On a number of occasions over the years, both Houses of Parliament have debated the provision of suitable vehicles for people who are disabled, and there has always ben considerable contention about the type of vehicle that the Government have seen fit to provide. During that time, there has been serious criticism of the Government for insisting on providing the three-wheeled vehicle, which is considered to be unstable, dangerous and perhaps frightening for many people who use it.
Possibly in acknowledgement of the facts that have been revealed about this vehicle, and also because of the work done by the noble Lady in the other place—the noble Lady who worked so diligently on studying the problems involved in the use of this vehicle—the Government have changed their policy considerably about ways of making it possible for people with serious disabilities to move about. They have introduced the mobility allowance. They have introduced a wide range of aids to mobility for people who have physical problems. They have made life a lot easier for innumerable people in our society. But, every time that we change the rules, in whatever way, we provide more loopholes through which individual cases will fall.
The last time that the question of the vehicles used for the disabled was debated in the other place, the noble Lady whose report was considered of such importance in this area said that she wished that every case could be dealt with individually. I wish that, too, but I know how impractical it is. However, when we are considering the problems of people with disability, we have to acknowledge that they are exceptions to the rules of good health and of full physical mobility and that there is a case for looking at them from a different angle from that which we normally consider most other categories of people for whom our legislation provides.
In the changes that my hon. Friend has made in provision for the disabled in the past year or two, he has introduced cash allowances, which I am sure are a great aid to those people who already have vehicles of their own. He has introduced cash allowances to permit those who do not have vehicles of their own to move about more freely. But there is one area in which those disabled people who previously had cars on loan from the Ministry have become disadvantaged against their former situation.
I do not want to deal with all the people who have been disadvantaged in this way, but I ask my hon. Friend to consider a particular group, and, in making this request, I wish to tell him about a constituent of mine who has suffered as a result of the changes which have been made in the rules.
I have a constituent, a Mrs. Bernard, who is a polio victim. For most of her life she has suffered from the disability resulting from an early attack of poliomyelitis, and she has to wear iron calipers on both her legs and to walk with a walking stick.
Mrs. Bernard is a widow. She is 54 years of age, and she has a 14-year-old daughter. Until last summer, for eight years she had been driving a Ministry vehicle on loan. It was a four-wheeled car. During the early part of last year
It is vital for me to remind the Minister that my constituent's daughter, unfortunately, has to attend a special school for the educationally subnormal. Not only does she have problems of maladjustment; she also has certain physical problems, which make her eligible for special education. I believe it to be a tragedy that just at the age of adolescence, when it is more than ever necessary that her mother should be with her, and when, perhaps, this young girl is beginning to want to enjoy an individual social life, but the mother fears to allow her to do so because of the problem of the child, the mother has her car taken away and is told she can only have a three-wheeled bicycle, which she is terrified of driving and which is absolutely unstable for her to drive with a passenger.
There is a need for the Minister to consider people in a situation of this kind. Here we have a woman on her own—a woman who, in the normal way, were she fit and well, would be the provider for this young girl. But the girl herself has her own type of disability. Her disability is not one that prevents her from moving about, but it prevents her from enjoying the freedom of existence and the freedom of a social life and the development that would be natural for other young girls of her age. It seems to me that the age of 14 is, in these circumstances, perhaps the most dangerous for her to be left defenceless. Her mother is expected to go out to do the shopping, and to lead the kind of social life for which mobility vehicles are provided, yet she is expected to leave behind this young girl, who has no other relatives.
There has, over the years, been great contention about the comparative case of the tricycle as compared with the four-wheeled vehicle. Because there appears to be so little difference in the actual cost of providing these two different types of vehicle there is a case for the Minister to look at this particular category—a category which has not been considered in the debates which have taken place previously on the tricycle versus the four-wheeled car. For this reason, I believe the Minister ought to make a special category.
There may well be, as reports show, 100,000 disabled people who would immediately qualify if every disabled person who wanted it could have a four wheeled car. I am not asking for 100,000. I venture to suggest there is nothing like 100,000 in the category that I am describing tonight. For this reason, I ask the Minister to give serious and careful consideration to resuming the practice that has been dropped.
