§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.952
My Lords, I think it is true that the majority of the great State social services, which we take almost for granted nowadays, have evolved in the first place from the efforts of voluntary bodies. This in turn may account for the fact that progress in these services has usually been maintained by a series of steps not always very spectacular in themselves, but calculated to preserve the original voluntary spirit and to widen its scope by combining it with the efforts of local authorities and ultimately with the efforts of the State itself. I have remarked on previous Bills that this voluntary system leads in some ways to complication in legislation, but I think it is worth making some administrative sacrifice if the sympathy and the knowledge of those voluntary organisations can be maintained. I think you will feel some pride in knowing that the blind have always attracted a great deal of spontaneous sympathy of the most practical kind, and indeed it was not until 1919 found necessary to make any State provision for them. The Act under which the blind are being at present assisted is, as your Lordships know, the Blind Persons Act, 1920, where for the first time the local authorities were charged specifically with the duty of promoting the welfare of the blind and were given powers to that end.
It must be said to the credit of the voluntary workers that a great deal of very useful work has been done under that Act for the benefit of that unfortunate section of the community, the blind. It is not, however, altogether surprising that in seventeen years certain administrative reforms should have proved themselves desirable, and it is to meet that demand that this Bill is introduced. Before going into the actual details of the Bill, I should like to recapitulate the principles on which State assistance has been given and upon which it is proposed to be continued. I suppose that the most valuable service that can be rendered by the State in connection with the blind is the prevention of blindness, and I am glad to say that the development in medical services and the advance in medical science have brought about an immense improvement in this direction. Since 1925 there has been no less than a 38 per cent. reduction in the number of blind children between the ages of five and sixteen, which is really a remarkable figure. The prevention of 953 blindness is more difficult in people of more mature age, but nevertheless the statistics show that the age at which blindness sets in has become, of recent years, steadily higher. In fact, 89 per cent. of all the new cases registered during the year ending March 31 last occurred at over forty years of age.
The next most valuable service that can be rendered by the State is, I think it would be generally agreed, in the training of the blind to support themselves. I do not put that forward on the ground of economy, although economy is important in training the blind, as it is always in administration. The real reason is that there is no lesser desire among the blind than there is among those of any other section of the community to pull their weight, to preserve their self-respect, and to make some contribution cowards the life of the country. I am told that in the United States certain blind persons are employed specially because they are blind, to carry out certain industrial processes for which special sensibilities are required, and I suppose employment of that sort would be the ideal employment for the blind. Unfortunately such opportunities are rare, and we cannot hope to train more than quite a small percentage of blind persons to support themselves entirely, particularly when blindness comes at an advanced age, because it is very difficult then to learn a new profession under what is a new and terrible handicap.
Accordingly, in the Act of 1920 provision was made whereby a blind person over fifty became entitled to the ten shillings pension which normally goes to the old age pensioner at seventy. It has been represented for some time by the Ministry's Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, of which Lord Blanesburgh was Chairman, and their view has been confirmed by other bodies, such as the National Institute for the Blind, that it is just as difficult for blind persons to adapt themselves to new conditions at forty as at fifty, and one of the main proposals of the Bill is to make the ten shillings pension available to the blind at forty instead of at fifty. This is brought about in Clause 1 of the Bill. There are about 75,000 registered blind persons in this country, of whom, on March 31 last, about 8,200 were between forty and fifty years of age. These latter will therefore be eligible for pensions, although, of 954 course, they will not all qualify for it, as they would not all be under the necessary disabilities.
In Clause 2 we are attempting to simplify the administration and obtain greater uniformity. Any of your Lordships who are engaged in local government will appreciate that simplicity makes for increased efficiency, and therefore will benefit blind persons themselves. Your Lordships are aware that, whether people are blind or not, they have a right to be relieved of destitution by the local authorities, and the local authorities have further special duties in connection with the blind, which have appeared in previous Acts and are reproduced in this Bill in these words:It shall be the duty of the council of every county or county borough to make arrangements for promoting the welfare of blind persons ordinarily resident in the area of the council …Now these councils have hitherto carried out their duties by institutional treatment, by domiciliary assistance, by visits and by various other methods, and under the Act of 1920 the local authorities were given the option of dealing with the destitution part of their duties either under the Blind Persons Act or under the Poor Law procedure. Most of the local authorities have adopted the Blind Persons Act procedure, but we think it would make for simplicity and improvement all round if more uniformity was now introduced. It is accordingly provided that all blind persons, both in regard to destitution relief and training, should henceforth be dealt with under the Blind Persons Act. In fact, this principle is now to be extended to the dependents of the blind as well as to the blind themselves.
Following the recommendations of the Welfare of the Blind Committee of 1924, we are not proposing to remove the discretion of the local authorities, and before giving assistance they will still have to ascertain the means of the blind per3c,n and the family. But we think this investigation would be more sympathetically and simply conducted if the needs of the blind persons and their dependents were assessed by one committee and not by two. Therefore, for the more efficient and sympathetic working of the procedure we propose to transfer these dependents also to the care of the blind committees. 955 We are also able to make a further concession to the blind, because we now propose to adapt certain rules under which unemployment benefit is assessed for the purpose of calculating the assets of the blind person, and we are proposing to require those who administer the Bill to disregard the first 5s. of any sick pay received from a friendly society, the first 7s. 6d. of national health insurance benefit, and half of any weekly payment accruing from workmen's compensation. The clause also enables contribution to be made towards funeral expenses of the blind person and so removes what is known as the Poor Law stigma from this sad but unavoidable occasion in their lives. Clause 3 introduces a new procedure to deal with the cases of removal. It looks a little complicated, but it has been agreed with the local authorities, and it is not necessary for me to explain it in detail. Clause 4 contains particular provisions to enable the Act to be assimilated to Scottish requirements.
