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Inland Revenue (Blind Employee)

Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 21 November 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.10 p.m.

I welcome the opportunity of raising the proposed dismissal by the Inland Revenue of a blind audio typist who lives and works in my constituency. I shall refer to her as Hilary, because she is a shy girl who shuns publicity. The Financial Secretary will recognise the case instantly because we have corresponded about it on several occasions.

I thank the Financial Secretary for agreeing to reply to this debate at short notice. Although I warned him on 28th September that I proposed to raise this matter on the Adjournment, there was no reason why he had to agree to a debate this evening because the main business of the House ran short. I am grateful to him for dragging himself from the bosom of his family to reply to the debate. I hope that his presence here and his agreement to reply tonight indicate his deep concern over the employment of disabled people by the Inland Revenue and a willingness to reconsider Hilary's case.

I am primarily concerned with the future employment of my constituent but broader principles are inevitably raised by Hilary's case. At the moment, the Government are urging private employers—quite rightly—to employ more disabled people. The Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Employment made a long speech at Southend in October on precisely that subject. It follows from that policy of encouraging employers to take on more disabled people that those who already employ them should keep them.

There is no advantage to the disabled if disabled people are recruited at the expense of existing, employed disabled people. In 1975 one of the Ministers at the Department of Employment said that the Government could be taking steps to promote the employment of more disabled people in the Civil Service. Since the Inland Revenue Department employs only 1·6 per cent. disabled people in the total of its staff, it is clearly a suitable target.

The Government's policy on the disabled, which I support, is one of integrating the disabled into the community. Public buildings are being adapted at public expense to facilitate access. A certain number of council houses are being built and suitably adapted for the disabled. Education rules are being changed to enable more disabled children to attend normal schools. Grants are available to employers to enable them to adapt their premises so that disabled people can go to work. The mobility allowance has been introduced to enable disabled people to get out and about and get to work.

The whole thrust of Government policy, supported by myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends, is to help the disabled to lead as nearly a normal and useful life as possible. It is against that background of enlightenment that I raise my constituent's case.

Hilary is aged 26 and has been totally blind all of her life. She is, therefore, different from others registered as blind but who can detect the difference between light and dark and see the outline of various objects. She is also different from those who are now totally blind but who have, at some point, been able to see. She has been fortunate in having parents who have sustained her for the whole of her life and have enabled her to overcome as many as possible of her disadvantages.

In 1971 Hilary attended a prevocational guidance centre run by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. She subsequently worked for the Inland Revenue, where she has been ever since. While serving at the Southall tax office, she successfully completed her typing and audio tests, grades one and two, the only tests she has had to take. Over the years her standard of work has improved, as one would expect, as she became more accustomed to her work. She is currently working in Hanger Lane not far from where she lives. Her parents can, if necessary, collect and deliver her to and from work.

The question of her future employment by the Inland Revenue has been hanging over her since 1975. I see from my file that the Financial Secretary wrote to me on 22nd February 1975 and that there has been prolonged correspondence between myself and him ever since, culminating in a letter to Hilary dated 3rd November 1978 which read:
"A recommendation that you should be prematurely retired on the grounds of inefficiency has now been submitted. A departmental retirement board under the chairmanship of the Assistant Director (Management) … will meet at 11 a.m. on Thursday November 30th."
That wording is highly unfortunate. There is no question of Hilary being inefficient.

I wish to ask to what extent a blind girl can do work to the same standard as sighted people. It is most unfortunate that disabled people should be accused of being inefficient. That is certainly not the case with Hilary. The issues I wish to raise were raised in a letter which the Financial Secretary wrote to me on 22nd September in which he said:
"I am afraid that we are in danger of crossing the boundary between the Inland Revenue's employment of Hilary and the general policy of Civil Service employment of the disabled in which my colleagues, the Minister of State for the Civil Service and the Minister for the Disabled, both have greater interests than I. As I see it, the Civil Service as a good employer takes on as many disabled persons as possible but, as I have said before, it does not offer sheltered employment and, although allowances are always made, the standards by which disabled persons are judged are in essence those obtaining for their more fortunate colleagues.
Having concluded that, in terms of output, Hilary is no more than 40 per cent. effective I do not see how the Inland Revenue can ignore the rules operated across the whole of the Civil Service employment field and continue to employ her."
That is the nub of the issue. To my mind, it is wrong that the Inland Revenue should employ the disabled only if they match the standards that obtain for their more fortunate colleagues. That does not seem to be a policy for the disabled. By definition, it will exclude a full range of disabled persons who could work but who would be disqualified under that criterion because their standards are not the same as those of able-bodied people. The Government, as a major employer, should be the setter of standards for others to follow. They should employ those who do not come up to the same standards as the able-bodied.

