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Over the past two and a half years, the RNIB has argued its case with great clarity, with both individual MPs and Ministers. As my hon. Friend said, the RNIB
has gathered a degree of support in the House that is probably without parallel in recent years. Let me say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope that the RNIBs perseverance will pay off tonight.
The measure before us is the right thing to do and it could make a difference to the lives of many people. I hope that we are all in politics to do those two things. This evening we have an opportunity to do both: to do the right thing and to make a difference to the lives of those people who have no sight.
Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): When I entered the House in 1983, there was no mobility allowance for blind people, who were not regarded as having a sufficient defect. The fact that they could walk for 25 yd disqualified them entirely from any form of mobility allowance. They did not necessarily know where they were walkingthey might be walking into dangerbut still they were excluded.
I first became aware of the situation through lobbying by the RNIB. The RNIB has been persistent and energetic, and we can only commend its resolution over a long period. I first started lobbying on the issue in the 1980s. I was pleased in 1992 when we achieved a minor victory, in that the lower rate of mobility allowance was accorded to blind people. I was of course disappointed that we did not get the higher rate and the issue seemed to become unfinished business. Even as we speak it remains unfinished business, although I hope that it will shortly be unfinished no longer.
I am still concerned that the criteria being imposed are severe. However, I am delighted that more than 20,000 blind people will benefit, and if the measure is a success, there may be an incentive for hon. Members to look a little further.
People have asked how the measure will be paid for. The fact that more than 20,000 blind people will be able to get to work, instead of being trapped in their homes, may mean that quite a considerable amount of money will flow into Her Majestys Treasury, from the tax on their earnings and from their contributions towards social security. Perhaps that is the pot of gold that has been uncovered by the Chancellor, but I hope that it will be a bigger pot than he realises. Indeed, I suspect that it will be, because there is an enormous amount of determination and talent among blind people. Given that they will be released much more into the world of work, we may be surprised at how much is produced by their efforts. That might encourage the House to go a little further with the criteria at some future date, because that would be seen to be a positive move that produces more than it costs. That is my hope, but in the meantime, I join everyone else in congratulating all the Members on both sides of the House who have worked so hard to get an agreement that this should be done. I hope that the Government now will ensure that it is done.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I, too, would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) for tabling the new clauses. As everyone else has said tonight, it is self-evident that those who have limited mobility because of their sight impairment should qualify for the higher rate of the mobility element of the disability living allowance.
About two years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) and I were lobbied in his office by two of the workers at Glencraft in my constituency. Glencraft is the name of what used to be known as the old blind workshop. The two blind men came along to lobby us because they were keen that we should turn up to the RNIB lobby in London that they could not attend. They were obviously in the vanguard of the RNIB campaign. It was the first that I had heard of the campaign. It was their tenacity, and the tenacity and clarity of the argument of the RNIBto which my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) referredthat persuaded a number of us to pursue the issue. At the time, I think that I said something that I often say to constituentsI cant promise anything, but well see what we can do. We will certainly lobby the Government, but dont get your hopes up. I hope that the Government have now listened to the arguments and decided that it is right that someone who finds it difficult to get around because of their sight impairment should qualify for the higher rate of the mobility element of the DLA.
I suppose that I should admit that I am one of the lucky ones who qualify for the higher rate of the mobility element of the DLA because I cannot walk. That might come as a surprise to some of the people round here as I mow them down with my electric wheelchair. Because of the definition in the present legislation, I qualify for the higher rate, as does anyone who needs a wheelchair to get around. However, there has always been an anomaly, in that someone who is severely sight impaired does not qualify because they can physically put one leg in front of the other. As I often say, however, there are different ways of getting around, and it is how we get around that matters, and not necessarily the mode of transport involved.
I hope that the Government will see sense tonight. The two blind men who came to see my hon. Friend and me a couple of years ago are in work, and they know, more than anyone, the importance of work to their sense of well-being. If this Welfare Reform Bill is about anything, it is about getting people who have been dislocated from the world of work for years back into work. It is therefore right and proper that this provision should be part of the legislation. Seventy per cent. of blind people do not have a job. That cannot be right, because we know that they are capable of work in a whole range of areas. I heard that, as part of Comic Relief, the person who won the prize for stand-up comedy was Peter White, the broadcaster. I heard him tell a joke that there was an argument in the blind community about whether one should have a stick or a dog. His answer was, You get the stick, you throw it away, then you get the dog.
We know that blind people can work, and we need to give them the support that they need to ensure that their lives are liberated and that they can enjoy the fruits of their labour. One of the ways of doing that is to ensure that they can get around, and the main factor in allowing them to do that is ensuring that they qualify for the upper rate of the mobility element of the DLA. I hope that the Government have listened. This has been a long campaign, but Members on both sides of the House have signed up to it. It is a worthy cause, and it is one that the Government should support.
