HC Deb 23 July 1976 vol 915 cc2229-42
The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. David Ennals)

With permission, I should like to make a statement, with which my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales wish to be associated, about the invalid vehicle service and mobility allowance.

In September 1974, my predecessor announced the provision of a mobility allowance as an alternative to the invalid tricycle which could reach the very large number of disabled people who cannot drive. The mobility allowance is now available to all those in the age groups 15 to 50, and since 1st January the vast majority of claimants have chosen the mobility allowance in preference to the trike. Disabled people are deciding for themselves that cash is the best way of meeting their needs for mobility.

In a written reply to a parliamentary Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) today, my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for the disabled is announcing the first-stage arrangements for phasing children into the mobility allowance scheme.

When my predecessor announced her mobility policy there was no reason to believe that the trike would not be available for issue as long as could be seen ahead. We have always ensured that the vehicle meets the relevant Construction and Use Regulations of the Department of the Environment. In their concern about the accident statistics of this vehicle, the Government have published a great deal of information about the safety of the tricycle. The Government also initiated an official study of tricycle maintenance, the report of which has today been placed in the Libraries of the House and of another place.

It reveals a disturbing situation. Two firms which are shown to have a very poor record of maintenance have been removed from the list of approved repairers. A third firm has been given a strong warning. The Government have decided further that the tricycle should no longer be exempted from MoT tests. But there is a decisive new factor. The progress of international standards in this field now makes it most probable that before long the limits of the present design of the tricycle will have been reached. Thus in the longer term the trike cannot form part of our mobility help for disabled people.

Therefore, I have decided that from now on the tricycle should not be issued to new claimants and that it should be phased out over a period of about five years. After the present annual contracts with the two firms of tricycle manufacturers are completed in March 1977, we shall be placing one last order. We shall be discussing the details of this with the manufacturers as soon as possible. Existing tricycle holders will of course be able to keep their vehicles until they wear out; they will also be able to have them replaced, when they wear out, for so long as spare parts and replacements are still available.

We intend to provide that anyone under pension age who holds a tricycle issued under the old vehicle scheme should be able to switch to a mobility allowance. We shall be bringing before the House amending legislation to enable mobility allowances awarded to beneficiaries under the old scheme to continue in payment without age limit. In addition, the proposed legislation would enable tricycle holders already over pension age and those receiving a private car allowance under the old scheme to be able to switch to a mobility allowance. This is simply a transitional concession to ensure that tricycle holders do not lose because of the age limit under the mobility scheme.

We plan to complete the take-on for the mobility allowance during 1979 and the phasing will be such that the proposals I have just announced will not incur any net additional public expenditure.

There is a statutory obligation to consider, in 1976–77 and in each subsequent tax year, whether the mobility allowance should be increased, having regard to the national economic situation as a whole, the general standard of living and any other relevant factors. My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State told the House on 7th April that, as the allowance was introduced last January at a 25 per cent. higher level than the £4 originally announced, it will not be increased in the impending uprating of benefits in November. At the next review, however, we shall certainly aim to restore and, if possible, improve its value.

Existing rights to cars, whether for war pensioners or others, will not be affected. Indeed, I am glad to be able to announce an extension in these rights. My hon. Friend promised to consider sympathetically the type of case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller). In future, a disabled mother will no longer have her car withdrawn when her child reaches the age of 14 if this child is mentally or physically handicapped so as to need extensive parental care beyond that age.

Further, where a beneficiary has been awarded a vehicle or private car allowance because he needed it for employment purposes, and he ceases to be employed, we shall not in future withdraw either the vehicle or the private car allowance, or the mobility allowance where it replaces one of these.

My Department and the Scottish and Welsh Offices will be taking all the necessary steps to explain the changes and their effect to individual disabled people and will keep in close touch with the Central Council for the Disabled and the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

Is the Minister aware that we recognise that this is an extremely difficult area of policy, particularly at a time of public expenditure constraints? Does he realise that we believe it right in the longer term but in the great majority of cases cash rather than hardware should be the form of aid given to the disabled in terms of mobility considerations?

