Skip to main content

Special Child Allowance

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 23 January 1979

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

'In Chapter II of Part II of the principal Act (non-contributory benefits) the following is inserted after section 37A

"37B—(1) Subject to the provisions of this section a child aged over 2 but under 5 years shall be entitled to a special child allowance payable from the National Insurance Fund for any period throughout which he is suffering from physical disablement such that he is either unable to walk or virtually unable to do so.
(2) The circumstances in which a child is or is not to be treated for the purposes of this section as suffering from such physical disablement as is mentioned above shall be the circumstances prescribed by regulations for mobility allowance under Section 37A of this Act; but a person qualifies for the allowance only if—
  • (a) his inability or virtual inability to walk is likely to persist for at least 12 months from the time when a claim for the allowance is received by the Secretary of State; and
  • (b) during most of that time his condition will be such as permits him from time to time to benefit from enhanced facilities for locomotion.
  • (3) The weekly rate of a special child allowance shall be that specified in Schedule 4 to this Act, Part III, paragraph 3A for mobility allowance.
    (4) No child shall be entitled to a special child allowance except in prescribed cases, for any week before that in which a claim for the allowance by or in respect of him is received by the Secretary of State.
    (5) Except so far as may be provided by regulations, the question of the child's entitlement to a special child allowance shall be determined as at the date when a claim for the allowance is received by the Secretary of State.
    (6) A payment to or in respect of any child by way of a special child allowance, and the right to receive such a payment, shall (except in prescribed circumstances and for prescribed purposes) be disregarded in applying any enactment or instrument under which regard is to be had to a person's means.
    (7) Any regulations made by the Secretary of State under Section 37A of this Act shall apply to a special child allowance as they apply to a mobility allowance provided that no regulation restricting mobility allowance to persons over the age of 5 years shall apply to the special child allowance".'[Mr. Carter-Jones.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    8.14 p.m.

    I beg to move That the clause be read a Second time.

    I am very pleased to be the first Member to speak in this House to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary—the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who will take part in the debate—on the well-deserved honour that he has received. It is rather appropriate that I should be the first to congratulate him, as I am a very close friend of his.

    The new clause is primarily concerned with the age group 2 to 5 and mobility. I had a choice. I could have moved a variety of new clauses. For example, there are certain classes of the elderly who need mobility allowance but who will not receive it. I could have talked about the mentally handicapped who will not receive the allowance. I could have spoken about agoraphobics, who will not get mobility allowance. I could have spoken about the blind, who will not receive the allowance. This worries me intensely.

    However, I have chosen to base the new clause on the question of mobility allowance for children aged from 2 to 5. In reality, we face a great problem. The Government have made substantial sums of money available. I hope that the Opposition will agree with me when I say that vast sums of money have been made available for mobility.

    Those of us who belong to the all-party group will say "Yes, we agree with this". The difficulty was how to spread the load, how to spread the jam. It seems to me that we have made a tremendous step forward on mobility and that we have had to ask ourselves whether we should do it in depth or spread the money thinly. What we seem to have done is to choose a certain group of people who will be aided and to leave out others, such as the older age group, certain classifications of the mentally handicapped and the agoraphobics.

    I do not know quite how it can be done, but my new clause at least gives us the opportunity to have a debate on the subject. The purpose of the new clause is to debate the way in which we might spend the money and resources that are available. I have tried to pick out one group which appears to be the most important.

    I have no intention of pressing the new clause to a vote tonight, but I want the Government and the Opposition to state where their priorities lie. A substantial amount of money has been made available. If someone were to push me hard tonight, I would vote against my own Government.

    I believe that we can find the money from the national insurance fund. It is a device that the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) and I have used frequently. When we have been unable to get round the money resolution, we have gone back to the national insurance fund, which is one way of getting the money.

    The new clause involves greater public expenditure. What I want from the Government tonight is a statement of intent, a statement of priorities. It is very difficult for me to talk about the cost factor, because the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker)—I am tempted to say "my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey"—tabled a question in October 1976 to find out what would be the cost of providing a mobility allowance for those between the ages of 2 and 5 years. At that time the figure was £2 million. It could be argued that that figure has been overtaken by inflation. We could argue a whole host of factors, but I believe that that figure of £2 million still applies, for two basic reasons. First, the number of people involved has been reduced because of the fall in the birth rate. Secondly, demand has decreased because people are not taking up this benefit. Therefore, I think that the figure we are talking about is still £2 million.

    There are three basic reasons why I move this new clause. I cannot say that I speak as an ex-father, because I am still a father. I cannot say that I speak as an ex-grandfather, because I am still a grandfather. But I know, casting my mind back and even referring to the present, that one can somehow, male or female, cope with a baby up to the age of 2. At least one can carry a child of that age—although that gets more difficult as one gets older.

    When they reach the age of 5, children go to school. There is then a period when they are off one's hands—speaking as a mother, a father, a grandfather or a grandmother. But between the ages of 2 and 5, children are a grave burden if they are severely handicapped. I took my grandchildren shopping just before Christmas. They are very able-bodied. Perhaps they are a little too lively. They gave me a run around. But I would hate to have handled my grandchildren in Woolworth's, Marks and Spencer or Littlewoods had they been disabled.