Your Lordships will therefore see that the main purpose of the Bill is to oil the wheels of the machinery under which the blind have been not unsuccessfully dealt with in the past. We do not propose to introduce any great new revolutionary principle, although I am aware that we were urged to do so in another place; but it is quite true that we still do leave to the local authorities a great deal of discretion as to how they should deal with cases of blindness, and what payments they should make to the blind. We are facilitating the task, and bringing a little more uniformity into the matter. It is of course possible to argue that where there is discretion the local authorities may abuse it. That is inherent in any form of devolutionary administration, but the evidence which we have has shown that hitherto the blind have been treated by local authorities with the greatest possible sympathy and efficiency. They have done a great deal to improve the conditions of the blind. The home visiting and the instruction that they are giving is of the highest possible value, and progress is being maintained everywhere. In these circumstances we feel that it is better to introduce reforms which will help these hitherto successful endeavours, and not introduce innovations which though seemingly beneficial 956 might easily hinder and not assist progress. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Gage.)
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE
My Lords, the noble Viscount has explained the provisions of the Bill very lucidly, but I think it must strike your Lordships that the Government have missed an opportunity of doing something which would be of lasting benefit to the blind in this country. It is a disability for which we always feel the very greatest sympathy. While, curiously enough, the loss of sight is a terrible handicap, we all of us know that it has a wonderful way of sharpening other faculties, so that in some cases the blind person may be of considerable use, not only to the community, but socially. But I think it will strike those who listened to the noble Viscount's speech that it is not very clear why the age of forty has been chosen. If this disability is a serious handicap in the life of the poor, who undoubtedly find that in the labour market their chances are very small, that is a question which affects a far younger age than forty. This disability really ought not to be mixed up with the question of age; it is a question of the actual blindness itself. And we on this side of the House are inclined to think that the Government would have done very much better if they had accepted the fact that the number of blind people—I am glad to say a small number, and I agree with the noble Viscount, a decreasing number—should be taken as a whole because of their disability, and that assistance should be given to them from the age when they become adult, that is to say, eighteen, because a young man between twenty and thirty is just as much affected, and his future endangered, by his disability as a man between forty and fifty. So my first criticism is that the reduction of the age to forty is entirely inadequate, and that this was a great opportunity for treating the blind as a whole from the adult age.
In regard to the action of local authorities at present, there is no sort of uniformity. In some places the local authorities are granting a sum of 21s. a week, and in other, perhaps adjacent, areas the blind get 15s. a week or less. But a more serious possibility which may arise from the passage of this Bill is that 957 local authorities, as it seems, are preparing to make some saving in their expenditure, deducting the amount of the Government grant. The result of that will be no benefit to the blind at all; it is merely saving the rates in order to put the burden on the Exchequer. There ought to be some very strong safeguard against anything of that sort being done, otherwise the effect of this Bill will be entirely nugatory. The administration of the various organisations for dealing with blind people is in an unsatisfactory condition. As the noble Viscount himself said, the voluntary system leads to complications, and there is no doubt that there may be not only a certain amount of overlapping, but a lack of central administration, which prevents the various organisations doing all that they should. For instance, in the London area there are five agencies, chiefly voluntary, who ask for either the employment or the assistance of blind people; they act independently, and the result is not as satisfactory as it should be. These agencies should be co-ordinated, where they exist, under the authority of the local authority, whatever it may be, and that co-ordination might be arranged and organised on a regional basis. Unless these small matters are dealt with, the method of nibbling at this question by a little Bill from time to time will not effect the reforms and the relief which we want to see.
I will call the noble Viscount's attention also to the fact that there should be some provision which ensures that the grant given to the blind person who is in need of Poor Law relief should in no case be lower than that granted at present by the public assistance committee. There is no safeguard against that. I would also urge that if the blind person is in hospital, he or she should continue to receive the pension in the ordinary course. I think the noble Viscount said that over 8,000 people would be affected by this Bill, and I think the cost would come to something like a little over £4,000 a week. That is not a very heavy sum of money, and if the Bill were far more comprehensive and dealt with these unfortunate people as a whole, I cannot conceive that the sum involved would be sufficient to make us hesitate to give the blind the relief they want. At a later stage there may be some Amendments suggested from this side of the House—not, I am afraid, that they will be likely to have any great 958 success—but between now and then I would urge the noble Viscount to take into account some of the points that I have placed before him, more especially the extension of the age downwards, in order that this measure may be a notable advance in our treatment of the blind.
My Lords, I would like to point out in answer to the noble Lord's observations that the lowering of the age limit, the main point he made, was suggested in a Private Member's Bill introduced in 1928, and it was opposed by the advice of the Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, who, apart from the very heavy additional expenditure which would be thrown on the local authorities, were convinced that it would rob the blind of all incentive and generally undermine their morale. This question was debated at some length in another place, and I cannot hold out very much hope that that Amendment would be accepted here. I do not remember that one or two other suggestions made by the noble Lord were debated at such length in another place, and I will certainly look into them.
On the general question, I do not think anybody has ever suggested that as the result of this Bill the blind are going to receive a great deal more money than they are receiving to-day. We are still leaving the local authorities with a great deal of discretion as to how they deal with the blind, though of course we do take great interest in whether they are doing it in a satisfactory way. We hope that what we propose will make it easier for them to carry out their duties. We do not think any useful purpose would be served by centralising the whole of this administration very highly and insisting on some new cast-iron scale to which every local authority would have to adhere absolutely. We believe that would upset the voluntary principle. I may say that we have inspectors going all over the country, and they do not report any case of unsympathetic or bad treatment of the blind by local authorities. If any of your Lordships, now or in the future, know of any such cases the Ministry I represent will be most eager to take them up.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.