HC Deb 11 June 1975 vol 893 cc425-36

Queen's Recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to provide for relating the rates of social security retirement pensions and certain other benefits to the earnings on which contributions have been paid and to make other amendments in the law relating to social security and to occupational pensions, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of a mobility allowance, under Chapter II of Part II of the Social Security Act 1975, to and in respect of persons under pensionable age (within the meaning of that Act) and suffering from physical disablement such that they are either unable to walk or virtually unable to do so; the rate of the allowance to be £5 a week.— [M r. O'Malley.]

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I am sure that the Minister will accept that this is a restrictive money resolution. The House should be clear about its effect. Once it is passed, we shall be unable to question further the amount of the allowance—namely, £5—or the groups to which it applies. In other words, we shall be unable to extend it and to increase it. Therefore, there are a number of points that I should like to ask the Government about.

The first point concerns the amount of £5. When the Government originally announced their allowance in the plans which they put before the House last September, the amount was to be £4. The increase of £1 might on the face of it, sound a generous increase but, in fact, it seems simply to take account of inflation.

Probably the most useful index to consider is the general index of retail prices for motoring and cycling. Some measure of the inflation which has taken place in this country is manifested by the fact that this index rose between September 1974 and April 1975 by just under 20 per cent. We could look at other indices but they would also show a similar trend. When making a comparison of that kind, we are talking about the date of commencement. The Government are becoming quite fond of announcing increases several months before they become operative, with the effect that those increases sound rather good at the time, but they are not so good when they actually come to be paid.

The mobility allowance is different. The dates of payment differ. In a statement last September, the Secretary of State said that she would introduce the allowance in stages. The first stage would start in 1975–76 and the subsequent stages would be spread over the next three years. Therefore, on the plans already before the House, that process will end in 1978–79. I shall leave that point at this stage except to emphasise that the current rate of inflation will almost certainly mean that even at the initial starting date of the allowance, the £5 will not be worth the £4 which was originally announced and, if left unchanged, would become progressively worse. That is a point to which we shall want to return.

The second point is clearly the cost to public funds of this allowance. This, clearly, is tied to the rate of payment; but what is the initial net cost to public expenditure of introducing this allowance? Has the Minister any further projections on this matter?

Finally, the pension is payable: in respect of persons under pensionable age". As I understand it—and I think I am probably right—the effect of this is that someone who has been paid the allowance for the whole of his working life or for many years will lose that allowance at the age of 65. I am aware that this same criticism could be made of other allowances which are paid by the Department. I simply ask whether our assumption here is correct that allowances like the mobility allowances should come automatically to an end on retirement. Does this not accentuate the break from a working life that is already marked by retirement? This matter may be of particular importance to the disabled.

I shall be interested to know what the Government's thinking is on that point and the previous two points.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

We were warned on a previous occasion to look very closely at money resolutions. No matter how hard we tried to table amendments to an earlier Bill, we were defeated by the money resolution. I had hoped that the Treasury would have learned its lesson by now, but apparently it has not.

I find it very sad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should have to speak on this money resolution which I consider to be obscene. We are being treated as nothing but Lobby fodder today. I tabled seven reasonable amendments. Those seven reasonable amendments have come from a wide variety of organisations: the Disablement Income Group, Action Research Ltd., the Central Council for the Disabled, the Disability Alliance and the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children. Those organisations have provided me with information which has enabled me to table these amendments.

A substantial number of disabled persons have given hon. Members on both sides of the House information which is crucial to the debate. A substantial number of people who are professionally involved with disabled persons have also provided information.

This money resolution absolutely forbids us to table amendments which could be discussed. Through the courtesy of the usual channels, I have been told on good authority that out of my seven good amendments and the one amendment from the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) only two will stand precisely because of the terms in which this money resolution is drafted.

Are we to be told that the Treasury knows more about disabled people than hon. Members on both sides of this House? Does the Treasury know more than the voluntary organisations? Does it know more than disabled persons themselves? Does it know more than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench? The answer is "No". It is high time back benchers told the Treasury "You will not hem us in. You will not prevent us from discussing these matters. You are not the final arbiter. You are our servant, and not our master." Let this be the last time that the Treasury tells us how we shall table our amendments.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)

I rise briefly to endorse the very forceful plea made by the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones). This is not the first time that this House has been treated in a most disgraceful way. Legislation is brought before the House in a "take it or leave it" attitude. We are not able to amend or improve it; we can only accept it or reject it absolutely. I reinforce what the hon. Member for Eccles said, and I hope that this is the last time that the Department of Health and Social Security takes its instructions from the Treasury in the way that it has done in the past year.

