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Mr. Hague: General practitioners have to provide such a report free of charge and they have to respond to inquiries from the Department. If additional information is required, it is up to general practitioners whether they wish to impose a charge, but many would not wish to do so. They have to provide the basic information to their patients and to the Department free of charge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight was particularly concerned about multiple sclerosis. The Benefits Agency medical services doctor will advise adjudication officers on the basis of the report from the patient's doctor. The severity of symptoms and the care and treatment requirements of the person will all be carefully considered by a fully trained doctor who will be considering all the factors that I have described.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) asked about the medical conditions that will confer entitlement. The new all-work test assesses the limiting effect of medical conditions. It does not depend on diagnosis. Some conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, are so severe that it is likely that a sufferer would be exempt from the test.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) pointed to research about the reasons for the growth in the invalidity budget and it was accepted that those reasons are complex. They must concede that, even in the PSI documents quoted, nearly half of the growth could not be accounted for by demographic factors, even taking a loose definition of demographic. Research in the Department and independent research shows that GPs are issuing medical certificates to people who are not sick, or who are at least not too sick to work. It is important that we deal with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon asked about the savings and referred to a written parliamentary answer that I gave him a few days ago about the change in expenditure that would result from extending the exemption from the test to existing claimants aged 55 and over or aged 50 and over. He quoted my reply accurately when he said that the amount involved would be £15 million if people aged 55 and over were exempted and £45 million in the coming year if people aged 50 and over were exempted. However, as I pointed out at the end of that written answer, the figure would be much higher for subsequent years. By the third year, the figures involved would be £105 million if all those aged 55 and over were exempted, or £210 million if all those aged 50 or over were exempted.

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Those are huge sums of money, besides which it would scarcely be fair to new claimants of the benefit to exempt existing claimants on that scale, given the research that I have just quoted that seems to suggest that there are people receiving invalidity benefit who are capable of work.

I ask my hon. Friend to think about the pressures that are imposed on the rest of the social security budget if those sums of money are spent without confidence that they are focused on the people for whom they are intended. I ask him to think about where else we could make reductions of the scale that we are talking about here and that he advocated spending.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) asked about the percentage of existing claimants exempt from the test. He referred a number of times to a figure of one quarter. The figure that I have given of 220,000 people among existing claimants being found incapable of work is nearer to one eighth of the total number who are currently receiving the benefit. About one half are exempt from the new medical test because of the combination, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, of those who are 58 and over and those who fit the other criteria set out in the regulations. It is not possible to come up with local figures from the national figures, but I have published the national figures in the past and can do so again. However, I do not have figures for the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The hon. Members for Garscadden and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney expressed concern about people being worried and citizens advice bureaux being inundated with inquiries. We have developed a strategy for advising existing claimants, advisers and the medical profession about the changes. Leaflets have been published and order books include relevant messages. Further steps will also be taken. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) made an important point about the ability for sustained reading. When a Benefits Agency doctor considers vision, he will also take into account the ability to read text on a sustained basis, rather than the ability to read individual letters or words; the ability to scan and focus on areas of text quickly and reliably. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady.

The hon. Lady also asked about the questionnaire, which I think she said would run into 72 pages. That might scare people, but it is actually 20 pages long. It is clear and easy to complete. It has been put through market research with existing claimants and their comments particularly stress that it was easy to complete. The comments were most positive. Help will be available from specially trained staff for those who need assistance with the questionnaire. One of the most frightening things about all our debates on these matters is that the Opposition, fully aware that an unreformed invalidity benefit budget would head to about £10,000 million by the end of the century, and knowing that the benefit is not as focused as it should be, still have no alternative policy for dealing with the problem. The House and the nation are left not knowing how the Labour party would respond to that after all the debates that there have been in Committee and on the Floor of the House. After tonight's debate we are none the wiser. The Opposition know the pressure on other social

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security programmes if we do not focus on those who need these benefits most. They know the difficulties created for other sectors of Government spending.

In the past few weeks, the Opposition have come to the House several times to vote against raising revenue; last night they came to the House to vote in a way that implied the spending of a great deal more money. They are going to do that again tonight. They oppose what we are suggesting-- sensible and timely reforms--without having an alternative to put in the place of those reforms. We would receive more positive proposals, and more of an impression of awareness of the need to act, from the average ostrich than we receive from Opposition Front Benchers. Few things could better illustrate the Labour party's fiscal irresponsibility.

This is a necessary and timely reform. It focuses on the people who need benefit most--

It being Seven o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Order [27 January].

The House divided: Ayes 275, Noes 232.

Division No. 62] [7.00 pm


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Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)

Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan

Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)

Allason, Rupert (Torbay)

Amess, David

Ancram, Michael

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grove)

Ashby, David

Aspinwall, Jack

Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)

Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)

Baldry, Tony

Banks, Matthew (Southport)

Banks, Robert (Harrogate)

Bates, Michael

Batiste, Spencer

Bellingham, Henry

Bendall, Vivian

Beresford, Sir Paul

Booth, Hartley

Boswell, Tim

Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)

Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia

Bowis, John

Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes

Brandreth, Gyles

Brazier, Julian

Bright, Sir Graham

Brooke, Rt Hon Peter

Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)

Browing, Mrs. Angela

Bruce, Ian (Dorset)

Burns, Simon

Butcher, John

Butler, Peter

Butterfill, John

Carlisle, John (Luton North)

Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)

Carrington, Matthew

Carttiss, Michael

Cash, William

Churchill, Mr

Clappison, James

Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coe, Sebastian

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Colvin, Michael

Congdon, David

Conway, Derek

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cope, Rt Hon Sir John

Cormack, Sir Patrick

Couchman, James

Cran, James

Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)

Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)

Davies, Quentin (Stamford)

Day, Stephen

Deva, Nirj Joseph

Delvin, Tim

Dicks, Terry

Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Dover, Den

Duncan, Alan

Duncan Smith, Iain

Dunn, Bob

Dykes, Hugh

Eggar, Rt Hon Tim

Elletson, Harold

Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)

Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)

Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)

Evans, Roger (Monmouth)

Evennett, David

Faber, David

Fabricant, Michael

Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)

Fishburn, Dudley

Forman, Nigel

Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)

Forth, Eric

Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman

Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)

Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)

French, Douglas

Gale, Roger

Gallie, Phil

Gardiner, Sir George

Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan

Garnier, Edward

Gill, Christopher

Gillan, Cheryl

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