HC Deb 08 July 2003 vol 408 cc1133-40

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

11.10 pm
Ian Stewart (Eccles)

I shall begin by declaring a deep and personal interest in the subject that I intend to raise this evening—a point to which I shall return if time permits.

I am pleased to have secured this debate, in this the European year of disabled people, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Motability scheme in 1978. It allows me to pay tribute to the work of one of my illustrious predecessors as MP for Eccles, Lewis Carter-Jones, who championed disability issues and helped to craft legislation that would provide a wide range of services for disabled people. The Minister will be relieved to learn that I am not raising a complex constituency case. I can honestly say that, in my six years in Parliament, I have had only a couple of complaints about the Motability scheme, and those have been resolved.

No doubt there are measures that could be undertaken to improve the Motability scheme, but tonight I want to applaud the work of those involved in its establishment. I hope that as policy makers, we will draw some general lessons from the bold steps that our predecessors took at a time when the economic climate was exceptionally tough; after all, the UK was then enduring the strictures of the International Monetary Fund's squeeze on spending. However, to set the introduction of Motability in context, we should go back to the introduction of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970—a Back-Bench measure that was piloted through the House of Commons by a man who would become the world's first Minister for the disabled in 1974: Alf Morris, now Lord Morris of Manchester. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) joins me in paying tribute to his constituency predecessor, who is renowned nationally and internationally for the work that he has done for people with disabilities.

Lord Morris has demonstrated total dedication and the vital skill of balancing a commitment to principle with the ability to negotiate, encouraging and cajoling in equal measure to deliver real benefits for disabled people. The 1970 Act introduced a range of measures covering identification, information, social services, housing, education, access to the built environment and parking concessions. As the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation pointed out in its 25th anniversary review of the Act, it helped to create a demand for those things that the Act itself did not provide: self determination, choice, full civil rights and the money to exercise those rights. So when Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974, he created the new post of Minister for the disabled, and between 1974 and 1979 four new benefits for the disabled were introduced, including the motability allowance, which is now part of the disability living allowance.

Lord Morris recalled that a lady caller to Greater Manchester Radio's Alan Beswick show thanked him for giving her the "infidelity allowance". Leaving aside just how much that one may cost any Government, the lady was grateful for the additional money that any form of invalidity allowance would give her, and she also had the freedom to spend it as she chose.

Before 1976, help with mobility was given only to people who could drive, so if someone was too disabled or too young to drive, no special assistance was provided. Social inclusion was a distant dream then. The motability allowance was introduced in 1976 and its value was doubled within a year. People in receipt of motability allowance were also exempt from vehicle excise duty. Those combined measures offered disabled people a real choice about how to meet their mobility needs, but it soon became clear that disabled people without other resources would not be able to purchase a car.

The search was on for a new way to help disabled people get on the road. I stress that Motability would not have got off the ground without the finance provided by the motability allowance. That was the powerhouse for the new scheme. We then saw the development of a genuine "social partnership"—with the Government, the voluntary sector, banks and businesses coming together to establish Motability and its finance arm, Motability Finance Ltd. The whole House, including the then shadow Secretary of State, Patrick Jenkin, welcomed the initiative in a truly non-partisan way.

I should like to pay tribute to the political input of Labour Ministers of the time: Jim Callaghan, the Prime Minister; David Ennals; Alf Morris; and, of course, Denis Healey. With other Ministers—a Cabinet Committee for the disabled was established—they set the conditions for the birth of this important service. Sir Peter Large made an important contribution from the voluntary sector. Civil servants and others were seconded to establish the service, and the Chancellor Denis Healey bravely relaxed the corset on the banks' permitted credit limit by £100 million. That was crucial to providing the necessary finance. I also want to pay tribute to the late Lord Goodman, Lord Sterling, the current Motability chair, and Sir John Quinton for their role in getting the money delivered.

Evidence of the success of the scheme is highlighted by the following statistics. In 1976–77, help under the private car allowance cost about £2 million, or £25 million at today's prices. Our Labour Government now spend £3.9 billion on motability allowance alone with, I believe, about 2 million recipients. More than 1.5 million cars were provided in Motability's first 25 years. Disabled people can now, like the rest of us, use their cars to shop, visit family and friends and go to work—the ordinary things in life.