4.19 p.m.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

I also rise to support the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones). It is well known already to those of us who happen to use motor cars just how much the cost has gone up, but when we consider the difference in the cost of motoring between last September, when the announcement was made of the mobility allowance, and now we find that it means an increase of 31½ per cent.

Because of the money resolution, we cannot discuss those amendments which would seek to provide just the ability to have some mobility and alleviate the specific problems of some groups excluded by the Bill.

I hope that, as on previous occasions, both sides of the House will unite, and will do so again if the Treasury should ever try it again, in saying "We have had enough. It is this House, not civil servants, that is here to legislate."

4.20 p.m.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I endorse the strong protests from both sides of the House about the limitation imposed by the money resolution. Many of us involved in consultations and work with representatives of bodies for the disabled outside the House feel very strongly that on such an important matter as the new mobility allowance we should be able to table amendments and raise important aspects of the allowance and its place in the whole range of disability allowances.

In the Whitsun Adjournment debate I raised the matter of invalid tricycles. The Minister who replied did not have time to deal with the specific points on the commutation of disability allowances, allowing people to receive in a lump sum, say, four or five years' allowance to purchase a vehicle, something which is very important to people these days. I sought to raise the matter in an amendment, which has been found to be outside the money resolution.

I add my voice most strongly to the criticism of the Department for bringing forward this measure with such a serious limitation on the money resolution, not allowing any hon. Member to raise these important matters.

4.22 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

I join in what hon. Members have said about the terms of the money resolution, and particularly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) said. It is intolerable that the Treasury not only should dictate the total amount of money to be spent, something which may be acceptable, but should seek to dictate by the terms of the money resolution the exact way in which money is to be spent by including the words suffering from physical disablement such that they are either unable to walk or virtually unable to do so". That is the very essence of what most of us would have wished to discuss in connection with the new clause.

If the Treasury have to lay down a maximum total sum, that is fair enough, but to tell us exactly how the money is to be spent, and the exact rate of the allowance, is to remove from the House the opportunity to discuss matters of vital concern to the disabled and hon. Members. Those are the issues we came here to talk about, and we are precluded from doing so by the money resolution.

I sincerely trust that this situation will not occur again.

4.23 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

The hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) spoke the greatest truth so far this afternoon when he said that this is not the first time the House has laboured to do its work under a money resolution defining the parameters of possible policy. This is the continuing practice of all Govern- ments. If hon. Members will pause and be slightly adult in their response—[Interruption.] I include everybody, and I shall answer my hon. Friends.

I say very advisedly, without rancour, that we must be adult in our behaviour in social and economic policy today, and not merely consider that government or democracy or the representation of the people consists of a different group coming to the House every afternoon to demand limitless expenditure on their particular subject which is before the House that day. Art entirely different group of hon. Members might be meeting tomorrow, next Monday or all the days of next week demanding to know whether they do not know better than the Treasury about this or that group in our society, and then walk out, having no responsibility to do the sums, the adding up, which is the job of the Government and the Treasury.

Parliament has to do all the adding up, and half the Parliament that is trying to do the spending one day will be defeated a short while afterwards when it comes to paying for it. I say to my hon. Friends that the Government must do both sets of sums—not only the spending adding up, but the paying adding up. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) would be leading his troops into the Lobby in defiance of the Government when it came to paying for the extra expenditure he claims this afternoon the right to demand.

Successive Governments have produced restrictive money resolutions—and for obvious reasons. One of the most poignant examples that I have in mind concerns the Pensioners Payments and National Insurance Contributions Act 1972, which introduced the Christmas bonus. The money resolution was drawn so tightly that it was impossible to extend the lump sum payment to any group in our society, however deserving, including the disabled, unless they were pensioners. That was done because the Conservative Government of the day decided that that was all that the economy could manage at the time. We opposed them on that.

When we came into office we had to do our sums, including the sums about paying for an extension. Having done so, we legislated to extend the Christmas bonus to the groups that the Conservatives had left out. That is how it must be done.

