HC Deb 09 June 1943 vol 390 cc805-10
Lieut.-Colonel Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 41, at the end, to insert "or by any voluntary agency."

The Amendment seeks to meet a very small point, which nevertheless interests a great many people. Some years ago Parliament decided that the old age pension should be paid to blind persons at the age of 40. I am speaking now of the pension which was not contributory and still survives at age 70 in normal cases. A person at the age of 70 was thought to be no longer able to work, and the blind person round about the age of 40 is also very unlikely to be trainable. It was thought that Parliament should pay him a pension, since he was in very much the same position as the ordinary old person. Instead of the blind person obtaining the benefit of that change, the local authorities reduced, to an equivalent amount, that which they were paying to blind persons under the Blind Persons Act, 1920. Where a local authority has set up a scale to give a domiciliary grant to blind persons unable to earn money to live on, and where it exceeded a certain amount, the Customs and Excise, who manage these pensions, have paid less than 10s., sometimes 6s. or 4s., or sometimes nothing.

The Clause will please a great many blind persons and those who are interested in their welfare, and I welcome it, but it will be much better if the words "or any voluntary agency" were added. There are 95 voluntary agencies, many of them pensions societies set up by bequests and trusts, paying small pensions for blind people of 5s. or 10s. a week. Other grants have been given by local people to particular blind people. There are also some general funds which are available for all blind people and are used in special cases where the trustees feel that something is necessary above and beyond what the local authority and the State can provide. If the Clause is passed, the old muddle between the local authority and the State will have been removed, but the effect of voluntary grants will still be that the local authority or the Customs will reduce the amount of pensions accordingly. The voluntary money will, in fact, be used for the benefit of the ratepayers and taxpayers. That was not the intention of the donors. It may mean reducing the income of some 7,000 families, because there are 7,000 blind people who receive financial assistance from those various quarters. Many thousands of pounds are distributed annually by those charitable trusts, many of which go back into our history. It would be a pity not to make it clear that this kind of voluntary financial assistance can go on and will not merely be a relief to the rates.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I hope that the Minister will see his way to accept this Amendment. He has been very sticky up to now and stood fast throughout the whole day—[An HON. MEMBER: "No."] —except for Amendments which were agreed upon at the end of the Second Reading. The suggestion made by the hon. and gallant Member who has moved the Amendment is very reasonable. We are not dealing with public funds here. The money from voluntary agencies will have been raised for this purpose with the intention of giving a little extra to people who are suffering under a shocking disability. It would be very unfortunate if it appeared that any money we may be giving with one hand is being taken away with the other, and I therefore hope that the Minister will see his way to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Messer

I agree with the object of the Amendment, and I hope that the Mover will accomplish his intention. As I understand the Clause, it means that any small sum of money which may be granted by a local authority in the way of a domiciliary grant shall not be calculated when a pension is granted, but that will not deprive the local authority from deciding what their liability is going to be. All that the Amendment will do is to secure that the amount of the pension shall be paid without regard to the voluntary assistance.

Sir I. Fraser

I am aware of deficiencies in the Amendment, due to my lack of time to study fully the implications of the Bill. Moreover, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was good enough to give me a certain amount of assistance. I shall be very glad if he can find it possible to grant this Amendment.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Assheton)

I think the Committee understand the problem. The object of Clause 4 is to remove an anomaly, or what I might almost call an absurdity of the law, as it now stands. As I understand the matter, the non-contributory pensioner gets 10s. a week so long as his means do not exceed £65 a year. If the local authority give more support than 25s. a week, it merely reduces the sum which the Customs and Excise should pay. The whole Committee will wish to make an alteration in that arrangement. The hon. and gallant Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) has put down an Amendment to ensure that local authorities disregard pensions or allowances granted by voluntary associations when assessing the amount of assistance given to blind persons. As has already been pointed out, the Amendment does not altogether secure what the Mover wishes to secure, and I should like to suggest to the Committee that it is not necessary for the Amendment to be accepted nor for an Amendment on the lines which my hon. and gallant Friend would put down in order to complete the proposal which he wishes to make. Local authorities have entirely unfettered discretion to give as much assistance as they think fit. It would be unreasonable to require a local authority to disregard voluntary allowances to any unspecified amount. It would break into the whole system and make the position of the local authorities most difficult. They have a free discretion, and I think the Committee will agree it would be much better to leave the matter like that.