There is an additional point, which has very great importance in the principle of the provision of vehicles versus the provision of mobility allowances. In the case of my constituent, who is living on social security benefits, how is she to get the capital, in the first place, to buy a car of her own? A substantial number of people have taken advantage of the opportunity to purchase their own vehicles and then use Government allowances in order to maintain and run them. But someone who is dependent on State aid at the lowest level to maintain life and ordinary daily needs is not in a posi- tion to accumulate enough money to buy a car and take advantage of the improved facilities 1 have described. Those who are disadvantaged are, by the changed system, doubly disadvantaged. They are not only forced back on to a "trike" with no facilities for a passenger, but are denied the mobility allowance because they have nothing suitable to their needs in which to be mobile.
Since her car was taken away from her in August last year, Mrs. Bernard has been to see me on several occasions. I have written many times to the Minister, and I have taken the case to the Ombusman in the hope that he might find that the rules were being wrongly applied. Sad to say, he could not support my case, because the rules were being correctly applied. I sincerely believe that the rules are wrong. There has to be a way in which we can help people who have a double need.
When the girl is 16, if she is sufficiently disabled she will be eligible for a vehicle in her own right, but, bearing in mind the girl's condition, her mother could not allow her to be out alone and unprotected. To cater for the rare occasions when a disabled person has a dependent relative, a new category should be introduced. I know that that is inconvenient and that it is much easier to categorise all disabled people as eligible either for the "trike" or the mobility allowance, but there is a separate group of people to whom separate conditions should be applied, because they are double exceptions.
I ask the Minister to give this matter his most earnest consideration, because I know how much he cares about the needs of all those who are at a disadvantage.
I listened both carefully and very sympathetically to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller) in opening the debate. Her genuine concern for the disabled is widely appreciated in the House, and she has put her viewpoint tonight with all her customary conviction and sincerity. We have been in correspondence about the case of Mrs. Bernard and, as my hon. Friend was kind enough to say, she has received a letter from me summarising the position. I am glad now to have an opportunity to give a full reply and to place the case of Mrs. Bernard in the context of our mobility policy for disabled people as a whole.
As I know my hon. Friend appreciates, it was under the old scheme—which we scrapped—not under the new mobility scheme, which began on 1st January 1976, that Mrs. Bernard qualified for a car. It was also under the rules of the old scheme—which we scrapped—that she ceased to qualify for the car. I must make that clear at the outset.
The facts of the case are briefly these. Mrs. Bernard, who is severely disabled as a result of polio, was first provided with an invalid tricycle in 1954. In 1968 this was replaced by a car, at her request, on the ground that she had sole charge of her daughter—then aged seven—for a substantial part of the day. Under the invalid vehicle scheme then in force, an invalid tricycle was the form of help ordinarily provided, but in 1967 Mr. Kenneth Robinson changed the scheme to allow severely disabled widows or widowers in sole charge of a child under 14 for a substantial part of the day to qualify for a car instead. Mrs. Bernard was informed of the conditions on which the car was supplied, including the standard condition that she would no longer be entitled to a car when her daughter became 14, and she signed a declaration that she understood and accepted the condition.
When Mrs. Bernard's daughter became 14 a year ago, the entitlement to a car ceased under the conditions of the scheme, but the car was not immediately withdrawn, because by then it was our policy in such cases to allow the car to be retained until it would otherwise have been due for replacement. Unfortunately, as a result of two accidents in May and June 1975, the car was damaged beyond repair, and, as Mrs. Bernard had ceased to be entitled to a car, we could not issue her with another. Mrs. Bernard had to be told that, as she was no longer in one of the special categories of people eligible for a car under the invalid vehicle scheme, only an invalid tricycle could be issued in place of the damaged car.
