§ 3.49 a.m.
§ Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)
I want to raise the subject of the withdrawal of three-wheeler vehicles from disabled people. This action has caused widespread concern not only among those who use the vehicles and who are faced with their withdrawal but among a large number of members of the public who have come to realise the great extent to which disabled people depend upon these three wheelers for getting to work and for other essential uses.
We lack readily understandable information about the Government's intentions in regard to those who face the eventual withdrawal of their personal transport and those who expected to qualify for a three-wheeler and to use it to get to work and be independent. Those in the latter category—those who have not yet had a three-wheeler or, indeed, a vehicle of any sort because they have not reached the age when they could qualify for one—will never even start to have an independent life unless the Government decide to retain the trikes on the old basis or phase in a successor.
Those disabled who have already built up an independent life take the view that the Government are taking away their means of livelihood. Many disabled people have been able to do useful jobs 1165 because they have had a trike that has enabled them to get to work and participate in community life near their home.
The cash mobility allowance is welcome. It will help a wide range of people who are unable to drive. I do not think that everybody realises the difficulties that disabled people face and the extras that they need to enable them to cope. They have to face not just the ordinary cost of living, with which we all have to cope, but their own special needs. Many must have additional heating apparatus. They may be immobile, and unable to get round the home. They may need special heating apparatus—central heating, for example—whereas others who are more mobile may be able to manage with a cheaper type of heating appliance. Their disability may demand a greater safety factor than is required for those who are not disabled.
Some disabled need more expensive domestic appliances. An automatic washing machine may be a boon to many households. It is an absolute necessity to someone who cannot do the washing any other way. The disabled need additional storage space for their wheelchair and the special kitchen fitments that make life easier.
Many disabled people can rely on neighbours and good friends to help them with such heavy jobs as gardening, window cleaning, hedge clipping, and coping with electrical and other household repairs. However, many disabled people who live in isolated places or who do not have close friends living nearby have to pay someone to do these tasks, or the jobs just do not get done.
The cost of living, as the Government have recognised in providing the mobility allowance, is generally higher for the disabled. They cannot shop around for cheap cuts of meat or go from supermarket to supermarket looking for the best buy. They cannot indulge in the luxury of shopping around. Although convenience foods are rather more expensive than other foods, the disabled often have to resort to them and this adds to their cost of living.
In perhaps 1,000 other ways life for the disabled is much harder to cope with than for the able bodied, so the mobility allowance, small though it is is greatly welcomed by all, and is well spent. We know that it is to go up soon, and we hope 1166 that the increase will be generous and substantial.
But the cost to disabled people is not only financial, and it must not be measured only in those terms. It is also a matter of human dignity, and that is why the announcement last July of the phasing out of the three-wheeler was received with such alarm and dismay. Only last week, I talked to a group of pensioners who live in Essex, near and in my constituency, and they told me that, as far as they could recall, the announcement was made on a Thursday or a Friday—approaching a weekend anyway—
§ Miss Richardson
My hon. Friend confirms that it was on a Friday—and over that weekend disabled people just did not know which way to turn. They could not understand the reasons given by the Secretary of State for phasing out the three-wheeler all of a sudden. The various organisations and others who have always looked after and helped the disabled were telephoned during that weekend by people in real panic who saw their trikes being taken from them quite soon—in some cases, of course, their fears were groundless—and who thought that in no time at all they would be prevented from working and from having the independence which they had achieved.
I hate to think what the youngsters who were expecting to get a three-wheeler must have felt when they heard about its withdrawal. For them, in many ways, it was the end of the road. At that moment they were condemned to feeling that they would be housebound for ever.
In his statement on 23rd July the Secretary of State said that the withdrawal was partly on the grounds of alarm about the maintenance of the vehicles. This is why my hon. Friends and I are raising the matter under Class XI, Vote 1, of the Supplementary Estimates. I am by no means wedded to the three-wheeler. There have been many conflicting stories and pieces of evidence about its safety. I am assured by friends who happen to be disabled that they believe the doubts about its safety to be exaggerated and that in fact it is not particularly unsafe in the way described in various journals and newspapers.
1167 The characteristic of the three-wheeler that I do not like is entirely different. It is an unsocial vehicle. I find it easy to understand the complaints of those who have always wanted to have a car, a four-wheeler, a proper saloon, in exchange for the three-wheeler. When it is the man who is disabled, he complains that he cannot take his wife out with him and that the family is split up. Indeed, I had a divorce problem on my hands in my constituency precisely because the disabled driver, who naturally wanted to use his three-wheeler whenever he could, found himself drifting further and further from his wife and away from his home. In the end, she left him, and that was most unfortunate for him. I am not blaming the three-wheeler, but if he had had a car in which the family could have shared his delight in driving about, perhaps that would not have happened.
I want a clear statement from the Minister about his intentions for the mobility of existing and future drivers. If he expects to be able to introduce a successor vehicle so that no driver will face the loss of independence, I appeal to him to say so. We all know that the adapted Mini costs less, allowing for its longer life and for depreciation, than the trike does. Moreover, a good many people forget that the provision of a vehicle, whether it be a three-wheeler or an improved successor, saves the Government money. Those who have the three-wheeler and are able to use it to follow some employment are for that very reason not in receipt of unemployment benefit and some of the other benefits that the Government provide. In one sense, therefore, by the provision of a vehicle the Government are saving money in real terms.
