§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.5 p.m.
The Minister of Health (Sir Kingsley
Wood): I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
There are about 78,000 registered blind persons in England, Wales and Scotland, arid of these nearly 57,000 are aged 50 or over, and there are over 8,000 blind persons between the ages of 40 and 50. I do not think that the number of blind persons is increasing in this country. It is true, of course, that the total number of registered blind persons has shown increases year by year, but I think this can be well ascribed not to an increased incidence of blindness but rather to more complete registration, longer life and greater inducements to blind people to register to-day in order to obtain the substantial improvements which are now happily available to them if they become registered as blind persons. I am also glad to say that in consequence of the increased knowledge of the causes of blindness which operate at birth and in the earlier years of life, and of the steps to be taken to prevent blindness, the age at which blindness occurs is becoming steadily and progressively later.
There has been a substantial fall in the numbers of blind children. In the case of blind children between the ages of 5 and 16 the numbers have fallen since 1925 from 3,104 to 1,916, a decrease of over 38 per cent. This satisfactory advance is shown by particulars of the persons who registered as blind persons for the first time during the year which ended on 31st March last. Only 2.95 per cent. of the 8,700 new cases were under the age of 16 and some 89 per cent. were over the age of 40. That is an advance which we would all desire, and we would all like to see still further progress in that important direction. Despite that advance and notwithstanding the fortitude and cheerfulness with which blindness is borne, we cannot but recognise that it is a great and terrible handicap, more particularly to the great majority of blind people over 40 years of age. I say that because I think the House will agree that it is not normally practicable to train a blind person, after he has attained the 1898 age of 40, in a new form of employment. In a letter to the Press quite recently, the Secretary-General of the National Institute for the Blind, Mr. Eagar, says:The Blind Persons Act of 1920 fixed 50 as the pensionable age for blind persons and those pensions have been a boon to many thousands. It has been found in practice, however, that under present-day conditions of industrial competition very few persons who lose their sight after the age of 40 can be trained in any gainful occupation, and voluntary organisations and agencies of the blind themselves have for years been asking that 40 rather than 50 should be recognised as the threshold of unemployability.There is also the strong recommendation of the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind which, I dare say the House knows, has done such valuable work for so many years. There are very many able people on that Committee and they have spent very many years in aiding blind people. Lord Blanesburgh is chairman, and from time to time there have been members like Sir Ian Fraser, Mr. Ben Purse, Mr. Evans, Mr. Owen and other people whose names are quite well known. In 1929 the Advisory Committee first made a recommendation on this matter, and in their Report made in 1935 they say:The opinion was expressed in paragraph 9 of the 1929 Report that a reduction of the age from 50 to 40 for the receipt of an old age pension in the case of blind persons would be justified, and we consider that this holds good to-day with even greater force.They go on to say:It is estimated that more than 5,000 persons between 40 and 50 years of age, most of whom are unemployed and by reason of age untrainable for any employment, would thus be benefited, and the grant of the blind old age pension to these persons would help the State to share with the local authorities the cost of providing an adequate system of domiciliary assistance to all unemployable blind persons.Therefore, I think there is very strong support for the first and important Clause of this Bill, which would in effect carry out the request that has been so constantly made by the organisations of blind persons themselves and by the Advisory Committee; and I think it will secure to a section of the population whose need is great a regular source of income which will, I hope, at any rate free them from some of their anxieties and help to mitigate some of their incapacities.
There is another important proposal in the Bill and I think it will be generally 1899 welcomed. Prior to the passing of the Local Government Act, 1929, county or county borough councils could, if they chose, give financial assistance to blind persons under the Blind Persons Act, thus preventing them from becoming destitute. If, however, they became destitute, it was incumbent on the guardians to grant them relief. Under the Local Government Act, 1929, as the House knows, the guardians were superseded by the councils of counties and county boroughs, and, under Section 5 of that Act, those councils were given the option of making a declaration that assistance to blind persons would be given under the Blind Persons Act, and not under the Poor Law. That option has been exercised by 23 county councils and 47 county borough councils, 70 out of the total of 146 local authorities who administer the Act in England and Wales, although it may be said that most of the other counties do, in fact, grant this form of assistance under the Blind Persons Act. I believe it will be the general opinion of this House that the time has now come when local authorities should be in line, and that those who have not adopted this course should now be put in the same position as those who have already bound themselves to grant domiciliary assistance to blind persons exclusively under the powers of the Blind Persons Act.
A Clause will be found in the Bill which gives effect to this, and which also requires that, in assessing the needs of a blind person the council shall take into account the needs of any dependants who are members of his household. So far as the local authorities are concerned, it will, of course, rest with them, as at present, what allowance they make to blind persons m the light of their knowledge of local circumstances and needs. The new obligation upon local authorities, to take into account the needs of any members of the blind person's household who are dependent upon him will ensure, I hope, that the blind person will receive the full benefit of any assistance given. I think there is another matter which I can add in support of this proposal, and that is that it will also avoid the necessity of two forms of assistance to members of the same household—assistance under the Blind Persons Act, and assistance under the Poor Law, which are administered by different committees of the local authorities.
1900 There is another matter which has been of some difficulty, so far as local authorities are concerned, with which, no doubt, a number of Members of this House will be familiar. Difficulties have, from time to time, arisen in determining which council shall bear the cost of assistance granted to a blind person who moves from one district to another. This is a matter upon which we have naturally consulted the authorities. I will give an instance of the difficulty of determining chargeability. It may arise in connection with young blind persons who move from a county, in order to be trained in the workshop of a county borough, and, on completion of the training, settle in the county borough itself. A Clause in the Bill provides that the life of the blind person is divided into periods of five years, starting from the date on which any assistance is provided by a local authority in England or Wales. If in any such five-year period the blind person has lived for 12 or more consecutive months within the area of one local authority, the cost of assistance granted to him in the succeeding period of five years is charged on that particular authority. On the other hand, where the blind person has lived for 12 or more consecutive months in the areas of more than one local authority, the cost of assistance granted to him in the succeeding five years is charged to the local authority in whose area he last lived for 12 successive months or more in the definitive period. We hope, arid I am sure the local authorities hope, that the scheme, which is for their advantage, will work smoothly. If difficulties do arise, it is provided that they shall be determined by the Minister.
Clause 2 (1, a) empowers a local authority to pay or contribute towards the payment of the funeral expenses of a blind person. That Clause has been inserted at the suggestion of local authorities who have represented that since as the law now stands, such expenditure can be incurred only under the Poor Law powers, administrative difficulties may otherwise arise when blind persons are dealt with exclusively under the Blind Persons Act. This provision is inserted to deal with such a contingency.
Questions have been put to me about the position of voluntary organisations, and whether they would be affected in any 1901 way by the provisions of this Measure. I would like to testify, from a knowledge now of some years, that the State and the local authorities and the voluntary agencies each have, as I believe, their special part to play, in co-operation with each other, in services for the welfare of the blind, and I think most people will agree that that has been a successful partnership. I hope that the voluntary agencies will be able to go on with their good work. I believe that if it ceased it would deprive the blind of very many benefits. Most local authorities employ voluntary agencies to carry out one or more of the services for which they are responsible, and I have no doubt that they do so because they are satisfied that those services are best carried out in that way in the interests of blind persons themselves. A great deal of the work done for the blind all over the world has been due to the initiative and work of voluntary agencies.
I was looking the other day at a fine piece of work by a voluntary agency in this country, which I am sure will commend itself to the House, for increasing the provision of books for the blind. I saw that a well known literary man after a visit to the National Institute for the Blind said, "The reader of Braille has two advantages over the readers of letterpress; his choice of books is limited and on cold nights be can read under the bedclothes." Lovers of books will no doubt appreciate the latter advantage, but I rather doubt the first. It is very costly indeed to produce books in Braille, but I am glad to note that an increasing number are being produced. Last year 25,000 bound volumes in Braille and over 17,000 pamphlets were produced. To my mind one of the most satisfactory things is that this wonderful source of pleasure and education for the blind has been produced and made largely by the blind people themselves. For those, of course, who cannot read in that way, a great deal has been done in connection with the "Moon" type of book, which has been of great value; and one of the most interesting developments, I suppose, is the increasing number of talking books for those who cannot read in the form of gramophone records. I can only say in this connection—and I am sure the blind would say it themselves if they spoke here to-day—how much the blind owe to the British Broadcasting Corporation for 1902 the fine services they provide, which, I am sure, have opened up new fields for blind persons.
This Bill will, of course, in no way check or retard the marked progress in welfare services for the blind in preventive work, in the amelioration of their conditions, and in the provision, to which I know they attach so much importance, for opportunities for occupation and industry. I am sure everybody in the House will want these efforts to continue, so as to give blind people as many contacts as possible with life and the world. I think no better service can be rendered to many blind people than to provide them with training and employment. It says much for the adaptability of the blind that many of them can fill, and are filling to-day, positions, not only of responsibility, but such as require considerable technical and mechanical skill and aptitude. It certainly can be said that the blind have contributed many able members to the various professions, and have also supplied many skilful and industrious craftsmen to trade and industry.
I would also like to make this observation Notwithstanding the provisions of this Bill, and what is already on the Statute Book. I am sure we shall not overlook, in connection with all our legislative efforts, the importance of the prevention of blindness. T had the opportunity a little while ago to call the attention of local authorities to the recommendations contained in the valuable and comprehensive report on the prevention of blindness by the Standing Committee of the Union of County Associations for the Blind, and, undoubtedly, the measures taken, through the public health and social medical services, for the prevention of infantile blindness and the preservation of the sight of school children, are having an increasing effect in restricting the number of persons becoming blind in early life. H anyone questions the money spent on these services, I say it is one of the best forms of expenditure in the world. The local authorities possess wide powers in this connection, and from October last, when the Public Health Act, 1936, came into operation, the formal consent of the Ministry of Health to arrangements for treatment has no longer been necessary. I want that to be fully understood, because it was the intention of this House when the Measure was passed.
I also want to emphasise once again not 1903 only to this House, but to local authorities and those interested in this work, the importance of home visiting and home teaching in connection with the work of the blind. Efficient visiting helps to ensure the discovery of cases of blindness, and of the extent of individual needs and the provision and teaching of reading and pastime occupations, which are so necessary and desirable to-day. I feel that we particularly want to see the blind trained in the early years of their affliction; later years, unfortunately, often make this quite impossible. I would finally commend the work of the certificated home teachers. That is undoubtedly most valuable work, and I am glad to know that there are to-day some 450 home teachers employed by the local authorities and voluntary organisations. Therefore, I want the House to feel that, although this Bill is being introduced to-day as a contribution to help our friends, the blind people, it is very necessary to emphasise that this other work must go on. It is in the work of prevention especially for the younger generation, that, I believe, in the end the greatest value can be secured.
