§ 9.1 p.m.
§ Sir K. Wood
I beg to move, in page 2, line 16, after "account," to insert "not only the needs of the blind person, but also."
§ This Amendment has been put on the Paper in order to bring about a greater measure of uniformity in the treatment by local authorities of blind persons in regard to matters which are not affected by local conditions. It has been pointed out that there are variations in the scales of domiciliary financial assistance adopted by different local authorities. Some of them are due to and are justified by different local conditions, but it is desirable that all local authorities should have in force the same method of treating such special sources of income as are payable towards meeting the special needs of blind persons arising out of sickness or disability. I emphasise the words "arising out of sickness or disability of the blind person." My Amendment takes the matter further than the proposal which was made by the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will realise that I have endeavoured to meet him in the matter.
§ In their report in 1935 upon the unemployable blind, a sub-committee of the Advisory Committee for the Welfare of the Blind called attention to the methods of assisting persons under the Blind Persons Act, and the schedule contained the same exceptions as are contained in the Poor Law Act. It has been the practice 142 of my Department ever since that report went out to direct the attention of local authorities to the desirability of taking the course suggested, but we are going a great deal further to-day. The Amendment is wider and more extensive than that which was proposed in 1935. The Committee will see that we are in the same position as under the Unemployment Act of 1934. The second thing that we are doing is to say that it shall no longer be a matter of discretion for the local authorities, and that in cases of hardship arising out of sickness or incapacity, all local authorities shall take the same course. I have no doubt that most hon. Members are familiar with the Section of the 1934 Act which deals with friendly society and national health insurance payments, and states, for instance, that the first £1 per week of any wounds or disability pension, one-half of any weekly payment of compensation under the Acts relating to workmen's compensation, and to a specified extent money and investments treated as capital assets shall be disregarded. This is a much wider provision than before, and it is put forward with a view to obtaining some amount of uniformity. I think it is the right course for us to take at this time, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman opposite will be in agreement with me in regard to the proposal. I have no doubt that he is familiar with it. I hope that the Amendment will be accepted by the Committee.
Before I put the Amendment, I should like to ask the Minister whether his next Amendment—in page 2, line 18, at the end, to insert:and the rules laid down in paragraphs (a) to (e) of Sub-section (3) of Section thirty-eight of the Unemployment Act, 1934 (which require certain assets of the person concerned to be disregarded), shall be complied with in computing the resources of any person in order to determine his needs for the purposes of this Sub-section"—is to be regarded as consequential upon this one. It could, of course, stand separately, but it would appear to me that, on the present Amendment, we might very well take the discussion upon it and the next subsequent Amendments together.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen
We put an Amendment on the Paper in order to try to get some concession on this matter, and my colleagues and I are grateful to the Minister for having seen lit to accept our proposals. The reason why we did not include in our Amendment all the points that are provided for in the Act of 1934 was simply that we thought that by raising some of them we should be able to draw the attention of the Minister to the matter. Evidently we have done so, and he has met us in a very full way. I would like to thank him for doing so, as I feel that this is a very real concession. In regard to unemployment assistance we know how much it means to many people whose circumstances have been damaged because of disabilities from which they suffer. The right hon. Gentleman who was Minister of Health in the Labour Government, in a previous debate, put the point in a very neat way when he said that those people had an added disablement of some kind or other, and this payment was simply so far as possible to put them on the same level as the others with regard to what they might have from other general arrangements for providing for their needs. It is a great satisfaction to us that these concessions are to be made in the case of blind people also.
§ Amendment agreed to.
Furth Amendment made: In page 2, line 18, at the end, insert:
and the rules laid down in paragraphs (a) to (e) of Sub-section (3) of Section thirty-eight of the Unemployment Act, 1934 (which require certain assets of the person concerned to be disregarded), shall be complied with in computing the resources of any person in order to determine his needs for the purposes of this Sub-section."—[Sir K. Wood.]
§ 9.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Windsor
I beg to move, in page 2, line 24, at the end, to insert:or who at the time of his death was a member of the household of which such a blind person as aforesaid was at that time a member and was dependent on him.This Amendment may appear to be a very small one, but nevertheless it is of considerable importance to those blind persons in whose families death unfortunately occurs, and who are thereby forced to apply to the public assistance committee. The purpose of the Amendment is to give to local authorities operating the Act of 1920 the same power that 144 they have under that general provision. I understand that the Amendment has been favourably considered by the Ministry, and that there is a disposition on their part to accept it.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Bernays)
I am very glad to be able to accept this Amendment. Its effect will be to empower a local authority to pay or contribute to funeral expenses of a member of the household of a blind person who is dependent on him, the payment or contribution being made under the Blind Persons Act instead of under the Poor Law. This is consistent with the general intention of the last preceding paragraph of the Clause, under which local authorities providing assistance to blind persons are required to take into account the needs of any members of the household of a blind person who are dependent on him.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ 9.11 p.m.
Mr. David Adams
I beg to move, in page 2, line 28, to leave out:either assistance in an institution or.The aim of this Amendment, as, I think, of the Bill, is to eliminate any remainder of what might be termed the pauper taint. It is that assistance in any institution should be provided under this Act and not by way of Poor Law relief. I do not think that much argument is required at this time of day in requesting the House to pursue that course, for the Local Government Act, 1929, had the same object in view.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Windsor
I have only a word to add to what my hon. Friend has said. It is that the purpose of the Amendment is to get an explanation from the Minister as to the precise meaning of these words, which also appear in the Act of 1920. So far as we can gather, they mean that the institution in question may be either a Poor Law institution or any other kind of institution. We are merely concerned that they shall refer to a blind institution, and shall have no relation whatever to the Poor Law.
