HC Deb 23 May 1924 vol 173 cc2567-613

Order for Second Heading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

In so doing, I feel assured that I shall have the sympathy and support of all hon. Members in every part of the House. This question of the welfare of the blind lends itself to a great deal of sentimental talk, and I desire to preface my remarks to-day in support of this Bill by a quotation from the speech of the hon. Member for North Salford (Mr. Tillett) in moving the Second Reading of the 1920 Bill. He then said: I hope that there will be no debauch of maudlin sentiment, but I feel sure that every Member of the House feels profoundly in the depths of his heart a great pity … for those who are afflicted by … blindness."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 12th March, 1920; col. 1695; Vol. 126.] Any opposition to this Bill is coming from what are called voluntary organisations. I am not going to say a single word against those organisations. Rather would I to-day pay a tribute of gratitude and thanks to those citizens of good-will who have in the past, at least prior to 1920, taken a deep interest in the welfare of the blind. It is not my intention to say a single word against the work that they have carried through, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay a tribute to the memory of one who, by his own life's example and by his determination, did more, perhaps, for the blind people of this country than any other single individual. I refer to the life and work of the late Sir Arthur Pearson. But the discussions during the progress of the 1920 Bill in this House made it perfectly clear that, if the blind were to be looked after in the manner in which we believed they ought to be looked after, an alteration would have to take place in the law, and I shall argue today that while the 1920 Act was a step in the right direction, it has failed, in so far as the well-being of the blind is concerned.

I am going to give several cases—and I have had hundreds brought to my notice—which will prove, I think, con- clusively that there is something more to be done, and I am moving the Second Reading of this Bill in the hope that, instead of the welfare of the blind being left either to voluntary organisations or to municipalities or local authorities in an optional way, we shall now, under this amending Bill, make it compulsory upon local authorities to interest themselves to a greater extent than ever in the welfare of the blind. The 1920 Act has done a remarkably good work, but I am going to give three cases which will show that if we are going to do a real service to the blind this amending Bill is necessary. Here is the case of a man in London. I will give the name and address of this man to any hon. Member who desires them. I have done my best to prove the truth of the statement, and I believe on my honour that it is true. This man lost his sight at 40. He applied for relief to the National Institute for the Blind and was sent to an institution at Plymouth to be trained as a basket maker. He was in the Plymouth institution for four years, separated from his wife all that-time. He was then sent back to London, and when he arrived in London he told his wife that all was well, as he had been assured that the superintendent from the home works department would call at his home immediately, and that financial assistance would be given to them. The superintendent did not call for three weeks, and for a period of eight months payments were made to this man amounting, in some weeks to 5s., and then a stoppage for a period, and then a payment of 10s., and after eight months of this kind of life, work was found for him, but, owing to the fact that his health had been ruined by the worry and care of those eight months, he was unable to continue to work in the new job that was found for him, with the result that in four weeks he had a complete breakdown. He is now an inmate of an asylum, and his wife is in receipt of 10s. per week.

Here is another case which will show that under the present Act there is no uniformity. It will show that in the one institution where inmates come from different local authorities, and under their augmentation scale, two men may be working together, doing the same class of work, producing the same quantity of work, and yet there will be a difference in their wages at the week's end of from 5s. to 10s. This happens in the Wakefield institution, and it is quite a common thing for cases of that kind to take place. I would appeal to hon. Members of this House that there must be great feeling amongst the blind persons, just as there is among men who have their sight in the workshop, where one man, producing the same kind of work as his fellow, receives less, and a Bill such as is proposed to-day, establishing, as that Bill proposes to do, a minimum rate of wages which must be paid to a blind worker is the only method of dealing with this difficulty.

The next case to which I want to refer is one that will rather shock Members of this House. It is the case of a young woman, the daughter of an official of one of our lunatic asylums, a blind person, working in an institution in Oxford. She tells me in this letter, her own letter, with a covering letter by the father, that she works twelve hours per day, and a part of Sunday, and she receives at the end of the week 3s. 6d. Surely there is something wrong. I have hundreds of cases of that kind, but I will not weary the House with them. The hon. Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor), spoke very eloquently on behalf of blind persons when the 1920 Bill was being considered, and I am going—I hope it is the only sentimental part that will appear in my remarks—to ask the House to think of the case that happened in one of His Majesty's dockyards a few weeks ago. The "Hermes" was under construction, the hose pipe was being placed in position, and workmen were engaged laying it down to its base. A slip took place. One man was struck between the eyes, on the bridge of the nose. His eyes were driven from their sockets. He appealed to God, not because of the loss of his sight. He said, "Oh God, where are my pals?" He was more concerned about his fellowworkers than himself, and, surely, in appealing to this House, we must recognise that these blind people are our pals and our brothers and sisters, and if this Bill is going to bring any betterment and happiness in their lives, I am confident I am not appealing to this House in vain.

I come to the statistics dealing with the blind, and here I have conclusive evidence that this Bill is necessary. The total number of blind persons in England and Wales is 36,518. The number of blind persons between birth and 16 years of age is 2,954. The number of blind persons between the years of 16 and 30 is 3,463, and—this is important, because the Bill proposes to bring down the pensionable, age, if I may put it that way, from 50 to 30—the number of blind persons between the ages of 30 and 50 is 8,059. Between the ages of 50 and 70, the number is 12,397. On the 21st December last year there were 10,486 blind persons in receipt of the old age pension. The point I want to make here is that the increased charges would not be so very heavy, after all, because the Bill provides for greater facilities for training, and for better physical conditions of the blind person, and, in those circumstances, there would be a large number of people who would not even desire to have the old age pension if that were left to themselves.

There is another point, and it is very important. The number of children born blind, and who go blind up to the age of one year, is 5,979. Those of us who take an interest in this question believe that, because of the great advance that has been made through the Health department of the Government in regard to one of the diseases that is responsible, to a very large extent, for blindness in the human race, and by the active assistance of the Health departments under the different local authorities, and the splendid work done by the medical authorities in this country, we can reasonably expect that the number of such cases will be largely reduced in the future. I have on many occasions presided over meetings addressed by professors and eminent medical men in the City of Glasgow. I know the work they are doing there, and in every part of the country, and I am hopeful that the result of that work will mean that in the future there will be fewer blind persons. I come to the employment aspect, and this also shows the necessity for this Bill. There are to-day, from 16 years and upwards, 8,235 employed blind persons. There are trained, but unemployed—and here is a reason for this Bill—880. Under training there are only 1,246 in the whole of England and Wales. Surely there is something wrong. I think, when I put the whole figures before the House, the House will agree that this Bill is necessary. The number not trained, but trainable, is 889. The number of unemployed blind between the ages of 30 and 70 is 20,759.

I believe that the Second Reading of this Bill will be carried, and I am going to ask the Government—the Labour Government—to give every facility for the passing of this Bill. For 20 years, at every annual congress and conference, this proposal has been unanimously carried. Every Labour organisation in this country again and again has declared for a Bill of this kind, and not only Labour organisations, but organisations of all political parties. Within the last week, I have had letters sent to me from religious organisations and industrial organisations hoping that I shall be successful in carrying this Bill. Surely it is not too much to ask a Labour Government, that above all other Governments have declared themselves in favour of a Measure of this kind, to give every facility to the Bill, in the hope that we may bring some brighter times to the blind people; bring a happier outlook to those who live in eternal darkness. If we can do anything that will help them it is our duty to do it.


I beg to second the Motion.

I wish to express my gratitude to the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Tradeston Division (Mr. T. Henderson) for having done me the honour to ask me to support the Second Reading of the Bill. This is a matter upon which all parties in this House will very willingly co-operate, and it is an interesting sign of the increasing and quickened consciousness of the duty of the State towards the less fortunate members of the community that such a Bill should be discussed in the British Parliament. If the House glance at the history of charitable effort and State care for the less fortunate members of the community, it will be bound to come to the conclusion that, very largely, up to date the community has taken action as a community only in the cases where it was necessary that such action should be taken to protect the community itself, that is to say, we make it a public charge that certain infectious diseases should be treated in a certain way. We put upon public funds the care or keeping of the insane, but for the large mass of those who suffer from disease, illness, and disability there is no such provision made. Many things might be said about blind persons in this country, but I think it is true to say that they are not more offensive or more objectionable than any other class of the community, so that there is no necessity for the State to protect itself against the blind. I am glad to think that in this Bill the State is doing that which is a realisation of its duty to the blind, and in no sense because of danger or the need for self-protection.

The Mover of the Second Reading referred to the work done in this country by the late Sir Arthur Pearson. I very cordially endorse what he said upon that subject. I should like, however, to say one of the great arguments in favour of this Bill that it is good business to train blind people in the very best possible way. That, I think, was the greatest contribution that Sir Arthur Pearson made to the welfare of the blind in this country. He said to the public: "We are grateful for charity, we are grateful for compassion, but what blind people really need is neither charity nor compassion but a fair chance; the opportunity of training and equipping themselves to fight the battle of life, which they have to do under peculiarly difficult circumstances. It is very important that all who are able to profit by industrial and other training should receive it.