The details of Hilary's case are long and I shall not weary the House with them. However, I shall describe a morning that I spent at Hilary's place of work. Having talked to those who work with her in the typing pool and with those for whom she types, the impression that I received at the end of the morning was that all those persons at the tax office would like Hilary to stay. That is not merely because they feel that they have a responsibility to the disabled that they can discharge by helping her. It is because she is a friendly, likeable girl who gets on well with others.

I quote briefly from the letter that I wrote to the Financial Secretary describing how Hilary manages to cope at the office. I wrote:
"When I spoke to Hilary on her own"—
this is a letter that I wrote to the Financial Secretary on 1st September—
"she confirmed that all her colleagues at work were friendly and helpful and this has, of course, reinforced Hilary's desire to stay where she is.
Secondly, concerning the quality of her output, I agree that there are some defects. The most serious one seems to be what is technically known as 'ghosting' whereby the shadow of the letter re-appears a short space behind it. I believe that this is a technical problem, which could be overcome either by adjusting the typewriter, or by persuading Hilary to use another one. Otherwise, the quality of her work was beyond criticism, with the spelling and spacing being of a good standard. Concerning the quantity of her output, this again is considerably less than that of the other typists in the room. It is difficult to say exactly what percentage of their output she achieves, though it seemed to be between one-third and one-half. There are several reasons for this; Hilary spends more time than a fully-sighted person inserting the paper, lining it up, and making sure that she starts in the correct place. She also spends more time at the end of the letter, separating the carbons, and putting the completed work in the appropriate tray. Her actual typing is not too bad, but it is somewhat laborious. For those reasons there seems to be no doubt that her work is not as good as that of a fully-sighted person.
Thirdly, I do not believe that this constitutes adequate reason for her dismissal. I think that an enlightened employer, such as the Civil Service ought to be, should accept a degree of penalty in providing employment for the disabled."
That summarises the impression I had. I spent two or three hours at Hilary's place of work. I watched her typing and I spoke to others.

I do not deny that there have been problems. A blind person cannot undertake work that involves the typing of columns. There are obvious reasons—for example, difficulty in lining up the columns. Work for Hilary has to be selected to overcome that problem. However, that is a problem that an enlightened employer should be able to overcome.

Although Hilary has been invited to attend the meeting later this month, I hope that there are some straws at which I can clutch to try to save her job. The first straw appears in a letter that the Financial Secretary wrote to me on 7th November: It reads:
"If the Department takes any action following the Retirement Board hearing it will certainly be looked at again if the debate produces any major policy changes."
That is one indication. In a letter sent to me dated 24th October it is stated:
"If the outcome of any debate should be a material change of policy and Mrs. Rose has already left the service of the Inland Revenue, it will be possible to consider her reinstatement."
Basically, that is what I am on about this evening—the policy of the Inland Revenue.

The Minister is, of course, concerned with the future of the Inland Revenue and the impact that a modification of policy might have towards employment of disabled people in the Civil Service. I am concerned with the future of Hilary, a girl handicapped from birth by being totally blind but who, thanks to her own courage and the support, affection and patience of her parents, is now playing a useful part in society, doing useful work, paying taxes and leading as good a life as she possibly can.

If Hilary is sacked—and that is what is proposed at the moment—I wonder what the future holds for her. She may, of course, get compensation for dismissal and she may be entitled to unemployment benefit, but it is not a question of her then taking resources out of the community instead of, as at the moment, putting them in. Inevitably there will be a feeling or rejection, and bitter disappointment that after six years' work for the Government this is her reward.

I have talked to Hilary about the options put to me by the Minister—basically, sheltered employment of one kind or another—but, for reasons I fully understand, she is not interested. She is happy working where she is and her colleagues are happy. I think she is doing useful work and I do not see why she should be sacked.

I wish to put two points to the Minister. First, in the light of what I have said this evening, will he have urgent talks with the Minister with responsibility for the disabled and with his other colleagues at the Department of Employment and at the Civil Service Department, and ask them whether the policy of the Inland Revenue, as I have described it, is compatible with the policy of other Government Departments towards the disabled?

Secondly, will the Minister give an undertaking to the House that Hilary will not be dismissed until the policy which appears to be implemented in the Inland Revenue has been approved by those other three Government Departments, all of which have an interest in the employment of the disabled, and all of which, I believe, will be more sympathetic than the Treasury? At a time when the Government are spending money on persuading employers to alter their premises to take on more people, it seems a nonsense that a Government Department should be trying to sack a disabled person.

I leave the Minister with this final point. At a time when a worker at Vauxhall who sleeps when he should be working is sacked and then finds that his job is ordered by a tribunal to be reinstated, what sense does it make to deprive a girl such as Hilary of her job, and what sort of society is it when we have standards of that sort?