We hear that prototypes are being developed and are being tested. We want to know a bit more about this—not necessarily in detail—and about whether there is a viable alternative. That is what existing and future trike drivers want to know.
In the meantime, however, if my hon. Friend is able to say that the Government are seriously considering an alternative, or a series of alternatives, and fully expect to come up with something by the time the three-wheelers are due to be 1168 phased out, he should also—and I hope that the Parliamentary Labour Party insists upon it—agree to the existing trikes being made available to those who have not yet qualified or who are coming up for qualification, so that they are not deprived of vehicles.
My hon. Friend is the Minister with responsibility for the disabled, but I think that he is carrying the can for the Treasury. What we need is not a restriction on the money available for vehicles but a much greater allocation of cash to enable disabled people to be given even greater assistance and mobility. I think that, as often happens, the Treasury is at the back of this situation, despite the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services in his statement on 23rd July.
I know that financial assistance is available for travel to work through the Employment Services Agency. We have a fine leaflet which, although it is difficult to read and complicated to understand, describes how, under certain conditions and in certain circumstances—and granted that one thing and another are equal—one may be able to get some assistance to travel to work. I know, too, that there are ideas for commutation of that assistance with the mobility allowance to allow drivers to buy suitably-adapted small cars for themselves. But I beg my hon. Friend to believe that, although that will be helpful, it will only benefit a very small section.
The £5 cash mobility allowance, even if raised to £7 or a higher figure, will be able to be put towards cars only by those who are already a little better off and who do not need to use this extra money as some kind of cushion against the general increase in the cost of living. The great majority of disabled people need the £5 simply in order to cope with their general way of life.
Even more help will be needed, if there is some scheme for private purchase of a suitable car, in the form of a concession on car tax and value added tax—and a generous concession at that. That is another reason why I wish that a Treasury Minister were here, because it is the Treasury that will have to decide whether a generous concession can be made on car tax and VAT.
To get any scheme of this sort going would, I believe, require closer liaison 1169 between the Departments of Health and Social Security and Employment and the Treasury. There must be a smoothing and simplification of the form-filling that disabled people have to go through, otherwise they just will not be able to cope. I am sure that my hon. Friend, like the rest of us, has had complaints from all directions about the difficulty of claiming benefits and of the categories and complications of those benefits. They are often difficult enough for us to understand—and we deal with such things regularly—but they are almost impossible for the average severely disabled or chronic sick person to comprehend. They really are a disaster for them to look at.
One constituent came along to my advice bureau recently with all the leaflets, asking "Please help me sort out what I am entitled to. How can I claim? Do I first go to the Employment Services Agency or the DHSS? What can I do?" In addition, his copy of the mobility allowance leaflet had sections crossed out in ink because they made reference to claiming for a vehicle, which is now defunct.
Leaflet 219, issued in December 1966, on the phasing out of the invalid tricycle, makes reference to the need for a specialised vehicle when invalid tricycles are no longer replaced. It simply says that the Government have undertaken to look at what is available on home and world markets to help such people. That is a very vague sentence. It is certainly no commitment.
I hope that the Minister can turn this into a positive commitment that a successor vehicle will be available and that no gap will be left between the phasing out of the three-wheeler and the introduction of any successor. If there is no successor we on the Government Benches, together with all the disablement groups right across the spectrum, will continue to press for the maintenance of the three-wheeler in its present form.
I hope that the Government will look again at those who are now prevented from applying for their first vehicle and will keep the three-wheeler going until there is something better. The Minister has been in his job a long time and is constantly in touch with what is going on. I know that he has great compassion for disabled people. I do not need to tell 1170 him that "permanently disabled" means permanently. We should permanently provide mobility for those who wish to use it.
§ 4.7 a.m.
§ Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
I agree with every word that my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) has just said. I shall not delay the House at this late hour by repeating what my hon. Friend has said. I hope the Minister will take that as read.
My hon. Friend will know and understand that I wish to raise slightly different matters concerning the supply of vehicles for the disabled. I wish that we were debating spending a greater amount of money than we are. It is a piffling amount.
I start by referring to the Secretary of State's statement of 23rd July, 1976. I wish to draw the attention of the House to two points in that statement. First, my right hon. Friend gave examples of the reasons why the withdrawal of the trike was being announced and stated:But there is now 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."—[Official Report, 23rd July, 1976; Vol. 915, c. 2230.]As it stands that is not very explanatory. At the conclusion of his statement my right hon. Friend was asked a question by the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin). At the beginning of that question the right hon. Gentleman used the wordsWill he tell the House whether the Department now regards the trike as safe or not, or is it just the EEC standards are higher than those which his Department is prepared to accept?"—[Official Report, 23rd July, 1976 Vol. 915, c. 2232.]The right hon. Gentleman asked several more questions. My right hon. Friend took about two columns to reply, but failed to mention or refer to the right hon. Gentleman's remark about EEC standards. To those of us who are not experts in this matter, on reading the statement—clearly many of us were not present that Friday, having had no notice that the statement was being made—the implication of the question was that the trike would fail to meet the EEC standards and international requirements.
1171 For many months, that has been the position. It is one that I have not looked into in great detail—that is, until I was prompted to do so recently by the answer to a parliamentary Question.