§ 9.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Bernays
I have considerable sympathy with the mover of the Amendment, but am afraid I am unable to 145 accept his words. It would not be practicable, I am advised, for local authorities to provide institutional treatment for blind persons exclusively under the Blind Persons Act. In many cases blind persons requiring this form of assistance have to be dealt with under the Public Health Act or in Poor Law institutions, in the same way as sighted persons requiring similar treatment, but there is on the Paper an Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. A. Chapman), which the Government propose to accept, stating that assistance provided in an institution for the blind must be provided under the Blind Persons Act. This will still leave the necessary exception which I have already mentioned.
Mr. David Adams
In view of the hon. Gentleman's explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."
§ 9.14 p.m.
If the hon. Member will forgive me, I thought I made it clear that any discussion ought to take place on the Minister's Amendment. The hon. Member appeared to acquiesce in that suggestion, so I took it that he was satisfied.
§ Mr. Messer
I understood you, Captain Bourne, to say, "the two Amendments," and obviously they were the two Amendments in the name of the Minister of Health.
I am sorry if the hon. Member misunderstood me. I meant, the next four Amendments. I thought the hon. Member acquiesced in my suggestion. Apparently the rest of the Committee did.
§ Mr. Messer
No, I am inclined to think that many Members of the Committee thought my Amendment was not called because it was out of order. Had that not been the case I should have moved it. I regret that it was not called, because there was so much of importance contained in it. As the matter stands, there is the possibility of this Bill being, not a benefit, but a real hardship to many 146 people. Unless the Minister on Report meets in some way the point I am going to make there will be blind people who will be suffering a reduction in income as a consequence of the Bill, though I am certain that that is not the intention of the Minister. As is known, local authorities are entrusted with the task of preparing schemes for the purposes of the Blind Persons Act, 1920, and drawing up domiciliary schemes. Some of the authorities, realising that the assessment of the basis of income under the Old Age Pensions Act does not entirely meet the needs of the case, arrange a machine by which they assess. Under the Old Age Pensions Act, the owner of a house is assessed under Schedule A. There are public authorities which, when they are assessing the owner of a house who is blind, take into consideration all the receipts for which that house is responsible, deduct rates, mortgage, ground rent and repairs, and regard the balance as income.
The Middlesex County Council have a scheme which gives 27s. 6d. a week to a blind person. There was a case of a woman who had a life interest in her house, and when she arrived at the age of 50 she was told she could no longer draw the 17s. 6d. a week from the Middlesex County Council plus the 10s. a week which was the assumed value of the house, but that her old age pension would be reduced. The difference in the method of calculating the property meant that she suffered a reduction of 2s. 10d. a week. I was under the impression, when this legislation was introduced, that the Minister was going to seize the opportunity to remedy what was then already a grievance, and one which has been intensified by the fact that you are reducing the age at which pension will be paid. In another case, the wife of a person receiving old age pension had her domiciliary pension reduced from 23s. 6d. to 21s. Had my Amendment been accepted, the 10s. a week would have stood without regard to other income.
There is also the question of the basis of the Ministry of Health's assessment of the value of maintenance in institutions. I can give an instance of a blind person who was in receipt of a pension of 27s. 6d. a week, and who, on being transferred to Middlesex, went into an institution. Had he not gone into the institution he would have been entitled to 10s. a week blind person's pension, but, because the 147 Ministry assessed the value of what he was getting in the institution as higher than the amount of income that would justify his pension, he got nothing. Those are types of cases that would be met had my Amendment been accepted. Take the case of the differences in the scheme existing throughout the country. The Minister said that his object was to bring about uniformity, but does he do that? The report to which he referred contains two important items—that there are 42 public authorities which have no blind persons' scheme at all in operation, and that there are 20 authorities who pay as little as 15s. a week. It is possible under the Bill, as it stands, for those local authorities to pay only 5s. a week, because the 10s. a week pension will make up the 15s. that the blind person had previously been given.
If it is intended that the Bill should benefit the blind, why should local authorities reap the benefit? The Bill is not intended to transfer the financial liability from the local authority to the State. I am in perfect agreement with extending the area of liability: I think the State ought to take the greater share of responsibility for things which are certainly not of local origin; but there is the fact that many local authorities will take advantage of this position, that a pension of 10s. a week will be given, and they will be giving less. That is not really the way to tackle this problem. Are we legislating for a local authority or for these people who, denied the blessing we have got, have renounced a joy which no amount of compensation will make up to them? I hope we are going to have an assurance that this will be met, and that, at any rate, blind persons will not have their position worsened, and that some encouragement will be given to local authorities who want to do the right thing and are prevented by the fact that the provisions of the Bill do not permit them to do so.
