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Mobility Help(Mrs Maureen Towner)

Volume 959: debated on Thursday 30 November 1978

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

11.51 p.m.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the case of Mrs. Maureen Towner, of Whitehawk, Brighton, and her mobility problem.

Mrs. Towner is 23 and tragically contracted polio when only three months old. As a result, she has extensive residual paralysis, has little use of her arms and hands, and walks with great difficulty and relies on a wheelchair and a three-wheel vehicle. She spent her childhood at Chailey Heritage, trained as a typist and went into full-time employment. She married her husband, Ted, in March 1977 and they were fortunate to have a fine, healthy daughter born to them three months ago.

In June I received a letter from Mr. Patrick Phelan, who is the co-ordinator of services for people with handicaps for the East Sussex county council social services department, Brighton division. He used these words:
" It is generally agreed that Mrs. Towner is well adjusted to the limitations imposed by her disability and that within them she maintains an impressively independent way of life. By using her mouth and teeth for a number of tasks for which we able-bodied people use our hands and arms, she is almost completely self-reliant."
I have the greatest respect for Mrs. Towner. She is a lady of great courage and determination who has done everything possible to overcome the immense handicaps that she has faced in order to lead as normal a life as possible with her family. At present she has a three-wheel vehicle issued in 1976, and clearly its useful life is limited. But now she is, in effect, a prisoner in her own home. Five days a week, from the time her husband leaves for work in the early morning until he returns in the early evening, she cannot use that three-wheeler because, under the law, she cannot take her baby into that car with her.

What about her baby daughter Emma? We are talking not only about the future happiness and well-being of Mrs. Towner but about another life, a young innocent life. What about Emma's future? What about her opportunities for full development and for a full life? Without some form of transport that Mrs. Towner may use with Emma, that young lady will face even greater disadvantages and difficulthan the family now faces. She, with her mother, will be a prisoner in the flat five days a week.

What will happen when the time comes for Emma to go to nursery school and so on through the school system? The difficulties and problems faced by the Towner family will be immense.

It was in April 1978 that Mrs. Towner contacted me and my correspondence began with the Minister. I made it clear in the correspondence that Mrs. Towner urgently needed a four-wheel car fully adapted for use by herself and Emma. In a letter of 9th May, the Minister wrote:
" Much as I sympathise, however, I am afraid that there is no way in which the Department can provide her with a passenger carrying vehicle.…You may recall that David Ennals announced in the House of Commons on 6th December 1977 the setting up under Lord Goodman of a new independent voluntary organisation called Motability. Motability is itself responsible for deciding how to fulfil its aims with the advice of the disabled and their spokesmen and the collaboration of the Department. One of Motability's aims will be to enable disabled people to have the personal use of a car by means of a leasing scheme ".
That seemed to offer some hope, so I began to make further inquiries. I came across a press release issued by Motability dated 15th June 1978. It bore the grand heading
" Disabled To Get First Cars In £100 Million Scheme."
It stated:
" Lord Goodman announced the start today of a scheme to be operated by a new organisation called Motability to assist disabled people to procure the maximum benefit for the new mobility allowance. The scheme being introduced enables disabled people to lease new cars through the new organisation which is supported by the Government."
The Minister used the following words:
" Today's announcement heralds an important further advance for disabled people."
That was encouraging and exciting, and I began to dig a little deeper. To my horror, I found that Motability would not be able to help Mrs. Towner. That was because Mrs. Towner was too disabled to be helped. In a series of letters from Motability to Mrs. Towner, there were included the following paragraphs:
" The adaptations necessary to make a car suitable for your use would be so extensive that they would cause major structural alteration to a car, and this is not practicable when the car is leased."
In a further letter it was stated:
" At the end of the lease, the person surrenders the car and can apply for a new leased car. The cars have to go back on the market and this can only be done if the adaptations are relatively straightforward. Even so the car has to be restored to its original state and the cost of restoration paid for by the lessee."
That meant that Motability was unable to offer any help to Mrs. Towner. That was because the cost of adapting the car initially would be at least £1,000, and it was suggesting that in four years' time it would have to be readapted to its original state, which would cost another £1,000. The life of the car for Mrs. Towner would probably be between eight and 12 years rather than four years. A commercial concern virtually writes off the value of a car over four or five years.

We were in the terrible position that, because Mrs. Towner faced these grave disabilities, Motability was unable to help her, yet under the earlier scheme run by the Minister's own Department Mrs. Towner would have received a four-wheel car, it would have been adapted by the Department and it would have been fully available to her and her family. I find this position quite incredible.

I hope and believe that the Minister will tell the House something tonight to show that this family is to be helped. The Minister has a great record in the service of the disabled, and I appeal to him. He is a very humane man who has devoted a great deal of his parliamentary time, work and effort during the years he has served in this House to work for those less fortunate than himself. I am sure that he sees the strength of this case. I believe it is a very rare one. I look to the Minister to use every opportunity available to him—all the influence and all the authority of his Department—to give this family a chance.