    The first point that I make is that the 2 to 5-year-old severely disabled child who is not mobile presents a major problem for the mother, because of a lack of educational opportunity.

    The second point about the 2 to 5-year-old group is that before the age of 2 one can take a child to hospital with a reasonable amount of ease—ease in relative terms, because if one has a disabled baby, one has a problem. If children between the ages of 2 and 5 need medical treatment, one is faced with a very severe mobility problem.

    I make my third point rather reluctantly, but it is a truth of life. Normally, when a child is aged 5 and goes to school, there is an opportunity for the mother to go out to work to augment the family income.

    It is for those three reasons that I want a statement tonight from my right hon. Friend about the way in which he views the problem of the 2 to 5-year-old child and mobility. First, this is the age at which there is no real educational opportunity. Secondly, this is the sort of child that has to be taken to hospital frequently on the basis that there is a chance of rehabilitation. Thirdly, at this time the mother is denied the opportunity of earning money to augment the family income.

    I raise this matter in order to allow the House to have a debate and to find out where in the problem of priorities the Government place these people.

    The whole Opposition join the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) in congratulating the Under-Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). It is true to say that there cannot be anyone in this country who is not delighted at his elevation and tremendously grateful for the efforts that he has made—sometimes against some odds.

    The new clause has been moved by someone whom I regard very often as my hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Eccles. It concerns children between the ages of 2 and 5 who are disabled. We well understand the hon. Member having taken up the device—what I now call the myth—of the national insurance fund, and it has been used by the Opposition on some occasions to get the matter debated. It is right that we should discuss this issue in the House on these occasions, because we get few enough opportunities to do so.

    Of course, I understand that there is a very good case for the measure. There can be no question at all about that. The House will recall that several years ago, when we debated the money resolution on the mobility allowance, I raised the issue. At that time I too, was testing the strength of the proposal. We were all well aware of the tremendous burden that a disabled youngster places on a mother, in particular at a time when one expects an able-bodied youngster to be getting around on its own little feet and being able to amuse itself. One great problem is to keep a physically disabled toddler occupied during the hours of the day.

    There is no difference between the hon. Member for Eccles and Conservative Members. We all know that this is a real problem. I have seen this over many years, ever since I became involved with young disabled children in hospital, and we are gradually moving towards a solution to the problem.

    The first thing that we should look at is the availability, where it is totally needed, of the attendance allowance for children of this age. All children need attendance, but is it the sheer attendance about which we are talking rather than the mobility? I believe that there is a problem here.

    Another problem is that this matter has not been discussed for some time in the House. We shall, therefore, welcome the answers which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will give in responding to the debate.

    I must disagree with the hon. Member for Eccles that there are no educational opportunities for disabled toddlers. In many of the more recent cases that I have come across there are such opportunities, and I pay tribute to the Toy Libraries Association, which has begun to do so much for families with disabled youngsters. I hope that it will continue to do that very good work. However, the hon. Member for Eccles is right in saying that that does not remove the burden from the mother, because it still means that the mother has to get her child to the toy library in the first place. I thoroughly accept that.

    I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I hope that tomorrow morning Hansard will show that I entered a caveat—that a development is taking place which assists the mother, and that toy libraries, and so on, are helpful. I was suggesting that it will be some time before facilities are totally available for this group.

    I agree with the hon. Gentleman that none of these helpful facilities grows as fast as we would like. I believe that over the past few years there has been a change and a new awareness in the importance which society now, thankfully, places on the development of children who although physically disabled are mentally alert and have a great deal to give. Therefore, we should examine this problem from both the social and the educational point of view.

    I should be glad to hear from the Minister whether he has discussed the needs of the under-fives disabled children with his opposite number at the Department of Education and Science. In the last two years there have been a number of new pamphlets and debates about the needs of the under-fives. I believe that the specific needs of the under-fives, who can sometimes be accommodated in special schools for a short period of the day, are matters which the two Departments together would do well to explore.

    In saying that, I am conscious that the last published figure of cost for this group was small. I am led to believe that the Amelia Harris figures, on which the estimate of cost of £2 million in 1976 is based, are now considered to be out of date. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could provide us with the up-to-date costs that his Department must, surely, have worked out for extending the mobility allowance to this group of little people.

    We also need to know what range of facilities are already available. This is not to say that we do not place great importance on helping the mothers of these children, but there are always so many calls on the public purse, especially with regard to this Department, that we must make a decision whether this gets the top priority of the money available.

    8.30 p.m.

    Every week another worthwhile cause requests money. It may be for £1 million or for £500,000; it may be for much more. For my part, I believe that this is a group that is well up the list. But, in the stringent situation in which we presently find ourselves I do not believe that it can be a group to which we can devote funds. That is not to say that I do not want to see it happen, because I sincerely do. It is a step for the future, one which I hope we can continue to research perhaps a little more avidly than we have done in the last couple of years to see whether we can extend this allowance to the parents of toddlers when the time is right. Perhaps we might even be able to extend a percentage of the allowance, because it might be argued that toddlers do not need the full extent of the mobility allowance, as does an adult disabled person, in order to get around.

