HC Deb 20 March 1970 vol 798 cc856-65

  1. (1) There shall be established a Commission, to be called the Disablement Commission (in this section referred to as the Commission').
  2. (2) The Commission shall consist of not less than four nor more than six members appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
  3. (3) Members of the Commission shall be appointed in a personal capacity and not as representatives of particular organisations.
  4. (4) Members of the Commission shall not receive remuneration for their services and may be part-time members.
  5. (5) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall appoint one of the members of the Commission to be chairman and another to be deputy chairman.
  6. (6) It shall be the duty of the Commission—
    1. (a) to keep under continuous review all pensions and benefits for the disabled; and
    2. (b) to make recommendations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security upon any changes or additions to the existing system of pensions and benefits for the disabled which the Commission considers necessary.
  7. (7) The Commission shall report to the Chancellor of the Exchequer not later than on 1st August, 1971, and thereafter at intervals of not more than two years, on the general level of all pensions and benefits for the disabled, and shall make recommendations which take account, in particular, for each period of report, of any matter relative to the purchasing power of such pensions and benefits and any other relevant consideration.
  8. (8) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall within one month of a report being made to him by the Commission lay before each House of Parliament a copy of that report.
  9. (9) In this section, unless the context otherwise requires, the expression 'pensions and benefits' shall include all pensions and benefits whether payable under Act of Parliament or Royal Warrant.—[Sir Tufton Beamish.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

12.15 p.m.

Sir Tufton Beamish (Lewis)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I am anxious not to delay or disrupt the smooth passage of this excellent Bill. The suggestion that a disablement commission should be set up to keep under review the financial needs of the disabled has had a somewhat chequered career. Two attempts were made to introduce such a Measure, first by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent (Mr. Ashley) and a little later by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell), who I am glad to see is with us today.

It is no secret that the Bill originally included a similar provision in its original draft but that was later dropped because it proved to be controversial. This clause is of a non party, character having strong support from all three parties. There is little doubt that on a free vote it would be likely to be carried by a large majority. Based on my Bill, which is due for a Second Reading today, the new Clause is supported in spirit, if not in the strict letter, by all the sponsors of my Bill, including the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths) who has written me a note saying that he is sorry that he is not able to be here today because he is not fit. He says: Dear Tufton, I wish I could be there to support your Bill. I have also had a note from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale, (Mr. Dunn) who has his name on the new Clause and who would like to have been here today.

To my deep regret and for reasons which I cannot fully fathom, the Government are determined yet again to block this proposal. I do not intend to divide the House on this new Clause—party politics should have as small a place as possible in the way in which this House approaches the problems of the disabled. The last thing I wish to do is to inject any unnecessary controversy into our discussions.

When poverty is coupled with severe disability, life can often be intolerable. When a man—or woman—is unable to earn at all or to earn only a nominal income, and so cannot afford those things which make life more than a question of survival, there is precious little pleasure, or self-respect either. A few flowers, new clothes, a small present to thank a neighbour for being kind, a book, a glass of beer to offer to a friend, these are some of the small things which mean so much to those who are denied so many of the joys which most of us take for granted.

The Government have based their refusal to accept this proposal mainly on the ground that the National Superannuation and Social Insurance Bill goes some considerable way towards meeting the financial needs of the disabled, and indeed it does. Certainly it is a stride forward, but the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security, had to admit in Committee that the constant attendance allowance would not benefit a large number of people who need it, and he reiterated this in a long letter to me explaining why the Government were opposed to my Clause.

Whether a disability arises from war service, an accident at work, or in a car crash or whether it is congenital, or caused by illness such as multiple sclerosis, is irrelevant in considering how much financial help is needed. Yet at the present time there are ten—no, hundreds—of thousands of severely disabled and chronically sick, many of them housewives struggling against great odds to keep their homes going, who are left out of every financial benefit scheme.

That is why I strongly urge the Government to think again about the merits of the Clause which is complementary to this Bill. The Clause is simple and self-explanatory. It is also, I suggest, eminently sensible. It seeks to establish a commission of not fewer than four, and not more than six members, on an unpaid voluntary basis. They would keep under continuous review all pensions and benefits for the disabled, whether payable under Act of Parliament or Royal Warrant, and report every two years to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the Secretary of State for Social Services. The Chancellor of the Exchequer would be bound to lay that report before both Houses of Parliament within a month of receiving it.

No doubt other hon. Members, as I do, often hear of cases where useful citizens are rendered more helpless and unhappy, and more costly to public funds than they need be, or wish to be. I had an example of this only two days ago in a letter from the Chairman of the League of Friends of Hellingly Mental Hospital just outside my constituency. They are trying to get patients out of hospitals into a half-way house between hospital and a fully independent life, in a Group House as they call it, financed by voluntary subscription and run largely by voluntary effort.

