HL Deb 05 February 1974 vol 349 cc747-68

4.30 p.m.

BARONESS PHILLIPS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the report on tests carried out on vehicles used by invalid drivers, what action they propose to take. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Minister will be relieved to learn that, because this Question has come on a little early, several speakers who intended taking part have not yet arrived in the House. But perhaps I can keep the discussion going for a little while and give them time to get here. We are today discussing the 20,000-odd invalid tricycles issued by the Department of Health and Social Security to the disabled and severely disabled. The term "three-wheeled tricycle" exactly describes them. They are literally three-wheeled trikes, just a slightly more sophisticated version of the old chair that we all knew so well of the veterans of the First World War. They provide a very small degree of comfort, not a great deal of stability and, in some cases, not very much safety for the unfortunate driver.

We must recognise the kind of person who is likely to be driving one of these tricycles. Such persons may be arthritic and have difficulty in using their hands. They may be elderly as well as handicapped, or perhaps suffering from a disease such as multiple sclerosis. They are not allowed to carry passengers and driving tuition must be given from outside the vehicle. Those of your Lordships who are drivers will fully appreciate the difficulties. But can you imagine someone who is handicapped driving alone in one of these three-wheeled tricycles at night on a windy road? The trike turns over, and the driver is left for an hour before being discovered. I know of a case where that happened, and the terror and suffering must have been intense. Other noble Lords who very kindly agreed to make a contribution to this debate may deal with the safety aspect from a more technical angle. I would merely point out that it appears that one in four of the "trikes" issued have been involved in an accident at some time.

Recently, the famous racing driver, Mr. Graham Hill, used a wheelchair as a result of an accident, and he was asked to test one of the three-wheelers for a national newspaper. I will quote his own words. He said: I was so appalled at what I found that ever since then I have tried everything within my power to publicise the fact that such vehicles should not be allowed on the road. If those strong words are not enough, would add that an independent test was carried out by the Cranfield Institute of Technology, and confirmed what Mr. Hill had said. Indeed, there were seventy points presented. I shall not weary your Lordships with all of them, but I will mention just a few which will no doubt be appreciated by the drivers among your Lordships. The test showed that the trikes are difficult to control in high winds; they are dangerous when braking and swerving; they have a flimsy fibre glass body which is not structurally reinforced, and indeed may well be inflammable in the event of fire; the petrol tank is mounted under the front of the bonnet; and they have only one door which could well prevent a driver from getting out in the event of the vehicle turning over. It is not difficult to see that the trike is outmoded and dangerous. The magazine Which? was very specific in its description. It said that the trikes are under-powered, unstable, unreliable, noisy, poorly-heated and would do little to protect a driver in an accident.

As a splendid example of self-help, the disabled drivers themselves have conducted a very lively and forceful campaign, and early last year Her Majesty's Government appointed the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, to look into the question of transport for the disabled. At the risk of sounding rather ungracious, I must say that I do not like one-man or indeed one-woman, committees, and it would be interesting to know which groups were invited to give evidence to enable Lady Sharp to compile her Report. Apparently, the Report was completed in October, 1973, but it has not so far seen the light of day.

Strange reasons have been advanced for the non-publication—and I quote the Minister in another place. He said there was a delay over printing—and we all know that one—and referred to the complexity of the subject and, the need to consider it deeply … within the Department before publication."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 22/1/74; col. 1433.] That gives me new hope. Obviously, Departments act immediately upon receiving a Report. This is splendid, but not usual. I agree with the Member of Parliament who suggested that if the Report is so complex it would be better to publish it; let the disabled drivers themselves study it, and then provide a feedback of further information. I see that even Lady Sharp herself is now said to be criticising the Department for the delay. There was a real note of hope in a statement which appeared in the Daily Telegraph of January 25—and I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm what was said: A decision in principle to replace the tricycles faulted by experts on 70 different counts has been taken following a report to Sir Keith Joseph by Baroness Sharp. So, my Lords, why not let us see this Report? Complex as it may be, I cannot see the reason for the delay.