    In saying that, I do not want any hon. Member, least of all the hon. Member for Eccles, to feel that we shall not give this due consideration. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as well as agoraphobics, blind people feel that they have had nothing out of the health and social services kitty for a long while, and they also have put immense pressure on the right hon. Gentleman.

    In Committee we debated whether we should remove the upper limit for the receipt of mobility allowance. I know that every Government Minister receives daily requests for additional expenditure, just as we, either as constituency Members or as an Opposition, are asked to support many good causes. Therefore, I ask the Minister for more information. I should also like to know what can be done in conjunction with the other Departments concerned.

    One of the problems which confronts me more and more as a constituency Member is that many families with disabled children are more hampered by the lack of facilities for those children within their own homes than they are by the lack of outside mobility. We know that this should not be so, because there is the Joseph Rowntree family fund. That is worth mentioning tonight, because that might help some of those who look to this debate to solve their additional expense problems in respect of disabled children.

    For all the reasons that I have outlined, and in view of the many cases of genuine need to which we cannot yet give the funds that we would like, I believe that for the time being other cases will have a higher priority than the one outlined by the hon. Member for Eccles. The abiding duty, whether of this Government or the next one, is to get the economy in such a state that we can talk about additional funds for the disabled, and additional funds for this group. My one ambition may be to spend money, but in order to spend money the country must first earn it. That must be the top priority, because then 2 to 5-year-olds will be able to have their mobility allowance.

    I am grateful both to my hon. Friend and to the hon. Lady for their kind references to my appointment to the Privy Council. As my hon. Friend has made clear, his purpose in moving the new clause was to probe the Government's view about extending the mobility allowance to children between the ages of 2 and 5.

    I have noted the hon. Lady's request for an updating of the figures based on the Amelia Harris survey. However, meanwhile the cost is still estimated at around £2 million a year, and we expect about 4,000 disabled children to benefit. This was of course one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on civil liability and compensation for personal injury—the Pearson Commission—and the Government are giving very detailed consideration to those recommendations. The suggestion has also been made on a number of occasions and has been sympathetically examined, as are all suggestions for extending the scope of benefits to disabled people.

    Against a background of scarce resources, one is always faced with a difficult, indeed agonising, decision about competing priorities, and, without wishing to minimise the problems of families with handicapped children under 5, we have so far felt bound to give higher priority to the elderly, many of whom are left to cope with their difficulties as best they can. That is why clause 3 extends the age limits for the elderly at a cost over four years of £20 million a year. For the future the Government are still considering the Pearson report.

    The House will recall that the Commission also recommended a general benefit for all severely handicapped children. Over and above this, more and more people are pressing for a new general disablement benefit for all severely disabled people, adults and children alike. There are difficulties in designing benefits for particular and very deserving groups rather than adopting a comprehensive approach to all severely disabled people. These problems concern not only costs but such other difficulties as taxability, how disablement is assessed, and the relationship with other benefits. We are studying all the possibilities and options very carefully.

    It may be helpful to remind the House that in the three years since it was first introduced we have doubled the rate of mobility allowance from £5 to £10 a week. It was increased to £7 a week in November 1977 and to £10 a week in July 1978. Moreover, we have undertaken to review the rate of the allowance regularly every year. With the improvements that we have put forward in the Bill, expenditure on mobility allowance will reach £65 million in the financial year 1979–80 and £72 million in 1980–81. These are the latest figures available. By 1980–81 we shall have raised overall expenditure on mobility for the disabled to some £90 million a year.

    Many people will say that this is not enough, but it is certainly a considerable advance on the £13 million a year that was being spent when we took office in 1974. I know that the House will be glad to learn tonight that we are now paying the mobility allowance to over 100,000 people. The latest figures available to me show that 103,500 people are now in receipt of this important new allowance. As my hon. Friend is aware, there are strong pressures on the Government to extend the mobility allowance to many other categories of disabled people. They include the blind, the deaf blind, people suffering from epilepsy, the mentally handicapped and agoraphobics, all of whom have mobility problems even though physically they may be able to walk.

    This is one reason why I have so often said that in this long-neglected field I face infinite claims with only finite resources. There is no one in this House who appreciates the truth of that more than my hon. Friend and, indeed, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), who referred to Jonathan Bradshaw's work at York. We are looking at this paper carefully and especially the medical and statistical data. However, I must emphasise that the Government see the issue not so much as one of the individual merits of a particular case where children aged 2 to 5 should have the allowance but rather as one of priorities where we seek to establish whether children should take precedence over many other competing claims for an extension of the allowance. This is a most difficult decision for the Government and one that we shall continue to consider very carefully.

    I can assure my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady that we shall continue to do everything in our power further to promote the well-being of disabled people as a whole, and that in doing so we shall continually have in mind such claims for assistance as the one that has been made tonight.

    I hope that in the light of my reply my hon. Friend will not press his new clause.

    Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.