However, before coming to that, I want to refer to three or four publications emanating from my right hon. and hon. Friends since the decision to phase out the trike was made, which again give that impression. Although it has been unintentional, the impression which has got about both inside and outside this House is that one of the reasons why the trike is being phased out is that it fails to meet international design standards which this country is required to meet.
The first one is the letter from the Secretary of State in December 1976 to all trike drivers. In fact, it went out to about 30,000 people, because it was also sent to those who use four-wheeled cars. In that letter, my right hon. Friend said that the trike…cannot meet all the design requirements of the future—requirements which will apply to new cars generally, not just to invalid tricycles.The second statement to which I draw attention was by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. It was a very brief, simplistic statement, issued by him through the Whips' Office so that hon. Members might be able to reply to their constituents' inquiries. Nevertheless, it was a statement by a Minister, and it contained the following sentence:The reason why the tricycle cannot form part of our mobility policy in the longer term is that the vehicle will not, for very much longer, conform with international design standards to which Britain must subscribe.The third statement to which I draw attention is DHSS leaflet No. NI. 219 issued in December 1976, called "Phasing out the Invalid Tricycle". On page 2, the first paragraph reads:Nor can the trike go on meeting higher international standards of vehicle design.The last statement to which I draw attention is contained in a document entitled "A Memorandum on the Government's Mobility Policy for Disabled People". When an hon. Member makes representations to the Secretary of State on behalf of his constituents, this docu- 1172 ment usually accompanies the first letter that he receives from the Department. In the second paragraph, it says that the trikecannot meet all the design requirements of the future. These design requirements will apply to new cars generally, not just to invalid tricycles.It took me until February of this year—after receiving representations from my constituents and meeting many drivers of the trike who were upset about the decision to withdraw it and who did not understand all the reasons behind the decision to withdraw it but look upon hon. Members as being expert in these matters—to ask myself whether I could not discover more information, and what were the real reasons.
On 9th February, I tabled a Written Question to my hon. Friend asking him whether he would publish the international design standards that the Department's tricycle would not meet and would specify the legislation that required Her Majesty's Government to subscribe to the standards.
Two crucial factors are to have the design requirements itemised and to have specified the legislation that requires the Government to insist that the design requirements should be met. In a fairly lengthy reply, my hon. Friend pointed out that the design requirements concerned interior fittings and external projections. These will be demanded from 1st October 1978, under a Statutory Instrument. No reference to the instrument was given, but it was entitledMotor Vehicles (Type Approvals) (Great Britain) Regulations".Reference was then made to EEC requirements on dual circuit brakes. There was an important sentence in the answer. which readHer Majesty's Government do not deem it appropriate to supply vehicles that would not comply with the regulations applicable to the generality of private motor vehicles."—[Official Report, 9th February 1977; Vol. 925, c. 704.]That sentence was superfluous. I did not ask for that information. The Question, however, was not answered in the detail that I had hoped for. Perhaps I asked the wrong question. When I get an answer that I did not ask for and do not get the answer that I sought I get very suspicious.
1173 After receiving that answer I found in the Library Statutory Instrument No. 937 of 1976. That instrument is the law of the land. In it, Article 3 applies the instrument to vehicles with three wheels. The definition excludes motor cycles or vehicles with an engine of less than 50 cc. The Statutory Instrument contains a list of 19 design requirements, two of which I am told the trike cannot meet. On that basis alone the decision was taken to phase it out.
Requirements 18 and 19 cover internal fittings and external projections. Details are given of where to find the details of the requirement—for example, the size of the projections and the types of interior fittings. It explains that Council Directive 74/60 of 17th December 1973 covers interior fittings, and that Council Directive 74/483 of 17th September 1974 deals with external projections.
There is a reference in the Statutory Instrument to the Official Journal of the Community concerning details of these directives. The Library sorted out for me the particulars of these two directives in the Official Journal of the Community. I must explain that directives are not mandatory on this country, but that regulations are. Article 1 in each of the directives states that for the purposes of the directives vehicles are defined as having four wheels. Neither of the directives therefore actually applies to the trike. The Government not the Commission or the European Parliament have decided that they should apply to the trike.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
Order. I am reaching the stage at which I cannot see how the hon. Member's comments are related to the Vote under consideration. The Statutory Instruments on specifications have nothing to do with the Vote. I hope that the hon. Member can establish that relationship.
§ Mr. Rooker
With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I submit that it is relevant, because we are discussing the increased amount—
§ Mr. Rooker
The increased amount of expenditure on the supply and maintenance of vehicles for disabled persons.
1174 I have already said that there is not enough money in that Vote. We are discussing an increase of about £2½ million on expenditure of about £15 million a year.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
As far as I am aware, the hon. Gentleman is discussing questions of regulations to be laid down in 1978 by Statutory Instruments, and many other matters that I consider to be wholly irrelevant. What the hon. Gentleman said he is speaking to is in order, and I hope that he will stick to that.
§ Mr. Rooker
I shall be brief and to the point. I did not want to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Barking said about the great concern in the country about the decision to phase out the trike and the reasons given for the change in the supply and maintenance of vehicles for the disabled. I have taken a matter that is slightly different, drawing attention to the fact that the decisions announced by the Government are based not on external, international requirements but on the Government's own ideas. To that extent, I think that it is very relevant to draw attention to the directives concerned.
