HC Deb 15 March 1948 vol 448 cc1841-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. G. Wallace.]

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Scott-Elliot (Accrington)

I wish to raise the subject of the employment of disabled persons, a matter which has not been debated in this House for some time. Indeed, I go so far as to say that it is so important a question that it might well, and with great advantage, have been raised by the Opposition on some Supply Day last year. Hon. Members will be aware of what is meant by a disabled person. Section 1 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act is drawn very widely and allows anyone who suffers from a disability which prejudices his employment to register as a disabled person under the Act. The total number of registrations to date is 854,000; but I think that the Minister, who, I am glad to see, is here to deal personally with this matter, may well agree with me that the total number of disabled persons in the country will be over a million, rather than less, because there are many disabled persons who do not care to register as such, as they do not wish to show up their disability before an employment exchange.

Broadly speaking, there are three headings under which disabled persons come, namely: ex-Service men who have been injured in one of the two world wars; casualties of industry, and particularly of heavy industry, to which I shall refer in a moment or two; and, finally, those who have been disabled from birth, or who have suffered illness or accident which has disabled them. My first point is that the number of disabled persons unemployed forms a substantial part of the total unemployment problem with which the Ministry will have to deal. The "Ministry of Labour Gazette" for last February, gives the number of disabled persons unemployed in January as rather more than one-quarter of the total number of persons unemployed throughout the country.

The next point, one of which my right hon. Friend will be fully aware, is that this unemployment is not spread evenly over the country. If it were, the problem would be very much easier to deal with. There are some disabled persons in all regions: but where there is a condi- tion of very nearly full employment in a region, the problem of finding work for these disabled persons is a comparatively easy one. It is within my knowledge, and I can testify to this, that business men who before the war would not have considered the employment of a disabled man, will, once there is a scarcity of labour, use disabled persons for jobs so as to set free fitter men to do other work. This is to the great benefit of the community as a whole.

I have said that disabled persons are not spread evenly all over the country. That is the fact. They are concentrated in four regions. In these four regions—Scotland, Wales, the Northern and North-Western regions of England—no fewer than 330,000 persons have registered as disabled—half the total of disabled persons in the country. It also happens that in these four regions there is the highest percentage of unemployment. That is a very unfortunate fact for these disabled people. As a result, 46,000 disabled persons at present are unemployed, or were, at the time of the January account.

The percentages of unemployment are very disturbing. I will take the three major regions. In the North-East, containing the North-Eastern Development Area, it is 15.3 per cent. disabled persons unemployed in relation to the total number of persons who have registered as disabled; in Scotland it is 12.5 per cent.; and in Wales—and this is really very serious—it is 23.2 per cent. of the total, number of disabled persons. What are we going to do about it? The Disabled Persons (Employment) Act provides for certain things to be done. It is a very wide and a very good Act. It is possible to do almost anything that will help the disabled. In the first place, it lays down the employment quota for all employers who employ more than 21. That quota is 3 per cent. The Act makes provision for the designation of certain occupations which should be kept for employing the disabled. A 3 per cent. quota provides employment for about 450,000 persons; but there are 750,000 disabled persons, so that it would be necessary to raise the figure substantially to mop up the number of disabled. In the three main development areas it would have very little effect indeed. What would raising the quota to 5 per cent. do in the other regions? I think that it would probably help to bring into employment a certain number of additional persons in those regions which do not suffer from very serious unemployment.

I have certain objections, and we must balance the advantages against the disadvantages. We on this side of the House—and I believe hon. Members on the other side, too, would be in support of this—do not like the idea of charity. I feel that quotas to some extent, still more some designated employments, such as lift attendants, car-park attendants, are very poor forms of employment, too near to charity for my liking. We ought to go in for a greater degree of rehabilitation and specialised training of disabled persons so that they may be able to take their full part in the work of the community to the great benefit of the country. I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

I want to put certain definite questions to the Minister. In the first place, what would the Minister say about further surveys being made by his advisory committees on disabled unemployment throughout the country? He may say that things are splendid, but I am not so sure. A case came to my notice quite recently. I happened to be in an outlying part of my constituency and I found that there is quite a large pocket of disabled persons in the Blackburn area. The Blackburn area—I do not want to stress this unduly and I am not raising it as a constituency matter, for this kind of thing may happen in other parts of the country—is an area of fairly full employment. We have a diversity of industry and very little difficulty about finding employment for these people provided they are fit to be put into employment. My tentative conclusion—I cannot draw more than that—is that there may be among these people fairly large numbers of severely disabled persons who are suitable only for employment under sheltered conditions. I will make reference to them in a few months. For these cases, I feel that the disabled advisory committees should throughout the country make a close assessment of the position in order to identify these pockets of severely disabled persons with a view to the Minister quickly making provision for them through the Disabled Persons Employment Corporation.

My next point is the provision of rehabilitation training centres. How much more quickly could they be provided and how much more done in the way of residential centres such as the centre operating at Egham? Could not more be done in the way of building G.T.C.'s? Many have been closed down in the last few years. Would it not be possible to employ these people, to use even a very small proportion, for the specialised training of disabled persons to take part in some particular industry?

