HC Deb 29 June 1984 vol 62 cc1263-81

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]

9.42 am
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

This debate is about the priority of the claims of people who, by common consent, are among the least fortunate and most needful in Britain today. The disabled and their families are often still regarded as a tiny minority. Yet there are 5.5 million of our fellow citizens who are disabled by physical, mental or sensory impairment, while many millions more are daily and deeply involved in the problems of disability as the wives, husbands, parents and children of disabled people.

In 1981, a Gallup survey commissioned jointly by the BBC and New Society to mark the International Year of Disabled People found that no less than 29 per cent. of people in this country have a disabled person in their family. Much apart from being a tiny minority, the disabled and their families are thus almost one in three of the population.

Whatever else may be said of the debate, it has most certainly not come too soon. It is in fact the first such debate for which the Government have helped in finding time since they came to office over five years ago. Every previous parliamentary debate on disability since 1979 has been held entirely in Opposition time. That in itself is a very sharp indictment of a Government that came to office with a pledge to "single out" disabled people and their families for special help. We were told that the disabled were to be awarded priority within the social security budget and that the aim of a Conservative Government would be to assist far more disabled people to support themselves and lead normal lives". Yet what has happened since the Government came to power? The "singling out" has been for some of the Government's unkindest cuts of all. Take, for example, the shabby and shameful treatment of invalidity pensioners. Their living standards have been subjected to a triple assault. The first broke the link forged by the Labour Government in 1975 between invalidity benefit and average industrial earnings. The second assault was the so-called "temporary" cut in invalidity benefit by 5 per cent. in real terms. Then there was the cut in child dependency additions which cost invalidity pensioners over £2 weekly per child.

Taken together, they constitute a deplorable act of betrayal that has "singled out" over 650,000 long-term sick and disabled people, not for the special help they were promised but for special and wholly unmerited hardship. Even for a childless couple, the loss in invalidity benefit is £122.20 a year and for a single person £75.40 a year. Those may not seem very substantial amounts, but for people on the breadline every crumb counts.

The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), who, as the then Secretary of State for Social Services, carried the proposal to cut invalidity benefit through this House, said that it was an "unpalatable" measure. That was a remarkable act of self-criticism—and admission of guilt—from a Minister whose normal physical exercise is patting himself on the back. His decision to cut invalidity benefit made Britain the only country in the world to mark IYDP by a gratuitous cut in the standard of living of its disabled people.

We were assured over and over again by the former Secretary of State that the cut would be only a temporary one. That was four years ago. Instead of reversing the cut, however, his successor has remorselessly pursued the Government's attack on invalidity pensioners. His Health and Social Security Bill, now before Parliament, introduces a spouse's earnings rule for the child additions paid with invalidity pension. If a spouse earns more than £80 a week, the child addition of £7.60 will be withdrawn. At current rates this would cost the invalidity pensioner and his family £395.20 a year per child. This is yet another stinging slap in the face for invalidity pensioners and their families for trying, often in circumstances of daunting difficulty, to make ends meet. Moreover, it is the act of a Government that gave, in a single day, £1,400 million in tax relief to the richest 5 per cent. of taxpayers.

To his credit the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) in his forthcoming book "The Politics of Consent" says: I am concerned by the priority given to tax cuts at a time of such pressure on the social services. It would, however, have been more helpful to the victims of this Government's warped priorities if he had said that in the House when the plight of invalidity pensioners below the tax threshold was so cynically mocked by the massive tax relief given to Britain's richest taxpayers.

Perhaps the Minister, in replying to the debate, will now tell us once and for all just how the Government define the word "temporary" in relation to the cut in invalidity benefit, and also what justification he sees for continuing the attack on the living standards of invalidity pensioners and their families. He knows full well that hundreds of thousands of them live below the tax threshold and cannot possibly deny that they, in particular, are the victims of a blatant injustice

Invalidity pensioners are not, of course, alone among long-term sick and disabled people in having suffered cuts in their living standards under the present Government. Children's additions to sickness and industrial injury benefits have also been cut by over £2 weekly per child. Again, the earnings-related supplements to sickness and industrial injury benefits have been abolished, inflicting a loss of £13 and £14 a week respectively on substantial numbers of sick and disabled people.

In all, over 1.5 million disabled people have suffered financial loss in consequence of the Government's decision to break the link forged by the Labour Government between their social security benefits and average industrial earnings. Even disabled people on supplementary benefit have not been spared. As the Disablement Income Group's statement entitled "Disastrous Years for Disabled People" said: … disabled people were already among the worst off on supplementary benefit and are now even worse off following the Government's 'simplification' of the scheme. Since then we have had the Government's disgraceful decision to impose benefit cuts of between 50p and £1 a week on 1,800,000 elderly and disabled people living on supplementary benefit. They are the people receiving the long-term levels of benefit whose disabilities call for extra help to cover special diets and laundry.

On 18 June, the Secretary of State announced that he was doubling the clawback from them under what is called the "available scale margin". The effect of his decision is that some 400,000 elderly and disabled people will suffer a cut of 50p a week from November and 1,400,000 more a cut of between 50p and £1.

The total cost of the clawback will be £86 million a year, and the Government tried to smuggle this major cut in benefits through the House under the guise of a technical change. As my hon. Friend, the Member for Pontypridd, (Mr. John), who tabled parliamentary questions on the matter, has said: The figures show the callous hypocrisy of this Government's pretensions to any concern for the old, the disabled and others in long-term need. I ask the Minister with responsibility for the disabled now to give the House his comments on what is widely regarded as a brutal attack on the living standards of some of the most hard-pressed disabled people in this country today. The Government stand accused of kicking people while they are down, and this debate must not be allowed to conclude without some response to that charge from the Minister.

