HC Deb 20 June 1958 vol 589 cc1482-90

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

11.18 a.m.

Mr. Victor Collins (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

If, as now seems reasonable to hope, this Bill becomes an Act, it will end a disagreeable form of exploitation, almost amounting to fraud, to which blind and disabled persons, and the general public, have been increasingly subjected in recent years.

Firms and individuals, all over the country, employ door-to-door canvassers to sell articles worth a few pence at perhaps ten times their real value. They adopt such names as "Blind Employment," "Blind Homework," "Blind Artisans," or perhaps merely "Disabled Ex-Service men." Deceived by the carefully worded literature, the charitably-minded public pay extravagant prices in the belief that they are assisting to provide employment or maintenance for blind and disabled people. In fact, they are providing fat profits for the firms and high earnings for the canvassers, and when this is discovered it brings into doubt the efforts of the genuine organisations for blind and disabled people which most people wish to help.

In my own constituency, there is a firm which has vans running about with the words "Blind Employment" on them. That firm has had the effrontery to register that name when it is a well-known fact that the Blind Employment Factory is the biggest blind employment centre in London. The National Association of Workshops for the Blind, comprising all the workshops for the blind throughout the country, became so concerned with the effects of this evil business that, after looking at the evidence which they gave to me, I tabled a Question to the former Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service, the hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. Carr). He assured me of the Government's interest and concern and welcomed my suggestion that an all-party committee should be formed to consider possible lines of action.

The members of that committee are the sponsors of this Bill, and I wish to express my grateful appreciation of their devoted and valuable assistance. Since they have all worked as a good team, it would be invidious to particularise, but I know that they would like me on their behalf to acknowledge our indebtedness to the former Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Mitcham, without whose drive, enthusiasm and skilled guidance we should not be today debating the Third Reading of this Bill. The work of the hon. Member for Mitcham for disabled people is well known, though in my view far too little acknowledged. Once he was satisfied that the problem could not be dealt with under existing legislation, he spared no effort in assisting us to obtain our objective. For his help and for that of the present Parliamentary Secretary, who I am glad to see is present today, we also express our grateful thanks. Certainly it is to their efforts that we owe this Bill and such technical merit as it possesses.

In its principal provisions, the Bill relates to traders wishing to carry on the business of selling goods from house to house, including shops and offices, or selling by post, in the course of which business they state that blind or substantially disabled people are employed in the production of the goods or will benefit in some way from the sale of them. They are required to register with the Minister and failure to do so may involve a maximum penalty of a £100 fine or a term of three months imprisonment or both. These penalties are in line with the penalties embodied in the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act, 1944.

All the existing non-profit-making bodies concerned with the blind and disabled are exempt under the provisions of the Bill from the need to apply for registration. In addition, the Minister has power to exempt on application similar bodies not already covered by the exclusion. A blind or disabled man who sells the product of his own labour is not required to register. A blind or substantially disabled person carrying on business in which other people are employed in the production, packing or distribution and selling of the goods would have to apply for registration. This is necessary to deal with the case of the disabled person who might otherwise be used and exploited as a nominal head of such a firm.

It was also thought necessary during the Committee stage discussions to define the term "substantially disabled" so as to take care of the kind of concern which might otherwise successfully apply for registration although their employees had nominal disabilities, such as a missing finger or a stiff knee, or some mysterious, high-sounding and quite imaginary disease. The registration provisions of the Bill will not come into effect until January, 1959, so that traders carrying on this type of business will have plenty of time to apply for registration before the penal provisions take effect. They would have a full opportunity to appeal to the courts, if they are aggrieved by any decision of the Minister regarding registration.

The Minister may grant registration for an indefinite or restricted period, or he may refuse registration altogether. The Bill gives ample guidance to the Minister about the kind of things he should look for before deciding to grant registration, and to the courts who deal with applications from aggrieved persons regarding a refusal of registration. These provisions, for the guidance of the Minister in connection with a decision to grant or withhold registration, are quite stringent. It is our hope and determination that none of the kind of firms whose activities I have been describing could possibly be registered and continue to carry on such business.