Blind people to-day do not ask for pity, but all will agree that they have an overwhelming right to receive a helping hand whenever it is practicable for us to give it, and it is in the hope that these proposals will diminish some of the hardships which they bear so manfully and cheerfully, that I present them to the House, assured that they will receive support from every hon. Member.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Greenwood
Whenever the right hon. Gentleman follows me in this House he has a formula which he invariable uses—" The House has listened to a characteristic speech from the right hon. Gentleman." It never conveys much to me, but, no doubt, to the right hon. Gentleman and his friends, it is pregnant with meaning. The right hon. Gentleman himself has made a characteristic speech this afternoon. I know no Minister who can put his goods in the shop window to better advantage than the right hon. Gentleman. He is a sort of political Woolworths. The goods are not ever worth very much, but they look good in the shop window, and they are very attractive. I am not saying that 1904 what the right hon. Gentleman introduces into this House is cheap and nasty. He is so clever that his proposals are always cheap and nice, but cheap certainly. The greater part of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman has been concerned not with the Bill itself, but with general observations about the welfare of the blind, and I am not surprised that he should have relegated the Bill, the Second Reading of which he is moving, to the second place in his speech.
I agree with him that the blind seek no pity. The blind want no charity, they do not even ask for sympathy, but they have a fundamental demand for justice. The blind—and I know very many of them—bear themselves always with extraordinary fortitude, courage and cheerfulness, and their desire is to be regarded as normal. There is a moral obligation upon the community to do what it can to enable them, as far as is practicable, to lead normal lives. The problem that we have before us to-day is not a very large one. We have about 76,000 registered blind persons in Great Britain. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not courteous to our sightless citizens to re and them as aged at 50, or, as under this Bill, aged at 40, and I also suggest—and I wish he had taken a broader sweep of his responsibilities in this matter—that it would be far better to take the blind out of the Old Age Pensions Acts altogether and deal with them as a problem, and not let the man or woman who is 40 now, middle aged, be regarded as an old age person. In 1920, in the principal Act, the age for receipt of ordinary pensions of the blind was reduced from 70 to 50 years of age. To-day pretty nearly three-quarters of the blind are ever 50. The recognition by Parliament of the need for special treatment of the aged was, in my view, the recognition of a very vital principle. That principle is admitted by the right hon. Gentleman to-day in his proposal to reduce the age at which the pension shall be received to 40.
We must keep this Bill in its right perspective. It is not the major Bill which the right hon. Gentleman would like to persuade the House it is. It will result— and I am very grateful for it—in bringing into pension in England and Wales about 7,000 people between 40 and 50. It will involve the State in a maximum 1905 of expenditure of about £160,000 per year. I say that it is good that the age should be reduced from 50 to 40, and the right hon. Gentleman made the best of his case by quoting from the report of the Advisory Committee. But why 40? Why not 35? Why not 30? Why not the age at which a blind child is handed over by the local education authority to a hard and difficult world? The right hon. Gentleman has told us—and we are all very glad that it should be so—that magnificent work has been done among young people, and that there is a very substantial decline in blindness among children, and to extend it to the age of 18 would be a relatively small expenditure on the part of the State, for, as the right hon. Gentleman has told us, the incidence of blindness increases with age. There are now, between 16 and 40 years of age, only 9,500 blind people, and the cost would be small.
This House has accepted the principle that under the Poor Law, under the Unemployment Assistance Board, the first 7s. 6d. of health insurance benefit should not be taken into account. It is agreed that the first pound of a disabled exservice man's pension should not be taken into account. That principle, in my view, is right, and for this reason. In the case of the ex-service man, disabled in the Great War, the pension that he receives is what the State regards as necessary to bring him up to normality. It is as much a part of himself as every vein in his body. It is a payment made, not out of charity, not even because of sympathy, but in order to restore that person, as far as possible, to a normal condition of life, and it ought to be as untouchable as his own private honour. If that be so with regard to those who suffered in the Great War, it ought to be equally so regarding those people upon whom the dreadful affliction of blindness has fallen. A boy or girl at 18 who embarks on life, whatever the local education authority may have done for them, is still handicapped and ought to be able to receive this somewhat meagre pension, the value which the State places on the loss of sight, of 10s. a week. I am sorry, as I have said, that the right hon. Gentleman did not take a broader view of his opportunities. I am not sure that I can persuade the right hon. Gentleman to reduce the age to 18, but I leave the thought in his mind.
1906 Then we are faced with another problem. I am not so sure that very many of the 7,000 persons between 40 and 50 are, in fact, going to be any better off because of this Bill. I think we shall find that it is small in extent, and is a subtle way in which the right hon. Gentleman is trying to subsidise local authorities, for they will take into account, in the provision that they make for the blind, the 10s. pension. It is a complaint of blind pensioners over 50 years of age to-day that they do not enjoy their pension. The local authority makes provision for maintenance, but the 10s. is taken away from the amount that the blind people would otherwise have received. If the principles I have enunciated are right, that where there is physical defect which the State turns into money and calls it a pension, that pension ought not to be taken into account by the local authorities. I should have liked the right hon. Gentleman to have made that perfectly clear. I am not one of those who wish to increase the financial obligations of local authorities, but the sum is so small that it seems to me reasonable to ask that legislation should make it impossible for the local authority to take away from the pensioner the pension which the State has given him because of his affliction. I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman has done something to take the blind away from the Poor Law. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) has been dealing with this matter for a very long time, and I have been for 20 years doing everything I could to get everybody away from the Poor Law. I dislike the treatment that is meted out to people who have to come under the harrow of the Poor Law, and I dislike especially the contact with the Poor Law of those suffering from serious physical defect for which they are not responsible.
The Bill does two main things. It reduces the pensionable age from 50 to 40, and to that extent it will assist the local authorities. The pensioners will be little better off. However, I accept this recognition that a blind person of 40 is entitled to some consideration from the State. In the second place, the Bill does something to take people away from the Poor Law. In the Committee stage I may have other questions to raise, although the drafting of the sub-title of 1907 the Bill will rather cramp me. There is, however, the Motion "that the Clause stand part," and I may have something to say then. I should like to draw attention to Clause 2, where there is a re-draft of Section 2 of the Act of 1920. The words: "where in combination or otherwise," referring to the local authorities, are left out of the Bill. I should like to know whether, in some way that is not recognisable by the layman, there is some deep motive behind the exclusion of these words.
§ Mr. Greenwood
In the principal Act the words are "whether in combination or otherwise," and they are not included in the redraft. I should like to know whether in the event of certain schemes which the right hon. Gentleman has approved having to be modified because of the new obligations he has put in Clause 2, those schemes will have to be re-submitted, because out of Section 2 of the principal Act there has gone the reference to the approval of the Minister. I have long suspected the right hon. Gentleman of always trying to wriggle out of his responsibilities. I am not satisfied that that is sound policy.
I do not want to say anything on the eider aspect of the subject, since the right hon. Gentleman spent the greater part of his speech talking irrelevantly about things which are not in the Bill. He spoke of the importance of training, the importance of steps necessary for the prevention of blindness, and the wide powers which have been conferred on local authorities. I should like to know what he means to do about these matters. He says now in this Bill that the approval of the Minister is not necessary, but after the speech he has made to-day if the blind community are to rely upon it, it will require a little initiative from the right hon. Gentleman to make the schemes now in existence far more effective. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the schemes submitted under the Act of 1920 were not all equally good. I do not put it any worse than that. It is certainly true that there are certain authorities who are not doing as much in fulfilling their obligations to their blind people as other authorities. The responsibility rests upon the right hon. Gentleman to deal with that 1908 problem. The schemes now are haphazard. I regard some of them as highly unsatisfactory, and some of them will have to be amended by the new duties which the right hon. Gentleman is imposing under Clause 2 with regard to taking blind people out of the Poor Law.
I should have liked the right hon. Gentleman to have undertaken the larger problem of establishing proper regional authorities for the welfare of the blind. When you are dealing in Great Britain with 76,000 people, the average size of the local authority is such that too few of these people will come in their charge for them to be able to provide a full and adequate service. The fewer the people you have to deal with the larger the administering authority should be, and although one would not like the authorities too large, I am of opinion that from the view of efficiency the larger authorities are necessary. I will not refer to the delicate question of the block grant, except to say that I never agreed with the block grant, and I was never beaten in argument on it but only in numbers. Where you are dealing with a special problem there is something to be said for a percentage grant, but I think this country would honour itself if it restored the 75 per cent. Exchequer grant to local authorities for the welfare of the blind. The sum would be negligible, but the happiness that would be brought to our blind comrades would be inestimable, because hard-hit local authorities would be able to fulfil their responsibilities in a way that they have not been fulfilled before.
We shall not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. We can only regret that it does not show a broader and nobler vision. It will be difficult for us, according to the terms of the sub-title of the Bill, to make substantial Amendments. We accept the Measure for what it is worth, which is not much, in the hope that in the very near future the right hon. Gentleman will introduce a charter for the blind which will bring to the blind a new happiness and a new dignity and will serve to enhance the dignity of our people.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Mr. White
I am inclined to agree with the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) that the observations of the Minister of Health were not wholly devoted to the proposals in the Bill, and 1909 that the wider aspects of the whole duty of sighted people to those who are afflicted with blindness do not find a place in the Bill. I share the general regret that the Bill is not of wider scope and calculated to bring us nearer to the time when Parliament and the people of the country will finally discharge their whole duty to the blind. I have an abiding memory of a deputation from non-sighted people which was received in May this year by the Minister of Health. I was led, as a result of that deputation, to believe that there is no one who can appreciate the feelings of the blind and can state their case with such ability, earnestness and purpose as the blind people themselves. Anyone present on that occasion could not but be struck by the strength of the case, which was put with simple dignity. I find myself regretting that we have not associated with us to-day some former colleagues who, overcoming their physical difficulties, have risen to positions where they have been able to make substantial and important contributions to our deliberations. We have a lively and grateful recollection of Sir Ian Fraser, and we also remember that: in former Parliaments Mr. Fred Martin, with courage and ability, took part on equal terms with the rest of us in considering questions brought before the House.