I ask the Minister also to comment on the growing concern among the organisations of disabled people about the severe disablement allowance. As he knows, they regard the test of 80 per cent. disability as irrelevant to a benefit for incapacity to work. In fact, many of them regard the test as farcical. There are people classified as 100 per cent. disabled who still manage to do a full-time job. At the same time, there are large numbers of less disabled people whose handicaps make it impossible for them to work at all but who, under the Government's proposals, will be excluded from benefit.

This, among other reasons, has prompted DIG to say: … rather than adopt the new proposals, it would probably be better to retain the existing test. I hope the Minister will at least acknowledge the strength of feeling against the 80 per cent. test and that he will comment also on the disturbing parliamentary reply he gave me on 14 March about the purposes for which, in his view, the attendance allowance is intended. The reply said that the allowance is designed to provide help with additional expenses such as extra heating, special fittings, expensive diet, extra laundry and wear and tear on clothes and furniture."—[Official Report, 14 March 1984; Vol. 56, c. 190.] If that were so, the attendance allowance would have to be taken into account in assessing supplementary benefit entitlement. To date, the allowance has not been taken into account and there is thus an urgent need for some explanation of the reply I was given. I must press the Minister for a plain assurance that the attendance allowance will continue to be one that helps to offset the heavy costs disabled people incur in securing help from another person and that it is not now to be regarded as a disablement costs allowance to cover the other extra costs generally of disabled daily living.

Against the background of the facts and figures I have given about the Government's treatment of invalidity pensioners, the recipients of industrial injury benefits and disabled people on supplementary benefit, I must also press the Minister for a categorical assurance that the current review of cash benefits for the disabled will not be allowed to result in any reduction, in real terms, in total expenditure on provision for disabled people and their families.

I turn now from cash benefits to the provision of services for disabled people. Because of the Government's manic insistence on cuts, cuts and still further cuts in local government spending, there is now more cause for serious concern about the availability of adequate services than at any time since the passing of my Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill in 1970.

More and more local authorities are now being forced by the Government to choose not only which of their discretionary powers to use, but even which of their legal duties to fulfil. In particular, they face increasing difficulties in trying to meet their legal duties to disabled people under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.

When rate capping starts, their dilemma will become even more cruel. Must we break one law to stay within another? is how Avon's leader described the agonising choices facing him as he contemplated the devastating effects of rate capping on his council's social services.

Last year, according to the Government, Avon overspent £7,600,000 on social services. If the Government had been able to enforce their will in 1983–84, all the council's discretionary services would have ceased to exist. Yet that would have saved only £1,300,000. Most of Avon's cuts—totalling £6,300,000—would have had to be in the services it has a legal duty to provide, such as adaptations to the homes of physically disabled people, day care for the mentally handicapped and the provision of home helps. We could not have met the Government's demands by marginal economies in the services we have a legal duty to provide, said Avon's leader: They would have meant wholesale cuts, and breaking the law through not providing services for people we are legally obliged to care for. Regardless of political control, 28 of London's 33 borough councils are, in the Government's view, already overspending on their social services. Many face the certainty of rate capping and, as a result, Government-imposed cuts in services that will make it impossible for them to meet their legal duties to disabled people.

Lewisham has produced facts and figures to show what would already have happened to its social services if rate capping had been in force during the last financial year. A cut of £7,370,000 would have been imposed, and all the borough's four day centres for elderly people, half of its 40 luncheon clubs, two holiday homes and a training centre for disabled people would have had to close. Among other consequences, home help service hours would have been cut by half.

That would have involved the council in law-breaking on a massive scale. Yet in relation to identified need in the borough, Lewisham was already underspending on its social services in 1983–84. As the leader of the council put it: Among others, our services for mentally ill and mentally handicapped people go nowhere near matching local needs. Unless our social services are cut to ribbons, there is no hope of meeting the kind of cuts the Government demands. One official study after another makes it clear that, even in advance of rate capping, local councils are unable now to fulfil their statutory duties. Take home helps. While the number of people over the age of 75 increases, the home help service as rapidly declines in terms both of cases served and total hours of service. Yet it is the over-75s who need the home help service most.

While the Secretary of State for Social Services sloganises about the importance of community care, the Secretary of State for the Environment punishes every local attempt to make it a humane reality. While forcing local authorities to break the law as it affects the people most at risk, they profess shock and horror at any suspicion of involvement in law-breaking by striking trade unionists, leaking civil servants or anyone else.

While it may help Ministers to prove their virility, there is, of course, no saving whatever in making it impossible for local councils to carry out their legal duties to provide an adequate home help service for the frail elderly or to instal ramps and adapt the homes of disabled people.

The alternative is to drive vulnerable and isolated people out of the care of their local councils into hospitals and other institutions, at far greater cost to public funds. It is as self-defeating as it is morally indefensible and I challenge the Minister with responsibility for the disabled to tell the House exactly where he stands on the crucial issue of ensuring that the legal duties imposed by the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act are fully and humanely met.

