HC Deb 28 June 1920 vol 131 cc206-14

Resolution reported,— That it is expedient to make such provision out of moneys provided by Parliament as is required for paying such pensions to blind persons who have attained the age of fifty as, under the Old Age Pension Acts, 1908 to 1919, they would be entitled to receive if they had attained the age of seventy, and any expenses incurred by any Government Department and the expenses incurred by the local pensions committees up to an amount approved by the Treasury in connection therewith in pursuance of any Act of the present Session to promote the welfare of blind persons.

Resolution read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question porposed, "That the House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."


I very much regret that the Government, after the long and important Debate which took place on Friday, have not seen their way to widen this Resolution. The Bill now before Parliament is very much in advance of anything that has yet been done for this unfortunate class; this Resolution gives us a still further opportunity of doing more. The Government respond to arguments put forward that they could not go further than proposed because of the expense. Whether these people were above or below 50 years of age the Government's response for further aid was the expense and the need for economy. This Resolution will absolutely tie us when we come to consider the Bill. Under it it will not be possible to give any pension to any person under 50 years of age, however deserving. The result will be that many blind people will have to go to the Poor Law. I know from long experience that boards of guardians are protesting against this. I appeal to the Government even now so to modify this Resolution that blind people under 50 may obtain their pension, at least if they can show that they are of good character and that they are unable to earn their own living. It is really a scandal, when we are going to attempt to deal with this blind question, if we are going to deal with it in such a way as to leave the blind person whom I have just described to the Poor Law instead of giving him, or her, the pension to be given to the person over 50 years of age. I hope the Government will make this small concession. The amount involved will be very smll, because it is only occasionally that a blind person is unable not to do something; and it will apply to people who have become blind, and perhaps for various reasons, age and what not, are unable to learn a trade. These are the people who will have to go to the Poor Law. If the Government could extend their Resolution to meet these cases it would only be a small additional cost, but it would meet a point of principle upon which there is a very widespread feeling throughout the country that there is no blind person of respect- able character who should be obliged to apply to the Poor Law.


I wish to join in the appeal which has been made to the Government to withdraw this Resolution. The Government say that they are entirely sympathetic towards these appeals, but there is no consistency in the position which they take up. The blind person is equally dependent for support upon others, whether his age is 30, 40 or 50, and therefore the Government have no case. If you admit that the affliction of blindness is worthy of support from the common purse, it is equally necessary before the age of 50 is attained. The Government now fall back upon the calls upon their funds, but the other evening they were quite prepared to ask the House to indulge in an expenditure of £3,000,000 in connection with some fantastic arrangement for the Army. If they can afford to spend a sum like that for dressing the Army in scarlet they can afford a much less sum in order to bring relief and some measure of happiness to those devoid of sight. Therefore, I ask the Government to reconsider the matter. In Committee upstairs our hands are tied in regard to this Money Resolution so far as Amendments are concerned, and we had the same difficulty on the Unemployed Insurance Bill. I appeal to the Government, and to the sympathy which I know that the right hon. Gentleman possesses, to reconsider the matter, and to see if the Treasury cannot find a few thousand pounds more which are necessary to bring comfort to those who are so deserving.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I am rather interested to know who is representing the Treasury. I see the Patronage Secretary present and also one of His Majesty's Household, but I do not see any representative of the Treasury. I see the Lord Privy Seal and the Leader of the House, and I wish to ask them if something can be done to give some assurance that the Government are going to deal with the blind under the age of 50. On a former occasion the Government were kind enough to closure me when I was making that point, and at that time the Parliamentary Secretary gave a broad hint that it was difficult at that moment to make any declaration to relieve our anxieties and wishes on this sub- ject of the blind. There has since been time to consider the matter, and I hope the Lord Privy Seal can now give us some sort of assurance that this matter is going to be dealt with. The hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Williams) spoke of blind people being able to earn some sort of livelihood, but owing to the economic conditions of to-day that is just what they cannot do. It is a fact that blind people who, before the War, could earn some sort of a living by making mats and brushes cannot do so now owing to the rise in the cost of living and the fact that there are many more people to-day doing that sort of work. The cost of living has gone up, but owing to some economic cause that I cannot understand, the prices of the articles which blind people make have not risen.


