HC Deb 10 July 1981 vol 8 cc738-42

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 10, leave out subsection (4) and insert— (4) In executing in a street any such works as are mentioned in subsection (1) above, any such authority or person as is mentioned in that subsection shall have regard to the need of blind persons to have any openings, whether temporary or permanent, in the street, properly protected.

12.22 pm
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

I feel like a marathon runner who has run the 26 miles before reaching the starting gun and has 300 yards to run after the race has started. I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will allow me the same latitude as you allowed in debates on amendments to the previous Bill.

I should like to thank the House of Lords for the work that it has done on the Bill. We have been in a rather difficult position, in that the sum total of the time that the Bill has had on the Floor of the Commons has been only three or four minutes. To say the least, that restricts the chance of explaining and exploring the contents of any Bill. We have had to rely to a large extent on the other place to make some of the amendments which, inevitably, are necessary to any Private Member's Bill, or indeed, to any legislation. I do not always, in constitutional theory. hold the concept of the other Chamber, in the way that it is formulated, at the highest, but I cannot but pay the highest tribute to it for the work that it has done on the Bill But for the facility afforded in the other place, we should have been in great difficulty.

I particularly thank Lady Masham, who took on the responsibility of piloting the Bill through the other place. ably helped by what is affectionately known as the Wheelchair Brigade, which includes Viscount Ingleby and Lady D'Arcy de Knayth. Considerable help was also given by Lord Winstanley.

It was possible to improve the Bill, which was fairly weak when it had its Second Reading here. One had hoped that it would have been possible to go much further, but some of its defects have been corrected during its passage through the Lords, and to strengthen it.

I thank the Department and the Government in general for the assistance that I have had to improve the drafting and other aspects. Many of the amendments made in the other place came from the Government. After our original discussions identified the areas in which we were trying to move, the Government were willing to do everything possible, within their financial and other practical limitations. I thank the Minister for Social Security and his civil servants, who have given considerable time and effort to assist us in making progress.

The amendment is purely technical, removing the word "hole". We said in the original Bill that there was a need, for the benefit of blind persons, to protect any works on pavements and roads. We said that any holes or openings, whether temporary or permanent, in a street had to be properly protected.

Apparently, "hole" can be construed as meaning a pothole, in addition to a vertical opening that is constructed in a pavement or highway. It is considered unreasonable to expect a local authority to fence round every pothole that appears by chance in a pavement. The point of the clause is to ensure that works specifically undertaken on pavements are properly protected, so that blind people do not walk into vertical openings in the ground and hurt themselves.

I am assured that the word "openings" means not only openings on to a pavement in the horizontal plane, but vertical openings going downwards, and that therefore the term is more appropriate than "holes or openings".

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

The sponsor of the Bill, the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) has done the House a great service. He is right to say that Lady Masham and the Wheelchair Brigade have altered the Bill out of all recognition, making immeasurable improvements to it. They would not have achieved that without my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department playing a very effective part.

I know that I do not look like it now, but I was a member of the Wheelchair Brigade about two years ago. When I was trying to get into the House, I was knocked down and my left leg was broken in four places. That was immensely advantageous to my constituents. With the help of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, of whose executive I happen to be a member, I had one of the very best wheelchairs. I promptly went down to Margate with it, and soon discovered that there was a horrible lack of ramps. I could not get on to the pavements and I could not get into the places of entertainment and various other places.

Therefore, I finally deliberately got stuck. I went head over tail over the side of one of the ramps, whereupon two constituents rushed to my rescue and lifted me up. It was a perfect set-up for television. It was televised, and as a result Thanet has been one of the forerunners in improving facilities for getting on and off ramps. It is vital for the blind that any undesirable openings are properly protected. That is the purpose of the amendment. The Bill had to be changed, because we could not apply a liability to every local authority for every pothole that might arise.

12.30 pm

Clause 1(1) states: In executing works in a street which may impede the mobility of disabled persons or blind persons highway authorities, local authorities and any other person exercising a statutory power to execute works on a highway shall have regard to the needs of such persons. That is the major issue of the Bill. It is only recently that highway authorities and local authorities have begun to carry out the responsibilities that were originally imposed under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. There is now a recognition of those responsibilities. Today provides an opportunity for the Minister to ensure that that is known throughout the country. It is primarily for that reason that I am speaking now.

I hope that the media—which have covered the proceedings on the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill and will make it plain that we shall stop that sort of porn—will also say that the disabled of Britain, whether blind, disabled through broken legs, paraplegics or with war-time injuries, have had the close consideration of another place, which has done excellent work, of the Minister and of the sponsor of the Bill. In passing the Bill it is important to ensure that the public recognise that the House is carrying out its duties effectively. The Bill is a first-class example of a Private Member's Bill.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

I join my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) in congratulating the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley). He has performed a great service to the disabled, for which the House is grateful.

