HC Deb 31 May 1963 vol 678 cc1751-63

12.18 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

The matter which I wish to raise today is one which affects an as yet undefined number of people. It is undefined because I understand, as the result of an Answer to a Question a week ago, that the Ministry has no statistics about it. My interest in the subject has been made keener by the fact that I am concerned primarily about a particular case and it is the circumstances of that case which raise the wider question of the situation of many other people who may be in similar circumstances.

The Minister knows that the case to which I am referring is that of Mr. William Loeber, now aged 71 and living in the Borough of Hornsey, who has been a railwayman all his working life since 1912, except for the period of the 1914–18 war, when, with his father and three brothers, he volunteered for service in the forces. In 1918, he suffered severe wounds which necessitated the amputation of his right leg at the thigh and a number of serious wounds in the back, which involved a number of operations which have not completely relieved the pain and inconvenience of those wounds. He was at the time an acting quartermaster-sergeant in one of the Irish regiments.

Then, despite these very severe wounds, Mr. Loeber continued to work on the railway, on the Hornsey sidings, until the date of his retirement. He has also, in spite of his disabilities, and in spite of the pain he has constantly suffered, for thirty-five years been the chairman of the Wood Green Branch of the National Union of Railwaymen, and a member of the national executive and finance committees of the National Union of Railwaymen, and he has served for a number of years as one of its national trustees. For these reasons, in particular, I have a special interest in his case, having known him personally for a large part of that time.

Although during this period Mr. Loeber was working, as one suffering these pains and disabilities over all these years he did not, of course, obtain the kind of promotion which a railwayman of his capacity and experience might have expected on the railways.

On top of his war disabilities, and, it may be, though I do not know—I do not think this has ever been tested—partly as the result of his war service, at the age of 40 he developed peptic ulcers from which he has suffered during the last twenty years, and in 1950 he had to undergo an operation for partial gastrectomy, which not only left him in further constant pain but destroyed his appetite for and enjoyment of food. He subsequently developed severe bronchitis, which has persisted, and resulted in his going into hospital in January of this year with a severe attack followed by pneumonia. He is still in hospital.

Mr. Loeber has had special tests at Roehampton concerning the possibility of fitting his artificial limb and I gather that there is not much prospect of that being done satisfactorily now. In the meantime, his other leg has deteriorated. In fact, since before he went into hospital, and during the last two years, it has been deteriorating because of the additional strain placed on it by his attempting to walk to continue his many activities, most of them in the public interest. The result has been hardening of the arteries in his so-called sound limb. His circulation has also been affected and this has been aggravated by the period he has spent in hospital, until now he cannot, in fact, walk.

This is not a unique story of a man who served in the 1914–18 war and has suffered this kind of disability. There may be few cases where a man in Mr. Loeber's situation could have shown such a creditable record thereafter in spite of his pain and suffering and disabilities, but it is not an entirely unknown situation.

The most serious part of it is the fact that although Mr. Loeber's parents have been living in Hornsey since 1894, and he has lived in the flat which he presently occupies in Hornsey since 1940, this fiat is very small, up some very narrow wooden stairs, and when one reaches the top one finds there are further steps to the living room and further steps to the bedroom. It has been almost impossible for him to negotiate them in the last few years, and now they are impossible for him to negotiate.

The difficulty about the situation has been made worse because of the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Loeber failed to make application earlier for admission to the housing list of Hornsey Borough Council —because, naturally, they did not foresee their present predicament, and he is not the type to complain, and was quite prepared to put up with it and go up those stairs, and so on.

Hornsey Borough Council has been approached—it has been approached by the hon. Lady the Member for Hornsey (Lady Gammans) and by others—to see whether it could assist Mr. Loeber in obtaining a ground floor flat. The answer has been that the Hornsey housing department is tied to a strict points system, that Mr. Loeber has the maximum points applicable to his case, and that there is no possible hope of his being placed on the housing list, let alone being provided with a ground floor flat, either through the housing list or otherwise, as I was told in a letter from the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance himself.