Since 1997, the Government have introduced a number of measures, about which the Minister may say more, to help disabled people. Labour has established the Disability Rights Commission, extended coverage of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and introduced the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Again in passing, I would like to commend the work of Springwood, a very special school in my constituency, whose official opening I was pleased to attend last month. The Government have also improved benefit provision for the disabled, including an extension of motability payments to children aged three and four.

Against that background, I was astonished to learn that no other country in the world has followed our lead on motability allowance and Motability. I believe there are 37 million disabled people in the EU and 600 million worldwide. Surely there must be greater scope for us to promote our success abroad and offer our expertise to other countries. Motability makes the best use of money available because it is a bulk purchaser, and Motability cars form the biggest second-hand market in the UK. I know that the economic circumstances in Europe and elsewhere may not appear to be at their most favourable but, as I pointed out earlier, motability allowance and Motability were introduced in the UK at a time of severe economic stringency. However, the political will existed to tackle intractable problems and change social priorities. Political will is, as ever, the key to achievement.

I wish Motability continued success in meeting the motoring needs of disabled people. I have already paid tribute to its chair of governors, Lord Sterling, and wish also to commend its director, Noel Muddiman, and its entire staff. I hope that in the next 25 years we will see the rolling out of finance for Motability and similar organisations set up in many other countries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) wishes to make a contribution based on her personal experience, but disability does not affect only disabled people. It touches almost every person in the country, because we all have friends and family who have disabilities. I wish to mention two important women in my life in that regard. One was my mother, Helen Stewart, who having had five heart attacks over 30 or so years, started to show signs of the onset of Alzheimer's. The pressure of caring for my mother fell on my younger sister, Margaret, and it was a great relief when, with the help of Motability, a car was bought that allowed my mother some quality of life in her remaining years. For that, I am grateful to Motability.

The second important woman is my mother-in-law, Joyce Holding, who is seriously ill, but who is challenging the world and living life to the full as best she can. Joyce Holding is proud of this Government and the local social services in Salford, our city, because in her time of need, they have delivered the services that she desperately needs and that, to be frank, we as a family need on her behalf. Within a matter of days, Joyce received the appropriate benefits to which she is entitled, and she received her blue badge, which allows the family to take her wherever she wishes to go, when she feels able. Without being over-emotional, I repeat that disability is an issue that affects our whole society—each and every one of us.

I wish Motability a happy 25th birthday and I hope that it goes from strength to strength.

11.24 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) for allowing me to contribute to his Adjournment debate. I applied for a similar Adjournment debate, but he got in first and was lucky enough to secure this debate tonight. I also wish to thank Mr. Speaker, who kindly hosted a reception to celebrate the 25 years of Motability in his chambers two weeks ago. It was a nice gesture that was much appreciated by the people involved.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles has said, I have to declare an interest. It does not appear in the Register of Members' Interests; it is a very personal one. I got my first Motability car in 1978 or 1979. It does not take a great arithmetical genius to realise that I must have had one of the first such cars. It was a 950cc Ford Fiesta, which in those days people could get for nothing on a three-year leaseback. If they wanted something slightly more souped-up, they had to pay a small deposit.

I think that there were only three manufacturers involved in Motability in the early days. Ford was certainly one, and I think that Rover was another. I cannot remember the third. Choice was very limited, but the important thing was that these were real cars. For a disabled person to have access to a real car was quite revolutionary. Before that, the only vehicles that disabled people had access to were the infamous trikes, the light blue three-wheeled cars which were, in fact, positively dangerous. They were death traps. They chuntered along at a very low speed and were really quite embarrassing to be seen in—luckily, I did not have one. They stigmatised disabled people because they made them stand out.

I was a young teacher when I got my first Motability car, and I was soon to live 16 miles away from my place of work. I can only imagine how difficult that would have been if I had only had access to a trike. In all, I had three cars under the Motability scheme through the leaseback system, whereby the mobility allowance was surrendered and I got the car and all its maintenance thrown in. I also had two cars under the hire purchase scheme: it was important for me to be able to keep my cars longer as I became more disabled, because I had to spend more money on adapting them more elaborately.