Even more mysterious is the failure of the Government to publish the report of tests carried out by the Motor Industry Research Association. That is a commercial firm which carries out safety tests on motor vehicles for many Government Departments. The Minister in another place said, in a Written Answer to Mr. Marten at column 90 of the OFFICIAL REPORT in November, 1973, that while publishing the report might help to reassure any users of the machine misled into believing it to be intrinsically hazardous, it would not be in accord with established practice. No wonder Mr. Graham Hill described these actions as a "white-wash job and a bureaucratic exercise"! Of course I am not permitted to use such harsh words, but I do not think there is any Rule of the House which forbids my quoting what somebody else has said.

So far as I can discover, no one has said other than that these tricycles must go. I have done quite a lot of research, and I do not know of anyone who has spoken in their defence. I have comments from all the leading newspapers referring to the "Accident toll", "The need for four-wheeled cars", "To be abolished …" and so on, and I have figures supplied by the makers of Morris cars which show that the cost of converted cars would be very little different. But although I appreciate the present situation, I must say that during my lifetime it has never seemed the right moment to spend money in this society on health or on education. It might be thought that if a four-wheeled car which was safer, more comfortable and able to take passengers were made available, more people would apply for one; but that is a totally unacceptable argument. Part of the rehabilitation of an invalid is to have mobility. If they work and provide for themselves, they save the payments which would have to be made to them if they were housebound.

So what, my Lords, am I asking the Government for this afternoon? Very simply, I am asking them to issue the Sharp Report, to let Parliament, at any rate, see the report on the Motor Industry Research Association's tests, and to take action in seeing that those who are already unfortunate enough to be severely disabled can at least travel in comfort and safety. Our European partners discarded these archaic three-wheelers a long time ago. Why do we lag behind?

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, for giving up his place in the list. Also, may I apologise to my noble friend on the Front Bench and to your Lordships for the fact that I may not be in my place as this debate winds up. Due to an engagement which was entered into before Christmas, I have to be in Winchester at about 7 o'clock this evening. In intervening in the debate, my purpose is not so much to talk on the social aspects of the Question which the noble Baroness has asked, but to deal with the quasi-technical side. Those of us who have our living among motor cars feel that there are a number of drawbacks to the usual three-wheeled invalid cars. There are technical disadvantages in terms of driving, access, repair and safety; and it is rather surprising, my Lords, that having a vehicle which is custom-built has restricted its servicing to about 150 approved agents. It may well be that the Department of Health and Social Security feel that this is a better way to maintain some surveillance over those they approve for the maintenance, overhaul and servicing of these vehicles, but nevertheless it increases the cost of the whole service iii that, because the repair facilities are so specialised, reserve vehicles have to be kept.

My Lords, yesterday and to-day I attempted to discuss some of the aspects of the servicing and overhauling of these vehicles with more than one approved repairer, and also with two departments of the Ministry of Health. But it seemed to me that as soon as I informed those with whom I was talking of the object of my inquiry a curtain came down and I was unable to get any really reliable figures, particularly of cost and maintenance. It would seem to me that if a more conventional vehicle were used, the servicing costs, perhaps even the supply costs, would be more competitive, and this in itself could be helpful to the whole service. Talking with at least one motor manufacturer and a number of motor distributors. I have discovered that they can see no particular reason why a more conventional type of vehicle cannot be used to transport those people who are unfortunately disabled. In the Midlands only a few years ago there was a company specifically manufacturing vacuum-assisted mechanisms which to my certain knowledge have been fitted on at least two conventional motor cars, one a three-wheeler and one a four-wheeler, at the instance of the disabled owner. It is within my knowledge that to-day's servo-assisted hydraulic systems can, without too much cost, be adapted to make both foot and hand controls more easy for the disabled.

Again, a number of motor manufacturers have what they call their special facilities division. In the case of most manufacturers this is a division which prepares a certain number of production line motor cars for special purposes; it may be a specially restricted model or it may be for experimental or other purposes. I can see no good reason why some arrangement cannot be entered into for such special facilities divisions of leading manufacturers in this country to convert conventional motor cars. It may be that the cost factor enters into it. Incidentally, the special vehicles which are being made for disabled people apparently do not carry a price tag; I certainly have been quite unable to find out the price that one might pay for these vehicles. It would seem to me that such vehicles made to special order may be exempted from the normal taxes; that is, car tax and V.A.T. A similar arrangement could be entered into with the motor vehicle manufacturers in this country. Even were such an arrangement not possible, it seems to me rather odd that one takes money out of one Government Departmental pocket and puts it into another. The argument over the question of the road fund tax, the four-wheeled vehicle being more expensive to tax than the three-wheeled vehicle, I think hardly holds water, since my understanding is that the road fund tax is not payable. I may be wrong on this.

