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12.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing a

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debate on this very important issue, and thank him for his kind remarks at the start of his speech. The last time that I spoke immediately after him in this Chamber was following his maiden speech--I do not know whether he recalls this--when he had a majority of two. Now, his majority is more than 20,000, so he clearly knows how to build support for his cause and those he advocates. I stand warned of the persistence that I am likely to face on this issue. He marshalled the arguments well, and I shall do my best to respond to them.

I shall start by referring to the issue with which the hon. Gentleman concluded: the human dimension. I pay tribute to all the men and women who were killed or injured in service in the armed forces. Members of my generation must remember at all times that the democratic liberties that we enjoy in this country--and our freedom in the House as Members of Parliament--were secured by the sacrifices of earlier generations in two world wars. I also recognise the vital role played by ex-service organisations, such as the Royal British Legion and the Royal British Legion Scotland, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, the Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society and the War Widows Association of Great Britain.

As the hon. Member for Winchester knows, yesterday we made public the outcome of the further review of the evidence on the relationship between age-related and noise-induced hearing loss. We received the report only on Friday, but wanted to make it available before today's debate.

The conclusion of the further review is that there is no new reliable evidence to raise a reasonable doubt that hearing losses due to noise and age are more than additive. The legal standard of proof required in this field is reasonable doubt. The same conclusion was reached last year by the expert panel. Before I turn to the pointsraised by the hon. Members for Winchester and for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter), it may be helpful to put the review in context.

The war pension scheme makes provision for a pension to be paid for any disablement attributable to, or aggravated by, service, whether in time of peace or war. The basic war pension is set at a higher rate than the social security equivalent--industrial injuries disablement benefit. In addition, the war pension scheme provides a wide range of allowances which may be paid in addition to the basic disablement pension. Those allowances are available in respect of such things as increasing age, reduced or lost earnings capability, and care and mobility needs. The scheme provides pensions for the widows and children of people who die as a result of their service.

To illustrate the advantage, a single, severely disabled war pensioner could receive more than £400 a week. Under the nearest comparator, the industrial injuries scheme, a person similarly injured at work would receive £55 a week less. A person with a similar disablement that is unrelated to employment, who receives incapacity benefit and disability living allowance, receives just over £165 a week--almost £235 less than the war pensioner.

All war pensions and allowances are tax free. They may be paid on top of the ex-service man or woman's earnings in civilian life, and on top of the state retirement pension. They may also be paid in addition to the pension paid under the Ministry of Defence armed forces pension scheme.

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Some people question the preference given to war pensioners. I do not; it is wholly right that the sacrifice of those injured or killed in defending the country should be specially recognised. But such preferential treatment must depend on a clear link between disablement and military service. That is why, under the war pensions scheme, a pension is paid only for disablements that arise from service. It is not paid for disablements that arise from other causes, including natural processes, such as ageing. That rule dates from the very start of the scheme.

There can, of course, be many causes of hearing loss. Often, several types of loss are present in one person. We must view each separately because they are different medical conditions. Some hearing loss may be due to service, such as exposure to noise. Other loss has nothing to do with service; for instance, most people suffer from hearing loss as they get older.

More than half of all living ex-service people served as conscripts during the second world war or in national service. That means that they left the forces at least 35 years ago. The very youngest are close to retirement age, but most are considerably older. The average age of a war disablement pensioner is over 75. Anyone in this age group will be starting to feel the effects of time, and may suffer from diseases that we expect to find in a person of pension age, regardless of whether he or she was once in the armed forces. Considering whether such a disease might be due to experiences in service more than half a lifetime earlier can make deciding claims difficult. We must maintain the integrity of the scheme, and that means insisting on the link to service.

When we came to office, the Government immediately set up a review. The hon. Member for Winchester made comments about pledges made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition. We promised a review and, as soon as we were elected, we set one up. It considered the evidence on hearing loss, and involved a range of eminent experts. We quickly communicated the outcome of that first review to the Central Advisory Committee on War Pensions--the advisory body on the subject. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Hollis, the Ministerwith special responsibility for war pensions, met representatives of the Royal British Legion and the Royal British Legion Scotland to brief them on the matter.

The independent experts told us last year that hearing loss due to noise damage does not get worse after leaving the noise. They also said that hearing loss caused by noise does not increase as age-related loss is added to it.

Mr. Oaten: Does the Minister acknowledge that the most recent study has suggested that we need more time to clarify the research, and that, until we have a five-year or, perhaps, 10-year study, we cannot be absolutely sure about the outcome?

Mr. Bayley: I do not accept the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman draws from the latest study. The latest study reviewed a wide range of evidence, including 56 academic, independently reviewed papers, which have been outstanding for some time, certainly since the last review; two new papers by Mills and Miller, which were written in the past year and published in referred journals; and two papers from Professor Davis, a statistician and eminent scientist working at Nottingham university's

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Institute of Hearing. Professor Davis's papers reflected work in progress which suggested that, when the research was completed, a different conclusion could be drawn. One needs to set that against the bulk of the evidence--50 or so papers that point in an alternative direction.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked me whether the Government would give a commitment to keep an open mind. We certainly will. When the studies in which Professor Davis is engaged are published in refereed journals and his research is complete, we will look at that evidence. If it changes the balance of opinion, or suggests new lines of inquiry, we will follow those.

Mr. Oaten: If, in two or three years, different evidence came through and the Government decided that, on the balance of that evidence, they wished to change their view, would they consider retrospective payments to pensioners who, in the intervening time, had not received the payments? Would it not be easier to give them the benefit of the doubt now, rather than face the potential retrospective element when future evidence is considered?

Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman gives an interesting hypothetical example, but he will understand why I am not drawn to it. The overwhelming bulk of scientific evidence--all the evidence apart from the new work by Professor Davis--points in one direction. A clear scientific conclusion is drawn from that evidence: hearing loss as a result of age is no more than additive to hearing loss that was caused earlier through exposure to noise. We must base our policy on the scientific and medical evidence. Of course we keep an open mind. We are aware of Professor Davis's work. We will look at that work and review the body of knowledge when his work is completed and formally published.

The review that was published yesterday involved an exhaustive search of the literature and was conducted by asking eminent experts, including those on the review panel last year--one of whom, of course, was Professor Davis--for their advice on the existence of any relevant evidence, and by carefully scrutinising that evidence. The conclusion of the further review is that no new evidence changes last year's findings by the expert team. I realise that that may be a disappointment, but we can, and should, proceed only on the basis of scientific evidence.

The hon. Member for Winchester raised several specific points. As he knows, in 1993, the war pensions scheme was amended to introduce a 20 per cent. "cut-off" below which an award would not be made for noise-induced hearing loss. As he told the House, previously, a lump sum gratuity was paid for losses at that level. The change brought the war pensions scheme more into line with the rules for occupational deafness under the industrial injuries scheme.

There are still considerable advantages in war pensions. For example, a claim may be made at any time and regardless of length of service. Under the occupational deafness scheme, the individual has to have worked for 10 years at least in a noisy occupation and the claim has to be made within five years of leaving that occupation.

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The 20 per cent. "cut-off" was part of a package that included extra cash for war pensioners. As a result of it, from 12 April 1993, almost 250,000 war pensioners gained up to £5 a week on top of the usual uprating for the most severely disabled. It was the lower ranks who gained the most.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked me to consider whether 50 decibels is the right point at which to trigger a war pension. Fifty decibels is the point at which a person starts to have trouble following conversation in a noisy environment. We believe that that level, which has been used for a long time, is appropriate when we consider the percentage level of disability that is used in relation to other injuries and conditions.

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