The Government have now said that they are going on to world markets to look for other vehicles. It would be a tragedy if we supplied the disabled with vehicles from abroad that we could easily build in this country. The French have produced a three-wheeled vehicle capable of carrying two people. It is not an unsociable vehicle as the existing trike provided by the Department is. Called the Addax, it has a 47 cc engine. A recent disabled drivers' bulletin suggested that if the French could produce such a vehicle perhaps the international regulations were not so tightly drawn as one would have thought.
I fear that Britain will lose its technological advantage, as in so many other cases, if we make the wrong decision and if my hon. Friend does not take hon. Members' representations on board. We are in advance of many other countries in the provision of mobility for the disabled. There is hardly a country in the world that matches the United Kingdom in the provision of vehicles or other aids, mainly because of the work of my how Friend and others.
1175 I do not want Britain to be forced to import a foreign-built three-wheeled vehicle as an emergency measure because it meets one of the criticisms of the existing trike, which is widely accepted to be unsociable because it takes only one person. The House needs to be warned. The Government have not spelt out to the disabled why they have made their decision. My hon. Friend will say that he will not be responsible for putting an unsafe vehicle on the roads, whatever the cost of building and maintaining it. I accept that. I should not want that responsibility. At the same time, it is incumbent on my hon. Friend and the Government to make it clear that the decision is based on safety requirements and not on the so-called international requirements to which this country must subscribe.
The Government's decision has caused great unrest. My hon. Friend has probably answered thousands of letters. Indeed, many members of the public write to the top. They do not go to their local Member of Parliament or to my hon. Friend or his right hon. Friend; they go to No. 10. They write to the Prime Minister.
Many people are not satisfied that the decision is a good one, bearing in mind the expenditure involved, and they are receiving replies from No. 10 giving reasons based largely on expenditure and design requirements that the Government are not prepared to meet to give extra mobility to the disabled.
1 am unhappy about one aspect of the letters going out from No. 10, which my hon. Friend has probably seen. They repeat the canard about international requirements, which is not true. At the same time, they talk about what we should do for the disabled in terms of mobility, whether it is four-wheeled cars or anything else. That aspect is important. I am not a supporter of the trike per se; I am a supporter of the status quo, on the ground that the alternative offered is worse.
The letters from the Prime Ministers Office relate to and discuss decisions taken a year ago at a conference on provision for the disabled. In fact, it was a conference on "The mobility allowance—Four-wheeled vehicle."
1176 Obviously the Government will be pressured to spend more money on mobility for the disabled. We are keen to get a mobility allowance which can be commuted so that people may spend it as they wish. We want them to be able to spend it on a four-wheeled vehicle, if they wish, in the absence of the three-wheeler.
The letters sent out by the Government say that the conference showed a clear consensus that a specialist vehicle was not required. I do not know how a consensus can be formed when one-third of the members at that conference—I have looked at the report—took the opposite view. I understand that a consensus view is one with which the majority are prepared to agree. I do not think that two-thirds is a sufficient majority.
I was concerned to find that there were no representatives of the majority of disabled motorists' organisations at the conference, but there were many commercial interests that would be only too willing to knock on my hon. Friend's door and ask for a big slice of the extra expenditure that will be voted tonight. Obviously there is a profit motive. I accept that there is also a desire to serve the disabled. But many commercial interests were represented at the conference. Therefore, the Government should not use decisions voiced at a conference specifically dealing with a four-wheeled vehicle as reasons for phasing out the three-wheeler. The two matters are quite separate. The Government have used that conference and the EEC regulations as a shield for not spelling out clearly their own reasons for getting rid of the trike.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barking said that the Government should allow those who, since 1st August last year, have not been able to get the trike to have the choice of having the trike until they have a chance of commuting their mobility allowance for a car. That is the most vulnerable area. I understand that about 1,000 people a year, because of disability, would be entitled to go for the trike. About 1,000 people a year are missing out, and a payment of £5 a week is not good enough. As a constituent of mine said, one cannot put wheels on a £5 note. Only someone who 1177 suffers the immobility of the disabled knows what that means.
The provisions to get people to work have often been used as a red herring and would not serve one of my disabled constituents, who is aged 61. The Employment Services Agency will not provide help for people over the normal retirement age. My constituent is independent. She is not a drain on the State. She pays income tax and therefore contributes. It would be a tragedy if people like her were to lose their mobility and the opportunity of remaining independent. That is important.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I thought that the point about the importance of the debate had already been settled.
§ Mr. Rooker
I was about to sit down before you intervened, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have reached my conclusion and I am grateful to you for allowing me to put my arguments, which are relevant.
§ 4.32 a.m.
§ Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)
We are considering the costs of supply, repair and maintenance of invalid tricycles.
§ Mrs. Wise
I was about to say that, in addition, we are discussing the money that has to be expended for those purposes. The supply, repair and maintenance of tricycles is proportionately expensive when compared to vehicles in general. It is proper for the House to give full consideration to whether we are receiving the best possible value for the money expended, including the additional money that we are considering today.
It is also correct to take into account the money which has been expended on the mobility allowance. I join with my hon. Friends in sincerely welcoming the important principle of extending mobility money to people who cannot drive. We all approve of this valuable extension and we give full credit for it to our hon. Friend on the Front Bench. If our subsequent remarks appear to be critical I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.
