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National Assistance (Mr Kenyon)

Volume 644: debated on Tuesday 18 July 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

10.10 p.m.

I gave notice on 3rd July that I intended at the earliest possible moment to raise the case of Claud Kenyon because of the Parliamentary Secretary's unsatisfactory reply to a Question. The House should first be told something of the case history of this man. It is a history of serious sickness since infancy and a long struggle to obtain National Assistance from the Board.

Claud Kenyon's record from 1946 to 1949 was one of continuous unemployment. From 1949 to 1953, National Assistance was granted. Since 1953, when a tribunal decided that assistance should cease unless the man went to a rehabilitation centre, which he refused to do, no assistance has been received. From 1953 to 1960, his older brother, a registered disabled person, maintained him completely, providing shelter, food and clothing. There was an exception for nine weeks, when the National Assistance Board provided sickness grants amounting to 46s. a week. In December, 1959, Claud Kenyon also received a footwear grant of £3. With the exception of those amounts, he received nothing for seven years.

In the early part of 1960, I advised this man to apply again for assistance. He did so, but was refused because of his continued refusal to enter a rehabilitation centre. I advised him to appeal. He did so in April, 1960, and the appeal was allowed. Previous decisions were reversed on appeal because of evidence that I put before the tribunal as Kenyon's spokesman. I had travelled overnight to take his case 'because there was no one else to assist him, and I appreciated that this young man was then badly in need of support.

He had Fart-time employment as a caretaker from July, 1954, to December, 1954, earning 20s. a week for 18 weeks. He again applied for National Assistance, but this was refused as it was considered that my constituent was out of full-time employment of his own volition. In 1960, Mr. Kenyon again commenced part-time work as a caretaker. He again applied for assistance, but was again refused. As I have said, he appealed against the decision, and the appeal was allowed. He later applied for a boat allowance, but this was refused because he was receiving 15s. above the subsistence standard.

For several years this young man was maintained by an older brother who, without doubt, was really unable to maintain himself. He is a registered disabled person suffering from stomach ulcers, but because of his knowledge of his younger brother's ill health from infancy he was determined that the boy would not be taken to a rehabilitation centre in his condition. It was because of this determination that he and the rest of the family did what they could. There are three in the family—two brothers and one sister. The sister is an epileptic, the older brother has ulcers, and the young brother, of whom I am now speaking, has suffered ill health from infancy.

When one looks at this case, one sees that this young man owes hundreds of £s to his elder brother for maintenance alone, Financial crises have been the order of the day in this small family for many years. Can an authority come down to earth in such exceptional cases as these of sickness and poverty? Surely one has a right to expect a more common-sense attitude to be shown in this young man's case. A grant would be welcome to my constituent and his brother would go a long way towards clearing the good name of Claud Kenyon and would see that justice is done in this most worthy case.

It may be that the Parliamentary Secretary does not know the actual circumstances surrounding this young man. This has been going on for so many years before I went to St. Helens that I was determined to get to the bottom of this case. It was, therefore, essential to have a medical report about him.

The following is a letter concerning Claud Kenyon which was written by one of our top specialists in the National Health Service:
"Re: Claude Kenyon, 139, Gladston Street, St. Helens. Thank you for referring Mr. Kenyon, whom I well recall seeing previously in 1953. At that time I considered he had a personality defect, and which reflected itself in many mental and physical symptoms, These are more or less unchanged with the passage of years, and take the form nowadays of restlessness, agitation, defective concentration, palpitations, 'black-outs', sweating attacks, etc. Perhaps most important of all is a deep dread that his heart action will fail entirely. In addition he has a moderate defect of locomotion, due to congenital abnormality of his feet. I think his disability is considerable, and that he is unlikely ever to be able to compete on equal terms with his fellows, either in employment or socially. He is probably fit to perform light work of a non-competitive character, but it is doubtful whether he could maintain reasonable continuity of effort. In my view he is now a sick person, but his disability is unlikely to be materially benefited either by medication or by industrial training and rehabilitation. I think his present part-time work of caretaker at the Society of Friends is appropriate, and more ambitious employment is unlikely to succeed."
It is essential to cast one's mind over that letter and to remember exactly what the specialist says. This matter goes back for years, yet this young man has been struggling to prove his case. He failed year after year until I was able to advise him on the action he should take.