We have been criticised for the increased taxation that we have introduced to carry out the policies in which we believe enough to be prepared to pay for them. I do not mind hon. Members criticising us—

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

Whilst hon. Members on both sides of the House accept that the Treasury must retain the final decision on how the money should be spent, what they find offensive is that the Treasury has prevented hon. Members from redistributing the amount in ways which they think would better help the disabled.

Mrs. Castle

Detailed points have been raised with which my hon. Friend the Minister for the disabled will be dealing in the later debate.

The Government had to do their calculations with great anxiety at a time of acute economic difficulty, and we had to slot the allowance into a whole range of our proposals for social reform, many concerning the disabled, but others providing, for example, family allowance increases and improved pensions—a whole series of advances that we wanted to make.

I deeply regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) should, by his intemperate language, have obscured what is represented here as a remarkable advance in policy for the disabled. To say that it is obscene does the cause of the disabled no good. Of course, my hon. Friend has received amendments from seven pressure groups. Those pressure groups would not be earning their living if they were not always pushing at the door. That is what they are in business for. They have had great successes, which have been reflected already in this Government's policy.

Mr. Norman Fowler

The right hon. Lady keeps on referring in a rather derogatory way to pressure groups outside the House. It is a democratic function of those pressure groups to seek to persuade hon. Members, and it is then up to hon. Members to make up their own minds. One of the Opposition's objections to the procedure the right hon. Lady is now adopting is that we have not had time to assess what the pressure groups are saying, and the pressure groups have not had tim eto assess their own case.

Mrs. Castle

I do not accept that. We shall later come to detailed discussions on the lengthy new proposals that we are introducing. My hon. Friend the Minister for the disabled, who is in more continuous and intimate contact with these pressure groups—I do not use the term in any derogatory sense in speaking of these representative groups of the disabled—will be able to demonstrate to the House that their views have been fully sought and fully taken into account, but in the end it all adds up to money.

Mr. Carter-Jones

May I make perfectly clear to my right hon. Friend that I used the term "obscene" not about the mobility allowance, which is absolutely wonderful. I am delighted with it and very pleased that it has come in. Some of us have fought for it for a long time. What I think is obscene is that back benchers cannot play their role in this matter. I tell my right hon. Friend, who is a very great friend of mine, that I, too, am in touch with these pressure groups, and I will tell her quite clearly that they are deeply disturbed by the way in which we have had our hands tied. They have produced for us perfectly reasonable amendments to which they give priority and which, if adopted, would be most helpful to disabled people. But we can do nothing about it.

Mrs. Castle

I appreciate my hon. Friend's work in this connection, and he is right to criticise and attack the motion if he wishes, but what he must accept is that every one of the proposals that he wants to make has expenditure implications that would alter the whole financial ambit within which we have proceeded to work.

My point to my hon. Friend is that this package for the disabled, for which we have legislated in a matter of 18 months—this is the fourth item of it—is an outstanding achievement in a period of outstanding national economic difficulty. Let us consider the cost of the mobility allowance alone. The cost of the present scheme for the invalid vehicle and the private car allowance is £12½ million. The extra cost, on top of the £.12½ million, when we announced the scheme was to be £15 million. Now, as a result of a 25 per cent. increase in the amount we postulated, before it has even been brought into operation that cost goes up to £19 million for a mobility allowance alone.

I remind Opposition Members that it was their Government, when they were in office, which set up the committee under Lady Sharp to examine the problems of mobility for the disabled, within such restricted terms of reference as to the financial considerations to be borne in mind that it produced a scheme which was not only highly controversial but would merely have added £3 million to the expenditure. So really it does not lie in the mouths of hon. Gentlemen or hon. Ladies opposite to complain that we are merely spending £19 million and restricting the money resolution in such a way that they cannot go ahead and make it £25 million or even £50 million. We would all love to do it, but I repeat that it is not the job of the Opposition to find the money to pay for their ideas.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Would my right hon. Friend accept that many of us understand the difficulties of the Government in the present economic circumstances, and that the amount to be spent on the mobility allowance may have to be limited to £19 million, though many of us would like it to be more? What we do not accept is that it should be determined outside the scope of this House whether that £19 million is to be spent at the rate of £5 a week for those totally unable to walk, or whether it might be preferable to consider giving it at a slightly lower level and making the catchment area wider. What has happened is that that discussion is wholly ruled out of order, and hon. Members legitimately and rightly resent and object to the exclusion of their entitlement to discuss, within the parameter of the expenditure the Government allow, the way in which the money is to be spent.