Why, therefore, can we not introduce a system whereby, let us say at the beginning, those disabled persons willing to make a contribution towards their vehicle can have the facility to take a conventional vehicle and have it converted to their particular need by an approved converter—subject, of course, to all the inspection that the Department of Health may require—and so start the system going? It would seem to me, though I obviously cannot speak for them, that with the limited number of vehicles (I believe it is somewhere around 19,000 only, but suppose it was 25,000) it would not be over-difficult to find purveyors of the conventional vehicle willing to enter into some kind of contractual arrangement with an owner, perhaps through the Department of Health and Social Security, to do the conversion work at a cost rate in which, perhaps, the profit motive was not quite so important. It certainly seems to me that there can be no mechanical reason why those people who are already deprived sufficiently cannot enjoy some of the benefits, not only social benefits but physical and safety benefits, that others of us enjoy in driving conventional motor vehicles.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for having given us the opportunity to discuss this interesting subject. I certainly shall not venture on to the technical ground that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has been dealing with and which he knows so well—probably better than anybody else in your Lordships' House, I would not be surprised to learn, although I dare say the noble Earl, Lord Howe, might run him fairly close. I am concerned more with what I might call the social aspect of this matter. I suppose that society's attitude towards disabled people should be, so far as possible, to enable disabled people to have and enjoy the ordinary things which people who are not disabled are able to have and enjoy. I think the first question that one has to consider under this heading is: who wants a one-seater car? If he is an ordinary person and is not disabled, who wants a one-seater car if he can have anything else? I have not managed to find any manufacturer in the world of one-seater motor cars except for this Invacar which we are discussing this evening. So one is led to the conclusion that nobody, given any other choice, wants a one-seater car.

Is that surprising, my Lords? Consider briefly some of the disadvantages of a one-seater car. The noble Baroness touched upon the problem of learning to drive. Now I do not suppose it is very difficult, on a disused airfield, to teach somebody to start the car, to travel along and to stop it, and so on; but, my Lords, that is not the hard part of driving. The hard part is mingling with the traffic and holding your own among the rest of the traffic. I wonder how many disabled people there are who simply are daunted at this prospect; who say to themselves, "If I could have had somebody sitting beside me in whom I had confidence, I think I could gradually have learned to drive my invalid car in the traffic; but the prospect of launching myself out into the traffic among the juggernaut lorries, and so on, is too much, and I am not prepared to take the initial step". So much for learning to drive.

Then, my Lords, consider the conspicuous nature of this vehicle. One of the things about disabled people is that they long to get rid of their conspicuousness. What a pleasure it ought to be for a disabled person to be able to say, "Once I am in my car I should like to think that the world sees me as just another motorist in just another motor car." But no, my Lords, he has to be in his little one-seater, and whether it is true or not as he drives along he thinks, "People are looking at me and saying, 'There goes the disabled driver in his funny little one-seater car.' "

The ordinary driver on long journeys—presumably disabled people have to make long journeys sometimes, like everyone else—can have a companion to share the driving or help him find the way through crowded localities. He can avail himself of that excellent service which the motoring organisations provide, whereby if you are daunted by the thought of driving through the great conurbations you can get someone from one of the motoring organisations to drive you in your own car from (shall we say?) one side of London to the other. I knew a retired brigadier who was not ashamed to avail himself of this service.

