Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st February 1972.

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Photo of Mr Christopher Woodhouse Mr Christopher Woodhouse , Oxford 12:00 am, 21st February 1972

Although I appreciate the disappointment felt by some hon. Members concerning the implementation of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, I am exceedingly sorry that it has been decided by the Opposition to divide the House on the Motion, because if there is one subject which has benefited from all-party agreement it has been the care of the disabled. It seemed to me, although I shall want to study his speech very carefully, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made very important announcements today. I am particularly grateful to him for the announcement that the right to four-wheeled vehicles in place of three-wheelers under the National Health Service will be extended automatically to disabled haemophiliacs.

I am grateful for this extension, partly because I have been campaigning on this issue for 10 years, partly because there are so many haemophiliacs in my constituency because of the quite exceptional medical facilities available there, particularly in Churchill Hospital, partly—although this is a small point—because the vehicles they will be issued with are manufactured in my constituency and partly because haemophiliacs are a special case which is easily identified and they are especially vulnerable.

I have had a number of examples given to me by a doctor in my constituency who has specialised in this subject for years. He told me of a recent case of a young haemophiliac who, on getting into his Ministry-issued tricycle, sat down heavily on the metal frame of the seat, which caused bleeding. He was in hospital for a week and the cost of transfusions and drugs, not counting the cost of the occupied hospital bed, was £250. This sort of case can be multiplied many times and demonstrates how right it is to make this extension in the issue of four-wheeled vehicles.

Without wishing to be churlish I ask my right hon. Friend, since one always wants a Minister to go further when he has made a concession, to look into the further question of whether the three-wheeler really is a suitable vehicle in any case. In a letter to me the same doctor to whom I have referred calls these vehicles "tin coffins", and there is much evidence to support that view. I can give a few examples from in and near Oxford. There was the case, for example, in November, 1969, of a 26-year-old paralysed man, Mr. Keith Smith, who was blown off the road at night in his three-wheeler and fell into a ditch 8 ft. deep in which he stayed 14 hours before being found.

Then there was the case in July, 1970, of a spastic, Mr. Lyndon Bower, whose vehicle was blown into the course of a lorry on the A40, hit and thrown into the ditch. Fortunately he was rescued at once. If he had not been, he would have been burnt to death in his vehicle. There was the case only a week or two ago of a more elderly disabled driver, Mr. Jack Fisher, who was blown into the path of an oncoming lorry near Witney and killed. I cannot say any more about this case because the inquest is continuing.

These cases and much other evidence, including my personal experience of driving these vehicles, underline the very serious defects to which they are liable The steering is extremely difficult; the gears are also extremely difficult to operate; it is impossible and, indeed, illegal to carry a passenger; most serious of all is the instability of any three-wheeled vehicle, which all these cases illustrate.

The doctor I have quoted suggests that these vehicles would be more stable if the third wheel were at the back instead of at the front. I know that my right hon. Friend's advisers tell him that for some disabled people this type of vehicle is the best and the only suitable one. For others, however, it certainly is not. I think it rather striking that disabled ex-Servicemen are all automatically entitled to four-wheel vehicles and I have never heard anyone saying that in their case a three-wheeler is the more suitable. At least further help should be given to those for whom it is not suitable to acquire a mini-car instead. I hope that I have rightly understood my right lion. Friend's announcement today as opening the door some way in that direction.

As we all agree, most of the disabled who can do so want to go to work and lead a normal life, and they should be enabled to do so. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider other ways of making it easier for them—for example, by arranging with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for exemption from value-added tax of equipment specially designed and made for disabled people. My right hon. Friend said that he was baffled by the number and variety of aids. I hope that he will give his attention to an article which will be published in next month's issue of Action, the journal of the National Fund for Research into Crippling Diseases, by Mr. Donald Guthrie, which will show further examples of equipment which can be used only by disabled people. There is no difficulty in discriminating in favour of these items in the value-added tax because no one else could want or use them.

My right hon. Friend has also been urged—and I endorse the plea—to look carefully at the operation of certain recent measures by both local and central authorities because of the rather restrictive interpretation which is put upon them. I was struck by the revelation of the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) that in the case of the constant attendance allowance about 80 per cent. of the appeals against rejection are successful. This suggests that extremely severe—indeed, unduly severe—criteria are being applied in the first place.

I will not go over the matter of telephones again because this has already been the subject of considerable comment. But there is another Section of the Act to which I want to draw attention. Section 15 provides permissively for the inclusion of disabled persons on appropriate committees of local authorities. This is not being sufficiently implemented. When one puts down a Question about this kind of point, it is also disappointing that one gets an answer not from my right hon. Friend but from the Department of the Environment. I cannot help feeling that the Department of the Environment is not temperamentally or by experience the best-equipped Department for dealing with matters of this kind.

Moreover I foresee difficulties in future over the application of some Clauses of the Housing Finance Bill, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will discuss this with his colleagues concerned. For example, will allowance be made for the special needs of the disabled with specially designed houses? Will their needs be taken into account in fixing a fair rent? Can special provisions relating to the severely disabled as well as the blind be included in Schedule 3 to the Bill which deals with the subject of needs allowances? Clause 23(2) provides for advisory commitees, and I suggest that my right hon. Friend recommends to the Department of the Environment that these committees should be empowered to co-opt disabled people in exactly the same way as is provided for by Section 15 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.

Finally, I hope that my right hon. Friend will sympathetically consider the argument of the Disablement Income Group that it is essential that financial help be available as of right to those severely disabled who are simply incapable of being self-supporting. The public are becoming alert to these problems. A few weeks ago I attended the inaugural meeting of the Oxford branch of the Disablement Income Group, and it was without exception the largest public meeting in my constituency that I have ever addressed. As this case shows, public opinion is alert now and when public sympathy is enlisted on behalf of a special case, as the Government learnt last week, it is not lightly to be ignored.