I raised this question on 20th May in the House to see whether the Ministry could do more to assist Mr. Loeber and his wife to obtain ground floor accommodation. As a result of the representations which I made then the Ministry agreed to increase his pension, adding 60 per cent. to 100 per cent., to provide him with the constant attendance allowance and the comforts allowances which are available under the Ministry of Pensions scheme. In the last letter I obtained from the Minister he made a great point of this, as he did in reply to my Parliamentary Question.

I acknowledge the fact that these allowances have been granted, but, after all, they are not a concession. They are the right of all ex-Service pensioners suffering the disabilities from which Mr. Loeber suffers, and there is no concession, there is no magnanimity, in giving these allowances.

Indeed, the fact that the Ministry has been able to give these allowances and to increase the pension to 100 per cent. over and above what he was obtaining before his latest illness, before the latest difficulties with his limbs, the fact that the Ministry has been able to give him the constant attendance and comforts allowances, merely underlines the drastic, dramatic change which has taken place in his position.

In other words, it underlines the fact that his position has now so far deteriorated from what it was before—otherwise, some of these allowances would have been granted before—that the situation must be placed on an entirely different basis.

When I wrote to the Minister about the case I received a reply from him dated 2nd May, 1963, in which he referred to the allowances which had been granted and said: So far as his housing difficulties are concerned, my welfare people have known of these for some time and have been doing what they could to help. But the housing situation in Hornsey, it seems, is so acute that, despite our welfare officer's representations, it was not even possible to get Mr. Loeber's name added to their waiting list. He went on: We shall continue to keep Mr. Loeber's housing problems in mind". This, apparently, is the end of the Minister's responsibility.

I do not know much about the Hornsey Borough Council, or how it operates, but I must say that I was astounded to find that a local authority covering an area of the kind which that local authority covers is tied to a strict points system without any loopholes at all. I know that the housing department of my own City of Sheffield and many others have a points system or a date system, whatever it may be, for the allocation of council houses, but they have a committee to deal with any special cases.

In other words, the points system and the other system is the basis on which all cases are first considered, and, if there are any special circumstances, then there is the possibility of dealing with those. Apparently, that is not the case in Hornsey, and it really is hardly enough for the Minister to shelve this by saying that after all it is the responsibility of the local housing authority.

The terms of the Question which raised on 20th May this year were to ask the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance how many limbless and paraplegic ex-Service pensioners have sought his help in obtaining ground floor accommodation; and what assistance he has afforded in such cases. The Minister's reply was that he had no such statistics, so he was not able to answer how many there might be. He repeated the fact that his welfare officers do all they can to help in these matters, and then he informed me that in 1962 he had referred no fewer than 1,200 cases of the kind to local housing authorities.

Then the right hon. Gentleman said: it is local housing authorities who have the responsibility, under my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government… If that is so, and as one of my hon. Friends intervened to say, what is the Minister of Housing and Local Government doing about it? Has the Ministry of Pensions applied any pressure on that Ministry to ensure that such cases are given the attention they merit?

In reply to the supplementary question which I have just mentioned, the Minister said: …a great deal is…done by local authorities as well as by voluntary organisations to find accommodation in these cases. One of the points involved is that not every limbless man wants ground floor accommodation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th May, 1963; Vol. 678, c. 18–19.] I do not know why the Minister put that in his reply. It has nothing to do with the case. There may well be limbless men who do not want ground floor accommodation. There may, for instance, be houses with lifts in them. We are concerned about men who do want ground floor accommodation. I do not see the relevance of that addition to the Minister's reply.

The Minister replied further to another supplementary question and reminded us that the fact is that it is the responsibility of the local authorities. This is entirely unsatisfactory. Here we have a man who voluntarily went into the forces in a war in order to serve his country, has suffered very serious disabilities, has nevertheless, without complaint, carried on his public duties throughout his life, and now because of the deterioration in his condition he finds himself in an impossible situation simply because no one can tell him where there is a ground-floor flat which he can afford, and he is prepared to pay any reasonable rent.