The Government admit that, because of demographic change, it is necessary for social services budgets to increase by 2 per cent. a year simply to maintain current levels of provision. Yet the Minister knows that, in 1983–84, 20 local authorities cut their spending on social services in real terms by from 1 per cent. to 3 per cent. The cut by one local authority was 6 per cent., and Tom White, speaking as the director of social services for Coventry and chairman of the Association of Directors of Social Services, has told me: We are very concerned about the prospects for our services in the light of the Government's rates legislation. Many authorities will be forced to reduce their expenditure if they are to keep within targets and avoid running into penalties. This will have inevitable implications for social services budgets, with the threat of further cuts in services that are already inadequate in many parts of the country. Does the Minister share the concern of the ADSS? If he does, what action will he be taking to protect local services for disabled people? If he rejects the ADSS's view of the very damaging and serious effects of the Government's rates legislation, he must now state his reasons for so doing. As the Minister with responsibility for the disabled it is his special, indeed bounden, duty to ensure that disabled people receive all the help to which this House has entitled them.

Both council leaders and the ADSS have made it strikingly clear that services of vital importance to disabled people are under threat. We are entitled, therefore, to know what proposals the Minister with responsibility for the disabled has to defend them. Perhaps he will also tell the House how he felt about informing my hon. Friend, the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in a parliamentary reply on 21 June, of the 7 per cent. reduction in day care provision for the physically handicapped?

Among other specific issues on which we are entitled to hear from the Minister, I turn first to special housing provision for disabled people. The appallingly low priority given by the Government to wheelchair and mobility housing has cost many thousands of disabled people their independence. In trying to find housing accommodation in which they can live dignified lives, as in seeking jobs, disabled people find themselves at the back of the longest queues in Britain.

In employment, in spite of all their protestations about wanting to help disabled people to become taxpayers, this Government have made it more and more difficult for them to earn their own living. The disablement resettlement service has borne the brunt of the Manpower Services Commission's spending cuts. The number of disablement resettlement officers, like the range of services offered by employment rehabilitation centres, has been cut drastically.

Unemployment among disabled people has now soared to more than double the national average, and they are also twice as likely as other people to have been unemployed for over two years. In many parts of Britain today, four out of five employable disabled people are out of work. The Government's response to this scandal is to restrict personal support for job seekers still further by closing jobcentres in favour of so-called "self-service" job points. Their record demonstrates a chilling disregard for the needs of disabled people about which many of their organisations are becoming increasingly embittered.

The Government's record on educational provision for disabled children and young people is another cause for concern. There has been no vigorous promotion of the Warnock principles, or practical and financial backing to implement them. If children with special needs are to benefit from integrated education, they cannot simply be dumped in mainstream schools.

Adequate provision of aids, adaptations to school buildings and expert support from, among others, speech therapists and physiotherapists are essential for meaningful integration to be achieved. To give the impression that integration can be achieved on the cheap—as I hope the Minister will concede—is not only misleading, but an insult to the intelligence of every parent of a disabled child.

On the issue of improving access for disabled people to the built environment, the Minister knows how very strongly hon. Members on both sides of the House feel about the Government's dilatoriness in giving satisfactory effect to section 6 of the Disabled Persons Act 1981.

The Government said that implementation of the section must be quick, cheap and non-bureaucratic; yet the Act received the Royal Assent over three years ago, and we are still waiting for it to be implemented. There are informed people who now fear that the Department of the Environment's current quest for the unattainable—ultimate safety—might in fact lead to disabled people being debarred from entering buildings to which they already have access.

I know that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), who put all disabled people in his debt by piloting the 1981 Act to the statute book, cannot be here this morning; but I hope that his hon. Friend, the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas), among others, will have an opportunity to join me in pressing the Minister to end this long-running scandal by making a definitive statement today about the implementation of the Act's main provision.

Turning to access for disabled people to public transport, I have been asked by Peter Large, the chairman of the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled, to request the Government to arrange for a copy of the instructions which are to be issued by the Secretary of State to London Regional Transport to be placed in the Library, in order to allow right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to satisfy themselves that they adequately cover LRT's responsibilities to disabled people. I trust this will be done and that LRT's responsibilities will require it to pay full regard to the need for special services for disabled people in the Greater London area.

As Peter Large's letter makes clear, the disabled are in no mood now to beg for concessions. They are no longer prepared to be ignored or patronised. They insist on being judged on their abilities and demand full social equality. That is why there was so much anger among disabled people about the manoeuvring, some would say trickery, that gave the Government their unwholesome victory over my hon. Friend, the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) on 18 November 1983.

My hon. Friend's Bill sought to make it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people on account of their disabilities. He made it plain from the outset that he was prepared to discuss any reasonable amendment from the Government, and freely admitted that the Bill could be improved by consultation and debate in Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), who himself put forward the first Bill to outlaw discrimination against disabled people, was very widely endorsed in describing the Government's manoeuvres to defeat the Bill as a major disservice to this House.

What concerns many people today is that the Government now appear, from their rejection also of Lord Campbell of Croy's Bill, notwithstanding its passage through another place, to be opposed not only to making discrimination unlawful, but even to allowing a third party—the commission proposed by Lord Campbell—objectively to examine alleged cases of discrimination.

I must, therefore, press the Minister about how he intends to report on the cases of alleged discrimination he has been asked to investigate and on the outcome in each case. Is he prepared to reconsider his decision not to set up a small office for the detailed investigation of cases, as was recommended by the Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People? And what is his reaction to the important suggestion from Lord Henderson of Brompton that a Joint Select Committee of both Houses might usefully look at the case for legislating against discrimination and report?

The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby applied as much to the mentally handicapped as it did to the physically disabled and I turn now to the very special problems of mentally handicapped people who, given adequate help to do so, could move from hospital to residential care in the community.

