HL Deb 22 February 1984 vol 448 cc832-42

7.45 p.m.

Lord Banks rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that state benefits available to the blind are adequate.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. The Question asks the Government whether they are satisfied that state benefits available to the blind are adequate. I put down this Question with the support of my noble friend, Lord Kilmarnock, after a discussion which we had had with representatives of the various organisations representing the blind. We felt it would be right that the House should hear the misgivings which they have about the present situation and that an opportunity should be provided for the Government's policy in this field to be probed.

There is, of course, an appreciation in all parts of the House of the burdens which are imposed by blindness. Many of these burdens have a financial aspect. For example, it has been pointed out that a blind person cannot manage, as many of us can, with a cheap ballpoint pen and a pad of paper but needs a typewriter or a braille writing machine. He uses the telephone more, and at more expensive times. He often needs to pay for a companion or take a taxi when he travels. For example, it is difficult for him to do his own decorating, clean his own windows, cut his own hedge, mend a fuse or rewire a plug.

The point of mentioning those restriction on what a blind person can do in the context of this Question this evening is to emphasise that blind people have extra expenses because of their blindness. There are some 130,000 registered blind people in the United Kingdom, some 75 per cent. of whom are over the age of 65—over retirement age. Unlike those who are war-blinded, people who are born blind or who become blind through natural causes in adult life receive no benefit or pension. It is true that blind people on supplementary benefit receive a supplement of £1.25 per week. Blind people earning enough to pay tax receive an allowance against tax of £360 per annum, or £720 per annum for a married couple. So the principle is conceded by the state machinery that blind people require assistance on account of their blindness.

However, it is reckoned that over a third of blind people have an income under £2,000 per annum and more than half have an income under £3,000 per annum. So it follows that many are not getting the full value, or any value at all, from the tax concession. In fact in 1982–83 30,000 were claiming the tax relief, which is worth £108 per annum for somebody on the standard rate, and 41,000 were on supplementary benefit. That would appear to leave some 59,000 receiving neither the supplementary benefit supplement nor the tax relief—the blindness gap, as it is called. Some 59,000 blind people, most of them on low incomes, were getting no state assistance at all on account of their blindness.

I should be grateful if the noble Lord who is to answer the Question would confirm or otherwise that that is a correct statement—that some 59,000 blind people, most of them on low incomes, are receiving no state assistance at all on account of their blindness. Blind people who cannot orientate themselves in their environment are not entitled to mobility allowance unless they are unable to walk; in other words, they do not get it on account of their blindness. We on these Benches, and many people in many other parts of the House, believe that there is a need for a general disability allowance to meet the additional expenses incurred by being disabled from whatever cause—blindness or any other cause of disablement. The eventual aim, must remain a disability income where earning is not possible and a disability allowance, whether or not earning is possible, towards the additional expenses.

In the meantime, could not the Government begin to tackle the problem so far as the blind are concerned by turning the tax relief into a positive cash payment, as was done with children's tax allowances when child benefit was introduced? This would help those who do not pay income tax. I wonder whether it is possible for the noble Lord to say when he replies how much it would cost extra to provide the same net benefit of £108 per annum, which the standard rate taxpayer now enjoys, to all the blind, regardless of income. My own calculation is that it would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of £10 million to £12 million. Of course, that would be a very small beginning and we would want to increase the weekly payment beyond the £2 a week; but that £2 a week would be higher than the present supplementary benefit supplement and would be payable to all who were blind, not merely to some.

The organisations representing the blind feel that blind people should be entitled to a benefit equal in amount to the mobility allowance of £19 per week. How much would that cost? I imagine the answer is somewhere in the region of £100 million.

My Lords, I believe that the Government concede the case for such a blindness allowance, but that only the question of cost prevents them from doing anything about it. Perhaps the Government could begin with something between the lower benefit costing £10 million to £12 million which I mentioned, and the higher benefit of £100 million. If the Government agree that present benefits are inadequate, what priority do they give to rectifying that position?

7.55 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, we are very much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Banks, for bringing this important Question before us this evening. I do not want to detain the House for long, but I assure the noble Lord the Minister that the brevity of my remarks is not proportional to the seriousness of the case.

My Lords, I would like to ask the noble Lord the Minister one or two questions. In December 1980 32,000 blind people on supplementary benefit were receiving the £1.25 extra blindness allowance. By December that figure had risen to 41,000. Has the noble Lord the Minister the figures for 1983? Is there any explanation for this increase? Is there an increasing number of blind people, or is there an increasing amount of poverty among the blind which is putting more of them on supplementary benefit? Moreover, if the allowance was £1.25 some time ago, should that not be increased? Are the Government giving any consideration to increasing the £1.25 in proportion to the rate of inflation?

