HC Deb 16 July 1974 vol 877 cc339-46

'A mechanically propelled vehicle fitted with controls enabling it to he driven by persons having a particular disability or a vehicle for use by persons having a particular disability that so incapacitates them in the use of their limbs that they have to be driven and cared for out doors by an attendant and registered in the name of such a disabled person under the Vehicles (Excise) Act 1971 shall not be chargeable with any duty under that Act by reason of its use by or for the purposes of that disabled person or by reason of its being kept for such use where—

  1. (a) he caused the controls to be fitted to the vehicle and obtained in respect of the cost thereby incurred a grant paid by the Secretary of State out of moneys provided by Parliament; or
  2. (b) whether or not he caused the controls to be fitted to the vehicle his disability is of the kind in the case of which grants in respect of the fitting of such controls are so paid; or
  3. (c) the disabled person is in receipt of a badge issued pursuant to section 21 of the chronically sick and disabled persons Act 1970, is in receipt of an attendance allowance under the National Insurance Act 1971 and 1972, or the equivalent constant attenance allowance of the Industrial Injuries Scheme, and the disabled person needs the use of a wheel chair and has attained the age of 16 and where the disabled person is sufficiently disabled to be eligible under the National Health Service Act 1946 and the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 for an invalid tricycle but too disabled to drive it,
and where regulations under section 23 of the Vehicles (Excise) Act 1971 requires a person to furnish particulars as to a vehicle exempted from duty by this section, they may require him to furnish in addition such evidence of the facts giving rise to the exemption as is prescribed by the regulations '.—[Mr. Higgins.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Higgins

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

This proposal to amend the Finance Act 1971 has a long history. The clause, which has been drafted to make further progress, is extremely long. The drafting is rather complex. Therefore, I should like to refer to some of its specific provisions. At the same time, it may be possible to simplify the drafting. I will comment on that point again later.

Over the years the House has seen fit to extend the relief given to the disabled regarding the payment of vehicle excise duty. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) has been very much in the forefront of this campaign. Indeed. he moved an amendment similar to the clause when we were in Government and it is part of the legislation which is embodied in the 1971 Act.

A considerable campaign has also been launched by the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled, particularly its chairman. Mr. Peter Large. He has always put forward his representations with great cogency and a great deal of humanity.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)

And with moderation.

Mr. Higgins

Indeed, as my hon. Friend said, with moderation. He has been anxious that we should not create a situation where any concession to this deserving group would lead to abuse. This has also been the concern of successive Treasury Ministers. Therefore, it is right that we should have made gradual progress in this area moving by stages. The new clause seeks to move one stage further in the light of the changes which were brought about in the 1971 Act and the 1972 Act, which made a further extension.

We are seeking to extend to more disabled passengers the relief which has hitherto been given. The number of permits issued by the Department of Health and Social Security for disabled passengers is probably over 1,000—perhaps 1.100. The Financial Secretary may be able to give us the up-to-date figure. Under the provisions of Section 7 of the 1971 Act the figure is probably about 500. Again, the hon. Gentleman may be able to confirm that.

The 1971 Act was deliberately designed to ensure that the change was such that it was not open to abuse. We felt then, I think rightly, that the concession ought to be limited to what are called conspicuous and permanent alterations to a vehicle which would make it identifiable. None the less, in February 1972 the invalid vehicles service was extended to cover certain chest and heart cases, and these disabled drivers were allowed exemption even though their cars were unadapted. Generally speaking, it was felt that, even though a vehicle was not clearly identifiable for the use of a disabled person, arrangements could be made to administer the concession on a satisfactory basis which would not be open to abuse.

The clause seeks to extend the concession still further and to remove some of the limitations which have previously been imposed. A particular disabled person may go into a vehicle which is not conspicuously converted, perhaps because he is in a wheelchair and his assistant can get him into the vehicle in that way. None the less, in the hope that the clause will be acceptable to the Government, we have imposed certain restrictions which, to some extent, reflect the changes in the law regarding the treatment of vehicles for the disabled. I think that would have been more difficult at an earlier stage.