I am told by Tom White that his social services authority in Coventry has identified 34 patients in St. Margaret's hospital, Great Barr, in the city of Birmingham, as capable of living in specialist residential accommodation in the community. Coventry would be happy to provide for them if adequate resources could be available. There is the problem, however, that the normal arrangements for funding local authority developments by district health authorities, which make savings as patients are transferred, are difficult to apply, as it is not the DHA which will make the savings in the case of the 34 patients at St. Margaret's.

The only practical solution appears to be a contribution from the regional health authority, but so far that has not been forthcoming, despite extremely protracted negotiations. Thus I urge the Government to give firm ministerial guidance to RHAs about the importance of co-operation from them. After all, if Ministers really want community care for disabled people wherever that is possible, they cannot allow the leadership offered by Coventry to be nullified by a regional health authority. If they do so, what encouragement is there for others to follow Coventry's lead?

The Minister may say that most of what I want for disabled people are 'their families—and I want a full disablement costs allowance, new help for blind people and a partial incapacity benefit, among other advances, as well as the restoration of the Government's cuts in benefits and services—calls for the allocation of resources that are just not available. Yet how can he say that? How can Government, who by a stroke of the pen gave the richest 5 per cent. of taxpayers a windfall of £1,400 million, say that they cannot afford to restore last week's sly and cynical cut of £86 million in the incomes of elderly and disabled people on supplementary benefit?

Again, how can a Government who can find £4,200 million for their Polaris programme honourably or convincingly argue that there is no money even for desperately needed home helps, adult training centres for the mentally handicapped and the integration of handicapped children into mainstream schools? Even the modest sums needed to promote further research into pneumoconiosis and cot deaths are too much to contemplate for a Government who spend more on arms than they do on education or the NHS.

To govern is to choose and, if there are funds available for mass mutilation and destruction, they could as easily be made available for the building of a more compassionate society with priorities aimed at maximising the prevention of disability and alleviating its handicapping effects. The problem is not one of resources, but of political will and priorities.

As the Minister knows, the Labour Government much more than trebled public expenditure on cash benefits for the disabled. We also trebled public spending on services in what has been described as a five-year period of unprecedented advance for disabled people.

One consequence of the new cash benefits that we introduced, not least the mobility allowance, was to make some further increases in public spending unavoidable, even after we left office. To that extent, we forced the present Government's hand. However, as I repeatedly made clear, there was still a long unfinished agenda of important things to do in 1979. Now the problems of disabled people multiply under a Government who are in wholesale retreat from their own pledges.

There are, of course, compelling claims from other people who look to this House for special help. They include the unemployed, widows, the elderly, one-parent families and the low paid, among other needful groups. For as far ahead as any of us can see, there will be infinite claims on finite resources.

Yet the priority of the claims of disabled people must rank among the highest. We have to look within groups as well as between them. Among the elderly, the disabled are more hard-pressed and have problems and needs in addition to those of the generality of elderly people. If in one-parent families the parent or child is disabled, they will usually be worse off and more at risk than one-parent families generally. The same applies within other groups and strongly emphasises the priority of the claims of disabled people.

Quite properly, the disabled want to give according to their abilities and to receive help according to their needs. I profoundly hope that, whatever differences may emerge as we proceed today, every speaker in the debate will agree that this is not an unreasonable aim.

10.15 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

I am glad for two reasons that it has proved possible for the Government to find time for this debate. The first is the inherent importance of the subject. The fact that there is a better than average sprinkling of hon. Members in the Chamber for a Friday——

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

On the Government side.

Mr. Newton

I am trying to be non-partisan. Today's attendance is a sign of the interest that exists.

In the year or so that I have been Minister for the disabled, I have found that the all-party and non-partisan interest in the House helps me in my job, even though it sometimes leads to points being put to me on which I cannot give the answers that hon. Members would like to hear about resources suddenly being found to do the things that we should like to do. That interest is also an important contributory factor in keeping up the pressure for improvements for disabled people and in helping to shape and inform public attitudes outside the House, which are often as important as anything that the Government do.

My second reason for welcoming the debate is that, with genuine respect to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), it should be possible—and I hope that it will be possible—for us to have a more wide-ranging debate than was possible during the previous major disability debate, which was on the hon. Gentleman's Bill on discrimination.

I am obviously aware of the concern on that aspect of disabled people's anxieties and of the controversy that surrounds it. I made the Government's view clear during the debate on that Bill and I do not intend to repeat it, but I hope that, whatever our views on the relatively limited issue of whether it would be a good thing to have antidiscrimination legislation, we can all accept that even if such a law were to be passed and to achieve what its proponents claim for it—which I doubt—it would touch only a corner of the wide field of policy for disabled people.

This debate gives us the opportunity to look more broadly at our aims and at what we are doing or need to do to advance those aims. The aims are comparatively simply stated, without any disagreement or division of opinion within the House.

We want to ensure the widest scope for disabled people, whether their disability is physical or mental, to lead a full life, preferably in their own homes as integrated members of the community. We want to raise to the maximum their scope to use and enjoy their abilities and to keep to a minimum the effects of their disabilities.

There are three main strands to our policies. The first is to ensure proper financial support for disabled people, which must clearly be the starting point for a sense of independence. The second is to ensure a flexible network of services to meet their needs and those of their carers—an important theme to which I shall return. The third is to enlarge their opportunities within the community in all the many areas, including education, employment, transport, sport and recreation among many others, that make up normal daily life.

