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Mr. Pickles: Will the hon. Lady place the list in the Library?

Janet Anderson: I certainly shall place the list in the Library and give the hon. Gentleman the information that he needs.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston mentioned cine-literacy. That is important, and we are having discussions with colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment about it. We shall also need, as he rightly pointed out, to clarify the relationship with our Scottish colleagues following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

On the Oreja report, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, I reassure him that we broadly agree with the recommendations, but we are waiting for the more detailed proposals from the European Commission, which we shall study very carefully.

Overseas earnings by UK film companies reached a record level of almost £700 million in 1996 and 1997. British films captured their highest share of the home market for many years--23 per cent. in 1997, which was almost double their share in 1996. We know that in this country there is an intense interest in the whole world of film, and cinema admissions and takings are at their highest levels. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston in congratulating all those who have been involved in the success of British film, particularly Duncan Kenworthy, who recently received the OBE. I join my right hon. Friend in wishing him well with his forthcoming film, "Notting Hill".

It will be difficult to fit all my points into the remaining time, so I shall try to concentrate on the main issues. The fundamental problem identified in "A Bigger Picture" remains; the UK industry is fragmented and there is a problem in the separation of production and distribution. Indeed, some now believe that our attention should be turned away from production and towards distribution, and we understand that view. That is one of the reasons why we have been working with the industry to implement the recommendations of the film policy review. Our commitment to film was demonstrated in the Chancellor's first Budget. I mentioned our discussions with Ernst and Young, which will shortly announce plans fully to finance and produce its own £30-million slate of feature films in this country. I say to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that that is evidence that the tax incentive is working.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston mentioned the need to work together. The action committee, which I continue to chair with Stewart Till, brought together everyone in the industry, including those from video and broadcasting, which is very important. A British Film Office has been established in Los Angeles. The Film Finance Forum, to improve links with the City of London, is up and running, and progress reports are encouraging. Film Export UK, a new trade association, has been established to help to promote the international sales of British film, and the film education working group has been set up.

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I have very little time left, so I shall briefly mention the all-industry fund and the skills investment fund. We undertook a cost-benefit analysis on the all-industry fund, which demonstrated--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. We now come to the debate in the name of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten).

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Noise-induced Hearing Loss

12.30 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of war veterans who suffer from noise-induced hearing loss as a direct result of their service and who are campaigning to get their war pensions reinstated for this disability. I must make it clear at the outset that it is certainly not my intention to attack the Government; I simply want to keep the issue alive, perhaps push the Minister slightly if I can, and probe the Government's current thinking on the issue.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), for the courtesy that he has shown me in the past couple of days, and especially for giving me as much warning as he could of the Government's announcement yesterday that they have, sadly, rejected some new medical evidence in this connection. At best, that has made today's debate topical; at worst, it probably means that my researcher had a very late night last night.

I know that the issue is of concern to many hon. Members. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter), who is in the Chamber, tabled an early-day motion which has received cross-party support from, I think, upwards of 60 Members of Parliament. Certainly, many of our constituents are concerned.

When I take up such issues for war veterans, I sometimes feel guilty that, as a young Member of Parliament, I have very little idea of what it must have been like for them to go through the wars in which they fought. These days, we regard war as very much a high-tech affair involving computers, and we assume that the loud noises and their impact have been greatly reduced. To a large extent, that is true. It is only by watching films such as "Saving Private Ryan" that I can begin to understand what it must have been like to experience what many of our constituents experienced.

I spoke to a constituent, Major Cassidy, who has retired, who told me of his experience of being in the armed forces for 47 years. When he joined the Army and first began firing rifles and using tanks, there was absolutely no noise protection. In fact, it was only when the Army adopted a great new invention--cotton wool--that any protection techniques were put in place. I understand, however, that even that proved counter-productive.

Let me give some background to the issue. Originally, the war pension regulations were interpreted in such a way that claimants would be compensated if, when leaving the services, they suffered a 20 per cent. loss of hearing as a result of excessive noise encountered during their service. In addition, those who had suffered lesser but notable hearing loss would be entitled to a rising increment in benefit over time as they, too, approached the 20 per cent. level. At the time, it was clearly acknowledged that noise encountered during their military service made premature deafness much more probable.