Blind persons in this country fall into two categories. The one is that where they are unemployable, because many blind people surfer not only from blindness but from some other disease or disability, and for them little can be done than to make things as pleasant as possible for them through life. That, I think, will be achieved to a very great extent by the Clause in the Bill which seeks to confer pensions upon blind persons at the age of 30. There is, however, a very large class of these people whose only disability is the lack of sight. There is no doubt that such people can be trained to be useful and self-supporting citizens. That is the great lesson that was taught to the people of this country by Sir Arthur Pearson through the agency of St. Dunstans. I am perfectly well aware that, through St. Dunstans, he was dealing with a specially-selected class of men who are not comparable to the blind people in this country as a whole, men who were physically fit; that is to say men who had been physically fit before they suffered from the war. But the success achieved by these men under the difficult circumstances has been extremely remarkable.

I do not know if the House is aware of the various trades and occupations for which soldiers blinded in the war have been fitted by St. Dunstans. A very considerable number of officers and men are now engaged in the highly-skilled occupation of masseurs, and, incidently are making very good incomes. There is this remarkable thing about that particular class of men at St. Dunstans that they submitted themselves to the same technical and professional examination as is undergone by sighted people, the percentage of failure was negligible; and at least on one occasion—I think my recollection is correct a blinded soldier from St. Dunstans came out at the head of the list of candidates who sat at that particular examination A certain number of men have also been trained as shorthand typists. It may be hardly believable, but I assure hon. Members that that is the case, and that some of the men have become quite expert shorthand typists. A very large number have been trained in manual classes such as basket-making, netting, carpentry and so on. The whole object has been to put them in the position of earning their own living, or, in the case of the pensioned soldiers, of supplementing their pensions and giving them an interest in life. I believe in regard to the civilian blind that if they had been able to take advantage of the same opportunities that it would have been, and will be very good business for this country. The expenditure, I believe, would not be very large. But two or three things for the success of these efforts are essential. I myself attach very great importance to the co-ordination of charitable workers that has been going on, and to the provision of central institutions wherever these are required.

One of the great difficulties about sending blind persons from the country districts into the towns to be trained is the difficulty of securing decent and adequate accommodation. It is one of the unfortunate conditions of their life that they are nearly all poor, and for those who are going in for this training accommodation is not only costly but it is very difficult to get it. It is not every blind person who is welcomed as a lodger by all sorts of people. In fact, I should say that while all men are considered, in certain circumstances, to be a nuisance about the house, the blind person is particularly so In addition to that difficulty, even if you do find accommodation for the man or the woman, they are in a strange town, amongst strange people and are more lonely than anybody can imagine. If we could have a hostel where these people could live together, where they could be looked after, and where the conditions would be made to suit their peculiar circumstances, it would be an enormous advantage. Again, having trained these people and helped them to do all possible for themselves it will be absolutely necessary to institute and carry on, even more than is done at the present time, the after-care of the blind. That is highly important, because it is a curious thing that a blind person, however skilful he may be, is apt to become—shall we say—careless about his work. At all events defect is apt to creep into his work, and it is a very strange thing that unless that defect is remedied immediately, it goes on and increases, and the work deteriorates. It is absolutely necessary to have an after-care department to supervise and help these men in their work. It is necessary to help them in other ways. They should be comfortably looked after while undergoing training and afterwards they should be looked after by competent inspectors.

Like the mover of this Bill—whose speech I very greatly admired—I am not going to use any sentimental arguments. In this matter, I think, we have a responsibility, and we should all be very glad to think that every blind person in this country was being well looked after. I am sure there is nothing more distressing to any decent person than to come into contact with some blind person in the street who looked wretched, and I am sure it would be a very great comfort to us if we could think that when we were faced with such a spectacle we knew that proper accommodation had been provided, and that the State had assumed its full responsibility in this matter. There may be some minor criticisms which can be levelled against the Bill, but I am sure the mover will be glad to have them considered in Committee. I hope we shall give a Second Reading to this Measure, because I know its fate is being watched with interest by a very large number of people in this country at the present moment.


I rise to support very warmly the Bill which has been introduced by the hon. Member for Tradeston (Mr. T. Henderson). Hitherto questions affecting the blind have been approached from the standpoint of sympathy, but I think it can be safely said now that the blind have made good, and have shown themselves capable of becoming useful citizens. So that it is really also an economic policy that everything possible should be done to improve the condition and the efficiency of the blind. Many blind people too often believe that they are regarded as objects of charity. It is highly desirable that this stigma of pauperism should be removed, and that they should be enabled to feel an amour propre which will enable them to become still more diligent, ambitious and useful. I hope Parliament will be able to provide for them in this way. Certain agencies have been alluded to in this Debate in connection with clinics where children are sent from the very earliest period of their lives, and where that very dreadful scourge of ophthalmia neonatorum is very carefully treated, and blindness prevented. The work of some of these agencies is admirable, and the Ministry of Health deserves great credit and encouragement for what they have accomplished. The training in this department of the work of the blind has received a powerful impetus in recent times by the large number of men who have been blinded in the War in defence of their King and country. Quite a variety of occupations have been opened to them. As the hon. Member who seconded the Motion said, the blind have shown themselves very capable in many ways, as in music and other departments of art and trade, in which they have distinguished themselves, and become quite expert. I can testify from personal knowledge as to their reliability in massage and electric treatment. Not only are many of them doing very good work, but they are earning good incomes. I imagine it will be possible for blind people to become extremely useful in connection with the expansion of wireless telegraphy. Another important matter for consideration is the minimum wage, and the wage which is put forward in the Bill is extremely modest. I strongly support the reduction of the pensionable age to 30, and the co-ordination of all agencies that exist for the education of the blind. Many of the blind have shown themselves capable of high attainments and skilled work, and yet they are satisfied with the proposal in this Bill for a minimum wage, which is little better than that of an unskilled labourer. I appeal to the House to pass the Bill with great cordiality as being a means of promoting the welfare of the blind.


They will not only get the average wage of the unskilled labourer, but the old age pension as well.


I believe that is so. But, apart altogether from sympathy, we should view the subject not altogether from purely economical considerations, because the financial outlay will not be very large. County Councils and borough councils I know are very busy, and have plenty to attend to, but this is the work which they should take up with some earnestness; and it would be greatly to the advantage of the community if the Minister of Health would urge county and borough councils in change of the blind to see that there should be facilities for their education and the placing of them in suitable employment. The hon. Member who seconded the Bill urged the importance of after care. There is no doubt that the blind after a certain time do tend to become careless. They have not the critical faculty which comes from sight, and they lose a little by not being able to follow up their work by sight. The after care of these people therefore is very important. I recommend the Bill to the very careful consideration of the House. It is not a political measure in any sense. I would like to acknowledge the kindness, courtesy and patience of the House in listening to the desultory remarks of the first speech that I have been able to make in the House.


I should like to associate myself with the Bill before the House. I certainly think that the mover and the seconder are to be heartily congratulated on bringing this Measure to notice, and I hope that the House will reach an unanimous opinion with regard to the proposal. It is a matter for congratulation that there is a growing sense of communal responsibility with regard to the disabled, the unhealthy, the weak and the blind. It is a sign of the progress that we as a people are making that that sense of communal responsibility is rapidly increasing. I am certain quite apart from sentiment that it is a matter of financial gain to the community that these persons who are hampered in the struggle of life should be made a definite charge upon National Funds. It has to be remembered that the blind person who has no other source of income must be maintained out of the national product even though his income be derived from private charity, and it is in the interests of the charitable themselves that every section of the community should be compelled to pay its contribution towards the maintenance of our poor unfortunate brothers and sisters.

I would like to bring before the notice of the House one of the tragedies which may occur even with excellent institutions existing for the care of the blind. A friend of mine who was extremely anxious to serve in the late War persuaded the military authorities to accept him for military service, despite the fact that one eye was defective. He was taken as an A.1 man in spite of that disability. During service in France, he was struck by a shell splinter which broke his cheek bone and passed under the eye and out by the side of the nose. When he was picked up, it was thought that he would be totally blind. He returned to this country, and he recovered the sight of his eye, and it was then thought that he would return to something like his pre-War condition. Unfortunately, the military-authorities felt that his recovery was sufficient to make it possible for him to be sent to a tropical climate, and, despite the representations which he made, he was sent to Africa for service. I regret to say that that man to-day is almost totally blind and his efforts to secure either a pension or training have been unsuccessful. He failed to secure the pension because the military authorities said that he would have been blind in any case and there was nothing to show that he had been injured in this way by shrapnel; and, despite many months' work on the part of myself and other persons interested, we have been unable to shift that decision.

He went to St. Dunstan's in the endeavour to secure training, but St. Dunstan's said that they regretted they were unable to give him training because he was not a blinded soldier. He said, "I was blinded as the result of a wound received in the war." They replied, "That may have been, but unless you can secure a pension from the Ministry of Pensions you are a blind person who has been a soldier and not a blinded soldier according to the terms of our Trust Deed." The man is quite an exceptional character. Despite the fact that he could not secure training, he has taught himself English and French Braille, Braille shorthand and typewriting. He is a student of quite remarkable capacity, and would shame many more fortunately placed persons with his knowledge of financial and economic problems. Despite that fact, his financial circumstances are of the most difficult character, and I believe that he is having a desperate struggle to maintain life. It is cases of that type which show the necessity for a greater national responsibility with regard to these blind persons, and I earnestly appeal to the House, in the interests of the men like that and in the interests of men and women of a more ordinary type, to make the whole of these cases a national responsibility.