I shall say something about each of those strands, but I shall try to make this speech reasonably brief so that, by leave of the House, I may respond later to the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I turn first to financial support. Of course, not all disabled people are dependent on the social security system. Happily, many are able to earn their living as well as anyone else. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) said, it is the aim of us all to ensure that that number is as large as possible. But undoubtedly many depend on the social security system in whole or in part, and even for many who do not need basic income support, it remains the case that benefits to help with particular needs, such as, most obviously, mobility, are of very great importance.

I hope that I have already made it clear that I do not wish to indulge in a simple trading of party political statistics. However, I should make the central point that in the financial year 1983–84, the Government spent nearly £4,000 million on cash benefits for the long-term sick and disabled, and that that represents an increase of 30 per cent. in real terms since the Conservative party came to power in 1979. I do not wish to pursue every statistic that the right hon. Gentleman gave, but those facts and figures do not fit with the image that he sought to present of a Government who are cutting, or seeking to cut, benefits for disabled people.

Indeed, we can—and as a member of the Government, I certainly do—take legitimate pride in what we have achieved in that respect during a period in which the country has undoubtedly faced many economic difficulties.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

What would that sum have been if this Government had maintained the earnings-related benefits that the Labour Government introduced?

Mr. Newton

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a figure, but if this Government had not been willing to face up to the overall problem of public expenditure and to look to the social security budget, as a major part of the total, for reasonable savings, we would still have the raging inflation that has done more damage to the poor, sick and disabled than any other factor in the past few years. Anyone who thinks that the poor and disabled can be effectively protected against hardship at a time when prices are rising by about 2 per cent. a month—as happened at the peak under the Labour Government—is living in a dream world.

Of course I acknowledge that some difficult decisions have had to be taken, but they have been taken and have, indeed, proved successful in the cause of restoring a degree of economic stability and, above all, price stability, which is of very great importance to the disabled. But let no one think that against that background there have not been real and significant improvements in several individual areas of benefit, which have significantly helped those with whom we are concerned.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the reform of the supplementary benefit scheme in 1980. One of the features of that reform was that long-term sick and disabled people, who under the previous Government had had to wait two years on supplementary benefit before going on to the long-term rate, were enabled to go on to the long-term rate after only one year. For those concerned, that was a very sizeable improvement.

Today, there has been no mention of our second achievement in the area of supplementary benefit. I refer to the fact that we have ended the invalidity trap. I am aware that for many hon. Members, that is a technical matter, but the long and short of it is that under the previous Administration and, indeed, until very recently, many disabled people were kept permanently—by technicalities of the rules—on the lower short-term rate of supplementary benefit. Last year, we were able to end that trap, to the great benefit of about 70,000 sick and disabled people, thus giving them the higher long-term rate of supplementary benefit. Again, that is something of which we can be proud.

Progress has been made on mobility allowance. As the House knows, one of our first actions in 1979 was to accelerate the final phasing in of mobility allowance to bring the 61 to 64 age group into the allowance in one step instead of two. That was a help to many people. In 1982, the mobility allowance was made more effective for all who receive it by taking it out of tax. Last year, we extended the benefits in cash instead of kind to war pensioners by introducing the war pensions mobility supplement, which was set initially at a rate some £2.15 a week higher than that of the normal mobility allowance.

Of course, the real value of mobility allowance has been substantially increased during the past few years. Between July 1978 and last November, the mobility allowance increased by 90 per cent. compared with 72.6 per cent. for the retail price index and about 79 per cent. for that part of the index that relates to transport and vehicles. We have improved not only the value of mobility allowance by making it tax-free, but its real value to beneficiaries by increasing it well ahead of prices.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

How did the costs of motoring rise in that period?

Mr. Newton

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman missed part of what I said. The 90 per cent. increase in mobility allowance that took place between July 1978 and November 1983 compares with an increase of 79 per cent. in the transport and vehicle section of the retail price index. That is a clear sign that mobility allowance has more than maintained its value both in relation to prices generally and transport costs. Of course, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a few weeks ago, this November the mobility allowance will rise to £20 a week, which is precisely double the level at which it stood when the Conservative party came to office.

Mr. Alfred Morris

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I speak as one who presided over a 250 per cent. increase in mobility allowance in a very short space of time. I hope that he will agree that percentages can be misleading. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) has raised an important point about motoring costs. I am strongly pressed by the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled to say that increases in the mobility allowance should be linked more to increases in motoring costs than to increases in prices. Many of us will be very grateful if the hon. Gentleman can comment on that proposition.

Mr. Newton

I am not quite sure what distinction the right hon. Gentleman is making between motoring costs and prices. Motoring costs are clearly a form of price, and are reflected in the transport and vehicle section of the RPI. I do not think that I can add much to the figures that I have given, except to say that I believe that this year the general increase in the RPI that underlies the recently announced uprating is 5.1 per cent., and that the increase in mobility allowance is 5.3 per cent. If I remember rightly—and I speak subject to correction—in the year May 1983 to May 1984, the year that we are discussing for measuring the uprating, the increase in the transport and vehicle group index was only 1.9 per cent. Thus the increase in mobility allowance is significantly ahead of the general increase in transport costs.

Mobility allowance is not intended only for those who have motoring costs. It was specifically intended to assist disabled people generally with the problem of transport, and that was one of its merits as a cash benefit instead of the previous benefit in kind of a vehicle of some description which was supplied to those capable of making use of it.

I have mentioned only two among many significant improvements in social security that the Government have made during the past few years. So I simply do not accept the general strictures of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe.