How much more appropriate would that kind of service be for a disabled person. But, of course, it is denied to him. Perhaps on long journeys disabled people are expected to take it more easily and put up at a hotel to break the journey. We all know how difficult it is to get into an hotel at all in the summertime. Even if you can get in, hotels present special and peculiar problems for disabled people. If he could afford it, perhaps a disabled person might like to put his car on a train for a long journey. He will need the vehicle when he gets to his destination, if he is to be mobile at all. You cannot just arrive at a railway station and put your little car on a passenger train. It can be done, but you have to give about a week's notice. Kipling tells us: He travels fastest who travels alone". I think that was before the arrival of the Invacar. On the question of servicing, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, told us there are 150 service stations for these special vehicles. I have not counted the number of pages in the A.A. Handbook, before you reach 150 garages, but I should think it is long before you get to the end of the A.s denoting the towns in alphabetical order.

The single-seater car surely thwarts the desire of a disabled person to be a useful member of his family. The ordinary driver can take his children to school in the morning and fetch them again in the evening. He can take his wife to the hairdresser or take his invalid mother for a drive. A disabled person in his one-seater car can do none of these things. All he can do is sit at home and wish that he could be a more useful member of the family.

There is the question of the price of the Invacar. There seems to be some mystery attached to it. Perhaps no one has ever asked the Government point blank what it costs. I do not mind sticking my neck out and asking the Minister whether he will tell us how much do the Government pay for the Invacar. If we cannot be told perhaps we may be told why we cannot be told. Whatever the difference between the price of this non-mass-produced one-seater and a small mass-produced ordinary little car, I do not think that it can be an enormous amount. I should have thought that we could afford it. Having heard all the criticisms that the noble Baroness has advanced against this little car, a motorised bath chair, cannot we do something better for disabled people? I think it was Mr. Graham Hill who said, "Give me a wheel at each corner every time." I think Mr. Hill knows what he is talking about.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, for initiating this debate. Although the Question is within a small compass the objective behind it is a great one. May I preface what I have to say by making absolutely clear that whatever I say, or whatever is said in your Lordships' House, it does not entail any direct criticism of the noble Lord who will reply to the debate on behalf of the Government. It does not imply a direct criticism of the Health Minister, Sir Keith Joseph. Having had personal experience of that Ministry I know the difficulties which have to be met in connection with any new expansionist programme. And I want to make clear to disabled people that despite the fact that we have had this discussion none of us looks on them as unique beings outside the rest of the family circle. In fact, we want to improve their lot.

Over the last two years, and especially because I have taken an interest in the matter, I have been reading many letters in the Press and articles on the subject in the Observer, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph; and there has been a complete set of articles in a current magazine on the question of the disabled driver in which figures were given as to how much this vehicle would cost. Despite the report of the noble Baroness, which we have not had, none of this information has been given to either place, and consequently there has been a great upsurge of opinion When I was at the Ministry, I went to see the first type of vehicle made, the P.65. Some 10 or 12 years have passed since then, and the weight and speed of the traffic is now overwhelming to a driver who has to learn to drive without someone sitting by his side, on a disused airfield or elsewhere. When suddenly thrust into the turbulent ocean of traffic he is bewildered. Even the strongest of such drivers would be bewildered if driving the type of vehicle which the disabled people are given. In the AA magazine Drive well over a third of the gossip column is devoted to the question of disabled drivers at risk. That is the point, they are at risk. It states: The three-wheeled invalid cars supplied by the Government to disabled motorists are a menace not only to the driver but to other road users as well. That's the burden of an unprecedented 'apology' to Britain's seventeen million motorists issued by the Disabled Drivers' Action Group. The Group represents 20,000 drivers of the familiar blue motor-trikes. Specifically the charges are … that despite three Department of Health checks each year, many of the vehicles are unroadworthy; … that the vehicles are unstable and accident-prone. (In 1972, nearly 5,000 were involved in collisions—from simple scrapes to fatal accidents.) My Lords, you do not have to be much of a mathematician to calculate what is 5,000 out of 20,000, 17,000 or 25,000. That is too high a rate of accident for the disabled on the roads of Britain today. We are sending some of them to sustain further injury, or even death—I mean that. Something should be done. The ramparts that have to be stormed are the ramparts of the Treasury.

