HC Deb 13 November 1984 vol 67 cc658-64

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

12.24 am
Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

At the outset of this important debate, may I say how pleased I am that the Minister for Social Security is to reply. I have known him for some years and know that he shares some of the concern that is felt in all parts of the House about the arrangements for the disabled. Tonight we are discussing those who are disabled by blindness. I have some sympathy for the hon. Gentleman, as I believe that his heart would like to make appointments that the Chancellor will not permit him to keep.

I must make some comparisons. Comparisons are always odious, but I should make it clear that, when they compare what happens to people with other forms of disability, the blind are not trying to make divisions between themselves, paraplegics, the mentally handicapped or those who are handicapped by deafness. There is unity and solidarity among the disabled. Although the blind would like their needs to be given special consideration, they do not want that to be at the expense of other sections of the community. Those other sections of the community have been fortunate in regard to mobility and attendance allowances, and the blind are most grateful for that.

I am pleased to see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) is present. Everyone knows that, although all Governments have been able to contribute, no Back Bencher has made a greater contribution than did my right hon. Friend by introducing and getting onto the statute book the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which started a series of measures providing care and attention. The House is most grateful to him.

I intend to conclude my speech earlier than usual, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) is present. As this is an all-party concern, I hope that he might catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before the Minister replies. Blind people miss out in two ways—first, because most benefits are not geared to help with extra costs. For example, invalidity benefit helps people who have lost their income because they cannot work. It is not designed to meet the extra price of being blind. Secondly, blind people do not qualify for important benefits which would help with extra costs. For example, they do not qualify in their own right for mobility or attendance allowances. Blindness does not qualify people for mobility allowance, which is based on physical ability to move and not on sensory difficulties which make it hard or unsafe to get about and which impose extra costs in assistance and fares. Indeed, many blind people are barred automatically from mobility allowance because they cannot claim it for the first time if they are over 65—and more than half of the 130,000 blind people in the United Kingdom are over 75 and most lost their sight as they grew older. Blindness does not therefore qualify people for attendance and other allowances. In that context, I hope that the Minister will cast his eye over the possibility of making some improvements.

Blind people do not find it easy to do their own decorating, to clean their own windows, to cut their own hedge, to make their own clothes, to mend a fuse or rewire a plug or to shop around for the best value. Blind people find that their clothes get extra wear and tear from bumping into things, rubbing against walls, catching on projections, scorching, cigarette burns and tears. Their crockery and glass is more readily broken and chipped. They often need to pay for a companion and to take taxis when they travel. If one is blind, one often needs tape recorders and tapes to keep telephone numbers, recipes and notes, and to keep up with the printed word. One cannot get by with a ballpoint pen and a pad of paper. One needs a typewriter or a braille typewriting machine. A blind person uses the telephone more and at more expensive times. One needs extra space to store bulky braille books. Braille takes eight times the space of print.

Blind people receive special help, and the Minister will take that into consideration. Forty thousand blind people get supplementary benefit and an extra £1.25 a week. That was fixed in 1962, and I hope that it will be revised. Thirty thousand blind workers receive extra tax relief that amounts to only £2 a week. But 60,000 blind people receive neither. There is, quite rightly, an allowance for those who cannot walk, but there is no allowance for those who cannot see.

Last session an early-day motion sought to persuade the Government to accept International Labour Organisation convention 159, which affects all disabled people, including blind people. It was approved by the ILO, but the Government have still to ratify it.

Blind people face problems at work. I mentioned their difficulty of remaining in the community. For the past 30 years the general principle has been not to put the disabled into institutions, but to make them a living part of the community. That means working. Blind people are at a disadvantage compared with other disabled people regarding sheltered work shops. Because blind people are provided for in an earlier Act than other disabled people, they cannot return to a sheltered work shop after leaving it

In a period of prosperity blind people leave sheltered work shops and find jobs in the community. When there is a recession, however, they find themselves out of work—at present more than two and a half times as many blind people are unemployed as non-disabled people—and are not permitted to return to sheltered work shops. An attempt should be made to provide such a facility for the blind to bring them into line with other disabled people.

We are a civilised society. A civilised society is judged by the way it treats the very young, the very old and those who are not fortunate enough to have all their faculties and to be able to face the physical and mental problems of our modern world. A civilised society should pay more attention to the fact that for about 25 years the blind have been missing out on provisions. Something should be done to bring provisions for them into line with others who unfortunately suffer from disablement.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

I understand that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) has the agreement of the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) and the Minister for Social Security to intervene.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

I am greatful to the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) for his characteristic courtesy in allowing me to intervene in the debate. He made an eloquent case for the plight of the blind. I shall confine my contribution to some questions which may enable us to judge more clearly the present position of the blind.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security was good enough to reply to a written question today in which I asked what the present day value was of the original blindness allowance set in 1948 at 15s, or 75p, a week. My hon. Friend replied that its value today would be £7.06. How does he reconcile that with Lord Glenarthur's reply on 21 March this year in another place that If the extra allowance of 1948 had been increased in line with the movement in the retail price index it would have been £8.21 in November 1983."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 March 1984; Vol. 449, c. 1359.] I appreciate that the Government have made great strides in reducing inflation, but the disparity still seems rather odd. My hon. Friend may say that his answer allowed for the deduction of the housing cost component. If so, perhaps he will assist in restoring comparability as between the two answers.