I am sorry to contradict the hon. and gallant Gentleman, but that is only partly true.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I know my hon. Friend has taken very great interest in the blind. He is the Secretary of a small Committee, of which I am a member, who try to help the blind, but I have it from the officials of the Blind Union that is the case, and they give me facts and figures. I admit that it may be only partially true, but the fact remains that many blind men and women who could keep body and soul together before the War are finding the greatest difficulty now. Under these circumstances, it is perfectly iniquitous to limit it to 50 years of age, and I draw the attention of the House to the extraordinary meanness of the way in which the pension, which at best is only 10s., is limited when the blind person, through some legacy, charity, or his own exertion, has some small income. A person who has 5s. 6d. per week only gets 8s. Is that the sort of treatment we want to give to our unfortunate fellow citizens who have lost their sight? As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson) pointed out, we can contemplate spending £3,000,000 on military vanities and fineries, and we can spend enormous sums on commitments abroad for most questionable purposes to which, I believe, the great mass of the people are opposed. I particularly refer to our terrific expenditure in Mesopotamia. We are spending millioms out there and on housing and land schemes, and now, when appeals are made from all parts of the House for a little more generosity towards the blind, we are told that the country cannot afford it. It is pitiable hypocrisy; it is meanness of the worst description; and, as I voted against this Resolution on Tuesday, I shall certainly vote against it to-night on Report.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Dr. Addison)

My hon. and gallant Friend who has just spoken might have made himself a little more familiar with the proposals of the Government which he so freely condemns. I noticed that he had got the amounts wrong, and he was also wrong with regard to the proposals of the Government.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

Might I ask what the right hon. Gentleman expects when he takes the Resolution at ten minutes before twelve o'clock?


I expect an hon. Member who ventures to criticise to inform himself of the proposals. This is one of a number of proposals for the benefit and assistance of blind persons as part of a considered and thought-out scheme which is indicated in the other Clauses of the Bill. For instance, this Resolution relating to blind persons over fifty years of age is founded upon this in the main, that we find that blind persons, as a rule, below the age of fifty, can get the benefits of the training institutions, hostels, homes, and other establishments which the local authorities have power to set up under the other provisions of the Bill, and in respect of which they will receive a grant of 50 per cent. of the expenditure. The concessions which the local authorities can give to blind persons under fifty years of age are only limited by the soundness of the scheme properly approved. Our aim is to assist blind persons to help themselves. There is nothing to prevent the authorities supplementing their earnings. That is the basis of the grant we now give of so much per head for training blind persons, and this fact has been lost sight of entirely in the criticisms to which the House has just listened. A large proportion of the blind of the country are fifty years and over, and all those over can get more than 10s. per week. They are not prejudiced in any way because they may have a private income of a few shillings weekly. The new scheme under which the old age pension may go up to as much as 19s. per week will apply in exactly the same way, and with the same qualifications and the same machinery in every way, to blind persons. This is the first considered scheme for assisting blind persons as a whole. It has been put forward irrespective of party, and it is beside the mark, because it does not do everything in exactly the way hon. Members want, to condemn the whole thing. It is a great advance on anything which any Parliament has ever proposed, and I think we are thoroughly justified in getting this scheme into working order, and in seeing what facts may be revealed and how the scheme may be strengthened as experience ripens. The great thing is to begin operations.


Will the right hon. Gentleman kindly deal with the point I raised?


I have done so. I pointed out that a blind man under fifty could get training and there were various ways of helping him provided for in the Bill.


But my point was in regard to men who could not be trained and could not possibly earn a living.


If the hon. Member will read the second Clause of the Bill he will see that these people can be dealt with in various ways. The Clause is exceedingly wide.


