HC Deb 25 May 1976 vol 912 cc127-30W
Mr. Pavitt

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what is his estimate of the cost of applying the mobility allowance to the registered blind under the age of 65 years.

Mr. Alfred Morris

The medical criterion for mobility allowance is related to walking ability. To receive the allowance, the disabled person must be unable to walk, or virtually unable to do so, because of physical disablement. This criterion includes those whose mobility difficulties are related to blindness or other sensory deficiencies, or to mental handicap and agoraphobia, only where overall the effect of these and other disabilities is such as to make them unable or virtually unable to walk.

I estimate that to extend eligibility for mobility allowance to all registered blind people between the ages of 5 and the pensionable age of 65 for men and 60 for women, which are the age limits for the allowance, would cost something of the order of £7 million a year.

diture on these services in the next five years.

Dr. Owen

The personal social services were formed with effect from 1st April 1971. The available information for the years 1971–72 to 1974–75 for England is shown below. The future development of the personal social services is discussed in the consultative document "Priorities for Health and Personal Social Services in England" published on 24th March 1976.

Mr. Pavitt

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what percentage of the newly registered blind persons is over the age of 65 years; if he will conduct a campaign to educate older people in the desirability of having their eyes examined regularly; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Eighty-two per cent. of blind persons in England first registering during the year ended 31st March 1975 were aged 65 and over. The Health Education Council, which is financed by my Department, issues a booklet entitled "Living with Age" which mentions the optical problems of the elderly.

The Optical Information Council, a private non-profit-making body financed by the optical industry and profession, produces a leaflet "Eye Care and the Elderly" which is distributed through elderly people's clubs. It also produces a poster and recently issued a booklet entitled "Insight" on the general workings of the eye. All these publications are designed to encourage people to have regular eye examinations.

I shall be keeping my hon. Friend's suggestion of a campaign in mind and will seek opportunities to refer to the importance of regular eye examinations for the elderly.

Mr. Pavitt

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what is the cost of the electronic machine which enables a blind person to read the printed word; how many machines are being used by his Department for research and teaching purposes; what is the availability of these machines for blind persons; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Alfred Morris

I understand that an Optacon (Optical to Tactile Converter) machine, to which I assume my hon. Friend is referring, now costs about £1.800; that about 45 Optacon machines are in use throughout the United Kingdom—including one used by a blind computer operator in my Department; and that a further 20 are expected to be brought into use during the current financial year.

Information on the number of machines used for research and teaching purposes is not available, but two machines are used at the training centre set up by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). Others are supplied by the Employment Service Agency through the RNIB to blind computer programmers. Further professional uses to which the Optacon might be put are being evaluated by the RNIB, which is also keeping itself informed of the development of other new electronic machines.

Mr. Pavitt

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services (1) what additional benefit is added to the supplementary benefit scale for blind persons; when this was last increased and by how much: what would be the additional benefit required to bring the purchasing power up to the same position at the time of the last increase and his estimate of the total cost of such an increase; and if he will make a statement;

(2) why the special supplementary benefit for blind persons was not increased at the same time as increases were made in the supplementary benefits scales.

Mr. Orme

The supplementary benefit entitlement of blind claimants is assessed by reference to special scale rates which are £1.25 a week—£2.05 for a married couple where both are blind—higher than the scale rates which would otherwise apply. The blind scales are increased at each uprating along with the other scale rates, although the margin by which they exceed the other scales has remained at the same level in cash terms, apart from a small adjustment at the time of decimalisation, since 1962 when it was increased from £1.125—£1.875 for a married couple, both of whom are blind. From 1962 to November 1975, when the current rates were introduced, the scale rate for a single householder who is blind increased from £4.10 to £12.15, an overall increase considerably greater than the movement of prices over the same period. It will be further increased, subject to the approval of Parliament, to £13.95 from November next. The great majority of blind supplementary beneficiaries are assessed on the basis of the long-term scale rate, which for a single householder is currently £14.95 and will from November 1976 be £16.95. To increase the £1.25 margin itself in line with the movement of prices up to November 1975 would involve an increase of £2.15, at a cost of the order of £4½ million a year.

The preferential margin, which is unique to the blind, is largely historical in origin and now represents something of an anomaly within the supplementary benefits scheme. Since the special scale rates were introduced in 1948, when national assistance replaced the former blind domiciliary schemes administered by local authorities, many other forms of disablement have been recognised. In the Government's view it is preferable to concentrate additional resources as these become available on non-means-tested benefits. and in accordance with this policy we have much improved the provision made for the disabled generally. Within the supplementary benefit scheme we think it appropriate to provide for the extra expenses of disablement on an individual basis through the discretionary powers of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Where, in an individual case, the extra needs of blindness exceed the margin the excess may be provided for in this way.