Nobody can assist him. The local housing department is not interested, because he is not on its list. The Ministry of Pensions is not interested, except through its welfare officers, who have done what they can but have apparently failed. Apparently the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has been unable to do anything with the Hornsey Borough Council. Therefore, the man is to be left to his own resources, and there is apparently no one who can do anything about it.

The Parliamentary Secretary will probably point out that Mr. Loeber is not a limbless man, but still has one leg, even though it is practically useless and likely to remain useless, and that he can wear an artificial limb of a kind although he is 71 years old and his stump is now worn to a piece of bone and a piece of skin. The latest information that I have is that he has been to Roehampton on two occasions and that they have made a temporary leg for him which is not to be used except when absolutely necessary in his own home. It is not to be used on hospital floors, either. They are trying to devise a pylon leg, which is some modern equivalent of the peg leg devised for lightness and comfort, but it is suitable only for short distances, and Mr. Loeber has been told not to use it for stairs.

This is not likely to be very much comfort for him or his wife in trying to carry on their lives. The technical point of whether or not Mr. Loeber is technically limbless because he has a limb and some kind of artificial attachment where the other limb ought to be, should not be made. The fact is that, effectively, he is a limbless person and will not be able to negotiate the stairs between the ground floor and his apartment.

What does the Minister propose to do about it? Some years ago the Ministry of Pensions was merged with the Ministry of National Insurance, but I am sure that that was not intended to mean—because I knew something about it at the time—that no further special interest was to be taken in war pensioners. I hope that there is within the Ministry a section which pays special attention to war pensioners. I have often maintained, and still do, that there should be an equalisation between the treatment of the war pensioner and of the industrially injured person. They ought to be on the same basis.

However, there should be a special responsibility towards the man who was injured not because he voluntarily accepted a job for which he earnt money and an accident happened in the normal run of things, and the man who volunteered in the moment of the nation's crisis for the most dangerous job of all and suffered disability. While I am not pleading for any great distinction between industrial and war pensioners, within the Ministry there should be someone who is paying special attention to these people, particularly the very old men of the 1914–18 war, who are becoming fewer and fewer and cannot be a very big burden to us, whatever we do.

This is a great nation, and we have vast national resources. We have just recently heard in the House and on television the Minister of Housing and Local Government speaking about the vast schemes which the Government are now envisaging for dealing with the national housing problem by setting up a £100 million fund of Government money to provide more and more homes for the people. But what about these cases? In view of the great resources at the disposal of the Government and the country, is it not possible—we are not asking for free or subsidised homes to be provided—with the machinery at our disposal, and as a result of the pressure that we can apply through the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, or by laying aside a small sum of money, to assist such cases by finding houses which can be made available? Mr. Loeber is not in a condition to walk round London looking for a home. Surely there are national resources available which could be used for this purpose?

I hope that the House will appreciate that this matter is our responsibility as the House of Commons, as Parliament, and as a nation. I hope that today, after all the correspondence that we have had and all the activity that has gone on in connection with this case and other cases of the same kind, the Minister will be able to tell us that he sees some possibility of something being done. I do not mean that he will say that he hopes that somebody else will do it.

Furthermore, and what is probably even more important in the wider context, I hope that he will tell us that the Ministry will try to discover how many people there are in this condition —war disabled people, particularly those of the First World War who are now reaching the age when nobody else is interested in them—what is being done about it and whether the Government themselves are doing sufficient about it.

I hope that we shall have some reassurance from the Minister on all these matters.

12.38 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Lieut.-Commander S. L. C. Maydon)

I think it would be for the convenience of the House if I dealt first with the general terms of this subject and then towards the end turned to the particular case which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) has in mind.

