HC Deb 25 March 1974 vol 871 cc30-7
The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The report by Baroness Sharp on the mobility of physically disabled people is published this afternoon. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

The report is a very thorough survey of a difficult and complex field, and I am sure that my predecessor the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), at whose instance Lady Sharp undertook the inquiry, will wish to join my right hon. Friends and me—as I am sure the House will—in thanking her for this valuable and comprehensive report. The principal, though by no means the only, matter dealt with in the report is the future of the invalid vehicles service, and, in particular, the question whether the existing three-wheeler should be replaced by a suitably adapted small car. Lady Sharp concludes that it should, mainly on the ground that the car now represents better value for money; but the report also shows that any general move to cars would involve a large increase in the overall cost of the vehicle service, since many more people would be likely to claim them.

As Lady Sharp makes clear in the report, her terms of reference required her to bear in mind that the money available for her purpose had to be limited by competing claims on resources, and Lady Sharp proposes that eligibility for vehicles in future should be limited to people who, in effect, need them for the support of themselves or their families. She estimates the extra cost of this at £3 million a year—rather more in the transitional period. Existing holders who did not qualify under the new criteria would retain the right to a three-wheeler as long as stocks last.

Any proposal to withdrawn a vehicle from those now enjoying the use of one, even with the transitional safeguards proposed, would in our view be wrong, especially as we are dealing here in many cases with people who, without their vehicles, will be virtually housebound. Moreover, new rules of eligibility will raise serious problems of definition and interpretation. On the other hand, any change which would have the effect of increasing the cost of the vehicle service clearly has to be considered in the light of the economic situation and other priorities for the public services, including, in particular, improved cash provision for the disabled. It is important that we should obtain the views of the disabled themselves.

The Government therefore propose to consider the recommendations in the report alongside their study of cash benefits for the disabled. In the meantime we will discuss the questions raised by the report, as well as the wider question of the priority to be assigned to the various needs of the disabled, of which mobility is one, with organisations representing the disabled, as well as with local authorities, the medical profession and others interested. I am today sending copies of the report to relevant organisations, and my Department will be getting in touch with them in the near future to arrange for consultations.

I should add that, apart from the central question of vehicles, Lady Sharp's report contains valuable recommendations on other matters, including medical training, the remedial professions, wheelchairs, housing, and general arrangements for making it easier for the disabled to get about. We shall, of course, pursue all these recommendations in consultation with the interests concerned.

One particular aspect of this matter which I know gives concern is the safety of the present invalid vehicle. As hon. Members will be aware, tests of the vehicle covering impact and side wind effects have been carried out at my Department's request by the Motor Industry Research Association. I know that hon. Members have expressed a desire to see its report. I am therefore placing in the Library of the House, and I shall similarly make available to interested organisations, the three parts of the report on impact tests and a synopsis of the fourth part relating to the effect of side winds. The Motor Industry Research Association was not able to agree to my publishing the fourth part in full because other makes of vehicle were involved in the tests, and it felt it would be a breach of commercial confidentiality. The synopsis, however, has been prepared with the MIRA's agreement.

The results of these tests, which are favourable in certain respects but less favourable in others, will be among the factors to be taken into account in the consideration of the future of the vehicle service to which I have referred.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Is the Secretary of State aware that the whole House welcomes the publication of this important report and would wish to join in expressing thanks to Lady Sharp for her work in preparing it?

We welcome for study the recommendations in relation to measures apart from those relating to motor vehicles. Does the Secretary of State appreciate the need for the whole House and many interested groups outside to study carefully the recommendations, which amount in some respects to a significantly different total approach to the problem of mobility of the disabled, with particular reference, of course, to the costs involved in any change, alongside the many other potential needs of the disabled to which she has referred, especially the possibly competing needs of disabled passengers who are unable, in any circumstances, to drive themselves? Would one be right in thinking that the estimate of £3 million to which the right hon. Lady referred as the additional cost of the Sharp recommendations includes the cost of any measures in relation to disabled passengers, as opposed to disabled drivers?