It is one of a number of highly promising experiments all over the country. It has only just started. Out of six ex-patients, all with a history of 20 years in hospital, two have returned to work. Their constant worry in this experiment is money. Whereas it costs at least £18 a week to keep a patient at Hellingly Mental Hospital—I should have thought that it would have been more—the allowance under Social Security regulations to live out is only £6 11s. a week, of which £2 10s. has to go on rent, leaving only £4 1s. for heating, lighting, clothes, food, other expenses, pocket money, and so on. One is left wondering how many more thousands of patients in hospital could be discharged if only homes such as that one could be made available for them. This really is a case where parsimony does not pay, and I am sure that it can be multiplied, nation wide hundreds of times.

It is in ways like this that an independent commission could shed some badly needed light on a problem clouded with confusion, and sometimes by a lot of muddled thinking. Unlike a Departmental inquiry, which is provided for in the National Superannuation and Social Insurance Bill, the commission would view impartially the financial needs of the disabled, no matter how the disability arose, and without any distinction whatsoever between one group and another. As the Financial Times said yesterday in an excellent editorial: …there is still some way to go before we can say that the chronically sick and disabled are cared for in a way that they ought to be in a wealthy, advanced industrial society. I would add that there is still a long way to go—and this was a point made once by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley)—before we catch up with practice in most countries in free Europe.

Let us not sweep the financial worries of the disabled under the carpet. Let us bring them out into the glare of publicity, so that whatever party is in power will be under constant pressure to do what is right, instead of what is, all too often, in the short-term expedient. Passing this Clause would have just that effect. Let us pass it today. I beg the Government to have a change of heart.

Dame Irene Ward

I support the case made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish). What particularly attracts me about the Clause is that it ensures that the financial needs of the chronically sick and disabled are looked at automatically every two years. In recent years I have got the impression that, under both Governments, it has become policy for pensions for the disabled Service pensions, and all kinds of pensions, to be looked at in the context of a two-year period. Certainly the pensions for the Services have come within this category as a result of many debates in the House.

It seems to me that it would be helpful to all those who are interested in the chronically sick and disabled to know that, arising out of the appointment of this type of commission, there will be an automatic examination, so that no Government can say that they would very much like to have a debate and consider the situation, but parliamentary time does not permit. If there is an obligation on Parliament to consider an issue at specific times, this must be helpful to those whose cause we are trying to promote.

So often Ministers, in all Departments, want to help sections of the community for whom they are responsible, but behind the scenes they get no support from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We know how difficult it is for Ministers who have a real interest in progress to defend the lack of progress without saying that they have spent quite a long time trying to bring the Chancellor of the Exchequer round to their way of thinking. If they lose the battle behind the scenes, in public they have—to make it look as though it is their decision, and I think that part of the good side of the Clause is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not be empowered to interfere with what Parliament has decided to do for this special section of the community.

12.30 p.m.

Mr. Ashley

I am glad that the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) has moved this Clause, which I greatly welcome. As he implied, it is based on a Motion which I put to the House some two years ago. I am strongly in favour of the concept of a disablement income commission, because in the long run it will improve the economic standard of disabled people. I make no secret of the fact that I regard such a commission as an instrument which would lead to the payment of a disablement income to all disabled people, particularly disabled housewives. I regard it as an instrument for removing some of the many anomalies between the industrially disabled and the "civilian" disabled.

However, I am glad that the hon. and gallant Member does not intend to press the Clause. That does not show any lack of enthusiasm for the concept. If this proposal had been made in a separate Bill and not in a Clause of this, I would have voted against the Government if necessary and on future occasions I will, as I did on the last occasion. But this is not a concept which has come only from hon. Members opposite. It is not a political issue. Throughout our discussion of the Bill, hon. Members opposite—the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Martin), the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Astor), and their colleagues—have shown a firm determination to refuse to make party politics out of the Bill, and I am sure that they agree with me that there are no party politics in the matter.

But I am glad that the Clause is to be withdrawn, because the Bill is not the place to press it. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) had the Clause in his original Bill but he withdrew it partly on an assurance of the Government that some of its consequences would be embodied in the National Superannuation and Social Insurance Bill, which is now before the House. However, I am delighted that the hon. and gallant Member has been able to deploy an argument which I warmly support.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

As the new Clause is based on a Bill of mine in the last Session, I should like to add my support to what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) has said. My Bill was based in turn on a Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) less than two years ago under the Ten-Minute Rule procedure. Because the Government then seemed to give it support, I was encouraged to go ahead with my Bill. I was surprised when it ran into opposition from the Government more than a year ago.