There has not been a jarring note struck during this debate, and I hope that I do not rise to strike one, but I have been asked to present to this House the view of some eminent authorities who are as interested in the blind as any of us. As I understand the Act of 1920, it is the duty of every local authority to prepare a scheme for the maintenance and management of the blind with regard to workshops which will receive the approval of the Ministry of Health. In Scotland—and it is to Scotland that I wish only to refer—a large area in the West has been taken over and is now worked practically through the municipalities, but in the East of Scotland that system is not in existence. The Edinburgh Town Council, on behalf of whom I am asked to speak, and the Advisory Committee on the blind who are part and parcel of the Council, have asked me to present a view to this House, and, if the Bill is altered in Committee in accordance with that view, it will enable them still to carry on the great voluntary work which has been carried on in Edinburgh and the East of Scotland for many years. As the law stands at present, it is necessary for every local local authority to have a scheme. If this scheme be not approved by the Ministry of Health, then the Ministry, as I understand the Bill, can order a scheme to be prepared. At any rate, the Town Council of Edinburgh—and there is a member of that Town Council in this House—have sent to me this Resolution which they desire me to read to the House: That this meeting of the City of Edinburgh Advisory Committee on the Blind views with alarm the provisions of the Blind Persons Act (1920) Amendment Bill, particularly Section 2, and is of opinion that, until the working of the Blind Persons Act, 1920 has had a fair trial, it is inadvisable to proceed with legislation making it compulsory for local authorities to provide workshops and homes for the blind, as this will mean that the care of the blind will be entrusted to Town and County Councils and the existing voluntary agencies for the blind will be superseded. That was passed by the advisory committee of all the institutions in the City of Edinburgh, and it was submitted to a full meeting of the Town Council for their approval or rejection. This is the Minute: The Town Council approved of the foregoing resolution of the Advisory Committee with two dissentients"; and that is signed by the Lord Provost. I put to the representatives of the Edinburgh County Council and the advisory committee for the blind this question—"Are you, in your opinion, doing as good work for the blind under the present local authority's scheme as public authorities are doing in other parts of Scotland where the Act of 1920 has been fully adopted?"—and they answered unanimously, "Yes." Indeed, they told me they thought they were doing more excellent work under the voluntary scheme which they had in operation in Edinburgh than could be done or is being done by any Municipality at the present moment. A well-deserved tribute has been paid to these great associations which have done so much good work, and all I desire to do this morning is to ask the House that, when this Bill goes to a Committee, as I hope it will, some sort of provision may be made whereby, if the Measure becomes compulsory, we shall be able to utilise the services of these men who have devoted so many years to this work. There is one in this House who has devoted his whole life in that part of Scotland to the good of the blind, and I hope that we shall formulate some scheme by which, even if the work is taken over by the Municipalities, we shall still retain the great services of these men who have devoted themselves so much to that work.

12 N.


I rise to support very warmly the Bill which has been proposed and seconded in such appropriate terms. It is one of the remarkable features of this House of Commons that, from one day to another, the heat of controversy and genuine difference of opinion transforms itself into practically unanimous, if not unanimous, support of a great humanitarian principle such as is embodied in this Bill. Whatever may be the difference in outlook between the various parties in the House of Commons, no one of us can claim a monopoly of interest in, and sympathy for, those of our fellow-citizens who happen to be in any way afflicted. Indeed, those great voluntary institutions such as our hospitals and institutes for the blind, which have been supported almost entirely by voluntary contributions—and not only voluntary contributions from the rich, but also from the poor—stand out as living monuments of the kindliness and mutual affection which the British people feel for one another in moments of trouble and distress. But, however great has been the effort of these voluntary institutions, I do not think that they will be able to deal fully with the problem, and I regard this Bill as a first instalment towards the recognition of the responsibility of the State in dealing with the blind and others who are in any way afflicted. Nature, we are told, when one sense has been taken away, quickens and develops the other senses. Whatever may be the reason, it is perfectly true to say that there is no Member of this House who does not admire the tremendously courageous fight for existence which the blind have put up, and, indeed, many blind people have contributed very largely towards the well being of the State. One of the most noted of Welsh preachers was himself a blind man, and we remember that, in the long list of distinguished Postmasters-General, there is no more illustrious figure than that of the blind Postmaster-General, Henry Fawcett.

If I have one criticism to offer on this Bill, it is that it does not go quite far enough. Personally, I would prefer that the age were made 21, and, if there is that unanimous agreement which I think we shall find in this House, I see no reason why, in Committee, we should not go a step farther and make the pensions applicable to the age of 21 instead of the age of 30, as is proposed by the Bill at the present moment. The only argument I have heard against this Bill—not in this House but outside—is that, if you are going to give a pension to a blind person of 30 or 21, why not give a pension to a person who is deaf or lame? But, while we sympathise very deeply with all who suffer from those afflictions, I do not think it can be said quite truly that their case is exactly parallel. They are not shut out from the ordinary avocations of life to the same extent as the blind man. A lame or deaf man can compete very well with those of us who, fortunately, are in possession of our full faculties; and even in cases in which the blind can compete successfully, such as in pianoforte tuning or in occupations which require a special development of the sense of touch, they are still under a great handicap. They cannot get through their work as quickly as a man who has the gift of sight. It takes them longer to get from place to place, and, in cases like that, this pension would come in very usefully in order to bridge the gap which makes the difference between the capacity of the man who has his sight and the man who is, unfortunately, afflicted.

I would place the blind in three categories. My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. F. Martin) put them in two, but I think the blind can be roughly put into three categories in the main, namely, those who work in institutions under the best conditions, those who work on their own account, and those who are in Poor Law institutions. It is estimated that there are about 2,000 in institutions, and that one-half of these, if efficiency were made the real test, would not be able to compete successfully with other people. There is, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member who moved the Second Reading of this Bill, a system of augmentation of wages supplemented by grants-in-aid from the Ministry of Health. But that is perfectly voluntary, and at the present moment the acute industrial depression which is hanging over us makes it impossible for those who are charitably minded to give to the extent that they would otherwise like to give. It is not fair to make these blind people dependent on that voluntary augmentation. Therefore, I say it is time that the State came to the aid of these people, so as to give them that security of livelihood, that security of income, which those of us who have our faculties are always anxious to obtain, and which those who are deprived of one of their faculties ought to have assured to them by the State. If it is bad enough for those employed under the best conditions, how much more deplorable is the lot of the blind man working on his own account? I maintain that the passage of this Bill into law will reflect great credit upon this House of Commons, if we, at this time, while we are immersed in problems which are almost insuperable, can, on a Friday morning, devote some time to the improvement of conditions of life of the blind people in this country. Statistics have already been given, and I am not going to weary the House by a repetition of them. The hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir S. Chapman) mentioned the case of Scotland. I am sure that the Mover of this Bill does not desire its passage into law to interfere with the great work that is being done by voluntary institutions up and down the country. The statistics for Scotland show that there are 5,138 blind people in that country, of whom 1,946 are between the ages of 17 and 50.

The figures which have been given to the House show two things. They show the urgency of the problem from the point of view of the blind people themselves, and they show, also, the smallness of the problem from the point of view of the State. The question of expense always enters into these calculations, but in this case the question is not whether we can afford to do it. The question which occurs to one's mind is whether we can afford not to do it. When one considers the saving in the rates and also that this pension will be the means of stimulating the natural energies and abilities of many of our blind people, I think the money will be well spent. It will not be wasted but will probably earn compound interest in the service of the State. I regard it as a good investment. The only controversial part of the Bill seems to be Clause 2. I am of opinion that up and down the country the county councils will be very glad to co-operate in the scheme which the Bill seeks to impose upon them. The figures for each area are not very important and I have yet to come into contact with any ratepayer who is not willing to put his hand in his pocket if he feels that in so doing he is helping in the advancement of such a good cause as is advocated by this Bill. The country is quite ripe for a change of opinion in the matter. I think the country is gradually awakening to the consciousness that the State must take an increasing responsibility for those who are afflicted, and its passage through this House will show that we are considerate for the well-being of our blind citizens. There are only some 35,000 altogether in England and Wales. I ask the House, and the Government particularly, to make sure that if the Bill receive unanimous support, that in the interest of humanitarianism, in the interest of the well-being of the blind people, they give what facilities are necessary to ensure its speedy passage into law.


