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Invalid Tricycles

Volume 892: debated on Friday 23 May 1975

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2.30 p.m.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter which for several years has caused great concern not only in the House but to many people outside. I refer to the three-wheeled invalid tricycle—the "trike" as it is called—which is provided by the Government for severely disabled people.

Since I entered Parliament in those far-off halcyon days of 1970 I have been extremely active in disabled affairs, a member of the Disablement Income Group and also the all-party disablement group of which I am now secretary. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security with responsibility for the disabled has been long engaged in working for the interests of disabled people, and his Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, which the Conservative Government implemented, is a landmark in parliamentary and local authority care for the disabled. I am extremely grateful to him for giving up a visit to a home for the disabled at Chailey so as to be here today for this debate.

The safety of invalid tricycles and the need for a new Government programme of four-wheeled vehicles is of such vital importance that I felt it necessary to raise it in the House at the earliest possible opportunity. I can quote from a sheaf of newspaper headlines in recent months to underline the concern felt throughout the country that we are placing our disabled and severely disabled drivers at great risk by providing outdated, unsocial and unsafe vehicles for them to use. I quote some of the headlines to prove my point. On 9th May The Guardian said:
"More unsafe and more costly".
The Times said:
"Invalid cars should be crash tested".
The Guardian said:
"Invalid trike horrifies the AA".
The Times said:
"Three-wheeler cars are too dangerous for the disabled."
The Observer said:
"Invalid car frightened the testers".
The Guardian said:
"Scandal on three wheels".
I could quote many others, but I think that hose are enough to show that this issue is not just a narrow parliamentary issue but one of national moral principle.

I hope today to put the case fairly and squarely to the Minister that the time for prevarication is over and that a decision must now be made by the Government to implement a course of action for which the Labour Party and the Minister called not long ago when they were in Opposition.

In a censure debate on 21st February 1972, the Labour Opposition spokesman, winding up, attacked the Conservative Secretary of State for Social Services for failing to provide disabled people with suitable four-wheeled transport. I base my call today on the words the Minister used in that debate. He said:
"The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) rightly emphasised that three-wheeled vehicles are, for many very severely disabled people, unsafe and unstable and should be replaced by four-wheeled vehicles."—[Official Report, 21st February 1972; Vol. 831, c. 1010.]
The House should know that the four-wheeled vehicle need be no more expensive, per vehicle, than the three-wheeler.

To be fair to the Minister—for he is an eminently fair man and will accept that I am also fair—he went on in that speech to refer to the urgent need to help the disabled passenger. Since he has been in office he has proposed a mobility allowance of £4 per week which will be made available as an alternative to a vehicle to all the severely disabled, from the age of five to 65, whether they are drivers, passengers, or disabled children who need transportation. The cost of that allowance is estimated at £15 million. I am sure that the Minister will say how proud he is about squeezing this £15 million out of the Treasury. He is justified in feeling proud. We all know the difficulties of escaping across the Treasury drawbridge with such a prize, especially in these days.

The £4 per week mobility allowance, which was announced last year, does not measure up to the problem which we are discussing today. Inflation has eroded the allowance to such an extent that the prime objective of providing an alternative method of transportation for disabled people or of providing enough money to enable disabled persons to purchase the vehicles of their choice, has now been destroyed by inflation and increased costs. I hope that the Government will offer a substantial increase in this allowance.

I seek to achieve three basic objectives today. First. I hope to convince the Minister that he was right in what he said in the 1972 debate—that the principle of providing a safe and serviceable invalid vehicle must be placed before the Treasury expediency of keeping down demand. Secondly, I hope to convince the Government that there is no need to react defensively in support of this three-wheeler because they feel that the phasing in of four-wheeled cars will mean the immediate removal of the three-wheelers from all the existing 22,000 users. I do not think that that need necessarily happen. Thirdly, I hope that I can persuade the Minister that the time has come for a realistic reappraisal of the mobility allowance, so that we can achieve what everyone wants, or at least what everyone knows to be possible in these stringent days, which is a mobility allowance of such a level that it will realistically allow a commutation of several years' payments, so that these people may purchase their own vehicles.

I am not, therefore, attempting to prove the existing three-wheelers to be so unsafe and so unsuitable that they must all be taken off the roads immediately, because I know that 15 per cent. or 20 per cent. of the owners are happy with their tricycles and would be upset at having to change to a different kind of vehicle. I accept that 21 per cent. of tricycle owners cover 1,000 miles or less per year and that many single men and women with certain disabilities and limitations are perfectly happy with their three-wheelers. But I also know—the evidence is overwhelming—that a large number of disabled drivers are frightened and appalled at the inadequacies of design and at the inadequacies of the quality of the structure of these three-wheelers.