With the help of this specialist—and I am given to understand that the National Assistance Board have accepted this medical report—I wish tonight to appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to do all that she can to alleviate the distress for this family and to remove anything that may be said or inferred against it because this young man has not worked for so many years. I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary that from the first time I saw this man, in early 1959, I was able to see for myself that he was a very sick person. Here is an opportunity without, I am sure, upsetting any previous decisions of tribunals, for the Parliamentary Secretary to help this young man and his family.

10.20 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance
(Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

The hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) has spoken very movingly about this case, and I am sorry that I cannot go all the way with him in his argument. He will appreciate that whilst my right hon. Friend has a responsibility for answering Questions in this House concerning the National Assistance Board, that statutory body is a separate and independent entity entirely responsible for its own administrative decisions, in which my right hon. Friend has no power to intervene.

I think in fairness to the normal procedure that we follow in this matter I should say that, as the hon. Member will be aware, in cases such as this we normally endeavour to maintain the anonymity of the applicant. In this case—and it is entirely up to him—the hon. Member has given quite wide publicity to the identity of the applicant, but I am afraid that does not relieve me of my duty to produce the evidence as I know it in support of the Board's action.

The case of Mr. Claude Kenyon has been the subject of interest and sympathetic investigation over very many years. I have read vast files on this case, and from the records I can say without qualification that the fullest medical advice has been sought at all times by the officers of the National Assistance Board who have made their decisions in the light of that medical evidence.

Mr. Kenyon is 33 years old. For four years, from 1949 to 1953, he was unemployed and, as the hon. Member rightly said, in receipt of a grant from the National Assistance Board. Then the Board's Advisory Committee recommended that he should be refused assistance as he was unemployed of his own volition. At that time the man's own practitioner reported, in a certificate dated 31st July, 1953, that he thought Mr. Kenyon was able to follow a light occupation. The local authority offered him a job which he refused.

The hon. Member will know that, by and large, local authorities are understanding and fair-minded employers. They habitually employ a quota of disabled or partially disabled men, and I am sure they would have been reasonable and understanding had Mr. Kenyon made even an endeavour to accept this employment. Nevertheless he refused. He exercised his right, quite properly, to take his case to appeal, and the appeal tribunal confirmed the Board's decision.

During the period from then till April, 1960, some six years in all, he twice received assistance for about a month, but was otherwise subject to what is known as a direction order under Section 10 of the National Assistance Act, 1948, which covered the periods from May to November, 1954, October, 1956, to April, 1957, October, 1957, to October, 1958, and June, 1959, to April, 1960.

Section 10 empowers the Board to make a report to the local National Assistance appeal tribunal where it appears that an applicant for assistance is refusing or neglecting to maintain himself, and the tribunal may then make a direction enabling the Board's officer to decide that assistance shall be given only in the form of maintenance at a re-establishment centre. The practical effect is that if an applicant without dependants refuses to go to a re-establishment centre, he ceases to receive any form of assistance.

May I say a word about the re-establishment centres? I have spent some hours on more than one occasion visiting our re-establishment centres. I know they are run by enlightened and most sincere men whose only desire is to help these unfortunate men to repair their confidence, skill and physique so that if possible they can stand on their own feet again. I accept that to send a man who has been out of work for many years straight into an ordinary competitive job is asking for trouble. His muscles have gone slack, he has lost the habit of getting up early in the morning or working to a timetable. He may even be physically incapable of plunging into an eight-hour day. Thus, after long illness or unemployment, it is entirely in the interests of the man, if he genuinely desires to strive to maintain himself, that he should at least try to make the experiment of going to a re-establishment centre.

I have myself seen cases of men after long illness, having lost all their confidence, being most sympathetically eased into the routine of employment again. I have seen them in the centres allowed to do, perhaps, only two hours' work on the first day because of their physical weakness and their slack muscles, and thereafter gradually eased into the routine of employment. There may be three hours of work, and gradually the work is extended as they obtain confidence in themselves and their ability returns.