The supply, repair and maintenance of invalid tricycles is proportionately expensive because they are specialist vehicles.
1178 Their design features give rise to problems to which hon. Members have briefly referred. First, there is the problem of passenger space. In that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson).
The safety aspect of tricycles needs more careful consideration. Disabled drivers make bitter comments about the attacks on the trike, particularly those by the racing driver who took a trike on the M4 and complained that it was affected by cross-winds. My constituents have said that might be so, but their requirement is not to go on a motorway. They want to get round the local streets and town centres. If they were told that these vehicles could not be of a sufficient standard to be safe on motorways, they would accept that. Their main requirement is immediate mobility in their own towns. As I say, they feel rather bitter about that kind of measurement of safety.
They also feel rather bitter if we say, in considering the safety aspect, "These vehicles are not sufficiently safe. They cannot be made sufficiently safe. Therefore, we shall, in effect, keep you at home in greater safety". If that is the choice before disabled people—and, in a real way, that is the choice—it is a dilemma rather than a choice. It is a dilemma that disabled people themselves would solve by saying "We shall go on the roads even in an inferior vehicle."
We are considering money this morning. Despite the disproportionate cost of repair and supply of these vehicles, the money expended can nevertheless lead to great savings. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is presiding over an increase in expenditure on mobility for disabled people from £13 million to £39 million, and we welcome that. It must be said, of course, that the sum still remains too small. I know that the Minister would welcome a further increase in the amount.
However, the money being expended on these vehicles, including the additional money that we are discussing now, can and does lead to substantial savings in other directions. For example, it can make all the difference between being employed and not being employed. If a person is employed, he is a contributor to the revenue, and not simply a drawer from the revenue. It has been put to me 1179 very forcefully that disabled people can sometimes use the trike as a sort of springboard. The money that they then earn because they can take employment in the first place enables them to graduate from a trike to a more suitable vehicle for which they themselves can pay. But, as they say, if they had not had the trike in the first place, they would have been a drain on State funds. They would never have achieved the degree of mobility or usefulness as citizens that the trike has enabled them to achieve.
It must also be said that not every disabled person is capable of finding employment, especially in times of high unemployment. Nevertheless, the fact that they have personal transport can mean, for example, that they can make their hospital visits themselves instead of having to rely on the provision of ambulance services. Ambulance services are under great stress and are an expensive provision. If we can relieve the need for their use by some disabled people—who, after all, often have to make regular visits to hospitals—that is a saving.
If disabled people are enabled to use the facilities provided by local authorities in many areas, again that is a saving. It has been put to me that, because of the phasing out of the trike, the time will come when many disabled people are unable to use facilities that have been provided for them at considerable expense. That would be very wasteful. There is a further saving, inasmuch as many disabled people are able to do their own shopping instead of calling more upon the scarce and expensive services of home helps, provided by local authorities. Although we are discussing money which is being spent, we are also discussing money which leads to the saving of other money, and this is wholly worth while.
I am aware, of course, that there is a considerable time lapse before the trike is finally phased out. My hon. Friend has assured me that spares will continue to be available for several years. I welcome that assurance, and I am trying to convince my disabled constituents. They are very worried, and they feel insecure. I hope that there will be many more times when Consolidated Fund items concerning the repair and maintenance of in- 1180 valid tricycles will still appear in the Estimates. Rightly or wrongly, many disabled people feel very insecure, and I only hope that we can convince them that their fears are not well founded.
There are also people who are not covered by these Supplementary Estimates—people who would have been covered had they not qualified for the provision of a tricycle after July of last year. I have had the unpleasant task of writing to an 18-year-old constituent and explaining to him that whereas under the previous scheme he was entitled to personal transport of his own, he is not so entitled now. That was a most painful task. Saying that we have increased expenditure from £13 million to £39 million is not an adequate answer. It. is asking too much of an 18-year-old to expect him to accept that answer as adequate.
If one receives a letter from a young person who is full of eagerness to live a full and useful life, it is very difficult to tell him that he is not now entitled to a vehicle to which he would have been entitled had the scheme not been changed. We must reconsider the whole matter. I am very concerned about this because I have in my constituency one of the only two colleges of further education which are specifically and entirely for the disabled. I am acutely aware of the problems of disabled young people, and 1 know the alarm and panic they felt when the Minister made his announcement. I am afraid that the panic and alarm were well founded, because there is no denying that they will not have personal transport to which they would otherwise have been entitled.
Despite the fact that these vehicles are disproportionately expensive, and despite the fact that the Minister has to ask for Supplementary Estimates, he must consider that this is money well spent.
I also urge the Minister to reassure us about the problems of disabled mothers, who have been in a special position and are very alarmed about their position in the future.
I know that my hon. Friend is keen on cash rather than hardware, but it is hardware that we are discussing tonight. I ask him to consider whether he is right to feel that the provision of cash is necessarily and always better in principle 1181 than the provision of hardware. I believe that the provision of cash is right as a minimum safety net, because not everybody can benefit by the provision of personal transport. That is common ground between us. I am pleased that children are covered by the mobility allowance. I am pleased, too, that people who are far too disabled to be able to drive are covered by the £5 allowance. This is something that can be done with cash that cannot be done by the provision of personal hardware, and to that extent I agree with my hon. Friend. However, we have to look not only at the fact that disabled people are disabled but at the fact that they retain abilities. Our provisions in respect of mobility must be designed to make full use of every ability that every disabled person retains. This is where the provision of hardware is so important. This is where the provision of vehicles is far more significant than my hon. Friend will allow.