§ 9.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Mander
I also did not understand, Captain Bourne, that you intended to take a general discussion on all the Amendments. Therefore, I might say a few words on my Amendment, which covers much the same ground as some of the others. It is difficult to understand why, by this Bill, the pension age is being 148 reduced to 40. It is not going to help blind people at all. It is a direct subsidy to the rates. The 10s. which is to be granted is not going to be any addition to the emoluments of the blind, but is simply going into the rates. My suggestion is that it should be stated in the Statute that it shall not be taken into consideration, and that therefore the income of the blind person shall be 10s. more. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will indicate whether he will express the wish that as far as possible local authorities who are at present making up the amount shall continue to do so, at any rate to a considerable extent, or whether it is in the mind of the Government that automatically they will take the 10s. If some guidance or lead was given by the Government to local authorities it might make a certain amount of difference. Certainly in the case of persons who are unemployable it will be no benefit to the blind person, but where persons are employed it may be that there will be some slight saving to the voluntary societies as well as to the rates, but again the blind person does not seen to get any benefit out of it.
In the case of a town like Wolverhampton, where they have a fairly generous scale, they make up the income of the unemployable blind to 25s. and some authorities give 27s. 6d., that is, for people over 50, 10s. pension plus 15s. out of the rates, and in the case of those under 50 the whole 25s. is made up. Now it will simply be 10s. and 15s. as in the case of those over 50. It seems an extraordinarily unsatisfactory state of affairs. I hope the Government will be able to do something, either by introducing an Amendment or by making a declaration as to their intentions and hopes, to see that some portion of this increase of 10s. actually goes to the family of the blind person.
§ 9.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Bernays
I am very glad of the opportunity of stating the Government's view on the question. As the Bill stands, local authorities have a wide discretion as to the kind and amount of assistance to blind persons. At the same time we cannot take the view that there should be no need test at all. For local authorities to disregard the fact that an old age pension was being paid, in deciding whether and what kind of assistance should be given, would be obviously acting contrary to the 149 fundamental principle that assistance granted from public funds must be calculated by reference to the need of the applicant.
§ Mr. Mander
Will the hon. Gentleman express the view that the Government hope that the 10s. will not simply be taken by the local authorities in relief of rates and that some portion will be left for the benefit of the blind persons?
§ Mr. Mander
They would be quite in order, if they thought fit, in allowing the whole of the 10s. to inure to the benefit of the blind persons?
§ Mr. Messer
Is that exactly the position? Here is a case where a woman was told that unless her domiciliary assistance was reduced, she would not get the pension of 10s. a week. That means that the Ministry of Health made it impossible for the Middlesex County Council to bring her income up to 27s. 6d., as is the case with other blind people. The Minister promised to look into it.
§ Mr. Silverman
Surely the time to look into it is now when you are passing an Act which will be interpreted by local authorities not merely by the words of the Act, but by anything that the Parliamentary Secretary says. The whole object of the Bill is to standardise assistance, but it may result in the whole of the 10s. being taken into account and so operate to reduce the person's income. It is all very well to say that the Minister has promised an inquiry and then to pass an Act which prejudges the whole position and say the inquiry will take place at some future date. The Bill ought to be so drafted as to embody in it the results of any investigation into cases of this kind which the Minister has been able to make, and not perpetuate an ambiguity which may have a precisely contrary effect to everything that is intended.
§ 9.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Greenwood
I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary's reply is so unsatisfactory. I am very glad that the 150 Minister has made a concession to my hon. Friend below the Gangway, but he has not really made anything more than a very small concession, because the whole political purpose of the Bill is to pretend that a great Measure is being put on the Statute Book in the interests of the blind. The real social purpose of providing a pension for blind persons is, as far as money can do it, to help to bring the blind back to normality—to give them something in terms of money that they have lost in terms of life. The hon. Gentleman says that this is within the discretion of the local authority. It is not. I am very glad that certain things are taken out of their discretion and that, where the unemployed are sick or have wound or disability pensions, that is going to be disregarded, but the hon. Gentleman has really misled the Committee. As the law stands now, the local authority must take this 10s. into account, and how many blind persons are going to be any better off? Very few.
If the Government were to assist local authorities by substantial grants openly, I should welcome it, but to pass a few shillings to the local authorities is not helping the blind and is not fair to the local authorities. That to me is the kernel of the Bill. I honestly believe that the view of the Committee would be that a blind person should be given by the State 10s. a week as compensation for the loss of sight, a priceless possession, and in no circumstances ought that 10s. to be taken into account. That seems to me to be fair and, as I have explained on more than one occasion, it has been admitted in the case of health insurance and disability pension, but in the case of people who are permanently blind the Government are not prepared to admit it. If it were not for the small concessions that have been granted I should be prepared to go into the Lobby against the Clause. I cannot do that, but I am bound to put on record the view of my hon. Friends that the Bill means very little. The hon. Gentleman has misled the Committee in his statement that these matters are within the discretion of the local authority. What is bound to happen is that this new 10s., which they are giving to some people, will be drawn into the coffers of the local authorities, and the blind for whom they profess to have great care and in whose interests this Bill is introduced, will be no better off. 151 I should like a further statement from the hon. Gentleman before we pass this Clause.
§ 9.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Gallacher
I want to make as strong a protest as I can possibly make against the statement of the Minister, when, in reply to the argument presented from below the Gangway, he gets up at that Box and tries to justify the operation of a means test against the blind people of this country. I am convinced that a means test against ordinary people cannot be justified, but when it comes to a means test against the blind, it is the very last word in inhumanity. Despite any concessions that may have been made, definite opposition should be shown to this Clause because of the operation of the means test. There is no need to emphasise what has already been put forward, that a blind man or woman receiving a certain income from the local authorities, will, after the 10s. has been granted through the medium of this Bill, still draw the same income, and the only advantage will be to the local authorities. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) said, the 10s. should be given and should not, under any consideration, be taken into account in any relief or assistance of any kind given to a blind person.
