Orders of the Day — Disabled Drivers (Vehicles)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd November 1967.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Armstrong.]

10.15 p.m.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly. An hon. Member has the Adjournment and they may themselves have an Adjournment debate one day.

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

Now that we can move from the rather rougher waters of our two-day debate into the calmer waters of what I think is not a party political matter, the provision of vehicles for the disabled, may I say how grateful I am to be allowed to have this debate so soon after I asked for it.

Three years ago almost to this week, the then hon. Member for Oxford City, Mr. Montague Woodhouse, had a debate on precisely the same subject. I hope that the answers which the Minister gives me tonight will not be the same as we had three years ago. Curiously enough, that debate took place after the crisis Budget of 1964, but then it took place at 4·15 in the morning, whereas tonight we are somewhat earlier.

I have been interested in this subject of vehicles for the disabled for some years. Any hon. Member who came across it in his constituency life would take a similar interest. I feel particularly privileged that I have been able to take this interest in disabled drivers and to speak up for them tonight. There is no magic in the fact that hon. Members from North Oxfordshire should raise the question in this House, because Oxford has wonderful hospitals, such as the Nuffield and the Radcliffe, which attract disabled people. They come there to be near to the hospitals where they can get treatment. That is why we come into contact with these cases.

I am raising this matter at this particular time because I have been working on it for a number of years. About four Saturdays ago, at my "surgery" in Woodstock, I came across a constituent, Mr. George Johnson, who had been a haemophilic all his life and spent most of his young life in hospital and I heard the tragic story of how that had affected him. By sheer determination, that man has now got a job with the British Motor Corporation and is doing extremely well.

I give one example to give the setting to my remarks. It is the one I mentioned at Question Time the other day to the Minister of this man who, in 1966, being a haemophilic—which is internal bleeding when he gets a bump—had 39 bleedings in the year. Each time he had to go to hospital, perhaps for a weekend or for a night, and have blood plasma transferred into him at the cost—I do not drag the question of cost into it too much—of £30 each time, so the cost to the National Health Service was about £1,170. All those bumps, I understand, came from the invalid tricycle which he was given to ride. That is an awful life for any man to lead with the frequent nights spent in hospital. It is bad enough being a haemophilic, but it is not necessary to add to his difficulties by giving him a vehicle which is unsuitable.

Having heard about this case, I arranged to try out invalid tricycles myself. About two Saturdays ago I tried out four different types and drove them myself. I now realise that I made a mistake in not doing this years ago. I am sorry that I did not do so. Only on trying out these vehicles does one realise how difficult and, in many ways, unsuitable they are. I will not go into the details of their unsuitability. I have written to the Minister giving him details. To give only one example, they have a tiller instead of a steering wheel. On the tiller are the accelerator and the clutch. It must be moved backwards and forwards to steer left and right and upwards and downwards to brake. Thus there are four movements to carry out with one hand. It is extremely complicated. When it went over a bump at a reasonable speed, it changed direction. It was the most difficult vehicle I have ever had to drive.

Doubtless people get used to it. However, it is not good enough. I am horrified at the thought of an invalid, perhaps a cripple, driving such a vehicle along a country road on a windy and wet night, especially if it broke down, as these vehicles fairly frequently do. I came away from that test angry that these gallant people, who in all conscience suffer enough in life, should have this additional hazard when it need not be so.

I do not want to make a long speech, because I believe one or two other hon. Members wish to intervene. In the short time available to me, I want to make some quick suggestions. I understand that legislation is about to be introduced to enable the Minister to extend the categories of people who are entitled to four-wheelers. I contend that the categories entitled to four-wheelers should be extended, or else we should go in for a really good three-wheel car which can take passengers. I want the Parliamentary Secretary himself to do what I did and try these vehicles out—all varieties and not a spanking new one such as the Ministry might produce for him.

I want the right hon. Gentleman to try out one which has been in use for a couple of years. I know that he is about 6 feet 7 inches tall, and would have difficulty in getting into such a vehicle. However, I am sure that if he tried out such a vehicle it would make all the difference to his approach when it comes to deciding who should have four-wheeled vehicles. Having tried out a vehicle, I hope that as a result he would persuade his right hon. Friend the Minister to do the same. Then he, too, would be angry and would be far better able to decide who to give these cars to.