I shall explain our proposals for severe disablement allowances, which the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe specifically mentioned. I am aware of the reservations about them, as fairly summarised by the right hon. Gentleman. It remains my view that there is significant misunderstanding outside the House about the extent to which the 80 per cent. disablement test is used as a measure of whether a person is capable of working. It is clear to anyone who has studied the benefit that the primary qualification for the proposed new severe disablement allowance is incapacity for work. That has to be established before anything else and it has nothing to do with the 80 per cent. test.

The 80 per cent. test then applies to allocate the priorities and to decide who should receive benefit under the scheme according to the severity of disability. At present the availability of the non-contributory invalidity pension is determined to a significant extent by whether a person happens to be a married woman, for example. The sex discriminatory household duties test now applies. We think it more rational and sensible to make the decision about the distribution of benefit according to the severity of a person's disability. That will be a significant improvement in rationality over the present household duties test and its naked discrimination against married women. I have always found that difficult to defend.

The use of the 80 per cent. disablement test, which is borrowed in many respects from the industrial injuries and war pensions schemes, constitutes a significant step in laying the foundation for possible further changes in future—I cannot predict when—in the social security system. It will be difficult to make the progress that we all want, and to which the Government are committed, towards a more coherent system of benefits for disabled people unless we are able to establish, by building on the industrial injuries and war pensions schemes, a sensible way of distinguishing between different degrees of disability. As I told the Standing Committee recently, I am encouraged that the Social Security Advisory Committee has described our proposals as a potentially important building block for social security benefits.

Initially our proposals will mean that about 20,000 married women who at present do not qualify, will qualify for benefit for the first time. That is estimated to involve the Government in additional expenditure of about £20 million.

Two further aspects have nothing to do with the level of benefit, but with administration and with ensuring that benefits are paid to those who should receive them. Whatever the structure of the benefit system it is important that we should administer it and adjudicate as clearly and effectively as possible. After the concern about the mobility and attendance allowances, my predecessor commissioned a report on procedures and adjudication for the two benefits. We are still considering some of the more wide-ranging recommendations, but we have already acted on a significant number of them. We can see the results in reduced clearing times for both allowances. In the year to March 1984 the average time taken to decide claims fell from 16 weeks to 11 weeks for mobility allowance and from 12½ weeks to 10 weeks for attendance allowance. That is a considerable achievement, given the continuing increase in the number of people claiming benefits.

In 1983, 122,000 claims for mobility allowance were made. That was 20 per cent. more than in 1982. Awards are currently being made at the rate of 1,000 a week. Nearly 240,000 new claims for attendance allowance were made in 1983—again an increase of about 20 per cent. over 1982. The figures are evidence of the success of the allowances, which we welcome, but they certainly do not mean that we can relax our efforts to improve take-up of benefits for the long-term sick and disabled and others.

I am glad that we have been able to take a number of other initiatives—some local and some national—in recent months which I hope will help. I am particularly glad that we have been able to introduce throughout almost the whole country a DHSS freephone advice service which receives over 23,000 calls a month, about 12 per cent. of which are about benefits for the disabled. We hope that before long that service will be introduced in the Greater London area. I hope that the service will help further to improve take-up and increase the extent to which benefits go to those who qualify for them.

We are matching moves at national level with a number of good initiatives at local level. For example, regional and local information officers are giving many talks and much advice to disabled people and those who work with them. A particularly imaginative initiative in Scotland is a mobile information unit fitted with a hydraulic lift to accommodate wheelchairs. Another effective project in Scotland involves staff visiting adult training centres to help those who attend with their social security benefit entitlement. We shall continue to make as much progress as we can in the structure of the benefit system itself, in improving its administration and in ensuring that people are aware of their entitlement.

The right hon. Member discussed services. As the House knows, although it is sometimes slow to recognise it, since 1978–79 National Health Service expenditure has risen by about 18 per cent. above the rise in prices, resulting in a real increase in NHS resources of 8 per cent. By no means all of that has gone to the long-term sick and disabled, but it has helped to produce a steady growth in the number of professionals who are important to the care of disabled people, such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech therapists. It has also demonstrated our commitment to the importance of the rehabilitation services. Last year we made available over £300,000 to the network of specially designated demonstration centres in medical rehabilitation for the purchase of new and replacement equipment.

Those services are run by the health authorities. We are equally anxious to improve and develop the services that are run directly by the Department, including in particular the services provided for those who need artificial limbs and appliances, including wheelchairs.

I recently announced the setting up of a review team under Professor McColl to examine the services and the way in which they are provided to see whether we can make improvements in the interests of disabled people. I look forward to receiving the team's report next year.

Artificial limb and appliance centres are run directly from headquarters by Ministers. I pay tribute to DHSS staff in the artificial limb and appliance centres and at Warbreck hill, near Blackpool, where much of the central administration and supplies are dealt with. I visited Warbreck hill earlier this week and was enormously impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff and by their concern to improve and develop the service. The story is remarkable. For example, the number of people taking advantage of the wheelchair service has grown in the last 20 years from about 70,000 to about 300,000. The demand for standard non-powered wheelchairs is constantly growing. Over 360,000 are now in use and it is expected that the figure may reach 500,000 before the end of the decade. Wheelchairs may appear to be a mundane topic, but no one should doubt that they are an important part of the services provided for the disabled. I have been much impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff concerned with that service and its development.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to personal social services, expenditure and the development of facilities. Although I understand that he wishes to concentrate on the problems put to him, I wish that it would sometimes be acknowledged that in this area, as with the Health Service and the social security system—despite the difficulties to which attention is so often drawn—local authorities, on the latest figures, increased expenditure on social services by some 12 per cent. in real terms between 1979–80 and 1983–84. Moreover, there is significant evidence from some individual authorities that both the Government's urging to protect the needs of the most vulnerable and the desire of local authorities to do so have borne fruit.