I want especially to draw attention to the fact that those who are responsible for advocating a means test for the blind people are scandalously wasting and destroying the wealth of this country—wealth that they have never earned. I do not know how any Members on those benches, after the case in the courts last week, which is typical of what is going on all the time, dare suggest a means test against the blind people of this country. It is the most shameful and scandalous suggestion it is possible to conceive. I would like to see the Minister responsible for the Bill, and the hon. Gentleman who gets up and speaks for a means test face a means test and undergo the financial conditions imposed upon many of the blind people of the country. Is it not terrible enough to be faced with the tragedy of blindness? But you must inquire into every penny they get, and this 10s. must be taken into account before relief is given. I protest against it, and despite the concessions that have 152 been made, there should, because of the character of the statement which has been made here and the determination to operate a means test against the blind, be a Division upon this Clause. I hope that the people in the country who have seen what is going on in view of that court case last week will bear this in mind, when they read the statement which has been made by the hon. Gentleman, that it is essential to operate a means test against the blind in this country. I would like, if permitted, to use the language that is in my mind about hon. Members on the other side, but the language I would use would not be printed.
§ 9.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Buchanan
The Minister ought to have given a much more reasonable reply to the hon. Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer), who made out a very reasonable case. He said something about a means test, but he did not reply to what was one of the most reasoned speeches I have heard in this House on the subject. The hon. Member for South Tottenham knows something about the blind and the work of administration, and he made out a reasoned case, and the only response was a sentence or two in reply to the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander). I am not complaining of the hon. Member being replied to, but I do complain that there was not a single sentence uttered in reply to the hon. Member for South Tottenham. The Parliamentary Secretary ought to have given an answer. The subject is very important and really deserves something more than its casual dismissal by him in half-a-dozen words. The hon. Member said that the blind person should be treated in the same way as the ex-soldier or the person under health insurance, namely, that the 10s. should be paid to him in respect of his affliction and should in no circumstances be taken into account by anybody. All that the Parliamentary Secretary said was that there should be a kind of means test.
That is not an answer in itself. Even if it were, one would have expected the Parliamentary Secretary to have said that, under this Bill, even a means test that might be applicable to others should at least be considerably modified here. Though he could not accept the statement made by the hon. Member for South Tottenham, at least he could have said 153 that, if they could not guarantee an income of 10s. a week to every blind person, at least they could make it wider in scope than it has hitherto been. Like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), in so far as there has been a concession, I am grateful for it. A number of people will benefit—ex-soldiers and those in receipt of benefit under health insurance. There are in some parts of the country local authorities paying 27s. 6d. a week, which is the maximum, and others are paying considerably less. I would not have minded if the Parliamentary Secretary had met the hon. Member for South Tottenham by ensuring that, wherever the local authorities are paying less than the maximum, the 10s. pension grant should go towards increasing it to the maximum paid by the best authorities. The pension should be used where they are paying 15s. or £1 and should not be taken into account as a means test until the 27s. 6d. level has been reached. That at least would have been some concession to the hon. Gentleman.
I wonder whether blind people are not going to be worse off than the ordinary poor. When the Poor Law Bills, particularly the Scottish Poor Law Bill, were before us, certain concessions and safeguards were made with regard to the ordinary poor. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury), who was the Leader of the Labour Opposition at the time, rightly complained that the English Bill did not go nearly as far as the Scottish Bill in dealing with the poor. Certain safeguards were laid down for the ordinary poor, but in regard to the blind person none of the safeguards applied to the ordinary poor are applicable. It is provided in the Bill that:In determining, in the case of any blind person, whether or not, or to what extent, to provide financial assistance under the preceding provisions of this Sub-section, the council shall take into account the needs of any members of the household of which the blind persons is a member who are dependent on him.In Scotland the ordinary poor person, apart from the question of exemption, has an appeal to a Scottish authority, the Department of Health. If he feels aggrieved that the local authority are treating him unfairly he has an appeal to the Government Department. The local authority may be disregarding the 154 Act. The Government Department must investigate the matter and give a decision. Under this Bill a blind person has no such appeal and to that extent he is worse off than the ordinary poor person. The Scottish blind person who appeals for a pension is subject to the decision of the local authority, willy nilly, and there is no appeal from that, whereas the ordinary poor person or the person who is sick, who feels that the amount paid by the local authority is not enough, can appeal to the Department of Health, who must investigate the matter and give a decision either upholding the local authority or turning it down and ordering it to pay more relief.
Why should it not be provided that 10s. a week should at any rate be guaranteed to the blind person? In regard to a disabled soldied, £1 a week is guaranteed by exemption, while for a sick person under Health Insurance allowance 7s. 6d. is guaranteed. We say that a blind person over 40 years of age shall be guaranteed an income of 10s. a week, which shall not be touchable by any local authority. If the Minister cannot agree to that, why should he not say that before the local authority can take the 10s. into account at least they shall be paying the maximum of 27s. 6d.? Is that asking too much? We are not asking the Parliamentary Secretary to upset any fixed principle in regard to the means test, but we do say that the means test should be less rigid and should be more humanely operated in regard to a blind person. I should like to ask the Solicitor-General for Scotland to state the position of a blind person in Scotland in regard to appeals.