In the "Times" to-day I notice a letter from Sir Ian Fraser welcoming this Bill as a small and kindly contribution towards the needs and necessities of the blind. The question that I am asking myself, and perhaps hon. Members in all parts of the House are asking themselves the same question, is whether Parliament at this stage is going to be content, or ought to be content, with a small and kindly contribution towards the major problem of our duty towards the blind. As Sir Ian Fraser says;It is a substantial step towards the civilian disability pension for blindness which it is my hope will one day he granted.That, as I understand it, is the proposition which the right hon. Member for Wakefield left to the kindly memory of the Minister, and I would associate myself and my friends with it in the hope that it is an advance towards a civilian disability pension for the blind. This is not a step which should be insuperable for Parliament; I can see no reason why it should be impossible. If it is I should 1910 like to know the reason. We are not dealing with enormous costs. If this is beyond the compass of the British Parliament, then we are in a much worse state than can possibly be imagined. We sometimes fail in perspective. We are dealing with a few hundred thousand pounds which would enable Parliament to perform a duty to the blind which everyone would see done with a great deal of satisfaction. I do not think the financial reason is sufficient for holding back. In recent times we have passed, almost without comment, increases of expenditure of £1,000,000 to the Unemployment Assistance Board, not for any benefits to its clients, but simply for it to perform services and carry out its administration, although the number of payments it is making are less than half what they were when the board came into operation. There should be a general review of our services to get a proper perspective and devote some of the money to far better advantage.
I would invite the House to discharge a duty which is almost a matter of conscience towards those who are unfortunately blind. Ought we not really to finish this job and discharge our whole responsibility? I realise that no sighted person can enter into the feelings of the blind completely; it is not humanly possible. But one of the most painful feelings and experience is the sensation that they are dependent upon others. The fact that they are blind places a further disability on all members of their household which may be ill-placed to carry the burden. That feeling does not begin at the age of 40; it is just as likely to be there at the age of 18. That is a point which we must bear in mind. I think the dictates of common sense and our feelings indicate that we should go further than is proposed in the Bill.
I should like to associate myself with the right hon. Member for Wakefield and ask for a further explanation with regard to the modification in Clause 2. I understand that this Clause does not repeal Section II of the principal Act, and if that is the case, our anxiety and uncertainty in the matter may be displaced, but it strikes me as curious that the words "whether in combination or otherwise" have been omitted from Clause 2. It is most important that there should be the widest measure of co-operation between various authorities. In Scotland some 21 authorities have 1911 combined and made a satisfactory scheme, which I understand is working very well. It seems to me quite unreasonable to expect a small authority to make provision for the training and wellbeing of blind persons in their area, and it is obviously to the advantage of everybody that we should have the largest authority possible making proper provision which it can well do, and cooperating with small authorities for carrying out this duty. I hope we shall hear that it is the intention of the Minister to encourage that process.
In Clause 3 the Parliamentary draftsman with great skill has drawn up a Clause which, no doubt, is clear to lawyers, but which leads to a good deal of thought on the part of a layman. I take it that this is a simplification of the present method, but I think there is a good deal to be said for the argument put forward by many non-sighted friends, that it would be far better and simpler if any liability arising under the law from blindness should reside permanently with the authority of the area in which the blind person was living during the 12 months in which he became blind. That would be a simplification, and would be a method which would deal more fairly between authority and authority than the arrangements which exist at the present time. Local authorities, like Bolton and Liverpool, because they are well in advance in their preparations for helping the blind in hospitals and by training, have attracted to their areas large numbers of blind persons from adjoining territories. There is nothing in the air or the occupations of Bolton and Liverpool which lead to a greater incidence of blindness. I have read this Clause with such intelligence as I have, and am not satisfied that it is a better or simpler plan than the one I am advocating.
Like hon. Members above the Gangway my friends and I are glad that the Bill has been introduced. We regret that the Minister has not introduced a wider and bolder Measure, because that is what I think the House would wish him to do. It is, I know, most ungracious to look a gift horse in the mouth—a thing which I am at all times most reluctant to do— and if I do so on this occasion with such particularity, it is because I am convinced that the Minister only wants to be 1912 assured that hon. Members in all parts of the House are behind him. to bring in a Bill which would meet the desires and wishes of the whole House and make the Measure a much more substantial and better step than is proposed in this Bill.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Sir Francis Fremantle
I do not wish to spend much time in recording the great satisfaction which any medical man must feel at the general agreement in the House on a Measure which is proposed as a small step towards improving the lot of those for whom we all have so much sympathy. But there is this to be said, and I think it should be said on the last point put forward by the hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White). He is a specialist in this particular matter, and the worst of a specialist is that he naturally emphasises one thing to the exclusion of others. If there is to be any extension of the Measure later on, I should warmly endorse it. I should equally wish to draw attention to the fact, that whereas provision has been made for the blind, first, in giving pensions at 70, then dropping the age to 50 and now to 40, no special provision has been made for the deaf. Yet the deaf are almost as tragic as the blind—perhaps more tragic in one way. When you see a blind person your heart is moved, but when you see a deaf person who looks like an ordinary person he is considered dull and surly because of his deafness. There is not the same sympathy. I hope those who are asking for an extension of this Bill will not be deaf to the needs of the deaf. It is only natural, when we are extending a measure of assistance for one particular infirmity, to suggest that in the case of other afflictions some considerations should also be paid.
But when we are doing that should we not go further as regards the system. The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) referred to the system of pensions for ex-service men. It occurs to me, and it must occur to the House, that to extend pensions on a flat level according to age, quite regardless of disabilities one way or another, is not a scientific way to meet the needs of the occasion. We have 20 years' experience now of the system of dealing with exservice men, to whom help is given according to their degree of disability assessed in a most remarkably accurate way by a body of experts in the Pensions 1913 Ministry. I believe that in the same way you can assess the needs more or less of the blind and give them similar help whether they are 70 years of age, 60, 50, 40, and even down to 18 years of age. Surely that suggestion must have been made before, and I am a little surprised that use has not been made of it, since it would be a more scientific way of assessing the needs of blind persons. However, I fear that it would not be possible to amend the Measure in that way within the financial commitments of the Bill.
I wish now to pass to one of the most elementary and essential considerations which we must have in mind in dealing with this Bill, that is, the prevention of the trouble. The Minister gave us the welcome news that the number of cases of blindness of children between the ages of five and to years has been reduced by about one-third of what it was 12 years ago. That is largely due to the measures that have been taken to cope with ophthalmia of the newly-born. Hon. Members know that it has been possible to take those measures because of the fact that the horrible convention of concealing venereal disease has been abolished, with the result that proper treatment has been given for the prevention of it, and that has led to a reduction in the number of appalling tragedies of little infants being born practically blind and becoming blind during the first few days of their life.
To what has that been due? Mainly to the operations of the British Social Hygiene Council, a body which was originally set up by the present Prime Minister, and which is now largely supported by local authorities giving subventions to it. I would like to take this opportunity to urge that when we are pouring forth money and taking measures, although slight ones, to cause some amelioration in the position, a good deal more than is being clone at present ought to be done for the prevention of the trouble. Many local authorities sub- scribe to the British Social Hygiene Council, but many neglect their duties and do not. There are many possibilities of extending the operations of this organisation, which has already done such magnificent work during the past 12 years. The bigger local authorities, in particular, are able to have their own organisation and officials to pursue this 1914 work, but the smaller authorities throughout the country, especially those which are in financial or other difficulties, ought to give further support to the British Social Hygiene Council so that it can pursue the work.
There is another measure of prevention which I wish to impress upon the House. Last year the Midwifery Act was passed, and now, as a result of an increase in personnel an improvement of training, under the supervision and with the skilled assistance of the midwives of the country, we have a very fine midwifery service which I hope, within the next few years, will be improved almost to perfection. I hope that the result of these measures and activities will be a diminution in the provision that is necessary for blind persons from the age of 40 upwards, which will enable us to make provision for blind persons from the age of 18 upwards. I hope we shall be able to use the money that may be saved as a result of a smaller number of persons becoming blind in future years for the purpose of making suitable arrangements to provide for those whose need is greater than the need of the generality.
In conclusion, while always wishing to further provisions for helping those who are disabled in one way or another, I wish to impress upon such people—if it be necessary—and upon those authorities and persons who wish to support them, the prime necessity of the people so assisted, helping themselves, for by making a proper use of the assistance given to them, they can treble its value. The blind as a whole are not backward in making full use of their own powers, but it should be emphasised that the assistance given by this Bill should not he regarded simply as so much dole measured out; rather, it should be considered as assistance which, with their own help, will enable them to triumph over their disabilities, as many of them do so splendidly at present. I am glad to support this Measure, which is a further useful contribution to assist the blind.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Lansbury
I wish to join in the chorus of approval of this Bill, as far as it goes, and also to congratulate the Minister upon being such an excellent showman of any goods that he has to display. This afternoon, however, he has given us some remarks on the general 1915 question of the treatment of the blind and has not said very much about the Bill, of what might have been in it or the reason it is not in it. No one knows better than the right hon. Gentleman the sort of Bill that ought to have been brought forward to-day, and he has taken very good care not to say anything about it.
I wish to say a few words about the assessment of disability. The hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) stated that he was very much in favour of the system laid down for ex-service men, but my experience is that that is not a good system for the persons concerned. I do not think physical disability can be assessed in the sort of pseudoscientific manner in which doctors and others try to do it. I have suffered from a disability which, if I had had to earn my living in the ordinary way, would have been a great hindrance to me. Sometimes that disability it much worse than it is at other times, but if I had had to exist on assistance based upon such a system of assessment, I am sure it would often have failed to satisfy my needs. I hope hon. Members will dismiss from their minds that sort of method of dealing with the blind.
I would like to refer briefly to the deaf. All of us wish to assist those who are helpless, no matter what may be the cause, and I think this country can take some credit to itself for the fact that during the last 30 or 40 years a great advance has been made in treating people who are mentally or physically disabled, whether they be children or adults. The manner in which at least some education authorities are dealing with blind or deaf children is indeed wonderful. I am carried away in admiration when I go to a London County Council school for deaf children, or when I see the treatment that is given to the blind.
The right hon. Gentleman took pains to tell us of the good work and great services done by the voluntary organisations. I think there is nobody on this side of the House who would belittle the work that has been, and still is being, done by voluntary organisations. I understand that all the Braille books that are being produced, and the records that are being made so that books can be read to the blind, are the result of private efforts. 1916 But every social service that we have created has grown Cut of philanthropic efforts, and it has grown out of them because of the widening sense of social responsibility and the fact that private philanthrophy, however good people may be, has never been able really to fill the bill. I think that in this respect the Minister has not lived up to the record of the Government. The unemployed have been made very largely a national charge, and I am sure that within a very few years the whole of the able bodied will have been taken entirely away from the Poor Law. Theoretically that has been done.