I suggest that it is possible to ensure that the State gets a kind of double value out of the expenditure on mobility if we tie it to some extent and for some people to the provision of vehicles. We are a vehicle-producing country, and it seems reasonable to say that some of the money which goes from the Department to disabled people should be channelled into vehicles produced by the British motor industry.
I suggest that this will happen only if the system is structured for it. I do not think that to give money and leave it at that would produce the effect that I should like to see, because it is far too diffuse. We have to structure a ready-made market for invalid vehicles. If we cease to provide the kind of invalid vehicle which is now provided, we should structure the provision of others which should be produced by British industry.
Why should we channel funds from the State direct into the car industry, as we do, when we could channel some of those funds via disabled people and on behalf of disabled people into the motor industry and at the same time ensure the provision of vehicles for them? I think that there is a real chance of getting the best possible value for the money expended by the State on mobility for disabled people if we link it directly with the provision of vehicles, and I ask my hon. Friend to look more closely at that.
1182 The representations that we are making are not just drawn from our own heads but are made because of the strong views put to us by disabled people who are anxious that such abilities as they have will continue to be fully exercised. I welcome the additional money that we are spending on the mobility allowance and in terms of this Supplementary Estimate, but I ask my hon. Friend to look earnestly at these additional points.
§ 4.49 a.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alfred Morris)
My hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Miss Richardson), Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), and Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise), have shown a clear and sincere concern for the interests of disabled people. I am most grateful to them for their speeches, and I shall do my best, notwithstanding the hour of the morning, to give the fullest possible reply.
What I am sure unites us all is that we are giving more mobility help to assist more disabled people than has been given by any other Government in the history of this country. We are now in the process of further increasing expenditure on mobility for the disabled, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West acknowledged. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barking for her opening remarks on the importance and value of the mobility allowance. She referred to the wider needs of disabled people, and she will appreciate that I am conscious of these.
My hon. Friend also referred to problems of communication. This is a difficult and daunting task for us all and it becomes more difficult as we improve the provision for disabled people. I have been associated with the introduction of several new benefits, and I know that the wider the provision that we make the more difficult can become the problem of communication.
I wish to stress that the decision to cease production of the invalid tricycle was not taken lightly. In our judgment, it had become inevitable. As my right hon. Friend said in July, progress on international standards makes it most probable that before long the limits of the present design will have been reached.
1183 Tricycles cannot be made as stable as four-wheelers, and even if they meet the regulations that apply to them today they cannot be expected to meet all the design requirements of the future. Here I am referring to the design requirements applying to all cars in general and not just to tricycles. Only the timing of the phasing out offered any real choice. That was the background to the decision to phase out the invalid three-wheeler.
I emphasise that there was no question of trying to economise at the expense of severely disabled people. Unfortunately, it is clear from correspondence that I have received that there is real misunderstanding on this point. If economy had been the Government's intention, we would not have launched the mobility allowance. There are many more severely disabled people who cannot drive than who can drive, and it was obvious from the start that to include non-drivers was bound to increase expenditure considerably.
Despite our severe economic conditions, the Government are in the process of trebling public expenditure on mobility for the disabled. This is an important point, and behind it lies the Government's determination to help drivers and non-drivers alike.
New legislation which has been approved by this House and' is being considered in another place seeks to give every disabled person with a tricycle or private car allowance under the pre–1976 scheme the right to switch to mobility allowance without age limit. This will be of considerable help to many disabled drivers.
We are keeping in touch with developments affecting various protoypes and my right hon. Friend has given the following pledge:We accept that, whatever the Government may be able to do to increase the mobility allowance further, there will be people who will still need a specialised vehicle when their tricycles can no longer be replaced. As 1 made clear to Parliament in July, the Government will be looking at what is available on home and world markets to help such people.The Government will be trying to make sure that no one who is now mobile will be made immobile by the phasing out of the tricycle—except where increased dis- 1184 ability itself makes this unavoidable. In such cases, a person will, under our new proposals, have the choice of a cash allowance to reduce his dependence on others. This is a step forward for disabled drivers who become too disabled to drive.
Another important change announced by my right hon. Friend on 23rd July which is still not widely appreciated will be of immediate help to many thousands of disabled drivers. Until now, the disabled driver whose vehicle or car allowance was granted under the old NHS vehicle scheme for the express purpose of enabling him to get to and from work was liable to lose his vehicle if he lost his job. We shall now no longer withdraw the vehicle or the allowance in those circumstances.
We shall, where possible, replace their vehicles when they wear out so long as supplies are available, which we expect to be until at least 1981. Such drivers will also have a new right to switch to the mobility allowance if they wish—another major step forward. It was my responsibility to tell the disabled driver in category 3 that he would lose his vehicle if he lost his job. I am glad that we are now carrying through legislation to remove that defect of the previous scheme.