On reading through the debates and the Answers to Questions I find an extraordinary similarity in the answers which have been given over the years. I am not criticising the Ministry, but I suggest that the Minister, when he has got his legislation, and has to make this decision as to the wider distribution of vehicles, should take plenty of outside evidence as well as the evidence of his doctors in the Ministry. This is a non-party matter. That is one of the pleasant parts about it. I am sure that some hon. Members here tonight would willingly unite and form an all-party group to help the Minister, in the House or anywhere else, in coming to the right conclusion.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary also to examine the economics of these cars —the price differential between a four-wheeler, a three-wheeler as we have it now, and a sensible three-wheel car. I ask him also to examine the difference in the maintenance costs of these cars, because I believe that the maintenance costs of a four-wheel minicar would be much less than the maintenance costs of the present three-wheel tricycle. We should redefine, as I believe the Minister will do, the qualifications of people entitled to four-wheelers. This is my only criticism of the Ministry.

I say "the Ministry" because the Conservative Government took the same attitude. It came out in the statement of the Minister of Health on 15th February, when he said this: Very large sums would be involved if it were decided to provide a car for all those now eligible for a tricycle. This is not so much because a car is rather more expensive than a tricycle, which is not a cheap machine, but because of the numbers required; there are many thousands of people who would qualify under our present rules of eligibility who have not applied for a tricycle but who would certainly be expected to ask for a car."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 15th February, 1967; Vol. 741, c. 524.] In other words, I believe that there are about 100,000 people who are entitled to these cars, but only about one in four —that is 25,000—actually apply for them because they think the tricycle is not really worth having. I know that my party, when in power, gave the same answer. I should like the Minister to look at this again because it is trading on the unsuitability of the tricycle and, because the tricycle is in existence, it is thought that we save the country money. This is not good enough, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will get away from the attitude of the mechanical bath-chair which is what the tricycle really is.

Another suggestion I should like to make is that the Minister should look at the question of war pensioners who are entitled to these four-wheeled vehicles. I question whether at this stage, so many years after the war, the distinction is still valid. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary was in the Royal Artillery during the war. I myself was parachuting. We had our moments and some heroics at the end of the war, but this soon died. I believe that many ex-Servicemen themselves would be happy to see equality of treatment and would prefer the four-wheeler to be given according to the need of a case rather than according to whether an applicant is a war pensioner or not.

The Parliamentary Secretary will probably agree that those most in need should get the vehicles free and that those who can afford to pay should do so. But there is a group in between who can pay half the cost, and I believe that the Ministry should make some contribution when a person is prepared to pay a part of it himself. High on the list of those whom I should like to see qualify are the haemophilics. Their numbers are very small and the medical advice outside the Ministry of Health is strongly in favour of the haemophilics being entitled to four-wheeled cars. There are other cases, such as the disabled mother with children but whose husband has left her. If the Minister could say whether they are entitled or not, I would be grateful.

My final suggestion is one which I have pressed before, namely, that these people should have tax relief on the petrol they use. They have relief up to a point, but since they last had an adjustment of their tax relief there has been the extra surcharge after Suez and, with devaluation, the price may go up again. Could the hon. Gentleman speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that the tax relief gets back to normal?

I know that the Minister is as sympathetic as I am, but I feel that we must all join together to fight the Treasury to get the money, and anything that I can do to help I certainly will. The Parliamentary Secretary and I, and all in this Chamber, are the fortunate people. We are mobile. But these other people have a grave disability for the rest of their lives, and we must all do what we can to help them.

10.29 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Baxter Mr William Baxter , West Stirlingshire

We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) for raising this subject and for putting so lucidly a point of view to which I subscribe 100 per cent. It would be wrong of me to reiterate what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I certainly think that pressure should be brought upon the Government to do everything they can for these unfortunate people.

