§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]
§ 3.10 p.m.
§ Mr. William Shepherd (Bucklow)
This afternoon I desire to raise the question of the supply of cars for disabled ex-Service men, because this is an issue which is giving rise to a good deal of concern. Many hon. Members are worried about what is happening and do not, in fact, know what is happening. Therefore, I will endeavour this afternoon to get from the Minister when he appears—I know he was here, because I was speaking to him a short time ago—some statement on th2 present position and also to see whether we cannot get a more satisfactory arrangement than the present one, which is certainly not getting us very far.
I raise this question because I read in the Press only a few days ago that it will take eight years to fill all the orders for cars placed in the last few months. To the disabled ex-Service men, whose livelihood depends on getting a motor car, to read that it is going to take eight years to get current orders filled is disconcerting. I hope to get from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply some more reassuring statement than has appeared in the Press.
It is generally agreed by both sides of the House that many of the arrangements made for ex-Service men are very much better after this war than they were after the 1914–18 war, but I believe that on this question of cars for disabled men the country has not maintained the standard it has set in other directions. So far, there have been supplied to disabled ex-Service men only 2,800 cars. I am 2232 advised by the British Legion that as many as 50,000 applications have, in fact, been made. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received letters from many of their constituents telling most pathetic stories of the difficulties of ex-Service men through failure to get motor cars. Therefore, I feel that the provision of only 2,800 cars in nearly three years is wholly inadequate, in view of the obvious demands. Last year, I got from the Ministry of Supply information on the supply of cars from Ministry of Supply dumps to people other than ex-Service men, and the total was over 300 motorcars for Government Departments. That is quite wrong. It is quite improper that, while we have these men who so gallantly served their country waiting for cars which are indispensable to them in resuming civilian life, these 300 cars should be supplied to non-serving people. Many ex-Service men could have started their life afresh and have been made happy if they had been supplied with cars.
Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us how many cars have been sold to the public from Ministry of Supply dumps. I am told that all these cars are not suitable. Of course, all are not, but I am convinced that if a real effort were made by the Minister of Supply and the Minister of Transport, more of these cars could have been made suitable for ex-Service men. I am convinced that the British Legion, in co-operation with the motor car manufacturers, would be only too pleased to make a special effort to make 5,000 or 6,000 of these cars suitable for ex-Service men. I am convinced it has not been 'done because of the lack of interest and drive on the part of the Minister of Transport and the Minister of Supply. It is one of those unfortunate circumstances where two or three Ministers are involved, and each one passes the baby on to the other, with the result that, generally speaking, little or nothing is done.
I want to know what is the present position. We are told that the list has been closed since November, 1946. How many men are now waiting for motor cars whose application has been acknowledged as received? What is to happen to those who at the present time are unable to get on the list? What provision is being made for them? I must stress again that this 2233 demand for motor cars for ex-Service men arises not from a question of giving them some sort of advantage over the rest of the community. It is a means by which they can be put on a level with the rest of the community, because they have suffered a disability through service to the country, and we are asking that they should have the means by which their livelihood can be resumed.
I had a letter from an ex-Service man this morning—a bomber pilot in the R.A.F.—who said he had to give up his job only three weeks ago because his motor car had let him down and he could not carry on without it. That is the answer to the question—why do not ex-Service men buy secondhand cars? Secondhand cars are such a price that most ex-Service men cannot afford to buy them. The price is such that only the black marketeer and the more opulent section of the community can afford to pay it. Of course, there is also the great anxiety to a man who has bought a secondhand car which is not reliable., When I started running motor cars, I paid as little as 30s. for them, and I know what terrible strain was placed on a person with a 30s. motor car in those days. Today, I think, a £300 motor car has about the equivalent in anxiety value of the 30s. car with which I first started motoring. I do not think it is fair to say that we expect ex-Service men to buy secondhand motor cars at the present level of prices.
Apart from the cars which are stuck in Germany and the future of which no one can foretell—they have probably eaten themselves a few feet deeper into the ground since I saw them a few weeks ago—there are probably very few cars left in Ministry of Supply dumps. What are we to do for these thousands of ex-Service men who have no cars and whose livelihood, and resumption of life in the ordinary way, depends on obtaining them? The answer is that there must be some priority for ex-Service men getting new cars. For 18 months we have been thinking that the supply position in new cars would improve, but in reality the supply position is getting worse, and we have to face the fact that unless we give priority for new cars to ex-Service men, many will never obtain them. I would like also to suggest—and this is outside the scope of this Debate—that the Parlia- 2234 mentary Secretary should get in touch with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and see that these ex-Service men do not have to pay Purchase Tax on new cars, because that is an unjust imposition on men who have served the country well and who now want to resume their ordinary lives. It is the duty of the State to see that these men have a reasonable chance in life after the sacrifices they have made.
