HL Deb 20 July 1989 vol 510 cc929-39

3 Clause 8, page 8, line 42, at beginning insert— ( ) In section 37A of the principal Act (mobility allowance) at the end of subsection (1) insert "or is deaf and blind or is suffering from severe mental handicap such that he is either unable to walk or virtually unable to do so without physical control by another person". ( ) In subsection (2) of that section leave out "physical".

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason—

4 Because this amendment might involve charges on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further reason trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 4.

Your Lordships will appreciate that much of what I have said on Amendment No. 1 applies equally in this case. Again, another place has elected to exercise its financial privilege in this matter and I do not believe that it would be right for this House to look beyond that, even though I appreciate that your Lordships may wish to debate this matter once more. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 4.—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord Carter

My Lords, I entirely understand and accept what the noble Lord the Leader of the House has just said, which is that we are entitled to debate the amendment again, but I shall not do that. I think it will surprise the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that I intend to agree with him. The noble Lord may well look surprised because I think this will be the first and the last occasion. The noble Lord used the phrase "substantial charges on public funds" a number of times.

I wish to take up a few moments of the time of the House to show why I think that the Government are wrong in assuming that this amendment would have involved substantial charges on public funds. However, in passing, I must say that those of us who supported the amendment and who won the acceptance of the House find this a very sad day for the deaf blind and the severely mentally handicapped. The rejection of the amendment says a great deal about the Government's social policy generally with its combination of a steamroller majority and bogus statistics.

The general argument behind the amendment that the House accepted is the fact that a small group of severely handicapped people—it involves fewer than 8,000 people—should be receiving the mobility allowance but are not getting it. The amendment was well researched and was very carefully worded to ensure that it caught only this very small and carefully defined group. When we' discussed the problem on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, I and others gave the House the numbers involved. As I have said, the figure was fewer than 8,000. Only on Report did the Government suddenly come up with the figure of 100,000 people who might benefit.

Those of us who supported the amendment gave the history of the attempts of the all-party disablement group and the disability organisations over the years to get the department to deal with this problem. The campaign started in 1981 and the all-party disablement group saw successive Ministers for the Disabled in 1985, 1987, and again this year. Each time there was a different Minister. Each Minister expressed considerable sympathy, but each found a different reason for inaction and delay. Indeed, the departmental ducking, weaving and procrastination over this matter make the Prime Minister's attitude towards joining the EMS look like a mad, headlong gallop.

The rejection of this amendment by the Government is based on completely bogus statistics. I shall not attempt to weary the House with statistical detail. However, after the debate on Report last week I was so concerned about the extraordinary figure of 100,000 people that I tried to find out how it had been calculated. It seems that the department has used the OPCS survey of disabilities and the data tapes which provided the raw material for the survey to cobble together a number of groups of disabled people to reach the figure of 100,000. I should make it clear that the OPCS survey of disability does not identify conditions or reveal the numbers of the deaf blind, the severely mentally handicapped, the autistic, the schizophrenic or whatever. It identifies symptoms such as problems of locomotion, behaviour or intellectual functioning based on a series of medical models. It certainly does not identify those who need continuous physical control by another person or, as I have said, the number of deaf blind or severely mentally handicapped people.

The department's figure of 100,000 people has nothing to do with the people affected by this amendment. For a start, the department has made no distinction, as the amendment does, between the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill. The department has added together various symptoms of disability, each of them varying in their severity. The department has made no allowance for episodic disability. Finally, it has had to make a wild guess at the number who, in the words of the department to me over the telephone, need to be accompanied by another person. The need to be accompanied is by no means the same as the need for continuous physical control by another person.

Noble Lords may remember that on Report the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, pointed out that the figure of 100,000 meant that one in 560 of the population would be affected. I agreed with the noble Baroness. However, I wish to apologise to the House as we were both wrong. The allowance is not available to those under five and people cannot apply for it if they are over 65. The departmental figure actually represents one in 444 of the population. According to the department, every 445th person is either deaf blind or so severely mentally handicapped that they need continuous physical control. This does not just defy common sense and insult the intelligence of Parliament, it is also just plain daft.

