HC Deb 18 June 1952 vol 502 cc1225-33
Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 6, at the end, to insert: except that in the case of hydrocarbon oils used for the propulsion of invalid chairs driven by disabled persons the rate of duty shall be one shilling and tenpence halfpenny a gallon. The House will have to excuse me for bringing it down from the Olympic heights of high finance and big business to the more human and humane subjects such as that contained in this Amendment. Hon. Members will remember that on the Committee stage of the Bill a similar Amendment was moved which brought forth a concession to the disabled war pensioners who use motor propelled tricycles. It was a concession given by the Financial Secretary which has been appreciated by all the war disabled who have benefited from it since that date.

When he made the concession, the hon. Gentleman said quite frankly that the position regarding disabled civilians was not easy owing to administrative difficulties, and he refused to mislead the Committee by promising an easy solution of the problem. However, he promised that he would consult with the Ministry of Health to see whether some means could be found of overcoming those difficulties.

I shall not reiterate the case for granting to civilian users a concession similar to that extended to the war disabled, because there is no point in pushing hard at an open door. Noting the constellation of stars on the Government Front Bench, I am led to believe that the Financial Secretary will tell us that the combined ingenuity of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Pensions and the Treasury has overcome the difficulties he mentioned on a previous occasion.

4.45 p.m.

The House will remember that the Ministry of Pensions, once given the green light by the Treasury, went full steam ahead and that the payment of £3 a year to the war disabled was put into operation dating from 1st May. That was satisfying, but not surprising to those of us who know the humanity and the capability of the Ministry of Pensions. We now hope that the same concession will be granted to the civilian disabled.

As a disabled ex-Service man myself, I would not like to feel that my fellow war disabled were having an unfair advantage over those disabled in industry, through illness or for any other reason. Therefore, I hope that having already gained the thanks of the war disabled, the Financial Secretary will be able to make an announcement this afternoon about those disabled through other causes which will gain him their thanks.

Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I beg to second the Amendment.

I have only one request to make to the Financial Secretary, which is that if any payments can be made I hope they will be made retrospective to 1st May when the payments in respect of the war disabled came into force.

Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)

I am glad to have the opportunity of supporting this Amendment, which was so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons). He is one who can speak on these matters with some authority because of his own disablement. I personally have nothing in the form of a like permanent disablement, but I am one of those who, like most other hon. Members, have watched men and women using these particular vehicles in the past with some sympathy, but without a very full appreciation of what they mean to them.

It so happened that in September last I met with rather a serious motor accident and for some days during the General Election I had the opportunity of using one of these vehicles, when I appreciated more than I had ever done before exactly what they mean to disabled people, both ex-Service men and civilians; and because of that experience I feel that my sympathy is all the greater.

I would go even further and point out to the Financial Secretary—and this is an appeal made in the best possible spirit—that since that experience I have got to know something of the users of these vehicles. I find that there is an association of people using mechanical vehicles of this type. They hold week-end rallies and get a great deal of enjoyment out of getting together.

I was interested to notice a few months ago that many of them had even made a journey across the North Sea to Holland, where they held a rally with many other disabled people from other parts of Europe. If the Financial Secretary could accept this Amendment he would render a great service to those people, which would be very deeply appreciated indeed. Their disability is such that they are entitled to the full consideration of the House. I hope that the Financial Secretary will be able to say that he will adopt what is now proposed.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

I am quite sure that there is general sympathy on both sides of the House for this Amendment and that if it were put to a free vote nobody would go into the Lobby against it. On the Committee stage the Financial Secretary made a very useful concession. He declared that he would make a grant to ex-Service users of these invalid chairs to compensate them for the increased cost of petrol due to the increased duty. Owing to technical difficulties, because the Ministry of Health had no funds at their disposal for that purpose, he would not be able to make a similar grant to civilian users of these chairs.

I think that the majority of users of these chairs throughout the country are not ex-Service men and women but people disabled in civilian life. I know that in my own local association the great majority of the men and women users are civilians. In the country generally 4,700 people who use these chairs come under the administration of the Ministry of Health and not of the Service Departments. It would be rather invidious if help were given to ex-Service users and, because of some technical difficulty, no help could be given to civilian users. I hope that with his customary ingenuity the Financial Secretary has been able to overcome this difficulty and that he will be able to inform us that some similar concession is to be made to civilians.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

I think that precisely this same Amendment was moved by the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) in Committee on this Bill. There was then fairly general agreement to the Committee on two points. The first was undoubtedly that if it were possible to provide some assistance for all disabled persons who are compelled to use these chairs, it would be very proper to make some provision by way of compensation or relief for the increase in the petrol duty.

It was also generally accepted that the actual method advocated—no doubt partly for procedural reasons—a method which suggested a discriminatory rate of taxation related to the purpose for which the petrol was to be used, had not been found practicable by previous administrations and bristled with administrative difficulties.

Consequently, during the Committee stage I was able to announce on behalf of the Government that in the case of the ex-Service disabled person—that is, the person who is the direct responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions—arrangements were being made, following practice on previous occasions, to increase the cash grant in respect of chairs operated by that category of user. I announced at the time that the cash grant would be £3 in respect of the type of chair which has weather protection, and therefore does not go quite so far to the gallon, and £2 in respect of the chair without that protection. But, for the sake of the record. I ought to point out to the House that in a Written answer shortly afterwards, my hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions indicated that he had decided to level up that grant to £3 in all cases.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee were disturbed about the position of the other categories of users of these chairs—what I might call, for convenience, the civilian cases. I indicated at the time that there were severe practical difficulties in applying in their case the expedient which we had used in Service cases. I do not want to repeat the argument on that occasion, but it came in substance to this—that whereas the Minister of Pensions has the machinery for a system of cash grants to those for whom he is responsible, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health has no such machinery. Indeed, the whole idea of relief in cash is alien to the general system of Ministry of Health administration.