I wish to raise a small point, which is not directly concerned with the amendment. My hon. Friend the Minister may be able to respond to it when he replies to the debate. In my constituency recently—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. I have been allowing a little latitude because of the nature of the proceedings. We should now press ahead and keep in order. I warn that I shall keep the House in much closer order.

Mr. Garel-Jones

I hope that my point, which refers to wheelchairs for the disabled, will be in order. There is a young, severely disabled child in my constituency. There is a chair for the young disabled, called the orthokinetic chair, which costs £500. That is in excess of the amount that the Department can spend on a chair. Thanks to the intervention of a charity, I raised the money for the child's family to purchase the chair. I was a little surprised that it was not possible to obtain from the Department the slice of grant that would normally have been available for a chair supplied by the Department. I do not expect my hon. Friend to give a full answer now, but I hope that he will take that point on board.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire)

I am well aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of your stricture a moment ago, and I shall be both brief and I hope, pertinent, because I am most anxious that the Bill should reach the statute book. I wish to enter a brief biographical note.

As a small boy, I frequently acted as the eyes of my father, who lost his sight when he was elderly. I am therefore well aware of the difficulties that are faced by blind people as they try to negotiate the hazards that they find on the streets. The amendment proposed is one which, had it been part of statute law 30 years go, would have greatly benefited people who were blind. First, it would have kept them out of danger, certainly from holes in the roads. Secondly—a subsidiary matter that is not immediately apparent—there is the reluctance of people like my father to make the effort to go into the streets because of the hazards that might face them.

The enactment of the Bill, and particularly of clause 1(4), will remove that fear from many blind people. In future when they go on the streets, either with or without a guide dog, they will have more confidence than previously. I therefore fully support the amendment. I do so with great brevity, so that the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), who introduced the Bill, may have the well-earned satisfaction of seeing it reach the statute book.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I crave the indulgence which your predecessor in the Chair a moment ago gave to the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) to go a little wide.

I start by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his great success in piloting a Private Member's Bill through the House to this stage, now with the certainty of the satisfaction of seeing it on the statute book in his name. In debate on the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, we heard that it has taken 10 years of attempts by various hon. Members, including myself, for the measure to reach the statute book. I envy the hon. Gentleman his success in attaining his objective, whereas a general election prevented me from attaining my objective in a Private Member's Bill.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to thank me and my Department for the help that we have tried to give him throughout the various stages of his Bill. I am grateful to him for doing that, because that was not the impression that was created outside the House by some people during the earlier stages of the Bill. The suggestion was that the Government were seeking to frustrate and block it, or to draw its teeth—and gums, too. That suggestion received widespread circulation, particularly in one Sunday newspaper. I am glad of this opportunity to refute that. The Government have been behind the principles of the Bill from the very outset.

The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, I am sure, that when he first presented a similar measure—it was not this Bill, but another one—there were objections from local authorities. His place in the list was such that the Bill was at risk of not seeing the light of day. It was effectively being blocked Friday after Friday. It was at that stage that we were able to help him, because we felt that the principles of the Bill were desirable, and we suggested ways in which he could achieve his objective. The Government made time available for him, so that the Bill could rush rapidly through the House and the detailed matters could be dealt with at greater leisure in another place, where that has happened.

I want to place it on record that the Government have not been forced to accept any amendments. All the amendments have either been initiated by the Government or have been accepted willingly.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) mentioned the media and the desirability of their giving as widespread publicity as possible to this excellent measure. I hope that they do that and that they get it right and make acknowledgements where they are properly due.

As has been said, this is a technical amendment to change the wording of subsection (4) to make it clear that the duty to protect openings in a road applies when street works are being carried out. The deletion of the reference to "holes" reflects the fact that, notwithstanding the statutory responsibilities of highway authorities for the repair and maintenance of highways and footways, which the Bill does not affect, they cannot reasonably be expected to protect minor holes and potholes, as distinct from deliberate openings.

The duty here extends not only to local authorities but to statutory undertakers—gas, electricity and water companies—which create excavations in roadways or footpaths that can be a hazard to a blind person. They will now be obliged to take suitable precautions to ensure that blind people are not at risk when they carry out this kind of operation in the highway.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. GarelJones) asked about the contribution of a sum of money towards the cost of a wheelchair which could not be supplied by the National Health Service. I am aware of this problem. Representations have been made from time to time. Unfortunately, at this stage we cannot readily accede to a request that might create a substantial increase in public expenditure. There are a great number of people who are prepared and able to go to the private sector for the provision of wheelchairs.

If we were suddenly to say that everyone who wanted to buy a wheelchair privately could have £60 or £100, for many who did not need the money and who could happily go ahead without it the temptation would be there to take the grant. Therefore, an open-ended commitment would be entered into which could have severe repercussions on Our budget. Although we have looked at the matter with great sympathy, this is not the moment at which to press me on a matter of this kind.

Having said that, I invite the House to accept the amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

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