Let us consider the tricycle in the context of Baroness Sharp's description. She said that it was a lineal descendant of the bath-chair, albeit motorised. If it does short around-the-corner journeys of under 1,000 miles a year, it is reasonably satisfactory. However, in recent years the general mobility of the population has risen sharply, especially in the distance travelled to and from work and school.

The Department of Health and Social Security has acknowledged this increased mobility of the working disabled, which we all welcome, by making improvements to the model 70 tricycle. It now has an automatic gearbox, travels at 50 mph, and has a much longer distance capability.

What a missed opportunity. Instead of changing over, as other countries have done, to an up-to-date, passenger-carrying, four-wheeled automatic car, we cling—I do not know why—to an increasingly expensive, mainly foreign, mechanised bath-chair.

The consequence is that we must spend more on upgrading the road-speed performance of what was originally intended to be a slow-moving, short-distance wheelchair. To quote the words of the Government spokesman in the other place—Lord Wells-Pestell,
"a specialised invalid vehicle cannot be made as stable as a four-wheeled car. It can be overturned more easily, and its handling is more affected by cross-winds."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19th February 1975; Vol. 356, c. 324.]
He can say that again. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), Lord Snowdon, Graham Hill and the Minister, I have driven in a three-wheeler. My drive took place on a wide open parade ground in my constituency, where a disabled drivers' rally was taking place. It scared the living daylights out of me, so much so that I contacted the Devon Ortheopaedic Association and asked it to carry out a survey of disabled drivers in Devon to ascertain their views on stability, maintenance and repairs. The survey produced results which were very similar to those of the other investigations carried out by Which? magazine, the Cranfield tests for The Observer and Baroness Sharp.

The Devon survey of 51 drivers showed that 95 per cent. of the drivers considered their three-wheelers to be unsafe in wind and dangerously under-powered on hills, that just under 4,000 miles a year was the average mileage, that the cars broke down, each year, on average 13 times, and that most of the drivers had families and relatives who could not share their social lives or activities because of the limitations of the one-seater three-wheelers. The general verdict from this section of the community was that they were unsafe, unreliable and anti-social.

I know that other hon. Members have had differing responses from constituents in their areas. I express what I believe to be the general view. In areas such as Devon, where the hills are steep and the westerly winds whistle across the open roads, there is no doubt that these unstable vehicles present grave difficulties.

I received a letter from someone who stated that he had driven over 50,000 miles in tricycles without an accident. He went on to say that he had achieved this record by never going out when it was windy or wet, and never driving on major open roads.

During recent weeks a spate of Parliamentary Questions and newspaper articles sought to secure from the Government a positive admission that under certain wind conditions their vehicles were unsatisfactory and that under modern road conditions they were less safe than we would want.

The Minister for Transport admitted, in a letter dated 7th January, to Graham Hill, that:
"In principle I accept the argument that the safety of the invalid tricycle is not as good as we would wish."
Government-commissioned tests carried out by the Motor Industry Research Association in 1972, 1973 and 1974 produced evidence of excessive interior noise level, steering and fire regulation failures and finally, after much probing by hon. Members on both sides, and after much delay by both Governments, the wind gust test reports were published, showing excessive sideways movement of these vehicles under wind gusts.

Finally, I come to a matter which has puzzled many commentators for some time. I refer to the number of three-wheeled invalid tricycles which overturned while being manoeuvred into position at MIRA. There also finally came to light the answer to something which had puzzled many commentators for some time, and that was a much delayed admission that a three-wheeled invalid tricycle had overturned whilst being manoeuvered into position at MIRA. Unfortunately, the MIRA employees have not been allowed to talk about the accidents, and I hope that the Minister will give permission for such a discussion to take place.

Apart from the official Government tests, several independent tests have been carried out. In July 1973 the Cranfield Institute of Technology discontinued swerve tests, owing to be dangers of overturning. Its staff refused to carry on.

In March last, the magazine Which? published an analysis of 1,300 reports received from disabled drivers of petrol-driven "trikes". The results showed the same complaints—namely, poor stability when cornering, fuel tank in exposed position, steering difficulties on uneven and slippery road surfaces, no spare wheel and a number of other complaints. The 1,300 reported a total of 298 accidents. Of these 35 were said to have caused major injuries to the drivers and another 74 accidents caused major damage to the car. The conclusion arrived at by Which? was that disabled people should have better designed vehicles such as a converted small car to carry a passenger.