Between 1979–80 and 1982–83, the latest year for which we have detailed figures, expenditure increased in real terms on residential facilities for younger physically disabled people, mentally handicapped children and adults and mentally ill people. Expenditure also increased in real terms on aids, telephones and adult training centres.

Of course more could always be done, but I am not impressed by some of the claims made by authorities that find it all too easy to spend money on what many of us would regard as inessential services, but cannot find the money to provide the essential services that we all want for the long-term sick and disabled in the community.

The right hon. Gentleman specifically asked about the effects of rate capping. I can do no better than to quote from the letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to Brian Rix of Mencap. It was dated 25 April, and printed in the Official Report on 13 June. It stated: As to the implications for services, we have to remember that we are talking of authorities who are spending relatively much more than other authorities providing a good standard of service—including active support of voluntary organisations—at lower cost to the ratepayers. They have plenty of scope for savings. There will be no question of their putting statutorily required services at risk. Furthermore, many of the authorities we are concerned with have a recent history of significant increases in expenditure—even allowing for inflation. They have been recruiting more staff and inventing totally new activities unrelated to their statutory responsibilities at a time when other authorities have been making significant savings; and, at the same time, they have been protesting about shortage of funds for their essential services. There is no reason why these authorities should not be able to make significant savings not least through increasing efficiency, without in any way cutting into the essential services they provide."—[Official Report, 13 June 1984; Vol, 61, c. 902.] I believe that that is right. Many hon. Members, when they study what is happening in their authorities, will find what was found by our social work service in the DHSS when it looked at what was happening across a range of authorities—that those who are prepared to show a little imagination, to think afresh about how they can best use their money in providing services, can protect the disabled in the way that I have outlined.

It is clear that the Government's emphasis on the development of care in the community, and especially the development of joint finance, is of significant assistance to authorities in doing what we wish them to do and in enlarging the facilities for the disabled so that they can remain within or be returned to the community. This year's allocation for joint finance is some 50 per cent. higher in real terms than it was when we took office. What is more, the terms on which it is available have been improved—not least by making it possible from April this year for joint finance to be used for education for the disabled and for housing in certain circumstances.

We are continuing to make progress in reducing the numbers of mentally handicapped children in large institutions. The Government's pound-for-pound scheme is helping to draw on voluntary sector resources for that—including, for example, the resources of the Spastics Society, whose former director, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), I am happy to see on the Benches behind me. We are encouraging health authorities, with the help of a £9 million scheme launched last year, to provide more appropriate care in a home-like setting. The response to the scheme has been very encouraging. To date, some 30 projects have been approved in principle, helping some 250 children out of large institutions.

A successful community care policy relies heavily on good co-operation between the agencies involved and the development of balanced and comprehensive local services. We have set up a working group with representatives from the local authorities, the National Association of Health Authorities and the DHSS to seek ways to improve joint planning.

I want to give some additional emphasis to one point. Whether in joint finance or in any other form of discussion relating to the needs of the disabled and to care in the community, it is increasingly important that we should all direct attention not only to. the needs of the disabled but, just as importantly, to the needs of those caring for them in the community. For too long our services have tended to take for granted the devoted efforts of those who do the caring. If we are to make a reality of our care in the community policy, it will be increasingly important to ensure that care is extended to the individual carers—the devoted wives, husbands, mothers and children who look after the elderly, sick and disabled in their homes or in places more closely a part of the community than the long-stay hospitals. Indeed, we are anxious to ensure that as many people as possible leave the institutions and are restored to a more normal life.

We in the DHSS, through the efforts of our admirable social work service, are currently holding a series of seminars throughout the country to try to spread that message. I hope that all hon. Members who care for the needs and interests of the disabled will help to spread that message and emphasise that point through their work for the disabled in their constituencies.

A second point that I wish to emphasise is the importance of the voluntary sector, which I know is represented in the House and is a cause to which many hon. Members have devoted a great deal of care and attention. The voluntary sector is vital for the disabled, not only as a major provider of services but to put across the message that the disabled have abilities and aspirations and a desire to choose the way in which they lead their lives. The voluntary sector provides them with a powerful means to express their views.

I hope that the Government have made it clear that we value and are concerned to encourage an active partnership between the statutory and voluntary sectors. An example of that occurred earlier this week when my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health announced financial support for the course developed by the Open University in conjunction with Mencap to meet the need of carers for the mentally handicapped—a project for which we are providing £50,000 both this and next year.

Before I leave the issues of services and benefits, I want to say something about the survey of disabled people announced by my right hon. Friend when he announced a series of social security reviews a few weeks ago. It is clear that despite the encouraging progress in both financial support and services for the disabled, our basic information about the nature and extent of disablement in the population will need extending and bringing up to date if a long-term strategy is fully to meet the needs and aspirations of the disabled in today's rapidly changing environment.

