HC Deb 17 February 1938 vol 331 cc2198-204

As amended, considered.

Mr. Speaker

The Amendment which stands on the Order Paper in the name of the hon. Member for Tottenham, South (Mr. Messer)—in page 2, line 15, after "Sub-section," to insert: any old age pension payable to the blind person under the Old Age Pensions Act, 1936, as amended by Section one of this Act shall be disregarded, and. would involve a charge upon the rates and is, therefore, out of order.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Rhys Davies

I should like to say a very few words before we part finally with this Bill. You have stated, Mr. Speaker, that the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer) is out of order and consequently we cannot deal with that subject, except that I might make an appeal to the Minister. I do not think that it would be too late for him to give kindly consideration to the point that I am about to put to him. Under the Bill it will still be possible for the old age pension of 10s. a week to be taken into account for assessing the needs of a blind person. We have failed to make any impression upon the right hon. Gentleman so far, but I would ask him whether he could not meet us by a compromise, which might not cost very much. We know full well that where a blind person is in an institution the institution, generally speaking, takes the money that the blind person may receive either by way of old age pension, health insurance or any other social service cash benefits. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can give favourable consideration to the position of the blind person who is living at home, so that when his needs are assessed and he is in receipt of the 10s. old age pension that sum will not be taken into account in assessing his needs. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give heed to that request. If he feels disposed to do something in that direction he might still be able to do it in another place. This Bill is very much like other Government Measures; it does a great deal of good, but we wish it had been much more generous to blind persons. In spite of all that, we do not intend to oppose the Bill on Third Reading.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. Messer

There are few Members more disappointed than I am to-night. Through a misunderstanding, my Amendment was not called in the Committee stage, and now it has not been called on the Report stage. That is a disappointment, because the Bill could do with very drastic alterations. It will be of very little benefit as it stands. I consider it to be a piece of typical Tory legislation. Tory speakers at by-elections may attempt to make some show of having done something by referring to this Bill. Very few blind people will get any benefit out of the Bill, and it is well that that fact should be known. What is the history of it? For long, weary years the blind have been waiting for something to be done. The Minister's own Advisory Committee in 1928 recommended that there should be a reduction in the age at which the pension should be payable. Again, in 1935 they reaffirmed that view, and asked that consideration should be given to it. In 1938, after having been conceived 10 years ago, after 10 years of gestation, the thing is stillborn.

The benefit in the Bill, as far as I can see, is for the local authorities and the county councils. It does nothing for the blind, as such. The number of blind persons between the ages of 40 and 50 who might have benefited is very small and could not possibly exceed 7,000. The blind people and those who have been engaged in the administration of the Blind Persons Act had hoped that the Bill would have contained some improvement, but it is to be regretted that nothing really material has been accomplished. The Bill leaves untouched the great problem that is facing the blind. The Bill is a monument of lost opportunity. In the last few weeks I have heard in the House the quotation: Hope springs eternal in the human breast. But we never hear the quotation completed: Man never is, but always to be blest. Of the blind people between 40 and 50 who might be affected by the Act, the majority are unemployable and untrainable. For those who are employable the position is anomalous. It is possible for a person to be an employed blind person and getting money from the work he does, but this Bill does nothing to alter a situation which everybody who knows anything about the blind has pressed for alteration. They will have their income augmented and, whilst employed, they are insured, but when they are unemployed they are dependent upon unemployment benefit and are getting less than those blind persons who are in receipt of the blind person's pension, plus domiciliary assistance. Therefore, you are robbing the blind people of incentive to employment, for in many instances the employable blind person may be worse off than those who are unemployable and untrainable. The Bill continues that anomaly. Under it blind people will get their domiciliary assistance, as they always have, but there is no assurance that anyone will get one penny piece advantage. The Bill does benefit somebody. It benefits those mean authorities who are doing very little in domiciliary assistance.

Mr. Quibell

Where are they?

Mr. Messer

In Lincolnshire there are four who pay as little as 15s. a week. Under this Bill the rates, or the ratepayers, will benefit at the expense of the blind. It provides £160,000, yet it will not be the blind who will get it, but the ratepayers. It ought not to be called a Blind Persons Bill, but a Rate Assistance Bill. The Ratepayers' Associations are probably the only people who will give it their blessing. It still leaves in the hands of private, indiscriminate and irresponsible charities an important aspect of the work. We have failed to face responsibilities which are ours. I could give the name of a charity which is able on its own volition to raise only £4,000 a year for the purpose of dealing with this charitable work. That society appoints highly paid officials, appoints home teachers and spends £40,000 a year of public money. Private charities are still responsible for the maintenance of workshops and for the maintenance of teaching and training institutions. Blind people go into these institutions and public money is paid for their training. After they have undergone a period of training they go into the workshop, still under the private charity, and if the manager of the charitable institution does not like their religion, their politics or their looks, they get the sack, and it is a difficult job for them to find another position because of the limited opportunities there are for blind persons.