§ 9.50 p.m.
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland (Mr. James Reid)
The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) has raised certain questions in regard to Scotland. The position is this, and I do not think that it is substantially different from the English position, that under the Poor Law legislation of 1934 the guiding principle was the scale laid down under the Transitional Payments Act of 1932. Under the present Bill the scale by the Amendment which the Committee have accepted is the scale in Section 38 of the Unemployment Act, 1934. During the Debates on the Unemployment Act the advantages of the new scale over the old scale were made perfectly obvious, and I need not go into 155 them. The position is that under the Unemployment Act, 1934, there are a number of things that must be disregarded. Prior to that enactment it was only optional to disregard them. This scale does not prohibit a local authority from assessing the needs of a blind person at considerably more than the needs of a person who has full sight. All that this provision does is to say that certain things shall not be taken into account, but it does not prevent the local authority from taking other things into account.
The position is regard to appeals is that there is no appeal in individual cases under the Bill, but there is the overriding provision that the local authority must satisfy the Minister with regard to its administration.
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland
Experience has shown that there is no need for an individual appeal, because I am not aware, and I should have been aware if there were such cases, of any cases in which the local authority has treated a blind person with such parsimony that an appeal would have been appropriate. If such cases had been known to us we should have taken appropriate steps. As we do not know of such cases it appears to be quite unnecessary to put in any provision in regard to appeals.
§ Mr. Johnston
Can the Solicitor-General say why he is not willing in this Bill to give the blind person the same right of appeal that a sighted person has?
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland
The reason is that experience has not demonstrated the necessity for any such appeal. The Poor Law code is an entirely different code from the Blind Persons code. There always has been an appeal under the Poor Law code but there never has been, so far as I am aware, any appeal under the Blind Persons code, and I am not aware that anybody has ever raised the question that that was a defect in the original Act. If it was not necessary in the original Act it is not necessary in this Act, which is a mere extension of the original Act.
§ 9.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen
How can the Solicitor-General for Scotland know whether there 156 is any need for an appeal or not? He says that there is no need to have a right of appeal because nobody has appealed. But if there is no right of appeal nobody can appeal. We are asking that there should be a right of appeal in the Bill. If nobody appeals no harm will be done, but if there are people who appeal it may be that they will get better treatment than they have at present. I suggest that the Solicitor-General for Scotland should consider before the Report stage whether blind persons should not have the same right of appeal as poor persons have at present.
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland
I should have thought that if during the years which have elapsed since the original Act was passed there had been cases where an appeal was appropriate the Department would have known of such cases.
§ The Solicitor-General for Scotland
Hon. Members are well aware of the methods by which hard cases are brought to the knowledge of Government Departments, and if it turns out that there are facts unknown to the Government, the Government would naturally take notice of such facts. I submit that 17 years experience has justified the framework of the original Bill and that no case has been shown for altering it.
§ 9.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Messer
When he speaks of appeals is the hon. and learned Member aware of the mass of machinery, the wide span which exists between the blind person and the municipal authority? Does he know in actual practice how it works out? The county council appoints an education committee, which appoints a blind persons sub-committee, which farms out the work to a local charity, which appoints a case committee, which appoints home teachers who go to the homes of the blind. What chance is there of a blind person ever knowing to whom he can appeal?
§ Mr. Buchanan
I do not propose to continue the discussion but I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to say something about exempting the 10s. As to what the Solicitor-General for Scotland has said, I think if there was a right of appeal it would show the need for a right of appeal. 157 I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will say a word that the 10s. pension shall be untouchable by the State, that no local authority shall be allowed to touch the 10s. pension until the 27s. 6d. maximum has been reached.
§ 10.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Bernays
The hon. Member has asked me to give an assurance that there will be no means test. I am unable to give such an assurance, and I have told the Committee that that was the case. As a matter of fact, the proposal which has been advocated in the interests of the blind that there should be no means test is not, in fact, supported by the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, who reported in 1924:We cannot support the total abolition of the income limit in the case of blind poisons nor support the suggestion made that all adult blind persons should receive a pension of 10s. a week. We are convinced that if this was carried out it would tend to discourage individual effort.I realise that the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) has great knowledge and experience of these matters and naturally his views are of importance, but I suggest it is also important that we should know the views of the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind on this question. I have already said that local authorities have a discretion, a wide discretion, in this matter and as to the kind of assistance which shall be given to blind persons, but you cannot pour out public money without inquiring whether that public money is needed or not. That is the principle of the means test, and it is one from which the Government cannot depart.
§ 10.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Greenwood
I feel in some considerable difficulty. I supported the Second Reading of the Bill and I cannot vote against Clause 2. At the same time the Government have not met our case by the concession which has been made. It is no use telling us what the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind said in 1924; this is 1938. It is no good talking about the means test, and about giving the blind money whether they need it or not. If a man has lost two eyes I say that there is no question of a means test; he is worthy of 10s. a week. There can be no argument about that. The Parliamentary Secretary says that local authorities have latitude and discretion. I say that they have not. This gift of 10s. to 158 people who have not enjoyed it before, but who have been assessed by the local authority, will go into the coffers of the local authority. I am as anxious as anybody to help local authorities, but not through the blind. The concession of the Minister is not worth a row of pins.