Sammy Wilson: I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on tabling the new clause, and I should like to indicate my full support, and that of my party, for the campaign he has waged. Everyone in the House has been very successfully lobbied by the RNIB, and I know that it has been equally active in Northern Ireland. The present situation has been described as an anomaly by a number of hon. Members, but I think that it goes beyond an anomaly. There is great unfairness in the current provisions, which results in great injustice. I think we have all listened to what members of the RNIB have said, and to our constituents.
I have experienced at first hand the impact that the loss of sight can have on a family member, when my father lost his sight as a result of diabetes. It was only when I saw it close up that I realised how foolish the mobility rules were. Of course he was perfectly capable of walking around; he was still fit enough to do that. However, his lack of confidence, his loss of independence and his need for support meant that he was as tied as someone who could no longer walk. The House has been done a great service by those who have highlighted the needs of these peopleespecially those who have been used to having their eyesight and who have suddenly lost itand the impact that this can have on them.
John Barrett: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the sense of unfairness felt by those who are visually impaired stretches to the wider public, who have always regarded it as unfair that visually impaired people did not get this benefit? If the Bill is passed tonight, it will not just be the recipients who will say that that is fair; the general public will also say that it is a long overdue correction of a clear unfairness.
Sammy Wilson: The very fact that this measure has gained such widespread support across the House shows that we are aware that this is the feeling not only of those constituents who have lost their sight, or never had it, but of the many constituents who help us to recognise the unfairness and injustice that exists. That is the first reason we need this change: it will right an injustice in the existing system.
The second reason is that, despite all the arguments that such a measure would open the floodgates and set a precedent, it applies only to a fairly tightly defined group. Some Members feel that the definition accepted by the RNIB is too tight. We have a fairly good idea of the numbers involved, and it is unlikely that other people with the same impairment would be able to hook on to any change by the Government on this issue. So the fact that the measure will not open the floodgates, and that it will not set a wider precedent, is a second reason the Government could, and should, accept the new clause.
The third reason is the cost involved. There has been wrangling over the cost, and that has been unfortunate. Given the budget for welfare provision, it should be possible to find the necessary £44 million or £45 million, even by prioritising how we spend money. And, as other Members have pointed out, there will be benefits involved. For many young people who have lost their sight, and with it their confidence and independence, the very fact that they can get financial support that could enable them to go out and do a job will have a positive impact on the public finances.
The last reason is that the Government are halfway there already. In fact, they are more than halfway there. Ministers have accepted the idea and have no objection in principle; they are sympathetic to the call for change; they are committed to making this an urgent priority; and they wish to continue to work with the RNIB. Ministers have almost got there, so I suppose the call from this House tonight is: undo the injustice, take the last step and accept the new clause.
Roger Berry: I will not detain the House long, as I have very little to add to what has already been said. I would certainly like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on tabling the two new clauses, which I strongly support. I very much hope that the Government will accept them. I also thank others who have been named for their strong support for this reform.
This is essentially a matter of greater social justice and greater equality. As Members supporting the new clauses have said, it makes no sense to recognise the mobility problems of someone who cannot physically walk, without giving equal recognition to the mobility problems of people who cannot get around owing to loss of sight. Both groups of people face barriers to free movement. Many of us who spoke on Second Reading made that very point. We made it in the context of the Bill for reasons other than just social justice, because employability issues are also relevant.
Both groups to which I referred face barriers that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), a long-term supporter of these changes, rightly said have a direct and negative impact on employability and their right to control their lives. Two thirds or between 60 and 70 per cent. of people with sight loss and of working age are not in work. As many organisations, including Leonard Cheshire Disability, have pointed out, these people face huge barriers, not least in relation to transport difficulties. We in the House do not need to look at the statistics to realise that, as we meet constituents every week, including those with sight loss, who face problems accessing public transportand of course this is a problem that affects work. It is hardly surprising that visually impaired people are the group most likely to miss job interviews or to be unable to take up offers of employment because of transport difficulties.
Let us consider the proposed changes. I accept that £29 is significant, but it is hardly a massively generous amount. It will make a significant contribution to improving peoples mobility, but it will still leave many people facing real challenges if they have to go to work five days a week or just participate as members of society without going to work five days a week. They will still face real challenges, as £29 is not everythingbut it is significant.
I do not know for sure, but there appears to be a consensus this evening. No one has said anything to me, but there seems to be a feelingsorry, Ministerthat the Government might be inclined to support the new clauses. As others have pointed out, we have had supportive statements from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), and, indeed, from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, so if the Government accept the new clauses, I believe that they should be congratulated on listening and acting accordingly.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People has been working on this issue for a considerable period and it deserves very enthusiastic congratulations on what it has achieved by working with the Department for Work and Pensions officials and Ministers. It has developed the details of its case, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) has pointed out, over a significant period, so it really deserves our congratulations.
Finally, no one should be cavalier about spending an extra £45 million a year, but given the level of public spending and given that the official Opposition are happy to make a commitment that would help millionaires pay substantially less inheritance tax than they do today [Interruption.] Yes, certainly billionaires as well. It does seem a little odd if tax commitments of that kind, which are far more expensive than this one, can be made, but we cannot support this proposal, which would allow people with sight loss to participate more equally in society. I genuinely cannot understand the Oppositions priorities; they are certainly not mine. I know that they are not in government, so I very much hope that our Government will support the new clauses this evening.
