HL Deb 23 October 1990 vol 522 cc1237-40

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the grant to the Royal National Institute for the Blind for transcription into embossed literature has been reduced.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, we acknowledge the valuable work carried out by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. That is why it has received significant funding from the Department of Health for many years. The reduction this year brings the grant to £200,000 from £250,000 last year. We believe that the institute is now in a very strong financial position compared with many organisations seeking funding from the department and that there is wide scope for it to generate alternative sources of income.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, do the Government accept the fundamental principle that visually handicapped people should have access to the printed word on the same basis as sighted people? Can she confirm—or, indeed, perhaps she will deny it—that it is the Government's intention to reduce the grant to nil over a period of five years by reducing it in the sum of £50,000 a year?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I cannot comment on the noble Lord's last point regarding funding for future years as obviously these figures are revised on an annual basis. However, I accept the first point he made about the intention to help non-sighted people. Nevertheless, I must point out that the grant to the Royal National Institute for the Blind is paid under the Section 64 general scheme of grants. That is a cash-limited budget for which the total available funding in 1990–91 is £15.6 million which, incidentally, is the same amount as the RNIB receives as net voluntary income.

I should also point out that part of the £50,000 reduction in the RNIB's grant has been used to increase the core grants to the two regional associations for the blind which provide training for rehabilitation workers with visually impaired people. It is proposed to use the remainder to fund new projects in support of people with a sensory impairment. Therefore there is no overall loss.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, the Minister said that the grant has been reduced from £250,000 to £200,000 this year. However, in actual fact the grant has been frozen at £250,000 for six years and now there is this further reduction. If, for example, the grant had gone up in real terms in line with inflation, can she say how much the RNIB would have lost over the past six years?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I can say that if the £250,000 grant awarded in 1984–85 had been maintained at that level, to date it would be worth £348,000 at this year's prices. However, I should point out that it is not our policy to revalue grant automatically in line with inflation. The main criterion used in determining grant level is whether the financial circumstances of the organisation concerned may be regarded as justifying the need for central government support.

The Viscount of Oxfuird

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether any other sources of funding are available for embossed literature of this kind?

Baroness Hooper

Yes, my Lords; indeed my right honourable friend the Minister for Social Security and the Disabled has initiated discussions between his officials and the RNIB about producing social security information in braille at an agreed cost to be met from funds from the Department of Social Security. The institute had a similar contractual arrangement with the Department of the Environment to produce community charge leaflets in braille, and has recently succeeded in attracting sponsorship from British Telecom for the production of telephone bills in braille.

The RNIB has hitherto borne the cost of producing such material. There is considerable scope for the institute to enter into such contractual and sponsorship arrangements with other government departments and commercial organisations.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the general public must be thinking what a parsimonious Government we have who would reduce services for blind people? The grant was originally awarded to the Royal National Institute for the Blind not out of the generosity of this Government; it was granted in 1920. We are talking about a reduction from £250,000 to £200,000. Indeed, I was looking through the press reports today—

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, can the noble Baroness ask a question?

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, is the Minister also aware that there must be people in this Chamber whose friends earn more than the total grant which has been given to the RNIB? It is not fair. Therefore, does she agree that, as the Government wish all children in schools to be able to read, blind children also need to be able to learn to read in schools? In the circumstances, will she further agree to speak to her right honourable friend the Prime Minister and ask her to look seriously at these matters?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the grant to the Royal National Institute for the Blind is, as I understand it, the twelfth largest grant in the scheme. As I have already pointed out, the £50,000 has not been pocketed by anyone; indeed, it is actually going to other organisations concerned with visual impairments to assist the excellent work which is being carried out in the field. I must reiterate that one of the main criteria we use in determining core grants under Section 64 of the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968—which introduced the scheme in question —is whether the financial circumstances of the organisation concerned may be regarded as justifying the need for central government support.

The main purpose of core funding is to provide a period of financial stability for an organisation which has difficulty in raising funds through public donations and other sources. Once an organisation has established its fund-raising capacity and has a sound financial basis, the department would not usually expect to continue to provide support.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some useful transcribing is being done in some of our prisons; for example, Wakefield? Will she see that that work is extended because it helps the rehabilitation of prisoners as well as helping the blind?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am aware that some of that work is done in some of Her Majesty's prisons. I shall explore further what the future of that work is.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the RNIB is the largest producer of braille in Europe? Is she further aware that the organisation often produces small items such as student examination papers, for example, for which it is unlikely to receive funding from commercial institutions? Therefore, will the Government reconsider their decision and return the grant to at least its original amount?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I have acknowledged the valuable work done by the RNIB. I have pointed out that the saving in funding will be used for the blind and that there are many demands on that source of funding from many worthwhile organisations. On the question of educational needs, of course local education authorities are responsible for providing resources for special materials, including braille textbooks for children with special needs.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, was the RNIB consulted about whether the £50,000 lopped off its budget should be spent on some other purpose? Secondly, the Minster referred to the RNIB's economic viability. Is she aware that every 1 per cent. increase in inflation adds £400,000 to the RNIB's costs, and that it is now running at a deficit of £500,000? In view of the representations from all parts of the House, does she recognise the fact that this is the first time for 70 years that the grant has been cut and that that is a matter that should be reconsidered by her right honourable friend?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, we have considered the funding arrangements seriously. We consider seriously all applications we receive for Section 64 funding. If the noble Lord were in my place now he would realise what a difficult task it is. We do our best in the circumstances. Reverting to the earlier part of his question, we reassessed the needs of the RNIB in the usual way, which, as I understand it, involves consultation.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, would it not be a good thing if we all doubled our subscriptions to that admirable charity? Would not that raise more than £50,000?

Lord Carter

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will tell her noble and learned friend that the visually handicapped do not wish to depend upon charity. In a previous reply she mentioned the efforts made by government departments to have their literature transcribed into braille. That is what the departments should be doing. Is she aware that when her department produced its glossy leaflet on the reforms of the NHS it forgot to transcribe it into braille until it was reminded by the RNIB? If the RNIB is to rely upon sponsorship for general literature, which is what the grant covers, there is a risk that commercial sponsors will wish to have some say in the literature that is transcribed.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the more people who are involved in and aware of the problems faced by those who are visually impaired, and the more sources of help that can be offered, the better.

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