But in view of the expressions of opinion on both sides of the Committee. I undertook to report those views to my right hon. Friend the Minister to see if a way round that practical difficulty could be evolved. At the same time, as I think hon. Members will recall, I gave a clear indication that there were considerable practical difficulties for the reasons which I then gave.

We have had an opportunity since the Committee stage to consider very carefully whether it is possible to deal with this matter in a way that would give some relief. For the reason that I have given we were compelled to rule out the suggestion that the system of cash grants which we had applied in the Service cases should also be applied in the civilian cases.

As I said a moment ago, the Minister of Health, although he has many powers given to him by Parliament, has no powers in connection with cash grants, but, as a result of discussions which have taken place, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has decided that it will be possible for him to deal with the substance of the matter in another way. He has agreed, and the Government have agreed, to arrange for a free issue of an amount of petrol substantially equivalent in cost to the money grant made to the war pensioner. If I may, I will briefly describe the way in which it is proposed to effect this arrangement.

My right hon. Friend proposes to allow to the civilian user of these chairs an issue of 14 gallons of petrol a year free of charge. That is not merely free of the increased duty, nor merely free of duty, but free of any charge at all—a free issue of that amount of petrol. Hon. Members who are better qualified for rapid mathematical calculations than I am will be able to calculate that the value of that grant comes within a matter of pennies to the £3 granted in respect of the Service disability pensioner.

This petrol will be issued at the rate of seven gallons in respect of each six monthly period. It might be of assistance if I outlined the procedure which my right hon. Friend intends to follow. A form—that is inevitable in all modern Government—will be sent to all civilian users of these chairs. If they wish to make use of the concession they will complete their part of the form and take it to the garage from which they usually draw their supply. The garage will complete the form and forward it to the regional officers of the Ministry of Pensions, who will act in this respect as an agent for the Ministry of Health.

The garage will then supply to the disabled person the specified amount of petrol free and will send the bill for that petrol to the regional office of the Ministry of Pensions for settlement These arrangements will come into force with effect from 1st July. The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) asked if they would be retrospective. The answer to that is, therefore, no. The result will be that this benefit will accrue to these people a few weeks later than the similar one accrues to the disabled Service pensioners, and perhaps, as the hon. Member raised the question, I might explain the reason.

5.0 p.m.

This is not a cash payment. This is a grant in kind, and the element of retrospection which is sometimes appropriate in the case of cash grants is obviously less so in the case of grants in kind. There is also the practical reason, that this is to be on a six monthly basis. The 1st July is the beginning of the first six monthly period after this concession has been decided upon. Therefore, while this grant is not in the strict sense retrospective—that is my answer to the hon. Gentleman—it is, in fact, being operated from the beginning of the first half yearly period after the decision has been taken, and, therefore, there is a few weeks difference which I think is substantially fair.

Mr. Chetwynd

I am perfectly satisfied with that arrangement.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for that expression of his views.

This arrangement will, as I have said, come into operation on 1st July. I think the House will wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health on having so speedily found it possible to overcome real administrative difficulties in order to do what was manifestly the wish both of this House and of the Government and also to do something to help people for whom all hon. Members have a very proper sympathy and understanding.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I am sure that everybody who has listened to the speech of the Financial Secretary will be very glad that this concession has been made. We not only congratulate the Minister of Health on his ingenuity and on having found a method of giving effect to this proposal, but I am sure that all hon. Members who have been so persistent in pressing this matter will be particularly glad that as a result of their persistence this remedy has been found. I have no doubt that all civilian users of these invalid chairs will be glad to know that there is not to be any indiscrimination between their use of invalid chairs and those who come within the sphere of the Ministry of Pensions.

There is one point which I should like to put to the Financial Secretary. He told us during the Committee stage, when this matter was under discussion, that legislative powers would be required to enable the Minister of Health to make cash payments. I gather that he is satisfied that the proposal which he has now announced can be carried out in this way without any new legislation, and I take it that we may also assume that as the Minister of Pensions will be acting in this respect for the Minister of Health, this will come on the Ministry of Pensions Vote and not on the Ministry of Health Vote.

Unless that is the case, I am not clear how it is consistent with the Government saying that new legislation would be required to enable the Minister of Health to make a cash payment, when this can apparently be done without legislation because what is being given is not cash in the form of cash but the value of cash, namely, £2 or £3 worth of petrol. I do not see why legislation would have been required in one case and not in the other, but I have no doubt that the Government have looked into the matter and have satisfied themselves that it is free of any Parliamentary complications.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If I may have the leave of the House to reply to the points which have been raised, the first question was whether legislation would be needed. The answer is, no. The second question was, upon which Vote would the cost be borne. The answer is that it will be borne on the Vote of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. The payments to the garage will be made by my hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions as agent for my right hon. Friend, but the Minister of Pensions will then recover the amount from the Minister of Health who is responsible to Parliament for this matter.

Mr. Simmons

Before asking leave to withdraw the Amendment, I should like to express my thanks to the Financial Secretary and the Minister of Health for the ingenuity which they have displayed in making this concession possible. If one wanted to be partisan one could refer to forms and things like that, but I do not think that the disabled are interested in partisan speeches.

We could have hoped that there might have been a simpler way of doing this, but we must not look a gift horse in the mouth. So long as the disabled are getting the value of the £3 grant already enjoyed by the Service disabled I think we are satisfied. I and my hon. Friends thank those responsible for working out the scheme, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.