I hone I shall not introduce any jarring note, but I want to discuss the Bill from the point of view of the principles which appear to be actually in it, and to ask the House how far what hon. Members have said about the Bill represents what it will do. I think we are all agreed that we wish to do a great deal more for the care of the blind. I think we all agree that we want to have co-ordination of activity, that we want to have a great increase in the aftercare provision for the blind, and I think we are all agreed that we want to provide for the maintenance of those blind persons who come in the first category mentioned by the hon. Member for South Aberdeen (Mr. F. Martin). But those are not the principles contained in this Bill and, so far as I can see, the principles contained in the Bill very largely run counter to those objects which we all desire to attain. I am very sorry that, owing to what was really public business, I was not in the House when the Mover of the Second Reading was speaking though I was present during the greater speech of the Seconder. I have listened to the subsequent speeches and I do not think I shall do any injustice to its authors and promoters. Let us examine the Bill. What is the principle, first of all, of Clause 1? It is that a blind person, whether or not he is able to earn his living, shall receive an old age pension at the age of thirty, because I understand the proviso at the end of the Clause is intended to abolish the means limit altogether. It is not sufficiently well drafted to do it but that is, I gather, its intention. The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Emlyn-Jones) said the only argument which had been adduced against reducing the age for old age pensions in the case of blind persons was that after all there were other people who were afflicted who were just as much entitled to it, and he said after all those other people who are afflicted are very much hindered in competing in the labour market, or whatever it may be. I would ask the hon. Member to go down to the Heritage School at Chenies and look at the cripples there. Does he really think that blind people are nearly as much handicapped in life as those pitiful, I would almost say winnowings of humanity one gets in our physically defective council schools? It really is not so and the great achievement of institutions like the Heritage School is that they get over those handicaps, that they improve them and get out of the child's mind the idea that it is a hopeless handicap. Are you going to attain that object by saying to every blind person, "it does not matter what you do whether you set yourself to earn your living or not, but at thirty you are entitled to an old age pension, whereas the hopeless cripple is not"? I do not object to any State expenditure that is necessary on this scheme. I do not object to reducing the age for old age pensions for blind persons to thirty on the ground of expense, and I am not sure that I object to it at all.


It is not a question of qualification on attaining the age of thirty. There is something more, that a person must at the age of thirty be so blind as to be unable to perform any work to which eyesight is essential.


Yes, that is the definition. It does not mean "is unable to perform any work or earn his living." The whole achievement of the last few years has been greatly to reduce the number of occupations to which eyesight is essential, and that has been the whole history. What I am questioning is whether from the point of view, which after all this House must bear in mind above everything else, of doing justice between man and man there is a case for the blind person at thirty that there is not for any number of other people. [Interruption.] That is another matter. You may pass a comprehensive Bill to extend pensions to all persons who suffer from any handicap at all. It is rather absurd to call them old age pensions if you do. You are getting into a state of piecemeal legislation which is almost as a reductio ad absurdum. That is a minor question, but at present one says to the blind person—and I think if you say it to the blind person you ought to say it to others—that if he has attained the age of thirty, and is not able to earn his living, it is obvious that he never will be and therefore you can give an old age pension quite justifiably. It may be true to say that, if a blind person is not earning his living by the age of thirty he will never be able to do it, but I do not think: it necessarily is by any means, and in many cases it is not more true of a blind person than of anyone else. That is the principle of the first Clause and it raises a very wide question of justice which this House ought very carefully to consider.

Let me go a little further. This so-called old-age pension at thirty is to be paid irrespective of the person's means altogether. He may be earning quite a good livelihood, as many blind people are, is still to receive the old age pension. Will the House please take that in connection with the last two paragraphs of Clause 2? A person who is so blind as not to be able to do work for which eyesight is essential, is going to receive an old-age pension, and in the last two paragraphs of Clause 2, if he is employed in a workshop set up by a local authority or has been trained by a local authority and passed the apprenticeship stage, and is at work, he is in a position through his old-age pension to receive the average unskilled rate for the district, the district, by Clause 3, being defined as the county or county borough concerned.


Is the Noble Lord not aware that when a blind person has served his apprenticeship, he has been called upon to work for 8s. 3d. a week? Does he not in those circumstances require an old-age pension?


I do not quite under stand the hon. Member. He says that in the past—


I say now.


The hon. Member says that even now, blind persons have been working for as little as 8s. 3d. a week, and that, therefore, they need an old-age pension in addition. I certainly agree, but I am talking about what the hon. Member is doing in his Bill. He is providing that these blind persons shall not only get 8s. 3d. a week, but that they shall get the average unskilled rate for the district and an old-age pension as well.


Some little alteration may be necessary in the Committee stage, I quite admit that.


I do not think that a little alteration will quite meet the point. What is the average unskilled rate for a county like Warwickshire? It is. I suppose, something like 40s. a week. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, 30s."] I will take any figure which hon. Members like to suggest. [HON. MEMBERS: "Say 40s."] We will take the figure as 40s., for the sake of argument. With the old age pension, the blind person would be receiving 50s. a week. Supposing he is living in a village in Warwickshire, next door to an agricultural labourer, and he is receiving a wage of 50s. a week and the agricultural labourer next door only 25s.


I sit for a Warwickshire constituency. It is not quite fair to take an imaginary wage of £2 a week, and assume on the other side a definite wage of 25s. a week. Why not take an equal wage on both sides? That would be fairer.


Does the noble Lord mean to infer that the agricultural labourer would be so mean as to object to the blind person receiving this wage?


I am not going to make any unfair suggestion. I will take any basis that hon. Members like.


Give them both, say, 25s. a week.


I will take it on that basis. Say that you have a purely agricultural constituency and the blind person and the agricultural labourer are both earning 25s. a week. The blind person is in full work and is earning as much as the agricultural labourer and on the top of his wage he gets 10s. a week more as pension. I am asked whether I think the agricultural labourer would be so mean as to object?


He would say, "Good-luck."


I have unlimited faith in the generosity of my fellow creatures, and I daresay he would say that. But the question is whether it is just for this House to give that blind person, who may be even more capable of earning his living than the agricultural labourer, a pension of 10s. a week at the expense of the agricultural labourer. Is that right as a proposition of pure legislative justice?


I pointed out that under the present method two men may be working in one institution, doing the same amount of work and the same class of work, and one is receiving from 5s. to 10s. a week less than the other. It is to deal with cases like that that this Bill is brought forward.


I do not understand the argument. The hon. Member is doing two things to remedy that. In Clause 2 he is doing what is necessary to remedy that by providing that the blind person shall get the full unskilled rate. He is doing more than is necessary, because he is giving the blind person an old age pension, although he is at work and getting the full unskilled rate. I do not think the hon. Member has considered both Clauses of the Bill in relation to each other. That is the point I want to make. Is it the second principle of the Bill that a blind person should in all cases receive at least 10s. more than any unskilled labourer in his district, and more than many skilled labourers in his district? At the present time we have a situation where many unskilled labourers are getting more wages than the skilled engineer. Is the blind person to get more money out of the pockets of the taxpayers, and out of the pockets of the workmen than the skilled workmen in the same district? Does the House say that that is just and not open to criticism?


If it is not justice, it is mercy.


I am not sure. Mercy is generally recognised as a thing which has to be exercised in other ways than by legislation. We need mercy to temper the quality of our legislation, but to put forward, deliberately, unequal legislation in the name of mercy is a very dangerous thing for this House to do.


The Noble Lord is basing his argument on the assumption that the majority of blind persons will be able to compete successfully with other persons. Very few of the blind persons mentioned by the author of the Bill would be in a position to compete and to get anything like the same wages as they would if they possessed their sight.


The hon. Member who proposes the Bill is suggesting that the blind person is to get the same wage as the other man, and is to get an old age pension in addition. He can get one or the other, but not both. The provision of both may be mercy, and it may be generosity, but it is not necessary in order to remedy the inequality which is complained of. The hon. Member for North Dorset has mentioned a point which brings mo to the third principle of the Bill. It is true that a blind person is under a competitive handicap, but are you going to make that competitive handicap any the less handicap by providing that the man shall receive a good deal more than the district rate of wages? Is that likely to encourage the employment of such a man? I would ask the House to examine the Bill closely on these points.

The House seems to have been under the impression, as far as the discussion has gone, that Clause 2 is an entirely new principle in legislation. The House should realise that paragraph (1) of Clause 2 is word for word almost the existing law with, roughly, this exception, that instead of providing that the Council may for the purpose of carrying out its responsibilities to the blind, provide and maintain workshops, etc., or contribute to their maintenance, it provides that they must provide and they may not contribute. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Hon. Members have cut out the power of local authorities to contribute to any existing voluntary institution for the care and training of the blind. That is an extraordinary thing to do. I do not know whether it was done deliberately, but it means this. We all know that the great problem of dealing with anything like the blind or any other of the orphans of our civilisation is to co-ordinate State action with voluntary action. That problem becomes most acute when you come to after-care.

Unless you can get voluntary after-care association your whole State system breaks down. Your State system is always weakest when it has to deal with individual needs one by one. You have to have an after-care organisation. But your after-care organisation of the blind, such as it is, has grown out of the voluntary institutions. This Bill proposes to sweep away the very root of after-care, the whole voluntary provision for the training of the blind. Besides that, the effect of Clause 2 is this. We are all agreed that what we want most at present is the training of the blind. You put any local authority in this position, that it is no longer to be allowed to get out of its responsibilities, or to fulfil its responsibilities, as I should say, by contributing to existing voluntary institutions, and it has got to set up all its workshops, homes, hospitals, etc. If it chooses to set up workshops it will have to pay the full district rate, as well as all the extra expense which is always involved in technical training, but if it provides its homes and hospitals it will not need to incur very much expense, because every blind person in those homes and hospitals will have the old age pension of 10s. a week at the age of 30, and the local authority may say "provided we give them a roof to cover their heads we have done enough," and they will not Bet up workshops. You are discouraging the local authorities from going in for training as distinct from homes and hospitals.