Noble Lords with a Biblical turn of mind may recall the parable of the wedding feast when the servants were sent out into the highways and byways to make up the numbers for the wedding. In their desperate trawl through the highways and byways of the OPCS study, the officials of the Department of Social Security make the servants in the parable look like new beginners.

Incidentally, there is no argument about the numbers of the deaf blind. I think we all agree that the figure is about 3,000. The figure of 4,400 people with severe mental handicap which was produced by MENCAP and used as the basis for the amendment which we moved and carried, was based on a government survey of the incidence of mental handicap, unlike the OPCS study. That figure has an authority and an accuracy which is completely lacking in the department's figures.

I am aware of and respect the constitutional convention which means that this House does not divide against the rejection of an amendment in another place, if that rejection is based on financial privilege. However, I should say in conclusion that we have a situation where a few thousand —it is a few thousand—of the most severely handicapped people in our society, and those who care for them day and night, have been deprived of about £1,200 a year by the combination of a steamroller majority, bogus statistics and an argument so weak that the Government have had to hide behind financial privilege.

Let us consider the 1 million disabled people who are actually worse off as a result of various recent changes in benefits. Incidentally, the OPCS study showed that people with disabilities are some of the poorest in our society. That figure of 1 million includes the large number of people with disabilities who have received increases in benefits which are less than the rate of inflation, the disabled people in Scotland who have lost their rate rebates and are now having to pay the full amount of the poll tax, and the people with disabilities whose incomes are frozen because of transitional protection; and now there is this mean-spirited attitude towards the mobility allowance. If there is one group in our society which is longing and praying for the return of a Labour government, it is people with disabilities. For them the return of a Labour government cannot come a day too soon.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I wish briefly to associate these Benches with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Once again, we accept the power of those who bear sway in another place to do what they have done. They have decided that they cannot help the deaf, the blind and the autistic, and those suffering from Downe's syndrome—in other words, some of the poorest and weakest groups in our society—at a very small cost, because the integrity of public funds will not permit it. I did not know that we were that poor a country and I am very sorry to hear it.

I am reminded of the younger Pitt who spoke in another place in 1799. He said that he would do nothing to relieve the famine for fear of infringing the sacred laws of supply and demand. I am very sorry indeed.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I wish to follow up what my noble friend and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, have just said. I do not wish to rehearse the arguments. However, if one debates any proposition, one is entitled to a sensible reply as to why it cannot be accepted.

The arrogance of this statement is absolutely incredible. The amendment may involve charges on public funds. The Commons do not offer any further reason against it. If ever there was an argument for having a second Chamber this has to be it. In the small hours of the morning, a few Members of Parliament, dragooned by their Whips, voted on the amendment. There are over 600 Members but on most occasions only 400 vote. Where are the other 200?

The Government probably do not want a warning from me, but if they are going to lose votes—and they are certainly going to lose them on the poll tax, so I do not need to worry on that score—this is the type of issue that will lose them votes.

My argument concerns the arrogance with which the other Chamber confronts this Chamber. We are told that we are entitled to look at and pass a Bill, which has to go through both Houses of Parliament. But if we dare to suggest that one aspect of that Bill could be improved our suggestion is rejected, not because there is anything wrong with the arguments but because it will involve charges on public funds.

I challenge the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, on this issue. I taught history. I do not believe that there are Acts of Parliament which state that this House cannot challenge Bills that involve finance. We have standing orders, and we have the sacrosanct Erskine May, but we do not have a British constitution. That fact is constantly reiterated. We obey the conventions because we are orderly people, but that does not mean that we are obeying a law. What would happen to us if we dared to vote against the other place? Would we immediately be taken to the Tower? What a marvellous argument that would be for the retention of the House of Lords.