We are happy to know that the ex-Serviceman gets preference at the moment, but I think it is true to say that most of us would like this preference to extend to industrially injured people. I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman speak of the dangers involved when these vehicles are driven for long distances alone. I have a constituent whose name is Kennedy and who has been in correspondence with me recently. He has to travel 9½ miles at half-past six on a winter's morning to work. He is dead scared about this.

What happens if there is a breakdown, or anything else goes wrong? He has a wife and an adopted child, but he cannot take them in his vehicle. He would like to adopt another child, but he has only a three-wheeler and is not permitted to take anyone in it. He would be prepared to pay the difference in cost, but the Ministry says that that cannot be done, because of the difficulties to be overcome. I do not see any insurmountable difficulty in getting an agreement about who owns a four-wheeled vehicle. These matters should have the serious consideration of the Minister.

I see no reason why we should not have an all-party committee to press the Chancellor on this matter. I tried to intervene in the debate this afternoon to ask whether money from the Selective Employment Tax could be used for this purpose. It would not be a bad thing to use that tax, which is no longer to be used to help the export industries, for this purpose. The cost would be about £30 million and the S.E.T. would provide considerably more than that. Time does not permit me to give further details, but I hope that my hon. Friend will assist us to press the Chancellor to make this concession.

10.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Wells Mr John Wells , Maidstone

Because of the potential near mass production of even invalid four-wheeled vehicles, four-wheeled vehicles could be much cheaper than three-wheelers whose production is spasmodic, and the usefulness to a family would be very much greater.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will look into the specific case about which I have recently written of a person who is not entitled to a four-wheeled vehicle because her prospective passenger is not a blood relation. It seems absurd that two aged people, one an invalid, who have lived together for years should find the rule operating against them because they are not blood relations. Clearly, I do not expect an answer about that tonight, but it is a most important matter.

I also hope that the Minister, when considering four-wheeled vehicles, will closely consider the case of a constituent of mine, Mrs. Male, who some years ago had an Austin minivan specially converted to take a wheel chair. This case was widely written up in the motoring papers. It is a comparatively inexpensive conversion. Could such conversions be made standard Ministry products, giving two front seats for a driver and passenger, which would enable the wife to drive and a child to be a passenger, while the wheel-chaired member of the family could go into the back which would have caravan windows and a caravan-style windscreen?

I believe that the British Motor Corporation, or one of its agents, has done this conversion which is comparatively inexpensive and which made my constituent and her family much more mobile and which could be made available to other people.

10.33 p.m.

Photo of Mr Julian Snow Mr Julian Snow , Lichfield and Tamworth

I cannot express a view tonight about the two specific cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells), but I undertake to look at the files again. That is all I can say at the moment.

I thank the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) for raising this subject tonight with modesty and moderation. I could hardly find a word with which to disagree. Indeed, looking back this afternoon at some old HANSARDS I found that I made precisely the same points some 11 years ago, when I was on the back benches. The hon. Gentleman will accept that my right hon. Friend and I share his continual interest in this important matter.

The hon. Member made two particular criticisms. First, he called into question the design of the three-wheelers, and, secondly, he made a plea for an increased number of cars instead of three-wheelers to be allotted. When my right hon. Friend made his statement on 15th February last, although he did not at the time have specific legislative powers, he announced that he would supply motor cars to three more groups. This of course includes the disabled mother who is widowed or permanently left to care alone for a young child—

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

Or whose husband has left her?

Photo of Mr Julian Snow Mr Julian Snow , Lichfield and Tamworth

I think that divorce is included, but I will confirm that and let the hon. Gentleman know.

We have now taken powers. This afternoon there was tabled the new Health Services and Public Health Bill, one Clause of which gives my right hon. Friend legislative powers, when he has resources available, to introduce further categories entitled to cars. We first of all await Parliamentary authority for the Bill, and when we have it we shall try to provide these additional vehicles as resources permit. We have explained many times that the important thing is not the comparative cost between a three-wheeler and a car, but the cost which would be involved in satisfying the substantial additional volume of applications from those who have not applied for a three wheeler.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not a question of their having no time for a three-wheeler. Certain categories of disabled have to have a three-wheeler but, in different circumstances, they might be able to use a car with a nominated driver. We must take into account all these considerations. Likewise, the claims of haemophiliac drivers are important, but I would not mislead the hon. Gentleman by saying that they are right at the top of the demand for increased provision of four-wheeler cars. They are important, but not the only important category.