I think the mistake which the Minister has made has been in bringing forward this small Bill rather than in taking the charge of dealing with the blind altogether away from the local authorities. The small deputation of representatives of blind persons which I took to the right hon. Gentleman a few months ago made the point—-which was also made by my right hon. Friend—that this money will, to a large extent, go to the local authorities, and at the time they felt that the Government, in lowering the age, as they are doing now, ought not to do it in such a manner as to relieve the local authorities, as it were, of that amount of expenditure which they are now obliged to make. I hope that soon, instead of leaving it to the whim of local authorities to fix one standard in one district and another standard in some other district, we shall have a national organisation, administered, if you please, through local authorities or area authorities, as was suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood). What I am pleading for is that we should have some uniformity, not a uniformity that is dependent upon the opinions of different local authorities, but a uniformity that will be rational and paid for nationally.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the
Ministry of Health (Mr. Bernays): Is the right hon. Gentleman advocating that the State should assume all the obligations towards blind persons?
§ Mr. Lansbury
That is my fundamental object—that the State should take over the entire cost of assisting the blind. There is nothing to be said against it. I am very heterodox on this question of local and national expenditure. The 1917 money has to come from somewhere, and, in my judgment, it is better that it should come from the whole body of citizens, than from this place or that place, with each authority applying a different standard. [An HON. MEMBER: "And some applying no standard."] Some have no standard at all, but, thank goodness, they are very few. There is, however, a great difference between what a man may be able to get, say, in West Ham—and I only use this as an illustration—and what he may be able to get in the County of London. I would like to have all those differences swept away. I would like the Government to undertake the whole cost of dealing with the blind and make it a national charge.
I would also like to see the fine work which has been started in the provision of books and records subsidised, if not entirely taken over by the Government. If I were Minister of Health I would try to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to find the money required for taking over that great work. One of the most terrible drawbacks suffered by the blind person is the inability to read as we are able to read The cost of having books printed in Braille is very high, and the provision of records is also very costly. I hope that at a future time, when the present Parliamentary Secretary is in the Minister's place, he will round off the piece of work represented by this Bill, in the manner which I have suggested. As regards Clause 3, I think it is an anachronism that it should be necessary to go over all this wretched settlement business in order to find out where a man belongs to, and so forth. I think all local authorities should undertake to care for these people wherever they come from without worrying about whether it will be possible to make a claim against some other district or not. Usually, local authorities spend more money in finding out where the people come from, in order to make claims, than they get out of the claims—and I speak on this matter with some experience and knowledge.
I was glad to hear the Minister's reference to Members of this House. One of my earliest recollections is that of hearing Henry Fawcett, the blind Postmaster-General. Years ago, there was not a man to whom I listened with greater pleasure. He had conquered his disability and become one of the most brilliant Members of this House. I am glad to have had a 1918 hand in at least two efforts on behalf of the blind. One was a Motion which was moved either by myself, or by my friend Frank Smith of the London County Council, which resulted in ophthalmia neonatorum being made a notifiable disease. I believe the mere necessity of notification has had a great deal to do with reducing the number of blind people in this country. As to the other effort to which I refer, I hope that Government offices generally will follow the example which we set at the Office of Works when we employed a blind girl as a shorthand typist. It was marvellous how that girl did the work, and it showed the great benefit of training in the case of young persons who are blind. I am referring particularly to the shorthand because we do not wish young people who are blind to grow up with the feeling that they must take any sort of job. We want them to feel that anything is open to them, if the necessary facilities are placed at their disposal and are made use of by them.
It would be absurd for us to dream of opposing this Bill, but we would like to amend it. We would like it to be made broader on the lines which I have indicated, and I stress the point which has already been made that in this as in so many other cases prevention should be our real aim. The Bill represents another step along the road. Years ago when some of us expounded the doctrine of the prevention of destitution and of pain many people laughed at us, but the work which was then started is going on, and it is now accepted as an axiom in our social services that it is much better to deal with disease and destitution by way of prevention than to wait until it is necessary to deal with the effects of those evils. As I say, this is a step in that direction, and I wish I could say that our country was doing the same thing in regard to a much greater evil, namely, war.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Allan Chapman
There was one point in the eloquent speech of the right hon. Gentleman who has just concluded which struck me, and that was his reference to the question of the blind being made a national charge. I do not know that I go the whole way with the right hon. Gentleman, and I have a feeling that there is another side of the case from that which he presented but it is, possibly, a question for investigation and one which ought to be borne in 1919 mind. The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the "Showmanship" of the Minister of Health. We have heard a great deal about that, and my personal opinion is that it has been grossly unfair. After all, the main duty cf the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and his friends is to oppose. The right hon. Gentleman I thought in his reference to my right hon. Friend and Woolworths was a little beside the point. When he made that remark I thought the right hon. Gentleman himself was in the penny bazaar. A little later on, he rose to Marks and Spencers, but he did not stay there very long.
The representatives of the blind people who visited this House yesterday paid an eloquent tribute to the sympathy and understanding of my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I think it would be a great pity if they were to get the idea that we regarded this Bill as a poor Bill. I do not agree with that view at all. I think the Bill is a very beautiful legislative child, if not quite as large as some of us would like. While many of us wished to see a larger Measure, do net let us overlook the fact that the Bill has some important points to recommend it. The blind people themselves were most emphatic in saying that they desired it to go through, and that there were great advantages in it. I think hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite in their criticisms of my right hon. Friend have overlooked one important factor. It is that although my right hon. Friend would no doubt like to get at the purse for this purpose, he does not control the pursestrings. He has to press his demand with all the vigour he can on an adamantine Treasury. I regret that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Financial Secretary who is a Scotsman, and who recently defended the threepenny piece so eloquently is not on the Front Bench at present, otherwise we might appeal to him and soften his heart so that he would listen to the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health and persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to loosen those purse strings a little for this just cause.
I am sure that this House always welcomes any Measure for improving the lot of the blind, and that any Measure of 1920 that kind would be regarded as definitely non-party. Let us also remember that major Bills dealing with the care of the blind are not frequent. I think I am correct in saying that the last major Measure of this kind was introduced 17 years ago. That is a long time, and I think hon. Members in all parts of the House are glad at the prospect of passing the present Bill. Those who have taken part in this discussion have all been enthusiastic for the excellent cause which we are espousing, and perhaps our enthusiasm has carried us away to some extent. It is true that we would like to see a rather more comprehensive Bill. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would have the whole House behind him if he represented to the Treasury that, whatever criticisms the House might be disposed to make of other expenditure, when it came to dealing with the needs of blind persons, that was one subject on which the House would not insist upon economy. I think it has been made clear in all parts of the House that the sympathy of hon. Members generally is emphatically with the Minister in anything he can do to enlarge the scope of measures taken for the assistance of the blind, and if we cannot do much more with the actual proposals now before us, I hope the Minister will be emboldened by the reception with which this Bill has met, to consider future legislation for the benefit of the blind.
I gather from conversations which I have had with blind persons recently that they were expecting something a little larger in scope than this Bill, but we were careful when we were discussing matters with them yesterday not to raise their hopes unduly by suggesting that it would be possible to go much further than this Bill at the present time. I would earnestly plead, however, with my right hon. Friend, and I know my words will not fall idly, to consider the fact that he would carry the House with him in any proposals to extend the scope of this legislation. I say, frankly, that I find myself to some extent in agreement with what has been said from the benches opposite on the question of age. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield asked why the age of 40 should be specified. There he made a point which I had on my own notes, and which I am sure is on the notes of other hon. Members who propose to take part in this Debate.
1921 The Minister quoted a letter from the Secretary of the National Institute for the Blind which spoke of a man being "on the threshold of unemployability" at the age of 40. I think a man is on the threshold of unemployability, whatever his age may be, at the point where his special, more juvenile, education ceases and if it has failed to make him employable. It is not possible to say that the age of 40 is the "threshold of unemployability" in the case of all people who are afflicted by blindness. I will not press that point further because other hon. Members have, in more eloquent words than I could command, given the reasons why that age should not be regarded as a static figure.
But there is one other important point to which I would direct the Minister's attention, and that is the definition of blindness dealt with in Clause 5. Some of the blind institutions in Scotland have been making representations on this among a great many other matters. Most of the other matters really involve Committee points, but on the definition of blindness, I would like to read an extract from a letter from the Secretaries of the Royal Blind Asylum and School, Edinburgh;… it would be an unfortunate result if the definition of Blind contained in the Blind Persons Bill is repeated in this Bill and practically given permanency. The Directors feel that this definition of Blindness is the basis of legislative and charitable work for the Blind and that an effort should be made to frame a more definite and workable definition. They suggest that some of the leading Organisations for the Blind and the Ophthalmological Society he consulted.I think that is important, because we find children in our blind schools who are blind for purposes of education, but when they pass from that stage they do not qualify as blind persons. I think the Minister will have an admirable case for setting up a committee of experts, both lay and medical, to go into this question and try to evolve some scientific definition of blindness.
The figures which the Minister gave us on the subject of the decrease in blindness were I thought the most hopeful I have heard for a very long time and do credit to the interest of his Ministry. They will inspire blind people by the knowledge that the generation that is coming on will be given a better chance than they were given. One of the reasons why we 1922 might have made that age limit lower than 40 is the fact, as the Minister pointed out in his speech, that the incidence of blindness is not increasing and that any apparent increase has been clue to more willing registration. I think I am correct in saying that, as far as Scotland is concerned, there is a definite improvement arid that the number of blind people is going down year by year, thank God; and we hope it will continue to do so. We can and we must assist that process by passing legislation through this House to prevent blindness, to cure it, and to make absolutely certain that the necessary steps are taken as early as possible, because had we been able to get this age limit down below 40, for instance, the financial charge would have been, as it is, a diminishing charge in the future. One believes that the means of prevention that will be brought forward will make blindness decrease and so hasten the charge as a diminishing one. I am certain that, had we had a chance of getting at the Treasury, we could have persuaded them on this, and that the amount involved would not be so very large.
May I, in conclusion on this point of the prevention of blindness, ask for the sympathy of the House in a small matter? I hope, in the course of a week or two to introduce, with the permission of the House under the Ten-Minute Rule, a private Member's Bill to deal with the treatment and prevention of blindness in Scotland, and I sincerely trust the House will give me its sympathy and will encourage the Scottish Office to aid me in getting a Second Reading of that Bill. I want to finish, as a I started, by congratulating my right hon. Friend on having brought forward this Bill and by urging him not to be misled by hon. Members opposite, because, after all, it is their duty to oppose, though in their heart of hearts they are extremely pleased that this Blind Persons Bill has been brought forward, and I am sure welcome it most heartily.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen
I wish to say a few words in support of the appeal that has been made to the Minister to make his Bill a little bit broader. On behalf of my hon. Friends here and myself, I want to say how much we regret the slow progress that is made with regard to this matter of social reform. In every branch we 1923 seem to be able to get only a little bit at a time, and I think it is very much to be regretted that the right hon. Gentleman did not show a little more of the courage, with regard to this particular Measure, that he has displayed on many occasions. I have been looking at the Financial Resolution, and I notice that it is so drawn as to make impossible an Amendment in the Bill with regard to the reduction of the age below 40. I wonder whether it is not one of the first signs that the statement of the Prime Minister yesterday with regard to the drafting of Financial Resolutions is not going to be observed. As a Member of the Committee, I wanted something much more drastic than most other Members on that Committee with regard to this matter, but I think, at least on a Measure like this, the Minister should have given the House an opportunity of saying something with regard to the age that should be inserted in the Bill.
