Adjournment (Christmas)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:26 pm on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South 5:26 pm, 19th December 1990

One of the interesting aspects of the House of Commons is the rejuvenation of Members when they leave office. The speech of the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) showed the beneficial effects of throwing off the cares of office. The Leader of the House will be delighted by that speech, because when the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North spoke as a Minister—he was a very good Minister—he did not make stimulating or inspiring speeches because, as Leader of the House, he could not do so. He now has the freedom of the Back Benches and holds the interest of the House.

Another interesting aspect of the House is that, although hon. Members are prepared to listen to such reviews of national issues, they are also prepared to listen to issues that affect small numbers of people. I ask the House not to adjourn until we have discussed four separate groups of disabled people who are neglected. The first is a group of severely disabled people who are recipients of the independent living fund. They need the money from that fund to keep out of institutions. The independent living fund enables these people to maintain their independence and their dignity. Without it, they will be forced into long-term residential care, at great cost to the state.

The Government have threatened to wind up the independent living fund in 1993. They say that responsibility for the payment of the fund will pass to local authorities, but that is a sacrilege, because we all know that most local authorities cannot be bothered to help disabled people. Many others have competing claims on their resources.

There are some good local authorities, but there are plenty of very bad ones that are indifferent to the needs of disabled people. Some local authorities will spend money on fancy bypasses and on all kinds of popular projects rather than on helping disabled people. We know that that will happen and that the result will be catastrophic for severely disabled people.

Some severely disabled people receive large amounts from the fund to keep them out of hospital. Mr. J, for example, who lives in Shropshire, is paralysed from the neck down and receives £400 a week from the fund. Before the introduction of the ILF he was cared for by his 82-year-old mother. That man will not be allowed such independence and dignity if that money is withdrawn. If the local authority cannot, or will not, pay, he will be incarcerated in an institution.

The Select Committee on Social Services believes that the ILF should become a statutory body, and nearly all organisations that represent disabled people believe that it should be preserved. The all-party disablement group has insisted that it should be preserved. I hope that the Government will think again and will not abolish it.

The second group of severely disabled people for whom I am concerned are those affected by discrimination. In the past, the House has debated the need for such anti-discrimination legislation, but the Government claim that there is insufficient evidence of discrimination against disabled people—what nonsense. Anyone who is severely disabled could tell Ministers that, every day of their lives, they experience gross and vindictive discrimination. Some of that discrimination is unthinking, but every day severely disabled people are confronted with it.

Some disabled people are not allowed to go into the pubs of their choice. Others are denied access to various buildings. Some cannot go to seaside resorts and some are denied jobs. Every day those people are hit, and hit again, by such discrimination. Although we do not see it in the House, it exists. We should deal with it because it is scandalous if someone is denied a job because he is in a wheelchair, he has an artificial limb or he is deaf or blind.

For the past two years, the Government have reviewed employment opportunities for disabled people. However, they have never discussed that review with those organisations that represent disabled people. The Government should take far more notice of the opinion of disabled people and their organisations. We have legislation to combat discrimination on the grounds of sex and race, and such legislation is badly needed to combat discrimination against disabled people—that is certainly the opinion of disabled people and their representative organisations.

The Governments of Germany, Belgium, Greece, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal have introduced legislation to combat discrimination against the disabled. If they can find the time and the good will to introduce legislation to outlaw discrimination against disabled people, why cannot we? In the United States, a marvellous new Bill has been passed to give new rights to disabled people covering a range of matters, which states that employers cannot discriminate against disabled people. I wish that we had led the way, but at least we could follow the Americans and the Europeans.

The third group of people to whom I want to draw to the attention of the House are those service men who have been disabled through negligence. The House will recall the campaign that was conducted a few years ago to allow service men to sue when they had been disabled as a result of negligence. Three years ago, no ex-service man or acting service man could sue for negligence, because section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 prevented such actions.

I was proud to take part in the campaign on behalf of those service men. We fought the Ministry of Defence, who argued that it could not allow service men to sue the MOD as that would be bad for discipline, it would upset people and, in any case, the negligence could not be proved. For that reason we fought our campaign, and fighting with me were many disabled ex-service men in wheelchairs—I could name them, but I do not want to detain the House.

After two years, the MOD gave way and said that it would repeal section 10 of the 1947 Act so that service men would be allowed to sue for negligence. That was fine. At that time, the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) introduced the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Bill, and he helped us wonderfully. As a result, the Government changed their mind and service men can now sue for negligence. When the Bill was enacted, however, the Government said that they were not prepared to allow those people who had campaigned in the past to sue for negligence. They were not prepared to make the Bill retrospective, but that was an anomalous act on the part of the Government. Those men who had campaigned with me were loyal ex-service men who loved the services, but they have been denied the right to sue for negligence.

I have given the MOD example after example of retrospective legislation. For example, there were some in 1532, as well as some in 1987 as a result of the Local Government Act. I believe that the legislation should be retrospective to enable those ex-service men to sue for negligence. If that is not possible—I am trying to be reasonable—why can the Government not give those people an ex gratia payment if they can prove that they were disabled through negligence? That is all I am asking.

I have raised that issue tonight because we have a new Prime Minister. When I put this problem to the former Prime Minister, I included a number of proposals to enable an ex gratia payment to be made—there are not many people involved. The right hon. Lady said that she was not prepared to consider that, because of practical difficulties. In response, I proposed a number of compromises to limit the numbers involved, so that only those who had evidence to prove that they had been maimed through negligence could claim.

All those suggestions were turned down. I hope that the Leader of the House will ask the new Prime Minister to review the issue—that is all I am asking. Those loyal ex-service men have a powerful case and they deserve to be considered.

I have spoken for too long, but I want to spend just a couple of minutes on a group for whom I have campaigned for the past 25 years—nuclear test veterans. The Government have refused to allow them compensation on the basis of lack of evidence that they have suffered from radiation. The Government's stand is preposterous. They refused to move on haemophiliacs who have been infected by contaminated blood, but they then changed their mind. Similarly, they have refused to act on nuclear test veterans, but, sooner or later, I am sure that they will change their mind.

The essence of my case is this. British ex-service men suffered the effects of radiation in the nuclear tests 40 years ago, and they have been suffering ever since. How can the Government deny that they suffered radiation damage? The United States Government looked into the matter for their ex-service men. They found that radiation damage was proved and they are paying for 13 cancers caused by radiation to their ex-service men suffering from radiation to which they were exposed at the tests.

What is the difference between American soldiers and British soldiers? Their bodies are the same. The nuclear tests were the same. The radiation was the same. What is the difference? The difference is solely in the Governments' attitudes. That is all that I wish to say. It is a simple, strong, powerful and moving case.

I ask the Leader of the House to take on board the issues that I have raised. I do not expect answers or solutions from him tonight. He has a difficult job. However, if he passes my comments on to the Ministers responsible and to the Prime Minister, and if the Prime Minister will review the matter which I raised, perhaps we could start the ball rolling. I have made reasonable points. Severly disabled people should simply be given a fair chance.