The real point which we have not been able to argue because the Amendment has not been called, is whether this 10s. given to the blind is part of the blind person's body, something which is given to him because of a physical defect. The principle has been admitted in the case of war pensioners, in the case of sick persons and by Parliament in the case of people receiving workmen's compensation. What we are asking is a perfectly straight and simple thing, which all decent people in their hearts know is right, that the 10s. should be regarded as part of the blind person, and that there should be no question of taking away from him the 10s. which the State has given him because of his physical disability. We have had no reply on that matter. As I have said, I cannot vote against Clause 2, but I think the Committee is entitled to some statement from the Minister as to where he stands on what we consider to be a very vital question.
§ 10.6 p.m.
§ Sir Stafford Cripps
I am sure that anybody who heard the two speeches of the Parliamentary Secretary must have felt that they were wholly inadequate to meet the very serious argument that has been put forward by various hon. Members on this side of the Committee. I am sure the Minister will not refuse to reply on a matter which is so serious to so many blind persons in this country. What has the Parliamentary Secretary told us? He has told us that it is a principle that whenever public money is paid out, there must be a means test. I am surprised at his hyprocrisy in making such a remark. Does he remember the tramp shipowners, and will he tell us where the means test came in when public money was paid out to them? Does he remember the beet sugar subsidy? Does he remember payment after payment of public money without any suggestion of a means test? Does he remember that when, in those cases, a means test was suggested by my hon. Friends simply to bring in equality of treatment, it was brushed aside as something which people of that 159 sort could not be made to suffer? Now the hon. Gentleman has the audacity to say to the Committee that blind persons must be subjected to something to which tramp shipowners and others cannot be subjected.
Surely, that cannot be the true argument behind this. If it is, I hope the Minister will get up and tell us so. As my right hon. Friend said, we are dealing here with a permanent disability of a human being. Under the National Health Insurance Act, we admit that people must go on getting something in respect of a temporary disability. When the disability becomes permanent, that something is to be taken away. A workman who is injured and who goes blind as a result of his work continues to get money under the Workmen's Compensation Act without its being taken into account in the means test, but a person who is blind from some other reason apparently is to be in a far less advantageous position. Where is the logic in that? What is the explanation? If blindness is a serious disability which will reduce the whole level of life of an individual, why are we so concerned to see that in no conceivable circumstances can he get something more than the bare margin of a living? It cannot be because the Exchequer cannot afford it. It cannot be because of the viciousness of humanity wishing to inflict even further hardships upon people who are already suffering so much. We are waiting for an explanation as to why this is, and we hope that the Minister, in view of the wholly inadequate statements which have been made so far, will give us that explanation.
§ 10.9 p.m.
§ Sir K. Wood
I am glad to say a few words at this stage. I did not intend any disrespect towards the Committee, but I had been in the Committee from a quarter to three this afternoon until nearly nine o'clock, and I went out for a little while. Unfortunately, I have not heard the arguments that have been advanced on this matter. I am aware that it is rather common form to say, as I have myself said in days gone by, that replies by Ministers are wholly inadequate; but from my own knowledge of my hon. Friend, I very much doubt whether his replies were inadequate.
§ Sir K. Wood
The hon. Member is very complimentary to me. With regard to the observations which have just been made by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), which are the only observations I have heard on this Clause, I do not think it is realised that, by the proposals of this Bill, blind persons are put in a special position. In Clause 2 it is stated that:It shall be the duty of the council of every county or county borough to make arrangements for promoting the welfare of blind persons ordinarily resident in the area of the council.
§ The Clause then goes on to enumerate the things that may be done in fulfilment of that duty. Consequently, the blind are put into a special position, a position which, as the hon. and learned Gentleman will agree, is not the position as far as ordinary persons are concerned, for they get their assistance either under the unemployment scheme or in connection with the poor law. In this Bill, for the first time, we say that it is the duty of every county or county borough council to make all the arrangements necessary for the welfare of the blind in their particular area under the Blind Persons Act. A special duty is placed on the local authorities with regard to blind persons.
§ I come now to the other point that was made by the hon. and learned Gentleman. There is a fundamental difference between hon. Members on this side and hon. Members opposite, although it should be said that there is not a difference as far as concerns many local authorities which are administered by Labour majorities. Hon. Members opposite say that when we come to giving public assistance, we should not have regard to needs and to the assistance which the people are already receiving. I should be prepared to state on any public platform in the country that it is right to say to people "What are you receiving?" before either a local authority or the State decides, in its turn, what should be given to these people. I understand that it is on that fundamental principle that the Opposition are contesting this Clause. I maintain—and I believe it is the judgment of the average, sensible person in this country, irrespective of party politics—that before either the State or a local authority gives assistance, it is not incorrect and it is not indecent to say "What are you now receiving and what have you received before?"161
§ Sir K. Wood
If any person to-night went to almost anybody in the Committee in his private capacity and asked for assistance, many of us would be very glad to give it, but I think we should only be taking a reasonable step, and one in the interests of the person asking for the assistance, when we said to him, "What is your need and what help are you getting already?" That is the fundamental issue which arises on this matter. I have not the time adequately to reply to the hon. and learned Gentleman on the statement that he has put forward. It raises the fundamental difference which exists between us on this subject. His view is that you should not take into account in giving assistance any question of a person's means, but that you should simply say that a certain amount will be given, irrespective of what the person is receiving in other ways.
§ Sir S. Cripps
I was not putting the fundamental point of the means test. I was putting this point to the right hon. Gentleman. Why cannot these sums be excluded from the means test just as other sums are excluded, to wit. National Health Insurance matters and other matters of that kind?