12 midnight

I listened very carefully and sympathetic- ally to the speech with which the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) opened the debate. His genuine concern for disabled people is widely appreciated in the House, and he is understandably seeking the best possible mobility help for his constituent. He is right to do this, and he has put his viewpoint with all his customary conviction and sincerity.

The hon. Member and I have been in correspondence about Mrs. Towner's difficult problem and I am glad now to have the opportunity to speak about her case in greater detail. There can be no doubt that her circumstances are very compelling. Moreover, the way in which she has risen to the challenge of severe handicap is both admirable and exemplary. We have heard from the hon. Gentleman that she is a product of Chailey Heritage. That is an institution for which I have long had the highest regard. It is a place which I have visited and know well. My regard for Chailey Heritage is further increased by Mrs. Towner's triumph over severe handicap. I am sure that anyone knowing of her problem would feel an immediate and natural desire to do everything possible to help her.

Fortunately, I believe that there is now hope that Mrs. Towner's problem can be solved. Indeed, I am optimistic that a solution can be found in the fairly near future. Before dealing with her case in any more detail, however, I must try to put it in the context of our general policy on outdoor mobility help for disabled people.

Until 1976, the main form of mobility help was the invalid tricycle. The old scheme had many critics and it would be wrong for anyone to paint too idyllic a picture of its provisions. For example, help was strictly confined to those who were able to drive. It was a scheme which did nothing for the disabled passenger. This exclusion was bitterly criticised by major organisations of and for disabled people.

The old scheme's exclusion of people who were too severely disabled to drive was described as a"cruel anomaly"by the chairman of the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled. That is an organisation which brings together over 20 national organisations in the disablement field, including such major and respected bodies as the Disabled Drivers' Association and the Disabled Drivers' Motor Club. The old scheme was also attacked for other very serious failings. One was the withdrawal of cars from young disabled mothers when their children reached the age of 14. Another was the rule that, under category 3 of the scheme, many disabled people had their vehicles taken away from them when they gave up work or retired.

In 1976 the mobility allowance was introduced, reflecting a new policy of cash provision to meet mobility needs. Cash provision is both more equitable—it goes to the driver and to the non-driver alike —and more flexible, in that recipients can use it in the way which best suits their particular needs. As the House knows, the introduction of the mobility allowance has been widely and warmly welcomed by disabled people and their principal organisations. They would, of course, like to see further improvements in mobility help, and so would I.

Yet we should remember how substantial are the improvements which have already been made. In the last full year before the mobility allowance was introduced, 50,000 people received help under the old invalid vehicle scheme at a cost of £13 million a year. The mobility allowance now stands at £10 a week and is being paid to 96,000 people. This figure excludes all those who have retained an old scheme benefit. The allowance will be inflation-proofed from November 1979. Under the terms of a Bill which is now before Parliament we shall allow an estimated additional 20,000 disabled women to receive the allowance. I refer to the 60 to 65 age group. By the end of 198081 our expenditure on outdoor mobility help is expected to be £89.7 million a year. That is seven times more than was being spent in 1974-75. When the allowance is fully phased in, we expect to have 145,000 recipients compared to the 50.000 who received help before its introduction.

The hon. Gentleman is, however, concerned with the problem of an individual disabled person, and I now turn to Mrs. Towner's case. She suffers, as we have heard, from the effects of poliomyelitis. She has an ineffective left arm and only very limited movement in her right arm. Her legs are affected to the extent that her walking ability is also severely re- stricted. It was the limitation of her walking ability which entitled her to a three-wheeler under the old invalid vehicle scheme.

Mrs. Towner was supplied with an electrically powered vehicle which had to be modified extensively to make it suitable for foot steering. She used that vehicle for two years or so and then relinquished it. Then, to her great credit, in 1976 she asked whether she could be supplied with a petrol engined three-wheeler as she felt that driving such a vehicle was within her capabilities. Again, very extensively modified to allow her to control it with her feet, a petrol-engined tricycle was issued to Mrs. Towner in 1976. She has been using that vehicle without mishap ever since, and I have no doubt whatever that it has enhanced enormously the quality of her life. I have no doubt, either that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, within the bounds of approved arrangements, my Department has gone to considerable lengths, and rightly so, to help Mrs. Towner to achieve independent mobility.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Mrs. Towner now has a three-month old baby and, although her three-wheeler still gives her independent mobility, she cannot carry her baby with her in the invalid tricycle. To do so would contravene the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations.