The noble Lord, Lord Banks, referred to the question of income tax relief under which blind people are allowed up to £360 of income free of tax. I understand, with him, that that helps about 30,000 people, but I am sure the noble Lord shares my concern for those people who are too poor to pay any income tax at all, so that this is of no help to them.

My Lords, I would also like to ask the noble Lord the Minister if the Government could not look again at this question of the mobility allowance. There was a case reported in The Times Law Reports a few days ago of a blind woman whose appeal for mobility allowance had been turned down because under the regulations which grant mobility allowance, it was said that she was not entitled to this help because in fact she could put one foot in front of the other; there was not what I believe the professionals call a motor disability. But this woman had been so disorientated by her blindness that she could not go out, she could not find a bus stop, she did not know her left from her right or where she was going. She needed to have someone to put her in a taxi or to put her on a bus, but because her "fault", if I may use that word, was blindness and was not some sort of paralysis or other kind of disability, her case was disallowed. I am not criticising the court because it was quite clear in the regulations for the mobility allowance that these were to be guidelines. However, there must be many blind people, especially older people, who are afraid to go out on their own, who are quite unable to move around, or to have any kind of social life, not because they cannot—I repeat—put one foot in front of the other, but because their blindness makes them feel afraid and terribly alone.

I hope, too, that we are all giving some thought to the marvellous improvements in technology for all kinds of disablement. There is a great number of inventions, of sensitive appliances, which help all the disabled. Can we be told what help the Government are giving to make sure that people who need the most sophisticated aids can get them? I understand, for instance, that a Braille writing machine costs £70, even though subsidised by the National Institute. If a person is on supplementary benefit, plus £1.25, £70 is a lot of money.

Another point which I think is very important is that of guide dogs. I think the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is one of the most efficient, most marvellous, charities in this country, but it has to rely entirely on voluntary contributions. A guide dog can mean the difference between some sort of quality of life and no quality of life, especially for younger blind people. I know a lot about the voluntary work done by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, but I am wondering whether the Government can see any way towards supplementing that voluntary effort, because it is very expensive to keep a guide dog. They are not little dogs who can be given a couple of biscuits a day. Veterinary fees are expensive nowadays, and it is essential for these dogs to be kept fit. As I have said, I know the association is very caring of its dogs and of the blind people they help, but sometimes I wonder if it ought to be left on its own.

My Lords, of course it would be wrong to omit the marvellous work done by institutions like St. Dunstan's and others. But we must consider whether or not the problem is getting beyond the voluntary associations in that their work is often supplementary. I sometimes think we leave too much to them. In fact, when we are told about the problems the Government have in finding money, I believe every self-respecting taxpayer in this country would gladly contribute, in thankfulness for his sight. I do not think there are many in this country would say, "I want income tax cut so you do not give any money to the blind", nor do all the other things which are essential if we are to help those who have this appalling disability to live lives as fully and as richly as possible.

My Lords, in the Labour Party manifesto at the election we suggested we would introduce a £10 a week blindness allowance as a first step towards the introduction of a new cash benefit for the disabled. In the Conservative Party manifesto I can find no reference to helping blind people specifically. We are told that the Government have in mind some disability pension which, of course, will include blind people, but that there is not the money available.

There may be some arguments about waiting until the general disability help can come in, but I should like to put to the House this evening that there should be a special consideration for blind people. For one reason they are identifiable, mostly they are registered, and also if the general disability allowance comes in at some time or other the blind allowance could be subsumed in that, so we are not contradicting each other. I am just suggesting that we might start towards this general disability allowance with blind people. We already have the mobility allowance, the attendance allowance, and this seems to me to be the next step forward.

I hope that the Government will have something encouraging to say to the House tonight and some message of hope for many of the blind people in our society, the majority of whom unfortuantely are getting older and older and so have other disabilities as well; sometimes deafness, sometimes arthritis, sometimes other crippling diseases. But we should also think of the brave younger blind who go out to work. We see them on the Tube and the buses with their dogs, and working on telephone switchboards, and in all sorts of work. They should be encouraged and made to feel that we all care about them. If the Government are to say that there is not any money to help them further, then the Government are not reflecting the public's view, because the public has great sympathy and concern for those who do not share the marvellous gift of sight.

