HL Deb 13 March 1978 vol 389 cc1126-33

6.57 p.m.

Lord WELLS-PESTELL rose to move, That the draft Mobility Allowance Up-rating Order 1978, laid before the House on 7th February, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. This order is straightforward and, I hope, non-controversial. It honours the Statement which I repeated to the House on 6th December last, to increase mobility allowance from £7 to £10 weekly. The operative date will be 5th July this year. The cost of mobility allowance will, as a result, rise by £11 million to £44 million in 1978–9.

In providing a cash allowance in this area, the Government's intention has been two-fold; to set the allowance at a reasonable level so that it makes a major contribution to an individual's outdoor mobility and to encourage ways in which the allowance might be put to the best use. This order is relevant to the first objective. On the second, apart from the important commercial concessions which the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR) have been able to negotiate and the hire-purchase and hiring concessions which the Minister for the Disabled has been able to obtain with the co-operation of the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, we now have the new independent organisation headed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman—"Motability". This organisation has been welcomed as a significant advance in making further provision for the disabled.

The report by the Government Actuary which accompanies the order emphasises that mobility allowance is paid out of monies provided by Parliament and not out of the National Insurance Fund. The number of beneficiaries estimated in the report distinguishes between new beneficiaries and those who may have chosen to switch from a vehicle scheme benefit to the allowance. When the allowance is fully phased in—and that will be by the end of 1979—we expect approximately 100,000 new beneficiaries and about 25,000 vehicle scheme beneficiaries to be receiving it.

In conclusion, I should emphasise that the mobility allowance is designed for people who are physically incapable or virtually incapable of walking. It does not cater for people who can walk but who have mobility problems. An extension on these lines would require considerable extra resources which are simply not available at this moment. I do not think that there is anything further I need say on this matter. Therefore, I beg to move that the order be approved.

Moved, That the draft Mobility Allowance Up-rating Order 1978, laid before the House on 7th February, be approved.—(Lord Wells-Pestell.)

7.1 p.m.


My Lords, as always the House is most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for the courtesy and care with which he has outlined the Government's plan to uprate the mobility allowance for the disabled. We are especially glad to hear of the major new advance which he mentioned in speaking about Motability, which is providing help for finance by way of the charity called Motability. It seems a remarkable achievement on the part of the clearing banks to advance the figure of, I believe, £100 million on very favourable terms for the purchase of vehicles which can be leased to disabled persons. In another place, when explaining the order, the Minister pointed out that the Government simply could not cover the entire cost of providing mobility to the disabled, and this newly-formed charity under the noble Lord, Lord Goodman—this scheme of Motability—fills this gap neatly and, we believe, very effectively.

There are one or two points which I should like to raise with the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, and I hope that I have not caught him, as we might say, entirely "cold" on these matters. First, could he confirm that the tricycle—or should I call it "trike" for those experts in this matter?—will continue to be available to those disabled drivers who prefer the trike to a converted car? Can the noble Lord tell the House of any developments of something similar to the existing trike? Mention has been made of some sketchy, outline developments which are being looked at in Manchester, although whether it is at the university or the polytechnic I am not absolutely sure. Possibly the noble Lord may be able to inform us about that at a later stage, if not tonight.

It may seem strange to your Lordships that many drivers of trikes—particularly the more experienced drivers—prefer this machine, its defects and all, to a converted car. Possibly it may be thought that a car is expensive to run and that the drivers do not enjoy driving one of them. But there are flaws in the mobility allowance at present and we hope that at least one of the flaws in respect of the trike can be cured.

Secondly, could the noble Lord confirm that the allowance will continue to be taxable? If that is so, it seems that there are one or two loopholes or even anomalies here. For example, a disabled driver who receives the new £10 per week allowance will be able to assign to the charity, Motability, only about £450 per annum and would pay tax of about £70 per annum if he was in work. Together with all the VAT and the road tax, which, of course, is not payable on trikes at present, and the cost of insuring a small motor car, the annual cost to the disabled person of leasing a motor car would appear to be in the region of £550 to £570, which rounded up is about £11 per week.