I think the right hon. Gentleman above the Gangway made a most admirable examination of the Bill and its defects, and I was very glad indeed to hear him lay down the principle that he thinks ought to be observed with regard to assistance in these cases, namely, that the assistance should be such as to put persons receiving it into a position of normality with others. There was one interesting point that he made in that connection, when he drew attention to the 7s. 6d. of the National Health Insurance and how it was laid down that that 75. 6d. was not to be taken into account in connection with assistance provided under the Poor Law, and I should like to take that as an illustration of what might happen here with regard to the treatment of the blind. There is always the tendency on the part of local authorities to take this assistance into account where it should not be so taken, and I wish that the right hon. Gentleman above the Gangway would persuade his Labour colleagues on the Glasgow Town Council not to take it into account as they are doing at the present time. For example, people with the 7s. 6d. are having their claim for clothing refused or, if granted, granted only on a credit basis, and having to pay Is. a week from the 7s. 6d. The right hon. Gentleman laid down the principle so admirably to-day that I hope his colleagues in Glasgow will take full 1924 account of it and will agree with him that it would be dishonourable to act in that way and take those sums into account.
It appears to me that the Minister would have the full consent of the House if he were prepared to alter the Bill in order to make the age 18, and I would suggest, in view of the unanimous opinion of the House, that he should withdraw his Financial Resolution and deal with the matter once and for all in respect of these people. The hon. Member for Rutherglen (Mr. Chapman) was just as critical of the Bill as anybody else, though I admired the way in which, in the end, he congratulated the Minister after he had, as it were, hit him all over previously. I think that that hon. Member from the Minister's own side of the House may be taken as illustrative of what is practically the unanimous feeling in the House on this subject. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman need have any fear in going to the Treasury. It would be a great opportunity for him. A distinguished predecessor of his, namely, my colleague the late John Wheatley, in somewhat similar circumstances, came into conflict with the Treasury in connection with his Housing Bill, and showed his courage and his manliness in getting his Bill through, in spite of all the Treasury remonstrances. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that he should take a leaf out of his predecessor's book and do justice to the blind people, even though it might mean a little bit of conflict with the Treasury.
I also want to support what was said by the hon. Member who preceded me with regard to the definition of a blind person, and I think the Minister might give us the assurance that he will go into this question in order to get some improvement on the present position. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will, I am sure, have had the same experience as myself of people coming to them who, to all intents and purposes, are blind, but who are not able to come under the definition of blindness. They cannot get a job, and they are in a worse position than those who are able to get certified as blind people. They are in an absolutely hopeless position, and I believe that it is necessary for this House to do something in order to deal with the difficulties of those cases. One was mentioned, and I had a similar case, of a. person who had been accepted by an 1925 education authority as a blind person, and then, on coming out into the world afterwards, being told that after all, lie was not able to come under the definition of blindness laid down in the Blind Persons Act. I think that such a state of matters is intolerable.
The case of the deaf was menitoned, and I have the utmost sympathy with them and wish that something were done for I hem, as there are Members who on previous occasions have brought cases before the House and nothing has been clone. I want to add, however, to the case of the blind the case of the cripples. Throughout the country there are cripples certified as incurable, and they are in an even worse position than the blind. When they get out of a chair they are unable to move about. If they go outside, they need someone to take them about, and there is nothing for them but the Poor Law. I wish the Minister would give us some assurance, when he is replying, that something will be done in the way of legislation to give the cripples in the community an allowance, as is the case with regard to the blind. I think the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) was very sound when he said that the case of these people should be taken out of the scope of the old age pension idea altogether and put on the basis of their disability, which puts them into such a difficult position as compared with other members of the community; and then their old age pension rights should come to them in the same way as to normal people. This disability is something apart from their age, and I commend their case to the Minister of Health. There has been social reform for one section and another, and there are these incurable cripples who never seem to get any concession whatsoever. I therefore trust that the Government will do something for these people. I am sure the House would be unanimous in supporting me in my appeal on their behalf, and I hope that we shall get a promise of legislation which will bring them some hope.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland (Mr. James Reid)
I intervene at this point in the Debate only in order to make a few observations on the problem so far as it affects Scotland, and on the parts of the Bill which are specially directed to 1926 Scotland. The problem is almost identical in the two countries, and the existing practice does not differ in many respects. I do not intend to encroach upon the province of my hon. Friend who will reply to the Debate by dealing with general topics. I would like, however, to say that it seems to me unnecessary to belittle the provisions of this Bill merely because you happen to think it might have gone further. For example, I understand that at present there are approximately 4,800 blind people in Scotland who are drawing pensions, and it is estimated that the result of passing this Bill will be to increase the number by a further 1,000. That is not inconsiderable in comparison with the number of those who suffer from this disability.
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland
I think that the total number of registered blind people in Scotland is about 8,000, but I have not the precise figure. I will try to get it. Passing to the special case of Scotland, Clause 2 does not make a great difference so far as the blind person himself is concerned, because at present almost all the authorities deal with the blind persons, not under the Poor Law, but under the special powers in the Blind Persons Act. Clause 2 regularises the position for the blind person himself, but it makes a material and salutary change in that it takes away from the Poor Law the question of granting assistance to the blind person's dependants. It is not only unbusinesslike, but unfair that the dependants of a blind person should be required to have resort to the Poor Law. That unfortunate position is being removed by the Bill. A word was said about the scales which different local authorities apply. There does not seem to be much difficulty in that matter in Scotland because we are not troubled, as apparently certain authorities are in England, by the problem of migration of blind persons from one area to another. There is no substantial problem of that character, and for that reason Clause 3 is not made applicable to Scotland. There is no demand from the local authorities for its application. The only case in which there need be any contribution from one authority to another with regard to a person living in another area is where a blind person 1927 has gone into one of the cities to attend a workshop or place of training. Special provision is made for that in Clause 4.
Only one detailed criticism has been made with regard to the administration of the Bill in Scotland, and it was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. A. Chapman) and the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen). It related to the definition of blindness. In Scotland there was a good deal of difficulty at one time because there was no standardised method of determining whether a person was blind within the meaning of the Act. Some years ago the Department consulted the various ophthalmic surgeons concerned. They combined in making representations as to what was the best method of testing a blind person. That method has now been adopted and there is a universal test operating for the whole of Scotland under much more satisfactory conditions than previously applied. It has been operating for a considerable time. In every area except one, where there does not happen to be available more than one ophthalmic surgeon, the test is carried out by surgeons acting in pairs in regional clinics. Accordingly, people now have the best advice in the best surroundings, and, as far as I know, nobody has disputed the character or sufficiency of the test. Therefore, we have in Scotland gone a long way to meet the criticism of both lion Members; in fact, I think we may say we have forestalled criticism of that kind. The test has been operating since 1931.
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland
I have not the least doubt that the hon. Member has had cases of constituents who have failed the test, but there must always be border-line cases of people whose eyesight is far from good and who do not pass the test for blindness.
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland
There are, I think, five, but certainly four, regional clinics. The furthest north is at Inverness, but I presume that it covers the whole of the northern area. Certainly Edinburgh, Glasgow and the 1928 large cities are covered by clinics. With regard to the question by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths) about the number of blind persons in Scotland, I regret that the figure is not for the moment available.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Mr. W. H. Green
The discussion, which has been very interesting, must have been gratifying to the Minister, for the criticism has been directed practically to one point, and that has been shared equally by Members on both sides. The Bill, it seems to me, will put the Minister to the test as to how far he will go down to posterity as a Minister of courage when he realises that a course of action is being pressed upon him which every section of the House would hasten to support. I am afraid, however, that the Minister may go down to posterity as one who started out to do well but who rarely accomplished it, and as a man whose Bills were generally in the right direction but were invariably described in all parts of the House as not going nearly far enough. While the criticism has been in one direction to-night there was an exception when the hon. Member below the Gangway attempted to take away the halo from the Minister which, by universal consent, has been bestowed upon him for being the most famous salesman and showman the House has yet produced. I felt sorry for the Minister when I heard that criticism because I am of opinion that if the Minister's Bills could be bought at his own valuation and sold at their market value somebody would go bankrupt. I was reminded when the Minister was introducing the Bill of the salesman who recently won a prize in an international contest for salesmanship because he succeeded in selling a book entitled "Aids to the Development of Self-Confidence" to one of the two dictators whose names are often on our lips.
It seems to me amazing, that a Bill that has so many good points, and that must obviously commend itself universally inside and outside the House, should stop short at the point where most people feel that it ought to go on. I had the honour of serving for many years on the London County Council, and I believe that they are doing one of the biggest jobs any local authority is doing in connection with the welfare of the blind. I took the opportunity of having a chat 1929 with some of those responsible for the work to ascertain their views on this Bill. As one might have expected, the first comment that they made was the one that has been made so frequently to-day, namely, why should the Bill stop at 40? Is it on account of the poverty of the country? We cannot believe that. Or is it on account of the undesirable character of those who are under 40? I cannot think that can be so. What is the real reason? In this House we deal too frequently with big problems in piece-meal fashion and I am not sure that it is to our credit. I look forward to the time when Minister will be bold enough to look at a problem in all its aspects, and, when it does not offer insuperable difficulties, to settle it in a broad statesmanlike way. In this case the Government have recognised that, for reasons of expediency, the old age pension level of 70 years of age must be reduced in the case of the blind. The age level was 50, and it is now to be made 40, but surely every reason which can be advanced for lowering the age from 50 to 40 would apply equally to lowering the age below 40. There are many between 30 and 40 who are untrainable, and yet they are left out of consideration.
We have asked what are the numbers involved between the ages of 18 and 40, and I was surprised that the Solicitor-General for Scotland was not able to answer that question. I gather from the twelfth report of the Advisory Committee on the Blind, which was presented to the Minister, that the number of blind persons in England and Wales between 16 and 40 years of age was 9,500 during the years 1934–37 and if that is so the problem is not so big or so insoluble as some might have imagined, and I make this appeal—backed by what the London County Council people say— that the Minister should even now consider whether it is not possible to deal with this problem in the way in which 90 people out of 100 would like to see it dealt with. There is a further point which the London County Council have raised which I am sure is in the minds of all hon. Members. We all agree— even the Minister must believe it at the back of his mind, although it may not be politic for him to say it—that 10s. a week is not enough to keep anyone. I know that the Minister believes that in his heart. If that he true in the case of people who have their sight, it must 1930 be much more true in the case of the sightless. The committee dealing at County Hall with the welfare of the blind feel that 10s. is not adequate in the light of the cost of living.