8.2 p.m.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, the gaps and shortcomings in our tax and benefits system in so far as it affects the blind have been tellingly demonstrated by my noble friend Lord Banks and by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and I do not want to repeat what they have said. In some ways the Blind Persons Acts 1920 and 1938 showed, by the standards of those times, a greater concern with the plight of blind people than we have since evinced, for these were in effect blindness allowances, or they provided blindness allowances, with an age threshold. These were repealed by the National Assistance Act 1948 which contained, so far as I can see, rather weaker provisions concerning welfare, workshops, meals, and recreation, and in any case these were not specific to the blind as they included the deaf and the dumb also.

Our present apparent indifference may well be due to an erroneous belief by most people that a blindness allowance is already in existence. That of course is not the case, as we have heard. On the contrary, it appears that in comparison with the rest of Europe we are not in the same league in our statutory treatment of our blind fellow citizens. Despite the acknowledgement by Mr. Prentice on 24th July 1979 in another place, at col. 337—I quote from Hansard—that, the case fir an income in the form of a blindness allowance is unanswerable on its merits". nothing has happened in the subsequent five years.

The petition, of which I have a copy here, which was presented to the House of Commons in December 1980, signed by half a million people, is presumably just gathering dust on a shelf. Is it not time, therefore, that the Government made a resolution to respond positively during their second administration to a claim they felt unable, for various reasons, to meet during their first administration?

I understand that the organisation representing the blind have met Mr. Fowler, and we hope that something, however modest, may come of that. They have also, I understand, written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose reply they still await. As it is on him that any substantial progress depends, I hope that he will read this short debate.

I want to turn to more specific matters. My noble friend Lord Banks has already drawn attention to an extraordinary lacuna or, to put it more forcefully, a damned great hole that appears to exist in provision for the blind. Out of the 130,000 blind people it is estimated that approximately 30,000 are in work and can claim the tax allowance if their income brings them into tax, while some 40-odd thousand who are on supplementary benefit get the rather exiguous daily additional allowance of £1.25p, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, referred. This has not moved in cash terms since 1966, and seems to have been sinking in real terms since the 1940s when it stood at 15 shillings.

None of this is very good, but what I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, is whether he can throw any further light—and my noble friend asked him this too—on the remaining 59,000 or 60,000 who qualify under neither of these headings? Given the predominance of elderly blind persons, we must assume that many of them are pensioners above the suplementary benefit level—or some of them are—and the rest are those with such low pay that they do not qualify for tax relief.

Many of these people may be living in conditions of appalling difficulty. Have the Government made any estimate of the numbers of such people, and, if not, is this not something which should be undertaken? Would it not be possible to start with the voluntary register that local authorities are bound to keep as a basis for their returns to the DHSS? Will the Government undertake to make a serious investigation of how many people are languishing in what my noble friend called the blindness gap?

I turn next to some immediate ways that the Government could help. First is the important question of mobility referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger. This is an area of inadequate assistance for the blind which has struck me with particular force. It may come as something of a shock to those unfamiliar with these problems—it did to me—that people who are blind and cannot orientate themselves in their environment are not entitled to mobility allowance unless their lack of mobility is a direct result of an ambulant disorder; that is, nothing to do with their blindness.

It must be obvious that blindness much reduces effective mobility, or makes it much more expensive. Here I want to refer to the judgment, to which the noble Baroness referred, recently delivered in the case of Christine Lees, a blind person now 30 years old who applied back in 1979 for a mobility allowance, refusal of which by the Medical Appeals Tribunal was upheld by the Social Security Commissioner. It went to the Court of Appeal where, on 9th February this year, her appeal was dismissed. I do not want to go into the case in any detail because Christine's blindness was compounded by another condition, and I understand there is the possibility of a further appeal.

What I want to stress is that it is only because of such inadequate provision for the blind that the case had to be brought at all. Any such claims must at present be based on the Mobility Allowance Regulations 1975, paragraph 1 of which specifies that: A person shall he treated, for the purpose of Section 37A (of the Social Security Act 1975)"— that is the mobility allowance, and then I paraphrase a little, only under the following conditions:

  1. "(a) he is unable to walk; or
  2. (b) his ability out of doors is so limited, as regards the distance over which or the speed at which or the length of time for which or the manner in which he can make progress on foot without severe discomfort, that he is virtually unable to walk".
Then there follows sub-paragraph (c) which is less relevant.

This means, or appears to mean, that people who are capable of walking in the sense that they can put one foot in front of another, as the noble Baroness said, provided that they are steered or have some apparatus for steering, and can cover a reasonable amount of ground, do not satisfy the statutory provision for an award for a mobility allowance.