I want to refer to just one other thing, and that is the cars supplied by the Ministry of Pensions, with which no doubt the Ministry of Supply has some connection, because the Ministry of Supply spreads in every direction and has a finger in most pies. The vehicle supplied at the present time, for which specifications have been sent out, is wholly unsatisfactory to most ex-Service men. It is a three-wheeled car and, as everybody knows who has driven three-wheeled cars in earlier life, it is a most dangerous thing to put on the road, particularly in bad weather and particularly on tram lines. In addition, it has no protection in winter. A disabled man who is provided by the Ministry of Pensions with a car in which to go to his work must have a vehicle which is reasonably safe and which will protect him in all weathers. It is absolute nonsense, in the year 1948, for the Ministry of Pensions to send out specifications for a three-wheeled motor car without protection. It is perfectly easy to supply a four-wheeled vehicle. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will approach the Minister of Pensions to see that a suitable vehicle, one that will fulfil the needs of the ex-Service man, is produced in the place of this three-wheeled chair which is at present supplied.
I feel very strongly that far too little has been done for the ex-Service man in this matter of the provision of cars. It is very easy for people in Government Departments—men who suffer, in the main, no disability—to say, "We have done all we can." They have not done as much as they could. With more energy and more drive, they could have done much more for ex-Service men in this direction. It is true that the provision of cars today will mean some sort of sacrifice. They will have to come out of the allocation for pleasure purposes to people in this country. Perhaps, they will have to come out of the export allocation. However, important as is the ex- 2235 port drive to our national existence, it is no less essential that we fulfil our moral obligations to men who have served their country so well. The country ought to be pleased and proud to make sacrifices, if necessary, to see that these men get a fair chance in life.
§ 3.22 p.m.
§ Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)
I think the House must express its gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Bucklow (Mr. W. Shepherd) for raising this subject, and for the eloquent way he has brought forward his plea. The British Legion, and other organisations for ex-Service men with which I am in touch, are grateful to him, and they will be grateful to the House if it will listen to his plea, and to the Ministry if it will take some action upon it. Let me put before the House some reasons why a preference should be given to these ex-Service men. First, they have been disabled in the service of the country and our cause, in a way which, in spite of the egalitarian doctrine which is growing up and pervading so many fields, nevertheless, still appeals to our hearts. It is not enough to say that all served the country equally in war. My contention is that those who go out and face shot and shell, on the battlefield or in the air or at sea, have a particular claim on the consideration and generosity of the nation and of the Government.
However, there is another reason. The very fact that they have been away in Burma or abroad somewhere has made it less easy for them to secure whatever is available at home. That is true of housing. It is also true of motor cars. Those at home, however important their job, however risky, at least could look around to find a car, could take advantage of some offer which came their way, or could get on a waiting list of dealers, with a high place upon it. Those who were away had not those opportunities. So the giving of a preference, if it is not to be conceded by the Government on the first ground I put forward—consideration of the men who fought abroad—can still be acceded to on the second ground, which is to make conditions fair for the men who have been away.
Only the other day I wrote to the Minister of Supply asking him if he could obtain 20 motor cars during this year, 10 2236 in the first half of the year and 10 in the second half. I should like to take a minute to tell the House for whom the cars are needed, and so to illustrate my claim that these men for whom I am asking did not have the same chance as those who stayed at home of getting their names on to waiting lists. These men are 20 young fellows blinded in this second world war, and a number of them have been trained to be physiotherapists by two or three years training. When they were blinded two or three years ago, they were men of small means who could not think of affording a motor car, much less of putting down their names on a waiting list. They went to St. Dunstan's starting from humble beginnings and ending as thoroughly trained professional men, now able to go out in competition with all the world to undertake physiotherapy practices. They are now going out of St. Dunstan's month by month to take their places, and a practice which is like that of a doctor requires a small car maybe an eight horsepower or a 10 horsepower Morris, Ford or Austin, but they cannot get cars.
I do not say that the blinded are the only group who should have them. There are the limbless, there are the paraplegic, and plenty of others, but these come under my notice. The provision of a car is a moral duty as well as a necessity, not only to them, but to the community they will serve with their healing art. They ought to be given a preference for whatever small cars remain under the control of the Ministry of Supply and, if they are exhausted, then for new cars. As has been said, the British Legion has lists of thousands of disabled men who want cars. If they want a small car for pleasure, ought they not to have their turn?—much more so if they want it for business. It is in the nation's interest that disabled men should be put to work so that they may contribute towards the solution of our problems and they themselves be helped.