The hon. Member for Brent, South gave a detailed catalogue of the extra costs incurred by the blind. I believe that the £1.25 currently paid barely meets the cost of maintaining a guide dog. The payment is thus in urgent need of review, especially as it has come nowhere near keeping pace with inflation. Although we applaud the increase in tax allowance given to the blind by the Government some time ago, does not my hon. Friend feel in retrospect that we might have done better to use that money to increase the allowances of the less well off rather than to help the small and relatively more affluent percentage of blind people in a position to pay tax?

I hope that my hon. Friend will also explain one or two anomalies relating to supplementary benefit. It seems that the non-householder addition will make single non-householders better off than single householders. The ordinary rate for single householders is £28.05 per week whereas single non-householders receive £31.15 per week when the supplementary benefit and the blindness addition are added together. Similarly, the long-term rate for single householders is £35.35 per week whereas for single non-householders it is £38.45. That appears to discriminate against the non-householder when it seems clear that the needs of the householder are likely to be greater.

In conclusion, I draw attention to my early-day motion 36 and hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has had the opportunity to study it.

12.38 am
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

This debate is of considerable interest to many thousands of people outside the House, some hundreds of whom lobbied Members on the subject earlier today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) on raising the subject and on the serious and responsible way in which they have put the case, which was very much in line with the impressive way in which the arguments were put to me this afternoon by representatives of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the National League of the Blind and Disabled and the National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom in connection with their lobby. It was put to me fairly firmly this afternoon by one of the people who was in the delegation that what was wanted was not expressions of sympathy but action. I understand that.

I must make it clear that I cannot tell hon. Members tonight what they want to hear. However, I am sure that there is nothing between us in recognising the problems that blind people face, in our sympathy—I use the word advisedly—with their difficulties, and in our concern to secure that their needs are reflected in the formation of social security policy.

The existing major provisions in supplementary benefit and tax have already been referred to. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West is right in his assumption about the difference between the figure that I gave him in a recent answer about the real value of supplementary benefit addition compared with 1948 and the answer given earlier in the year in another place. It is because, as in all our answers on supplementary benefit rates, of which the blindness addition is one, we use the same price index as that used for uprating supplementary benefit, that is the retail price index less the housing component of that index. The comparable figure to the answer in the other place, had the recent answer been on that basis, would have been of the order of £8.50.

I hope that I made it clear in the answer that I was answering on the basis that I did. That seems sensible, given that for supplementary benefit claimants housing benefit costs are met separately, and that is as true for blind claimants for supplementary benefit as it is for any other. Therefore, it is sensible to use this index convention in talking about supplementary benefit rates or additions. I should not want to mislead my hon. Friend.

There has been reference to the supplementary benefit blind addition and to the tax allowance, which, as my hon. Friend said, has been increased by the Government to £360. However, it may be sensible if I set out in a little more detail some of the other existing provisions, because they amount to somewhat more than is recognised, and it is important that the possible entitlement of blind people should be understood. We have been taking various steps to try to ensure that it is more widely understood.

In addition to the supplementary benefit blind addition of £1.25, as my hon. Friend recognised, single householders aged 18 or over and those aged 16 to 17 who have a dependent child are entitled to a further addition to that benefit to bring the scale rate up to the higher level of a householder. That will be worth, from 26 November, £5.60 additional to those in receipt of the ordinary rate of supplementary benefit and £7.15 extra a week for those on the long-term rate, which includes pensioners. My hon. Friend seems to have misunderstood the position as between householders and non-householders. He will have gathered from what I have just said that the benefit of non-householders is brought up to that for householders in these circumstances.

Equally, where householders are in receipt of both supplementary benefit and housing benefit, where there is a dependant in the household—this is another advantage of the present system for the blind — no assumed contribution towards housing cost is deducted from the claimants' housing or supplementary benefit entitlement. In the case of housing benefit entitlement, where the claimant is in receipt of housing benefit only, the needs allowance is increased by £4.95 a week where the claimant or his partner is blind, and by £7.30 a week if both are blind. That does not mean an equivalent amount of benefit, because that will depend on various other circumstances, including the rent and rates paid, but it brings an additional advantage to blind people. The claimant's benefit is not reduced to take account of an assumed contribution towards housing costs from any non-dependent member of the household.

In the context of the debate, it is perhaps ironic that the provisions mean that, far from being ignored in the present system, blind people are, I think that I am right in saying, the only group of people who command special treatment of this kind as a result of a specific disability. In making that point, I am conscious that it can be turned round to say that the special case for the treatment of blindness in that way has already been recognised. Before hon. Members jump in to make too much of that point, let me say that for the most part those provisions are an inheritance from a time when blindness was virtually the only disability to be recognised. For a long time now—I recognise that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) played an important part in this—the approach of successive Governments of both parties has been to seek to recognise and to try to meet the needs of disabled people as a whole.