Sir I. Fraser

The hon. Gentleman is being most friendly, and also most ingenious, because he is not answering the Amendment which I put upon the Paper and which seeks to make it impossible for his Customs and Excise to reduce the State pension to very small dimensions. He has put forward a proposal that the local authorities should not do the same thing, but he has not shown why the Customs House should do it. Anyway, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Messer

I wish to express my pleasure in welcoming this Clause, but I would not be human if I did not say that as far back as 1928 I asked for this to be done, and I am not ashamed of the part that I took in the passing of the Act of 1938. Blind people get their incomes from a variety of sources. Some who are unemployable either through becoming blind late in life or from some other cause can receive what is known as a domiciliary grant from a county council or a county borough council charged with the administration of the Blind Persons Act. The amount of the domiciliary grant differs according to the generosity of the particular local authority. I cannot blame the local authorities entirely for it, because they are not all in exactly the same position.

Take, for instance, the administrative county of Lancashire. It has a population, roughly, of 2,000,000, and a 1d. rate raises just over £40,000. In the administrative county of Middlesex, roughly with a population of 2,000,000, a id. rate raises £84,000. Therefore, it is not so easy for Lancashire to be generous as it is for Middlesex. Nevertheless, Lancashire boasts a very generous blind persons scheme of 35s. a week, and it is not altogether to the credit of Middlesex. These grants to blind persons should not depend. upon the accident of the person living one side or another of a county border, and I have tried for a long time to get that matter rectified. What does this Clause do? It says that so far as the pension is concerned, the pension authorities shall have no regard to the amount which may be paid by the local authority to the blind person, but it does not say that a local authority shall not take into consideration the amount they are getting by way of pension. I think that the attention of the Minister should be drawn to that weakness with a view to seeing whether something cannot be done to remedy it.

If there is one class of the community which needs attention it is the blind persons. I do not think that blind persons should be in the Bill at all. I think there should be a special blind persons scheme. When dealing with old age pensioners we are dealing with people who have had a period of employment in their lives and freedom and independence. They have been able to enjoy some measure of the results of their activity, and therefore their poverty has been a spasmodic matter, not continuous. This Bill deals with pensions which have no relation to the same need as that of the blind persons. The blind person is poor because he or she is blind. Because of that permanent factor, they should be treated as a separate class. I agree that this proposal is a slight improvement but organised blind persons, knowing the interest I have taken in their great problem, approached me, and wanted me to put down another Amendment. I said to them, "Do not ask me to put down a lot of Amendments to this Bill, because I put down a lot to the Nurses Bill, and I rather think I did more harm than good to the nurses. Let us leave it to the generosity of the Minister. Let us present our case to him without wasting a lot of time on Amendments. Let him know what those who speak for blind people think should be done. Their needs should be recognised as requiring special attention." I hope that as a result of what I have said the Minister will give attention to this matter. There is no other section of the community that can be compared with those people who are condemned to eternal darkness, to an everlasting night, that knows no breaking dawn, no lightness; who hear, but do not see the cause of that which they hear. They are robbed of the most precious possession that nature has given us. They wake in the morning without knowing it is morning. They never know the peace of the setting sun. Our sympathy should be sufficient to justify us in regarding blind people as worthy of special attention. I hope they will get it.

Mr. Hogg

I do not wish to take up the time of the Committee, but I feel that someone on this side should reinforce what has just been said, with only this qualification, that some of us think the whole position of cripples generally should also be considered when the Minister is dealing with that question.

Mr. E. Brown

I would not like any misunderstanding to arise. Of course, we shall take the greatest care to weigh the things which have been said on this subject from both sides. I would like to add one thing. I am not quite so sure as my hon. Friend about one thing he said. There is one other section of the community which does not always get the sympathy it should have—the totally deaf. I make that qualification—otherwise I am grateful to my hon. Friends.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.