§ Sir K. Wood
I will deal with that. I hope I have secured the support of the majority of the Committee for my contention that when you give assistance of this kind you ought to have regard to the person's means. If I have not the support of the majority of the Committee on that point I am content to accept the judgment upon it of the average man and woman of this country. Then the hon. and learned Gentleman asks "Why have you made an exception as you have done to-night?" That is in reference to the Amendment which I moved, and which dealt with matters set out in the Unemployment Insurance Act. The answer is that all those matters are connected with the special needs of a person in relation to sickness or accident and all those matters apply equally to the blind person and to the person who is sighted. For the first time in the history of this country as far as the blind are concerned, we have laid down that these matters in relation to sickness and accidents shall be excepted. Then the hon. and learned 162 Gentleman asked, "Why not Old Age pensions?" I say that as regards Old Age pensioners, blind people and sighted people are in exactly the same position. It is true that in the Bill we have provided for special consideration for the blind and we have said that it shall be the duty of local authorities to do everything they can for the welfare of the blind, but when you come to the question of Old Age pensioners, the blind people are in the same position as the ordinary sighted persons. For those reasons, stated I am afraid very inadequately, at very short notice and without having heard the discussion, I believe the Committee will do right in voting for this Clause. It does a great deal for the blind and it makes a great advance. As regards the particular matters raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman we have made special provision for the blind and, as I say, in relation to Old Age pensions they are in the same position as others.
§ 10.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Messer
I realise that the Minister has had a very heavy day and that he could hardly be expected to attend during the whole of this discussion, but I ask him whether he agrees that it is right in this Bill to reduce the income of blind people? Maintaining the attitude which he has indicated means that certain blind people will suffer a reduction of income. The right hon. Gentleman's attempt to relate the ordinary old age pension to the blind pension is not a good one. These are not merely poor people who have lived their lives and worked in the ordinary way. Normally old age pensioners at 70 have lived their life and have had something to live for. It is assumed that they are earning or at any rate have an income. But here we are dealing with blind people who are getting a pension for a special purpose, and that special purpose is a disability. It is not their fault that they are blind by virtue of some industrial disease, accident, or from birth. It is a disability in exactly the same way as that of people who have been moved.
There are those local authorities which have attempted to do what the Minister has said they should do, that is, to make the best possible provision, but he does not realise that by maintaining this attitude, he is preventing them from doing what they want to do. The Old Age Pensions Act assesses the value of a house 163 on Schedule A, but a county authority, doing what the Minister says he wants it to do and providing for the blind in the best possible way, assesses the value of the house in a different way. It has regard to the income and the expenditure on rates, rent, mortgage, repairs, and so on, and it has regard to the balance of the income. What does the Minister say when we come to apply that? In cases which have actually been before the committee, two received 17s. 6d. a week from the county council under the domiciliary assistance scheme. One of these blind persons lives in her own house, in which she has a life interest. The method of calculating the value of the property under the Old Age Pensions Act differs from that prescribed by the county council's domiciliary assistance scheme, and the case committee has been informed that the old age pension would be reduced unless the amount received by her was reduced from 17s. 6d. to 14s. 8d. a week.
There is a case where a woman loses 2s. 10d. a week. Blind people at the age of 40 who are in that position will suffer a reduction, and it would be better for them if this Bill were not passed and they had to wait until 10 years hence, until they were 50, and were compelled to come under this scheme. I want the Minister to consider those cases. I agree with my hon. Friend that while the abolition of the means test would be a good thing, it is hopeless to expect the Government to do it. We can only expect them to go a little way to meet the anomalies which have been pointed out and which make the administration of this work so very difficult. I hope the Minister will give us some encouragement. This and other cases have been brought before his notice. In reply to a letter addressed to him, his Ministry said:With reference to your letter, I am directed by the Minister of Health to state that his jurisdiction under the Old Age Pensions Act, 1924, is limited to the consideration of claims and questions referred to him on appeal against decisions of local pensions committees. … You are aware, however, that under the Act of 1924 there has been an improvement. Any suggestion for the amendment of the existing Statute would be primarily a matter for the Treasury, but representations made by your sub-committee have been noted.That was in January, 1937, and here we have this Bill. When we thought that 164 under it something was going to be done to deal with this situation, we are discouraged, because nothing has been done. I hope that on the Report stage or later we shall get some encouragement and that even if the whole thing cannot be dealt with in the way we ask, we shall be able to deal with this particular aspect of the case. Will the right hon. Gentleman have regard to the cases where these local authorities are paying a very small sum? There are between 17 and 20 authorities which are paying only 15s. a week. Under the Bill all they need do is to pay 5s., and nothing of the 10s. Is the intention of the Minister to allow that to continue? Under this Bill therefore a local authority can pay much less than is paid now. How can the Minister consistently state that the Amendments he has moved will remove the anomalies that exist? They will not do anything of the sort. I hope that we shall get some encouragement to believe that an improvement will be made before the Bill goes through the rest of its stages.
