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 Laurie Pavitt Mr Laurie Pavitt , Willesden West 12:00 am, 21st February 1972

I hope that the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) will forgive me if I do not comment too closely on what he said. I join him and the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the work of his neighbour the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) for his work on behalf of disabled drivers.

I wish to take up three features of the debate. The hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) on the subject of prescription charges. I remind her that when the Labour Government imposed prescription charges many of their backbench Members were in revolt, and I led them into the Division Lobby, so that at least we made our protest.

The meanest thing the Government have done is to tax the chronically sick by increasing the cost of the "season ticket", for which only the chronically sick have to pay. from £2 15s. to £3 10s., an increase of 15s., which brings in the infinitesimal sum of £25,000 to £30,000 a year in a budget of £2,100 million. I cannot see how the Government can possibly justify that.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Astor), who does so much for the disabled, spoke of the problems of employment. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the blind who are unemployed, for 10 per cent. of blind persons are now unemployed. That is the sort of rate which causes the House serious concern when it occurs in a geographical region like Northern Ireland or Scotland. This poses special problems, because for years Governments of both parties have been trying to get the blind, the deaf and other disabled into the ordinary run of work in the community and not necessarily having to be put on one side in sheltered workshops. But the consequence of this policy is that they are the first to fall the moment there is an economic blizzard. It is urgent that the Secretary of State for Employment should negotiate now with the Secretary of State in order to help blind persons who are unemployed by finding them jobs.

As an example of the art of brevity I commend the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). I was able to do so in a recent speech I made in Standing Committee C. I wish to follow him by commenting on the use of kidney machines and renal dialysis as an adjunct to transplants. I should like the Secretary of State to pay special tribute to the nurses involved in this work in the last five weeks when there has been a tremendous work load because of power failures. Patients receiving home dialysis have had to be fully supported by hospital units, and it would be most appropriate if the Secretary of State sent a special letter of commendation to the nurses concerned. If I may introduce a personal note, my daughter worked 70 hours last week on maintaining patients needing renal dialysis.

This Government are learning very slowly—and with painful consequences to the rest of the nation—that a boardroom balance sheet is not the way in which to run Great Britain and that £.s.d. is not the only factor to consider. I exempt the Secretary of State from that charge, because the Health Department is a great educator of all its Ministers and the right hon. Gentleman in particular learnt very quickly, though he has the Chancellor of the Exchequer breathing down his neck. I congratulate him on having moved occasionally in the right direction.

But the Government have not yet shown that leadership which is demanded by the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, 1970, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris). More drive and not just vague exhortation is required. Most of all, they have to find the cash. I differ from the Secretary of State, as have others, about the provision of telephones for old and disabled people. It would not be all that expensive, and a try-out should be given priority.

It is especially urgent for old people living alone and for old people who are disabled, for many of them do not have too long to live and to enjoy the amenities with which they ought to be provided. The right hon. Gentleman ought to cost the exercise, prepare plans and then give the House some idea how much it would cost to provide telephones, first, for old and disabled people and, second, for old people living alone. It is ridiculous to expect the Post Office to mount this exercise as a kind of commercial proposition. It is a community responsibility and, therefore, the concern of the Government and not just a problem for the Post Office. It is time that the Government faced the implications of the Act and realised that the chronically sick and disabled have the whole-hearted support of the community.

An economic problem which the right hon. Gentleman has yet to face is the shortage of manpower, and it is time that he considered having a Royal Commission to investigate manning the kind of services which the Act demands. It is time to consider, with the present unemployment problem, how people could earn their livelihood by giving service rather than employment always being geared to production. It is a revolutionary concept, but for more than 10 years we have talked solely of more productivity and more automation, but the consequence has been a million unemployed, and the Government must now start to think seriously about not only economic power and the production of goods but how to man services. We must find people to provide help for the chronically sick and disabled, to give only one example. The probation service is another.

As a matter of urgency, the right hon. Gentleman should consider the needs of mentally handicapped children, and negotiate with the Society of Physiotherapists the possibility of doing what is done in Denmark—that as part of their training course physiotherapists should spend three months with mentally handicapped children. It would give them an insight into that sector of the service, and it would benefit the nation as a whole.

Finding more manpower by making manpower more mobile is a Cabinet responsibility, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues discussed the possibility of men and women being able to change their employment at the age of 50 after a career of, say, 25 years, but taking with them accrued pension rights. The Government should initiate a scheme so that people who wish could work in health services, social welfare, or the probation service, any service which was short of staff. There are hundreds and thousands of people in industry who, after 25 years in one career, would be prepared to engage in a compassionate service for the last 15 or 20 years of their working life, if only they could keep their accrued pension rights and undergo training at Government establishments with maintenance grants for the term of their re-education.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman again to consider a suggestion which the Opposition have hammered at the Prime Minister for some months—that there should be one Minister responsible for the chronically sick and disabled. At present one disabled person can have his needs looked after by nine different Government Departments. If it was possible for the Labour Government to have one Minister responsible for sport and shift the same Minister from one Department to another, the present Government ought to be able to have one Minister responsible for the chronically sick and disabled and able to cut across the Departments and thus provide these men and women with the service which they de-verve and which the community thinks they ought to have.