The Minister has to-day introduced a Bill, as he has on many occasions, with the principles of which no one can quarrel; there can be no violent opposition to it and no votes against it; and yet we feel a sense of supreme dissatisfaction that the Minister has not taken advantage of the opportunities which have presented themselves to him. There may be reasons, which I think the House ought to be made acquainted with, why the lowering of the age below 40 cannot be seriously considered. It is not statesmanship to bring the age down to 40 this year, and in 18 months' time to bring in another Bill to reduce it to 30. If the problem is a real one, and that is admitted, and there is the wherewithal to deal with it, the House has a right to know whether there is any convincing reason why it should not be dealt with. If the Minister were to yield to the pressure which is being put upon him from every side of the House he would go home to-night a much more satisfied man, and his reputation would be more lasting than it will be with his name attached to the Bill in its present form, which, as Sir Ian Fraser described it in the "Times," is a very kindly but a very tiny attempt to deal with the problem.
§ 6.20 p.m.
Colonel Sandeman Allen
I should like to join in offering a word of thanks to the Minister for this Bill and for what he has done. I also want to underline what the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) has said. It is not often that I tread the same path as the right hon. Gentleman, but I do not like the position in the case of the blind and old age pensions. The old age pension is given for the infirmity of old age, and this is a pension for the infirmity of blindness. The age limit has been brought down to 40, because it has been discovered that at the age of 40 the majority of the blind are indigent and unemployable. I do not see any reason why the age should not be brought down to 18 for those who are indigent and unemployable, though not for all. I think the blind have a natural pride in their self-reliance, and to remove from them any urge to 1931 make themselves self-reliant, so far as they can do so, would be a criminal attack upon their natural pride; but as regards the indigent and unemployable among them, from the time they leave the care of the education authorities they should come within the scope of this Bill.
I should like to explain to the Minister why this question has some local importance in certain areas. I sit for Birkenhead, West, and in Birkenhead the position does not obtain at all, but the case is different across the river in Liverpool. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Sir J. Shute) asked me particularly to bring up this point because, unfortunately, he cannot be here having a constituency engagement this afternoon. In Liverpool the number of the unemployable and indigent blind is very large. The blind population there is out of proportion to the rest of the country. Liverpool started workshops for the blind started working for the blind, before other places, and all the blind from North Wales and from surrounding counties have gravitated there and a large number have settled there. There are 1,900 blind people in Liverpool, and I believe 600 indigent and unemployable through no fault of their own. That does present some considerable difficulty for Liverpool, and if we took into the Bill those between 18 and 40 it would undoubtedly be fairer for the local authority.
I am sorry that the matter of workshops for the blind has not been brought into this Bill, especially as there are cases of men from a county and men from a borough, side by side, working at different wages. That is a question which will have to be considered before long. At the same time I hope the Minister will do all he can to encourage the provision of guide dogs for the blind, which is an interesting local matter to us in Birkenhead and district. I am grateful to the Minister for what he has done, but I do feel that these points are worthy of his attention.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Messer
The Minister has gained something of a reputation in the country as a wit. I do not know whether the significance of the date when this Bill is to come into operation, 1st April, has dawned on him. It is regarded by those 1932 who are interested in the blind as really being an all fools' Bill. The blind have been led to expect something more than they are getting here. As a matter of fact, there are very few of the blind who will benefit. It must not be assumed that because the Treasury are going to spend £160,000 in the first year the blind are to receive an additional £160,000. All that is happening is that there will be a big transfer of financial liability from local authorities to the State. We can agree to that principle, because the State ought to play a bigger part in seeing that the blind are treated in a more uniform way; but we regret that the Bill makes no attempt to deal with the anomalies in the treatment of the blind which exist in various parts of the country.
The blind are able to get assistance under four heads. First, there is what is known as domiciliary assistance. That is granted to unemployable blind people under schemes run by county councils or county borough councils. Many of us have been pressing for a Measure which will not be so permissive as this and will insist upon local authorities undertaking their responsibilities. In North Wales there are some nine authorities who have no scheme at all. Some authorities pay as little as 10s. as domiciliary assistance, and others 15s., and one can find neighbouring counties which pay 25s. a week and 27s. 6d. respectively. Such anomalies ought not to exist; the blind should betreated on a more uniform basis.
The unemployable blind come under schemes set up by county councils or county borough councils, but there is toomuch "may" about the matter and not enough "must." In the Act of 1920 it was laid down that the blind could be dealt with under that Act and not by way of poor relief, but the authorities were left to do it if they liked and many of them did not like. There is this improvement about this Bill, that it is now definitely laid down that the blind must be treated under the Blind Persons Act and not by way of poor relief. It is unfair to pour wholesale condemnation on a Measure without pointing out its benefits, and one definite advance which I am pleased to see is that for the first time it is recognised that the dependants of the poor shall receive assistance under the Blind Persons Act and not under the Poor Law. If it has been revealed that there are local authorities which cannot 1933 be trusted to administer legislation in the spirit in which it was passed, surely we should now realise that anomalies will continue so long as any provisions of this Bill remain permissive.
Blind people can also draw public money as augmentation of income." In the majority of cases blind people, even if they have been trained, are not able to earn enough to keep themselves, and local authorities are empowered to augment their incomes. As a consequence, there is the strange anomaly that, in one part of the country, an unemployable blind person gets 27s., or a blind couple 45s. per week, while another person may be going to work and getting less than an unemployable blind person. I craw the Minister's attention to that anomaly, which is not fair in two ways. It is unfair that a person working should get less than one who is not working, and unfair that when an employable blind person loses work he is not classed as unemployable and entitled to come under the unemployment assistance scheme, but is paid unemployment insurance benefit. The next sources of public funds from which the blind can draw are pensions and public assistance. Under the Bill, public assistance is now ruled out, and I am very pleased to see that. In regard to pensions, which is the main purpose of the Bill, a local authority has to draw up a scheme to make up the income of a blind person to a certain maximum. What will happen is that where a county council has a scheme it will take into consideration the 10s. that the blind person will get under the Bill, and will reduce it under the scheme which it has made. It is fairly clear, therefore, that the Bill goes but a very little distance in improving the position of the blind.
There is one very interesting point in the Bill. It is laid clown that there is to be no household means test, and I commend that point to the Minister. It is only fair to point out that local authorities have not been rising to their responsibility, because there are cases now in which local authorities have, in drawing up schemes for blind persons, insisted upon a household means test. I have in my hand a letter from the Minister of Health in which he refers to the point that there should not be a household means test. Some steps should be taken 1934 to see that the purposes of the Act of 1920 are not defeated. It is unfair if one local authority draws up a scheme making the income of a blind person up to 27s. 6d. a week with no regard to the income of the home while a neighbouring authority draws up a scheme taking into account the income from other members of the home. I have been a member of a blind persons' sub-committee for some years and have played some part in introducing one of the finest schemes in the country. If the information is of any value to hon. Members opposite, I would mention that the authority is not a Labour authority. Blindness is not a question of party politics or one in which there is any line of demarcation where the expedients of party policy should separate us. I want to make my position plain. I find among Members of the Tory party as deep a sympathy for the blind as I find in anybody else.
§ Mr. Messer
Perhaps the Minister will tell us why the Bill does not go as far as many of us would like. I am sure that he does not lack sympathy and that if he had his way he would be only too glad to call together hon. Members who are interested in this question so that we might present to him our ideas and he could frame a Bill accordingly; but we know that he is not master in the Department which he controls. This is a great and important human question. It is clear that these blind people have to be maintained. Why should we not treat them in the best way? If public funds are to be spent on their maintenance, why do we not do it decently? Why do we say that they are not to receive an old age pension until 40 years of age? I have heard of people being told that they are too old at 40 my family think I am too old, although I am not much more than 40. To speak of old age pensions at 40 is a contradiction in terms, because people are not old at 40.
What we require is a blind persons' pensions scheme under which machinery can be erected for dealing with every aspect of the problem of blindness. Why are we so dependent upon the machinery of charitable assistance? Why cannot we insist that this work be done by the local 1935 authorities? In the greater London area are four main charities for the blind; the Greater London Fund for the Blind, the Middlesex Association for the Teaching and Training of the Blind, the Workshops for the Blind and the National Institute for the Blind, and each of them is in some way an agent for the county authorities. To give some idea of the complication of the machinery which results from that position let me mention that the County Council of Middlesex are the authority for dealing with the blind in that area. They delegate their authority to their education committee. The education committee set up a blind persons committee, who farm it out to the Middlesex Association for the Blind. The Middlesex Association for the Blind erect a case committee to deal with the cases. If a member of the county council wants to know anything about the blind he has to go through a maze to get at them, and if he wants to do anything he finds it most difficult because of the red tape with which he is faced. There must be overlapping when there are so many people dealing with one question. We do not farm out public health to well-disposed persons, or relegate other important public work to indiscriminate and irresponsible charitable societies. A public responsibility ought to be dealt with by a public authority.
Something has been said about the interpretation of blindness. There is a need for the interpretation of unemployability." I have in mind the case of a blind man who has trained as a basket worker. Being rather musically inclined, he bought a piano and went out into the streets where he earned more money than he would have earned at basket-making. He was, therefore, not entitled to any grant. When the weather became bad and work fell off, he was given an opportunity of going to work again, and he got an augmentation of his income. He met with an accident, as a result of which the index finger of one hand was injured, which made him so slow at basket-making that even with his augmentation of income he was getting less money than an unemployed person. He went to the Medical Association, which suggested that he was unemployable. So, because the definition is so loose, he cannot get work because he is incapable and he cannot get a grant under the unemployable scheme. 1936 This is the sort of instance which shows that the Bill does not tackle the problem in the way that it should.
There is one place in the Bill where "may" ought to be "must." The Bill states that a local authority "may" supplement the funeral costs of a blind person when a blind person is dead. We might say that they must do so in this case. Why do we not make it obligatory on every local authority? If they cannot keep a blind person decently when he is alive let us make sure that they bury him decently, but rather than spend money on wreaths I would give blind persons a chance to smell the flowers before they died. I think there is an overwhelming case for a bigger Measure, but the Minister is not the master in this matter. [An HON. MEMBER: "He should be condemned."] I am not going to condemn him. I believe he would be prepared to go much further. I am going to ask the House to give him that support which will justify those who are preventing him from going further in lessening their opposition.