One word in support of what my hon. Friend said in his concluding remarks about the three-wheeled car, and other vehicles designed specially for the disabled. I have seen these three-wheeled cars. I was the other day at Chaseley in Eastbourne, a home where paraplegic men—that is, men whose spines have been damaged—live and try, as well as they may, to lead independent or partially 2237 independent existences, trying to get jobs. They can go out in these little three-wheeled vehicles, but there is little protection from the weather, bad springing, no sorbo seat—utterly inadequate vehicles for men suffering terrible disability. It would be infinitely better to give them an eight horsepower Morris, or a Ford, mass-produced, a little more expensive perhaps, but far more suitable and convenient. There are difficulties. An eight horsepower Morris is not an invalid chair, even if an invalid sits in it. To be an invalid chair the vehicle has to be of an ancient pattern and of a peculiar shape, which nobody would use if he were not an invalid. Unless one can define the invalid chair as being something nobody else would use, then Purchase Tax has to be paid.
We want a little imagination in the Treasury and in the Ministry of Pensions and in the Ministry of Supply. Let us see what kind of car is best for these chaps. Obviously it is the small standard four-wheeled car, altered to be controlled by hand if the man has no legs; altered, as it can well be to suit his disability. It is more weather proof, more comfortable, and if it can be used by his wife, why not? She has a tough job looking after him anyway. We are too mean in this matter and say that it will not do for his wife to use it because Purchase Tax has not been paid. Why on earth should she not?
Therefore we want to supply the right vehicle, we want the Treasury to use its imagination and allow the Purchase Tax to come off if the vehicle is primarily being used by the disabled man, instead of trying to define it as an invalid chair. I hope the Government will do something to meet this plea that has been made. I can assure them that the British Legion and other ex-Service organisations will be grateful if they will.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)
The hon. Member for Lansdale (Sir I. Fraser) is held in great respect in this country, and he has done a great service for ex-Service men. I wish to support the plea which he and his hon. Friends are making, but I hope that the remarks I am going to make will be considered by them as a serious contribution to this subject. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how they defend the prin- 2238 ciple of the allocation of cars in accordance with need, and not the allocation of houses in accordance with need. It seems to me utterly insane that we should have heard today this plea that disabled ex-Service men should have priority for cars, and that the Opposition should not say that they stand for priority for ex-Service men in the case of houses.
§ Mr. Blackburn
I have tried to be fair about this matter. I recommend the hon. Member to see that his views are accepted by the Conservative Party, because at the moment they are attacking the Minister of Health for insisting that houses shall be allocated in accordance with need.
§ Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)
The hon. Member is absolutely wrong. If he is going to make remarks of that character, will he be good enough to quote chapter and verse? I have pleaded with the Minister of Health on many occasions that houses should be supplied in accordance with need, and that it should have nothing to do with income.
§ Mr. Blackburn
The principle which the Opposition have so far adopted in relation to houses is to set the people free—to set free private builders to build, and allocate houses. That is the policy of the Opposition, and I challenge hon. Members to deny it. The hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) has challenged me, and I am now challenging him. The policy of the Conservative Party is that houses should be allocated by private enterprise, by private builders.
§ Sir I. Fraser
When Lord Woolton was Minister of Reconstruction, he gave instructions to local authorities that they were to get out schemes for giving priority to ex-Service men in housing. That was also the policy of the Coalition Government and of the Caretaker Government. It was not until the present Minister of Health came into office that this preference began to be denied; he did his best to do away with it.
§ Mr. Blackburn
With great respect, the hon. Member is not stating the truth about this. There is no Minister who has 2239 discharged his Ministerial functions in a more responsible manner for the benefit of ex-Service men than the present Minister of Health. He has laid down exactly the same policy for houses which the hon. Member is advocating for cars. Because houses are in short supply, just as cars are in short supply, he has laid down that houses shall be allocated in accordance with need. That is the principle which any Government desiring to carry on the traditions of our country would have to follow, and that is the principle for which my right hon. Friend has been responsible. We are now having from the Opposition the allegation that we ought to do, in relation to cars, what we have done in relation to housing, which they thought was "lousey" anyway. It is a most extraordinary phenomenon. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is."] Many extraordinary phenomena occur in this House, but surely this is the most diverting of all.
I speak with some personal conviction on this subject, because it is the view of some Members I have some influence in relation to the allocation of cars by Austins. I am constantly approached by a large number of Members of Parliament to get cars either for them or their constituents, for one reason or another. [An HON. MEMBER: "Shame."] I do not say "Shame." I believe there is a great responsibility on private enterprise in this matter. In principle, I support the case which has been put forward today. It matters not to me who personally approaches me—whether it is a crypto-Communist or a crypto-Tory, of whom I disapprove even more—I would say that as he is a Member of this House, and has a great responsibility for the conduct of our affairs, he ought to be facilitated in his private affairs by having a car allocated to him. I say he deserves some priority in this matter, and, therefore, I have advanced certain claims.