I should like to begin by correcting a misunderstanding which the hon. Gentleman undoubtedly has as a result of the answers he received from my right hon. Friend to a Parliamentary Question and supplementary questions on 20th May. The hon. Gentleman made reference to my right hon. Friend's answer about the 1,200 cases in 1962. Let me reassure him that these were not necessarily cases similar to that of Mr. Loeber. Many of them were cases of minor disability, but they were all cases where housing accommodation was involved. That explains why in a further answer to a supplementary question my right hon. Friend said that not all these men wanted ground floor accommodation. Quite naturally, ground floor accommodation would not be necessary for those who were not so severely disabled.

Mr. J. Hynd

What the right hon Gentleman said was: One of the points involved is that not every limbless man wants ground floor accommodation.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th May, 1963; 678. c. 19.]

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

That may well be so. There are limbless men who are still able and perfectly willing to negotiate stairs.

I turn now to the general provisions for unfortunate people in this situation. Under the Housing Acts, local authorities have power to build dwellings for sale or to let. In allocating this accommodation, it is normal for them to use a points system, each application being allotted points to determine some sort of priority list. Each authority has its own system of this kind, but three elements are common to all of them: the degree of housing need of the applicant, that is, in terms of the space already occupied, whether there is a separate home or shared accommodation; the number and ages of the family, that is, the degree of overcrowding in the existing accommodation; and medical considerations. In varying degrees, the length of residence in the area and age are factors also taken into account with any other special factors relating to the case.

Within this framework, local authorities can make special provision for particular groups. Most local authorities take into account special circumstances attached to any case. These groups comprise such categories as the old and the disabled for whom special allocation is desirable.

The disabled person is thus competing with other applicants whose needs may be reckoned greater than his according to how the points system works. For this and other reasons, his chances of securing priority in housing from a local authority rest almost entirely upon the size of the existing waiting list, coupled with the degree of attention given by the local authority to the special needs groups.

In the last five years or so, we have found that local authorities have been very willing to help house our pensioners who have a real need for special accommodation. Some of the solutions adopted are the allocation of ground floor flats in general purpose blocks, exchanges of tenancies, the allocation of specially designed dwellings, for instance, old people's bungalows. and the building or adaptation of dwellings to meet special needs, which is quite frequently done for paraplegics.

A number of authorities have taken a pride in helping with this problem.

Mr. Hynd

Has Hornsey?

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that there remain some disabled pensioners, such as the pensioner spoken of by the hon. Gentleman, for whom an immediate solution through the local authorities is not possible. It is, naturally much more difficult for local authorities to give an overriding priority to the disabled in areas where there are already long waiting lists of families with housing needs. Indeed, in some cases a disabled applicant may not be on a housing list at all and so may have a very long wait if he relies on the housing authority to meet his requirements. For these and for other local reasons, it is not always possible to find an immediate solution by approaching the local authority.

There are, however, voluntary organisations which provide special housing for disabled ex-Service men. There is the older type of memorial cottage, although this is not always very suitable for men with disabilities of the kind the hon. Gentleman has mentioned; some have not been properly modernised to the standards needed and expected today. The post-war settlements developed since 1945 generally offer accommodation within reach of social and industrial centres or in the form of village settlements where employment is provided.

The principal bodies housing disabled ex-Servicemen include the following. There are the Douglas Haig Memorial Homes, although there are waiting lists for 800 or so dwellings provided by this organisation. There is the Joint Committee of the Order of St. John and the British Red Cross Society. I recently visited the fine Kytes Estate at Watford, where about forty bungalows have been provided for paraplegics who are able to get about and work. There is the Lyme Green Estate at Macclesfield. There is the Barrowmore Village Settlement in Lancashire. There is the settlement for the disabled in Norwich. In the London area, there is the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation at Fulham. The Forces Help Society has responsibility for managing a number of regimental association cottages scattered about the country, and it also has a centre at Knaphill near Woking. There is the British Legion village at Preston Hall near Maidstone. There is the Enham-Alamein Village Settlement, the Pap-worth Village Settlement and the Thistle Foundation at Edinburgh.