The Motor magazine, in August last year, also reported the tricycle as being
"inherently unstable, virtually no protection in a crash and difficult to drive".
A parliamentary answer given on 3rd March gave the comparative injury-accident rate per million miles in the year to September 1974 as 6·4 for trikes as compared with 1·7 for adapted cars.

There are many other supporting tacts which I could quote to substantiate my case for phasing out these three-wheelers and for their replacement by an adapted home-produced Mini. However, I do not think I have to convince the Minister, with his responsibilities for the disabled, for I know that he has suffered a great deal of anguish over this problem. He knows in his heart that what he said when in Opposition on this subject is even truer today, but accidents continue to take place and occasionally a disabled driver is killed.

Only last week an inquest was held on a 20-year-old paraplegic, Mr. David Cherry, who was training as an accountant. He was one of the 1,300 who wrote to Graham Hill two years ago about his fears. In his letter he stated:
"The fibreglass body is dangerous—under impact it would just crumble".
That is exactly what happened on 5th March when Mr. Cherry was hit by a Ford car on a roundabout near Woodstock. The Ford was hardly damaged, but Mr. Cherry's tricycle was split almost in two and within 72 hours he died of his injuries.

What is stopping the Minister in the present Government—or, indeed, what prevented the Minister with those responsibilities in the Conservative Government—from announcing that henceforth no further orders for these expensive vehicles will be placed and that disabled drivers will be offered a choice of retaining their three-wheeler or taking a lump sum in lieu of their mobility allowance, or having a four-wheeled car?

I am not calling for a massive, immediate change-over from three- to four-wheelers. I confess that I should like to see some of the hundreds of millions of pounds that are now being squandered on wasteful Government nationalisation measures being apportioned to such a replacement scheme. But since I am realistic and logical, I know that it is "not on" at present. Accepting, however, that the Minister is not very likely to squeeze that kind of money out of the Treasury, I offer what I consider to be a practical solution to his problem.

First, I suggest that the mobility allowance must be increased to allow 50 per cent. to be commutable over a five-year period to obtain the capital outlay necessary for the purchase of an adapted four-wheeler.

Secondly, the Government should order a supply of Minis specially adapted to the various needs of the disabled and, if necessary, engage the existing tricycle manufacturers to provide these adaptations.

Thirdly, let us gradually phase out the older three-wheelers and provide, at a controlled flow, the new four-wheelers. I hope that the Minister will not trot out the Treasury-worn argument that this will mean a mad rush for cars and that the money will not be available. So far as I am aware, the cost of the "trike" exceeds that of a four-wheeler, and the savings on maintenance and repair will more than repay the Treasury mandarins.

The amount of money available from the Treasury obviously will determine the numbers of four-wheelers which can be issued each year—on the same lines as the attendance allowance, which came in stages. Therefore, the 1,000 or 2,000 cars a year can be issued to replace the oldest "trikes" and can also be provided for the most seriously disabled drivers or passengers. If it is still necessary to provide the 15 per cent. or 20 per cent. who want to retain the three-wheelers, the existing stocks will satisfy that demand for many years to come. But let there be no further orders.

The Dutch solved their transportation problem a decade ago, and now provide 40,000 Daf automatics and other makes with every kind of adaptation necessary, plus a number of low-powered electric vehicles for those who are too disabled to drive a normal car.

I ask the Minister to remember his own attacks on the Conservative Government over their delay in introducing a four-wheeled vehicle for the disabled. I hope that he will state the relative costs of a model 70 as it will now have to be modified to overcome the faults highlighted in the MIRA reports, compared with the cost of an adapted Mini. I also ask him to give the answer to a Question which I tabled on 1st May about the cost of imported foreign parts of the three-wheeler, with its Austrian engine, Italian suspension and American components. I hope that he will also confirm the savings in repairs and maintenance of four-wheelers which would have only a fraction of the accidents and breakdowns which the tricycles suffer each year.

From my personal contacts with the various organisations representing the disabled drivers, I am fearful of the consequences of a refusal by the Government to take heed of the deeply-felt cries of the disabled drivers. A reference to the Ombudsman has already been made, and other legal actions will undoubtedly follow against the Department if something is not done. There should be an end to the production of these out-dated mechanised bathchairs. I believe that the case is insurmountable.

The case for refusing to introduce cars was summed up admirably in October 1973, when the present Prime Minister, then in opposition stated in The Guardian:
"There is some anxiety about a suggestion that the Department of Social Security's attitude on this derives from a fear that if they were to accept the case for a car which is more easy to control than less, with an equivalent standard of safety, comfort and reliability to those of other small cars—and allegedly cheaper—then the demand for such a vehicle would considerably exceed the demands for the less satisfactory three-wheeler."
The Prime Minister continued:
"Then it would cost more, not because our vehicles cost more, but because more would be applied for. If that is the argument … it is unacceptable."
I agree wholeheartedly with the Prime Minister and I hope and trust that his Minister for the disabled will also agree with his leader and resist such arguments from the Treasury mandarins.