May I put four specific questions to the Minister on his statement? Will he tell the House whether the Department now regards the trike as safe or not, or is it just that EEC standards are higher than those which his Department is prepared to accept? Secondly, since the value of the mobility allowance after tax is less than half the cost of providing the tricycle, will he now give an idea of the size of the 1977 uprating? Does he realise that if the mobility allowance after tax is much less than the value of the tricycle, his statement will mean that a substantial number of disabled people can only look forward to being without any form of mobility because they will not be able to afford a car?

Thirdly, will he explain a little more fully the arrangements announced for extending mobility allowances beyond retirement to those who have trikes while denying the allowance to those who do not possess them, even though entitled to do so? Is that the position and, if so, does it not draw an invidious distinction?

Fourthly, is it not clear that as a result of the phasing out of trikes there will be a substantially increased demand for converted cars? What steps is the Department taking to try to secure with the manufacturers a suitable design of a four-wheeler so that there will be a proper vehicle for those who wish to have them? Will he say something about the GKN Sankey design which was brought to the attention of the House a few weeks ago?

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's introductory comments. It is a difficult and complex problem to meet so many different needs of the disabled. I feel proud that a Labour Government in a short period of time have introduced not only a mobility allowance but a non-contributory invalidity pension and also an invalid care allowance. This is one new method of helping disabled people with their problems. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that cash rather than hardware should be the approach. That does not mean that those with entitlement to cars will in any way be affected by anything I have said today.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the trike is safe. We must recognise that facts have already been made public showing that trike drivers are three times as much at risk of injury in any one year as car drivers in general and that in covering fewer miles the risk per mile is seven times greater. That is one consideration. The report of the Department of the Environment on the subject of the maintenance of these vehicles discloses disturbing information, but it is important to recognise that many trike drivers have driven these vehicles for many years and with that experience are extremely safe drivers. Evidence shows that most of the safety problems occur in respect of those who are fairly new to the driving of such vehicles. That is an important matter to recognise.

Secondly, I was asked about the value of the mobility allowance. I cannot at this stage give figures of the uprating, which will occur substantially more than a year from now. I have to bear in mind the statutory obligations, the economic situation, the change in the value of money and other factors. It would be unwise now to announce what will be the rate of the mobility allowance, but it will show an improvement in terms of real value. Again, that is an important matter to recognise.

Thirdly, as for the eligibility of those beyond pension age, I have already announced that those who already have trikes and who will be allowed to continue with them after pension age must be allowed to continue with the alternative, which is mobility allowance, after pension age. Obviously this will produce pressure for the provision to be extended to those who do not have trikes but who have a mobility allowance that ends at pensionable age. I shall have to resist that proposal because of the many pressures on public expenditure at present.

The last question concerned specialised vehicles. We shall have to look into the future. I cannot make any statement at this stage about the efficacy of four-wheelers, let alone other vehicles. This is a matter which I shall continue to discuss with the Central Council for the Disabled, which has been extremely helpful in this context.

Mr. David Steel

Is the Minister aware that there will be some sympathy with him in having to make this statement because he has inherited a very long history of ministerial and departmental evasion on the use of these trikes and the problem of mobility facilities for disabled people. Does he now accept that the cost argument has been false because the cost of running these trikes is often higher than the cost of running a conventional car, particularly in constituencies such as mine, which are a long way from service centres?

Would it not be more honest to say that the disabled are among the victims of the expenditure cuts since the mobility allowance, however uprated, so long as it is in the present region is no substitute for the supply of a vehicle? Is that not a stark fact? Is not the trouble that he is unwilling to face up to Lardy Sharp's recommendation about the need to assess the individual needs of the disabled and the varying demands of different disabled people?

Will the right hon. Gentleman enlarge on his last reply? Is the Department promoting the design of a new and adequate vehicle to replace the trike?