The next point is the need for speed in carrying out the distribution of industry policy. That is for the President of the Board of Trade rather than for the Minister of Labour, but it is a joint concern. I feel that those who are responsible for disabled persons will press this question on the Board of Trade as strongly as possible. In particular, what is needed is the building of standard factories and other factories in the development areas as quickly as possible because this is a development area problem. If once we can solve the general employment problem of the development areas, I believe we will reduce this disabled employment problem to the same proportions as exist in the other regions where the percentage of unemployed is not very great and the numbers are comparatively incidental.

In this connection, would it be possible, in the other development areas, to set up some kind of scheme like that which was advocated by the committee over which the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) presided. The Minister will know what is meant. That committee made a recommendation that certain factories should be set up in South Wales with definite provision that a certain proportion of men suffering from silicosis and pneumoconiosis should be employed. Would it be possible to do something of the kind in the other two major development areas? From what I know about the problem of the industrial belt of Scotland, there are cruelly disabled men who are casualties of heavy industry. I believe something should be done for them and probably also in the Northeastern Development Area for those people who have broken down in the work of the coalmines, blast furnaces, and so on. These men are now so severely disabled that they cannot possibly take part again in heavy industry.

Finally, there is recognised under the Act the need that these persons shall be employed under sheltered conditions. The point, therefore, I want to put to the Minister is, can something be done to speed up the building of remploy factories; and, finally, could he consider starting some home schemes—not, I think, as have been mentioned, such crude things as basket making—but something really useful to these persons and something that will be bound up with the type of work that is being carried on.

10.56 p.m.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

I am very sorry that I have to rise at this moment and prevent one or two others speaking, but my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Scott-Elliot), who raised this matter—and I thank him sincerely for raising it—has, though not at undue length, covered such a lot of ground that I must try in the time left to reply to him, though I could not possibly tonight deal with all he mentioned. I was in the House when the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act was passed with the good will of all Members at that time. It embodies a pledge to disabled persons that they will be cared for. We must fulfil that pledge and nothing must stand in the way of our doing so. At the moment, however, there are difficulties in the way and I should like to mention them. I am not at all satisfied that we are going as fast as we ought to go, and I am grateful for whatever help I can get from Members of the House in drawing the attention of the public to the matter, because it is a live, human problem.

I should like, in a catalogue sort of way, to go through the points raised. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the number unemployed was not regionally distributed. In fact, practically half of the total of unemployed disabled persons are in three regions—Wales, the North-west and London. London, strangely enough, has a big proportion. Unfortunately, the Act does not permit us to have a regional quota. We must have a general quota to cover the country as a whole. The question was asked whether it would be possible to increase that quota to 5 per cent. There are serious problems about this quota and its increase and I have asked the National Advisory Council on the Disabled Persons Act to look at it again, and they are meeting, I believe, on Thursday.

The point is that where the disabled are under 3 per cent. of the staff employed, an employer is not expected to dismiss an able-bodied man to make room for a disabled man, but if there is a vacancy it must be filled by engaging a disabled person if there is one capable of doing the work. That is the first problem. Similarly, where the employer is below his quota, a disabled man can only be discharged on good cause shown, and the employer must replace him by another disabled person drawn from the register. My hon. Friend said that the number of registrations was 850,000, but he thought it would be a million if everyone who was disabled registered. I should like to satisfy him that it would be nothing like that. At the time of registration a number of disabled did not register. They argued that if they registered the firm by whom they were employed would find out that they were disabled and would probably dismiss them. However, it was quite the opposite way round, because if a firm found that they had not the 3 per cent. disabled persons, they employed more, and a great number of firms have considerably more than the 3 per cent. laid down in the Act.

As some hon. Gentlemen know, time and again questions have been raised about employers not being willing to take on anybody over 55 years of age. A lot of these poor people are over 55, so that they have a double handicap which we have tried to get over. I am very grateful for the compliment to the Egham Centre. We see a lot in it. It has places for 200 persons for rehabilitation, and 3,700 have been through it, have been rehabilitated and placed in work. We hope this year to open another 12 centres. I will not take up the time of the House by reading out the list of the places which I have here but they are in different parts of the country, and are purely for rehabilitation. They will be non-residential centres within reach of the people who will go to them. Vocational training also plays a good part as well as rehabilitation. In the vocational training centres, in the period between January, 1945, and December, 1947, 10,000 were successfully trained. Those were people not requiring physical rehabilitation, but a trade. There are over 3,400 under training at the present time.

