HC Deb 16 July 1968 vol 768 cc1256-9

3.34 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), I welcome him back to our debates.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a commission for the introduction of a disablement income. Forty-eight hours ago, in Trafalgar Square, I attended a rally of men and women whose lives are lived in pain and poverty. They represented the chronic sick and the disabled—over a million men and women who are prisoners in hospital beds, or in their own bedrooms or in wheel chairs. I regard that demonstration, marked by the silent symbols of dignity and courage, as eloquent testimony of the need of the Bill I seek to bring in.

I know that the House is rightly concerned with the grave national affairs which are its direct interest, but it is always willing to accept responsibility for the problems of minorities and of individuals. I think that I can best illustrate the problem of the disabled minority by reading a short extract from a letter which I received recently from a woman whose husband is disabled by multiple sclerosis. She wrote: He was a fine, hard-working athletic type, but he became redundant and we were forced back on to National Assistance. I could not begin to tell you how we live on this. Every day is a nightmare of penny pinching and scraping. She goes on: We are condemned to live the life of poverty, and, considering the society in which we live, surely our hardships are enough to bear without abject poverty, too. Do you know, it has actually been suggested to me that I must make some sacrifices—and this from a minor official. Ludicrous, is it not, when every moment of our lives is a sacrifice? To me, that letter proves that the bleak impersonal word "disablement" is a synonym for personal and family tragedy. It has also proved, at any rate to me, the urgent need to establish a commission which can investigate immediately the problems of the disabled, and also to look at the anomalies involved, because I can assure the House that some of the anomalies involved are quite incredible. For example, a husband who is totally disabled by multiple sclerosis gets only one-third as much as the man who is industrially injured but similarly disabled.

The size of the family can be the same, the responsibilities of the family can be the same, the disease and the pain to be endured can be the same, yet one family is entitled to receive up to just 2s. short of £24 a. week, while the other family can only receive less than £8 a week. The main reason for this anomaly is that special allowances granted to one family are denied to another. I believe that this ranks as one of the most remarkable examples of discrimination of modern times, and the sad irony of that situation is that the very man who is discriminated against is, by definition, less able to fight on his own behalf.

That discrimination which is exercised against disabled men is even worse in the case of women. The disabled housewife is, believe it or not, entitled to not one penny, even though she may be totally paralysed. This is an astonishing state of affairs. The consequences for a totally disabled paralysed housewife are simple and quite direct. She can either pay for someone to come in and look after her and her husband and home, which, of course, cannot be afforded by people on a low income, or, alternatively, her husband can give up his job to look after her and the family and they live on supplementary benefit.

The only other choice left is for the family to be broken up. This entails the wife going into hospital and the children going into the care of the local authority at a minimum total cost of £50 a week. This is family tragedy, compounded by economic chaos.

As these anomalies are so indefensible and so odd, one is compelled to look around at the major countries of Western Europe. Bad as we are in this respect perhaps we can find some consolation if we discover that there are even worse, but the astonishing fact is that most of the major countries of Western Europe are paying disablement income to their disabled. So we have to lower our sights a little and look at the countries which have no great pretentions to be the major countries of Western Europe.

In Stockholm recently, there has been a seminary on the social security statistics of Scandinavian countries. It was called "Social Security in Nordic Countries." All these countries give generous disablement payments, not only to their industrially disabled but to their other disabled, including housewives. The countries included in that report are Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Iceland is providing for its disabled men and women while the cripples of Great Britain have to be carried to rally in Trafalgar Square to demand not charity, but justice and to request, not sympathy, but action.

I am aware of the conomic difficulties confronting the Government. I have no wish to introduce a partisan note this afternoon, but I believe that, despite these economic difficulties, the Government have a very proud record of social legislation, but this is cold comfort for the disabled who are denied a disablement income.

I realise and accept that the Government are concerned with the plight of the disabled and have initiated an inquiry into the incidence of disability. This is a great step forward, but it will be at least 18 months, possibly two years, before the results of such an inquiry can be made known. My concern is that at the end of those 18 months or two years the Government will be faced with the task of embarking on an examination of the problems of paying a disablement benefit.

Any such payment involves highly complicated issues. For example, on what basis should a disablement income be paid? How is one to assess the degree of disablement? What is to be the definition of disablement? Should disablement payment be made for loss of earning power or loss of faculty? It may even be necessary to visit other countries, such as the pioneer Iceland. This could involve a delay of a number of years. I am asking the House to establish a commission—not a Royal Commission, but a commission—of able and energetic men who could do all the necessary preliminary work so that there is no delay in paying a disablement income.

In seeking the leave of the House to introduce my Bill, I point out that the sponsors disagree profoundly on many issues but on this they are united. They are offering the Government a suggestion and an opportunity of contingency planning so that the thousands of disabled people who are depending on them and waiting on them will not be required to wait too long.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ashley, Mr. James Griffiths, Mr. David Price, Mrs. Lena Jeger, Dame Joan Vickers, Mrs. Braddock, Dame Irene Ward, Mr. Pardoe, Mr. William Hamilton, Mr. G. Campbell, Mr. Molloy, and Mr. Astor.