I myself a few years ago interviewed the manager of one of the biggest institutions in London who had discharged two men for staying out and distributing handbills. I showed him that while snow was on the ground and at a time when they were practising carols for Christmas he had put two men in the gutter because he did not like what they were doing privately. It is possible for blind people to be victimised. There is a blind workshop not a mile from this House where to my knowledge people living in my division have been victimised and cannot get another job. These associations are in control of this work. They take blind persons into training for a job and they give them a certificate which entitles them to call themselves blind workers. Within my own knowledge and experience is the case of a man who learned to tune pianos, but because he could not pass the repair test he could not get a certificate. I know-thousands of piano tuners who cannot do any repairs at all. This power ought not to be left in the hands of private people. It is the responsibility of local authorities to look after a section of the community who are unable to look after themselves.

I want to point out also that the Bill still leaves a great inequality in various parts of the country. No attempt has been made to unify the treatment, and the result is that local authorities who are generous suffer as a consequence of those who are mean. If the Minister will look at his own Advisory Committee he will see that there are some who give an income to a blind person up to as much as 27s, 6d. a week and there are some who give as little as 15s. a week. There are about 46 authorities who have no scheme at all for the blind, and there are a number who deal with cases on their merits. We all know what merits an individual case has when it goes before certain local authorities.

The great evil of the Bill is that the basis of assessment of income of the Old Age Pensions Act still operates against the blind person. Under the Old Age Pension Act the Minister of Health will assess the value of the treatment and maintenance of anyone who is in a hospital or institution. We get this position: Under the Bill where a man maybe drawing 10s. a week old age pension, plus other income, and goes into hospital, he is informed that his income has increased to the extent of £3 10s. a week, and, consequently, is not entitled to the old age pension, because the Minister of Health regards the cost of his maintenance and treatment as income. Obviously, it is not income; he does not go there because he wants to. There are still certain liabilities which have to be met. There are his share of the rent and certain fixed charges, but his blind pension is taken away. It would perhaps be unfair if I say that the Bill does nothing at all. It does two things. It takes the dependants of blind people out of the Poor Law. That will have to be watched with great care, for the position at the moment is that blind persons are entitled to an income because they are blind, and their relatives and dependants, should they need it, have to go at the moment to the public assistance committee, where they will be paid according to scale.

There is a danger that in the amending schemes which must be brought forward we shall get that which will result in a reduction of the combined amount which goes into the household, which can be done under the Bill. I am rather glad of that, because I want to see the Poor Law entirely ended. The second thing which the Bill does is to provide some assistance in the matter of funeral expenses for blind persons. I think it would be much better if we did something to make their lives worth living rather than to bury them decently when they are dead.

I sometimes wonder whether in our administration we are not rather too cold and lacking in that human quality which is required to understand the people for whom we are administering. Surely, there is no section of the community which has so great a claim on the respect of the community as those who have lost their sight, those who are condemned to a life of eternal darkness, to a night that knows no dawn, who can share with us the scent of the flowers but never the glory of their colours, who can feel with us the warm breath of the sun, but are never inspired by its rising or the peace of its setting, who can never feel that they are akin to those who have that which they lack. I want to plead with those who have eyes that can look up with a light of joy to have pity on those who have eyes, but only for weeping.

9.57 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

I feel that a few words from me are due to the hon. Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer). I hope he will not think I am discourteous if I do not reply in detail once again to the criticisms that he has made. I suppose that in the case of all legislation that is brought forward, there always remains something more that could be done. For very many years there has been no legislation with relation to blind people, although many Governments have been in power. This Measure at any rate does take legislation on behalf of blind people a stage further, and it is in that sense that I commend it to the House. It will do something more for people whom we all desire to help, and I am glad that it has fallen to my lot to be able to bring forward such a Bill. I am afraid I cannot hold out any hopes to the hon. Member with regard to the suggestions that he has made. I do not wish to enter into further controversy to-night, but the hon. Member will appreciate that one of the Clauses of the Bill places upon the local authorities the duty of having regard to the needs and necessities of the blind, and I think that within the interpretation of that Clause a very great deal can be done for the blind people in many of the ways mentioned by him. At this hour of the night the House will not expect me to controvert the statements that have been made, and I hope that the House will now give the Bill a unanimous Third Reading.