In the case of Christine Lees, the commissioner said of blindness in general, not her blindness, It is an affliction which is wholly unrelated to the physical power to move one leg in front of another". Later he said: But unfortunately for the claimant her inability to control the direction in which she goes is a handicap which has nothing to do with her ability to walk in the first place, and accordingly is something which cannot be taken into account in determining whether the claimant satisfies Regulation 3(1)(a) or (b). This brings me to my main point. Will the Government not agree that there should be an additional subsection to the regulation extending the concept of immobility to cover severely impaired or restricted mobility arising from blindness; that is, due to a faulty steering mechanism in addition to a faulty mechanism of propulsion? After all, all vehicles need both. The impairment of sense of direction is surely as important as the impairment of the means of locomotion, and, in fact, potentially more dangerous. I do not wish to suggest that deprivation of locomotion is not a terrible affliction or that mobility allowance is not a great advance for the disabled; it certainly is. But why should the blind be excluded, or have the Government some other alternative in mind?

It is interesting that, in the case I referred to, the Medical Appeals Tribunal said: In general terms, we would have thought that Attendance Allowance was, in tact, more appropriate in cases such as this". But it was outside their jurisdiction to recommend that and that allowance was not in payment.

That leads me to another question that I wish to ask the noble Lord. It has been calculated that some 10,000 blind people qualify for attendance allowance, but, as we know, many blind people are elderly, frail, or suffer from other disorders, and it therefore seems quite possible that they would have qualified for the allowance anyway and that in many cases the attendance allowance represents no additional help for blindness. This is precisely what emerges from the opinion of the Medical Appeals Tribunal in the case of Christine Lees, when it suggested that her other disability, which is hydrocephalus, should qualify her for that allowance, not her blindness. Incidentally, have the Government any figures of how many blind people have applied for attendance allowance and have been refused?

The speeches have all been short this evening, and I do not want to make a long one, but the upshot is that many blind people appear to be falling between a number of stools. The tax allowances are a very modest benefit and are available to fewer than a quarter of blind people. The supplementary benefit additional allowance has fallen drastically behind inflation. In the absence of some further decision by the courts or some amending legislation by the Government, blind people do not qualify for mobility allowance and even claims to attendance allowance, seem to qualify in far fewer cases than one would have expected. There is an indeterminate, but apparently large, number of blind people who qualify for none of these things.

I venture to suggest that this is simply not good enough. I should have thought that a blindness allowance was a sine qua non of a civilised society. I will not go in to the details of likely cost. My noble friend Lord Banks has already mentioned £100 million, but it would be a minute proportion of the social security budget, or it could be found from the very large contingency reserve planned in the Government's recent White Paper.

Finally, if the Government will not make a firm commitment this evening to an allowance on the lines advanced by my noble friend Lord Banks, I hope that we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, that the Government will give some immediate help on mobility and on the wider availability of attendance allowance. I look forward to the noble Lord's reply.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I join with those who have spoken earlier in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Banks, for asking this Question this evening. I know only too well that over the years the noble Lord has taken more than a keen interest in a great range of social security matters, not least that of the interests of the blind.

I would like to start by assuring your Lordships that the Government are deeply sympathetic to, and aware of the needs of, blind people and of disabled people in general. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Minister for the Disabled recently met with a deputation from a number of organisations representing the blind to discuss their concern at the need for a cash allowance specifically for blind people, which was the theme of many of those who spoke this evening.

We are well aware of the case put forward by these organisations which work so tirelessly on behalf of the blind. I join with the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, in adding my support and thanks for all that they do for the blind. The arguments which have been put forward have been repeated this evening. But in the present financial situation we think that our policy of concentrating on the basic needs to which disability gives rise, rather than providing benefits for particular diagnostic groups, is the best way of ensuring that our scarce resources are used to assist those most in need.

As I am sure your Lordships are aware, the blind can qualify for the present range of social security benefits in the same way as other claimants. For example, about 10,500 people, whose main disabling condition is listed as blindness or diseases of the eye, currently receive attendance allowance at the lower or higher rate. I am afraid that I do not have the information which the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, asked for about the numbers who were claiming and not receiving this payment. If those figures should be available, I will let him have them.

I accept, of course, that many blind people are not eligible for these benefits. Many, indeed, are able, despite their handicap, to work and lead full and independent lives. This is something which we all applaud and which we would wish to encourage as much as possible. Although we are sympathetic to the case for the introduction of a special cash allowance for all blind people, it would be wrong for me to suggest that the necessary resources are likely to become available in the foreseeable future. A benefit for all registered blind people, pitched for example at £10 a week, would cost in the region of £65 million a year. To pay it at the same rate as mobility allowance, which was suggested—currently £19 a week—would cost some £125 million a year. These figures do not take account of those who are registered as partially sighted.