§ 10.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Mander
The Minister has dealt with this matter in an interesting way, but, on the whole, I do not think that he has done as well as the Under-Secretary. The Under-Secretary did try to make out that, after all, wide discretion was given to the local authorities and that it was within their scope, if they thought fit, to distribute part of this 10s, to the blind person. I do not think there is much foundation for that, according to what we heard afterwards, but he did try to give that impression. The Minister has blown the case for the major part of the Bill sky high. It ought to be called a Rates Relief Bill and not a Blind Persons Bill. He has been trying to convey the impression that an extra amount is to be paid to blind persons between 40 and 50, but now we know that they need not get one penny more as far as this 10s. is concerned. I understand that that is what he said. If it is not, I hope he will say so. If it is hoped that the local authorities will pass on some of this 10s., I wish he would say so and give a lead to the country. In the absence of any statement of that kind, we are justified in saying that this is a rates relief bill and nothing else.
§ 10.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Gallacher
I want to ask the Minister a question if he will condescend 165 to pay attention. I listened to his homily on public money and what he is pre pared to do about public money on public platforms. Would he be prepared to meet any representative of this side of the House on a public platform and show whether there has been one occasion on which he has opposed public money being handed out regardless of means when it has been big public money. For instance, the other week we had here the case of a pension of over £800 a year, the recipient of which took a job with a firm interested in the same business as he had been carrying on as a Civil Servant, and he received £1,000 or £2,000 a year from the company. Has the Minister opposed the handing out of that public money or demanded an investigation of means? Has there ever been a demand from the Minister that means should be investigated in the case of the military men who did not win the War? How dare you get up and say that you are opposed to public money being handed out unless means are taken into consideration. Can you tell me if there was one ship owner—
§ Mr. Gallacher
I am sorry. I do not know why I should speak to the Minister after the exhibition he has given us. I ask him whether he can tell us of one shipowner—and there are one or two sitting round about—who had to disclose his means before the Minister and his colleagues handed out public money to him? I challenge the Minister to meet me on any public platform in any part of the country. I will demonstrate there that an examination into means applies only in the case of the poor. The Minister and his associates are prepared to hand out money to their own class without the slightest consideration. When it comes to the blind the Parliamentary Secretary reads out from some report that to give them 10s. will demoralise them, will kill initiative. How dare he do such a thing as that? These are the Christian gentlemen who represent the National Government. As the right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench here said, that 10s. should be given to the blind and under no circumstances should it be touched. Still the means test can be operated, but that 10s. should never be touched. I am 166 absolutely opposed to a means test of any kind directed against poor people, but that could be done even if a means test were operated. Is it impossible to give 10s. a week to the blind without taking into consideration their other means? It seems utterly hopeless to try to make any impression on hon. Members opposite. They will spend more than 10s. on buying one of their colleagues a drink. [An HON. MEMBER: "How do you know?"] Oh, I have a very good idea of what it costs. Could not the Minister even at this late hour get up and say, "I am prepared to consider this proposal that however the means test operates this 10s. shall not be touched and may be bringing some change later"?
§ 10.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Greenwood
I do not wish to continue this Debate, but the right hon. Gentleman has not replied to one point of very considerable: substance. We are not now dealing with the rearmament pro gramme, which is concerned with hundreds of millions of pounds. We are dealing with a relatively small number of people—
§ Mr. Greenwood
—who in 1920 were regarded by this House as being old persons at the age of 50. Let me say that the blind have always resented that view, but because of their disability they were given the pension at 50 years of age. Now the right hon. Gentleman offers a new concession and says, "We will give the blind the old age pension at 40 years of age." That was done because these people had an irremediable disability. They received their 10s.
The right hon. Gentleman is now reducing the age. He admits the case that these people are abnormal and that the State should come to their assistance, so far as money can assist people who have lost one of their senses, that of sight. The right hon. Gentleman has not yet replied to this point, which I have repeatedly put in this House. This is the third time to-night I am putting it. He talks about needs and about the means test, but I am not talking about that at all because the question of need does not arise. If a man is sick, part of his health insurance is completely disregarded when the question of need comes into account, and the same is true of a half-blinded ex-service man; he has lost one eye, and 167 he gets payment for that eye through life. Nothing can touch that payment. Yet a man who becomes blind as a consequence of the industrial struggle is to receive 10s., under conditions. I am asking a simple thing, and hon. Members surely recognise that my point is a right one; it is that the right hon. Gentleman should put the 10s. in the same position as the first £1 of a disabled ex-service man's allowance. I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: will he, for this limited section of people who have been deprived of one of the most priceless things in life, their sight, say that the 10s. which the State believes is due to them because of their disability shall be part of themselves and shall not go to reduce the rates of local authorities? I have not yet had a reply from the right hon. Gentleman, and we are entitled to it.
I shall not vote against Clause 2, because I would not do anything to injure a blind person. If the Bill helps blind persons I am glad of it. I think we are entitled to a far better explanation than we have had from the Government side. The Bill is a fraud. Blind persons will not benefit as much as the country has been led to believe. I feel very strongly on the point, and I would not have been so persistent if I had not felt strongly. I feel that we are entitled to a better answer to the case which has been put up from these benches to-night, and that we should have it from the right hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary or perhaps from one of the Law Officers of the Crown. Unless we get such an answer we shall have to pursue the matter on the Report stage.
§ 10.39 p.m.
§ Sir K. Wood
I would like to say a further word, but I regret that I cannot take the matter further than I have stated. I would point out that the provisions of the Bill for the first time require local authorities to make this special provision for the blind. We are entitled to take into account the resources of the blind in that respect. I am sorry that I cannot add anything to that very brief reply, although I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's point. I have done my best to explain the position to him.