The Motability scheme has evolved over the years. It is now possible to get second-hand cars and powered wheelchairs through the scheme. But the key, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, was the mobility allowance, which came in in 1976, round about the same time as I qualified for it. I was perhaps one of the babies of the mobility allowance generation. The greatest tribute that I have to pay is to the great visionary Alf Morris. It was his vision, determination and tenacity in persuading people that this was the way forward that achieved something quite revolutionary. If my hon. Friend the Minister can achieve even part of that in his time at the Department for Work and Pensions, he will have achieved a great deal. I cannot emphasise too strongly how much admiration I have for Alf Morris, and for the work that he did. He changed my life, and the lives of millions of others. We owe him a great debt, and I am delighted to have been able to repay that debt by being able to say this tonight.

11.28 pm

The Minister for Work (Mr. Desmond Browne)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing this important and timely debate. He has an enviable reputation as a champion of disabled people, and it is fitting that he should have secured this opportunity for the House to mark the 25th anniversary of Motability. It is also fitting that the voice of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) should have been heard today. If ever there was an embodiment of the celebration of capability, she is it.

I understand that yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) apologised for the fact that he was not the Foreign Secretary. Today it is my turn; I apologise for the fact that I am not the Minister with responsibility for disabled people. That distinction belongs to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). She is devastated that she cannot be here this evening but, unfortunately, she is unwell. My hon. Friends will know that she battled on against the symptoms of flu all evening in the hope that she could respond to this debate, but she succumbed at about 10 pm, when wisdom overcame her ambition to be here. If my hon. Friends recognise some of her passion and knowledge in the words of my speech, they will understand why.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles has reminded the House, Motability has its origins in the radical changes in mobility provision for disabled people that took place in the 1970s. Its formation was due to the determination of the late Lord David Ennals, and of Lord Morris of Manchester, who was then Minister with responsibility for disabled people. Indeed, as we have been reminded, he was the first such Minister. The then Prime Minister and Chancellor, Lord Callaghan and Lord Healey, must also get an honourable mention—the former for his staunch political support, the latter for relaxing what was described as "the corset", which limited liquidity in the banking system for lending. With the input of many others, too numerous to mention, they showed that a determination to improve opportunities for mobility for disabled people can be translated into effective action.

As we have been reminded, in January 1976, the Government introduced the mobility allowance that provided cash help with mobility at the rate of £4 a week for all those between five and pensionable age who had a disability severely affecting mobility, whether or not they were able to drive a car. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South could tell us just us how much could be done with £4 a week at that time. It was, however, clear from the outset that the mobility allowance alone would not be sufficient to enable disabled people without any other resources to obtain a car. The solution was found in the form of a leasing scheme on preferential terms that would bring the acquisition of a car within the reach of most people receiving the allowance, but would also be backed up by charitable help for those for whom the allowance and their own resources still left a suitable car out of reach.

Given that brief, the late Lord Goodman and Mr. Jeffrey, now Lord, Sterling combined their considerable business expertise to devise the charity now known as Motability, and a leasing scheme to be operated by Motability Finance Ltd., a special company working exclusively for Motability and formed by a consortium of the major clearing banks. The formation of Motability was announced in Parliament on 6 December 1977 by the late Lord Ennals and was welcomed by Mr. Patrick, now Lord, Jenkin on behalf of the Opposition. The all-party support expressed at the outset has remained fundamental to Motability ever since.

The late Lord Goodman, founder of Motability, described the scheme as a splendid example of a mixed economy". It has also been said that that Motability could be considered as an early example of public-private partnership. Whatever description we choose, it is important to realise that once a need became apparent and the right people came together, there was a determination to meet that need and offer disabled people the same choice of freedom and independence in personal mobility that other people took for granted. That is to be applauded and is an example to us all of what can be achieved if there is a will.

Motability was indeed born out of a spirit of partnership and co-operation between public, private and voluntary sectors, and it is a partnership that has survived the test of time. That was very much in evidence only two weeks ago, when parliamentarians joined patrons, governors, members of Motability and representatives of disability organisations at a reception kindly hosted by Mr. Speaker in celebration of Motability's 25th anniversary year. Together, those groups have worked tirelessly to make Motability the success it undoubtedly is. On that occasion, I recollect, Lord Morris was keen to identify those who have made Motability possible and whose commitment and enthusiasm has continued over the years. However, I cannot let this opportunity pass without expressing my deep personal gratitude and admiration for all that Lord Morris achieved. It was his initiative as Minister for disabled people that led to the creation of Motability. I know and, indeed, heard on that night, that he has remained passionate in his support for the work that Motability has undertaken ever since.