I referred earlier to the restraints that we have imposed. For example, in paragraph (a) we refer to the controls to be fitted to the vehicle and obtained in respect of the cost thereby incured a grant paid by the Secretary of State out of moneys provided by Parliament; or

  1. (b) whether or not he caused the controls to be fitted to the vehicle his disability is of a kind in the case of which grants in respect of the fitting of such controls are so paid;
  2. (c) the disabled person is in receipt of a badge issued pursuant to Section 21 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970",
that he shall be over 16 years of age, and so on.

I hope that those restrictions commend themselves to the House. At the same time they extend the relief to many people, probably many more than the two figures I mentioned earlier. Perhaps the Financial Secretary will give us his estimate of the number likely to benefit from the concession.

Having simply recounted the history of the matter, I hope that I have moved the House to accept the views I have put forward. The Financial Secretary has been courteous enough to communicate with me. I understand that the Government are not unsympathetic to my arguments, but that they are somewhat unhappy about the drafting of the new clause. In contrast with my rather lengthy proposal, they have suggested that our purpose might be achieved in a much shorter way by amending Section 7 of the Finance Act 1971, substituting "suitable" for "specifically and extensively adapted", and omitting the words from conspicuous" to "and where". That is a much more elegant way of doing it than the almost three- quarters of a page of typescript that I have produced with much labour.

I think that our proposal is not defective, but that the Government would much prefer it in the form I have described. If I table a much more abbreviated proposal which appears to meet the case, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be kind enough to confirm that it covers exactly the same ground and will not exclude anyone now covered by my much lengthier new clause. Perhaps the Government will then be prepared to accept the shorter version.

8.30 p.m.

However, we find ourselves in a difficulty of which I was not aware. I understand that one of the few things we cannot do is to move a manuscript new clause on Report, although we can move manuscript amendments on Report, and can move new clauses at times other than Report. If the hon. Gentleman accepts my arguments, I hope that the Government may be prepared briefly to allow a recommittal at the end of the Report stage so that we may meet this point.

I hope that the clause commends itself to the House. I am sure that it will help a deserving group of people to whom it is appropriate that relief should be extended.

Mr. Marten

I support the new clause. I gather that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) has received an indication that the Government may accept its theme and make a slightly shorter job of it than my hon. Friend painstakingly did in his drafting. On the assumption that the Government will accept it, I thank them very much.

This is a wonderful example of the tortoise's progress for the disabled in the House, which has been going on since about 1964. We have had one or two victories, and here is another I hope that in the fullness of time, when the Government's decisions on the Sharp Report are announced, there will be a big review of all these matters so that we may take a great leap forward in help for the disabled.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will heed what is said by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Many of us have been concerned with all forms of disabled organisations. No one has made a more outstanding contribution, particularly for the disabled driver, than the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). I have considered it an honour to work with the hon. Gentleman on many occasions since 1964 in advancing the case of disabled people. I think particularly of the Disabled Drivers Association, with which we are both connected.

I remember our endeavours under the previous Government. Conservative Members now look so comfortable on the Opposition benches that I hope they will be there for a long time. Under the present Government, we have much more hope that in reply to the cases we advance we shall not receive detailed technical arguments—masses of sympathy, but no action. I hope that I shall not have to say that, although we have a different Government, we are still hearing the same story. Back benchers on both sides of the House want to see such a provision introduced to enrich the lives of many people who, because of their disability, cannot enjoy the normal way of life that the rest of us enjoy. I believe that that is the point of view of the mass of back benchers on both sides of the House. It is for that very good reason, therefore, quite apart from humanitarian considerations, that we hope that this provision will be met by a practical response from my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I wish to add a few words in support of the new clause. Over the long years during which I have been a Member of this House, I have always been struck by the fact that, whenever the Opposition have moved very important amendments to Finance Bills, they have always received a tremendous amount of sympathy and finally the Government's answer has been, "We have not the money. We cannot do it." That was the situation time and time again during the last Parliament. Certain amendments were moved which would have greatly assisted the disabled. They were resisted strongly by the Conservative Government on the ground that the money was not available.

This is a very worthy new clause. It helps the disabled, and it is very important that they should be helped in every way possible. I hope that the Government will do all that they can to see that what is intended in it is put into effect.