Mrs. Castle

What my hon. Friend is saying, with immense plausibility—I can see that he has a point—is that one might be able to distribute the money differently, but drawing the money resolution differently would not prevent this House from using its freedom of action actually to increase the amount. We cannot have a situation in which the Government are called upon time and time again by the Opposition to take a tighter control of public expenditure and then asked to introduce an open-ended money resolu- tion which would enable the whole of the Government's budgeting to be blown out of the water. I say advisedly to my hon. Friend that that has happened, and he knows quite well that it can happen. When it happens, the extra money simply has to be taken from somewhere else. That is why there must inevitably be a responsibility upon the Department concerned to try to balance the different considerations for the different sections of society that we are trying to help.

I repeat that it should be taken into account that the Government, in their period of 18 months in office, have already legislated for the non-contributory invalidity pension, which is coming into operation in November this year. They have legislated for the invalid care allowance to help those looking after disabled relatives. That is to come into operation in the next financial year. They have introduced the pocket-money pension for the patients in mental hospitals. That is coming into operation in November of this year. Now we bring a fourth item before the House, the mobility allowance, which will come into operation on 1st January 1976. Like the attendance allowance, it is to be phased in over three years. It will extend the benefit of mobility to about 150,000 people.

It should be realised again that this is all in addition to a 50 per cent. increase in pensions and invalidity benefit so far introduced by this Government since they came into office—an increase that will go up to 72 per cent. with the further uprating already announced for November of this year. This very Bill meets one of the very clamant demands over the years of the pressure group, with which my hon. Friend and I have both been associated—the Disablement Income Group. We have met its outstanding demand that the disabled should be covered by earnings-related benefit. The Conservative Government, when they were in office, refused to do that in their 1973 Social Security Bill when some of us moved amendments.

We do not pretend that we have gone the whole way, but we have, in this remarkably short period, proceeded to advance over the field in which these groups are rightly interested. Nobody is more interested in it than my hon. Friend the Minister for the disabled. This is the answer to the points raised in the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. Yes, it is a restrictive money resolution, and it has to be. We have spent to the limit. It is as simple as that.

I repeat to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) that if there were a way of drafting a money resolution that allowed the same amount of money to be jigged around without increasing the total, that would be a very different question. We listen, of course, to hon. Members' views, and take them into account. If there were adjustments compatible with the financial total, we would consider them in the light of the debate, but it must be within the overall total of expenditure. That will be the restraint upon any responsible Government at the present time.

I repeat that the 25 per cent. increase is remarkable. It is the first uprating of a benefit that has ever taken place, to my knowledge, before it has been introduced. This is an earnest of the Government's recognition that this will not, of course, meet all the motoring costs of everybody. After all, those motoring costs vary according to the mileage, according to the method of transport, and the rest of it. This is intended to be a contribution to mobility, whether it be through helping people to run their own cars or groups of people coming together to share taxis or hire coaches to go on day trips. It is supposed to be a contribution to mobility for about 100,000 people who up to now have been denied it because they have been too disabled even to drive.

As for the last point, I put this to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. It is true that the money resolution restricts us to groups up to pensionable age. It is a three-year phasing point. It is our programme for the lifetime of this Parliament. It is not the programme until the end of time. We had to take certain priority categories, so we took the two groups—those of working age and then the children over five. Those were our priorities. They are all that we can accommodate within the public expenditure forecasts as far as we can foresee them for the lifetime of this Government.

It does not mean that we believe that these mobility allowances or other grants should end on retirement. That is the last thing that I am saying today. I am saying merely that I think that we have established certain new principles in help for the disabled, and I know that the disabled recognise this. We have allocated millions of pounds of additional help to them in the lifetime of this Government. We have made a massive breakthrough, and we have kept faith even more fully than our election manifesto specified it. It is for that reason that the Government have to defend their achievements by defending the country's economy through the sort of money resolution that we have had to table.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to provide for relating the rates of social security retirement pensions and certain other benefits to the earnings on which contributions have been paid and to make other amendments in the law relating to social security and to occupational pensions, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of a mobility allowance, under Chapter II of Part II of the Social Security Act 1975, to and in respect of persons under pensionable age (within the meaning of that Act) and suffering from physical disablement such that they are either unable to walk or virtually unable to do so; the rate of the allowance to be £5 a week.