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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that you had the good fortune to miss most of Friday's rather boring debate, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and which was enlivened only by the chairman of the Conservative party, who masquerades as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on these occasions, admitting that there had been a mistake in that the authorities allowed a Conservative Central Office official to occupy the Civil Servants' Box. The right hon. Gentleman said :

"I have already said that I apologise to the House if there was a mistake. There should not have been an official from central office in the Civil Servants Box and he has withdrawn from that position."-- [Official Report, 19 January 1990 ; Vol. 165, c.558.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker was good enough to say that he would initiate inquiries as to whether the Cabinet Office or any other Department had written to the House authorities requesting permission for the Conservative Central Office official to occupy the Civil Servants' Box. I wonder whether the outcome of those inquiries is now known and whether, Mr. Speaker, you can assure the House that there will not be a repetition of Friday's events.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : Order. Allow me to deal with the first point of order, please.

Mr. Skinner : It is on the same point.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I do not care that it is at the moment. The matter was reported to me and I have carefully studied Hansard . I have received a letter of apology from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who accepts personal responsibility for the fact that a Conservative party official was on the list for the Civil Servants Box and was admitted to that Box. I was asked about security. I am satisfied that there was no breach of security at any stage. As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has now apologised to me, in addition to the apology that he made to the House on Friday, I regard the matter as having been dealt with as far as I am concerned.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that during the debates on the English revenue support grant last week the Opposition were challenged to state their policy. We have had no reply. In the newspapers this morning we have had a sign that the Labour party wants a property tax which might be levied on separate people in the same household. As the Opposition chose not to say on Thursday what is to be their policy, may we have a statement from them so that we may question them on this important subject and find out exactly what they believe?

Mr. Speaker : I have not studied the whole of Friday's debate, but I am surprised that the matter did not arise then.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). Would you Mr. Speaker, rule further on the matter? It is unsatisfactory

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and out of order that a clear, gross abuse has been committed deliberately. Surely it is not enough for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster simply to apologise. The House is entitled to an explanation of how the abuse happened. What happened was part of a pattern of the blurring of lines between the Government and party, which is no accident. We want, and I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, want from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster something more than an apology which is, in effect, an apology for being caught.

Mr. Speaker : I have looked into the matter with great care. I received a full apology from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in which he explained exactly what happened. I accept that apology. The way in which we deal with each other in matters of this kind implies that if an apology has been given we should accept it.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will agree that your job is to maintain the dignity of the House and its central role in our political affairs. I hope that, like me, you consider that it does not add to our dignity when either the Government or the Opposition deliberately refuse to reveal a policy or fact to the House which is known to them. A major debate last week was held in a vacuum because the Labour party refused to reveal its policy on the new local property tax based on the capital value of houses. Just four days later it revealed its policy. How is that consistent with the dignity of the House?

Mr. Speaker : The House will accept that I am not responsible for the policies of either the Government or the Opposition.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Are you, Mr. Speaker, not surprised that someone as experienced as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should seek to introduce a member of Central Office into the Civil Servants' Box? After all these years, one would have thought that he would be aware that that clearly was not in order. In his apology, which is easy enough to give, did he explain why the incident arose in the first instance? What sort of security exists behind your Chair? After all, your back needs to be protected. We must make sure that people from Central Office do not creep into the Box.

Mr. Speaker : I am concerned for my back. I have checked and I think that it is safe. I have received a full apology from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and I have nothing more to say on the matter.

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. We accept each other's apologies in this House. Mistakes can happen, even here.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South) : Further to the points of order raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett). You Mr. Speaker, will recall that during that debate the Minister of State was interrupted and challenged when he said that certain Labour authorities misuse their powers to the detriment of the intended community charge. It has been brought to my notice today by the leader of the Conservative minority in Nottingham county council that the Labour authority seeks to increase spending in that county by over £100 million in order to push the

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community charge beyond what is reasonable in anybody's book. Is there no way in which the House can protect my constituents from such conduct by Labour authorities?

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman must do that himself. It is not a matter for the Chair.

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I have nothing more to say on the matter. An apology has been received and I have accepted it.

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : How is it that Tory Members can get in to speak?

Mr. Speaker : Order. I cannot call the hon. Gentleman every time he attempts to intervene on a point of order. He got in on Friday. Mr. Skinner rose--

Mr. Speaker : Is this a different point of order?