Members opposite have said, "We denounce private enterprise because it is not allocating cars in accordance with the need of ex-Service men. I am proud to say, on behalf of private enterprise, that I applaud private enterprise in this matter, because I believe that on the whole it is trying to allocate cars in accordance with need. But in applauding private enterprise I also applaud the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply. It is because we have a Labour Government, and a 2240 Ministry of Supply under that Government, that private enterprise is acting so well. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) is present. There was an occasion in this House when he suggested that I was particularly concerned for Austins. I would like to give this explicit assurance that I have no particular concern for anything other than the interest and well-being of my constituency and the working class. I hope he will accept that assurance.
It is vitally important that people should be satisfied that the allocation of cars is proceeding satisfactorily. That being so, I ask the Minister to leave this matter as it is, but to watch it. So long as private enterprise allocates cars for the benefit of ex-Service men we ought to be satisfied. If it does not, and if the Minister is satisfied that it is not doing so, I say to him, "Step in straight away, and see that cars go to the people who really need them."
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ Mr. E. L. Gandar Dower (Caithness and Sutherland)
I have always thought that in an Adjournment Debate party feeling was very largely absent. Consequently, I must confess this afternoon to feeling a fraction of disappointment at what was said by the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn), for whom I have the greatest personal admiration. He often performs miracles in stimulating with his controversial and non-party views what poor intelligence I have. I think that this must be an occasion on which the exception proves the rule. Nor did I think that in this Adjournment Debate we were discussing the shortage of houses, any more than any other shortage. The title of the Debate specifically refers to the provision of cars for ex-Service men. I hope that the hon. Member will realise that these words which I address to him are more in sorrow than in anger.
I would like to support wholeheartedly, as I think the whole House does, the views put forward by the hon. Member for Bucklow (Mr. Shepherd). I have perforce had a short holiday on the Continent—and I feel much better for it—but in Switzerland and in France I have seen literally hundreds of five horse power Fiats running about. I wonder whether the motor industry of this country is aware how great the demand can be for the tiny, perambulator motor car, and how especially well suited it is to the needs 2241 of the ex-Service man. I would suggest that some attention should be paid to this matter, especially in view of the necessity of providing for this class of the community.
Some stress has been laid on the necessity of providing a vehicle of this class for those who are physically disabled. I would remind the House that a disabled ex-Service man can be an excellent commercial traveller, and to get about he needs this class of vehicle. Without wishing to introduce any 'parochial element into this discussion, I would point out that the need is greatest in the rural districts and in Scotland, where there are long distances to be covered, particularly in my own constituency of Caithness and Sutherland. I am interested to see that all Members agree with the necessity for the provision of this type of vehicle. I wholeheartedly support the view expressed on both sides of the House that we cannot afford to be parsimonious to the ex-Service man and to deny him a chance of earning a commercial living. We cannot force him to rely on Government charity when, if we give him mobility, he can earn his own keep and be proud of himself.
§ 3.44 P.m.
§ Mr. Driberg (Maldon)
I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Gandar Dower) rebuking the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) for introducing a note of controversy into an Adjournment Debate, because there is no rule or custom of this House that Adjournment Debates should not be controversial. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland will learn a little more about Adjournment Debates and the customs of this House when he has been here a few years longer—perhaps when the war with Japan is over.
I think that perhaps my hon. Friend's digression on housing took us a little further than he originally intended, but he is perfectly correct in his main contention about the Government's housing policy. The essence of that policy, and the essence of the practice of the local authorities in their allocation of points, under the general direction of the Ministry of Health, is that need should be the test. That does not always mean that the ex-Service man, as such, comes first on the waiting list, and I do not think 2242 that any ex-Service man who has thought it out would necessarily claim that he should. If an ex-Service man and his wife with, perhaps, one child were competing on otherwise equal terms with, say, a farm-worker, reserved during the war, who was living with his wife and five children in insanitary conditions, I do not think that the ex-Service man would claim that he should be first. But war service is usually taken into consideration by local authorities in the awarding of points, together with other considerations.
Having said that, I must add that on this special question of the allocation of cars, I entirely agree with the hon. Member who has initiated this Debate. Whether or not there are administrative difficulties, I know that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply, who is to reply, will not dodge the important arguments which have been put to him. I hope that so far as they do not concern him or his Department directly, he will take particular pains to pass on to the Treasury or the Ministry of Pensions, or whichever Department is concerned, the various points that have been raised. We are not concerned with ex-Service men in general but with disabled ex-Service men—a very particular case, claiming priority in every possible respect. I only intervene because, seeing the hon. Member's Adjournment subject on the list behind the Chair, I was naturally interested when, this morning, I happened to receive a letter on this very subject from an old friend of mine, a pilot in the war, who lost both his legs; he wrote to draw my attention to the case of the legless ex-Service man and his very special need for a car.