I present this request not on a party political basis, because I exerted the same pressure on the previous Government I do so on behalf of the large numbers of disabled drivers and their families who cannot travel together and who have to experience all the rigours and tensions of travelling in an out-dated unsatisfactory and expensive three-wheeled vehicle. This must now be replaced by a car that is more suited to this day and age.

2.48 p.m.

The safety of the invalid tricycle is a subject of very real concern to me, as I know it is to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam). In congratulating him on his choice of this subject for today's somewhat lonely debate, I welcome this opportunity to put on record the Government's attitude and our new and positive alternative to the provision of vehicles.

The hon. Gentleman's solicitude and genuine concern for disabled people are well-appreciated across the House. There are many hon. Members who would have liked to take part in the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke on Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones). However, within the short time at our disposal there was no likelihood of their taking part in this debate.

As I proceed, I shall seek to make some comments on points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I begin by saying something about our new policy for helping disabled people to get about more and about the particular rôle which has been played by the invalid tricycle.

Until now, the supply of an invalid tricycle has been the main form of benefit under the Government's scheme. There have been two options—to drive an invalid tricycle or, for people who own a car and can drive, to obtain a grant towards its running costs. For the great majority of disabled people who cannot drive or who do not wish to drive, there is no benefit. Whatever shortcomings the three-wheeler has, it is a choice that many people have been glad to accept and to use over many years. Our great concern is to provide help with mobility for the non-drivers, many of whom are much too severely disabled to drive, and who, unjustly, derive no benefit at all from the present scheme.

For the future, there is a completely new situation. The provision of a vehicle for the minority will now be an optional alternative to a cash benefit for the majority.

Hon. Members will be aware that yesterday my right hon. Friend tabled an amendment to the Social Security Pensions Bill to provide for the introduction of a mobility allowance for severely disabled people, as envisaged in the joint ministerial statement of 13th September 1974. The allowance, which we now propose should be £5 a week instead of the £4 a week previously announced, will be available to non-drivers and drivers alike who meet the medical conditions. From what the hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, I know that he will welcome this announcement. The disabled people who receive the allowance will be able to make their own choice as to the way in which they use it to achieve greater mobility. We know that some disabled people will still want to have the invalid tricycle. Thus, we intend to continue to make it available.

The hon. Gentleman asked about future orders for the tricycle. We must place orders sufficiently far ahead to secure continued supply, thereby ensuring that no one who is eligible for a vehicle, and wants it, is grounded through lack of supplies.

In future the mobility allowance will be the main benefit. The right forum for discussion of the details of the new allowance will be the Committee of the whole House which we propose should consider this part of the Pensions Bill. This afternoon I will simply say that the mobility allowance is a most important innovation which will be of great benefit to a very large number of disabled people. Its introduction will more than double Government spending on promoting the mobility of severely disabled people.

At this time of economic crisis, when it will be tremendously difficult even to maintain standards of vital services, that is the clearest possible affirmation of the priority that the Government give to helping disabled people to have an active place in the community. We hope to start phasing in the new allowance at the beginning of next year.

Many eligible people are not so disabled that they cannot drive an adapted production car. The mobility allowance will help them to meet the costs of a car, just as it will help others who choose different ways of getting about. The person who could drive a specialised vehicle, but not an adapted production car, is in a different position. What prevents him from running a car is not merely the financial problem of affording it, which after all affects many people who are not disabled as well as many who are, but the fact that his handicap makes him physically unable to drive it.

The Government see their rôle in providing a specialised vehicle as essentially the same as in the provision of other highly specialised needs of disabled people, such as artificial limbs and wheelchairs. The invalid tricycle was intended, first, as an elaborate prosthesis, not as a car. This is still its proper function today. We must not let this be obscured by the fact that progressive developments in design have brought it within reach of standards of performance which people customarily expect from cars.

Those who could not drive an adapted car are all severely disabled, but they are a very diverse group, each with his own individual problems. A specialised invalid vehicle cannot be a single model suitable for them all. It must be rather a basic design on which we can ring the changes in control systems and other features such as seating. Some people cannot use a steering wheel, so the basic design must have a steering mechanism capable of being actuated by a handlebar or tiller type of control. But a control of this type could not be used to operate the steering of an ordinary car with its two wheels at the front carrying, usually, at least half the vehicle's total weight. The effort needed would be too great. No doubt there are various possible technical solutions, but I am advised that there is no commercially available power steering system which would suit. The technical solution we have is a small light vehicle with a single lightly loaded wheel at the front.