There is no greater handicap in life than blindness, which means to be deprived of that sense which gives us our sense of beauty, to be dependent upon other people for the very steps we take, to be unable by our own senses to obtain the things which we must get second-hand and to he in an attitude of mind that must make us introspective, and, as a consequence, not too happy. The whole of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy of blindness lift it above other considerations. I hope that the Minister will give us hope that in the Bill he will reduce the age, and that if he cannot go any further in this Bill he will at some time later give us something more worth while, so that the blind shall be under the education authority until 16 or 18 years of age, and then under the public health committees when they are untrainable and unemployable. If we do nothing but bring a little of that light figuratively which the blind are denied literally, we shall have accomplished something by being Members of the Mother of Parliaments.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Goldie
As I was listening to the Debate I could not help feeling how right the Psalmist was when he said: 1937How pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.That unity has been created by those eminently characteristic speeches of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health who approached the matter from different points of view. This is a Bill which must be sent upstairs for examination in Committee. By so doing we shall express not only our sympathy but the sympathy of every Member in this House with the tragic facts of blindness. I rise only because it appears that my own constituency is the most heavily rated in England with regard to blind welfare. I am informed by the district Society for the Blind that in Warrington the expenditure amounts to fivepence in the pound, and that £7,000 per annum is expended for 180 blind persons. Those figures show that my constituency is doing its duty in this respect.
I agree with some of the criticisms which have been made by hon. Members on the other side. It seems to me that to endeavour to deal with physical disability by way of pensions is not facing the issue. With regard to the reduction of the age from 40 to 18, I ask myself: "Why, logically, can we stop at 18?" Why should we not face once and for all the fact that blindness is, in the widest sense of the word, a matter for national concern and that every blind person has a definite right to be kept by the State from the earliest moment of his blindness?
Perhaps I may be allowed to describe an incident which will explain what I mean. It arose some years ago in the constituency of the hon. and gallant Member for West Birkenhead (Colonel Sandeman Allen), who spoke earlier. I see that the hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White) also is present. It shows the way in which a local authority really rises to its responsibilities. A poor working woman went into the Poor Law institution at Birkenhead to be confined. By a mistake of one of the staff, a poison bottle found its way among the ordinary bottles in the cupboard by the bedside in the ward where the woman was, and, when the confinement became imminent, the young assistant, poor girl, placed a bottle of nitric acid by mistake where there should have been a bottle containing fluid to be used for bathing the baby's eves immediately after birth. The 1938 child was born, the young probationer picked up a fountain pen filler, dipped it into what she thought was the proper spirit, and burnt the child's eyes out with nitric acid within ten minutes of birth. Some of us had to consider the case, and I put it to Members of this House, if any 12 of them were forming the jury to try that case, what damages could they possibly give to compensate that child for what happened to it ten minutes after birth?
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield very properly put forward the question of abnormality, and that is the argument used by every counsel who knows his job in every personal injury case that is ever argued. What you want to do is to restore the man to the condition in which he was before he was injured. But how is it possible to do that in the case of blindness? The only thing that it is possible to do is what was done by the kindliness and good feeling of the Corporation of Birkenhead in that case. We arranged for the child to be taken to what is known as a sunshine babies' home, and to be trained in due course, if I remember rightly, as a typist, and ultimately a definite undertaking was given that the corporation were responsible for her until such time as she became eligible for a blind person's pension.
It seems to me that this Bill only touches the fringe of a great problem. I personally welcome it from the bottom of my heart, as I would anything that we can do to help and alleviate the lot of the blind. I do not care so much about the financial side, whether it is going to cost the local authority a little less or a little more; the great thing, as far as I can see, that the Bill is going to do, is to give absolute security to the blind person who gets his pension, and for that reason and for many others I welcome it. Sooner or later, however, we must, with all respect to the deaf people, the crippled, and so on, face up to the fact that, when the darkness of blindness falls, life is to all intents and purposes banished, one might almost say in the circumstances. Sooner or later we shall have to face the fact that, when that awful disability comes upon a human being, from that moment, irrespective of whether the person is 14, 40, 50 or 80, the State or the local authority—I care not which—should take 1939 over full responsibility. In sending this Bill to a Committee upstairs, where the Clauses which are controversial, as they must be, from the financial point of view, will be closely examined, the House of Commons will at any rate be doing its duty by the pluckiest and bravest section of the community.
§ 6.51 p.m.
§ Mr. E. J. Williams
I shall be anxious to hear what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say in reply to the speeches that have been made on this Bill from all quarters of the House, particularly with regard to the questions of reducing the age limit and increasing the amount of the pension. Last night, Members of Parliament were asked to attend a meeting upstairs to meet the representatives of the blind. Considering the nature of the Parliamentary occasion, there was a very good attendance, and all those Members who were present, a number of whom have spoken here to-day, were sympathetic towards the case that was advanced by the blind people themselves. We have been informed that the expenditure entailed by a reduction of the age from 40 to 18 would be less than that now provided for in the Bill, namely, £160,000. If that be the case—and I think the Parliamentary Secretary might tell us whether he has any estimate of the amount—it is so trivial a sum that he ought not to say that it shall not be done.
We have heard some remarkable speeches on the Bill to-day. It cannot he contended that, while the nation is proposing to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on rearmament, we cannot spend a few thousand pounds in putting right something that every Member of the House concedes is wrong. It would necessitate an Amendment of the Financial Resolution, but we have not yet passed that stage. I welcome what the Prime Minister said two days ago with reference to the Financial Resolutions that will come before the House from time to time in the future, but even now it is not too late for the Minister, if he so desires, to right what every Member in the House concedes is a wrong. It is 17 years since blind persons' problems came before this House: it may be many years before they will be considered again; and to allow this splendid opportunity to pass, and to leave blind persons with a grievance that can be easily righted, is not 1940 creditable to legislators in this country. I beg the Parliamentary Secretary, in his reply, to face up to the considered judgment of Members of Parliament. We know that the £160,000 provided for in the Bill will not in any sense mean an addition to blind persons as such; it will mainly go in relief of the local authorities. It is estimated that the number of persons affected will be, I think, 77 per cent. of the blind persons in this country, so that the number—
§ Mr. Messer
I must correct my hon. Friend. The number of unemployable blind persons in the country is 77.3 per cent., but the majority of these come under an unemployable scheme, and, consequently, they will not receive a penny piece.
§ Mr. Williams
That really amplifies what I was saying. In addition to that, I gather that the balance of 23 per cent. would be under 40 years of age. Obviously, the expenditure necessary to meet the requirements of the 23 per cent. would be substantially less than £160,000. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will face up to the facts of this matter, and that, even at this late stage, it will be possible for him to bring down the age limit and increase the amount to be paid to these unfortunate people. Nothing but the State facing up to this problem can remove all the very many anomalies that have been cited this afternoon, and I sincerely trust that the Minister of Health will face up to the only method by which those anomalies can be removed, that is to say, by making the problem a national problem, bringing it under national control, removing all these anomalies, and, if I may say so without speaking in any derogatory way of large numbers of well-meaning people, taking it out of the hands of busybodies who sometimes interfere in dealing with the infirmities of very unfortunate people.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Mr. F. O. Roberts
I recollect that on the occasion, now 17 years ago, when the last Blind Persons Bill was introduced, I was privileged to take part in the discussion which led to the adoption of that Measure, and, therefore, it is with a sense of personal satisfaction that I take some little part in the discussion to-day. As was the case in 1920, this is, fortunately, one of those occasions which give Members of the House of. Commons 1941 the welcome opportunity of uniting in a good cause. I am satisfied that any kind of Measure having as its objective better provision for blind persons would not fail to make its appeal to Members of the House, for they have a great sense of justice and fair play. But, whatever has been the intention of the House and the scope of the Measures which have been introduced, and whatever is the scope of the Measure which is introduced to-day, each time the nation, through its representatives, seems to have fallen somewhat short of achieving a really big object; and even in passing this Bill to-day we shall fail in achieving the ultimate object so far as the blind are concerned, just as we have failed in the past.
I must express my pleasure at the introduction of the Bill, but that pleasure can only be measured by the size of the Bill itself. I can imagine that the Minister himself would have been much more joyous in his attitude towards the introduction of the Bill if he had had the chance of introducing a much bigger Measure than the one which is entrusted to him to-day. Therefore, we must say that we are not completely satisfied with the proposal he is making, nor can we regard it as a very tangible step towards that complete scheme of reform which we are hoping to see introduced some day to help the blind people of this country. As has been said in so many quarters of the House, Members are quite ready to welcome a much bigger scheme than that which has been introduced to-day, and in passing I would express the hope that we shall not have to wait so long before we have another opportunity of expressing our opinion.
We cannot well oppose this proposal, because, as far as it goes, one can regard it as good. I believe, too, that I am correct in saying that it has been accepted by the blind community. But they do riot hesitate to express their view, just as emphatically as it has been expressed across the Floor of the House to-day, that they would have been much more satisfied if the Minister had made himself responsible for a much bolder Measure than the one we are now discussing. The expression of the view that the Measure does riot go far enough, particularly when it comes from the representatives of the great blind community in this country, is one to which some heed must be paid.
1942 I want to join with those who have already spoken in expressing regret that the commencing pensionable age is to be 40 years. Various figures have been quoted this afternoon as to the numbers of the unemployable blind. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary, when he comes to answer the points which have been raised, to give to the House, for its satisfaction at all events, some kind of reliable information in regard to these figures. So far as my information goes, there are something over 40,000 blind persons of 16 years of age or over who come within the classification of being unemployable. I believe there are very strong reasons for urging that the pensions should be payable at i8 years of age, thus joining up with the completion of education which is given to the blind. Am I right in suggesting that the increased cost necessary to meet this would not be very large—£250,000 as against the £160,000 which is put in the Bill? If that figure is correct, surely it is not enough to make the marginal difference for making the age as quoted in the Bill and not going to the point which might be more readily accepted by all Members. May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether it is really too late for any alteration to be made in regard to the reduction of the age at which the pensions may be payable? Clause 2 appears to me to make proposals which are very welcome. If carried out in the spirit as well as the letter the results which may follow will, I think, be exceedingly satisfactory; and I hope local authorities will avail themselves of any opportunity which comes their way to prosecute successfully all endeavours to aid the blind. I hope they will not be simply content to receive the financial benefit which comes from the method of paying pensions to-day.
Another point which I would like to mention is that of those who are partially sighted. To me that is one of the most difficult phases of blindness or partial blindness to-day, and I would appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to see that some kind of machinery is brought into operation which will not only recognise the difficulties of dealing with the partially sighted or the partially blind, but see that their condition is not overlooked in the multitude of other things which have got to be tackled so far as the blind are concerned. If we do not satisfactorily 1943 deal with this side of the problem, then I think the problem of the blind person becomes much greater as the years go by. It may be difficult, but I am satisfied it is not incapable of being solved if the right measures are adopted. I would like to make a further appeal—and I join with those who have already expressed it —that everything possible shall be done by way of preventing and curing. The importance of this point has been emphasised time and again; and although there is only one particular point which we are considering in this Bill—the lowering of the age for the receipt of pensions as such—I believe in mentioning these other things, for they will be an indication of the mind of the House in trying to see that everything possible is done to secure fair treatment for the blind. Neither should we overlook the importance of education and vocational training in association with the other objects to which I have just referred.