Perhaps the Lord Privy Seal will tell us something about it. I believe he was not able to be present during the whole of the Debate on Friday, but no doubt he has had a report of it and has been informed that most intense interest is taken in the Bill, that the Debate was prolonged and had to be closured at the finish. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman has been informed that the general opinion was that the Government should reconsider their proposal. It is not suggested that the right hon. Gentleman is not doing all he can on the matter, but there was a suspicion that he was not being backed up as he should be by hon. Members behind. A strong hope was expressed on Friday that the Government would withdraw their Resolution and came forward with more generous proposals. There may be a Division taken on this Report stage, and votes of hon. Members might be affected by the knowledge of the Government's real views. Had they decided that this was the fullest extent to which they could possibly go at this time? If they were told that, then many hon. Members might be induced to vote for the resolution on the principle that a half loaf was better than no bread at all. If we can be assured by the Lord Privy Seal that the Cabinet has given careful consideration to this matter, and had come to the conclusion that this Bill represents the fullest extent to which they are prepared to go, it may induce hon. Members to exercise patience for a further period of time.

Captain W. BENN

It is a pity one point at least has not been more sympathetically considered by the right hon. Gentleman. We realise that a great step forward has been made. The Government has the credit for having made the first comprehensive coherent proposal for dealing with this painful and pitiful subject. But there is one feature about the proposal which is open to grave criticism. In allotting Old Age Pensions, a very rigid inquiry into means is made. That may be very desirable, but the Old Age Pension is in rather a different category from a pension on account of blindness. Is it really necessary that the same very searching questions should be put and the same scale of grading adopted as in the case of the Old Age Pension? I suggested on Friday that if the Government could have seen their way to postpone the consideration of this they might have given us an estimate of the cost. What would be the additional cost supposing you said, "As regards the people who receive the pension we will ask no questions and allot them 10s." Is it a very larger sum? I am very 10th to press for more money, and I am sorry to have to discuss a new annual charge of £250,000 at 12 o'clock. I am sure it was never contemplated under the rules that such a thing should be reserved for midnight discussion. But are we asking for a very large sum of money if we ask for the raising of the inquiry as to means, because if it is a concession which could be made, it would be welcomed, as we welcome the whole proposal as one step in a very desirable direction.


The Minister of Health said Clause 2 gives wide enough powers to deal with the blind under the age of fifty. The Clause merely contains permissive powers for a local council to provide workshops, hostels, houses, or other places. The criticism has been offered over and over again that these are purely permissive powers, that there is every likelihood that local authorities will not be able to finance the schemes, and that we shall get a similar position to what we have had in housing, a difficulty in getting things done, and in reality the powers conferred by Clause 2 are a very poor substitute for what has been asked. The request we make is a very small one. What possible answer can there be to the claim that these people under the age of 50, who cannot earn their living, should have some provision made for them? I am informed by the hon. Member (Mr. Sugden) that the cost would be about £160,000. That is a small matter when weighed with other things, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bonar Law) will give us some assurance on the line that has been asked for, and that provision will be made for this small class of persons.

12 M.


I would join in the appeal to the Leader of the House. I took some part in the discussion on Friday, and moved the closure which secured the passage of the Resolution after making a very earnest appeal to the hon. Gentleman in charge that the Government might take a more generous view of this particular part of the Bill. I think we should all go home somewhat happier and more contented in our minds if he would say that the Government would reconsider the matter, and at the earliest possible moment see if they could make a more generous contribution.


I know every hon. Member is as sympathetic to the blind as anyone else. There is no question of want of sympathy on any side of the House. I should like to press on the right hon. Gentleman whether he could not enlarge the Financial Resolution somewhat. I imagine the whole object is to bring into the scope of the Bill blind people under the age of 50 who cannot maintain themselves. I am the last person to advocate any extravagant expenditure which would entail increased cost on to taxpayers or ratepayers, who at present have very heavy duties and responsibilities placed upon them. In my opinion, the maintenance of the blind is not a question for the localities, but for the whole nation, and therefore it is not really extravagance. The money has to be found. The ratepayers cannot pay more to maintain these people, and someone must maintain them. If the scope of the Resolution could be so enlarged, the Government might later on bring before the House a measure which would more adequately meet the demand.