Reference has been made to the quite appropriately named Grenfell factories in South Wales for silicotics and pneumo- coniotics. The Government are building the factories, which are being leased to employers on condition that they employ a certain proportion of the silicotics. It is easy to build a factory in a certain area for a group of people suffering from the same disease, but in another area where there is a heavy number of unemployed suffering from all sorts of diseases and maladies, it is not so easy. The Corporation is not allowing that to thwart them. I want to make it perfectly clear that it is only a programme at the moment, although I hope to see it become something more concrete. The Corporation is proceeding with its plans and development as rapidly as possible. There are to be 107 factories employing 10,000 people. We are going to do our best through the Corporation, with the assistance of Members of Parliament, to achieve that target. Our difficulty is suitable sites or premises, and we are trying to retain for this purpose many of the centres not required because of lack of training work. For instance, in a cotton town what are we to do with such a place? Shall we take it for a remploy factory or push it into the cotton industry for development?

There are problems like that, but we should be much encouraged and helped if Members of the House, especially those associated with local government, could help us by suggesting sites and by obtaining the co-operation of the corporations. It is not only the Corporation and the local authorities who can help; the voluntary bodies like the Lord Roberts workshops can also assist, but it is the Ministry of Labour with the Corporation which have primary responsibility. One hundred and seven is the target. We have not got a bulls-eye, or even an inner or a magpie, but we are on the target. We have 16 remploys in operation employing 800 persons. Some of them have already put into operation a scheme of home work for the poor persons, men or women, bedridden and crippled, or unable to get about. This is a scheme of work, very different from that course of sweated labour which we recall, because they get the work in the home paid for at the appropriate rate.

We hope to open 29 more of these factories this summer. The only thing that will hold us up will be the supply of building materials and equipment, and things of that sort. We are aiming to have 50 in operation by the end of this year, employing some 4,000 persons. That leaves a potential 6,000 behind, I know, but it is the nature of the problem and the circumstances of the time that are making things difficult for us. I make no complaint of hon. Members prodding all the time about this. I take the prod, but I pass it on to the appropriate Department. It must be felt that this Act has awakened the lively interest of hon. Members, and it is much easier for members of the public to keep their eye on it if questions are asked here from time to time. I think I can help my hon. Friend who raised this matter if I were to get into the official record——

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

My right hon. Friend must get it on the official record. There is no one on the other side interested enough to hear it.

Mr. Isaacs

I am talking to hon. Members on this side who are interested.

Mr. Evans

It is a most disgraceful exhibition.

Mr. Isaacs

I hope to open Industrial Rehabilitation Centres this year at Felling. I do not know where that is. [An HON. MEMBER: "In County Durham."] Other centres will be at Leeds, Hull, Leicester, Cardiff, Swansea, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Aintree, Edinburgh and Hillingdon. We shall go on and open others as opportunity presents itself. I hope I have covered most of the points my hon. Friend raised.

As I have said, the question of the quota is being further examined. I do not want to go into too much of a heresy hunt about that. Speaking generally, employers have played the game on this matter, and we are checking up to see whether there have been any wilful or deliberate evasions. I hope what I have said will satisfy my hon. Friend and others that we are alive to the difficulties and we realise the obligations placed upon us.

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)

I only want in the two minutes at my disposal to raise three points very shortly. The first is the practice of employers dismissing persons after lump sum payments have been made. I do not want to go into details on this matter, but there are facts I could put forward and could elaborate at great length. I believe there are a great many who are recorded as disabled and who are not being employed because they have settled a claim for workmen's compensation, but who could be brought into employment.

The second point is this. Yesterday I interviewed a lady in the textile industry who has lost a hand but who is working full time. She says that she could train others to do the same, and I believe there is ample scope for training disabled persons to work in productive industry. I do not believe we are doing this well enough. I am grateful to the hon. Member who raised this matter. I think it is one of the most important Debates on the Adjournment we have ever had. The Disabled Persons Employment Board is a very finely conceived board, but——

Mr. Isaacs

The hon. Member means the Corporation.

Mr. Hale

Yes; but it does not move quickly enough. I have a great respect for my right hon. Friend, but I have to "carry the can" in Oldham. I have carried it 18 months, and I am a pretty good and patient can-carrier, but not for much longer. I ask him again, will he look at the question of Collins Mill in Oldham? We have got 14 people there at the moment and it is time that these men were doing something. I should be very grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would make a special effort to crown his work by seeing that the people get training. There are 900 disabled persons in Oldham and we want another centre there


Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I should be very glad if the right hon. Gentleman would consider the type of work being done in these re-employ factories. There is one in my constituency. I was promised that it would be opened in May, then in August, and to the best of my knowledge it is still not open. The staff is there, the attendants are there, and there are plenty of toys to put into Christmas crackers there; but, as far as I am aware, nothing has yet been done. I hope these people are not going to be compelled to go on filling Christmas crackers for the sake of finding them employment. We should have a more constructive approach in regard to these factories. It should be the policy of all concerned with this work to make the job fit the man, and not the man fit the job. There are all sorts of amazing devices which scientific research has discovered which could be supplied to these disabled persons, whether limbless, armless or whatever it may be, and I should like to know that the Minister is taking a great interest in furthering this work, such as is being done at Roehampton and Queen Elizabeth's Training College, which are both making a great contribution.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eleven Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.