HL Deb 19 July 1978 vol 395 cc390-400

6.33 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. After the somewhat stormy passage through the House of various Bills today, and the somewhat strange debate which took place last evening, I hope I can assure your Lordships that this Bill will meet with enthusiasm and approbation on all sides. Indeed, your Lordships will appreciate that if there is any change in the Bill it will fall, and thereby many people in Northern Ireland will not get the benefit of the advantages which otherwise it would bestow upon them. At the outset, I should like to thank the Government for their co-operation, and I am honoured to have the opportunity to take this Bill through your Lordships' House.

The Bill seeks to extend the provisions of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 to Northern Ireland. History repeats itself cocasionally. It was in the dying days of the 1970 Government that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, introduced that Bill and I remember the enthusiasm with which it was received. I would remind your Lordships that only three sections of the 1970 Act were extended to Northern Ireland, since at that time all local legislation was the responsibility of Stormont. I would also remind your Lordships that two sections of the 1970 Act, which did not apply to Scotland, have since been incorporated in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Scotland)Act.

The overriding argument for this Bill is that there is no longer any excuse for Northern Ireland to be treated differently. It is well within the bounds of possibility that, had a Stormont Parliament survived, it would itself have passed a similar Bill. Over the years the Government have resisted the extension of the Act to Northern Ireland, principally on the grounds that the Government had all the necessary powers and, since they administered all the relevant services themselves and not through independently elected authorities, there was no need for legislation. However, the facts show that services for handicapped people have lagged far behind those in comparable places in Great Britain. But, happily, as I have told your Lordships, the Government have now wished the Bill all success.

I should now like to describe the clauses of the Bill, and I come to Clause 1. The latest available figures show that proportionately twice as many people in England are registered with local authorities as in Northern Ireland, although in Northern Ireland twice as many people, proportionately, are in receipt of attendance allowances. This seems to be a clear indication that failure to extend the 1970 Act to Northern Ireland has resulted in delay in identifying need. Happily, Her Majesty's Government have commissioned the conduct of a campaign of identification through the whole Province which will result in better information about disabled persons. But this clause will ensure that the Department has a continuing duty to identify handicapped people, and that it cannot be content with, what one might term, a one-off operation.

This clause is a distinct improvement on the 1970 Act, largely owing to Government Amendments moved in another place. First, the Department has a duty not only to inform itself of the number and needs of handicapped people but, so far as is reasonably practicable, to identify them. remember the 1970 Act with great interest and I believe that identification was always what the honourable Member, Mr. Alf. Morris, had as an object. It is good to see that this is made explicit in the Bill.

Secondly, the extension of the Bill to the mentally ill and mentally handicapped is very welcome. Although Ministers have always assured everyone that the 1970 Act also covered anybody with a mental disorder, it has been popularly assumed to deal only with the physically handicapped. Clause 1(2)(b) imposes a duty to inform disabled persons not only of the services provided under the arrangements but also of any services provided by other Government Departments, public bodies and voluntary organisations which are relevant to their needs. I suggest that that, too, is a distinct improvement.

Clause 2 specifies the services which the Department shall make arrangements to provide where it is satisfied that they are needed, and the list of services is identical to that in the 1970 Act. It is interesting to note that under the 1970 Act, in England alone nearly 100 000 telephones have been installed and 20,000 adaptations to houses have been made. There was one technical change made to the Bill by the Government in another place. The word "duty", which occurs in Section 2 of the 1970 Act, has been omitted. I am sure, with this beneficent Government, that that will in no way change the effect. I understand that the honourable Member who introduced the Bill in another place has asked the Minister what appeal procedure there will be under this clause. If the Minister cannot reply this evening, I am sure that he will inform the honourable Member in another place.

Clause 3 is quite straightforward. I had the privilege of serving under the noble Earl, Lord Snowdon, on the Working Party for the Disabled, and public housing was my particular interest. This is a question which we knew to be very relevant and very important.

