HC Deb 27 June 1951 vol 489 cc1539-48

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

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Vosper (Runcorn)

I regret that the subject I wish to raise tonight involves more than one Ministry, and I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health for agreeing to reply tonight. This matter also concerns the Minister of Labour and the Minister of National Insurance. It is one which has not been raised in the House before, and relates to the provision of guide dogs for the blind, and the conditions governing the use of these dogs in this country.

In raising this matter I have two objects in mind. If I can obtain the support of the Minister—and it is a matter which is not controversial—I believe that the lead thus given will help the development of this service, which can do, and has done, very much for the blind people. I also wish to draw attention to some of the conditions which beset owners of these dogs. I believe that if the Government can give a lead it would do much to make better conditions everywhere.

My own interest in the matter is twofold. I have in my constituency a man who is by trade a chemical worker, and who for many years has devoted the whole of his spare time to the breeding and training of guide dogs. After he has given them initial training they are sent to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, and there they are given their final training and are allocated to their owners throughout the country. My second reason is because my attention has been drawn on several occasions in the last 18 months to various Press reports dealing with instances where owners of such guide dogs have been refused admittance to various places public and private, thereby suffering hardship.

The history of guide dogs for blind people is about 40 years old. It originated soon after the turn of this century in Germany and America. So far as I can gather it grew fairly rapidly in these two countries, but it was only 18 years ago that guide dogs were introduced here. Now, I suppose by comparison progress here has been comparatively slow, but the quality of the dogs produced here is far higher than anywhere else in the world. It is a fact that in the 18 years there has been no accident in which a guide dog has been involved. There are now 250 guide dog owners.

Plenty of public support has, I think, been obtained for this movement, but I feel that in certain quarters there is still a doubt in people's minds as to whether guide dogs are really the best thing to help blind people. I notice that a recent report of the Ministry of Labour, which has given great praise to this movement, expresses some doubt, for it says: The qualities of independence which possession of a dog does so much to foster, can be, and have been, achieved by blind persons in many different ways. I do not dispute that, but I believe there are three advantages which ownership of a guide dog can give to blind people.

Firstly, it gives them power to move without a guide, and thereby they gain freedom and independence. Secondly, resulting from that independence, they are helped to get rid of an inferiority complex which they might otherwise possess. They feel, particularly if they are working, that they are on equal status with some of their fellow workers. Thirdly, and possibly most important of all, the ownership of a dog gives them companionship, because the dog in this case is not so much a pet as a partner in everything they do. Hon. Members who are dog lovers will know what com panionship means in this respect, but one can imagine how much more it must mean to people who do not have the use of their eyes.

I sincerely believe that this service of guide dogs provides something for blind people that cannot be achieved in other directions. Any hon. Member who wants proof of that should talk to any one of the 250 owners, not one of whom would say that he preferred to go back to the conditions where the ownership of a dog no longer existed.

The first question I should like to put to the Minister is to ask whether it is the policy of the Government for it concerns not only the hon. Gentleman's own Department— to encourage the development of this movement. I realise that this must be subject to the willingness of the person concerned, and subject also to reasonable conditions for the maintenance of the dog.

As I have said, there are today 250 owners of these dogs, but there are on the waiting list some 350 approved cases. As far as I know, those 350 names have been obtained without any canvass. If a canvass was taken, there would be many more applicants. We know that there are some 14,000 blind persons who are in employment or are employable, and a great proportion of them would like to become owners of guide dogs to assist them to and from their work.

It is of interest to remark that a new training centre has recently been opened. This raises my second point: the provision of finance. The establishment of this new training centre is costing in the neighbourhood of £25,000. The mere training of each dog alone costs upwards of £180. This money has, almost without exception, been raised from voluntary sources. If I may in passing mention my own constituency, a great deal has been done by the Rover Scouts, who have dedicated all their efforts to this good cause.

It is the wish of the movement that it should remain on a voluntary basis they feel that the provision of direct finance is neither possible nor desirable. It is, however, possible that help can be given in other directions, and it may be that it is in fact already being given. In this connection I have reason to understand that local authorities are able to make grants towards the purchase price of a dog and that this can be claimed under the National Insurance Act, 1948—I imagine, under Sections 29 and 30. I have no direct evidence of this, but I know that grants have been made, and I should like the Minister to confirm that if a local authority is so willing, something can he done in this direction. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could indicate also the number of cases in which this help has been given and the progress that has been made in this direction.

The provision of licences for these dogs does not arise, because for many years they have been free from the licence payment, but there are two other aspects in which financial help could be given. The first of these is that, I understand, in many parts of the country blind persons in employment have been able to claim the expenses in connection with their dogs as expenses against the payment of Income Tax, but there is no set rule for this and it is a matter entirely for the discretion of the local tax inspector. It would seem that, if this can be claimed as a legitimate expense in certain areas it should be of universal application.

