HELP FOR THE SICK AND DISABLED
THERE was an angry letter in one of the papers the other day complaining about Mrs Castle’s unwillingness to implement the full findings of the Finer Committee on one-parent families. This was a piece of despicable meanness, the writer argued, and it wouldn’t do the Government any good: in the end, public opinion would force them to act, so it was no use trying to hide behind excuses, such as the economic crisis, for their inaction. There has been a trace of this attitude in the response to the Government’s measures, announced last week, to introduce new cash benefits for the disabled and to provide a mobility allowance. Certainly it is quite true that these measures do not go as far as Labour demanded in opposition: Mr Alf Morris, now Minister for the disabled, was foremost in calling for a general disability income as of right and for special aid for incapacitated housewives. As it is, the Government has made a start with the disability income, but in a strictly limited way; and the housewives are excluded. Moreover, Labour demanded the end of the invalid three-wheeler, and the invalid three-wheeler is to stay. A man who sets out his principles and policies in opposition, and then finds himself translatect into office in the very department at which his demands have been directed, is always vulnerable to charges of this kind. Yet it ought surely to be apparent that meanness is the last thing which is holding back Mrs Castle over Finer or Mr Morris over disability income. Governments like spending money on good causes, especially at election time. The trouble is that the money has to be made available by the Treasury, and at present the Treasury has to scrutinise all spending with an even more baleful eye than usual. On that test, the Department of Health has not done so badly, either in this respect or in the general panorama of white-papers, green-papers, and other policy announcements which have been pouring out of Whitehall as the naming of election day approached. What the Government has done in each case is to identify a field for action and then deal with as much of it as the money will allow. The new cash benefits1 are directed towards the two groups adjudged to be most urgently in need of help. First, there are some 220,000 people under pension age who cannot workmost have never worked at all-and who are outside the aid of the national-insurance system. The whitepaper tells us that some 135,000 of them depend on supplementary benefit; another 15,000 cannot even get that, often because the burden is carried by their families. Some 70,000 more are long-stay patients of working age in psychiatric hospitals who have no national-insurance record. The cost of the E6 a week to be given to this group (60% of the standard benefit, to be paid without means-testing) is put at E7 million a year. Secondly, there are the people who give up work to care for sick relatives. Evidence from the 1. Social Security Provision for Chronically Sick and Disabled People. House of Commons Paper no. 276. H.M. Stationery Office, 34p.
records of payment of supplementary benefit suggest that there are 7500 women and 4000 men, which means the cost of their E6 a week will be Elmillion at least, and Ministers are braced for a substantial advance on that total. The first group are promised their money in 1975-76 and the second in 1976-77. The conspicuous absentees are the housewivesperhaps 40,000 of them-who are left with a promise of action soon: "the Government", says the white" is satisfied that a solution can be found and paper, will be working out detailed plans to be implemented on a phased programme once the other improvements are under way". That in itself is not nearly encouraging enough and is the more disappointing after the announcement of a pensions plan which so conspicuously advances women. But a rather more specific promise is likely to emerge between now and polling day. The essence of the proposals on mobility is that they overthrow the Sharp report, which basically commended putting disabled drivers on four wheels instead of three, in favour of making money generally available to increase the mobility of the disabled, whether they can drive or not. They finally remove the threat, which appeared in Sharp, that some people now eligible for vehicles might lose that eligibility: Mrs Castle described that suggestion last week as " cruel ", which hardly does justice to the straitjacket into which Lady Sharp was forced by her terms of reference. Some 100,000 people for whom vehicles are useless will benefit from the mobility grant, which will be set at E4 a week but subjected to tax. The cost of this proposal is E15 million, which is five times what the Sharp report would have cost: on the other hand, it is only about half what the benefits would have cost if the D.H.S.S. had been able to establish them on the scale which they considered desirable. The longstanding criticisms of the safety of the three-wheeler are not met by the Government’s decision: on the other hand, the allowance should enable those who do not like three-wheelers to switch to converted cars (the availability of these cars is one of several areas in which various consultations are promised) while enabling those who like them to stick to them. Conservative proposals for aid to the disabled were published on the same day as the Government’s and came to almost identical conclusions, though the Conservatives would count incapacitated housewives in from the start, while deferring judgment on whether to switch from cars to cash in the mobility field. Two other announcements this week also help to fill what had been until now a disquieting gap in the Government’s record. Action has been promised to get more disabled people into jobs; the law is clearly being treated with contempt by many employers, and policed with weary inefficiency by the Government itself. And, to the delight of Mr Jack Ashley, Mrs Castle’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, who has campaigned so long for it, the Government has announced its intention to set up an Institute of Hearing Research. Mr Ashley has long argued that research for the deaf has fallen behind research for other disabled people, particularly in the attention it has given to the totally deaf. DAVID McKIE.