My hon. Friend has argued on Mrs. Bernard's behalf that her daughter's de- velopment is retarded, that she needs as much looking after as would a child under 14 and that, therefore, her constituent should have been treated exceptionally as though her child were still under 14. Of course, no two cases are exactly the same, but if we had tried to substitute, in place of a standard provision for all, a subjective judgment about the degree of care needed by each particular child, even greater problems would have arisen and indefensible anomalies would have been created.
Similar considerations have led, over the years, to rejection of the idea that the special categories of people eligible to be supplied with a car should be widened to include any eligible disabled person who has a handicapped, albeit ambulant, relative living in the same household. My hon. Friend has argued that where two such people are the only members of a household, there is a need for special consideration.
Our consideration of mobility policy is, of course, ongoing, and further thought will be given to the case that my hon. Friend has argued so effectively tonight. But I must not give the impression that it will be possible for us to change the rules of the old scheme at this stage. As I say, suggestions for extending the special categories were fully and sympathetically considered, but found unacceptable, when the old invalid vehicle scheme was still in operation.
The old invalid vehicle scheme under which Mrs. Bernard was issued with a car has been brought to an end. It has been superseded by the present Government's new mobility allowance scheme. The rules of the old scheme continue to apply, broadly speaking, only to people who were provided with vehicles under that scheme and who enjoy certain reserved rights. Thus while I sympathise with the submission that my hon. Friend has made, it would be both difficult and extremely invidious to try to make the terms of the old scheme apply to her constituent more favourably than they would have applied when that scheme was still in force.
As my hon. Friend knows, if Mrs. Bernard had a car of her own we could pay her—as someone with rights under the old scheme—an allowance of £100 a year to help with the cost of running the car as an alternative to providing her with an invalid tricycle. Under the old scheme, many thousands of severely disabled drivers who owned cars opted to receive help in this way. Yet it was of no use to someone who did not possess a car and could not afford to acquire one. Neither could it help the very large number of disabled people who are unable to drive.
It was just such shortcomings as those which prompted us, after a thorough re view and widespread consultations with organisations representing disabled people, to scrap the old scheme in favour of our new mobility allowance scheme. Help under the old scheme was illogically and most unfairly based on an ability. It was ability to drive that counted, not the disability of an individual in need. The old scheme did nothing, for example, to help the hard pressed mother with a disabled child. Even mothers with more than one disabled child were denied help.
The old scheme's total exclusion from mobility help of every disabled person who could not drive was bitterly criticised by the many representative bodies we consulted. For excluding those who were too severely disabled to drive the old scheme was described as "cruelly anomalous" by the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled, which brings together 26 national organisations in the disablement field, including such major bodies as the Disabled Drivers' Association and the Disabled Drivers' Motor Club. That is why we decided that our highest priority must be to give help to those who, for so long and so unfairly, had been totally neglected.
At the same time, it was made abundantly clear to me that there would be a continuing demand for the "trike" from disabled drivers who either wanted, or, because of the nature of their disabilities, needed, this type of vehicle. The option of a four-wheeled car had had support, but not on Lady Sharp's terms. In her report, Lady Sharp said:
Even if cost were not a consideration, 1 do not think a car could properly be issued to the physically handicapped on the same terms as a vehicle specially designed for their sole use.
The disabled and their organisations strongly disagreed with Lady Sharp.
They insisted that if cars were issued they should go not only to drivers on the same terms as the "trike" but also to upwards of 100,000 non-drivers who could nominate someone to drive for them. It was also argued that a Government-issue Mini was not what was wanted. I was told that no standard car would be acceptable, for the very good reason that disabled people are not standard people.
We considered very carefully the possibility of supplying cars to all drivers and non-drivers who wanted them. That would have been extremely costly and would still have left out all those who could neither drive nor find anybody to drive them. We concluded that, for the future, we should do better to offer cash and not cars and so move toward giving disabled people freedom of choice in deciding how to use their mobility benefit in the way best suited to their needs. Equity and flexibility were the main themes of the advice I received from the disabled themselves and it was clear that equity, like flexibility, could best be achieved by offering cash and not cars—hence our choice of the mobility allowance as the main mobility benefit of the future.