I would like to quote a brief passage from this letter. This man writes:Nothing on earth makes me more sick at heart than to see men who have lost both their legs above the knee travelling around in a wheeled chair which affords no protection from the elements whatsoever, whilst their wives and perhaps children walk alongside of them. How infuriating it must be for them never to be able to take out their families in the ordinary way, and how tedious to have to plan every small detail of their daily lives and outings.That is a point which, perhaps, has not occurred to those of us who are fortunate enough not to have suffered this terrible disability. Day after day it must be a tremendous additional burden to have to 2243 plan every tiny detail of one's daily excursions.
The letter goes on:The one thing which would, more than any amount of medical advice, restore one's ability to see life in perspective is a car. The Canadian Government is well aware of this, for it supplies its double-amputation veterans with cars.I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has any information on that point, but it may be a point worth looking into, and perhaps the appropriate Department might find out from the Canadian Government how they introduced this scheme and how they got over any administrative difficulties that there may be. If this is the case, why on earth should not the British Government do the same thing in this country?
The letter continues:In this country not only is the disabled man not allowed any priority of purchase, but the Government still pursues its policy of making him pay Purchase Tax on his vehicle. The real value of a ranker's pension is relatively low here, and that additional 4100 may well mean, as indeed it does, that many men cannot possibly buy a car. The excuse, never a very plausible one, of administrative difficulties is no longer valid, as similar principles on a much more detailed scale were involved in the issue of tax-free tobacco to old age pensioners.I am not sure how valid an analogy that is, but it seems to me that the practice of the Canadian Government might provide a valuable example. My friend further suggests:The Ministry might act as an agent and buy cars at wholesale prices for these men, direct from the firms, as many business firms do at present—e.g., Anglo-Iranian purchase from Fords direct. Precautions could easily be evolved which would prevent such a scheme from being abused.I have put these few points, and quoted those extracts from this letter, in order slightly to reinforce the case which has already been eloquently and cogently put. We know how extremely humane the Minister of Pensions is. We know that the Treasury do not like to seem inhumane. We know also that my hon. Friend, with his Service experience and administrative ability, will do all that he can to meet the case which has been put. I hope that he can tell the House that he will consider the matter sympathetically.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)
The House will be grateful to the hon. Member opposite who raised this subject. There is nothing in precedent or custom to exclude party controversy from a Debate on the Adjournment, but I think that the whole House will feel that it is most unfortunate that that spirit should have been introduced into the Debate this afternoon on such a matter. We have been trying to direct the attention of the House to the disabilities of ex-Service men. Surely if there was one occasion when party feeling might have been left out, it is when we are debating this matter. I hope that the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn), when he considers his display' this afternoon, will feel rather sorry that he intervened in the manner in which he did, and which, I would say, did him no credit whatsoever.
§ Mr. Blackburn
I stand by what I said this afternoon, that I hoped I would discover that after the hon. and gallant Gentleman has reconsidered the matter he will lay down rules in relation to housing on behalf of the Opposition, if they ever become the Government again, which will ensure that houses are allocated in accordance with need to ex-Service men.
§ Commander Galbraith
There is no need for the hon. Gentleman to introduce that subject in this Debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, when he comes to himself, will feel as I feel about it.
§ Commander Galbraith
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman any more. He evidently does not know how to treat a Debate of this nature: I do not intend to give way to him again.
§ Mr. Blackburn
On a point of Order. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said "when I come to myself." May I ask exactly what he means by that?
§ Mr. Blackburn
I have raised a case against the Opposition that they do not lay down a policy to provide houses in accordance with need, and the hon. and gallant Member is now trying to take a party advantage out of it.
§ Mr. Blackburn
I desire to ask you, on that point of Order, whether it is in Order for the hon. and gallant Member to say "when I come to myself," in other words when I have become a crypto-Tory. I assure him that I am not a crypto-Tory.