As for maintenance and repair, we have no intention of either scrapping the existing fleet of three-wheelers prematurely or of allowing it to deteriorate through lack of proper maintenance and repair. On the contrary, the aim is to secure the maximum possible economic service from the fleet. Subject to the necessary parliamentary approvals, the Government will make financial provision to secure a continued supply of vehicle parts, supported by the necessary maintenance services.
The particular point at which of scrap a vehicle rather than refurbish it is a matter for judgment case by case. All my hon. Friends who have spoken tonight represent constituencies with direct connections with the motor industry, so they will appreciate that point. They will also realise that I would need a remarkable crystal ball to foretell the useful life of each vehicle in the fleet, which will continue to be augmented by new supplies of vehicles until the end of March 1978.
1185 I wish to restate my right hon. Friend's undertaking in his letter to each three-wheeler user that we expect to replace three-wheelers as they wear out, at least until 1981. We have good reason to hope that it will be possible to continue to replace vehicles beyond 1981.
All the pointers are that the problems associated with maintaining and repairing the fleet are unlikely to give rise to insuperable difficulties. The firms which undertake maintenance and repair—the approved repairers, as they are known—have shown every willingness to continue their long tradition of service both to disabled drivers and to the Department. Equally, manufacturers are affording the Department full co-operation in determining the requirement of vehicle parts and securing their supply in an orderly and efficient way.
The continuous monitoring or repair and maintenance arrangements is of cardinal importance. There was undertandable concern at a report by the Automobile Association in its magazine Drive in the autumn of 1975, which strongly criticised the mechanical condition of a number of invalid tricycles. This is not the time for detailed discussion of that report, but I was sufficiently disturbed by its contents to make arrangements with the ready co-operation of the then Minister for Transport, for a sample of 400 of our vehicles chosen at random to be subjected to a critical independent mechanical examination by expert staff of the Department of the Environment.
A copy of the report has been placed in the Library. It showed that, particularly in some areas, the standards of technical maintenance were not sufficiently high having regard to the type of vehicle and the physical disabilities of its drivers. It was apparent that a small number of firms had given cause for real concern. All but one have now ceased to do repair and mainenance work for the Department, and that one has improved immeasurably but still functions under close surveillance. There will be no hesitation in striking the company off the list of approved repairers if the evidence justifies such a course. I need hardly add that this will apply with equal rigour to any firm which in the future is found not to measure up to the standards required.
My hon. Friends will know of, and I trust wil be reassured by, our decision to 1186 make the invalid three-wheeler subject to the MOT vehicle test. My right hon. Friend has in hand the necessary consultations prior to tabling appropriate regulations to implement that decision. This will be a very valuable additional safeguard to supplement the preventive maintenance regime which already exists for invalid tricycles. The test will embrace all the new features of the vehicle tests appropriate to the class of vehicle.
My hon. Friends the Members for Barking and for Coventry, South-West referred to the question of safety. I take pride in the fact that this Government have published a very great deal of new information about the safety of invalid tricycles. The figures have appeared in the annual reports on road accidents published by the Department of Transport. There is no doubt that the accident rate is substantially higher than for cars. The reasons may well be complex, as was said by both my hon. Friends, but the facts are not in doubt. Moreover, what the figures appeared strongly to suggest was that new users were more at risk than others. Again I can assure my hon. Friends that I am taking the closest possible interest in the safety issue.
Many people entitled to mobility allowance will want to achieve independent mobility in a vehicle of their own which they are physically able to drive. That does not necessarily mean a vehicle of wholly specialised design, because for many people adapted production cars are a better way of meeting their needs.
The distinction between specialised vehicles and adapted production cars needs to be very clearly understood. Just over half the people being helped by the old vehicle scheme were receiving the private car allowance to run cars of their own. Of those who drive tricycles, a substantial majority could certainly drive production cars either in their normal form or adapted by conversion of foot controls to hand operation. Many of those who use wheelchairs have sufficient mobility to stand and get into and out of a car, while others can transfer in various ways from wheelchair to car seat. The steering difficulties of people whose disabilities affect their arms and the problems encountered in getting into and out of a car by people who cannot bend are looked on as factors tending to favour specialised vehicles, as distinct 1187 from adapting ordinary cars, although it may be that developments will extend the range of adaptations available to help those people.
Wherever adaptation of production cars is feasible, it could well be more acceptable to many disabled people and a better use of resources than achieving the same technical capability by a specially designed vehicle. Not least of the advantages is that adaptation devices may be capable of being fitted to several different types of car.
Disabled people's motoring needs are not all specially related to their disabilities. They also vary according to such factors as family size, the need to carry luggage, and sheer personal taste, which affect all car users.
At the same time, as my right hon. Friend has made clear, we are very genuinely concerned with the problems of disabled people who will still need a specialised vehicle when we are no longer able to replace their tricycles after 1981. We are, therefore, keeping in touch with development projects which can lead to a better choice of specialised vehicles or specialised adaptations to production cars for disabled people. I myself have recently inspected two such projects.
Moreover, my Department and the Department of Transport are jointly studying the available information and are considering what further research is desirable to pick out and encourage among the many possible lines of development those adaptations or prototype specialised vehicles which have the best prospects of effectively meeting the needs of disabled people. These measures should help us to fulfil our aim of ensuring that no one who has a tricycle issued under the old scheme is made immobile as a result of the phasing out of the tricycle.