In the long term, the Government's policy is to work towards a more coherent system of benefits for disabled people. And with this in mind we are using the resources we have at our disposal to remove anomalies in the present system and increase the effectiveness of existing benefits. For example, mobility allowance has been increased by a massive 90 per cent. since we took office in May 1979. In relation to mobility allowance, the entitlement to it, as your Lordships will be aware, is based on a person's inability or virtual inability to walk, not on the existence of a particular illness or disability. If it were made payable to particular groups, it would radically alter the nature of the benefit. A blind person may qualify for mobility allowance if he fulfils the medical criteria of inability, or virtual inability, to walk. The noble Baroness—indeed, all those who have spoken—referred to the Christine Lees case. We have not yet had an opportunity fully to study the transcripts of the judgment. The adjudicating authorities for the allowance consider the facts in each individual case, but it seems clear that some blind people, who have other disabilities which affect their walking ability, will continue to qualify. On that case, I do not think I can say any more.

Last year we were able to remove the "invalidity trap" which prevented thousands of chronically sick and disabled people from ever qualifying for the higher, long-term rate of supplementary benefit. The current Health and Social Security Bill at present in another place includes proposals for the introduction of a new benefit, called severe disablement allowance, which will replace-non-contributory invalidity pension from November 1984. This will result initially in an extra 20,000 disabled people, including a number of blind and partially-sighted married women, being able to qualify for benefit for the first time, at an additional cost of £20 million a year. I would point out that, in common with other disabled people, blind people who receive housing benefit allowance have their needs allowance set 11½ per cent. higher than other.

The noble Lord, Lord Banks, and the noble Baroness referred to the additional £1.25 a week payable to a blind person in receipt of supplementary benefit. The noble Baroness asked what would be the value of this addition now if it had ben increased in line with the rise in prices. I understand that this benefit has been as it stands for the last 22 years, or thereabouts, and I have to say that the value would be just over £8 now. The additional benefit cost would be in the region of £11 million a year. On the taxation front, we were able, as the noble Lord, Lord Banks, said, to double the tax allowance for the blind to £360 a year. It is worth about £2 a week to those who pay tax at the basic rate. Of course, tax matters are for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and not for me; but, in relation to the question of benefit (which the noble Lord, Lord Banks, raised) of £108 per year, which would be the amount after tax of the figure to which I referred, the cost, roughly, would be about £14 million gross. I cannot give a more accurate figure. That is roughly what the figure would be.

Provision for the blind is not just about cash benefits. The services available to them play a great part in helping them to live their daily lives, and I should like again to pay my tribute to the many people who play such an important role in this respect. The problem here is the apparent variation in the level of service from one area to another. To try to resolve it, officials recently have conducted a series of fact-finding visits to authorities involving health and personal social services as well as the voluntary bodies. When we have completed an analysis of the findings, we hope to be better placed to assess the actual needs and level of service. Meanwhile, the indications are that the visits themselves had a beneficial effect locally, in that that they brought ophthalmological and social work service staff round a single table where they could exchange views and information. We hope that this will prove useful and help to iron out difficulties in communications between the various services. We hope to build on this once we have the complete picture.

The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked whether I could confirm the estimate of 59,000 people who get no state help: that is, no supplementary benefit. I am afraid I cannot give the figure. The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, raised this as well. He is probably right when he says that the people who do not benefit from supplementary benefit or tax allowance are pensioners on small incomes or those who work on very low pay. There are, I am afraid, no definite figures for evidence on this matter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked about guide dogs. I can tell her that, so far as I know, licences for guide dogs are free. I am not aware of any assistance available for feeding guide dogs or for vets' fees. If there are any particular allowances—and I do not think there are—I shall let her know.

The noble Lord, Lord Banks, raised an interesting point and asked me a great many additional questions which included a great many figures. I have tried to answer as many as I possibly can, but I assure him that, if there are any which I have failed to answer or any asked by the noble Baroness or the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, I shall write to them. In conclusion, let me stress again the sympathy and concern the Government have for blind people. We have taken the initiative on the services side with worthwhile results. I only regret that the stringent financial situation does not enable me to respond more positively—which is what the noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked—to the case he made for a special benefit. But, as in all matters to do with social security, the Government will keep all these things under review.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, will the noble Lord look carefully at my proposal for an addition under the mobility allowance, bring it to the attention of his right honourable friend and let me have a response on that particular point?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, of course.