§ Commander Galbraith
The hon. Gentleman obviously wishes me also to make a party occasion of one which is no party occasion whatever. If he had paid any attention to anything I have said in this House on the subject of houses he would know very well that it is my view that houses should be allocated in accordance with need. More than that I am not going to say on this occasion, though I am perfectly willing to answer him on another and more suitable occasion.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman who will reply will pay particular attention to what has been said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) because in bringing this matter to the notice of the Minister—the question of the three-wheeled vehicle in particular—he has done something of very great value. I believe with him that much more could be done for these disabled ex-Service men and particularly for those who are practically crippled. The kind of case to which the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) referred, which is most pathetic, should receive every possible attention and consideration, hope that the Government will see their way to do something on the lines which have been indicated by those who have taken part in the Debate.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. John Freeman)
You will agree, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that we have listened to a rather unusual Adjournment Debate. I had intended, and I still intend, to start off by apologising to the hon. Member for Bucklow (Mr. Shepherd) for the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, to whom he originally addressed this subject, is not able to be in his place. I was going on to apologise for the fact that there might be matters 2246 concerning the Ministry of Transport with which I should not be wholly qualified to deal, but I find that I must now make that same apology for the Minister of Pensions, the Minister of Health and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, conceivably, for the Secretary of State for War, who might have been interested to hear the despatches from the Far East of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Gandar Dower).
I do not however treat this matter in any way as a matter of fun, and I have listened with the greatest seriousness to what has been said by the hon. Member for Bucklow and the hon. Gentlemen who followed him. None the less I am in the invidious position of having to try to answer departmentally a very wide human case which has been brought out in a very undepartmental fashion. I understood that the hon. Member for Bucklow was going to raise the question of the way in which the scheme for allocating cars to disabled ex-Service men has worked, and I want to refer to that among other things, but in addition to that, the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) and other hon. Gentlemen have opened the much wider question of how we ought to treat the disabled ex-Service man, and have raised such matters as whether the three-wheeled Ministry of Pensions car is a suitable vehicle for him and whether he ought to be given a suitable motorcar by the Government as of right, and so on. I feel as sympathetic as any other hon. Member towards the sort of case that has been brought forward, but it is quite impossible for me to deal with it on the Adjournment in that sort of way, and I do not want to lay myself open to the charge from the hon. Member for Buck-low either that I am being unduly departmental and rigid about this, or that I am trying to shuffle responsibility from one department to another.
Quite frankly, it is utterly impossible for me to make a very wide and far-reaching statement of policy on behalf of the Minister of Pensions on a matter like this. The hon. Member for Bucklow knows that many of the remarks made in this Debate ought to be, and probably will be, addressed to the Minister of Pensions. If they are, I am quite certain that they will receive the most humane consideration possible because, if there 2247 is one thing about which there is general agreement in this House, it is the humanity of my right hon. Friend who is at present the Minister of Pensions.
§ Commander Galbraith
No doubt the hon. Gentleman will draw the attention of his right hon. Friend to the Debate which has taken place?
§ Mr. Freeman
Most certainly. I was going to add that I will draw his attention to it.
I come now to the argument of pure humanity which has been developed and I must ask the House to address itself to the problem with which I am confronted. The first thing I have to say, which I hope will not be taken as unpalatable—
§ It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Joseph Henderson.]
§ Mr. Freeman
—is simply that the scheme for providing a certain number of reconditioned cars for disabled ex-Service men was not, in the first place, conceived primarily as a scheme which fitted into the Ministry of Pensions pattern of helping ex-Service men. It was ho part of the Government's conception of what ex-Service men ought to have as of right, but, as a matter of fact, it was one of the means we had at our disposal for disposing of surplus vehicles, and in a way that did as much good as possible. I hope that the House will note that point, because it does place the discussion on a rather different plane.
The hon. Member for Bucklow gave certain figures, and I am not certain, within a very small number, whether they were accurate or not, but I think they probably were. The facts are that, since the scheme first came into operation, 4,000 cars have been disposed of altogether, the very great majority of them to disabled ex-Service men, and, from February, 1946, onwards, the whole of them to disabled ex-Service men. I think, therefore, the figure the hon. Member gave of something over 2,000 was probably a correct figure, but slightly out of date at the moment. He asked, and it is an obvious point, why the Govern- 2248 ment gave first priority to Government Departments, and the answer is quite simple and follows from the pattern in which I indicated I was answering the Debate. It is that until the Government have no further use for a motor car, it does not become a surplus car. In fact, the requirements of small motor cars by Government Departments have been very small indeed over the last three years, and, incidentally, have been very carefully sieved and examined to make certain that they were as small as possible. It would be an irresponsible act by the Government to dispose of cars which it possessed and needed and then have to buy new cars in the new market with which to replace them. Some months ago, the hon. Member drew the attention of my right hon. Friend the predecessor of the present Minister of Supply to the fact that small numbers of these cars had gone into the State-owned corporations. The hon. Gentleman will remember that the then Minister of Supply put a stop to that immediately, and, in fact, not more than 12 or 14 cars have gone in that direction. Whether we like it or not, the Government cannot be blamed for not disposing, as surplus, of vehicles which are not yet surplus, and that is the argument of the Government Departments concerned.