Mr. Hollobone: It must be a terrible thing to be blind, and I have no hesitation whatever in supporting the new clauses proposed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). I have been hugely impressed by the number of representations I have received from blind people in the Kettering constituency. Although there are lobbies of this place every week on different issues, I am sure that every Member will have been impressed by the number of blind people who made their way to this place in very difficult circumstances to lobby their Member of Parliament.
I would hate to be blind. I would never want even to imagine it, but some years ago I was led round the centre of the town of Rothwell in my constituency by members of Rowell Lions cluban organisation that has played a leading role in supporting blind people and was one of the instigators of the white stick campaign. They gave me a white stick, blindfolded me and escorted me around Rothwell, which I know extremely well. With a blindfold, however, and unable to see anything at all, suddenly that Rothwell was a very different place. Suddenly, I was hearing things I had never heard before and smelling things I had never smelt before. That hour spent in Rothwell brought home to me how awful it must be to be in darkness or semi-darkness 24 hours a day.
I know that if my Kettering constituents were asked whether they would want me to support these new clauses, they would overwhelmingly say yes, and that is what I intend to do, but I very much hope that it will not come to a vote. I hope that Her Majestys Government will accept the new clauses so that we do not have to go through the Division Lobby. In calling for the Government to accept the provisions, I must say that they could have included them in the initial draft of the Welfare Reform Bill when it was first brought to this House. In a way, it is a shame that it has taken the huge efforts of everyone who signed the early-day motion, of the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West, of the RNIB and of others to reach this debate, especially when the Government could have included the provisions in the Bill at an earlier stage.
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I join everyone else who has spoken this evening in paying great tribute to the tenacity of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and also to that of the RNIB. I and fellow Fylde MPs were similarly lobbied in a sustained fashionand quite rightly solast October.
Tonights discussion about making a change to the disability living allowance is interesting if we reflect on the number of times we have had discussions in our constituency surgeries about DLA issues, and how often we have had to explain that it is not an automatic benefit. It is something given to people to allow them to get on with their lives despite their disabilities. It is an empowering and an enabling mechanism. That has been the whole thrust of the RNIBs campaign, which it has put to us as it has to so many others.
Despite the organisational aspects, much of importance of the higher rate mobility component of the DLA comes back to the impact on individuals. I would like to speak briefly about one of my constituents, Carole Holmes, who is the chairman of the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Society for the Blind. She is, in fact, the first visually impaired chairman of that society in its history. Last week she came to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE medal for her services to visually impaired people. Let me share with the House what she wrote to me and, indeed, wrote in her local newspaper, in explaining why the change was so important. She wrote:
I am blind and a guide dog owner. Some years ago I was mugged at a railway station by 3 men. Ive also had accidents and injuries when trying to get about with my guide dog. Im unable to use public transport to reach some of the venues that I visit regularly... I need to use taxis as these venues are not on a bus route... If I had the higher rate of mobility component of Disability Living Allowance... I would spend it on taxis.
I would be pleased to be putting something back into the economy while feeling a lot safer.
I... enjoy visiting the theatre... attending monthly book clubs and W.I. meetings. As most of these social activities are in the evening, once again I need to use taxis as the buses only run every half hour and are not always reliable. These days I dont feel safe stood at bus stops after dark.
That is just one individuals experience, but it has been replicated in the numerous representations received by many Members on both sides of the House in the last few months. I knownot least because I heard what he said to the lobby last autumn, and not least because of his sensitive and sympathetic response to my Adjournment debate on Workstep a few months agothat my hon. Friend the Minister has inherited from my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) the honourable tradition of thinking long and hard about these issues, and caring about them deeply. I hope that, on the basis of the strong and persuasive arguments advanced by Members in all parts of the House, the Government will feel able to proceed with this matter.
I dont want to climb mountains. I just need it to get on with my life and be safe.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) for tabling the new clauses, andlike others, I suspectby congratulating one or two people who have been at the forefront of a campaign which has undoubtedly been led by the RNIB. It has not been just a campaign, though; it has been a campaign with a robust strategy behind it. This issue was never going to go away, and it needed to be addressed. I thank those at the forefront of the campaign, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)and it would of course be remiss of me not to mention the robust approach of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who did so much to ensure that we would reach this stage. If this were a race, I sincerely hope that what stands before us this evening would be the last hurdle.
Along with a small group of Back-Bench colleagues, I went to see the then Minister with responsibility for disability, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). We emerged from that meeting with the impression that the door was at least partly open, and I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that she has done. Perhaps I should also thank officials in the Department. Although any decision made this evening will be a political decision, I assure the House that those officials have been working in the background, examining the policy that so many of us would like to see in operation. They workedI was about to use unparliamentary language, Mr. Deputy Speakervery hard indeed to take us to this point.
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