Finally, can the Secretary of State say —this is a matter about which there will be great concern—whether we are right to conclude that there is no reason, on grounds of safety alone, for saying that the existing three-wheelers should be withdrawn and replaced by cars? I emphasise the phrase "on the grounds of safety alone" because it is important that those who now use these three-wheelers and will go on doing so in future should know exactly the impact of this report on that aspect of the case.

Mrs. Castle

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's last point is very important. I confirm—I think that hon. Members will be glad to study the MIRA report which I have placed in the Library —that there are no reasons on grounds of safety alone why the three-wheeler should be withdrawn. Although the MIRA report indicates the need for some design modification, it does, on the other hand, I think, allay some of the more intense anxieties that have been expressed.

On the £3 million additional cost to which Lady Sharp's report refers, this is, of course, on the basis of an entirely new definition of eligibility, which would be extended over the whole field. Lady Sharp recognises, as we do, that if one introduces cars instead of invalid three-wheeler vehicles, it is clearly impossible to resist the demand, if one wished to do so, for the disabled passenger to be accommodated by the new criteria. That is why Lady Sharp has completely rejigged the criteria for eligibility.

Hon. Members will want to study the report. In the consultations that lie ahead we shall welcome comments from all organisations and individuals, including hon. Members of this House.

Mr. Carter-Jones

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for producing this report and for brushing the dust off it, for we know that it has been in the Department since last August. I am also grateful to her for allowing hon. Members an opportunity to study the MIRA report. I think it can be said that that report has caused much anxiety outside the House. I am glad to hear that my right hon. Friend will be carrying out consultations with disabled people, and I hope that she will not delay the implementation of the report too long in order to undertake those consultations. May I draw attention to a critical part of the report—namely, the fact that there is no disability in terms of mobility which cannot be overcome in some way or other by technology or finance? Will my right hon. Friend consider taking into account the fact that technologists can enable disabled people to become mobile, since there are disabled people who can drive vehicles by using their mouths alone? This means that more people can be mobile and can go out to work. Finally, will she consider the situation of severely disabled people who have no family and therefore need a mobility grant, for example, the situation of Miss Mary Greaves which illustrates this requirement?

Mrs. Castle

Since my hon. Friend asked me to see that there should be no delay in implementing the report, may I ask him in return to study the report? I believe that it will prove to be controversial and that it is not a question of our implementing this report but, in the light of the valuable information that it contains, of our deciding the best way of proceeding with the maximum mobility for the disabled. Part of our consideration in the consultations that lie ahead will relate to the other points raised by my hon. Friend, such as the possibility of help given by technological advances.

Mr. Marten

Is the Secretary of State aware that we are grateful to her for bringing forward this report so quickly, as we are to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) for having initiated the inquiry during his time as Secretary of State? Will the right hon. Lady bear in mind that when on previous occasions calculations were made of the number of people applying for four-wheelers, particularly when Mr. Kenneth Robinson was Minister of Health, the Department unwittingly grossly exaggerated the number of people likely to apply for four-wheelers? When the right hon. Lady considers the overall cost—and I am sure that the whole House will welcome this expenditure—will she bear in mind the tendency to over-estimate the cost of these vehicles?

Mrs. Castle

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks about publication of the report; I felt that it was essential for the report to be published as quickly as possible. I have made it available to the House, together with the MIRA report, at the earliest possible moment. On the hon. Gentleman's question about estimates of take-up, if there is a move to cars, again I would ask the hon. Gentleman—and I know that he always takes a keen interest in this subject—to examine the report. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, with his responsibilities for the disabled, will welcome any comments the hon. Gentleman may care to put to us.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

I must take issue with my right hon. Friend about the safety of three-wheelers. Is she aware that in my constituency of Watford there is a colony known as Kytes Drive and that the members of that colony, having driven these vehicles, regard them as totally unsafe? Will she give serious consideration to those views when making her decision?