Many hon. Members—perhaps the great majority—have disagreed with what I have said. But I do not think that anyone will disagree with this, that I have spoken purely from the point of view of what are the needs of the blind person and the best way of dealing with those needs, and when I raise criticism on this Bill I need not say that I am not going to divide against it. But it is important that a Second Reading of a Bill should deal with it not in minute detail, but fairly fully; otherwise the Second Reading of a Bill becomes meaningless. I have advanced criticism of the Bill, because I feel that the authors of the Bill, instead of providing for a great system of co-ordination and improved training and after-care, have fallen into the error of thinking that it is sufficient to provide certain payments out of the pockets of the State, and to throw certain statutory duties on the local authorities—to substitute "shall" for "may." Doing that is no good. It is not real statesmanship in this matter. It does not bring together all the influences which you must bring together to deal with this problem, and its effect may very well be merely to throw emphasis in maintenance instead of on training and after-care. It is because I am afraid that that will be the effect of the Bill that I hope that hon. Members opposite will convince me upon the facts that I have gone wrong.


The speeches in this Debate have been delightfully short. The Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) has perhaps been the most critical of those who have spoken. I go a great way with him on several points. He has raised very interesting points. One of them is as to which is the most severe handicap. I submit that blindness is the most severe handicap of all, because there is so much shut out of the lives of the blind that comes into the life of other persons. There are other severe handicaps, as we all know, and anyone who has enabled people to get over them has done good work, but it is a very different thing for the people who are blind. I was much surprised that the Mover and Seconder apologised for bringing in sentiment. One of the things which cause sentiment is when we think of the blind. The world would be a much poorer place than it is if all the sentiment were taken out of it in dealing with matters of this kind. I see no reason to apologise for sentiment. It comes in, and we cannot help it. I am not so much concerned with Clause 1 of the Bill, except that for those who are too old to be trained the pension should apply, but I am much more concerned with Clause 2, which deals with employment. To my mind employment to these people is everything. When there are other handicaps people can look round and see things, and it is a very different thing for them to be set down to idleness.

Idleness is a bad thing in many ways. Whoever a person may be the worst thing is idleness but for the blind person who can take in nothing else and whose mind then becomes morbid it is ten thousand times worse than it is for the rest. I would say that just as education is compulsory for normal people so training should be compulsory for these people. I do not know why the age of 21 should come in. They ought to be taken in hand as normal school children are from the very beginning and trained in Government or municipal factories and they should be kept in hand all the way through. I was surprised to hear of the number of unemployed blind persons in this country. Employment is the great thing and we ought to concentrate upon it more than upon anything else. As to the question of the pensions, we have been talking of 25s. but I am looking forward to the time when there will be no 25s. but when any man, agricultural labourer or anybody else, will have sufficient to live upon decently for the services that he gives, and blind persons ought to have the same. If they give service in accordance with their capacity then there ought to be a living wage for those people.

Of course, if they are employed by private people, which would not happen very often, this pension would be simply a subsidy to the private person, who would pay a lower wage because of it. It would be different if they were employed in a Government factory, but even then it should be paid in wages. Why should there be any pension to the person who gives service according to his capacity? If it was a municipal factory or enterprise the payment ought to go in Government grant, and the man or woman ought to receive it in wages, sufficient to enable him or her to live. However, these are matters that can well be discussed in Committee. The Bill has received universal support in this House and in the country. We are engaged on a great humane principle to-day, and I shall be very surprised if there is any opposition to the Bill when it is put to the House. I wanted to associate myself with this Bill because of its great sym- pathy and sentiment and the need for something of the sort, and the claim that these poor unfortunate people have upon those of us who have our eyesight and our physical faculties.


I am sure that we have all listened with very great interest to the speeches that have been delivered. I would like to congratulate the hon. Member who moved the Second Reading on his luck in the Ballot and on having selected this excellent subject to bring before the House. Personally, I do not attach so much importance to the objection raised by the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy), about the difference that may be paid to a blind man as compared with a man who has his sight. I think that if there were two men working together, one blind at 40s. a week and one with his sight at the same amount, the 40s. would go much further with the man who had his sight than it would with the blind man. Therefore I look upon the little extra that a blind man would get in the way of pension as something given to him to make his position as little painful as possible. I agree with my hon. Friend who said that the Bill did not go quite far enough. I would like to see the age reduced from 30 to 21. I see no reason why a man should require a pension more at 30 than, say, when 12 months younger. The Noble Lord said that there were the cases of cripples and people who were afflicted in other ways, who might be just as helpless as the blind. I do not propose to go into that question now, but it seems to me to be a good argument for extending the help to those who are equally incapacitated rather than to withhold help from the blind. I have no doubt that the day will come when some steps will have to be taken in that direction, but, of course, we must go with some care and caution; we cannot do everything at once, and it would be wise first of all to turn attention to the blind.

I have now dealt with what I might call the sentimental side of the case. I would like to trespass on the time of the House briefly to refer to what I will term the practical side. I have taken a great deal of interest in the question of the blind. I have often been struck by the enormous amount of good raw manorial that exists among the blind of this country. I remember that when quite young I thought that a blind man or woman really must be a helpless and useless member of Society, but experience has taught me that there is wonderful raw material that can be developed if proper education is given to the blind. We have heard of a blind Postmaster-General. I think I am right in saying that we had a statesman, very nearly blind, who occupied the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer within the last 50 years. I suppose that every member of this House has had my experience of a large number of people who have been able in a very remarkable way to carry out work that would almost place in a difficulty those who could see. At a meeting I attended a short time ago in connection with the blind, I was told that there was one blind man who was actually getting a large salary paid to him. I was asked, "In what way do you imagine he earns his living?" The reply was, "He is a landscape gardener." It struck me as being absolutely impossible for a blind man to be a landscape gardener, but I was assured that that was the case, and I believe I am right in saying that the gentleman in question was one who had won the Victoria Cross. It is a very remarkable thing.

If we can teach a man to carry on the work of a landscape gardener without his sight, it is not difficult to imagine that a great number of other useful activities might be open to the blind, if only they had the opportunity of receiving instruction. If we err at all, I think we might err on the side of generosity on behalf of the blind. We are very much indebted to them. We have neglected our duty too long. I have often been struck with the sad spectacle that within a few yards of this House, which is supposed to stand for everything that is right and fair, there should be blind people standing in the street and asking for a few coppers from passers-by. I have, perhaps, given one of them two or three pence, and I truthfully say that when they have replied, "Thank you," with gratitude in their voices, I have almost felt ashamed of receiving their thanks, feeling that the State, instead of allowing them to receive a few coppers from passers-by, ought to make provision so that they could live in comfort as far as their affliction will allow. I thank the House for listening to me, but I felt I must break my usual silence by saying these few words.


In listening to this Debate, as in listening to many debates on humanitarian subjects, I was reminded of a very beautiful thought in Arnold's "Light of Asia." When the father of Buddha desired that his son should be brought up removed from all the sorrows of life, his first effort was to build around his estate a huge wall, and to give orders that no one who was halt or blind or ugly or unfortunate should enter, and thereby his son would grow up with the supreme joy of never having his heart wrung by contemplation of the sufferings of others. But this Debate brought up what is the first thought that occurs to anyone, that all the hale and fortunate part of the community cannot shoulder the unfortunate, because, though that might remove the anxieties of the unfortunate, and relieve the feelings of those who were carrying them, yet it certainly would so retard progress that you would have two unfortunate groups where you had one before. We are therefore called upon to discriminate, and the question arises what are the best criteria for that discrimination? It has been mentioned here that handicap is not a proper method of discrimination. The noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) drew our attention to the crippled children and asked was not their case as bad. I think probably there are many other afflictions just as bad, but the true test is this: our efforts should be made primarily to help those who, by a little help from us, will be able to be of a great deal of help to themselves. I know of no disability which answers so fully to that test as blindness. It is now 300 years ago since Milton, speaking of the agonies of blindness, said: Wisdom through one entrance quite shut out. During that lapse of time science has done a great deal, and by the development of touch, and by other means, has so opened new entrances to wisdom that there are now many blind persons—and it is a curious thing that, among them, are some who are unusually well-equipped otherwise both in mind and body—who, as we have heard, in the amount of their information, in the degree of their mental furniture, bring to shame some of us among the seeing. The first object of this Bill, as I read it, is to give an opportunity to all those persons of opening up those new entrances to take the place of the one which is closed. The Noble Lord said, and there was a great deal of force in many of his remarks, that we should do nothing to militate against the philanthropic efforts of voluntary institutions. I agree, but I think Society owes a duty to those who, by no fault of their own, through the exigencies of the very conditions under which we live, are thus afflicted. Society owes them the duty, at all events, of removing from them a sense of anxiety as to whether voluntary institutions will come to their aid or not.


Will the hon. and learned Member allow me to intervene, as it is important to make this point quite clear? Under the 1920 Act it is the statutory duty of every local authority to provide for the blind, either directly or by contributions to voluntary institutions. This Bill adds nothing to that provision.


Does not this Bill add a provision that the local authorities are now called upon to do compulsorily what was permissive in the earlier Measure?


That is the point on which I differ from the hon. and learned Member. This Bill substitutes "shall" for "may," but "may" in the old Bill simply meant that the local authority might do it themselves or might provide for it by contribution to existing voluntary societies. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] But the Section of the old Act begins in this way: It shall be the duty of the council … to make arrangements to the satisfaction of the Minister of Health for promoting the welfare of blind persons ordinarily resident within their area"…


Read on.