I readily admit that the Board is not successful in every case. There are folk too simple-minded to be regularly employed. There are people whom severe illness or advancing age have put beyond the stage of full rehabilitation. But if that is proven—and it is in the interests of the general body of the community and of the taxpayers in particular that it should be proven—the Board accepts it and such men are thereafter accepted an unemployable. The Board's efforts in rehabilitation are highly successful in a very large number of cases, as its recently published Annual Report demonstrates.

Thus, in his own interests, Mr. Kenyon had everything to gain and nothing to lose by co-operating with the Board and agreeing to go to a re-establishment centre. As it was, he persistently refused over the years. During the periods not covered by the Section 10 direction, he made several applications for assistance, but, apart from those which resulted in payment for two months, all these applications were refused. They were refused because, although several examinations by the regional medical officers of the Ministry of Health had shown that he was not incapable of some form of work, it appeared that Mr. Kenyon had no intention of seeking employment. Apart from a few months of part-time work as a caretaker in 1955, he did no work at all from 1954 onwards.

The hon. Member has misjudged the result of the recent appeal tribunal. The present assistance grant was put into payment in April, 1960, as a result of an application by Mr. Kenyon to the appeal tribunal, as the hon. Member rightly said, which led to the revocation of the then current Section 10 direction on the ground that, by taking his present part-time job, he had shown evidence of willingness to work, which had not previously been apparent.

The hon. Member's case appears to be that, throughout the period when Mr. Kenyon was without assistance from the Board, he was incapable of work or capable at the very most of limited work, and he had to be supported by his brother. His argument is that, having now recognised and accepted his need of assistance by issuing the present grant, the Board ought to make a lump sum payment of arrears for the period from 1953 to 1960.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, this is wrongly to equate two very different sets of circumstances. The Board did not reverse any of their previous decisions. During the earlier period when Mr. Kenyon came under a Section 10 direction, he refused to work and he refused to go to a re-establishment centre. His present part-time job showed his willingness to work, which, therefore, made it reasonable and proper to remove the Section 10 direction.

One of the offers of attendance at a re-establishment centre was made after a special medical examination. Furthermore, Mr. Kenyon was told that there was a doctor at the centre who could arrange for any necessary medical treatment and who could from day to day assess whether he was in fact capable of light employment or not. The fact that he could be helped by going to the centre where all his requirements would be met was repeatedly made clear by the Board's officer to him and to his brother, but he chose not to take advantage of the offer. The Board cannot be held responsible for his failure to do so.

I believe that the decisions on the other applications made by Mr. Kenyon were appropriate in the light of the knowledge the Board's officer then had of Mr. Kenyon's attitude to work and of the results of examinations by the regional officers of the Ministry of Health. The current grant, which was put into operation in April, 1960, was the result of a decision of the tribunal, but the decision was not retrospective, and the Board itself has no power to revise the earlier decisions of its officer, even if it wished to do so. Again, I say that the current grant is the direct result of Mr. Kenyon, after thirteen years of almost continuous unemployment, at last agreeing to take some light work. It in no way upsets or, in my view, alters the validity of the previous decisions, which is what the hon. Member is seeking to prove.

The consultant physician's letter of 20th December, 1960, which was produced by the hon. Member, in spite of its qualifications, says that Mr. Kenyon is probably fit to perform light work of a non-competitive character. In his letter, the consultant physician refers to his recollection of seeing Mr. Kenyon in 1953. Mr. Kenyon's own doctor gave a certificate at this time, as I have said, that he was fit for light work and also recorded that the consultant physician had certified him as fit.

Mr. Kenyon has also been referred to the divisional medical officer seven times since 1953 for an opinion on incapacity, and on each of the six occasions on which he was examined—once he did not attend—he was found fit to undertake light work. The examinations were carried out by five different doctors so there is no question of only one opinion. Mr. Kenyon has had five separate, authoritative and independent opinions during this period on his medical status. On only two occasions out of the six was the examining doctor the same person.

In September, 1958, the examining doctor said that not only was Mr. Kenyon capable of work but that he would be all the better for it. I know that after many years one loses confidence and gets slackness of muscle and it seems more and more difficult to go to work, but that is where the value of the re-establishment centre comes in. At these centres, with all the medical advice available, we can genuinely seek to help people who, I quite accept, might, if they plunged back into an ordinary industrial job, be a very bad bet for an employer until they had had the opportunity of re-establishment and of gradually working themselves back into the routine of employment.