Any Member of this House who has served in the other place and done Ministerial work will have known the animal struggle to get right the priorities for cash; but here we are not dealing just with cash but with the question of danger on the road. Take the case of a soldier: he can, if he so wishes, have a car. I think this can be taken right across the board. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, will not take this in any way as a criticism, because she does her work with as great a sense of responsibility as any Member of your Lordships' House, but to suggest that just two people could look at the whole gamut of this problem over the whole nation, really (without any reflection on the noble Baroness) was an absurdity.

This matter needs going into in depth, and I hope we shall be able to get some answers to the questions which have been asked from the Front Bench on this side of the House. The nation should know more about the research which has been done at Nuneaton. It is the nation's money which is being spent on behalf of people who have served either in war or in industry. We have not had any information on the tests which have been carried out in Nuneaton. I hope that we shall be able to hear more about this. The Sunday Times, on April 17 last year, talked about "this new trike"—and the very word "trike" has a condescending, pejorative ring about it, to start with. It is denigrating. The Sunday Times said that this machine was unsafe and less reliable than a car, and that even the new P.70 does not hold the road, These machines are unstable in windy weather. Now we have been given these results from the Ministry and from the Cranfield Institute of Technology, where tests have been made by Professor John R. Ellis.

Anyone who knows a little physics or geometry will realise that a machine which is designed with its backside broad and its front narrow can shift in wind a matter of 6 to 14 feet. This means that a disabled driver can be stopped, as some of them have been, because it has been thought that the driver was under the influence of liquor, when the poor fellow could hardly hold the vehicle to the road. The wind would lift it like a balloon. We have in Wales a Rabelaisian proverb about the barber's cat and the wind capacity of that cat—I will not translate the proverb in your Lordships' House because perhaps it would not be suitable. But the wind moves this vehicle so that in its progress on the road under bad weather conditions it is a danger to itself and to other vehicle users.

I do not mean to refer to the disabled in a disparaging way. This nation should be prepared, for the sum of £6 million, to cover the cost of the 8-year life of a vehicle. The Ministry would have better figures than I have on this, but I believe the cost would work out at roughly £4 per week per person. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, the nation could make motoring even cheaper for the disabled, because they might be allowed a special form of licence as a recognition of their service to the country, if they have been disabled in war or on the battlefields of industry.

I shall not keep the House much longer, but I have the joy of receiving letters from many disabled Servicemen and many of those who have been disabled during service to industry. They are all very grateful for having received their "trikes". Let us have no illusions about this: they are grateful for these machines, for otherwise many of them would be prisoners in their own homes. Sometimes they break the law and carry a second person in the car. Some of them have done this at Christmas-time before now. On occasion they are caught, and this is sad. I must also say that some of the cars are made with only one door and if they are blown over the disabled driver may not be able to get out. Moreover, they are made of fibre glass and can break and bump so easily. Consequently, I sincerely hope that the question which has been raised by my noble friend—perhaps I might ask her to remind me of the wording—


My Lords, I just asked for some action.


Some action. One answer would be to give the House as much accurate information as possible, to find out whether there has been any exaggeration in the stories we have heard. We should be able to ask whether the ramparts of the Treasury might be undermined a little so that some money may be found for this section of the Community. The nation needs to make a "prestige" effort. I consider that this effort would carry more prestige than boring a hole under the English Channel at the present time. Therefore, let us look at this from the point of view of neighbourliness, so that we can give comfort and succour to those who have served the nation.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to any speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips: she is always so terse and to the point. I greatly admire her brevity and "punch". The last time we debated this subject, I believe the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, defended the vehicles we are discussing as more worthy of a long-service and good conduct medal than of the censure we were then bestowing on them. I looked round for a long-service and good-conduct user of one of these vehicles to produce in this House to-day. Here (in imagination) she is, and I propose to conduct my speech by means of question and answer as follows:

"Q. Your disability?

A. I had polio. Instead of going to school I spent all my years in hospital.

Q. You go to work?

A. Yes, five days a week—office hours—in the County Council Planning Department.

Q. You can type, and are thinking of writing a book?

A. Yes, I can type.

Q. Can you walk?

A. A short distance. My legs are not very good. I have a sort of harness on the upper part of my body. I cannot lift anything.