Mr. Skinner : No, it is not.

Mr. Speaker : Then I cannot hear it. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to sit down.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. I have nothing more to say. I have accepted the apology.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not deeply unsatisfactory that named public figures are, by implication, under a cloud of suspicion, seemingly for having done something wrong? Is it not a pity, therefore, that you may not have received a request from the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General or the Minister for the Civil Service at least to clarify the assertion by Mr. John Stalker that the letters "RA" stand for either Armstrong or Robert Andrew? Should not the House of Commons be told exactly what the Government know about Mr. Stalker's assertions on this delicate matter which is of increasing public anxiety, and rightly so?

Mr. Speaker : I heard what the Minister for the Civil Service said. This is not a matter for the Chair. What the hon. Gentleman said will have been heard by members of the Government Front Bench.

Mr. Skinner rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. Is this about a different matter? I am not taking further points of order on what happened on Friday.

Mr. Skinner : This is a different matter.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I hope that I can trust the hon. Gentleman. He has already said once that his point of order is on the same matter. I shall hear it only if it is on an entirely different matter. As a man of honour, he should do what he says.

Mr. Skinner : You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that in a previous parliamentary Session you were in the Chair

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when a statement had to be made about issuing passes for admission to this House. It was followed by a debate. On that occasion my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) was at the centre of the matter. There was widespread discussion about people who should not be allowed into the House getting into this place. It has been made clear that people who are allowed into the Box must receive authority--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is letting himself down, and me.

Mr. Skinner rose--

Mr. Speaker : No. The hon. Gentleman said that he would raise a different matter and now he is trying to get round it. I am sorry, but I cannot hear him further.

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I am not hearing any more.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I shall not hear points of order about the same matter. I shall take the point only if it is on a different matter.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that, if Mr. Stalker wants to submit documents under the protection of privilege, he can submit them to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee and if he does not need privilege, he can submit them to the Library where they can be made available to hon. Members? In the circumstances, is it not a little unreasonable of Mr. Stalker to dangle these documents before the British public without being prepared to reveal them in so far as Parliament wants to know what is happening?

Mr. Speaker : That is a matter for Mr. Stalker. It is not a matter of order in the Chamber.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek to raise a question about passes

Mr. Speaker : Order. Is the hon. Gentleman talking about last Friday's passes?

Mr. Corbyn : I am talking about the point made two years ago in the debate about research assistants. It was made clear that no one could be admitted beyond the public areas of this building without a pass and that a pass had to be approved, in effect, through your office, Mr. Speaker. I am worried that those rules are not being upheld. If they are not, it makes nonsense of the debate we had two years ago. It would be seen to be entirely selective against one person if others, merely at the behest of another Member, were brought not just beyond the public areas of this building, but, in effect, almost into the Chamber.

Mr. Speaker : We do not need to dwell on this. I have looked carefully at the matter, and in my original comments I said that I had considered the security aspect of it. I am satisfied that there was no security risk and that an error was made. I hope that it will not happen again.

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Orders of the Day

Social Security Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.44 pm

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Those in the House who have shared with me much of the experience--that certainly includes the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher)--will know that there has been a Social Security Bill before the House every year since the Government took office. I make no apology for that and for presenting yet another this year. It would no doubt be rash of me to suggest any parallel with Finance Bills, but it is certainly right, as with the tax system, to ensure that we have the means to keep our social security system properly adapted to changing needs and demands.

This year's Bill is relatively short, but its scope is wide ranging. It makes a number of important changes across the areas of social security and occupational pensions. As with most Social Security Bills, it has both substantial measures of policy and some necessary points--quite a lot of them--of technicality and detail. The two main themes of the Bill are a number of changes to disability benefits and the provision of greater protection for the members of occupational pension schemes. In addition, the Bill makes a number of more minor changes to various benefits, to national insurance contributions, and a change to the scope of the national insurance fund. It also gives new powers to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy--who is admirably represented this afternoon- -to introduce a new scheme of grants towards the cost of insulation measures in low-income households.