Another factor affects the design of the body. Many of our clients are disabled by diseases of the muscles or joints and have largely lost the ability to bend. They need a fairly high and upright seating position, and one which facilitates transfer from a wheel chair. They also need a higher door than will be found on most production cars. These two factors, steering requirements and height, both have a bearing on the invalid tricycle's stability.

The mechanical design has to be a compromise. There are unavoidable drawbacks which go with the necessary characteristics of a vehicle design for the special needs we are seeking to meet. To illustrate this, the deliberately light steering—the ability to go from one lock to the other with a single easy arm movement—makes it possible to change course more abruptly than in a conventional care.

This brings its own problems. As we all know, an abrupt change of course when travelling at speed may cause a driver of any vehicle to lose control. The relatively extensive arm movement involved in a sharp change of course on a conventional car gives the driver a degree of protection against the effects of unintended arm movement or overreaction to some road hazard which we cannot give to the driver who is capable only of arm movement limited in range and power.

Another necessary feature—the high profile combined with the light front loading—inevitably makes the vehicle more sensitive to cross winds than most production cars, though, as hon. Members will have noted from the report placed in the Library on 7th May, the invalid tricycle was not the most sensitive of the vehicles tested by the Motor Industry Research Association.

In issuing these vehicles we are, therefore, unavoidably placing responsibility on handicapped drivers themselves to become familiar with the characteristics of their vehicles and to drive within the limitations. The handbook which is issued to all new drivers gives advice on the need for care to avoid abrupt changes of course and to moderate speed in strong winds.

It will be apparent from considering factors such as these that the assessment of safety is a complicated matter, affected by driver capacity, experience and behaviour as well as by vehicle design. We do not claim that the design compromise is ideal or incapable of improvement, but the scope for further improvement within the design constraints I have mentioned is probably limited.

Despite allegations to the contrary, all invalid three-wheelers built during the past 20 years have complied with the Construction and Use Regulations applicable to motor cars rather than the less stringent requirements for invalid vehicles. During the past two years new regulations have been introduced aimed at providing greater safety to the occupant in accidents.

The Model 70 complies with all these regulations with one exception. The requirements of Regulation 16, "Protective Steering Mechanism", are met by steering wheel versions of the Model 70.

In the case of "tiller" and "bicycle" type steering vehicles, the part of the test which requires a dummy to be thrown on to the steering mechanism cannot yet be carried out because a method of testing has not yet been devised. The Department is working in conjunction with MIRA on this problem. When it has been resolved tests will be carried out to ensure that these types of steering control meet the regulation requirements, too. We shall generally make further safety improvements where we can, just as manufacturers do. For example, we are in process of improving crash protection of the driver by fitting a roll-over bar to future production.

In considering the longer-term future, however, we must recognise that there can be no such thing as a totally safe vehicle. Even a modern sports car, which may have superb handling and braking characteristics, may or may not in practice have a good accident record.

For the Department, one possible line of advance may be improvements of electric vehicles. A relatively small number of severely handicapped people have been given mobility by the provision of electrically propelled vehicles. These have a low maximum speed and limited range but the speed limitation and ease of control enable them to provide relatively safe transport for certain groups of disabled people.

As hon. Members know, much effort in the commercial sector has been aimed at producing an electric road vehicle or town car with improved performance and range, so far without marked success, primarily because of the limitations of electrical energy storage. Nothing as yet has proved more suitable than the conventional lead acid battery, which has the disadvantage of requiring regular attention.

The Department will be examining any possible avenues for improving the performance of electric vehicles. Even if only marginal improvements can be made it may be possible to extend the scope of the provision to meet the needs of some of those unable to achieve satisfactory mobility in other ways.

In referring to this problem and future possibilities I am, as the House knows from my recent statements, deeply concerned to improve the safety of disabled people. Accidents are worrying to us, more especially the relatively few tragic instances which involve serious injury or death. We learn from them whenever we can. In looking at accident statistics it is important to recognise one point of central importance. The figures relating to accidents involving tricycles published in this House and elsewhere are derived from a system of reporting which ensures that every accident involving damage to one of these vehicles, however slight, is recorded as an accident.

I am in an impossible position, Mr. Deputy Speaker because many important questions have been raised with me to which I would have liked to give a comprehensive reply. The hon. Member will appreciate that I have far too little time in which to reply. I shall be in touch with him about all the points he has raised with me, and I regret that it has not been possible to deal with them all today because of the shortage of time.