The Section proceeds: and such council may for this purpose provide and maintain or contribute towards the maintenance," etc. There are two alternatives, but they mast take one or other of them. [HON. MEMBERS: "They do not!"]


The Noble Lord is perfectly right in his interpretation of the words he used. I do not know whether he has any leanings towards the law, but he ought to have been a lawyer.


You did not tell me so last year.


The Noble Lord has just now, in his attempt to explain this Section, used the very doctrine formulated in the well-known case of Julius and Bishop of Oxford that "may" means "shall" where the idea is that the authority or power is to be exercised, but may take one form or may take the other. It does not touch the point which I was making. My point is that whether you give the local authority power to look after the blind directly or by contributing to or assisting voluntary institutions, you, at all events, owe it to the blind that they should receive assistance and training not as a matter of charity from any philanthropic bodies but as a matter of right from the State. Although this Bill and the last Measure cast the burden on the local authorities, speaking for myself, I think it should be a national burden. If Society owes a duty to those persons, I cannot see why that duty should be discharged proportionately to the number of afflicted persons in a given area. Why one local authority should be charged high because there are many in its district, and another local authority charged low because there are few, is quite inexplicable to me. The second part of the Bill on which the Noble Lord made some very shrewd remarks relates to pensions. I myself am at a loss to see any analogy between old-age pensions and this contribution towards the assistance of the blind. Why the age of 50 should have been fixed under the last Act I do not know. Why it should be 30 in this Bill I do not know. The point is one of giving assistance when disability sets in. The age of TO is fixed under the Old Age Pensions Act because about that age it is presumed we become disabled by senility. But as regards blindness, age has nothing to do with it. I think the true provision should be that the moment you get the two conditions—namely, statutory blindness and also destitution, then the State pocket should be open to assist that person.


Hear, hear!


Then as to the amount, on which I do not think the noble Lord and I will agree so well. The very small figure fixed for old age Pensions was justified on the ground that at 70 we have grown past our desires. At that age life holds very little for us. I hope the noble Lord and myself will go a little beyond that, but for most people life holds very little after that period beyond the necessity of shelter and food, and a small amount therefore at all events may be added, but with the blind who may be healthy, who may be mentally well equipped, who may be full of all the warmth of life and all its aspirations, to condemn them to a pittance like this is not to discharge the duty we owe to them. The true role, I submit, is, to have no age limit at all, but as soon as you find persons are blind, if they are of an age at which training would be of any use to them, they should be provided for in training establishments, and sent forth into the world equipped, and able to earn their living. If, then, it is found they are unable to earn their living let that be proved in the same way that unemployment is proved, and let them receive a sum more approximating to what is called the "dole" than to old age pensions. The only difference would be that it would be more in the nature of an uncovenanted benefit, under the Insurance Act. Let them be paid as unemployed persons are paid, without any contributions being asked. After all, the number is very few—35,000 to 36,000. It is not a great deal to ask of the community, and if the deaf man comes along afterwards and says, "Help me, too," well, that case must be considered on its merits. We must, I agree, move slowly, but certainly I quite agree with the views expressed by some speakers, namely that society does owe to those meritorious persons who are disabled by the act of God and not by their own act, the duty of carrying them along the road of life. None of us who are more fortunately circumstanced should object to what we have to contribute in that direction.

Lieut.-Colonel LAMBERT WARD

I want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman the Member for Tradeston (Mr. T. Henderson) on having introduced this measure, and also to congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen and Kincardine (Mr. F. Martin) on having seconded it. There is no one who is better qualified to speak on a subject like this, and no one to whom the House would listen with greater respect. It has always seemed to me that the conscience of the nation has been rather inclined to sleep with regard to their duty to the blind people of the community. I must say at once that I rather differ from the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) with regard to what he considered the comparative, disabilities which were suffered by the more unfortunate members of the community. It has always seemed to me that blindness is the greatest disability that man can suffer. In deafness, lameness, or other disability, there is always some compensating factor because, at any rate, they have the gift of sight. The blind man or blind woman, who passes his or her life in darkness, total or partial, is the one person to whom, before anyone else, the pity of this community is due.

1 P.M.

It is rather a pity that we have not in his place to-day the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, because he would have been able to tell us, not exactly how much, but how little this will cost the State. After all, it cannot be a large amount, for I understand that there are, approximately, only some 35,000 people in this country suffering from blindness. In any case, it is a cost which this country should, and undoubtedly can, afford. I should like to make one or two minor criticisms with regard to the Bill, and to suggest alterations which it may be found possible to make in Committee. I understand the definition of a blind person, namely, so blind as to be unable to perform any work for which eyesight is essential, is the Statutory definition. Although I am, at the moment, unable to suggest any better terms, it certainly seems to me that that definition is rather vague, and it may be within the power of some of the medical authorities in this House to suggest something which is at least as fair, and at the same time more definite. The only other criticism I have to make is with regard to Clause 2, wherein it is insisted that these blind people should be paid the trade union rate of wages. I am rather inclined to doubt whether such a provision will make for the greater happiness of the blind people themselves. One of the most extraordinary things one finds in coming in contact with the blind, especially with those who have been educated and trained at the blind institutions, is the extreme pride which they take in the work they have learned to do. I had a good deal to do with one or two blind cases a little time ago, because it was my misfortune to have two of my men blinded during the war, and one of them was so horribly disfigured in addition that one could not help feeling that Providence had been to some extent merciful in that he would never be able to see himself again. But apart from the wonderful cheerfulness which those men always showed, what struck me more than anything else was the pride which they took in their work. They wanted to be employed, not out of charity, but because their work was of value to the people who employed them. By insisting on this provision, we may deprive men like that of the opportunity of employment, because people will say that it is the duty of the employer to take a blind man and pay him a reasonable rate of wages. Of course it is. But that is not the kind of employment that these men want. They want employment in which they can tell they are giving full value for the money they receive. That is the kind of employment which will make them happier than anything else. As we have already heard, there are some 8,000 men trained but not employed, and that rather makes me think that a Clause such as this may not only tend to prevent those men finding work, but may tend also to displace men who are already employed. I give my wholehearted support to the Bill, and if an appeal from this side of the House can have any weight with the Government I can only say that I hope they will see their way to give the Measure further facilities.


I will not detain the House for more than a few moments, because this is one of the very rare occasions on which there is support for a Measure from all quarters of the House. On such occasions it is desirable that the Government should express its desire to maintain that spirit of unanimity.

On this side of the House I think we can claim for many years to have taken a very active interest in the welfare of the blind. We have done some little, in co-operation with the voluntary organisations for the blind, to develop the public conscience on this matter, and no body of men and women in this country is more deeply pledged to support the interests of the blind than is the Labour movement, whose annual conferences and congresses have regularly passed resolutions with the object of bringing to bear more public assistance and help for blind persons. I think hon. Members on this side can claim some little credit for the Act of 1920, an Act which, I believe, has, in the four years since its passage, done much to improve the provision for the blind and to co-ordinate and consolidate the institutions working for the blind. The Government have no desire to give the impression that they believe that that measure of State assistance and co-operation between public authorities and private bodies should come to an end. On the contrary, it is desired that it should be extended.

One point, however, has not been, it seems to me, sufficiently emphasised. Reference has been made to it, it is true, but we attach very considerable importance to steps for the prevention of blindness. Apart from industrial and other accidents, blindness is, in large measure, a preventable disease, and, from the point of view of the community as a whole, it is clearly most desirable that every effort should be made to eliminate preventable blindness, and to that question my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is now giving his attention. I am not prepared to say that the Government would accept the details of the Bill. I rather gather that in different quarters of the House there are different views about the details, although there is agreement as to the objects which the Bill is designed to serve, and that would be the attitude of the Government towards this Bill. Had it been necessary, I should have appealed to the House to pass its Second Reading without a Division. That, I feel sure, is not now necessary, and all that I can say, therefore, is that I welcome the fact that this Bill will receive its Second Reading without any Division.


Can the hon. Gentleman say anything as to Government facilities for the Bill?


That is a question for the Leader of the House. The Government will give very sympathetic consideration to the future of the Bill.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir JOHN GILMOUR

I have listened to the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health with some interest, and I should like to ask him immediately whether he, speaking on behalf of the Government, has taken into consideration the fact that there are at present advisory councils considering this matter, and how far their recommendations have been considered, or what possibility at the present moment there is of their deliberations really reaching a stage upon which an informed opinion can be taken on this matter. As I understand it, there is general agreement in this House that we would all be prepared to support a Measure to improve the condition of the blind in this country. With that I directly associate myself, and, so far as I am concerned, if there were a Division, I should not vote against the Second Reading of this Bill. At the same time, I think it is right that I should say that, so far as I am able to judge, this is a Bill which in many of its details would be inimical to the best interests of the blind themselves, and I say that because I am convinced that, if the whole of the intentions of this Measure were carried into effect, and you placed the control of all the workshops and the colleges at present used for the alleviation of this great distress in the hands of the local authorities and the municipalities of the country, you would immediately divorce from the work carried on under this system a great part of that human element which has played so large a part in the solving of some of the difficulties of these people.