Mr. Ennals

The hon. Gentleman has asked me a large number of questions. It is sheer nonsense to talk about an evasion of responsibility by the Labour Government. That Government have shown a great sense of responsibility.

Mr. David Steel

There is a long history.

Mr. Ennals

Yes, there is a long history, but that does not include the two-and-a-half years in which the Labour Government have probaby done more about safety matters than have any other Government. We introduced an examination to be carried out by the Department of the Environment simply because we wanted everybody to know the situation. We have now published that material in a document that contains some disturbing information.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the cost of running trikes. Despite the hon. Gentleman's remarks, it is interesting to note that the vast majority of people who had an entitlement to trikes in recent times since the introduction of the mobility allowance have opted for a mobility allowance at the amount offered. Therefore, the public have proved the hon. Gentleman to be incorrect. Disabled people, including those with driving difficulties, have benefited enormously from the efforts of the present Government. There are at present roughly 100,000 people who will be eligible for the mobility allowance.

Mr. Pavitt

May I assure my right hon. Friend that Labour Members are well aware of what has been done by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State with his responsibilities for disabled people? May I stress that, despite public expenditure problems, no economic barriers should be erected in this area of responsibility. In respect of all the peripheral problems of mobility for the disabled I urge my right hon. Friend to press on with the advances, an outline of which he has announced today. I also urge him to take note of the Early-Day Motion which has attracted more than 100 signatures, including one from the Opposition Benches, in respect of mobility in terms of the blind. It is disgraceful that the blind are excluded from mobility assistance because, of course, even though they cannot use trikes or cars for themselves, they still need to get about.

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) for his tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibilities for the disabled. The disabled people of this country, including those about whom we have been talking this morning, are greatly indebted to my hon. Friend for his absolute determination to look after their interests and to press his bosses—successive Secretaries of State—to fulfil their responsibilities. Long may he continue in that rôle. In spite of our public expenditure problems we shall give priority to the disabled. It was interesting that in the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor yesterday he announced that in spite of current difficulties we would be ensuring an up-rating of the mobility allowance next year.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has answered a parliamentary Question today about the phasing of the next group into mobility allowance. I am certain that many people would sympathise with the point put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South concerning blind people. Blindness can be a contributory factor in ensuring an entitlement to the mobility allowance. Of itself, it is not adequate and I am afraid, much though people would like us to do so, that at this time of public expenditure constraint we cannot alter the situation. It is important that we should ensure that those who are entitled to benefit receive it and that we deal with this issue as sympathetically as we can. Inevitably we shall have to postpone further action that would make deep inroads into public expenditure.

Mr. Boscawen

Will the right hon. Gentleman ignore the ignorant remarks of the Leader of the Liberal Party? Does he agree that it is impossible to please everyone on this subject? Does he realise that I believe that he is doing the right thing? Both major parties have contributed a great deal to this difficult problem. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be many gaps in the policy which he has announced, one of which will concern the 16-year-olds who are unable to drive a four-wheeler and who will not in future have a three-wheeled vehicle? Somehow those gaps have to be filled. Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that there will be a good deal of pressure from those who reach retirement age and have their mobility allowance taken from them? Many other difficulties will arise. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that I believe that he is doing the right thing by allowing those who wish to keep the trike to do so?

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As he said, this is not a party issue. I much regret the remarks made by the Leader of the Liberal Party. It is impossible to please everyone and I appreciate the comments of the hon. Gentleman, who feels that we have done the right thing. I would like to make one thing clear. Given the preference of new claimants for the mobility allowance, we expect to be able to maintain the supply of trikes, for those who want to keep them, for at least five years and possibly a good deal longer. We shall be improving the maintenance arrangements.

We cannot predict how many people might still want a specialised vehicle at the end of that period. The mobility allowance will be available to them and some will qualify for help under the fares-to-work scheme. When the time approaches we shall assess the extent of the need for specialised vehicles for the remaining vehicle scheme beneficiaries and see which alternative vehicles, and electrically powered wheelchairs, are available on the home and world markets.