During my speech I shall seek to describe the main provisions more fully, but, of course, the Bill as such is only one element in the continuing development of social security policy as a whole. As the House will be aware, next year we will spend more than £1 billion each week on social security. The total expenditure next year of £56 billion is more than a third higher in real terms than expenditure in 1979 when the Government took office. Hon. Members will understand that the point that I want to stress in the context of the Bill is the increasingly important part of that expenditure that is committed to providing for the needs of disabled people. We are spending more than £8 billion this year alone on the long-term sick and disabled. Since 1979 such expenditure has almost doubled in real terms, largely because of the great increases in the number of beneficiaries. Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose --

Mr. Newton : I shall give way in a moment.

To take just two examples of the increase in coverage since 1979, which has been an important gain for the disabled community, the number receiving help with extra costs through mobility allowance has multiplied six times and the number receiving help through attendance allowance has increased three times. Those are encouraging and welcome trends.

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Mr. Winnick : I had hoped to intervene before the right hon. Gentleman spoke of the disabled, so I hope that he will bear with me.

The right hon. Gentleman has spoken about the increased sums spent on social security, but he should bear in mind the increasing hardship faced by so many pensioners. That is certainly the case in my constituency where pensioners constantly write to me and visit me to discuss their problems. Their pensions have not increased in line with earnings and they have lost a great deal. A married couple, for example, have lost £20 a week because of that. Such pensioners are also facing hardship because of the substantial reduction in housing benefit. One of my constituents receives a total income of £54 a week, but he pays more than £10 a week for his housing as he is no longer allowed a rebate, arising from Government policy. No rebates are allowed on a works pension. Why should pensioners, many of whom fought in the last war and now live in such poverty, constantly be penalised as a result of Government measures?

Mr. Newton : It might have been more appropriate if the hon. Gentleman had sought to make a speech rather than an intervention. I shall resist the temptation to make another speech in reply. From exchanges that the hon. Gentleman and I, and others, have had in the House in recent weeks and months, he well knows that he is generalising wildly when he implies that anything like his remarks could conceivably apply to pensioners as a whole. Their incomes on average--I readily accept that I am using averages- -taking account of state social security benefits and the other sources of income have, according to the latest evidence, been rising about twice as fast as the incomes of the population as a whole. I readily accept that those are averages and not everyone has had the advantage of the improved occupational pensions and improved income from savings which have taken place under the present Government. Therefore, it is right to seek to direct additional resources to those who are least well off. That is precisely what the Government have been seeking to do--most recently with the changes made last October which, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, took additional help to about 2.5 million pensioners with the greatest needs either through income support or housing benefit.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : Presumably, one of the Bill's general aims is to improve the quality of service given to claimants and would-be claimants. Surely that would be most welcome, particularly in the light of recent Public Accounts Committee's report on poor quality of service given to claimants and would-be claimants. Has not the time come for the provision of an ombudsman to assess the kind of treatment given to claimants? May I remind the Secretary of State that I recently wrote to him about an investigation carried out by the parliamentary ombudsman into the appalling treatment given to a young pregnant constituent of mine? That case demonstrates the need for such a monitoring service.

Mr. Newton : We have had yet another almost separate speech, but I shall seek to respond in my usual helpful fashion. I readily accept-- indeed, it was one factor in our minds when we carried through the major reforms of the system between 1985 and 1988--that some changes were necessary in the system's structure to enable us to deliver

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anything remotely like an acceptable service. Whether we consider the speed or accuracy with which claims are processed or the shorter amount of time that people have to spend hanging about in DSS offices, it is clear that a substantial improvement is taking place. That is not to say that errors are not still made, but there is no good reason for departing from the current arrangements by which--as the hon. Gentleman implied--the ordinary ombudsman, if I may call him that, on the request of a Member, is perfectly at liberty to investigate maladministration by the DSS in respect of the payment of benefits, in the same way as in any other sector.

Dr. Godman : He is not.

Mr. Newton : If the hon. Gentleman says that the ombudsman is not, he must be quarrelling about the distinction between a policy matter and a matter of administration. We could get into a potentially endless argument about that. It would not be sensible to do so, as the Bill has relatively little to do with that. I shall seek to ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a reply to his letter as soon as possible. However, we shall not gain too much by prolonging the argument now.

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on the actions of people, some of whom are possibly his constituents. There has been a dramatic improvement in the service provided to social security claimants in some parts of north London as a result of the removal of the processing of benefits from offices in north London to the new, central office in Glasgow which is performing extremely well. I visited it and was most impressed. I may say, on behalf of some social security claimants in England, that we are grateful for the effective efforts of some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents in Scotland who have helped us bring about the improvements that he wants.