9.22 p.m.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and I have been in correspondence for a considerable time on this very serious matter concerning someone who is obviously a very pleasant young lady and who has the advantage of having the hon. Gentleman as her Member of Parliament. I can assure anyone who has had any connection with this case that he has been most assiduous in dealing with all the various aspects of the problem.

I agreed to this Adjournment debate because I knew how strongly the hon. Gentleman felt about the case, because I had invested a considerable amount of time in examining personally the large number of records built up over a long period of time, and because of the various discussions that I have with the hon. Gentleman and with my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the disabled.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this matter concerns a young lady who, before joining the Inland Revenue in 1972, approached the Royal National Institute for the Blind for training as a typist. The institute considered her to be unsuitable for training. Her parents—who are obviously devoted and dedicated parents, anxious to do their utmost for their daughter—arranged for her to have private tuition. Although she was tested prior to engagement with the Inland Revenue and failed to reach the required standard, the Department nevertheless engaged her. She spent about two years, I understand, in a small local tax office in Southall.

The main problem of this sad case was explained in the letter of 27th November 1974 from the employment service, which said:
"As I suspected, the real difficulty arises from the cause of her visual handicap and not from blindness itself. It seemed strange to me that a visually handicapped girl … had not been trained by the Institute as an audio typist if she had real potential for this type of work. The fact that she was then accepted for training privately caused me to have further doubts about her ability to pursue typing as a career successfully. I have now had confirmation that Miss Belton was a victim of retrolental fibroplasia, having been born prematurely and kept alive in an oxygenated incubator. Unfortunately, she was one of the few babies who, as a result of this treatment, suffered from a lack of co-ordination of movement. In only a few cases has it been possible for the Institute to train such youngsters either as typists or telephonists. Miss Belton did attend RNIB Training College for suitability test and assessment in July 1972 but was unfortunately found to be unsuitable as she was completely unable to make the mental calculations needed for tabulation purposes etc."
I mention this because, although it did not form the basis for what happened subsequently, it gives some of the background. Although Hilary passed the typing and audio tests in 1972 and 1973 respectively, her work was considered unsatisfactory and the Department concluded that she would perhaps benefit from being in a larger typing pool.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a number of these changes took place because the Inland Revenue was anxious to find some kind of niche for her where she would get satisfaction from knowing that she was able to do the job that other blind typists in not dissimilar situations do.

The Inland Revenue, in common with other Government Departments, has considerable experience of dealing with those who suffer disabilities—blindness as well. It has a fair number of blind audio typists. Comparison was made not, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, between one who has this disadvantage and one who has not, but between people with the same kind of disability.

The question that we must ask is: how far short of the standards attained by those who have no sight did Hilary fall? That kind of comparison obviously needs to be made, and every assistance is and was given in this case to try to bring the work up to the requisite standard.

As I said, following the tests, Hilary's work was found to be unsatisfactory and the Department thought that she would be better off in a larger pool. Therefore, she was transferred to the Estate Duty Office in July 1974, but her output there was about half of what was expected of a blind typist. We have never sought to make the comparison between somebody with a disability and somebody without a disability. We try to compare those with the same disability.

After that period Hilary was told that she would be on trial for a further six months and that if her work proved that she was unable to reach a satisfactory standard consideration would have to be given to the termination of her employment. In 1976, when improvement had not taken place, she was told that the Department was considering termination of her employment.

Another aspect here is the length of time that passed between these various decisions being considered and their final conclusion. That shows the determination, hope and expectation that some method of reconciling these problems might be found. It is illustrative of what might be considered a humane attitude by those concerned, and I thank them for their efforts.

Unfortunately, as I said, Hilary was unable to reach the necessary standard. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the disabled was informed. I believe that the hon. Gentleman, together with Hilary's parents, met the Minister in April 1976. Eventually, it was agreed that the Royal National Institute for the Blind should be asked to advise on Hilary's employment as a typist and that the Employment Service Agency should take the initiative. In July 1976 officials of the RNIB visited the Ealing tax office, watched Hilary at work and had discussions with her. Later they recommended that she should be considered for a course of audio typing training. But after tests there the conclusion reached was that she would be unable to achieve a satisfactory commercial standard. We have throughout tried to obtain objective evidence and to find some kind of assessment that might run counter to what we met.

The RNIB did not leave matters there. On 31st March 1977, it wrote:
"we have given further thought to Hilary's needs and we believe that Hilary might derive some benefit from a course designed to meet her particular requirements at our Employment Rehabilitation Centre".
Hilary was given special leave to attend the rehabilitation centre for about three months. After extensive testing, the experts at that centre concluded that she could not be recommended for employment as an audio-typist. Once again, outside evidence supported the Inland Revenue's conclusions. Following her return to duty in November 1977, she was advised that her overall performance had been assessed as unsatisfactory and that she was definitely not up to her duties and she and her father were invited to a meeting at which her future employment could be discussed.

