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Training For The Mentally Handicapped: Charges

Volume 416: debated on Tuesday 20 January 1981

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2.46 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that some local authorities are charging mentally handicapped people as much as £2 per week for attendance at adult training centres, while other authorities make no charge, and whether steps will now be taken to abolish these charges as the pocket money paid to each of them from their earnings averages only £1·75 per week.

My Lords, these matters are entirely for the discretion of local authorities who, in determining whether or not to make charges and, if so, the amount, are required to have regard to the means of the mentally handicapped people concerned. I understand that the local authority associations are at present examining the possibility of devising basic ground rules which could be adopted by all local authorities when assessing clients for charges. The Government's view is that authorities should not charge people living at supplementary benefit level.

Yes, my Lords. But is my noble friend not aware that it is quite absurd to have all the palaver of finding out how much private means mentally handicapped people in adult training centres possess, because very few of them ever have any private means? Is it not time that we changed from a system which so much discourages them in their attempts to get trained for work and enabled to earn a very modest amount, which is then taken away from them by some authorities, but not by others? Should we not change the system altogether now?

My Lords, the views of my noble friend will, I am sure, be of great interest to my right honourable friend, but, as I said, the position is that it is for local authorities to decide on these matters. As my noble friend said, local authorities vary in the way they do this and I do not think it would be right, and it would not be the Government's philosophy, to interfere with local arrangements which, on the whole, work well.

My Lords, while acknowledging the good work done by the adult training centres in so many parts of the country, may I ask whether it is not most important that the widest publicity be given to the views which the Government have just declared on this matter? Would not the Government consider in cases of genuine hardship that some ex gratia repayment be made to some of the people who have wrongfully been charged, when people in other parts of the country have been allowed to have the benefits of these training centres without any cost whatever?

My Lords, I hate to repeat myself, but the arrangements are that local authorities are responsible for these matters and it is up to them not to charge unfairly. Certainly the Government take the view that nobody on supplementary benefit should be charged, and local authorities should make sure that they are not causing hardship. It is their business, and I feel sure that my noble friend is in a very good position to get in touch with any local authorities which are not doing what he thinks is right.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that the reply which the Government have given on this matter is totally unsatisfactory? When an anomaly of this kind exists, the Government cannot run away from their responsibility and say that this is a matter for local authority associations. Surely the Government should give a directive that when a stupidity and absurdity of this kind exists, it should stop? Surely it is the Government's responsibility?

My Lords, as I tried to indicate in my first answers, the local authorities have complete discretion in these matters. But the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities are currently examining the possibility of devising basic ground-rules which could be adopted by all local authorities when assessing clients for charges. This is currently going on, and I think we should leave the authorities to carry on with their work. If it is unsatisfactory, then we can see what can be done.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us are entirely happy that these decisions should be left to local authorities, provided that the local authorities take the right decisions? When the local authorities take decisions which are manifestly wrong, then we are not quite so happy.

My Lords, I understand very well. We should all like to live in Utopia.

My Lords, in the meantime, would it be possible to publish a list of the authorities which are making these charges? They might be ashamed to see their names on the list, bearing in mind the lack of humanity and commonsense in the circumstances, as the noble Lord has said, in the making of these charges.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord's point will certainly be taken on board.

My Lords, in view of the question asked by the noble and learned Lord, and also in view of my noble friend's earlier suggestion that we should consult the local authorities, may I point out that I have a little list? We have consulted all the local authorities and the Question which I tabled was based upon the answers. Therefore, while thanking my noble friend for the interest he has taken in this matter, may I persuade him to carry it a stage further, with a view to ending this ridiculous system?

I think perhaps, my Lords, that my noble friend and I might get together on this matter afterwards.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will be aware that, under the new supplementary benefits arrangements, regulations are being formulated to avoid discrepancy in payments in other fields. Would not the noble Lord think this would be equally advisable for local authorities and that clear directives, after consultations with local authorities, ought to be issued in order to clarify this point and to create uniformity, one would hope, on the basis of a zero payment?