Clauses 4 to 8, on the provision of access, are also very important. Clause 8 covers places of employment, which were incorporated into the 1970 Act by the later amendment Act of 1976. Clauses 9, 10 and 11 deal with co-options to committees. Clause 9 is much more extensive than the equivalent section in the 1970 Act. It covers all advisory committees, of which there appear to be a vast number in Northern Ireland. I have a Parliamentary reply about this, and have calculated that there are about 70 advisory committees. Clauses 12 and 13 are concerned with the provision of suitable residential or hospital care for younger, physically handicapped people. Clause 14 extends the orange badge scheme to Northern Ireland. Hitherto, two separate and much more restricted schemes have been in operation.

Clauses 15, 16 and 17 mirror those sections of the 1970 Act which relate to the deaf-blind, the autistic and the dyslexic. During the Committee stage in another place, the Minister cut out part of Clause 15, but I do not think that this is a cause for complaint. Clause 18 mirrors Section 26 of the 1970 Act. Clauses 19, 20 and 21 include the magic words which, when one is in Government, one knows so well are purely technical. One always hopes that this is true.

At this stage, may I ask the Minister whether he has any idea when the Act will be implemented. It has been a great privilege and pleasure to commend this Bill to your Lordships. I believe that it will provide services for many people who are greatly in need of them, and I am quite certain that the Bill will be received with enthusiasm by all parts of your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Baroness Phillips.)

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, this is a Bill which we on this side of the House welcome with much pleasure. As the noble Baroness has so rightly said, it takes us back to the atmosphere of those frantic days in late April and early May of 1970 when the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill was passing through your Lordships' House. What chilled me about the speech made by the noble Baroness was that she said that if any change were made to the Bill it would fall. After close examination, I think there may be a number of Amendments which noble Lords will wish to make to the Bill. We must pay close attention to what the noble Baroness has said, because the very last thing that any of us would wish to do is to prevent the passage of the Bill before the end of the Session.

Why was it that the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act did not apply to Northern Ireland? I think that the noble Baroness has explained the reason. Circumstances were partly the cause. Also, it is very relevant that Northern Ireland maintains its own separate Statute Book. There is, however, a very important object lesson regarding devolution to be learned here and we should take note of it, particularly as very shortly we shall have before the House the Messages from another place on the Scotland Bill and the Wales Bill.

The object lesson is that, due to the particular circumstances which existed in 1970, many thousands of people who would have been benefactors under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act have been denied some of those benefits for eight years. The reason is that for administrative and other reasons it has proved to be impossible to apply certain sections of that Act to Northern Ireland. As the noble Baroness has rightly pointed out, only three sections of that Act were applied to Northern Ireland. Subsequently, the Government said that other legislation would fill the gap. However, that is not wholly the case.

I believe that it is acknowledged by the Government that this is a situation in which very wide gaps exist. The body known as "Outset" has been commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Security to carry out a survey of the whole of Northern Ireland, which is covered by the Department of Health and Social Services. This is a major undertaking which the body called "Outset" has begun, and we look forward to its report. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, will be able to tell us in a few minutes how matters are proceeding.

We have before the House this evening a Private Member's Bill which seeks to remedy the situation, so far as possible. For the past eight years, however, the situation has lacked this remedy. wonder if the Government will be able to tell us whether they have any means in their power to put matters right. No doubt the Government will be able to tell us that the benefits will apply as soon as the Bill becomes an Act. But eight years is a long time, and it is a matter for regret, particularly for thousands of people in Northern Ireland, that there has been this delay.

It is perfectly true that the take-up of benefits in other parts of the United Kingdom is not so great as had been hoped. It is very interesting, although perhaps invidious, to note the difference between the procedures of local authorities in the United Kingdom. I believe that it would be improper to name those local authorities where gaps exist. No doubt we shall come to this matter in due course, because the gaps are very wide. As a general rule, I understand that between 4 and 5 per cent. of the population of any local authority in almost all parts of the United Kingdom ought to be registered as disabled and that certain local authorities are very much behindhand with this registration.