Morally, it is very difficult to defend giving cars to disabled drivers if one is not prepared to do the same for most severely disabled non-drivers who can nominate people to drive cars for them. Nor is there any moral case for giving nothing to severely disabled non-drivers who have no one to drive cars for them.
The Government have not been able to do everything they were asked to do or would have liked to do with regard to mobility. But at least the new scheme is both more equitable and more flexible than the old. My hon. Friend has rightly criticised that scheme for allowing withdrawal of a particular form of help.
Unlike the old scheme, which was discretionary, our new scheme is a statutory one, with all the conditions of entitlement set out in the Act and regulations, and with substantial appeal rights. The main benefit is a mobility allowance of £5 a week, subject to tax. Those who choose can still have an invalid tricycle provided they can drive the vehicle. I know that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will want to work with me in helping to find all the people who are entitled to mobility help for the very first time under the new scheme.
The phasing-in of the new allowance started on 1st January. Already, about 12,500 people are receiving payment. Eventually, 100,000 new beneficiaries are expected to be helped through this scheme and, in the process, the Government will be trebling their expenditure on mobility benefits. In the current period of severe financial stringency, this is just one among many indications of the high priority we attach to helping disabled people.
I should emphasise that an estimated 30,000 disabled children will be among the beneficiaries of the new mobility allowance. The cost of helping those people alone will be about £8 million a year.
I take pride in the fact that this Government are in the process of trebling expenditure on mobility for the disabled.
The heavy demands that the new mobility allowance is making on administrative and medical resources provide the reason for our having to phase-in its introduction. Claims can now be accepted from anyone between the ages of 15 and 50 who is unable, or virtually unable, to walk because of severe physical disablement. Children aged between 5 and 14 will be the next main group to benefit. Then adults aged between 51 and pension age will be phased in as soon as possbile after that, We hope to build on the present scheme as opportunity offers.
I accept that £260 a year will not suffice by itself to enable people to buy and run a car. Nevertheless, it is a substantial contribution towards transport costs and, particularly for the estimated 100,000 people getting help for the first time, it will provide very useful support to them in overcoming their mobility problems. As my hon. Friend knows from my recent letter to her, the Central Council for the Disabled is exploring ways of helping disabled people who want to hire or buy cars to get the best value out of their mobility allowance. I am, of course, keeping in close touch with the central council on this important matter.
My hon. Friend may like to know that there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who have served on the working party set up by the Central Council for the Disabled to consider these very important matters. The great advantage of giving money instead of hardware is that people can spend it as they like. Those who cannot drive, those who do not want to drive, and those who have no one to drive for them are no longer denied outdoor mobility help. If the mobility allowance had been tax free, it would have had to be set at a much lower rate to keep within our trebled budget of £39 million. The aim in taxing the allowance was to give help to those most in need.
I have been told that a direct means test would have been preferable to taxing the allowance, but we believed taxation to be the least offensive method of helping in proportion to need. We also felt that a direct means test would deter large numbersof disabled people from applying for the new help which is now their right.
We shall be helping, in the new scheme, more than three times as many people as we are helping now. Giving help to those who can neither walk nor drive, including severely disabled children, is a major breakthrough in the mobility field. Moreover, where there are two qualified people in the same household the £260 allowance will be payable twice and the taxpayer will be contributing £520 a year to their mobility needs.
I know the limitations of the new scheme. In fact, I have spent a great deal of time spelling them out in public statements. We have not achieved all that we want to achieve. With more resources, more mobility help could go to more disabled people.
Does anyone seriously imagine that any other Government would have allowed a trebling of expenditure in the economic climate of 1975? If not, it must be accepted that increasing the mobility allowance above £260 a year would have meant abandoning equity by paying it to fewer people.
My hon. Friend asked why cars would not be available to new beneficiaries in future. She thought that as many as 100,000 cars might be needed. If we gave them to everyone who wanted them, irrespective of whether they could drive, my calculations indicate that we would need many more cars than 100,000. We should be likely to need as many as 150,000 cars if we acted equitably as between disabled drivers and disabled non-drivers who could nominate people to drive for them.
As I said earlier—