I believe that one of the direct and immediate results would be that you would dry up, in great measure, that voluntary support which has been so characteristic of the efforts of many people in the country. I cannot, of course, speak with as direct knowledge of what the conditions may be in England as of those in Scotland, but I venture to say that, so far as our experience has gone in Scotland, the voluntary effort, which has now been conducted over many years, has proved to be of great value, and that if even the tentative experiments made in the City of Glasgow, by which the control of these things has been removed in a measure from voluntary effort to the control of the municipality, be examined, it will be found that in Edinburgh, where it is voluntary, the conditions are really rather materially better for the people concerned than they are actually under the municipal control in Glasgow.


Glasgow is also under voluntary control.


As I understand it, in Glasgow a larger measure of municipal control has crept in than in Edinburgh.


There is a comparable difference between the two voluntary organisations.


That may be so, but, in any case, the point that I want to make is that I think we should examine this matter very carefully indeed, because, as I understand this Bill, you are going deliberately to place upon local authorities, not that they shall take the part that they have done in the past, of assisting and co-operating with voluntary organisations, but that they shall definitely take the responsibility of carrying out this work. While there may be certain arguments in favour of that method, and that may appeal to the views of many hon. Members in this House, I say that I am anxious that we should not take that step without fully considering whether it is not really going to be inimical to the interests of those concerned. I would be in favour of even greater assistance than we have to-day from the local authorities, and perhaps spreading the facilities for training into other localities where they do not at present exist, but I would earnestly ask that the efforts of those who are moving in the alleviation of the distress of the blind should be rather in co-operation with voluntary effort which at present exists. As I understand, there have been appointed by the Government Advisory Councils both in Scotland and in England to go into the whole of this question, and that, so far as they have considered this matter, both these Councils, as I am informed, have reported adversely against the acceptance of this Bill, as they believe it to be against the best interests of the blind.


Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us if he has read the report of the Advisory Council?


I have not read the full report, but I have had the opportunity of meeting with various people who have been in touch with the subject I am open to correction if I am wrong in what I am saying. As hon. Members will realise, it is not always possible for each one of us to read, in detail, these lengthy reports, but what I am saying now is not as an antagonist of any Measure for the improvement of the conditions of the blind, but in order that the House may realise that there is more than one point of view in dealing with this matter, and I think it is desirable that it should be stated upon the Floor of this House. If these Advisory Councils are representative and competent Councils, having on them men who, admittedly, are acknowledged to have a real working knowledge of the subject, then, I think, there is something to be said, however disappointing it might be to the promoters of this particular Bill, for giving adequate time to investigate the subject, if it is not already fully investigated, in order that they may report their considered opinion on this matter, and let us agree to a Bill which will meet that considered opinion. I understand that these Councils have definitely expressed the, opinion that the municipalisation of the workshops for the blind is not at the present moment desirable. That may be a debatable point, but I do not think, so far as I am personally informed, that the municipalisation of these workshops would be desirable. I have had some experience of working in co-operation with those who are interested in these workshops, and it is the close personal touch between the individual and the work of these societies which has, in a large measure, made the sale of the goods from these workshops a possible and a paying concern.

This being so, while I am not in any sense an opponent of any effort which is honestly made—as I believe the promoters of this Bill are honest in their effort—to bring about alleviation of the condition of the blind in this country, I do think we must consider very carefully whether we are really taking a wise step in municipalising these workshops, and throwing upon the local authority this added responsibility and duty. If it be right that there should be placed on the local authority this responsibility with regard to the blind, is it not certain that you must also extend that responsibility to many other classes of the community? There are the deaf and dumb. There are many others who suffer from grave personal disabilities of a variety of kinds, and if this House, in its judgment, is going to depart from the system which has been built upon voluntary support and effort of the people of our country, I say that it would be infinitely better that this matter should be considered in a wider aspect, and if it be wise and just to do what this Bill proposes, then it cannot be limited to this immediate class. That is all I desire to say, but I should like to ask whether the Government have any knowledge of the work of their Advisory Councils, and, if so, whether they consider it proper that they should give any facilities, such, as is suggested by the hon. Member, as the starring of the Bill, until the bodies which they themselves have appointed have been given an opportunity of making a considered report on this subject.


I only wish to make one observation. This Bill is introduced to-day because the blind themselves feel that the progress under the Act of 1920 has not been satisfactory, and is not likely to realise their aspirations and hopes. There is, in fact, no evidence to show that it will do what is needed. Since that Act became law, very little has been done, and the broad effect has been to stereotype and maintain the existing organisations and existing methods. It contains one condition which prevents the satisfactory solution of the difficulty. It has not met, and never will meet, the case of the blind, because it is dependent upon a system based on charity. What they want is help to enable them to have their independence, and earn their living, and when, for any reason, that fails, they shall have whatever assistance is needed from the State as a right. This hybrid system of oscillating responsibility between voluntary organisations on the one hand and the Ministry of Health on the other can never be satisfactory.

I wish to give one example from my own personal acquaintance which shows how thoroughly unsatisfactory this is today. It is the case of a man blinded in an accident. He has earned a precarious living in the making of sandbags. The economic wage he obtains in this process is 9s. 6d. a week. That is augmented by a voluntary organisation by £l. That man has to maintain a wife and two children on a total remuneration of 29s. 6d. a week. The voluntary organisation has appealed to the board of guardians to do something in support of this man, and they have declined, on the ground that they are already making a voluntary contribution to the institution in which the man is at work. The voluntary organisation themselves do nothing in respect to the man's family because they are not entitled to give any relief to sighted people Therefore you have this unfortunate blind man, with a wife and two children, existing on a sum, which, after deducting rent and insurance, amounts to 19s. per week. It simply cannot be done. If I had been successful in catching Mr. Speaker's eye earlier I should have wished to make some further remarks, but I will not continue now beyond saying that I hope the Government will give such facilities as will enable this Bill to go through in view of the expression of opinion on both sides of the House, so that it may become law, and settle this matter so far as Parliament is concerned. Some credit has been taken by previous speakers for the fact that we are discussing this question in Parliament on a Friday afternoon, but I am not sure that we are entitled to any credit in the matter at all, for in my view this is a question which ought to have been dealt with by Parliament and settled long ago.


May I express the desire that this Bill should become law, and also express the greatest possible sympathy with the great aid of the voluntary agencies, and the aid they have very largely inspired, but with it all they cannot really cover the whole ground. That is the experience of some of us who have worked in connection with voluntary agencies for the blind, or for other causes. However good they are they cannot get hold of the facts of the case as a public authority can, and this has been shown in connection with the treatment of epileptics and the treatment of school children. Where beforetime charitable operations looked after some of these things they are now carried out by the public authorities with the aid of the Government, and with much better results.

May I remind the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pollok (Sir J. Gilmour) that similar classes of people to which he referred are already provided for by the State, and this at a time when the only class which is not really provided for by some form of public provision is the one we are discussing. There was one hon. Member who, in the course of the Debate, described blindness as "the act of God." That is, of course, in a sense, quite true, in the sense that everything that happens can be ascribed to God. But if by that observation is meant that this is not a preventable thing, I say that it is certainly not true. The vast majority of cases of blindness are due to inflammation of the eyes of children immediately after birth, and this is preventable by very simple means—that is, by washing out the eyes with some well-known antiseptic solution. Really, in dealing with this subject the whole question of blindness depends upon the proper organisation of care at childbirth. I think hon. Members in all quarters of the House realise that we are, it is to be hoped, rapidly approaching a time when provision of this care will be extended in the case of blindness.

It was suggested that we ought to have a better definition of blindness than is given in the Bill, so that it might be seen more clearly as to who come within the scope of the Bill. The Bill states that the person shall be so blind as to be unable to perform any work for which eyesight is essential. That, of course, is rather vague. It is an advantage to have a case. It is an advantage in some cases to have a vague definition because you then include the borderland cases. On the other hand, it does seem to me, speaking medically, that it is quite possible to make a definite test. Vision tests are nowadays quite definite and quite specific. There are certain cards with letters of a certain size upon them, and the degree of eyesight possessed by anyone can be definitely ascertained. It is quite possible to do something along these lines and to say whether a person can see anything at all. It should be possible to say that a person who could not see a certain object, let us say his finger-ends, at such and such a distance, was so far blind. The matter would have to be worked out with expert assistance, but I think it might be possible to make a definition, quite a precise definition, which would be better than the rather vague words of the Clause.

It has also been suggested that it was undesirable to make regulations about the rate of wages. I have in my hand here the particulars of the wages of a blind man, aged 40, living in my own constituency. In five weeks his highest rate of wages was 19s. 9½d. in one week, and the lowest 8s. in another week. That is not really a very economic proposition, because, quite clearly, if he only receives that amount of money from that source, there is every possibility that he will have to get public assistance to make up what is an adequate amount to maintain himself and those dependent upon him. Whilst, therefore, we are doing this thing, I really do think that we ought to do it properly, and see that the blind get an adequate sum from their work to maintain themselves. I very much hope that the Government will find it possible to give facilities for this Bill. I very much hope that the Bill will become law at a very early date, because it is one of those comparatively small things in the community as a whole which do cause a very great deal of suffering. I myself feel a great deal of personal responsibility, as it were, because nothing has been done to minimise the sufferings of these people, and because we have not yet found it possible in this country to make proper provision for them. I hope this Bill will go through to-day, and that it will very shortly become law.