Mr. Bowden

I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) will not think that I am being too cynical if I say that the difference between the situations from 1964 to 1970 and from 1970 to 1974 and that today is that we now have a minority Government and it is much easier for back benchers to bring pressure to bear in favour of a very worthy new clause at such a time.

Both sides of the House have earned a great deal of credit in this matter. Only today I was talking to representatives of the Brighton and Hove branch of the British Rheumatism and Arthritis Association. I referred to this new clause and said that I felt that there was a good chance of it being accepted by the Government. Although we have not had an actual acceptance yet, I hope very much that it is a foregone conclusion.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) on his drafting of the new clause. I look forward to hearing the Financial Secretary saying that he accepts the principle behind it. I believe that a very large number of my constituents and many people throughout the country will be grateful to this House for incorporating this new clause into the Bill.

Sir Raymond Gower (Barry)

Disregarding the respective statements by hon. Members on both sides of the House as to who is the more virtuous, I hope that the Government will accept the new clause.

I appreciate that at no time do any Government find it easy to undertake to make concessions of this nature, and I realise that we are not discussing a small amount of money. Nevertheless, I feel that concessions of this kind have a very high priority. Even in circumstances of some economic difficulty they deserve special treatment. In that context, I hope that the new clause will be accepted.

Dr. Gilbert

Perhaps I may start by assuring the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) that the Government are very happy to accept the new clause. I assure him, too, that we would have been happy to accept it. whatever the figures in the Division Lobby, simply because it is clear that the present law contains an unsupportable anomaly in that disabled drivers may be exempted from vehicle excise duty without their vehicles being modified, which was the original requirement of the Department of the Environment, but that disabled passengers, who may be able to travel without any need for the vehicle to be modified, have to have that vehicle modified to meet the test for exemption from duty. On the face of it, that is nonsense, and I cannot see any Government resisting a proposition like this once it is put to them on the Floor of the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) for the courteous way he put his remarks. I believe we have reached agreement on the technicalities of handling the matter and, if it is agreeable to whomsoever is in the Chair at the time, I would hope that when we reach the end of our proceedings on the Report stage we can have a brief re-committal motion which could produce the precise effect intended by the hon. Gentleman incorporated in words which he has been good enough to say were more elegant than his own.

He asked several questions about the numbers who would be involved in a provision of this kind and the numbers already benefiting. I came armed with many figures but unfortunately I do not appear to have those for which the hon. Gentleman has asked, which would be a remit of a kind more for the Department of Health and Social Security than for the Treasury, but I can certainly tell him that so far only about 1,000 people have applied to the DHSS for a certificate of exemption, and between 40 per cent. and 50 per cent. have been refused on the ground that the vehicle was not conspicuously modified.

This may be a reflection of the fact that the exemption is not as well known to the public as it might be and as we would hope it would be. It may also be a reflection of the fact that a great many individuals who are in receipt of constant attendance allowance are among the less-well-off section of the com- munity and therefore, unfortunately, not in a position to contemplate running a car.

I am always hesitant about rejecting compliments particularly when they come from the other side of the House, but I feel I would be misleading the House if I were to let it get away with the impression that the hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) was suggesting, that this was a concession which will cost a great deal of money.

Sir R. Gower

I did not say that.

Dr. Gilbert

Then I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I thought he did. The cost involved in this is minimal. Unless there is any other point to which any hon. Gentleman would wish me to address myself, we will leave it at that. We entirely accept the new clause. I am advised that the form of words we are offering the hon. Member for Worthing in no way dilutes the intention of his own new clause, and I hope we may leave it at that.

Mr. Higgins

Soon after I entered the House about 10 years ago I put down a Question to the Prime Minister which turned out to be No. 1. To my astonishment as a new Member, the answer to my Question asking him to do something was "Yes, Sir" which so totally surprised me that all I could say as a supplementary was "Thanks very much", which some of my hon. Friends did not think was as effective a supplementary as I might have employed.

On this occasion I find myself in much the same situation, and it would be appropriate to follow the course which has now the general agreement of the House and to ask leave to withdraw the new clause as it is tabled and to allow it to be retabled in the more elegant form which has been suggested. We can then return to the recommittal stage when we have finished the Report stage. I am most grateful to the Financial Secretary. I should like to pay tribute to him for the concession he has made. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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