I am grateful for this brief moment to speak in the debate. I am lamentably ignorant about this subject and I take part because I wish to raise an important matter of constituency interest on behalf of a constituent.
I do not understand how the Labour party can treat the legislation with such seeming contempt when it is absolutely right that we should aim to target these benefits on those who need them most. It is critical that we should give to those in need and help the helpless. We should give them real assistance rather than adopt the scatter-gun approach and give many people a little.
I wish to deal with the maternity grant in particular. It is an important part of our family legislation. I agree with Opposition Members that it has been at a lamentable level for some time. I greatly welcome its increase to £80. The family is an institution which is absolutely critical and essential to our social and moral well-being. The Government, to give them their due, have tried to promote the interests of the family, but a baby involves considerable extra expense. It is proposed that the maternity grant should be raised from £25 to £80 and should be for those on supplementary benefit or on family income supplement. That is an excellent aim, as it will help people on low incomes who have exceptional expenses in a more flexible way. It is about those exceptional expenses that I should like to speak.
I understand that no extra money is payable to handicapped and disabled children until they reach the age of two. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows from our correspondence, I have in my constituency a lady called Mrs. Manning who has a seriously handicapped child of six months. Every Monday she must take the child to a hospital outside our local health authority to receive specialised treatment. The round journey covers 42 miles. Five times a day the child must have specialised therapy from Mrs. Manning. It takes over an hour on each occasion to feed the child because it is unable to suck properly. No attendance allowance is available until the child reaches the age of two, and Mrs. Manning cannot rely indefinitely on the goodwill of her neighbours to look after her other child while she takes the baby to hospital.
I understand that the Department must make a medical judgment on these matters and I completely accept what my hon. Friend said in his letter to me that the child's needs must be substantially in excess of those normally required by a child of the same age and sex. Given any normal criteria, there must be no shadow of doubt that this child is grievously handicapped and at a serious disadvantage, and that the mother is in considerable distress and finds it difficult to provide for her child.
Would it not be possible, given the flexibility that these measures undoubtedly accord in terms of payment, to consider a special type of payment— I know that my hon. Friend is trying to get away from that in some areas— which could cover children who are defined as seriously handicapped, just as they are now defined as not being sufficiently handicapped to warrant additional help?