We do not yet know how many existing tricycle users may choose to take the mobility allowance. So far, the choice has been available to fewer than half of them. But the legislation now being considered in another place will give this choice also to drivers who are outside the normal mobility allowance age groups or who were given their tricycles specifically to help them to get to and from work and are not quite so 1188 severely disabled as to be normally eligible. Only when we see the choices exercised by this group shall we be able fully to judge the extent and the nature of the need for specialised vehicles.
I must emphasise the point which I am now making. My hon. Friends will readily appreciate that it is often not possible to select the best solution to a problem until the size of the problem is known. At this stage, none of us can predict with any accuracy—indeed, it would be arrogant for us to try—how many tricycle drivers in category 3, for example, will use their new freedom to choose in favour of cash or hardware. As I say, they will soon have an entirely new choice.
I now turn to the way in which the safety standards set by the EEC are given effect in this country. The factor of real significance is the tricycle's inability to go on meeting the regulations which will apply in future in Great Britain. These are regulations made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport not simply in order to fall into line reluctantly with other people's regulations but with the positive aim of promoting the safety of all who use vehicles on our roads.
Certainly, there is a link between the content of our regulations and the standards set by EEC directives, even though in applying to three-wheeled vehicles, our regulations will go beyond the strict terms of the EEC directives. But my right hon. Friend has taken the view that in this country all vehicles on our roads, whether they have three wheels or four, should be required to be built to the same high standards. He has done so after careful consideration of the road safety aspects, and I am sure that the House would not have wished me, as Minister with responsibility for the disabled, to press for exceptions from safety requirements to allow for lower safety standards for the tricycles used by disabled people. I stress to my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr that I am speaking here about safety standards.
The supply of cars to all drivers and non-drivers who wanted them would involve the supply of well over 100,000 cars, with all the large-scale bureaucratic machinery that that would entail. Yet it would still discriminate against those who 1189 can neither drive nor have anybody to drive them. There are people—and they are among the most disadvantaged in our society today—who can neither drive nor have anyone to drive them.
Moreover, it would double the cost of the scheme to supply cars to everyone who wanted them. If we could afford to do that, which we certainly cannot in present economic circumstances, we should equally be able to afford a substantial increase in the mobility allowance or a major extension of the range of eligibility for the scheme, if claims for some different kind of help for disabled people were not seen to have even greater priority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barking referred to the very wide-ranging needs of the disabled. There is a great debate now about the rival claims of those who would argue for more cash and those who would argue for more services for disabled people. I am trying to achieve the best possible balance between the two.
I have already assured my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West that I am not unmindful of the claims of those who will still need a specialised vehicle when we are no longer able to replace the tricycle after 1981.
The advent of the mobility allowance was an important breakthrough for the severely disabled. For the first time ever, the new allowance helps those who cannot drive as well as those who can. It extends outdoor mobility help to about 100,000 disabled people, including many thousands of severely disabled children who received no mobility help whatever under the old scheme. Payments are already being made to children in the 11 to 14 age group, and claims are now being accepted for severely disabled children aged 5 to 10 years, to whom payments will begin in April.
In addition to the mobility allowance, there are special arrangements which can benefit people registered as disabled with the Employment Service Agency who are unable to use public transport and need either a car or a taxi to get to work. They may be eligible for additional financial help over and above the mobility allowance from the Agency. They can apply for this if they no longer have a 1190 trike or have one that is temporarily off the road for repairs.
The Department of Employment recognises that there is scope for the scheme to be used more fully to help keep people in full-time work, and we are in close touch with them on the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West referred to a particular case. I am not certain whether the intended expansion of the Agency's scheme could help there. If she would like to have a word with me about it, I shall be delighted to see whether there is any possibility of help in that direction or, indeed, whether there is any other possibility of help.
I recognise that the new mobility allowance would be attractive to even more people if it were paid at a higher rate. We made clear our intention to up-rate the allowance later this year. We have said that we want to increase it if possible in real terms.
The efforts of the Central Council for the Disabled to find ways of helping beneficiaries to make the best use of the mobility allowance are also important. I am in close touch with the council about its valuable work in this matter, but it is not for me to make any announcement for it. It is in very close rapport with the motor manufacturers and others who are seeking to arrange to give disabled people the best possible value for their mobility allowance.
I emphasise also that the idea of the new allowance came initially from disabled people themselves. They and their organisations fiercely disagreed with Lady Sharp's recommendation for a cutback in the number of disabled people entitled to mobility allowance. By contrast, they urged the Department to give help to drivers and non-drivers alike. They held it to be a cruel anomaly that people who did not drive received no help. Under the old scheme, help for a disabled person was based, quite illogically, on ability to drive and on the disability of the individual person. It was to correct this fundamental anomaly that we moved towards providing cash payments for all severely disabled people on the basis of their disabilities.
I am conscious that this debate has gone on for some time. I shall be glad to remain in contact with my hon. Friends.
1191 The debate has shown their obvious concern for the interests of disabled people. They will appreciate that 1, too, am deeply concerned to build on the advances we have made in improving mobility for disabled people. I assure them that I shall do all I can further to improve provision for disabled people with my hon. Friends' speeches very much in mind.
§ Question put and agreed to. Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House; immediately considered in Committee pursuant to the Order of the House this day; reported, without amendment.
§ Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 93 (Consolidated Fund Bills) and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.