In 1996, the Conservative Government decided to introduce new medical evidence. They believed that that evidence showed that further deterioration in hearing loss was due to other factors, such as getting old, and had nothing to do with the individuals' exposure to noise

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during their service. As a result of that medical evidence, the regulations were changed. That decision has meant that people person can receive a war pension only if they are deemed to have reached the qualifying level of deafness at the point at which they left the service. That qualifying level is set at 50 decibels. Many experts believe that that level is too high anyway. Indeed, the Irish Republic has a qualifying level of just 20 decibels.

The result of the change introduced by the previous Government means that very few veterans now qualify for the war pension for deafness. In fact, more than 90 per cent. are turned down because they fail to reach the qualifying level. The Royal British Legion estimates that that means that around 8,000 new claimants a year are denied the pension. As a result of the change, the Treasury reckoned that it would save around £35 million a year.

When the change was announced, there was, quite rightly, a storm of criticism. Indeed, at the stormy Prime Minister's Question Time on 5 December 1996, the then Leader of the Opposition--now the Prime Minister--described the changes as "shabby and mean-minded". Similarly, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), then a shadow Defence Minister, stated that the change ran against

It would be cheap and churlish of me to throw those remarks back at the new Labour Government without acknowledging that they have kept their election promise to review the situation. I commend the Government on having always been open to the issue. They seem to accept the fact that it is a source of controversy and that new medical evidence could dispute the change to the regulations made by the previous Government.

Indeed, an independent review, chaired by Sir Kenneth Calman, the chief medical officer, was set up not long after the new Government took office. It concluded, as previous reviews had, that current medical evidence showed that increases in hearing loss after service were not due to initial noise exposure during service, but there was certainly controversy about its findings. Some believe that the terms of reference of that inquiry were restricted to a narrow consideration of the effects on hearing threshold levels, so that the contentious issue of how that relates to hearing disability was excluded. They argue that, because of that remit, the existing regulations were always likely to be the outcome of the process.

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has many constituents who are in the 15 to 20 per cent. category of hearing loss. It seems unfair that they are ruled out although they are close to the 20 per cent. threshold. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

Mr. Oaten: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I, too, hope that the Minister will respond to that point. There is certainly a sense that it is rather "mean-minded", to quote the Prime Minister, and calculating to have to differentiate between those who have reached a 15, 20 or 30 per cent. threshold.

To their credit, the Government have been prepared to pursue the issue and have considered new medical evidence. A further review has been undertaken. It included

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the work of Professor Davis, whose two recent papers called into question the current terms of reference and suggested that further research was needed. Yesterday, the Government announced that, based on the new research, they had concluded that the further evidence

    "does not meet the standard required to raise a reasonable doubt",

and they were rejecting the current medical evidence.

I shall not go into detail on the findings or question the medical background to them, but I ask the Minister to look carefully at the detail and conclusions of that work. Paragraph 5.7 of the conclusions states:

The medical evidence that the Government have considered and the review itself raise some serious doubts. I put it to the Minister that that section alone suggests that we need to keep an open mind. It certainly suggests to me that the scientists are saying that they cannot be sure at this stage and that a longer period of research is needed.

The point that the Government should take on board is that today's pensioners do not have the time to wait for such research. A five or 10-year period of research means that today's war pensioners will not see a successful outcome. Surely it would be right for the Government to act now and to give those pensioners the benefit of the doubt. It will be of no comfort to them if, in five or 10 years' time, new research proves that they were right, because they will not be around.

I remind the Minister that, under the Irish scheme, the qualifying level is much lower. Critically, the Irish Government's decision was based on the very same medical evidence that our Government used to come to their conclusion. That suggests that their stance is too rigid.

I urge the Minister to remember the human perspective. It is often very easy to get bogged down in complicated medical evidence, but in this case it is important to remember the difference between hearing impairment and hearing disability. I press the Minister to note that thousands of war veterans who suffer from noise-induced hearing loss have what should be described and known as a disability, not a hearing impediment. The thousands of veterans who suffer from noise-induced hearing loss fought for our country and deserve a great deal more from Governments. They should, in the circumstances, be given the benefit of the doubt, and extra help in their old age. They deserve a better deal.

I hope that the Government will give a commitment to keeping an open mind, as I have acknowledged they have to date on this issue, and will review new research as it comes along. Would it not be better for the Minister to announce today that he is prepared to reinstate the pension until the review is completed and the Government can be definite about the fact that the new research has ruled out the possible link? Although the Government have kept their election promise to review the research, their response to the issue has been too cautious, too rigid and, perhaps, as the Prime Minister said, "mean-minded".

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