We are the last bastion defending the people's rights. This is one issue which shows that the Government do not really care for the people but that they care for money. That is what they feel strongly about—the cost. We are now to be confronted with a situation in which people will be told that they might be able to have an operation or they might not depending on whether it will cost the National Health Service too much. This is another example of that attitude.

I reject that as an answer to our reasoned amendments. I know that we shall not do anything about it, but that will not stop me from making my plea. My God, if we cannot do something for the deaf and the blind what kind of a civilised society do we live in?

4.30 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, we have spent a considerable amount of time discussing the constitutional issues on this point. I believe that there are other issues of equal or perhaps greater importance. I do not believe that we should insist on our amendment.

I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House for more than 40 years, albeit a bad attender in the past. From time to time I have heard arguments that we must insist on our opinion and on other occasions there have been critical cries of "Peers against the people". I do not believe that that is the issue today.

I believe that the issue is whether the Government were wise to advise another place to vote in the way that it did. I believe that they were not. First, it is a flagrant case of spoiling the ship of state for a hap'orth of tar. Secondly, it is damaging to the unity of society. My party—to which I am proud to belong—makes the proud claim that it governs in the interests of society as a whole. I do not believe that this decision supports that claim.

I implore my noble friend the Leader of the House to ask his right honourable friends in future, as they consider their response to amendments which we pass in this House in good faith after full debate, seriously to consider the points that I have made taking account of the reputation of the party, and the reputation of the Government as one which governs the whole country as a united nation and in the interests of all sections of society

Baroness Seear

My Lords, am I to understand that the privileged objection is based primarily on finance? Will the noble Lord the Leader of the House examine again the point which has just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Carter? We were told by the Government Front Bench that we were talking about 100,000 people. Plainly the cost of dealing with 100,000 people is very different from the cost of dealing with 8,000. That is surely a matter of fact.

I do not know whether the not le Lord, Lord Carter, is right or wrong, but surely the Government can find out whether he is right or wrong and whether we are talking about 100,000 people or 8,000 people. If the issue turns on finance, the difference between those figures must be very considerable indeed. If it emerges that the decision has been based—quite sincerely and genuinely—on mistaken figures, is it not possible for the Government to think again?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in this debate very little has been said about the constitutional position because in the debate on the previous amendment there was general acceptance—whether noble Lords liked it or not—that the Commons was clearly within its rights. Therefore, on this occasion I shall not say anything on that point.

However, I was one of those who was very interested in this matter on its merits. I can well understand why the Government were unwilling to accept the amendment since there seems to be—as the noble Baroness has just said—an extraordinary disparity of view as to the numbers involved and therefore as to the cost involved. It may be that there will have to be further research before that point can be cleared up.

I rise simply to ask my noble friend the Leader of the House whether, assuming that your Lordships accept—as I am sure that we should—the Commons' rejection of our amendment, the Government will look at the issue involved. In particular, will they try to clarify the rather exasperating question as to how many people we are talking about? Would my noble friend also make it clear whether I am right in thinking that if the Government were to decide that a reasonably small number of people was affected—and there is no dispute that they are all tragic cases—it would be possible to proceed by way of regulation to provide some help for them? I appreciate that it may be some time before we have another Social Security Bill. Indeed, the Government's experiences with this Bill may contribute to that delay. However, I have the impression that if the Government wanted to do something about the worst cases in this category it might be possible to proceed by regulation. That would mean that if the Government were convinced that it was possible and they wanted to do it they could do so quite quickly.

I am not sure whether it is fair to ask my noble friend the Leader of the House to say something on that aspect when he winds up the debate. If he could do so he would reassure a great many noble Lords who, like myself, take a totally different view of the merits of this amendment compared with the earlier amendment.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that I am no lawyer but I am quite confident that this could not be done by regulation. We went into that possibility with some care before proposing the rather restricted amendment.