Q. You do the cooking and housework at home?

A. My husband takes a big share in all that, in addition to his own job as a school caretaker.

Q. Do you get very tired?

A. Sometimes, if I do not go to bed by 9.30.

Q. How did you acquire an invalid carriage?

A. My G.P. advised; the Department of Health vetted and approved.

Q. How long have you had the tricycle model 70?

A. I have had one for 25 years.

Q. The same one?

A. The same breed. No safety modifications in my case or in my time.

Q. What do you think of it after all those years?

A. The same as I did the first year: unstable, dangerous and uncomfortable.

Q. Is it better than no car at all?

A. Definitely. I am to that extent independent of others. I can go to work on my own and come home on my own.

Q. How unstable?

A. Very much affected by wind and by every bump and dent in the road. The slightest thing takes away your control of that single wheel.

Q. How do you cope?

A. I drive very slowly and obstruct the flow of traffic—sometimes I pull in to let others go by. I drive on the same road every day and only on that road. I know every bump and dent and hazard.

Q. Do you tend to skid?

A. I do not, but the car does unless I am very careful, especially turning to the right in greasy or icy conditions—something to do with the single chain drive on the near side, perhaps. I plan my way so as to avoid turning to the right in any awkward places.

Q. Has the tricycle enough power to keep pace with 40 m.p.h. or 50 m.p.h. traffic?

A. It may have in the hands of someone with the strength to hold the steering. I do not dare to drive at anything like those speeds. I would be out of control at once, anywhere.

Q. Is instability your main problem? The main danger?

A. No, I allow for it. My main problem is the controls. The clutch and throttle together with the brake are on the tiller bar which is managed by my left hand"—

Her left hand is very small— the gearbox and the handbrake are on the right. It is worked on the same principle as a motor cycle and the clutch has to be shortened in its space from the throttle to the bar because my hand is not wide enough to operate it in its normal width.

Q. All this fiddling around with hands would be avoided if you had a car with normal controls. Would your legs be up to it?

A. Yes, good enough for that, one a little better than the other. But I have never been offered the opportunity.

Q. An automatic gear change would help all?

A. Oh yes.

Q. Can you take a passenger?

A. A very small one might get in but there is a notice inside saying that passengers are forbidden.

Q. Would a passenger make things more difficult for you?

A. In one sense a husband or a child or companion might sometimes make things much less difficult; but in this vehicle they would obstruct my control.

Q. If you have a breakdown can you tinker with the vehicle or put in more petrol?

A. I can do nothing but stand there. I cannot lift the bonnet or walk to the nearest garage.

Q. Then whatever the vehicle of the future may be, you would want it to be recognised as a disabled persons' vehicle?

A. There would always have to be something to indicate one had a right to claim the help of other people.

Q. What about discomfort?

A. At the moment mine is leaking from the bonnet through on to my legs. This is a common fault. The windows are a bad fit. Driving is always tiring especially on the arms.

Q. Assuming your vehicle sells at £700, the Department get it for £400 and they have to spend on average another £200 for each individual case, do you think it would be fair for a more expensive vehicle to be offered on a contributory basis?

A. I have contributed a lot to insurance; I think being disabled like this is enough. It is not our fault that we are disabled. Perhaps the community as a whole will not mind meeting the whole cost. We pay for the petrol. In my case I only use the vehicle to go to work or occasionally for shopping. When I come to see you or go elsewhere for pleasure my husband takes me in his own car.

Q. If you had a proper car would be come as your passenger?

A. He does not think much of my driving and, well, you know his driving, he is pretty good."

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Baroness in that I was not able to be here when she asked the Question. But as probably the only user of a vehicle adapted for a disabled driver in your Lordships' House—or the only one present—perhaps I may quickly give you my views. I have had to drive a car; I am a compulsive competitive driver; I love driving and always have done. I have had to drive with different fixtures on my car since I lost the use of my leg twenty years ago. I was fortunate in that my husband was able to give me a car which was adapted for my particular problem, and I now have hand controls for the foot brake and the accelerator. That is a very capable way of driving. The adaption cost £50 and every car that I have had in the past 20 years, including six cylinder cars (which are the ones I normally drive now) have been so adapted.