This Bill does no harm whatever to any existing bona fide organisation or any future bona fide organisation which may be set up. In my view, if fully and properly used, it will stop once and for all the type of exploitation to which I have referred. Its full use will depend, however, on the vigilance of interested bodies. That is why applicants for registration are required to advertise their application. It will be for members of the public and organisations of blind and disabled workers to furnish the Minister with any information that may be relevant to the application, and later, if necessary, of any infringements of the provisions of the Bill. It is to be hoped that offences will be few. But if they do occur, we must look to local authorities to exercise their right to institute proceedings or, failing them, for individuals and interested organisations to do so. In my view, failure to act in a clear case of infringement would be neglect of an important public duty.

I need not detain the House by saying any more about the Bill. Its purpose is well known, and its provisions are clearly set out. However, perhaps I could be allowed to quote briefly from some of the messages I have received from national organisations during the passage of the Bill emphasising how warmly they welcome the protection which this Bill will afford to genuine organisations for disabled people. I have already mentioned the National Association of Workshops for the Blind who took the initiative in this matter and represent all organised workshops for the blind throughout the country. There is also the workers' organisation, the National League of the Blind, which after the Second Reading debate, wrote to me and said: When such a Measure is placed on the Statute Book your committee will have earned the gratitude, not only of every blind person, but of every member of the general public for putting an end to the cynical and barefaced exploitation of the widespread sympathy which exists for everyone suffering the handicap of blindness. The Greater London Fund for the Blind, whose patron is Her Majesty the Queen Mother, in welcoming the Committee stage, said: Through our outside staff and our letters from members of the public we have been receiving an increasing number of reports of shoddy goods being offered at house doors by sighted persons purporting to be trading on behalf of organisations employing blind people and using such names as"— and then the letter goes on to give names, some of which I have mentioned. Many people, of course, in sympathy with the blind, buy these goods, and then they are shocked to find that their selling price in shops is considerably less than they have paid. Wherever there is sufficient information we investigate these cases and have found, in several, that while one, or at the most two, blind persons are on the premises, they are not an essential part of the staff and are no more than a 'front'. Where there seems a possibility of action being taken we have notified the police, but the wording of any printed matter used is skilful enough to be 'within the law'. Naturally, therefore, we welcome your Bill and its objectives and hope it will rapidly be brought into force. Finally, the British Legion, after welcoming a Bill which, in its words, when passed will finally end the sales rackets whereby the public are misled into purchasing goods supposed to be made or packed by the blind and disabled said: Complaints are constantly being received at Legion Headquarters in regard to door-to-door canvassers seeking orders for goods which it is alleged are made by disabled ex-Service men. We would like it known that neither the British Legion nor the associated companies employ door-to-door canvassers or collectors. Nor do they authorise any other concern to do so. Any such firms as operate in this way should be regarded as commercial undertakings working for profits and not for the purpose of assisting disabled ex-Service men. If the House accepts the Bill today and it becomes law, it will stop this racket. It will stop the cheating of the warm-hearted public and, most important of all, it will assist the blind, the crippled and the otherwise disabled, who deserve all the help we can possibly give them. For these reasons, I am confident that the House will give it unanimous approval.

11.31 a.m.

Sir Keith Joseph (Leeds, North-East)

May I also support this modest but extremely worth-while Measure, and, in doing so, add my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. Carr), who was until recently Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service? It was his imagination, diligence and conscientiousness that enabled the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins) to bring this Bill so rapidly and in so workman-like a form before the House.

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Mitcham, as the hon. Gentleman opposite told us, was a great friend of all the disabled during his tenure of office, and it would be an extremely sad thing for the disabled that he has now left the Ministry of Labour were it not that my hon. Friend the present Parliamentary Secretary is bringing to his job the same imaginative sympathy with this section of the community.

May I also commend the work of the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury, who by his constant and dynamic energy has shown his sympathy with and understanding of the problems of the disabled, and, in particular, by the Bill, has done real service to blind people? Though I am privileged to be one of the supporters of the Bill, it is very largely the result of the hon. Gentleman's efforts.

The Bill shows the value of an alert Press, vigilant constituents and energetic Members of Parliament. The fact that so little time has elapsed since the ventilation of the complaint by the public through the Press and in letters to Members of Parliament reflects the greatest credit on the hon. Member for Shored itch and Finsbury, on my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham, on the Government, and on the sympathy of this House. The Bill protects a section of the community which has the universal sympathy of the country against the exploitation of that sympathy and I hope that it will be an effective Measure.