May we turn to the history of the Bill, which is interesting both from a Parliamentary procedure point of view and also from the point of view of the speed with which legislation fails in the present situation in Parliament. I must stress that this is a Private Member's Bill which was introduced into another place on 24th February and given a formal Second Reading, which lasted perhaps 15 seconds. It came before Standing Committee C in another place on 5th July, where the proceedings lasted for one hour and eight minutes. At this point I should like to welcome the hard work done by the Department of Health and Social Security and, no doubt, by the noble Lord's Department in Northern Ireland, in ensuring that Amendments were brought forward. As the noble Baroness so rightly said, they were largely technical Amendments.

It was due to the skills of the civil servants involved that it was possible to take a short time over the Bill. My impression, however, is that the Bill comes to us after scant consideration. When the Bill was given its formal Third Reading on 14th July it took a matter of seconds. The whole process of consideration of the Bill in another place lasted one hour, eight minutes and 30 seconds. We have before us, therefore, a Bill which has had only minimal consideration. Perhaps this does the Bill an injustice, for it follows so very closely the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. There is, however, one very important matter to be considered. We ought to be ahead of the 1970 Act, since we have the very great advantage of the consideration of the Snowden Report which took place in your Lordships' House. The noble Baroness introduced that report for your Lordships' consideration in February 1977. There were 96 recommendations in that report, some of which require legislation and all of which relate to the integration of the disabled.

We are very close to the end of this Session, but there are important issues to be raised. The familiar phrase, which we debated at some length when we debated the 1970 Act, occurs once again in Clause 1 of the Bill which is now before us, and it is this: "So far as reasonably practicable". It is a very difficult phrase to construe in law. We had long debates on it and I do not believe that from a legal point of view it is any easier today than it was then. It would be unwise of me to digress further from this subject, except to say this: I think we can be very grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing the Bill before your Lordships' House and introducing it in her customary very charming manner, and we wish the Bill a speedy passage through your Lordships' House.

6.50 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, for going over this Bill for us, and I want to be very brief. After working for a time with the Red Cross in my home county, I learned to have great respect for the courage and cheerfulness shown by the disabled and chronically sick whom we set out to help. It is of course a tragic fact that in Northern Ireland the number of disabled is sadly increased by nothing more nor less than man's inhumanity to man. When studying the contents of this Bill, and despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, has said, I am surprised that something on these lines has not been enacted before this. As the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, has said, it has been passed to us from another place somewhat abruptly and late in the Session; it barely gives us time to make any alteration, or it has been said that the Bill will fall. But the disabled and chronically sick deserve all the help we can give them. We believe that we should do what we can to see that this Bill reaches the Statute Book as soon as possible.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, rises to reply to the debate, I should like to ask one question which raises an important issue. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, referred, quite rightly, to the large number of people who had not benefited, but who should have benefited and he described them as the "benefactors" of that Act. Am I right in thinking that he meant "beneficiaries"?


My Lords, of course I meant beneficiaries and if I made a mistake, I apologise to your Lordships.

6.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Phillips has been able to take on this Bill, which will be of considerable importance to handicapped people in Northern Ireland. I should also like to take this opportunity to congratulate my honourable friend the Member for West Belfast for introducing and successfully piloting the Bill through another place and I should also like to express my thanks and appreciation for the work that members and officers of the All-Party Disablement Committee have put into this important measure. If I may just put the record straight to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, it is the officials of my Department in Northern Ireland—the Department of Health and Social Services—who have been involved in a great deal of the work, and other Government Departments in Northern Ireland, and not, of course, the Department of Health and Social Security, which does not have any responsibility for the Bill.

The aims of the Bill are entirely in line with Government policy for the handicapped in Northern Ireland. In simple terms, our policy is to ensure that handicapped people in Northern Ireland receive services which are at least as good as those available in the rest of the United Kingdom. We are already doing a great deal. A comprehensive survey of the handicapped, to which several noble Lords have referred, is already under way in Northern Ireland. It is designed to cover every household, and not only to find out exactly how many handicapped people there are, but also to find out what services individuals are receiving and what additional help they need. When this work is completed, Northern Ireland may well be the only region of the United Kingdom which has been surveyed this comprehensively.