That is one less attractive facet of the new allowance being only £10 a week. These calculations provide the basis for the point made in another place by my honourable friend Mrs. Chalker as to whether the allowance might be raised to £11. It may be a niggling point, but I think that Mrs. Chalker did her sums, and possibly I could go into the figures at a later stage with the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell.

Thirdly, the noble Lord, may have noticed that during consideration in another place the Government undertook to find means of inflation-proofing the allowance. Can the noble Lord tell the House whether this must remain a merely verbal promise or whether we can look forward to some amendment of the Social Security Act 1975?

There is one other rather complicated point which I should like to raise. It concerns a number of disabled persons, such as epileptics and sufferers from multiple sclerosis, who I understand at present do not receive the mobility allowance. I wonder whether the noble Lord could help us by publishing the regulations, or giving us any information as to which types of disability should be included within the scope of the new allowance. I think that that is enough of a waspish comment from me. Instead, I should like to welcome this continuing effort to provide a very reasonable, modern and indeed effective method of mobility to those who are, as the noble Lord said, totally immobile and disabled. Therefore, we welcome this order.

7.7 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the increase in the mobility allowance from £7 to £10 a week from next July and we also support the order. However, we regret that the allowance is taxable. We understand, and also welcome, the news that the allowance will be inflation-proof from November 1979, but we feel that that is rather a long time to wait. There is a need for an increase in real terms as it is still not adequate for the purpose.

We are glad that the mobility allowance now goes to a wider group of people, but we believe that there is no substitute for a vehicle. We hope that Motability will be able to solve this problem, but ask whether the scheme will allow adequately for insurance, maintenance and the running costs of the vehicle, as well as for the purchase of the vehicle. In conclusion, I repeat that we also support the order.

Viscount INGLEBY

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the Government on the uprating of the mobility allowance. While doing so, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether there may not be a proportion of the new disabled—that is to say, the disabled since July 1976—for whom the trike, although not entirely perfect, since nothing is entirely perfect in this world, would be the most appropriate form of mobility. I am thinking in particular of 16-year-olds. If there are new trikes in store, as I understand there are, could not these be issued on a temporary basis until some better form of vehicle is found? Is it not better to be in orbit in a not altogether perfect satellite rather than to be entirely grounded?

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the comments made by the three noble Lords with regard to their reception of this order. I shall try to deal with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, in the order in which he raised them. It is perfectly true that we are phasing out trikes, but I made it clear on a previous occasion—I think last December—that they would not be completely phased out until 1982 or 1983. What it boils down to—and I hope that I shall not get into difficulties for saying this—is that trikes will be with us for many years to come, because it will not follow at the end of that time that all the trikes will be unworkable or unmanageable.

I know that my noble friend the Minister for the Disabled has been looking at what one might call a trike in Manchester, but I do not know what the outcome of it is. We know, however, that Motability is making very substantial progress, and RADAR—the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—as noble Lords may know, have been able to get a fairly effective discount from various motor firms. For example, I believe I am right in saying that Chrysler, British Leyland, and Vauxhall are prepared to give a discount of 15 per cent. on new cars, and I believe that the Ford Escort 1300 has a discount of something like 18 per cent., which is even better. I think that we can say that there is a good deal in the pipeline at the present moment so far as what RADAR and Motability are doing to try and meet the needs of (shall I say?) the disabled people who, for one reason or another, feel that they want a vehicle rather than just the mobility allowance.

The taxation situation, it would be easy for me to say, is a matter for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and leave it there. I do not propose to do so for this reason. We have to face the fact that a Government must see that their money is spent in the best possible way to provide the greatest amount of relief, if that is the right word, for the greatest number of people. We know that more than half the disabled people in receipt of the mobility allowance do not pay tax. Therefore, they get the full benefit of the £10, inadequate though it may be. Now, would it be right to put people who, notwithstanding the fact that they are disabled and working and paying tax, in a privileged position whereby they do not pay tax when, as I say, the need—if there is a need at all—is probably greater among those whose income is not sufficient even to pay tax? I think that we might be in a position of spending some money in a direction where it may not be needed quite so much as it is needed at the other end.