The first Motability car was supplied in 1978—I have no idea whether it was the one driven by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South, but she must certainly have received one of the first. Since then, the scheme has gone from strength to strength. During the past 25 years, over 1.5 million cars have been provided to disabled people and their families. Motability now has four different schemes to help disabled people obtain a car using either contract hire or hire purchase agreements. There is also a scheme for the purchase of powered wheelchairs and pavement scooters. Currently, almost 400,000 people and their families benefit from the scheme that allows them to transfer all or part of their higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance or war pensioners' mobility supplement to Motability.

In honour of Motability's 25th anniversary, Her Majesty the Queen, as chief patron of the charity, presented the keys to six new vehicles to Motability customers at the royal mews on 25 June 2003. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was there, and she was especially impressed by a lively little girl called Gemma. My hon. Friend told all of us in the Department that she had greatly enjoyed talking to Gemma.

I am told that the vehicles on show were also interesting. They included a highly adapted van that will allow its owner to drive directly from a wheelchair, while ensuring that he remains fully independent and able to enjoy the freedom and mobility that other young people of his age take for granted. There was also a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle that will enable Gemma to travel comfortably with her family while remaining seated in her wheelchair. Provision of both those vehicles was made possible by the Government's specialised vehicles fund, to which I will refer later.

The keys presented on that very special day will enable families to enjoy days out together and allow individuals to access work and pursue their leisure interests. They will be used by their owners to undertake voluntary work in the community. They are keys to inclusion, and they illustrate that this scheme is making a very real difference to the lives of many disabled people and their families.

Of course, no scheme is without its critics, and Motability has not been complacent in addressing the concerns raised by its customers. This year, there has been a major restructuring of the scheme, aimed at improving customer service and providing greater flexibility in terms of lease agreements and mileage allowances.

Nor can Motability remain immune from the effects of market forces that operate within the business world. Over the past few years, Motability has had to face the dual challenge of the weakness of the used-car market and the uncertainties and rising prices of the insurance market. In this climate, the charity has worked hard to continue to provide a choice of vehicles for its customers, while striving to keep costs down wherever possible.

Motability is keen to remain in the forefront of advances in technology. At Wrightington mobility centre, Motability has contributed to the design and development of a static assessment rig. The work has also been funded by the Motability tenth anniversary trust. As well as at Wrightington, these rigs have also been supplied to all the other members of the forum of mobility centres.

The rigs use world-leading technology to allow driving assessments to be carried out. This type of assessment can help restore the confidence to drive of those faced with disability later in life as the result of illness or accident. It allows their capabilities to be established, rather than highlighting what they cannot do. It helps to identify what adaptations would help them to drive, and it can be instrumental in restoring the driving licence to those who, perhaps after a stroke, have had to relinquish it.

This year, the Government will be contributing more than £7 million towards the specialised vehicles funds that I mentioned earlier, to assist severely disabled people who need something more than a standard production vehicle to maintain their mobility. These funds are administered by Motability on behalf of the Government, and are complementary to the Motability scheme.

Last year, Motability was able to help more than 800 people in this way, with highly specialised adaptations. I know, from my experience of talking to those who have received grants towards adapted vehicles, how highly they value the technical expertise and professionalism shown by the staff of Motability in assessing their needs and in tailoring the vehicles to their requirements. Some of the adaptations made to allow people to drive from their wheelchairs are at the cutting edge of technology, and open up the possibility of driving to people who, in years past, could not hope to aspire to that.

Motability prides itself on keeping up to date with the considerable technological advances in the field of motor manufacturing and it strives hard to promote the needs of disabled drivers and passengers in this forum. It works with car manufactures to make them more aware of disabled people's needs, and encourages them to reflect those needs in new designs. It has already achieved some successes in that area, and I expect that more will be done as new generations of vehicles come on stream.

Motability is itself an independent charity and works hard to secure support and funding to help applicants who need financial support towards advance payments on vehicles, driving lessons or specialist adaptations. I know that that work is supported by motor manufacturers and many other groups, which work tirelessly to support Motability.

In conclusion, I should like to take this opportunity to thank Lord Sterling, the chairman of Motability, and all the other governors of Motability, for all that they do. I express my gratitude to Noel Muddiman, the director of Motability, and the staff of Motability and Motability Operations without whose behind-the-scenes contributions the work of Motability could not be undertaken.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles has already told the House, there is no parallel to this unique scheme in any other country of the world—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty minutes to Twelve o'clock.