It is clear that we have sought throughout to find ways of suggesting alternative employment or helping Hilary to improve her standards. The Inland Revenue is currently employing many other blind typists in offices similar to those in which Hilary has worked. A great deal of experience and expertise has been called upon to ensure that a fair assessment has been made of her capacity and potential. This has been further supplemented by information obtained from the Minister with responsibility for the disabled.

We did not wish to terminate the appointment on the ground of inefficiency without first endeavouring to find alternative employment. Hilary's insistence that she should be employed as a typist is a cause for concern in view of the expert assessments of the RNIB. Recent examples of her work have been looked at by myself and others. We can see her problems and are unable to find a way out, just as the RNIB was unable to find a solution.

I had a full report from the RNIB. It said:
"Hilary came to this unit"—
that is the employment rehabilitation centre—
"with a view to being assessed for work as an audio typist. I do not feel justified in giving such a recommendation. Although it is fair to say that Hilary has given of her best during her stay at this unit, I believe that competitive audio typing work is rather beyond her capabilities … In the long term I feel that it would not be in Hilary's interests to pressurise her into competing in an employment field which is beyond her capabilities. My own opinion is that she should be placed in a work situation which is within her capabilities as I feel that she may otherwise feel the effects of stress within the next few years … Hilary's manual dexterity is poor and her fingers very inflexible: she types with them stuck out stiffly and cannot keep them curled over the home keys."
I do not want to go into the report in great detail because one thing that shines out from all the information that I have is Hilary's very pleasant personality and the way she has won the affections of everyone she has met. The way in which the whole matter has proceeded in the past few years is an indication that there has been no tension between her and the people working with her, but rather a friendliness which is suggestive of a happy atmosphere deriving from her and her relationships with her colleagues.

The usual procedure in such cases is to set up a retirement board. This has been done and the board will consider the case on Thursday 30th November. I understand that the hon. Member for Acton and his secretary will attend on Hilary's behalf, together with her father and a representative of the Inland Revenue staff federation. The board generally consists of three members from the management side. The chairman is an assistant secretary from personnel division and the others are the regional personnel officer, at principal level, and the assistant group controller, inspector higher grade, for the region in which Hilary is employed.

The proceedings are normally informal, as their purpose is to consider the written material in the form of reports, and so on, which are put forward by the management, along with any consideration which the employee attending may wish to put forward. On that basis a recommendation is made to the chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue concerning dismissal or early retirement.

In normal circumstances persons outside the Department, such as the hon. Gentleman, are not usually invited to attend. But a concession was felt reasonable in the circumstances of this case in view of the hon. Gentleman's long-standing involvement in it. If the employee should disagree with the recommendation of the retirement board she will, of course, have the right of appeal to the Civil Service Department appeal board or, subsequently, to an industrial tribunal.

What I have said is an illustration of how the Civil Service seeks to integrate those who are disabled and to make allowances for certain disabilities which they may have. In particular, blindness being one of the most severe disabilities, we naturally try to fulfil our obligations here as in other matters. I believe that the Civil Service has done that.

The Civil Service Department could, of course, give much fuller information about the general aspect of assistance. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the more general point, obviously that would be the normal way in which to proceed. I can only go into those areas which are my responsibility. I believe that the Civil Service has done its utmost in examining the work and circumstances affecting Hilary's employment. It has made this examination as sympathetically as it could, with the desire to retain important elements of efficiency and at the same time to provide some sort of long-term suitable work environment for Hilary herself.

Will the Minister respond to the point which I made at the end of my remarks, and establish with his colleagues who have responsibility for the employment of the disabled—the Secretary of State for Employment, the Minister with responsibility for the disabled and the Minister of State, Civil Service Department—whether the policy which is now being applied to Hilary is compatible with Government statements to private employers about employment of the disabled? If not, will he consider amending the policy within the Inland Revenue so that his policy, which I believe to be out of line, is brought into line with enlightened employment outside?

With my experience of industry, I know of no case where such a matter would have lasted so long over so many years, with the examination of various possibilities of employment, testing, assistance and opportunities to extend one's abilities and skills in the way that we have seen in this case. This case has seen the Civil Service doing its utmost to try to achieve what it rightly felt ought to be achieved if at all possible. What we are dealing with here is, unfortunately, not a successful conclusion. No one can doubt that. But the willingness to try to seek success is clearly visible, and those concerned ought to be thanked for their efforts in this matter. Of course, at this stage we must await the outcome of the retirement board.

Question put and agreed to.

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