I would like, also, to make a reference to the workshops which have been mentioned. I think it is sufficient to say that everyone desires that if the blind people go to work they should have the best conditions possible under which to perform the task which they are asked to do. Their conditions should be as ideal as it is possible for anyone to make them, and I would strongly urge that this should be done. I would join with the Minister, if I may, in paying tribute to those who have been responsible for bringing these elements into the life of the blind people which have contributed so much towards their greater happiness and comfort. One of the particular things mentioned was the provision of books. I would also join with those who have expressed the view that there should not be so much difficulty in getting these things for the comfort and happiness of the blind as is found at the present moment, and that the State should accept a further measure of responsibility. I believe that would secure full endorsement by all Members of this House. I believe it is to the great credit of the nation that the care of the blind now is more definitely regarded as a public duty and a public service. I say this without casting any reflection on efforts which have been put forward in other ways. I want to see an end of the haphazard handling of the questions 1944 affecting the blind, of the various problems which are associated with them. On the other hand, there would be generous recognition that much good work for the blind has been achieved. It appears to be well established that the position in relation to them has now changed for the better since they came into more direct contact with national and local government and development.
Under the provisions of this Measure, small as they may be, I look for an advancement in the programme towards the greater assistance of the blind, and for improvements in that direction to be more rapidly developed and carried forward. The welfare of the blind should be regarded as a real and complete public service. But in order to secure this, further co-ordination plans should be introduced and worked in the best possible way. In passing, I would like to express my own view and hope that some day a responsible authority will take in hand what may prove a somewhat formidable task—an investigation into all forms of service for the blind with the view of creating a more ordered plan. The advance made by this Bill should begin a bigger effort to make the blind feel more independent security. To some degree the blind must be dependent, but fuller direct service by the State and local authorities will place the blind on a far higher and better status. It would tend to give them a more abundant recognition of citizenship alongside those who are sighted and more normal, and, I am certain, would lead them to enjoy a more normal life.
There is one specific question I would like to put to the Parliamentary Secretary. It is in relation to the receipt of a double pension up to the age of 70. I understand that a pension under the Blind Persons Act does riot debar a person from receiving at the same time a pension under the Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act. A question was addressed to the Minister on 5th November, 1936. by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers). He asked the Minister of Health
whether he intends, in legislating for improvements in respect of pensions payable to blind persons, to remedy the hardship which is involved in the discontinuance of the old age and blind pension at the age of 70, thus reducing the income of a widow in this position from £1 to 10s. per week?1945 The Minister replied,regret that I cannot at this stage make any statement anticipating the legislation which has been promised on this subject.In reply to a further question he said,I am aware of this matter and shall be prepared to consider it.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th November, 1936; col. 226, Vol. 317.]I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary or the Minister whether he can tell us whether that consideration has been given to this very important point, and whether, although he has not been able to include it in the provisions of the present Bill, at some near date we may expect him to introduce a reforming proposal in regard to what seems a rather serious anomaly so far as blind persons are concerned.
My last one or two observations are these: Mingling with blind folks, one is always brought home to an understanding of their general attitude of forbearance, of fortitude and of patience. To-day you have been witnessing a further renewal of the remembrance of those who were blinded in war service; a sacred trust has been accepted carrying with it an obligation which the nation, I am certain, will never fail to recognise. Can we from this House not lead the nation to the acceptance of an equal obligation so far as the civilian blind are concerned? That, I believe, is the ultimate object at which we are aiming. This Bill, though a small one, I regard as a step in that particular direction. I hope we shall keep on working and fighting until the plan is completed. I hope the pressure which the House has been showing to-day in insisting that the Minister shall change his ideas will be effective, and that he will recognise the significance of the pleas which have been made, and that this ordered plan will not be too long delayed in its production.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Bernays
I think that my right hon. Friend has no reason to be dissatisfied with the reception which has been accorded to this Measure to-day. It is true the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) called ray right hon. Friend a political Woolworths because he had so many things in his shop window. But when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield comes to read his speech he may be disposed to elevate my right hon. Friend from Woolworths as far as the 1946 bargain basement of Selfridges. At any rate, I believe that the goods that my right hon. Friend has to offer will be gratefully appreciated by the blind themselves.
Now I propose to try to answer some of the questions which have been put to me. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield appeared to think that there was something sinister in the omission from the Bill of the word "combination" that appeared in the principal Acts. There is nothing sinister in that at all. The words "in combination with any other council" in the 1920 Act have been rendered unnecessary by the Local Government Act, 1933, which enabled local authorities to combine for any purpose. He also asked me how many local authorities, in fact, have combined for the purposes of the administration of the Blind Persons Act. As far as we know there is one—a combination between the councils of Newcastle and Gateshead and the Northumberland County Council. That was made under Section 91 of the Local Government Act.
§ Mr. Bernays
Yes. Of course, the local authority have full powers to make these combinations if they so desire. Then a point was raised by the right hon. Member for Wakefield and also the hon. and gallant Member for West Birkenhead (Colonel Sandeman Allen) with regard to the fact that these pensions were called old age pensions, and he appeared to regard that as casting some reflection on the blind. They are, of course, only old age pensions in a technical sense, and do not occasion among the blind any of the feeling of the kind suggested.
I come to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury). He raised the question, why should not the State bear the whole responsibility for the blind? That was also suggested by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. E. J. Williams). The answer is that such a 100 per cent. responsibility would be contrary to the whole method which has been followed from the Poor Law of 1603 down to the present day. After all, it has been a partnership between the State, local authorities, and voluntary agencies. That was the whole scheme of the Blind Per- 1947 sons Act, 1920. In the working of that Act certain hardships have been discovered. The first was that it was not normally practicable to train a blind person after he had attained the age of 40 in a new form of employment, so it is the State that is coming forward with additional assistance. The State is assisting in other ways as well. I should mention, in particular, the assistance that the local authorities are receiving from the State under the block grant. Hitherto grants had been received on a capitation basis in respect of the blind. The position now is that, in calculating the amount of the block grant, account is taken of the actual expenditure of the local authorities and a proportion of any increase is met by an increase in the block grant; so I do not think it can be said that the State is not assuming a greater obligation than before.
I come to another point made by the right hon. Member for Wakefield and the hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White), who suggested that under the Bill the blind would not be better off. They argued that the only benefit would go to local authorities. The point was also made by the hon. Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer), in his most moving speech. Clearly, part of the benefit may go to the local authority. That was recognised by the Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, when they recommended the reduction in the qualifying age for the old age pension, but it is not true to say that the blind will not benefit. Those who do not receive assistance from local authorities, and those who live in districts where rates of augmentation are low, will receive a valuable addition to their income. There are also a substantial number of blind persons who have not been willing to apply to local authorities for assistance. They prefer to struggle along on their own resources, rather than to apply for what they regard, and what is in fact in some areas, Poor Law assistance. They will not feel that reluctance now, because under this Bill the relief will be administered under the Blind Persons Act, and will not attach in any way the stigma of Poor Law relief, if any stigma still remains.
The point was also made that there was not more uniformity in relief by 1948 local authorities. On this question, we cannot go merely by scales. You have to take into account the method of assessment of need. Rent and the cost of living, and other considerations of that kind, do vary in different areas, and surely one of the advantages of local administration is that you can take into account local need. I have made particular inquiries from the Department, and we have no evidence that an inadequate amount of assistance to the blind is being given anywhere. On the point made by the hon. Member for South Tottenham, in connection with some cases he put before us, I would only say that if there are any cases in which the local authorities are not acting within the terms of the Act, my right hon. Friend will he only too glad to make a thorough investigation.
I come to the most crucial point of all, the point on which most criticism has centred, as to why pensions should be given at 40, and not 30 or 20, or, as the right hon. Member for Wakefield said, 18. We have chosen 40 because experience shows that it is very difficult in normal circumstances to train a blind man or woman for a trade after that age. I was asked two questions on this—first, how many blind persons are there in fact below the age of 40? The answer is 12,000. I was also asked what the cost would be of giving pensions at 18. The cost would be £250,000, but I do not think, although that is not a trivial sum, that that is the chief reason. It is not chiefly a question of expenditure. To lower the age below 40 would be to impair, to some extent, the incentive of the blind persons to earn a livelihood. I cannot believe that that would be in the interest of the blind persons themselves. Everyone, I think, who has had contact with blind people must have been impressed by the eagerness and the courage with which, once they have mastered a trade, they are anxious to pursue it so that they need not be a burden on anyone. In every activity of life their one desire is to show that in spite of their disabilities they can be useful citizens. That brings me to the further point that to give a pension at: 18 would, I suggest, remove much of the justification for the great sums now being spent by local authorities and voluntary agencies on the support of workshops in order to help blind people to become useful citizens.
§ Mr. Bernays
I was asked whether at this late hour we would not agree to reduce the age below 40. I can only say that my right hon. Friend can hold out no hope. I was also asked a question with regard to double pensions. That is a very complicated question, and I shall not be expected to go into it at any length. I will only say that we do not contemplate any alteration in the existing law. We believe it would be a serous breach in the whole system of contributory pensions, and one which the Government feel they could not commit. I come to another point, raised by the hon. Member for Wakefield when he suggested that the 10s. pension ought not to be taken into account by the local authorities. I think that what that argument really means is: Why have a means test at all? Of course, arguments in favour of a means test for blind persons arc the same as those for a means test for any other persons that we cannot, as we believe on this side, shovel out public money without any inquiry as to whether the person to whom you are giving it is really in need of it. As a matter of fact, this proposal was actually made in a private Member's Bill, introduced in 1928, and it was opposed by the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, who declared that, apart from the very heavy additional expenditure which would be thrown on local authorities, they were convinced that it would rob the blind of all incentive, and generally undermine their morale.
Whatever criticism may be made against this Bill, I do suggest to the House that it will help to lighten the load of disability which the blind have to carry through life. No class in the community inspires more sympathy or a greater desire to lend a helping hand. The tap of the blind man's stick has only to be heard in the street for everyone around to do what he can to help. It is in that spirit that the Government, finding certain gaps in the Blind Persons Act, have brought forward this Bill.
§ Mr. E. J. Williams
Can the hon. Gentleman say whether the wife of a blind man will now be obliged to seek public assistance?
§ Mr. Bernays
Under the Bill their position is the same.
Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.
1950 Bill read a Second time.
Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Tuesday next.— [Captain Dugdale.]