In September, 1958, the examining doctor, as I have said, gave it as his opinion that Mr. Kenyon would be all the better for being in some form of employment. Neither the medical report which the hon. Member has produced nor any of the earlier examinations cast doubt on the past treatment of the case, nor do they support the view that Mr. Kenyon has throughout, as the hon. Member seeks to establish, been incapable of work.

The Board has all along sought medical opinion. This has not been the case of an official making a decision on his own. At every stage over the years this man has been medically examined, and the Board has had the advice of highly skilled and competent medical officers of the Ministry of Health. Officials of the Board have shown their willingness to be guided by medical advice through their readiness to accept the consultant physician's opinion in December, 1960, that Mr. Kenyon is now capable only of his present part-time job. They cannot, however, accept, as the hon. Member invites them to do, that Mr. Kenyon has throughout been incapable of work.

All the evidence available between 1953 and 1960 shows that although he was fit for some kind of work he had no intention of taking a job. Nor would he take re-establishment and rehabilitation. During the period under dispute he refused a job with a local hospital on the flimsy excuse that he was too intelligent for it. In 1959, a member of the National Assistance Appeal Tribunal made a special personal effort to get him a light job in an industrial concern. This he refused.

This man's case has been fully and exhaustively considered, not only by the Board's officers but, on appeal, by the independent tribunal and by numerous competent medical authorities. The decision of the tribunal was, of course, binding on the Board. Every endeavour has been made to help him, without success. He has refused work and reestablishment training, and has been wholly unto-operative with those who have genuinely sought to help him.

I can only confirm that, in my view, the Board has acted with great patience and understanding of this most difficult case, and that there are no grounds whatever for its taking—nor has it power to take—action other than that which it has done.

10.35 p.m.

I can only say, having listened to this debate, that I regard the Minister's reply as wholly unsatisfactory. Why the right hon. Lady should think it her duty always on occasions of this kind to whitewash the National Assistance Board I cannot understand. I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) and to her reply, and it seemed obvious after listening to those speeches that this man has made every effort to do some work.

With great respect, this man has not been employed for eleven years. I cannot accept the the statement of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher).

He has taken a job as a part-time caretaker. When my hon. Friend takes the trouble to investigate a case of this kind where there has been manifest hardship, a man has obviously tried to do something and his own family has been put to great expense—and they are persons who are epileptic—why the Minister should adopt this bureaucratic attitude and always try to defend the National Assistance Board I do not know. Why she cannot exercise a little humanity and investigate the case I cannot understand. I have no doubt that generally the National Assistance Board does a great job, but on occasion it can make mistakes, and hon. Members do not take the trouble to investigate individual cases as my hon. Friend has done unless there is some real substance and justification for doing so.

What disappoints me is that over and over again when hon. Members take the pains to investigate cases of real hardship—we do not bring them to the House otherwise—we always get this bureaucratic attitude from the Minister saying that everything the Board has done is right. This man has appealed against decisions over and over again and on occasion appeals have been upheld. I hope the Minister will reconsider what I regard as a most unworthy speech which has shown no indication of sympathy for this man. There may be psychological and other factors which have quite justified him in refusing to go to a rehabilitation centre. We cannot put all these people into one category and generalise about them as the Minister has done. We have to treat them as human beings.

When we bring these cases to the House we are entitled to have a more sympathetic and humane reply than we have had tonight. I am most disappointed. I hope that, in view of what my hon. Friend hats said, the matter will not be allowed to rest there, but that the Minister will take the trouble to lead what my hon. Friend said and investigate it to see if something cannot be done to relieve this man and his family from the great hardship they have suffered.

With great respect, I really cannot allow the hon. Member to get away—

Order. The right hon. Lady cannot speak again except with the leave of the House as she has already spoken once.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and the leave of the House, I should like to reply to what I consider to be a most unwarranted accusation against the National Assistance Board. This case has gone to an independent tribunal time and time again, and the decisions of those independent statutory authorities the Board has to accept. This man has been repeatedly examined by independent medical officers who are not members of the staff of the National Assistance Board.

I regret very much that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), with the experience he has, should have made such an unwarranted attack on the Board, which throughout has done its best to help this man and has carried out it statutory duties and the findings of independent statutory authorities which have investigated this case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.