My statement in the House on 25 October on the annual uprating of social security benefits gave a further clear illustration of our continuing desire to give real extra help to those disabled people in greatest need. The range of measures for long-term sick and disabled people that I announced at that time will increase spending by some £100 million a year and help about 500,000 disabled people and carers. Those changes include the extension of attendance allowance to disabled babies, the extension of mobility allowance to people who are both deaf and blind and a new carers' premium in income support and housing benefit. These measures have been widely welcomed, and they show also how the reformed system of income-related benefits can be used to focus additional help quickly and effectively on particular groups.

These measures, most of which will be in place by April, and all by October, are the first stage of a wide-ranging programme of action that seeks to improve the balance and structure of the benefits provided for disabled people. That programme was set out in the paper "The Way Ahead : Benefits for Disabled People", which my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for the disabled and I laid before the House on 10 January.

The measures in the Bill represent the second stage in our programme. They abolish the attendance allowance six-month qualifying period in respect of terminally ill people. They introduce an age-related addition to severe disablement allowance. They end reduced earnings

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allowance for new cases and they provide for the end of the accrual of further entitlements to the additional pension element of invalidity benefit.

The third phase of the programme, which, for purely practical reasons, will have to come in a later Bill, is to bring in two new benefits that will substantially improve the help given to disabled people--the new disability allowance and the new disability employment credit. The first will replace the existing attendance allowance and mobility allowance schemes for people under 65 and will extend help to less severely disabled people. The second will make it easier for disabled people to take up and stay in work. The only reason why we are not legislating in this Bill is because such significant changes in the benefit structure need a great deal of detailed work for which there has not yet been time. In pressing ahead with it, as we most certainly shall, we want to take account--this is welcomed on both sides of the House--of the views of interested organisations and individuals.

Thus, the four measures in the Bill are part of a wider strategy to improve the coverage of help with the extra costs of disability, to improve the balance and structure of benefits for disabled people who are unable to work, and in particular to do more for those disabled from birth or early in life, and to improve the help given to those disabled people who can and want to work.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : Will the Secretary of State confirm that official figures show that there are about 6.5 million disabled people in this country? Will he also agree that the various measures that he has announced are, although welcome, extremely modest, and that on the highest estimate only 1 million disabled people, including carers will benefit from them?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be wholly dishonest if he or anyone else pretended that the measures that he has announced represent a dramatic improvement in the standard of living for all the 6.5 million disabled people whose interests are at the heart of this debate?

Mr. Newton : Had I attempted to suggest in any way that these measures would benefit 6 million or more people in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described, I should have misled people. But, as I am sure he realises, the figures that he is talking about are derived from the substantial surveys set in hand by the Government and conducted over two or three years by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which deliberately set a very low threshold--some organisations for the disabled think that it was too low--for the assessment of disablement. The surveys therefore covered large numbers of people who, it found, had little in the way of additional costs ; and they included some disabled people who are in perfectly ordinary work and are quite as capable of taking part in everyday life as those who are not disabled.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I have not sought to oversell the substantial improvements that I have proposed. Equally, I hope that he will not seek to exaggerate the extent of the problem. The Government's proposals that I and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State brought forward on 10 January seek sensibly to address some of the main additional needs clearly revealed by the OPCS surveys.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) rose --

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Mr. Newton : I shall give way, but I am anxious not to turn this into a series of separate speeches.

Mrs. Ewing : The Secretary of State will recall that when the OPCS survey was commissioned the Government's Social Security Advisory Committee stated that this was an opportunity to revise the system with great precision to ensure that the disabled received the income that they required. Is he convinced that his proposals will reflect that statement? Disabled groups are very concerned that they do not.

Mr. Newton : The hon. Lady refers to the report published by the Social Security Advisory Committee in 1988 in advance of the committee seeing the main results of the OPCS surveys. That report made suggestions on which we have drawn extensively in developing the proposals that the Minister of State and I put before the House 12 days ago. I would not attempt to speak for the SSAC or to predict the comments that it will no doubt wish to make when it has had a chance to study the paper. I hope that it will recognise that we have drawn constructively on the suggestions that it put forward.