The hon. Gentleman has correctly pointed out that, under the pre-1976 invalid vehicle scheme, certain limited categories of people could be issued with a car instead of a three-wheeler. These categories included a parent in sole charge for a substantial part of the day of a child under 14 years of age. I must emphasise that it is not by any means certain whether, if Mrs. Towner had had her baby before the old scheme ended, my Department could have issued her with a car instead of a three-wheeler. As the arrangements no longer exist, this point has not been tested. We do not know whether Mrs. Towner would have met the criteria, although I accept that it is possible that she would have met the criterion of sole charge. There is, however, another point which would have had to be considered, and that is whether she would actually have been able to drive a car. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am assuming in this debate that Mrs. Towner could drive a car, but it is important to remember that we do not know that for certain.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that an exception to the present scheme should be made in favour of his constituent. I am sure he recognises that if that could be done, in equity the same treatment would have to be afforded to others. It is extremely difficult to draw a line round one group of people and say that they alone will receive a particular benefit. Before the arrangement for the issue of cars to certain three-wheeler users was stopped in 1976, 600 or more cases a year arose, and there was constant pressure to extend the categories of eligibility.

I am certain that to revert to the old scheme, with all its anomalies and failings, would be a wrong step to take. We cannot simply breathe new life into a scheme which was stopped nearly three years ago and which was, in so many respects, inferior to the present scheme. As I have already pointed out, the old scheme involved making invidious distinctions between people. There were those between the driver and the non-driver, and those between the vast majority who had three-wheelers and the minority who had cars. In this context, had Mrs. Towner been very slightly more disabled, so that she could not drive at all, under the old scheme she would have received no help at all. Some would say that an even more objectionable feature of the old scheme was that, while a parent in sole charge of a child could be issued with a car, it was withdrawn and replaced with a three-wheeler when the child reached the age of 14, or soon thereafter.

Rather than look backwards to a scheme which has now quite rightly been superseded, I hope that we can look forward to a new solution to the problems facing Mrs. Towner and others in her position. This is where the organisation Motability might help. Perhaps in a moment I can say a little more about Motability and the help that it can provide.

The hon. Gentleman's concern is with whether Motability can help his constituent. I have to make it clear, of course, that Motability is an independent voluntary body and that it would be wrong for me to interfere in its affairs. But both as Minister responsible for the disabled and a patron of the organisation, I am naturally in close touch with Motability and I know that it is very sympathetic to the problems facing Mrs. Towner and others like her. It has concentrated its efforts so far o launching the leasing scheme, because in this way it can help most people most quickly. Yet there are considerable difficul'2s about providing through the leasing scheme the sort of car which Mrs. Towner would need. It would be a car requiring very extensive modifications, and an integral part of the leasing scheme is the resale of cars at the end of the lease. Clearly, a car for Mrs. Towner would not fit at all readily into such a scheme.

Motability now tells me that Mrs. Towner's case is exactly the sort of case that would lend itself to hire purchase rather than leasing. Planning of a hire purchase scheme is now well advanced and Motability expects to launch it in the early part of next year. For some people the hire purchase scheme, like the leasing scheme, will need to be supplemented by funds raised by Motability itself. This is why, although I cannot make any commitment for Motability, I was able to say at the beginning of my speech that I was optimistic. While Motability is already aware of Mrs. Towner's position, I have no doubt that it will study the hon. Member's speech tonight and will be anxious to help both his constituent and others in a similar position just as soon as it can. I hope that the hon. Member will find this new information reassuring.

I am grateful for what the Minister has said. I hope that he will pursue this very strongly with Motability, because I am sure that cases such as Mrs. Towner's are rare. Would it be possible for the Department to find a very small sum—I mean a very small sum—to help with the cost of the special adaptations which would be needed in the few cases involving cars of the type which Mrs. Towner would need?

I am grateful to the lion. Gentleman. It is difficult for me to go further tonight than I have done. 1 mentioned that although I am a patron of Motability, it is not for me to interfere in its affairs, but the hon. Gentleman can clearly draw encouragement from what I have said. I am certain that his speech and what he has just said will be read with considerable care by Motability.

Before concluding this short debate I want to enlarge a little upon the mobility allowance scheme and the role of Motability. One of the advantages of the mobility allowance scheme is that it enables disabled people to make their own choice. Undoubtely, many of them want to use the cash that we provide to help to run a car. It is for this reason that Motability was set up with a great deal of help and support from my Department. Motability has already made considerable progress and deserves both our appreciation and respect. So far, it has concentrated on getting off the ground—or perhaps, more aptly, on the road—a scheme under which recipients of mobility allowance can not only lease a new car for three or four years but can have it serviced and maintained in return for their mobility allowance. Where the applicant wants or needs a more expensive car than the BL Mini 1000 manual, or requires adaptations to the car, the extra cost has to be met by an initial payment. Motability has launched an appeal to raise funds to help those who cannot afford to meet this payment by themselves.

There is already strong evidence that the scheme is meeting a real need and is popular with disabled people. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the remarks of his right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) on 21st November. The right hon. Gentle. man believes, as I and many others do, that Motability is doing a first-class job.

Finally, I think it fair to refer to a broader context still. In all, since taking office, the Government have increased spending on the disabled to £2,000 million a year, and this during a period of immense pressure on resources. While much more needs to be done—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is certainly the case—it is a record of achievement, particularly in terms of the growth of expenditure on outdoor mobility help. We shall be pleased to build on the progress that we have made as quickly as priorities and resources allow.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.