and mobility. The pay-back over many years will be substantial and allow people, who would otherwise be trapped at home, to have the dignity that those who are mobile through being able to drive a car and who can take advantage of other funding streams have taken for granted for the past 30 years.

Tonight may be an occasion for rejoicing and for saying—I have not said it for a long time—a big “thank you” to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary, not for generosity but for their foresight, and their recognition that a combination of an excellent campaign in the country, the support and tenacity of Back Benchers in all parties and Ministers who are prepared to listen means that we have a Government who will put first, not millionaires, who would benefit from relief on inheritance tax under Opposition proposals, but people who need the liberation of travelling freely, easily and affordably to the sort of places that the rest of us, including me, take for granted. I would like, in advance to say, “Thank you.”

Steve Webb: It would be presumptuous to add much more to the powerful case that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made. The Liberal Democrats support the new clauses. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and I added our names to the amendment that the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) tabled there.

We all remember a cold Westminster Hall, full of RNIB supporters lobbying us. That did not happen just once. Often, there are mass lobbies and the caravan then moves on, to be succeeded by another lobby on another issue in another year. I was struck by the fact that the RNIB came back and said that its members had returned
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to say the same thing because they did not get the answer that they wanted. Perhaps that is a lesson to other campaigning organisations that sometimes they have to repeat the same thing time and again. I recall many letters that I and other hon. Members of all parties wrote to the Department for years, and the replies, which reflected the official position that benefits were paid on the basis not of a condition but its impact, and that the change could not be made. There is a sense from the comments that have been made that a change may be imminent—we all want to hear that.

If, as the Minister said in Committee, funding for the measure will come from elsewhere in the benefits system, I hope that he will be clear about where that will be or about whether he will announce additional funding. I recall some other changes that his Department made that looked good at first sight, but later we discovered the cut that had been made to pay for them. I therefore hope that if the Minister accepts the new clause, he will be up front about whether additional money has been won from the Treasury or whether he will take the money from elsewhere.

There are different definitions of blindness and the sorts of people who might be eligible for the different rates. If the Minister accepts the new clause, I urge him not to draw a new and potentially arbitrary line. I know that such matters are not easy, but I hope that it will be absolutely clear in any regulations that he introduces who is included. Nothing that arises from our debate this evening should lead anyone to think that they have hope, only to find themselves on the wrong side of the line. I hope that he is clear both about who falls within the scope of what he will do and about who is excluded, so that no one who has supported the RNIB, been on a lobby and heard on the radio that the change is being made will find that it has been defined rather narrowly and excludes some people. I hope that he will be absolutely clear about who is covered.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): According to the standard letter from the RNIB to MPs—I was pleased to receive several letters from constituents about this issue, too—the eligible group is to be tightly defined to mean

Is the hon. Gentleman happy with that definition?

Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman has quoted from the RNIB’s letter to hon. Members. The RNIB estimates that 22,000 people will be affected, at a cost of £45 million, which is the sort of figure that has been quoted. If negotiations have gone on behind the scenes involving the RNIB, Ministers and others, as one senses they have, and that is the compromise that the RNIB thinks meets many of its objectives, we just need to be clear about who is inside and who is outside. It would be very sad to get this far only for people with mobility trouble because of sight problems to find themselves just on the wrong side of the line. We need to be clear about that.

I have one more observation. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who speaks for the Conservatives, said that people’s actions in opposition show what their actions in government would be like, and he did just that. We recognise that the public
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finances are difficult, but to govern is to choose. We have heard the priorities that the Conservative party has chosen and the measure that we are discussing is not one of them. Even with the one or two hints—if he had been listening, that is—that he might be able to get it anyway without having to go through the Division lobby, he still did not think that it would be a priority. I hope that the wider public beyond this Chamber will have seen the way a Conservative Government would act.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who moved the new clause, and I hope that the Government will accept it.

Mrs. McGuire: I, too, would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) for tabling new clauses 4 and 10.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). I remember him inviting me to the first lobby in Westminster Hall and his being somewhat surprised that, as the Minister, I actually turned up. We got through that together. He has been tenacious in pursing the issue, as have many of my colleagues, in all parts of the House.

Like the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), I was somewhat flummoxed, surprised and disappointed by the comments of the official Opposition this evening. The equivocation was unnecessary. They have to learn to make the leap from principle to reality. It would not have cost them anything to make that leap this evening.

The case for widening the definition of mobility to refer to those who have no sight has been unanswerable. The exclusion of those who are totally blind from the higher rate of DLA was an anomaly that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West said, was not sustainable. I hope that the painstaking work undertaken by RNIB and DWP officials will pay dividends this evening.

Like others, I want to pay a special tribute to the RNIB, which has headed the campaign. Its campaign was measured and relevant and was sustained over a long period. I should never have been surprised at some of the inventive ways in which the RNIB encouraged us to understand its exact case. Those of us who were at the Labour party conference in Scotland last week went through a maze. Perhaps the Liberal party had already gone through that maze.

Steve Webb: We often find ourselves in a maze.

Mrs. McGuire: The Liberal party is always in a maze, but there we are.

John Robertson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps we should get that very maze into Westminster Hall, in order to give all our colleagues the opportunity to see what it is like to be totally blind?

7.45 pm

Mrs. McGuire: I have already made that suggestion to the RNIB. The maze was a fantastic way of describing, to those of us who have our sight, the difficulties that people who have no usable sight face.

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