The second point is one drawn to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. kin MacLeod), and one which I believe is common throughout the country. These dogs, whatever their breed—and several breeds have been tried—are all big dogs, and they naturally have hearty appetites, and at the moment all dog owners find it increasingly difficult to maintain their dogs out of their limited incomes. I do not know what can be done in that direction, but I am informed that in Germany, for instance, an allowance is made to provide for their upkeep.

So far I have dealt with the supply and demand of guide dogs, and I hope I have shown that there is scope for considerable development, although that can only happen if conditions throughout the country are favourable. It is little use owning a dog if those responsible for transport, for employment, for entertainment and other public services are not willing to co-operate, and in making my Inquiries I have been surprised how varying are conditions here. For instance, I find that on British Railways guide dogs can travel free of charge, but that does not apply to the London Passenger Transport Board.

On London buses, dogs are allowed to travel only at the discretion of the conductor, and a charge is made. In one large city in- the North, guide dogs are not allowed at all; in others they are allowed on the top deck only; in others on certain routes and at certain times. In some towns guide dogs can travel free of charges; in others dog and owner can both travel free of charge; in others—the majority I am afraid—both have to pay. I realise that the public must be safeguarded in this respect, and that each local authority must make its own decision, but I do suggest that some uniformity could be obtained if all local authorities and all those concerned were aware of the standards set by, possibly, the most progressive authorities.

In the realm of entertainment, despite the similarity between theatre and theatre, or music-hall and music-hall very different conditions apply. Many hon. Members will probably have read of the case some few months ago of the blind music teacher who experienced extreme difficult in following his profession owing to varying conditions.

It is perhaps in the realm of employment that we come up against the greatest difficulty. Here, I want to refer to a case which has been the subject both of considerable Press publicity and of correspondence between the Parliamentary Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser). It concerns the Corporation of Sheffield, who for some years employed in their workshops two blind persons who subsequently became owners of guide dogs. They were then informed that guide dogs could not be brought to the workshops, and they were given the alternative of continuing in work and giving up their dogs or of losing their jobs. Quite naturally they chose to give up their work, and they both became unemployed.

One case concerned a lady and happened over a year ago, and for the intervening period of a year she has been out of employment and in receipt of National Assistance. The case is still a very live one, because only very recently she was summoned to appear before the Disablement Advisory Panel in Sheffield and told that, as she had been in receipt of National Assistance and unemployed for a year, unless she took work without using her dog she would be struck off the disablement list. I hear that in the last few weeks this has in fact happened; this lady has now been struck off the disablement list in Sheffield and is still in receipt of National Assistance —all because it seems impossible for the Sheffield workshops for the blind to make provision for her dog.

Those associated with the blind movements in this country feel that a grave injustice has been done in this case. The National Federation for the Blind have pursued it in every way possible, and are particularly anxious that it should be raised again tonight.

I think we must all be aware that a Corporation which refuses admittance to such a person's dog must have good reason for doing so, and I do not seek to quarrel with that decision. But when that body has a department which caters for blind people, I think it ought to be the first to make provision for their dogs to be admitted. The matter has been raised with the Minister, who told my hon. Friend that when the Ministry of Labour Report on the Employment of Blind Persons was published he would, in conjunction with the Minister of Labour, look into the matter. I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman if he can say whether anything can be done to help this rather unfortunate lady.

There are many different exceptions. I know Ministerial departments, local authorities, and many private employers, who admit dogs to their premises, or who, if they do not admit dogs, provide kennels for them. In the United States in 1937, legislation on a comprehensive scale was introduced on a State basis to make laws and regulations regarding these dogs. It provided that in America the dogs must travel free of charge on all transport. It provided also that in nearly every State it is an offence to prohibit the admittance of dogs to cafes, restaurants, theatres, museums, and to practically all public buildings, the only exception being cinemas. It did not provide for regulations regarding employment, but I think that there it is accepted, and particularly in blind institutions, that dogs should be admitted.

I do not suggest legislation in this country; indeed I would be out of order were I to do so. But I do suggest that if the Government gave a lead in this matter and could give publicity to the standards of the best local authorities, we could get along all right, because directly or indirectly, the Government is responsible for the employment of some 25 per cent. of the population. If a good example of this sort were given, surely this lead would be followed.

In addition, or alternatively, I suggest that a memorandum, or note, on the possibilities in this direction sent to local authorities would be of great assistance. I believe that this matter is non-controversial. I am convinced that every Member of this House has great sympathy with the blind in their problems, but I feel that what blind people want is not sympathy, but fair and progressive treatment.