When the scheme originated it included, in addition to disabled ex-Service men, doctors, nurses and midwives, and, before the end of the war, certain other types of essential users. Progressively, doctors, nurses and midwives have been taken out, and instead, by agreement with the motor car manufacturers, have been given priority to obtain new cars, so that, since February, 1946, the field has been entirely clear to disabled ex-Service men. I was asked how many disabled ex-Service men were still on the waiting list for motor cars and what were their prospects for the future. The answer is quite simple. The waiting list, which was announced some considerable time ago as being 1,900, is now down to about 100 or even less, and these needs will have been met in the very near future. The Minister of Transport, as was announced in the House the other day, has decided to end the scheme because the supply of possible cars that could have been made available has simply dried up. I cannot say that there is not going to be a single car which may be suitable. In actual fact, I expect that there may be three, four or even five a 2249 month: sometimes it may be less and sometimes more. I think that hon. Members will agree that it is impossible to keep in being a substantial government apparatus to catch that small number of vehicles. It not only affects the administrative machine in my own Department but also in the Ministry of Transport. In order to catch even this very small number of vehicles we have to sift through every surplus vehicle all over the country, picking them out from what is literally old Junk which would otherwise be auctioned.
The hon. Member has already mentioned the subject of auctions. I cannot without notice tell him what is the total number of vehicles disposed of by auction but if he will put down a Question I will answer it. The important fact—which may be bad advertising for the business in which I am temporarily engaged—is that, whereas occasionally one may pick up a good bargain at an auction of that kind, the great majority of the vehicles which are sold are in a derelict condition and unsuitable for reconditioning. The manufacturers who have the responsibility for reconditioning such vehicles are usually in agreement with us on that point. We have found from experience that disabled ex-Service men, if offered any of these wretched old vehicles, will, in fact, refuse them.
It may surprise the hon. Member to know of the experience of the Minister of Transport over the last year or so that no less than 600 disabled ex-Service men on the waiting list have refused cars that have been offered to them, as opposed to something like 1,200 who have accepted. The reasons, no doubt, have been various; sometimes perhaps the need has been met before the offer has been made. In a substantial number of cases that is because we have gone too low down the scale of quality in trying to recondition these cars to be able to make them acceptable, trouble-free vehicles. When the hon. Member talked about his 30s. car, I well remembered the £4 car on which I started motoring. I think the analogy was not far wrong.
As far as the possibility of exercising some control over the distribution of new vehicles is concerned, the Government have no preconceived notion one way or the other. As everybody will agree, there is no question of political bias. The Minister of Transport has examined very 2250 carefully the sort of administrative responsibilities with which he will be faced if he tries to institute such a scheme, and naturally my own Department also would be affected by it. We have looked into the matter and the motor manufacturers have examined it from their point of view. Hon. Members opposite have really provided the answer themselves when the hon. Member for Lonsdale said, I think, that there were about 50,000 of these applications which the British Legion had already handled. It is precisely for that reason that we believe that control of the distribution of new cars would not work. At present the Government exercise no control over the distribution of new cars, but the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, by voluntary agreement with the Government, have undertaken to give doctors, nurses, and midwives a high priority. That is rough justice which works quite well and meets a most urgent need for the community. If we ask them to add to the list zoo or 200 disabled ex-Service men there might not be any difficulty, but if we are going to ask them to add a completely new category of priority, which might climb up to 10, 20, 50—as the hon. Member suggested—or even more thousand applicants, not only would the administrative problem be almost insuperable, but the number of cars available to the home market simply would not even begin to go round.
§ Mr. Shepherd
Obviously it is impossible to deal with 50,000 applicants in view of the small number of cars available for the home market. Surely it is quite possible, however, to select, by degrees of disability and perhaps other qualifying factors, those cases which are really seripus and for which the community has a moral responsibility? It is not satisfactory for the hon. Member merely to put forward administrative reasons and not do that which is demanded by the moral force of the argument.
§ Mr. Freeman
It is all very well for the hon. Member to say that—and I feel as warmly as he does about the matter—but he is not the first one from the other side of the House to suggest the cutting down of the Civil Service. I know quite well that he does not mean it when it is applied to a case like this, nor do I suspect that he means it when applied to any 2251 individual case, but I cannot be put into a position of promising that I will introduce a cumbersome piece of administrative machinery to filter all these cases and to draw a line which might at the end be wholly unsatisfactory when it is drawn.
I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Lonsdale as regards the disabled ex-Service man being on a different level to the disabled member of the community who is not an ex-Service man. There is a certain substance in that. Let me, however, get back to my original point.