I pay tribute to my own local authority in terms of implementing the Act—the London Borough of Brent. For some years under the previous Tory Administration it has been notorious because of its conduct in many affairs, and my ward of Neasden has been referred to in every edition of Private Eye as being the kind of place that everyone can have a joke about. I pay tribute to the way in which the Director of Social Services in my borough has, with full support of the present council, grappled with the Act in spite of the problems that other hon. Members have mentioned, including the shortage of manpower.

I pay tribute to the way in which social workers in Willesden have been dealing with old people during the last five weeks, in terms of the fuel crisis and other problems.

Our difficulty has arisen in terms of Section 1 of the Act—finding those who are most vulnerable and in the most need. We are grateful for the voluntary organisations and the kind of co-ordination that we are receiving from bodies like the Knights of Columba which are helping us find these people and ascertain exactly what kind of help they need.

We must accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, that 90 per cent. of all cases are known to their general practitioners, and that there must be a mutual two-way traffic between local health authorities and the general practitioner service. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to ask his Department why we could not have a crash programme during the summer, employing and paying students who are always looking for work during the long recess. Why not attach them to local authorities and general practitioners in order to implement Section 1 of the Act?

I pay tribute to my Borough's Department of Development in relation to the provision of ramps in buildings and devices and conversions in the homes of disabled persons. One fact that the Government have entirely ignored is that in places like this Chamber we could have an induction coil enabling people like myself, wearing hearing aids, to hear more effectively. This sort of thing could be done in many public buildings. It would cost only about £250 for a Chamber like this. Why is the Department of Health and Social Security not using its research facilities which produced the Medresco hearing aids? It has the Dollis Hill Research Station at its disposal, and it could produce and sell the electrical equipment needed to cope with bad acoustic properties of cinemas and public buildings. The acoustic properties of most cinemas are 10 times worse than those in Committee Room No. 14 upstairs; and that is saying something. It is very difficult to hear what is going on. This mechanical device, which is technologically possible, should have the drive and incentive of the Secretary of State behind it, because it is possible to carry out a nationwide scheme within the provisions of the Act.

In the East End, where I was brought up, we had a saying, "It's the poor what helps the poor." I pay tribute to the fact that in many local authorities it is the old and the disabled who are making a reality of the Act. In my area a joint leaflet issued by the local authority and the Brent Association for the Disabled has been successful. Thanks to the co-operation of the Union of Post Office Workers in Brent we are able to reach immediately people who need help. The whole of the postal services in my area, jointly with the social services, operate a system of the "card in the window"—the scheme that was pioneered in Cambridge. An elderly or disabled person needs help, and the postman knocks to find out the need. This sort of scheme could be extended if there was more drive by the Department, but what is happening? Practically nothing.

I conclude by referring to the section of the Act which I drafted and which still needs to be implemented—Section 24. This provided for the Secretary of State to report on the establishment of a national research institute into the problems of deafness. At the moment, in research, there is the chance of a positive breakthrough. For the first time it may be possible to prescribe an aid for a deaf person in the same way as it is possible for any optician to write a prescription for a pair of glasses which can be dispensed by any other qualified optician. In hearing this is not possible.

The reasons that I gave when I first drafted the Section remain valid, after two years. I invite the Under-Secretary to whisper to his Parliamentary Private Secretary asking him to get some information from his officials so that he can deal with this point. He knows that his Department has done a lot in terms of homework on what is needed to establish a centralised research institute as an apex organisation. We have heard nothing about this for two years. I hope that when the Minister replies he will give us a progress report. At the moment research is carried out by ardent individuals scattered throughout the country. Since the passing of the Act there has been an upgrading of the work at the National Hospital by the Medical Research Council, on which I have the honour to serve. A full unit is there under the direction of Dr. Hood. There are many other research projects, but there is no co-ordination. There is a need for team work between doctors, audiologists, engineers, physicists and technicians. We need an apex institute that will attract the best brains and scientists of the highest calibre to give weight and authority and a focal point for all research into deafness.

The problem that we face today arises to some extent because of the slow reaction of the Government, but I accept that they are all men of good will—and those with responsibility in the localities are doing what they can with the resources at their disposal. But they are not doing half enough. The object of this debate is to increase pressure upon them to persuade them to do a little more. We cannot salve the social conscience on the cheap. If we want to help the chronically sick and disabled we shall have to accept increased taxes and increased rates hills. We should thank God that we are not blind, deaf, disabled or chronically sick and be prepared to pay for the needs of those who are. Only thus can we discharge our responsibility.