11.38 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Runcorn (Mr. Vosper) for the attractive way in which he has raised this question tonight. As he says, it is not a matter of controversy. It is a matter in which we are all anxious to do everything we can to help, and I am glad to say that it has been possible to do rather more to help during the last few years than it had been for some little while before. All that he has said about the general history of this very useful and helpful association—the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association—which is unique in this country, is correct. It is the only body which carries out this work in England. Wales and Scotland.

The hon. Member asked whether it was the Ministry's policy to encourage the development of this work. I would say, and this also answers another question which the hon. Member raised on whether any contribution to the cost could be made, that we understand that an increasing number of local authorities are making contributions to the cost of training and providing these dogs. Under the National Assistance Act, 1948, local authorities have the power to make such contributions to the Association as they wish, without obtaining prior consent from the Ministry of Health, or from any other Ministry. That means that we have not the actual figures of the local authorities which are contributing, but we understand that an increasing number are doing so. That is what we would wish them to do.

We have not actually recommended local authorities to make contributions, but we have made clear to them that this is one way in which they can help should they wish to do so. We have left the matter to their judgment in the light of the actual cases concerned, because, as the hon. Member who raised this issue has very fairly said, it is recognised firstly, that some people are not suitable for training with dogs, and secondly, that there are many blind persons who prefer not to use them. That does not mean that there are not still a large number already using them and for whom they are quite suitable. We are very glad to see that the Association, by the opening of a new centre and we have done our best to help them in the procedure of adapting some of their premises—will be able to train more dogs and so be able to help those who have been waiting for some little time.

The hon. Member quoted from the very valuable report issued by the Ministry of Labour and National Service, which includes a short section about guide dogs. I, too, should like to quote this short paragraph: We consider that the provision of guide dogs has helped a number of blind people in their employment, and we therefore welcome the fact that the number of dogs trained each year is likely to be steadily increased over the next few years. Nevertheless, while many blind persons have benefited in this way, it would be wrong to suggest that it is essential for a blind man to possess a dog before he can go out to work. That is the sort of balance we should like to hold. We do not want to say to local authorities, "You must do this," but that this is a helpful way of carrying out welfare provisions for the blind, and one which is open to local authorities. Amongst the difficulties which arise in particular cases are those of ensuring that persons using guide dogs are able to take them both on public transport and to places of work. Obviously, no hard and fast rule can be made; much depends on the actual work places, and in some cases it would be unsuitable and even dangerous for dogs to be taken into them; and many blind people urge that upon us.

But I was rather shocked to hear of the individual case which the hon. Member raised, as well, previously, as the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdate (Sir Ian Fraser). It did seem to me that, in this particular case, it ought to have been possible to find some way of getting round the difficulty. I find it hard to understand why the workshop for the blind could not arrange for kennels to be provided.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Runcorn for having raised this matter tonight because it will give me the opportunity to send his remarks, and mine, to the local authority concerned. An expression of view here may help to get this rather difficult case put right. I should, however, mention that the authority concerned did make it clear before training started that this was the rule applied in the workshop; but the training was carried on nevertheless, perhaps because she wanted the dog for other reasons than her employment. As I say, I shall be very glad to ensure that the local authority is made aware of the feelings of hon. Members in this individual case, and I hope it will be possible to put the matter right.

Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)

I apologise to the hon. Member for interrupting, but many of these institutions are not under the care of local authorities but under the care of independent voluntary bodies. Can he make sure that these voluntary bodies are made aware of his opinion as well as the local authorities?

Mr. Blenkinsop

I am referring to one particular instance because I know something of the background of it. But one cannot give a general answer. It is true that in some cases there are particular difficulties which make it impossible for the dog to be brought in. As I say, I hope where that is so, it may still be found possible to make provision, outside the actual workshop, for kennels and so on. I have a great deal of sympathy with the points raised about guide dogs for the blind being provided for on public transport and so on, though that is not a matter for my own Department except in so far as it comes within our general oversight of welfare provision.

I will see that these points are discussed with our Advisory Council on Handicapped Persons, which is steadily considering all these matters in relation both to blind persons and handicapped persons, and see whether any recommendations might be sent out to local authorities after they have given the matter further consideration. I think that would probably be the best way to deal with it.

As I have already said, we are all sympathetic with the object raised here. I am glad to say local authorities are increasingly making contributions towards this work and I hope they will continue to do so. I hope that the Association will find it possible to extend the work they are carrying out, because we are all very well aware of the great value of it. and we wish them very well indeed in their future years of endeavour.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes to Twelve o' Clock.