The principal reason why the supplementary benefit addition has not been systematically uprated, despite the introduction of new benefits and a massive increase in social security spending on the long-term sick and disabled, is precisely because Governments have sought to concentrate resources on provisions that help disabled people across the board.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

We cannot argue the case for legislation in an Adjournment debate, but the Minister is well aware that the RNIB, the National League of Blind and Disabled and the National Federation of the Blind are concerned to see the introduction of a blindness allowance. Will he be making representations to the Chancellor about the strength of the case for such an allowance? At the same time, can he say anything about the importance of the claim on behalf of people who are both deaf and blind for some help with their mobility? He knows that the Deaf-Blind Helpers League is concerned on that matter. I hope that he will be able to say a brief word about its case.

Mr. Newton

Indeed, I was about to make the point, in the context of what I have just said, about the development of benefits in recent years alongside the long-standing national insurance benefit, sickness benefit, invalidity benefit—sickness benefit partly replaced by statutory sick pay — for those who are incapable of work. We have seen from the right hon. Gentleman's work, and more recently from changes that we have made, the development on non-contributory invalidity benefits, now turning into the severe disablement allowance in which the position of the blind is particularly recognised by automatically passporting them over the 80 per cent. test. There is a range of non-contributory invalidity benefits from which many blind people have benefited. The introduction of attendance allowance has been another major development, and there has been the introduction of mobility allowance.

All those benefits are available to blind people on the same basis as to everybody else. Those are not idle words. I accept that there have been—this is directly relevant to the right hon. Gentleman's point — a number of difficulties about mobility allowance, particularly involving blind and deaf-blind people, and to some extent mentally handicapped people as well, which remain in a state of some uncertainty because of a case which is now going on appeal to the House of Lords. The right hon. Gentleman will understand that, because the matter is subject to appeal, there is little that I can add tonight except to say that we shall review the need to look at the guidance, and, indeed, if necessary, the regulations in the light of the outcome of that case. Clearly I cannot say more than that tonight.

On our latest information, some 13,600 people with visual impairment are in receipt of attendance allowance. It must be bringing them considerable assistance.

Mr. Butterfill

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is probable that the vast majority of those are elderly blind people who might well receive attendance allowance in any case?

Mr. Newton

It is possible, although we cannot be sure, because we do not have sufficient analyses. However, I shall come to that point in a moment. As time is short, I simply want to emphasise that as a Government we have sought to build on the approach of developing benefits that spread across the range of disabled people and are directed primarily to the needs that arise from disability, rather than to classify people according to their disabilities.

To that end, we have commissioned the most substantial survey of disabled people and their needs to have been undertaken in this country for many years, with a view to giving us better information for future planning and policy making. It would, of course, be open to hon. Members to say that they wished to change the approach that has informed the development of disability benefits in recent years under Governments of both parties, but I hope that they will ask themselves a few questions before deciding that that is what they wish to do. For example, is such an approach really consistent with the more coherent system of benefits for disabled people which is, I think, our common aim, given that the effects of so many disabilities and disabling diseases vary so much from case to case? Is it established that the undoubted problems that blind people face can be so clearly distinguished from those caused by other disabilities that the case of a blindness allowance can be taken in isolation?

The hon. Member for Brent, South has always, to his great credit, taken a close interest in the problems of deaf people and he will be as well aware as I am of the case put forward by them and on their behalf in respect of the extra costs of their special problems. Indeed, that case is being advanced at the moment. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would wish any more than I do to arbitrate between the claims of the blind and the deaf, but I am sure that I will carry him with me in saying that the organisations representing the deaf feel that they too have a powerful case which should command our attention.

Given that three quarters of those who are blind are over 65 and that well over half are over 75—in other words, that blindness is predominantly a problem of old age—are hon. Members really sure that it would be right to single out blindness for unique provision alongside the many other disadvantages and disabilities of advancing years?

In asking those questions, I have deliberately refrained from referring to the question of cost, but clearly that too has to be faced. To extend the blindness allowance to all blind people at mobility allowance rates would cost about £125 million. Even more modest proposals, such as the maintenance of age restrictions for mobility allowance and their application to a blindness allowance, would probably leave us with a bill of about £40 million. Inescapably, those figures must be looked at alongside many other claims including an extension of invalid care allowance to married women, a reduction of the 80 per cent. disability test for the severe disablement allowance, the possible introduction of a partial incapacity benefit, and abolition of the mobility allowance age limit. They are all powerful claims. There are also demands for an improvement in services, such as the employment services to which the hon. Member for Brent, South referred, if resources are available.

I do not know, and I do not pretend to know, the answers to all the questions that I have put before the House. I have tried to approach the debate in a spirit of listening constructively to the arguments at a time when we are looking at much of our existing provision for social security and mounting a major survey of needs, including the information necessary for future planning.

I am sorry that I have been unable to say what hon. Members would like me to say, but they can be assured that in our work we shall be determined to ensure that we take account—as we should—of the case that has been made here tonight on behalf of blind people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to One o' clock.