I accept that we cannot quarrel with the decision of the other place taken on the grounds of privilege and that that is something that we must accept with good grace. Perhaps I may also say that I think that some of the speeches have been slightly less than fair to the Government in that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, made it quite clear that this was something that the Government eventually wanted to achieve and that they accepted that there were merits in what was being proposed. However, I hope that the Government realise that the way in which, in the end, they have treated these two small groups will not do them very much good not only with those concerned and their families, but also with a lot of other people in the country, including many of their own supporters.

I go along entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has said about the figures. He has discussed them with me. I remind your Lordships that as regards the mentally handicapped group we are talking about those who are severely mentally handicapped—the criterion which qualifies one for exemption from the poll tax—who in addition have behavioural problems requiring constant supervision. To say that that total comes out at 100,000 is so ludicrous that, if the statement had not come from a government Minister, one would simple have dismissed it as absolutely time-wasting.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred to possible compromises in the handling of amendments made in this House with which another place disagreed. That prompts me to say that even the Minister did not quarrel with the calculation that there might be about 3,000 people who are both deaf and blind who do not at present receive the allowance. Nothing is being done for them either.

I can only say with some regret that I am glad that I am not a member of a party that is content to put off for years—the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, did not deny that it could be years—the possibility of the allowance being paid to, at any rate, that small group of most grievously disabled people.

Lord Renton

My Lords, it is, I think, obvious to all of us that the strength of your Lordships' House lies in its capacity as a revising Chamber and its constitutional power to ask another place to think again. It would seem that our strength as a revising Chamber has, if anything, increased in recent years. But although we have the right to ask Members of another place to think again, I am sure that your Lordships would agree that we cannot ask them to think again and again, however important the matter may be and however wrong we may think they are.

On the Third Reading of the Social Security Bill, I was one of those who, along with 14 of my noble friends, voted for the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I did so because I thought that the other place—and that means the Government as well—should think again for two main reasons. First, there was such a strong case for the granting of mobility allowance that it should not be delayed too long. I had feared from the speech that I heard from the Front Bench on that occasion that we would be a long, long time awaiting before our dream came true. I should like to hear from my noble friend the Leader of the House, following the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that—without committing the Government more than he is constitutionally able to do—the matter will be dealt with before long.

My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said that he did not know whether we would ever have another social security Act. But there has been one in each of the last seven years, just as there has been a regular Finance Bill. In some years there has been more than one. I hope and believe that this could be done quite soon one way or another. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, whose support of MENCAP we share. I support them in the view that talk of 100,000 is just unreal. It is nowhere near the truth. I hope that we shall hear nothing more of that today.

It would be quite wrong of us to resist the Commons further on this matter of privilege. However, in view of what has been said, I hope that this necessary improvement in our social service arrangements will not be long delayed.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I do not wish to detract from anything that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said in the latter part of his speech and I hope that the Government Front Bench listened most carefully. However, I wish to pick up something that he said early in his speech; namely, that this House does not have the right to ask the Commons to think again and again.

It may well be that, in matters such as this, where financial privilege is involved, we should not ask the Commons to take them back again. We have the right, but it is not a right that we should exercise. However, on other matters that do not involve financial privilege we have the right to return things again and again to the Commons, and that is not a right that we should lightly set down. It is an important constitutional provision for Parliament in its exercise of scrutiny of the Executive. It is the fact that the Executive imposes its will in this way through a huge whipped majority in the Commons which bears no relation whatsoever to the voting power in this country that is at the root of the matter.

People have said that this House has been insulted by the Commons. That is a grave mistake. The people who have been insulted by the Executive are the deaf, the blind and the seriously handicapped.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, there are many Members of your Lordships' House and another place who have worked with the deaf, the blind and the severely handicapped over many years, both on hospital committees, as I have done, and therapeutically. I do not propose to go into the constitutional argument here except to say in fairness that the other place has accepted at least in part, although perhaps not to the extent that many of us would like, a considerable number of amendments from your Lordships' House. I speak with 30 years' of experience in this House.