When my husband was alive I was able to drive him and he relied on me driving him throughout his Parliamentary life. I also drove all my children down to Spain, around France and back again with this perfectly ordinary car which had been adapted. One can get any car and have it adapted perfectly easily for about £50. I do not know what would have happened to me psychologically and in my family life if I had had to drive a tricycle in which I could have carried only myself because as a family person I always wanted to drive my husband and children. I must admit I was lucky that my husband was able to give me this car. Any car can be adapted from a Mini up to a six cylinder car. I hope that in the course of time, with perhaps the "egging on" of the Sharp Report, we shall see more disabled people able to have cars and thereby able to fill their lives far more than they can now when they have to get about in these very tiny and, in my view, unstable and unroadworthy tricycles. I hope that in the course of time the Government will be able to see that all disabled people are able to drive in modified conventional motor cars.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, the Question that I am asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, and to which your Lordships have added your views this evening, is what action Her Majesty's Government propose to take on vehicles used by invalid drivers. I am very sorry that I am not able to give the noble Baroness a completely direct answer to that Question. I know how deeply she feels about it, and from what others of your Lordships have said this evening I know the deep interest that is taken in this House in this matter.

I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Macleod joined in the discussion because she has personal experience. But, as the noble Baroness knows, we did set up an inquiry into the whole matter headed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, on the mobility of severely disabled people. That Report was commissioned in April, 1972—not last year as I think the noble Baroness said. It was received by the Government last October and it is still under consideration. I know it may seem to some of your Lordships that this is a long time in which to be considering a Report, but it is indeed a very complex matter. I make no apology for repeating those words which the noble Baroness quoted. It has all sorts of very large financial implications and implications of eligibility. I must ask your Lordships to await the publication of the Sharp Report, which we are now studying with great care, so that when this Report is published the Government will be in a position to make comment upon it. I think the noble Baroness said that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, herself had made some criticism of the delay. She told us that she herself noticed in the Guardian that Lady Sharp was said to be critical of the delay in publishing the Report. This the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has told us is inaccurate.

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, recognised this at the beginning of his speech. He was until recently involved in the same Department as I was and he knows that these are indeed difficult decisions that require a great deal of thought and deliberation before coming out with a complete change of policy. Nevertheless, may I make some general observations on the present situation with regard to invalid drivers. In the first place, I think we should remember that accidents are caused principally by people and not by vehicles. The Road Research Laboratory tells us that investigations carried out at the scene of a number of accidents showed that they were primarily due to error by the driver and no amount of improvement of vehicle design, desirable as this may be in itself, is going to bring about a dramatic reduction in the number of accidents.


My Lords, I do not want to start interrupting the Minister, but surely that is not so. What he is really saying is that one in every four cars used on the roads has an accident. That is the proportion.


My Lords, I am not agreeing with that statistic given by the noble Baroness. I do not know where she got it from. Is this in one year; over 50 years—what statistics is the noble Baroness referring to? I shall have more to say about accidents later on. At the moment, I am saying that the Road Research Laboratory tells us that primarily the accidents are due to error on the part of the driver rather than deficiencies in the car itself, whatever car it may be.

Secondly, I would stress that my right honourable friend's aim is that the special three-wheeled vehicle provided for invalids should conform to the standards set down in the appropriate Construction and Use Regulations. These are the regulations made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Of course these regulations are not binding in law so far as vehicles provided by the Department of Health and Social Security are concerned. This is the normal convention of Crown exemption, but there is no question at all of seeking to adopt a different, lower standard for these three-wheelers from that which applies generally. The specifications to which these vehicles are manufactured are amended in the light of technical developments and the requirements of the Construction and Use Regulations. I can assure your Lordships that each generation of vehicles has conformed to the regulations applicable at the time. The vehicle in current production—that is the model 70—conforms fully to the Construction and Use Regulations at present in force, except that there is room for experts to differ in respect of one regulation, the regulation introduced last July requiring that the petrol tank should be so fixed that it is reasonably secure against its being damaged. To remove any doubt at all a modification is about to be introduced to meet that point.