We have paid much attention to the development of these vehicles in the last three years. They are specially designed and constructed. The three-wheeler is often criticised but it should be remembered that this country does more for its disabled in this respect than any other. No other country offers vehicles for so many of its disabled citizens with so few limitations on their issue or with such a range of associated benefits like free servicing and repair, free insurance and replacement.

There are 17,300 three-wheeler vehicles on issue and we have a reserve stock of 2,211 for replacement in case of break down. There is a substantial reserve, which the public should know about. Income Tax and other possible consequences of devaluation are matters for the Chancellor, whose attention will, of course, be drawn to this debate.

It is important to understand that, while critics sometimes make rude remarks about the design, many criticisms are due to misapprehension of the vehicle's function. To a great extent, the three-wheelers which we provide are capable of a great deal of modification for the many permutations and combinations of disablement. The fuel consumption is very low compared to a car, which is important to those on low incomes.

The hon. Gentleman pressed me to try these vehicles for myself and I take kindly his remarks, although my stature might, perhaps, be a slight disadvantage. However, before he tabled this Motion I had arranged to visit Blackpool, which I shall do in a few days, where I shall do my best to try out these vehicles. When he says that they are difficult in some cases to drive and that some disabled people have bumps in them, this is true, but we do not try to equate the technique for driving a car with that for driving some of these disabled persons' vehicles. They are entirely different, for which reason we provide free courses of driving tuition, and there are very few who find it difficult after being properly instructed.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the weight of the three-wheeler among other safety factors. This has been restricted so as to reduce the force required to operate its controls, and the controls have been specially designed for operation by disabled people. The tiller method of steering, which comes in for a lot of criticism, has been found to offer the best method of gripping controls so as to make them accessible to someone with limited movements.

It is an ugly brute of a system, but we think t hat it is the only way of dealing with the problem of bringing together the controls for someone with limited movement. The use of a single front wheel enables the steering to be much lighter than it would be on a four-wheeled vehicle and the effect of going over a bump in the road is not substantially different from that experienced in a small car.

The higher body is necessary so that those with useless or very stiff legs may get in and out of the driving seat and be seated satisfactorily in the driving position. Tests have proved that three-wheeled vehicles compare favourably with the Ministry of Transport requirements for public service vehicles for the tilting factor. Our three-wheeler model most generally supplied is less likely to topple over than a double-decker bus. This is a demonstrable fact.

The braking system too has been mentioned. The Ministry of Transport has laid down that the service brakes on a three-wheeled vehicle should exert a force of 40 per cent. gravity, and be at least comparable with the accepted standards of safety of normal vehicles. Before 1966 the braking system on our vehicles operated on two wheels and achieved a maximum of 54 per cent. gravity. This met the statutory requirement with something to spare. Last year we improved on that and in the new system we get 75 per cent. gravity. Free servicing and repair arrangements are readily available to maintain efficiency.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about improvements that were needed. We have included in our new models a heating system, lateral sliding seats, sliding doors and glass fibre framework, among other things. Subject to the satisfactory conclusion of tests we intend to introduce automatic transmission which will be a very great advantage.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned forming an all-party group to deal with this problem. He would agree that we are beset with a multiplicity of committees, not only on this subject, but on practically every subject discussed in the House. I would draw his attention to the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled, representing 22 organisations, concerned with the mobility problems of the disabled.

This organisation might be one for which there may be attraction for hon.

Members. If the hon. Gentleman would like it, I would be happy to suggest to the organisations concerned that they might contact Members who are interested. Within the Department we have a service for following up technical and service requirements. We receive advice from all these organisations, and this is considered to be part of the routine work of the Ministry's own scientific and technical services of its supply division. We should use the organisations that exist to avoid a multiplicity of services.

Hon. Members can play a very useful part not only on the technical side, but on the financing side, and in equating the interest of the disabled person, whether industry disabled, accident or war disabled. Both the hon. Gentleman and I can say that we do not think that the disabled war pensioner should have a complete priority in this.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.