§ Sir I. Fraser
As I understand it, the Government gave a special place to disabled people for the surplus vehicles and also to doctors, nurses and midwives. Because there were too many applicants they transferred the doctors, nurses and midwives to the trade, telling it that they would have to look after these people while the Ministry continued to give disabled men first call upon surplus cars. Now the surplus has come to an end. Could not the Government ask the trade, by voluntary agreement, if necessary, to put these special cases of disabled men, whom the British Legion or some other agency might define for the Government, back into the priority class along with the doctors, nurses and midwives? Is not that a practical suggestion?
§ Mr. Freeman
Let me say straight away that if the motor trade comes to us and says it is willing and would like to do it, I shall not put any obstacle in the way. I will go further and say that if the hon. Member thinks that he and the British Legion can devise some scheme which would relieve the Government of the administrative responsibility it would be worth looking at. I can go no further than that. The difficulty is that there are a large number of people who might qualify for such treatment, and I am by no means satisfied, in spite of the hon. Gentleman's argument, that we should necessarily confine it to people disabled through military service. The community pays the debt it owes to those people, be it generous or ungenerous, through the machinery of the Ministry of Pensions and what we are being asked to do is to devise a scheme whereby we could provide cars for disabled men who are without limbs. 2252 If that is the criterion I fail to see why disabled ex-Service men should be treated differently from disabled men who are not ex-Service men.
§ Mr. Blackburn
Do the Government accept the principle that cars ought to be allowed in accordance with need, if possible, and will the Government continue to watch the way in which cars are allocated without in any way assuming that they are being wrongly allocated at the moment, but only that they may be able to change the system of allocation if it is not suitable?
§ Mr. Driberg
Would my hon. Friend look at the practice of the Canadian Government which, if my information is correct, gives cars not to many thousands of men but to the particular limited class of disabled men who can most benefit by it—those who have lost both legs?
§ Mr. Freeman
I hope the House will forgive me for hammering at this point. I am quite prepared to draw the attention of the Minister of Pensions to the suggestion made, but I am not prepared to treat it as a by-product of my own job of production and of disposal of surpluses. With reference to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn), one of the earlier decisions taken by the Government was to allow the distribution of motor cars to rest with the manufacturers. We have sufficiently close relations with the motor car manufacturers and I am perfectly certain that, if the Government saw they were distributing in some way wholly contrary to the public interest, steps would be taken to look at the matter again.
I would like to refer to one point made by the hon. Member for Lonsdale, when he was speaking about blind physiotherapists. That struck me as being a case not quite on a par with the more general case which is being argued and, speaking both without brief and without prejudice, I would like to say that I should have thought the arrangement we already have for doctors, nurses and midwives might conceivably be stretched to cover a case of that kind. While I am not in a position to give the necessary undertaking this afternoon—I want to make it quite clear—I will look at this particular case with sympathy and see if there is any way in which, without open- 2253 ing a new door, we could stretch the system which we are operating at present. As the hon. Member perhaps knows, in my constituency I have had some of the people who have actually been trained for this scheme and I would be particularly anxious to see if anything could possibly be done to help them.
§ Mr. Freeman
With reference to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), who described the scheme for the Canadian ex-Service men, I have already said that I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions to what the hon. Member has said, but I cannot do more than that.
I have endeavoured to sum up a Debate which, through no fault of my own and, I suspect, through no fault of the hon. Member who initiated it, became rather rambling, and to focus attention once more on the main points which he introduced. As far as the disposal of used cars is concerned, we have done the best we can within our mandate—and our mandate was not to repay a debt of honour to ex-Service men or to do anything which could more profitably be done by the Ministry of Pensions, but to transfer in the most reasonable and humane way we could, quite a number of surplus small cars of which we were in possession. The surplus of that particular type has almost entirely dried up and we are satisfied, as are the motor car manufacturers who handle the reconditioning, that we have scraped the bottom of the barrel. For the odd one or two which may be left 2254 it is not worth carrying on. The people who have already been accepted on the waiting list of the Ministry of Transport will be cleared off very shortly. There are only about Zoo left and my right hon. Friend has felt able to tell the House that in those circumstances, he is satisfied that that scheme can no longer go on.
With regard to new cars, I should be very happy if I could hold out hopes that we would be able to do something about giving priority to disabled ex-Service men. I am quite certain that it would be a cumbersome and complicated piece of machinery to administer and we might do a great deal of injustice. If we were going to do anything like justice it would take such a large bite out of new car production that the expression "priority" would cease wholly to have any effect. We know the great dangers in dealing with what are called "priorities" of any kind, in making certain that they are selective and that they are few, because one soon finds in a Government Department that, from the position where one says a very small item has priority it expands until one may reach a position where almost the total production is priority, and that defeats the general object.
I regret that I am unable to offer more hope. I should like to conclude by thanking the hon. Gentleman who initiated the Debate and to say to him that, so far as he and I are concerned, I am sure that the Debate has been taken entirely seriously.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes past Four o'Clock.