11.33 a.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

I wish to endorse the tributes that have been paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins) and the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) to those who have helped in the progress of the Bill, and I particularly wish to associate myself with what the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East said in paying a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury.

This matter has been before the attention of those of us who have been interested in the welfare of disabled persons —and I myself have spent a lifetime in it—for a very considerable time. We have wondered how best we could combat this very great abuse—this evil, as I would term it—which has resulted not only in the exploitation of the disabled, but the exploitation of the public as well. Various other suggestions were considered, and it was due to the initiative and drive of my hon. Friend finally, in consultation with the hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. Carr), that it was decided to press on with this Bill.

The dramatic moment in our agitation was when my hon. Friend illustrated visually, I think to an astonished and alarmed House, the extent of the evil, and, from that time, I think we had the public on our side. We certainly had the Ministry on our side, and we have now come to the end, in this House, of a very interesting and important chapter. My hon. Friend mentioned the kind of disabled person who is probably most exploited, and that is the blind person, who, of course, always makes an appeal to the public. Blindness is a handicap that arouses a great deal of sympathy, and it is one which the public can visualise straight away, but there are other handicaps.

I am rather worried whether we can effectively deal with those organisations which have their centres abroad but have agencies in this country. In particular, I refer to the big drive which took place about Christmas, as I expect all hon. Members are aware, concerning pictures supposedly—and I do not doubt that they were—painted by persons without limbs, or, at any rate, without hands, painted by holding the brush between the toes or in the mouth. The centre of that organisation is on the Continent, and I believe—and I have taken some pains to verify this—that most of the money which people of good will spend on buying what they regard as genuine articles goes abroad.

I would, therefore, ask the Parliamentary Secretary, who will be mainly responsible for the operation of the Bill, to keep a watch on that kind of activity. There may be a little loophole there. I thought we had tied them all up completely, but I have a suspicion that the Bill is not drawn rigidly enough in that respect.

I support the Bill whole-heartedly, and again wish to thank those who are not concerned in the work of welfare, or are not associated with it professionally, for the interest that they have shown in bringing the Bill to its final stage.

11.37 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Mr. Richard Wood)

I will certainly take note of the point which the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) has just mentioned and will make inquiries about it.

In general, I have no wish, as the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins) knows very well, to delay for a moment the Third Reading, which I hope the House will shortly accord, to his Bill, but I should like to take the opportunity of congratulating him and others who have joined with him in sponsoring the Bill on the achievement that he will very shortly reach. I have always admired with envy the achievements of hon. Members who succeed in getting Bills on the Statute Book. Through no fault of my own, I have never been able to start, but I admire very much the way in which the hon. Member, both in Committee and in the House today, has handled his Bill.

I am particularly grateful for what he and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) have said about any co-operation which the Government have been able to give in this matter, and, naturally, I appreciate what they both had to say about the work, the great enthusiasm and help which my predecessor in office, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. Carr), has been able to give. I am sure that he will be delighted to know that the work which he did for the disabled during the time he was at the Ministry of Labour and National Service has been so generously recognised.

My hon. Friend would be the first to admit that co-operation needs two parties, and, therefore, I should like, on his behalf and on my own, to thank the hon. Member and his sponsors for the co-operation which they have been able to offer towards achieving this very desirable end.

The only other thing that I should like to say, and the hon. Member has drawn our attention to it this morning, is that what is very clear, and the proceedings on the Bill both in Committee and this morning have shown it, is the extreme distaste which hon. Members on all sides of the House feel about the kind of practice at which this Bill is aimed. The Bill is the means by which we in the House of Commons give practical expression to those feelings, which we a1 very sincerely hold. I am sure that in a few moments the House will give a unanimous Third Reading to the Bill. I hope that anyone who is concerned with the kind of practice which the hon. Member has in mind will take due note of the unanimity in the House about this question.

I commend the Bill for Third Reading and wish the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury all good fortune in the further stages of the Bill in Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

  1. MEDICAL ACT, 1956 (AMENDMENT) BILL 12 words