This Bill has been described as a "small matter." It may be a small matter in respect to the numbers concerned who are to benefit by it, but it is a Bill of the greatest importance, though it has made a belated appearance. I was the Member who suggested that it should be "starred," and I do now beg the House to urge that the Bill be "starred" so that it may go through this Session. An hon. Member on the other side said that the blind people were in better case than the agricultural worker because they earned more money. [An HON. MEMBER: "Who said that?"] That was one of the arguments of the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy). But precisely that kind of argument was used years ago against old age pensioners being assisted. There is every reason why this Bill should be dealt with in the immediate future, so that the blind persons of this country might receive the benefit. There is another Bill to be introduced in a few minutes, and I do not want by anything I have to say to defer the introduction of that Bill. I do not want, either, to detain this present most important Bill; but I would urge hon. Members here, and above the Gangway, to press upon, the Government the need to "star" the Bill, or we may be quite certain it will not pass this Session. Those who have spoken from the Conservative Benches have attempted to persuade the Government not to "star" the Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"] Well, one was the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Pollok Division of Glasgow (Sir J. Gilmour).


No, Sir, I only wished to understand clearly what was the attitude of the Government. I thought it only desirable and reasonable to ask for that information in view of the fact that they had themselves appointed advisory counsels to examine the matter. I wished to know whether the Government had continued the readings and what action they proposed to take.


I think if the right hon. Gentleman will look at the OFFICIAL EEPORT, he will see that I am accurate in saying that, when he spoke before, he was inviting the Government not to star the Bill. I hope this Bill will be passed into law at the earliest possible moment.


I want to say that, as far as I am concerned, I share the view that it is desirable for the Government to give facilities to this Bill. I took some little part in bringing forward the original Bill dealing with the blind in 1920, and I want to support the claim advanced that we should deal with the subject of blindness from the very beginning. I would like to have seen in this Bill some further provision for research work in this Bill in connection with blindness. It seems to me to a very large extent that in this Bill we are beginning at the wrong end. If we could effectually discover the causes of blindness, then we should be doing a great deal more than by endeavouring to give the monetary payments and other facilities mentioned in this Bill.

I think it is right to say that in this country alone at the present time in our schools there are 500,000 children suffering from defective vision, and unless early steps are taken a large proportion of them will become liable to join the ranks of these unfortunate people. Out of total of some 13,000 children between the ages of 8 and 12 who were inspected, 10 per cent, were found to have defective eyesight, and many reports mentioned that much more serious consequences are likely to ensue. I want to impress upon the promoters of this Bill the desirability of pressing upon the Government the necessity of taking some further steps in relation to the prevention of blindness. The late King Edward VII presided over a health conference in connection with some particular disease, and it was stated that that disease might be prevented, and the late King Edward summed up the proceedings by saying: "If preventible, why not prevent it?" We might say that in reference to the lack of vision and blindness from which a large number of unfortunate people are suffering to-day.

Apart from the provisions of this Bill which I heartily support, I hope something will be done to prevent blindness, because that is the proper and most effectual way of approaching this subject. I share the view that a great deal more might be done both in relation to payments and facilities for providing work for blind people, but this is not the time to discuss that subject. I want to assure hon. Members that, so far as many of us on these benches are concerned, we share the view that facilities should be given for this Bill. I would, however, like to know what is the attitude of the Government towards this Measure. The representative of the Ministry of Health spoke in the usual airy and general terms in which the Government talk about all Bills, and he said he was generally in favour of it. When he was asked if the Government were going to give facilities, he made his usual reply that he did not know, and that the Leader of the House should be asked about that matter.

That is the very first thing that the representative of the Ministry of Health should have acquainted himself with in dealing with a question of this kind, which is intended to facilitate and to help a lot of suffering people. We want to know the intention of the Government in regard to this Bill, but, as usual, they have got no policy, and they do not know what their action will be. I hope hon. Members opposite will not be content with the vague promises which are given on every occasion by the Government. Here is a Bill upon which the House is generally agreed dealing with a deserving class of people, and yet the Government which all the while is professing on public platforms pious expressions of sympathy in every possible direction is not able to give a straightforward answer to a straightforward question, and I hope the country will notice these antics on the part of the Government.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Entwistle)

The hon. Member must not deal in these generalities, but must keep to the Question before the House.


I will content myself by expressing my disappointment with the attitude of the Government in regard to this Bill.


I consider that I should be failing in my duty if I did not lodge my protest against certain features of the Government's attitude towards blind persons, especially in respect of the Financial Clauses. I am sorry there is not time to deal with this question more fully. I speak with a great deal of experience on this matter, because I have been personally connected with the blind for years. I represent the Borough of West Ham, and we did our duty to our blind citizens, and the reason was because no politicians, whatever their party colour, can refuse to show their obligations to the blind people. We shouldered our obligations when the Blind Persons Act of 1920 became law. We all anticipated that it was the general desire of all parties that blind persons should be looked after by the nation and not by voluntary agencies. After the agitation of the National League for the Blind, we understood that Parliament was going to relieve these people of the necessity of getting their living by begging in the streets.

In West Ham we commenced the 1920 scheme three years ago. In the first year our borough expended £300 in endeavouring to work the Act as laid down by this House, and the Borough of West Ham have been compelled to estimate for an expenditure in the ensuing year of £1,000. I listened with interest to the arguments submitted by an hon. Member opposite in regard to the general support given in the past of the work of specialised voluntary institutions, but even the conditions of the Act circumscribe and circumvent the work of voluntary institutions because your county borough has to foot the Bill.

On the West Ham County Council we discussed this amended Bill, and on behalf of the County Borough of West Ham I want to say that whilst we are willing to continue to shoulder our own responsibilities towards the blind people we protest that this Parliament should continue to place the obligation upon local authorities. We have over 250 able-bodied blind persons, who are a charge upon our local purse, and that charge should be relieved to the extent that Parliament is prepared to apply itself to this problem. Why should we in West Ham be shouldered with the financial burden of maintaining our fellow citizens merely because they happen to be smitten with blindness? There is not time I admit, but nobody would be more ready than I am to discuss the general attitude of the voluntary system to blind people in this country for the past 20 years. The reason the National League of the Blind, the militant organisation of the blind, has waged war against the voluntary system is that the blind people have for years been used in a commercial sense.


I cannot permit the hon. Member to discuss the voluntary system for the last 20 years. He must come to the subject of the Bill.


I want to confine my remarks in accordance with your ruling, but the attitude and work of the voluntary system is in some measure, at any rate, concerned with the Bill, and it is very important to consider. The reason we are asking for some sort of corporate control is because, we who have been connected with the blind have for years been dissatisfied win the way that the blind have been treated. We have appealed to Parliament and used specific arguments in order to lead Members of Parliament to see that it is the duty of the nation to relieve blind people from the necessity of begging from charitable institutions for their living. If the Bill specifically implies municipal control, then I for one am proud of it because of what we have done in our borough. We have opened a workshop, and, because we were compelled by the Act of 1920, we have called in the assistance of the existing voluntary institutions. We did not desire to do so. We had the premises, we had the blind people, we had the tools, and we had the teachers available, but we were compelled by Act of Parliament to call in the National Institute. We represented that we wanted a voice in the government of our own local workshops, but we received an ultimatum just before a meeting of our council that if we demanded representation upon the Council controlling those workshops they would refuse to carry on the work. We were compelled, because we wanted the blind people to get to work, to surrender our point. If this Bill goes through, as I hope it will, I trust that these points will be put to the Ministry of Health. If, in future, we are to be compelled to enlist the services of voluntary institutions, the municipalities, who to-day pay a large amount of the contributions, should have direct representation upon the governing bodies and should have some degree of control over the workshops.

I am whole-heartedly in favour of the principle of national responsibility for blind people, and I hope that this discussion will lead people to realise the serious home and family conditions of blind people. Even the Bill to-day does not recognise in any way the family obligations of our blind people. The last Government issued an order to the municipalities which did not recognise at all the home conditions of the blind people, and, with regard to the wages in the workshops, dealt only with the sustenance that could be considered adequate to keep the blind person himself. That was vividly brought to my notice in my own borough by the case of a man who lost his sight through shock in an air raid and who has a wife and seven children. Although that man can go into the West Ham workshop and earn 22s. per week endeavouring to repair boots, his wife and children have still to receive money from the relieving officer and to live like paupers. Our view—and I am not ashamed to express it—is the view expressed by the National League of the Blind. This country is rich enough and ought to be generous enough to see that a man whose capabilities are taken from him by an act such as I have indicated and his wife and children are not compelled to accept paupers' bread. We ought to render to them all the kindness and generosity that we as a Christian civilised country can bestow. I do appeal that we in this House in future should recognise more sincerely our obligations to the blind. We here, I will not say render lip service to the cause of the blind, but we are apt to deliver speeches and feel kindly and sincere interest in these people, but when the day has gone the thought has gone, and these people are forgotten. The conditions of our blind people, even after all the help which has been given by Parliament, are still a disgrace to any civilised nation, and I beg Members to realise that what we are doing to-day is niggardly and mean and in my opinion is a dishonourable attitude for this House to take towards the blind people of this country. I hope that we who have given years to trying to understand the conditions of the homes of the blind people will have an opportunity of going upon the Committee and amending these things in order that people should not have to fit themselves in with what Parliament does, but that what Parliament does should fit in with the conditions necessary for the uplifting of our people.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.