Mrs. Castle

Yes, I shall give full consideration to all views expressed to me, but I repeat that I believe it would be valuable for hon. Members to read the MIRA report. I know that there have been anxieties on this matter. Some aspects of the report are less favourable than others and certain design modifications can be made to meet that situation, but I felt that as long as we withheld the results of any tests from the House alarmist views would spread. I think that those views are exaggerated.

Mrs. Knight

Is the right hon. Lady aware that there is a prototype invalid car nearing completion in Birmingham which although three-wheeled has a stabiliser wheel and combines the best features of the three-wheeler with the safety of the four-wheeler? Does the Secretary of State appreciate that the design of this prototype vehicle enables a disabled person to drive into the car from his wheelchair? Will she examine this project which appears to be an interesting advance?

Mrs. Castle

I was not aware of that vehicle, and I am grateful to have my attention drawn to it by the hon. Lady. I shall look into the matter.

Mr. Loughlin

Do we now find, as some of us have believed for a long time, that there has been a great deal of hysteria about the safety of the three-wheeled vehicle? Before my right hon. Friend thinks about any restriction of the present category of people entitled to assisted transport, will she recognise that it is desirable to move to social independence on the part of the patient and his family? Does she not agree that anything that can be done in this direction on a gradual basis will assist the situation, otherwise the estimates of the take-up factor in respect of nominated drivers will be very much of an under-estimate rather than an over-estimate?

Mrs. Castle

I have sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. The most important aspect is to put all these facts before the disabled people themselves and to allow them to examine the problems and potentialities. I realise that the question of mobility is possibly the strongest desire of all among disabled people and their families. I want to discuss the implications of this report with them to see what progress we can make.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

While associating myself with the congratulations and appreciation which have been expressed and welcoming the main recommendations of the report, may I ask the right hon. Lady two short points? First, may we assume that the criteria in respect of the capacity to walk for elegibility for vehicles will be relaxed? Secondly, may we be told what is the position in regard to the point which I raised in the House last November on the criteria for exemption from excise vehicle duty—namely, that a vehicle must be conspicuously and permanently adapted? May we be told whether this requirement can now be dropped and whether the constant attendance allowance will be considered to be sufficient criteria in itself?

Mrs. Castle

On the first point, Baroness Sharp's recommendation would move in the opposite direction from the issue raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Therefore, I must repeat that it is important for the House to study the report and the new criteria for eligibility which the noble Baroness suggests. They are controversial, but we must look into them and also at the implications of proceeding merely on the basis of the present criteria, plus the nominated driver addition. On the other point which was raised, all these matters will be taken into consideration in our consultations.

Mr. Kelley

On the question of priorities for four-wheeled vehicles, will my right hon. Friend consider the fact that certain families have been rendered immobile because of industrial accidents. Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the provision of a three-wheeled vehicle does not permit the disabled person to take out his wife or any other members of his family? Will she agree to give this matter prior consideration because, had it not been for an industrial accident, the family of the disabled person would never have been put in that situation?

Mrs. Castle

We all appreciate that the main drawback of the three-wheeler to the disabled person is that he or she has to travel alone quite separately from the family. This matter has concerned hon. Members on all sides of the House, and it is one of the reasons why my predecessor as Secretary of State for Social Services commissioned this report. I can only ask the House again to study the report and its details. Let us see what is involved in giving wider mobility, which we should all like to give.

Mr. Pardoe

The right hon. Lady's swift action in publishing the report as soon as she got into office is welcomed in all parts of the House. However, she has set herself an example. Will she say something about the time scale for action. We recognise, of course, that the Government want to consider the report in detail and to consult as widely as possible, but Lady Sharp held widespread discussions and we now need action. Will the Secretary of State say when it will come?

Mrs. Castle

The ideas in Lady Sharp's report will be new to the organisations representing the disabled. I think that they come with a certain amount of surprise and that they will prove controversial. It is important for me to allow myself enough time to work out with the disabled our reaction to Lady Sharp's arguments and our priorities in helping the disabled, bearing in mind that I am already statutorily obliged to produce this autumn a review of social security provisions for the disabled.

There is, therefore, the question of improved cash provision as well as the question of mobility, and I want the disabled to help us make our choices.