Alongside the reviews of social security, which themselves constitute the most substantial examination of this field since the Beveridge report 40 years ago, we are also commissioning from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys a new comprehensive survey of disabled people. This is a major research project and will be the first attempt to obtain a nationwide picture of the extent and severity of disablement in the community since the Amelia Harris survey for the OPCS in 1968–69.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

If the Minister is representing the inquiries that are currently going on in the DHSS as being equivalent to the Beveridge inquiry, would it not have given more substance to the results of those inquiries had they contained far more people who were not already committed to the Government's point of view? The inquiries already seem to be loaded with ministerial representatives, with few people from outside Government.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman cannot have studied the membership of the review teams. There has been some comment in the press—I imagine that the hon. Gentleman is using that—about my right hon. Friend's pensions inquiry. If the hon. Gentleman studies the membership of the reviews of benefits for children and young persons which the Minister of State is chairing, and the supplementary benefit review that I am chairing, he will find that in both cases Ministers are outnumbered two to one. The housing benefit inquiry is under a non-ministerial chairman and has no ministerial members. The hon. Gentleman will have to work harder than that intervention to suggest that the Government have set up a series of rigged reviews of social security matters.

Engagingly, if inaccurately, the hon. Gentleman sidetracked me from my main point about the survey of disabled people, which is that we hope that it will provide us with a fuller picture of the needs of some important groups of disabled people who were excluded from the Amelia Harris study—for example, the mentally ill or handicapped and those with sensory impairments. The survey will not only examine the physical causes and effects of disablement but will also inquire into the circumstances and financial and other needs of disabled people and their families, including the effect and take-up of existing benefits.

As the survey was announced alongside some announcements about social security matters, I wish to make it clear that we are concerned to ensure that the information we get is helpful for the development of services and benefits. It will, as always with a major survey of this kind, take time before we have the results, but I am confident that they will, when we have them, help this and future Governments in planning for the needs of disabled people.

There are many subjects on which I could, and perhaps should, touch in talking about the third of my initial themes, which is our concern to widen and improve the opportunities for disabled people within the community. But time is moving on and I shall refer only briefly to some of the main points, with a view at the end of the debate to commenting on other matters that hon. Members may raise.

The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe referred to the Education Act 1981 and the question of resources. The Government made it clear at the time of the passage of that Act, and have continued to make it clear since, that its full effects would take time to bear fruit. The Act established a framework within which local authorities could develop their services over a period to bring about the greater integration of handicapped children where possible in normal schools.

That process has started, but it will take time to carry through, as any realistic person would expect. The Government have played a useful part in helping that process forward, not least, for example, by the grants that are being made available to help with in-service teacher training, for which between £1 million and £2 million is being made available in 1984–85 for special educational needs in ordinary schools.

The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe made some play with the position over employment. Again, no reasonable person would attempt to deny that at a time when unemployment throughout the community is higher than any of us would like, that must inevitably have an effect on opportunities for disabled people, if only because they are themselves part of the community.

What is not the case, and what I wish firmly to reject, is that the Government have either ignored the needs of disabled people in this respect or are not steadily seeking to develop their services with the aim of improving the capacity for disabled people to obtain employment. I think, for example, of the fit-for-work scheme involving employers in an effort to raise their awareness of the needs of disabled people and the ways in which they may be employed; of the newly introduced disablement advisory service, which has also proved helpful; and of the placement services, and it is worth noting, despite what the right hon. Gentleman said, that nearly 70,000 disabled people were placed in open employment in 1983–84.

It can be seen, too, in the work of the Department of Employment in helping towards the provision of sheltered employment for those with more severe disabilities. A record number of people, about 15,000, were placed in employment in 1983–84 under this heading, including an encouraging increase in the use of sheltered industrial groups.

The Manpower Services Commission spent over £160 million last year on a range of services bringing benefits to well over 100,000 disabled people, including not only the more specialised services to which I have referred, but to more generalised programmes, such as the youth training scheme and the community programme, where eligibility criteria have been made more flexible with the needs of disabled people in mind. Later this year we shall have the report of the working party that has been looking at ways of making the quota scheme more effective. A code of good practice for employers, which has been endorsed by the national advisory council on employment for disabled people, will shortly be presented to the commission.

The issue of access and transport is, I recognise, among the major concerns of disabled people. Frustration about these matters is perhaps at the core of the feelings of the disabled about legislation on discrimination. In a country where the transport systems and building stock were designed at a time when less regard was paid to the needs of the disabled, there is no doubt that the problems of access and the opportunities that go with them present formidable difficulties. It is clear, however, that significant progress has been made, and much effort is being devoted to these issues across a range of Government Departments.

The access committee for England, which is funded by the DHSS but was set up independently of it, is now well under way. I attended its first meeting in March last and was impressed by the energy and commitment shown and by the constructive way in which its members, who represent a range of different interests, are working together to grapple with the complex issues involved.

One issue which they have taken up with particular vigour is that of the proposed amendment to the building regulations to improve access in new buildings. The Minister for Housing and Construction has taken serious note of the concerns that the committee has expressed, of the concerns already expressed by the all-party disablement group and echoed by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe today at the proposal to restrict the building regulations to the ground floor only until codes of practice on egress have been developed.

I wish to take this opportunity to assure the House, in response to what the right hon. Gentleman said, that the Government are fully committed to a comprehensive building regulation covering all floors and have no wish to introduce measures that are unwelcome to disabled people.

The safety of those leaving a building in an emergency must also be safeguarded. One possible way ahead, which is being actively considered, is to proceed with a comprehensive regulation for shops and offices, for which egress codes already exist or will shortly exist, and to extend that to other buildings as soon as the relevant codes become available. I hope that that will be helpful to the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and other hon. Members.

The Department of Education and Science is reviewing its design guidelines to incorporate similar access provisions for education buildings. Work is going on at the Home Office to include guidance on access for the disabled in a national advisory standard on fire precautions in places of public entertainment. Guidance on safety in cinemas is currently being revised and will refer to the relevant recommendations in the report of the Committee on Restrictions against the Disabled.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).