With regard to exempting them from paying road fund tax and insurance, we have in fact noted what has been said in another place. When I say that we have noted it, it means that it exercises our minds: it is not just looked at and put on one side. I do not think I can take it any further than that. As for inflation proofing, it is true that we intend to do this by relating future payments from November 1979 to prices. In the circumstances it would not be right, for reasons I have just given, to set it against income because some disabled people have no income at all. Therefore, we have decided to relate it to prices, which seems to me to be the right way of doing it. The noble Lord said that the Government had made a promise in this direction. I do not have to remind him that this Government always keep their promises, so consequently I say that we are going to do this from November 1979. It cannot be done this year. It is going to impose a heavy burden financially upon resources, and it is the earliest we can do it.

The noble Lord raised the question of the regulations, to which I made some reference I think some weeks ago. An appeal was made to the National Insurance Commissioner some considerable time ago regarding a child that was suffering from Down's syndrome and, as noble Lords will know, the decision went against my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State, who then felt that this whole matter had to be looked at more closely to give some sort of guidance by way of regulations in the future. We hope to be able to present the regulations to the National Insurance Advisory Committee as soon as possible.

We are seeking to achieve in the regulations the position that the independent adjudicating authorities will consider an individual's condition at the time of the decision without reference to causation; that is, without having regard to whatever caused that condition. We are trying to get those regulations out, and they will be put before Parliament in due course. I think I ought to say, having said as much as that, that there is a misconception that we are trying to extend, or will be extending, the criteria for the allowance. This is not so. The allowance was designed for those who are physically incapable, or virtually incapable, of walking and the purpose of the regulations is to put that beyond doubt.

The regulations will not widen the scope of the allowance to cover people who can walk but who have an outdoor mobility problem. If we were to consider extending the allowance in such a way, not only would we have to find a very considerable sum to meet this but we should be faced with a difficult problem of deciding priorities between the various diagnostic groups. I can hold out no hope of the allowance being extended in this way in the foreseeable future. I think I have made the position perfectly clear on how my right honourable friend feels in this matter. What we are concerned about is the ability of a person being able to walk. This is really the acid test.

May I pass on to the noble Earl, Lord Grey. Before doing so perhaps he would allow me to congratulate him on what I think is his first speech from the Liberal Front Bench. If I say that it is nice to see a new face it is not because I am tired of the old ones. One likes to see the load being shared. I think I have dealt with the inflation proofing, which is the main point he raised. I hope he will feel that this has been satisfactory.

May I pass to the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby. We are in a difficulty about the 16-year-olds. We are not unmindful of the fact that many of them need some kind of mobility help, but we found it necessary as from 1st January 1976 to take a hard and fast line—and I accept that it is a hard and fast line—that what we wanted to do was to bring in and provide not only for people who were drivers but for non-drivers, so that they could get the benefit of an allowance which was a real mobility allowance. On that date we decided that we would not issue any trikes. In point of fact we did for the first few months, as the noble Viscount knows, but we are not issuing trikes to 16-year-olds.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that we want to encourage the use of the mobility allowance for all disabled people and we want to phase out, and are going to phase out, the trike. But we have to face the fact that there is an exceptionally high accident rate among 16-year-olds who have had trikes in the past. It really is quite frightening. It is far worse than among any other age groups who have had tricycles. On that score alone there is a good case for saying—although we are not supplying any more trikes in the future—that we will not supply them to 16-year-olds. I am afraid that unless something can be found to take its place, then one can only hope that Motability will be able to make some real suggestion which will help the 16-year-olds, as others, who want special vehicles that have been specially adapted.

On Question, Motion agreed to.