In particular, we have taken considerable account of the SSAC's view that perhaps the top priority, certainly one of the main priorities for additional help, is the group of people for whom the system does least at the moment. That is the group consisting of people who were disabled from birth or disabled very early in life and who have never had the opportunity to build up contributory benefits entitlement or occupational pensions or to make savings on which they can draw when difficulty occurs. That is undoubtedly the group for whom we do least at the moment and our proposals seek to do significantly more for them.

I now want to speak in detail about the clauses in the Bill. The House will recall that last summer we made a firm commitment to tackle the problems faced by terminally ill people who satisfy the eligibility criteria for attendance allowance, but who die before the six-month qualifying period is complete. Clause 1 honours that commitment and gives extra help for terminally ill people, and thus to their families and their carers. It does not just mean extra payments for attendance allowance of what will be from April £37.55 per week. It means extra payments of invalid care allowance and of income support or housing benefit via the disability premiums and the new carers' premium. The total cost is some £35 million a year. That proposal at least is welcomed by all hon. Members.

Clause 2 introduces an age-related addition to severe disablement allowance. I touched on that in reply to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). That, of course, is a non-contributory benefit which is available to the long-term sick who have not paid the required national insurance contributions to qualify for invalidity benefit. That, of course, includes people who have never been able to work at all. Again I underline what I said to the hon. Lady. This group of people is one of our major priorities for additional help. The measure will give people who become incapable of work before the age of 40 an extra £10 per week in benefit from next December. There will be a lower addition for those who become disabled later in life. That is exactly parallel to the current contributory invalidity addition that goes with invalidity benefit itself. The net additional cost

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is expected to be about £16 million in 1990-91 and about £50 million a year thereafter. The gross additional cost is much larger. The third measure relates to the industrial injuries scheme which presently provides for what is called a reduced earnings allowance for loss of earnings by people whose disabilities are caused by industrial accidents or diseases. The majority of recipients of that allowance who are not working are, however, receiving the normal long-term national insurance benefit--invalidity benefit--for those who are unable to earn as a result of sickness or disability. Clause 3 will remove this duplication by ending new--I underline

"new"--entitlements to reduced earnings allowance after the autumn. Existing beneficiaries--this is why I emphasise "new"--are not affected by the change. Their entitlements, if continuous, will be preserved after the change, and uprated as at present.

Although the measure will, in due course, reduce expenditure below what it would otherwise have been, the effect will build up rather more slowly than the increases in benefit expenditure to which I referred a few moments ago. We expect the reduction to be about £1 million in 1990-91, £15 million in 1991-92 and about £40 million in 1992-93.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : Was not that benefit originally intended for people injured at work who could continue to work but could not achieve the same level of income as they enjoyed before their accident? The benefit was intended to make up for someone's injury and to enable him or her to work for lower wages but still have a reasonable life. That opportunity for people who have been injured at work is now to be wiped out by the Government's actions.

Mr. Newton : We are seeking to direct attention to the general problem on which the hon. Lady touched with the new disability employment credit. I accept that the origin of the present arrangement, known until recently as the special hardship allowance--the name has now been changed-- may be as the hon. Lady describes it, but it is also true that the majority of those out of work who receive the REA also receive the ordinary benefit that replaces earnings for those who are unable to work. There is therefore a degree of duplication which can be sensibly tackled in the context of our proposals.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : The special hardship allowance is paid to many people in the mining industry who suffer from pneumoconiosis, bronchitis and emphysema who have had to leave highly remunerative face work and move to light occupations because of their disease. Those people depend heavily on the special hardship allowance. Is the Secretary of State saying now that those who continue to work at reduced wages are to lose the benefit? If so, the proposal needs to be looked at again. Moreover, because the earning capacity of people who suffer from such diseases is reduced, their saving capacity is also reduced and they can no longer save as much for their retirement. The continuation of the special hardship allowance and REA has compensated for that to a certain extent. The Secretary of State will be doing a disservice to a lot of good, honest people by making this change.

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman makes a point on behalf of his constituents. I have emphasised the principal reason why the Government have felt it right to introduce

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the proposal. I should also remind the hon. Gentleman that, regardless of the existence of the reduced earnings allowance, those who suffer from certain prescribed diseases and experience industrial injury--according to the assessed percentage effect of their disablement--already receive substantial preferences, under the industrial injury scheme, over those injured domestically or in the course of their daily lives. In considering these matters, we have sought to consider the balance of provision among disabled people generally--I have never made a secret of that--and in that context, we think that the proposal is reasonable.

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