I believe that we must now accept what the other place has done. However, this is a matter to which the Government should give further thought. As my noble friend Lord Renton, with his enormous experience, has said, there are well over 100,000 people involved here—

Noble Lords


Lord Renton

My Lords, I said that the figure of 100,000 given to us from the Front Bench during the Third Reading debate, is quite unreal and that I hoped we would not hear that figure mentioned again from the Front Bench.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend and to the House for that Freudian slip.

Many people have been blinded in the service of this country. Many people have become mentally handicapped and deaf in the service of this country. That is an aspect that the Government should consider, whether in regulations or elsewhere. I hope that my noble friend the Leader of the House and my right honourable friend the Minister, who is a very fair minded and caring man, will take those points on board.

Lord Rippon of Hexham

My Lords, I do not want to enter into the constitutional argument, but I should like to endorse entirely what my noble friend Lord Caldecote said about this issue.

I have worked for the Conservative Party all my adult life. I am totally appalled that a party that claims to follow in the traditions of Disraeli, Shaftesbury and Churchill should have committed what I believe to be—whatever the French translation may be—an act of social cruelty. That is the only way in which I can describe the way we treat the blind and the deaf. I have always believed that we should have a minimum standard of life and labour below which no one should be allowed to fall and, after that, competition upwards. We are not providing a minimum standard of life for people who are totally blind and dumb.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I too should like to associate myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, particularly as my name was down to the amendment approved by your Lordships, although I was unable to be present at that time due to a long-standing engagement.

Like other noble Lords, I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will take a careful and close look at the numbers of people involved. Some noble Lords have talked about people who are blind and some have talked about people who are deaf. The amendment refers to people who are both blind and deaf. If one is blind, one can hear traffic. If one is deaf, one can see traffic. But if one is both blind and deaf, one is in a totally enclosed world and one can only feel traffic. That may be the moment when the motor car hits you. This is why those who had their names to this amendment, as well as myself, feel very strongly that those people should have the mobility allowance so that they can be escorted in the streets. It is also very important for people who cannot control themselves because of mental disabilities and need to be escorted at the same time.

I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will take a very careful look at this matter. I hope that the Leader of the House when he comes to reply will be able to give some indication of when they will consider this matter and when they propose to take some action. I have a feeling that this is doing a great deal of damage to the Conservative Party and, no matter what party is in power, to the whole parliamentary system.

There was another point that I wished to raise but I cannot bring it immediately to mind. I shall therefore leave the matter there so that we can move on.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, in the past three-quarters of an hour a good deal has been said about the Government's attitude to the mobility allowance. Before replying very briefly to this debate, perhaps I may say that over the past 10 years expenditure on the mobility allowance has increased to cover not 95,000 people as it covered 10 years ago, but 580,000 people as it does today. The allowance is nearly two and a half times greater than it was 10 years ago and of course it was taken out of taxation in 1982. I believe that all those things are good.

What is difficult for the Government with regard to this amendment—and this is ground that we covered at Report stage when my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale replied and there was a vote—is that there is a disagreement about what statistically would be the effects of the amendment. Indeed, there was the question of the desirability of waiting—and now it will only be a very short tame before it appears—for the OPCS report and in the light of that report to decide on the best way forward for the future.

Many noble Lords, including many of my noble friends, have pressed me today to say a word about the future. In the light of all the interest in this House on this issue I should first say that of course the Government wish to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. However, there is a need to strike a balance between the wish for a speedy resolution, the need to listen carefully to the organisations concerned with disability and the need to arrive at a resolution of this problem which is not at odds with any wider changes needed in disability benefits. This afternoon that is as far as I can go.

I believe that noble Lords, whatever their attitude to the reply from another place, have recognised in this debate that the other place has involved financial privilege. To advance the Government's view on the merits of the amendment would, I think, from me be to suggest to your Lordships that an alternative decision is possible.

As I sought to make clear when I spoke at the beginning of this debate, I do not believe that that is the case. I therefore urge the House not to insist on their Amendment No. 3 for the reason numbered 4.

On Question, Motion agreed to.