But the pressure which we and our colleagues on both sides of the House have managed to generate in this way has led to some results inasmuch as there is something in the Government's National Superannuation and Social Insurance Bill; and Clauses 9–15 of this Bill will ensure that there are representatives on various advisory committees with special knowledge of the problems of the disabled. We may say that some attention has been paid to the matters which we were pressing and that there has been some progress.

However, we should still have liked to have had a disablement commission, because the financial side is not covered by the Clauses 9–15. I am sorry that the Government do not agree with our preference for a disablement commission, but at least some progress has been made.

Mr. Pavitt

The Clause would do one extremely useful thing—it would bring together the Treasury and the Department of Social Security. Whatever happens to the Clause, the problem will remain, and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will continue to press for the tripartite approach—the two Government Departments concerned and the people affected.

It is high time that the Government appointed a Minister with sole responsibility for the chronically sick. If we can have a Minister for Sport, we can have a Minister charged with that responsibility. We now have nine Ministers concerned with the problem. It is possible for the Minister for Sport to move from Department to Department while still keeping overall responsibility for sport, and it ought to be possible with this much more important subject of the chronically sick and disabled for the Government to take action along the lines urged in the Clause.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan (Farnham)

I hope that in his reply the Under-Secretary will take up the point which has just been made by the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt).

In some way, the Clause is not an addition to the principle of the Bill as Clauses 9 to 15 to some extent deal with representation on the bodies which will decide pensions among other things, but it is an addition to the general thinking in that it implies that civil disability should have the same status in cash benefits as any other form of disability.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will comment on the idea of a special commission to make expert recommendations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This would not commit the Chancellor or force him to do what the commission recommended, but careful study is needed to show the relative effectiveness of cash benefits and other forms of care for the people concerned.

There may be a conflict between the other Ministries and the Treasury, but it should be remembered that in some cases this proposal would result in a net saving over a period, rather than any increase in cost to the taxpayer, and at the same time it would provide benefits and help to the disabled.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

The Clause would make a good Bill even better. As the commission would be permanent and reporting every two years, with attendant publicity and opportunity for debate, it would be a further psychological encouragement to the disabled, and for that reason above all others I hope that the Government will have second thoughts.

Mr. Alfred Morris

I would like to confirm what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) said. At the proof stage of my Bill there was provision for such a commission. The two Clauses that have been transferred to my right hon. Friend's National Superannuation and Social Insurance Bill were Clauses 11 and 30 of the original Bill. Clause 11 said: The Secretary of State shall establish an advisory council of not more than twelve persons to supervise the administration of an attendance allowance for the severely disabled and to advise on its extension to other categories of disabled persons". Clause 30 sought to make special provisions to help the wives of men who have been drawing sickness benefit for more than 28 weeks. It concerned the earnings rule which applies to the wife of a man who is long-term sick.

Dr. John Dunwoody

It has been useful that we should have a short debate on this subject, which has been aired in the House on occasions over a number of years. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) who first raised it, and I think that we can say that the very fact that he did so is one of the reasons why we see provisions being made in Government legislation which to a considerable extent cover the field the Clause is intended to cover. I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend, who implied that the Bill before us, being a Private Member's Bill is perhaps not the appropriate vehicle to bring forward these suggestions, whatever their rights and wrongs.

I was asked about distinctions that may or may not be made between the civilian disabled and the remainder. The present Government, like previous Governments, give special consideration to the war-disabled in view of their service to the country. I understand that the Opposition accept this policy, and I do not think that hon. Members on either side of the House would want it to be otherwise. This does not mean that we are not very conscious of the problems of disabled as a whole, irrespective of the origin of their disablement, whether a congenital abnormality or one acquired in an industrial or other accident. But there is the special group of those who have been disabled in the service of their country in the Armed Forces.

The new Clause would establish a commission with two main functions. The first would be to review the level of pensions and benefits for the disabled. However, this will be the statutory duty of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State under Clauses 36 and 37 of the National Superannuation and Social Insurance Bill. This duty covers the whole range of insurance benefits for all insured people, including the disabled, and I think that this will meet the hon. and gallant Gentleman's point. These Clauses of that Bill provide for up-rating at two-yearly intervals and for the Secretary of State to lay a draft Order before Parliament at least to maintain the real value of benefits. I hope that this will be a reason why hon. Members on both sides will support that exceedingly valuable Bill when they next have an opportunity.

The second function proposed in the Amendment for the commission is that of making recommendations about changes or additions to the existing system of benefits for disabled people. This is not covered in the National Superannuation and Social Insurance Bill. It is not a rôle that any Government could delegate. That Bill contains proposals for two new benefits for the sick and disabled—attendance allowance and invalidity pension. Changes like this, and of this order, could not and should not be made dependent on the initiative of an independent, part-time commission. I do not think that hon. Members, on reflection, would see that to be in the interests of the chronically sick and disabled.

Sir T. Beamish

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to