All that I have said would hardly be persuasive if drivers of three-wheeled vehicles were constantly being maimed or killed. The ultimate test is what happens in practice on the road rather than in theory. Unfortunately, it is not possible to make direct comparisons between the accident record of invalid three-wheelers and motor cars in general. All incidents, however trivial, involving damage to these three-wheelers are reported and taken into account. Minor occurrences such as insignificant bumps and scrapes, sustained during parking and garaging of the three-wheelers, are much more likely to be reported when they are freely repaired by the Department of Health and Social Security than in the case of private cars, some of which are not comprehensively insured, and most are subject to an excess clause and a no-claim bonus. Therefore the accident statistics in relation to normal road vehicles refer only to incidents involving personal injury or where insurance claims can arise. Such comparisons as it has been possible to make suggest that the rates at which serious accidents occur is broadly the same as between invalid three-wheelers and motor cars.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who apologised for having to leave, asked a question about servicing agents and why they were restricted in number. The answer is that the number is restricted in order to ensure a high standard of expertise for carrying out major repairs, but minor and emergency repairs and servicing are permitted at any garage and will be paid for by the Department of Health and Social Security. I hope that that will be some satisfaction to my noble friend.

The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, asked me a question about the price of these vehicles—which I cannot tell him—and he also asked, if I could not tell him, why I could not tell him. The reason is that prices paid for Government contracts are never revealed, so I regret that I cannot enlighten him on that particular point. I do not think there is a great deal of substance in it. I do not think one would wish to argue that there is all that difference in price between the three-wheeler and a normal car. We must remember that these invalid three-wheelers have been provided by successive Governments for over a quarter of a century, and thousands of disabled people have had their lives improved immeasurably by the mobility which these vehicles provide.

The noble Baroness mentioned some figures. At September 30, 1973, there were 13,000 three-wheelers with manual gear change; 4,500 with automatic transmission (that is the P70, the model in current production), and 1,800 electrically propelled. Undoubtedly among present users of the invalid three-wheelers there will be many whose disability would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to use a car instead. There is a certain type of person, with a certain type of disability, for whom three-wheelers are ideally suited. They are specially designed for the use of the disabled. That is, of course, one of the reasons why they are slightly higher in build than the normal car, and why they may be more susceptible to the cross-wind effects mentioned by one of your Lordships. I do not think it is doing a service to the many contented users of the three-wheeler—and there are many contented users—to make exaggerated allegations about their safety. I do not think it is right for the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, to speak of "death on the roads to badly disabled people". I do not think this is really an accurate statement of the present position.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Minister for allowing me to intervene. First of all, he acknowledges that the type referred to is twenty-five years old. Secondly, I mentioned that the experts give figures of a movement of 6 to 14 feet. So far as I am concerned, in wind that is death on the roads.


Well, my Lords, I think experts are always liable to differ on their estimates on things of this kind. But I have something to say in a minute about the MIRA report, and perhaps that will cover it. It is our view that the safety of these vehicles can be satisfactorily compared with that of other light cars. I say this in the light of the MIRA reports. The noble Baroness asked once again why these reports were not published. The answer is, my Lords, that on principle these reports are never published. Investigations that are commissioned by those who use the MIRA are always in confidence. Its reports are not published. Indeed, I believe that the excellent work done by the MIRA might be prejudiced if they were. In the present case the reports were commissioned by my right honourable friend for management purposes, and they will be taken into account by him in deciding on any action that he considers necessary.

It continues to be the aim of my right honourable friend to make sure that invalid vehicles satisfy the appropriate safety regulations, and that technical improvements are progressively incorporated. Beyond that I regret that I cannot give a positive answer to the noble Baroness, other than to say that I hope she will discuss this matter again in the light of the Sharp Report when it is published.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I say this? He did not expect me to be satisfied, and though I am not supposed to follow up his Answer, I will take a chance on it. He did not tell us why these reports could not be published; he said that publication is not usual. But there are many things that are not usual that are not necessarily illogical.


My Lords, there are a great many commercial users, as well as Government users, of the MIRA. As I have said, it has never been the policy to publish these reports. I think that is wise because they are very frank; they go into every detail; they investigate different types of cars, different manufacturers. I do not think it would be advisable for these reports to be published. I think that if they were, then the reports themselves might well be less effective than they are.