In response to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, asked me I can tell him that the survey has started. The first drop of forms was recently made and a second one will be made in the next few weeks in Northern Ireland; but of course it is very early in the process to start looking ahead to the completion of the survey, which will be a long and very expensive operation. However, the Government have not waited for the results of the survey—nor, if I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for this Bill—to start improving services for the handicapped in Northern Ireland.

The Health and Social Services Boards have been given an additional revenue allocation of £2 million over a 4-year period, starting this year, to enable them to develop the services covered by Clause 2 of the Bill; services that are provided for handicapped people in the community and in their own homes. Before the Bill reached your Lordships' House, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State made clear the Government's desire to be constructive and helpful by moving a substantial series of Amendments in another place to increase the effectiveness of the Bill. Some of the Amendments were designed to bring the measure into line with the pattern of administration of services in Northern Ireland, which of course differs substantially from the rest of the United Kingdom. Others were intended to improve the Bill in matters of substance affecting disabled people.

For example, as a result of Government Amendments, as my noble friend has said, Clauses 1 and 2 were extended to people whose handicap is of a lasting nature, as well as covering those who are permanently handicapped. Clause 1 has been extended so that it will not simply require the health and personal social services to obtain statistical information about numbers of handicapped people for use in the planning of services—important though that is—but will also require them, so far as possible, to identify individual handicapped people so that they can be given the individual help they need.

My noble friend asked me about the omission of the word "duty". It is the case that the Health and Social Services Board will act as agents of the Department in administering Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill. Although the word "duty" does not appear in Clause 2, my advice is that the words now used in the Bill are mandatory and have the same effect. I hope that will reassure my noble friend, and I should make it clear that I have written at some length today to my honourable friend in another place and I will let my noble friend have a copy of that letter which I think answers one or two other points which may be of interest to her.

As to when the Bill will be brought into operation should it pass through your Lordships' House, I shall certainly aim to see that it is brought into operation as quickly as possible. If there are any parts of the Bill where there might be some delay which is necessary, I will write to noble Lords. I hope that we shall be able to bring it all into operation as quickly as possible. I can assure my noble friend that the Government will continue to do all they can to ensure that the Bill completes all its stages in this House before the end of the present Session. Although the Bill went through another place in a surprisingly short period of time, it has been very carefully considered by the Government and by the Parliamentary draftsmen in Northern Ireland. I shall certainly not wish to move any Amendments and I hope other noble Lords will note what my noble friend has said about the danger to the Bill if a Committee stage proves necessary. For the Government's part we are happy with the Bill as now drafted.

As I have said, the Government are fully in sympathy with the aims of the Bill, and I believe that we are already implementing policies which make this clear. But I should like to make it clear that I am certainly not satisfied with what has been achieved and I am fully aware of the deficiencies in the services provided for handicapped people in Northern Ireland. The Government will do all they can to ensure that these services are steadily expanded and improved.

6.59 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the Minister for answering my questions and for what he has told us about the Bill. I should like to thank also the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for his very kind comments. I have a great deal of sympathy with my noble friend Lord Sandys in regard to the curious words that are used in Acts of Parliament, "reaosnably practicable" and "reasonably presumed" and so on seem to be one of the hazards that I have found as a magistrate when I have to decide whether or not I am a "reasonable" person. Perhaps one day we shall have some more precise terms, but these terms seem to appear in every Act of Parliament.

I also have a great deal of sympathy with regard to the time-lag. Two Govern ments since 1970 have certainly taken their time over this, but rather like the bus that does come along when you have been waiting half an hour it is a little hard if you criticise that one rather than the ones that have not been filling the gap. This Bill has come to us and we are glad to get it. I know that we have a very full programme, as does my noble friend, and I am grateful for the sensible and understanding way in which, particularly, the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, appreciates my point about Amendments. I hesitate to use this argument, as it does seem to me slightly in the nature of blackmail, but as it is in a good cause may I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.