Mrs. Millie Miller

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great pleasure that his announcement will give, not only to the general body of the disabled but to the specific classes that he has mentioned as additionally coming within the scheme, in particular my constituent on whose behalf I spoke in an Adjournment debate not many months ago? May I express my thanks to my right hon. Friend for his announcement and also to the Minister with responsibilities for the disabled who I know has been fighting behind the scenes ever since this matter was first drawn to his attention—and to you, Mr. Speaker, for granting me the Adjournment debate?

In saying that cash and not hardware should be his motto, my right hon. Friend will, I hope, bear in mind that if people are receiving supplementary benefit allowances they are unlikely to have the cash to make use of the mobility allowance. This is a factor which should be borne carefully in mind.

While I deeply welcome the fact that a mother who is disabled and has sole care of a mentally or physically disabled child will be eligible for the four-wheeled vehicle, may I ask my right hon. Friend to make clear what will happen to those people using trikes and who will still need one after the present stocks have been exhausted? Is my right hon. Friend aware that if he does not make this situation clear it will seem that there is to be a serious gap in the provision?

Mr. Ennals

Although my hon. Friend has thanked me and my hon. Friend, I want to thank her because this is a prime example of the way in which a Member of Parliament, by seizing on a human situation, pressing it forward, and badgering the Minister concerned, can achieve something. This may not affect hundreds of thousands of people but it will do a very great deal. I would not have made this announcement today had it not been for the pressure applied by my hon. Friend. I am genuinely grateful to her.

She has referred to the mobility allowance and the effect on supplementary benefit recipients. One of the reasons why the mobility allowance is taxable is to ensure that its maximum benefit goes to those who are in the greatest need. My hon. Friend also asks me about the future for those who own trikes. I draw her attention to my reply to the hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen).

Mr. Powell

Can it be assumed that the same arrangements as usual apply precisely to Northern Ireland and, if so, why was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland not expressly associated with the statement? Generally, as one who had to administer the old dispensation 15 years ago, may I say that the concept of mobility aid as an appliance under the National Health Service was always doomed to be unsatisfactory and that the substitution of what the right hon. Gentleman calls cash for hardware will gradually enable the majority, though inevitably not all, of the anomalies to be eliminated?

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great experience as a former Minister who held these responsibilities. His conclusions are, therefore, doubly important. I can assure him that the statement which I have made applies in full to Northern Ireland. I was speaking on behalf of the entirety of Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. Urwin

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement is a further indication of the care which the Government have displayed for the problems of the disadvantaged and the disabled and that, contrary to what the Leader of the Liberal Party has said, the Government have done more to assist the disabled than have any previous Government? Does he accept that the appointment of a Minister with responsibilities for the disabled was an inspiration and has been proved to be such over the past two and a half years? Can my right hon. Friend say how favourably or otherwise we compare, in a comprehensive sense, with members of the European Economic Community in our attitude towards disabled people?

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. With no sense of modesty I say that I was one of the first to argue publicly, some years ago, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) should, when returned to power, appoint a Minister with responsibilities for the disabled. I know exactly whom I had in mind. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend for making this appointment when he became Prime Minister again.

It is true that we have not always led Europe by any means in terms of provision for the disabled. Now we have forms of assistance which are more sensitive and selective and which try to meet the variations of human need better than almost any other country in the EEC. We have had to do—and we have done—a lot of catching up in the past two and a half years. That is why I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments.

Sir John Hall

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the action he is now taking to deal with this very complex problem. Is he aware that many people are taking mobility allowance rather than the trike because of the trike's great unpopularity? When the new mobility allowance is announced next year, is it likely to bear any real relation to the cost of providing personal transport?