That list is not complete by any means; there are others I have not mentioned. However, it is a fairly extensive list demonstrating the wide variety of excellent provision which is made by voluntary bodies. Welfare officers of the Ministry use their knowledge of these facilities to advise pensioners and to help them in applications to the various bodies. Unfortunately, they all have waiting lists. Each organisation tends to cater for a specific group of disabled people, which means that the range of choice in a particular case may not be large.

The other means available to the pensioner is house purchase or the adaptation of existing premises. Pensioners who have some capital and who wish to purchase or build their own homes can obtain advice on design and amenities. Some ex-Servicemen's organisations, notably the British Legion, B.L.E.S.M.A., the Joint Committee of the Order of St. John and the Red Cross Society and the R.A.F. Benevolent Fund will consider giving limited financial help where an applicant has capital but cannot defray the full expenses of house purchase.

If adaptation of existing property is required, the local welfare authorities can help. They have powers under Section 29 of the National Assistance Act to arrange help of this kind in adapting buildings, fitting handrails and the like, and even sometimes fitting lifts.

Mr. Hynd

But not in Hornsey?

Lieut-Commander Maydon

As regards paraplegics only, the Ministry of Health has power to make a grant for adaptations up to a total of £150 when disablement is due to war service.

Turning now to the case of Mr. Loeber, we are fully aware of his degree of disablement. His need for housing has only comparatively recently arisen. He is living in controlled premises and there is no question of his being turned out. It is purely a question whether the premises are unsuitable for him now that, unfortunately, his disabilities have worsened. Our welfare people are aware of this and inquiries have been made in a number of directions. So far those inquiries have been without success, but they are continuing and we have not given up hope of finding more suitable accommodation for Mr. and Mrs. Loeber.

As, I think, the hon. Member already knows, an approach has been made to British Railways, who have promised that if suitable accommodation becomes available and if there is no need for it for working railwaymen with a prior claim they certainly will consider Mr. Loeber's case. It would probably entail Mr. Loeber having to move from his present area. But if he feels that he wants to remain living in Hornsey it will restrict the scope of possibilities very much indeed and delay any chance of getting him more suitable accommodation.

Mr. Hynd

We ought to have no misunderstanding about this. There is no quetion of Mr. Loeber insisting on staying in Hornsey.

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

I am very glad to have that reassurance, because that will make our task much easier.

The hon. Member asked what we do about this. As he knows, we operate an extensive welfare service as part of the functions of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Unfortunate people with problems are frequently visited by our welfare officers. Naturally, if the need on the particular problem is not made known to the welfare officers remedial action cannot possibly take place. It is the responsibility of the pensioner or his friends, or the organisation representing him, to draw the attention of the Ministry to changes in situations of this nature. Then we can bring into operation all the resources of our welfare service to help.

I do not think any useful purpose would be served by trying to make a list of cases of this nature. What we want to do is to find these cases when they arise and to act as quickly as possible to remedy them. Going back to the past and making a list of how many people, because of their disabilities require special accommodation, would fulfil no useful purpose whatever.

Mr. Hynd

I was certainly not suggesting that we should go back and make a list of past cases. I am rather surprised that the Parliamentary Secretary has taken this line. I am suggesting that the Ministry should try to find how many such cases there are now. It is not unusual for that to be done. It has been done in the past. The Ministry of Pensions and the National Assistance Board frequently try to find cases of special situations and to get the details.

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

The answer to that is perfectly simple. When the cases arise they are brought to our notice. We have known of this case for some time and we have had time to put in train the inquiries which our welfare officers have made. The fact that they have not so far been successful only emphasises the general housing difficulty in the London area. As the hon. Member well knows—I gave him some details in my reply—many such cases have been quite successfully solved.

To make a special survey would be a great waste of effort, because these cases do come to light as they arise. They are usually brought to our notice by our welfare officers who hear of them when making their tours of the districts in which they are working. If they do not come to us direct from our welfare officers, they will undoubtedly come to us through the ex-Service voluntary societies and associations. I am quite convinced that no useful purpose would be served by setting up a special and complicated survey to try to search for cases which normally come to our notice during the course of our day to day welfare work.