Mr. Ennals

I am afraid that I cannot anticipate what the level of the mobility allowance will be when I fulfil my statutory obligation to review it. The House will simply have to wait for my statement on that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the unpopularity of the trike. It is true that the majority of those who have the trike would have preferred a four-wheeled vehicle. That would have caused enormous problems. But there are some disabled for whom, by reason of their disability, the trike has proved much more suitable than a four-wheeled vehicle. This is why, in announcing my decision to phase out the trikes and not in future to award trikes, I have gone as far as I can to ensure over many years forward that those at present driving trikes will have their needs met.

Mr. Woodall

As a former miner and one representing the mining community, which perhaps has more than its fair share of disabled, I ask my right hon. Friend to accept from me that his statement will be widely welcomed, both in the mining areas and in the country generally, particularly in the light of the economic stringency which the country is facing.

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not think that I have ever made a statement which has been so warmly welcomed.

Mr. Rathbone

May I add my voice to the welcome but press the right hon. Gentleman on the question of cash versus mechanics on two scores? First, there is to some degree a bias against the poorest in switching from a vehicle, of whatever sort, to a mobility allowance. Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman detect in many of the questions a general concern that not enough vigour and impetus will be behind the search for another vehicle to take the place of the tricycle, because there will always be cases in which a vehicle will be preferable for the recipient?

Mr. Ennals

I indicated earlier that I would be carrying out research to see which alternative vehicles and electric-powered wheelchairs might be available on the home and world markets to meet a situation which may arise some years from now. I positively do not agree that the mobility allowance produces any bias against the poorest. As I have said, the fact that it is a taxable allowance means that it brings the maximum benefit to those who are poorest. In that way, it enables us to give as large an allowance as we can, because it is fairly distributed.

Mr. Atkinson

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that it is the overwhelming opinion of hon. Members that blindness should be accepted as a loco-motor disability and that the blind should be included for mobility allowance? Will he confirm that his Department accepts this proposition in principle but that it is the Treasury which is reluctant to concede the point and to include blind people in the benefit?

Mr. Ennals

I never make divisive statements as between one Department of the Government and another. We are united, and we are united in wanting to do more than at present if it is possible to do. My hon. Friend received an Answer on 6th July which outlined some of the additional assistance available to blind people. I understand the wish of blind people to be involved in the mobility allowance. I have had representations about it in my constituency. But that matter will have to be for the future and cannot be dealt with in this statement.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether any progress is being made in developing a design and producing a vehicle which would be acceptable in all the EEC countries so that we could get the benefit of larger-scale production?

Mr. Ennals

To the best of my knowledge, there are no three-wheelers available in the markets of our fellow members of the EEC which we could have taken on as a successor to the trike. But research is going on, we shall be associated with it and we shall keep closely in touch with our European partners.

Mr. Joseph Dean

I, too, welcome my righ hon. Friend's statement. Was it not a little unfortunate that the Leader of the Liberal Party was rather carping in his criticism of the resources which the Government are making available for those involved in this matter? Can my right hon. Friend indicate in global terms the resources which have been made available by the Labour Government, because this subject has a slightly political context, as compared with the resources made available by the last Conservative Government?

Mr. Ennals

I suppose that if one is Leader of the Liberal Party one has to search hard for issues on which to criticise this Government, but it is surprising that the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) chose this subject on which to do so, particularly as the Government are trebling public expenditure on mobility. This is a very important move and an enormous advance in trying to meet the many and varied needs of disabled people.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Is the right hon. Gentleman willing to go further on the question of specialised transport for the disabled who need it? Is he aware that it is not sufficient to point out the large number of people who would have trikes available but who choose mobility allowance, and those who choose, for their own good reasons, not to switch from trikes? Will the right hon. Gentleman not go more deeply into the suggestion for developing specialised transport which would be suitable both in this country and abroad, and also ensure that it is not just on three wheels but on four, since most of us feel that a three-wheeled vehicle is out of date?

Mr. Ennals

I do not think that I can add to my reply to the hon. Member for Wells.

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