8 Nov 2001 : Column 297

House of Lords

Thursday, 8th November 2001.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Eye Examinations

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What they are doing to make the public aware of diagnostic health benefits of eye examinations, including general health prognosis.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, last year some 16 million people had their sight tested. However, still too few people appreciate the benefits of the eye examination that optometrists carry out to identify early potential eye disease. The department is discussing with the Royal National Institute for the Blind and representatives of the optical professions how we can better get that message across. We hope to make some significant changes before long.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that when your Lordships' House debated the question of free eye examinations—we voted some years ago in favour of retaining them—we passed, on the same day, provisions relating to the possibility of allowing people to buy spectacles over the counter. Those two matters were related. It was never intended that being able to buy spectacles over the counter would deter people from having the health benefits of an eye check. Does he agree that it is important for people to be assessed for eye conditions and that an optometrist can see, through the eye—which is the window—possible hypertension due to arteriosclerosis and also the possibility of strokes? Is it not a fact that much wider health diagnostic benefits can now be achieved through eye examinations?

Lord Filkin: Yes, my Lords. I agree with the noble Baroness not only that skilled eye examinations can identify other non-eye-related potential diseases but also that the early diagnosis of a range of other—often age-related—eye diseases is crucial. I refer, for example, to the need to identify glaucoma and to the fact that some forms of eye disease are related to diabetes and to cataracts—all will be more curable the earlier that they are diagnosed. It is crucial to get the message across to 60 year-olds and above that regular eye tests are necessary not just because those tests may establish whether a person's sight is failing but because they will identify at an early stage other health deficiencies.

8 Nov 2001 : Column 298

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, in light of the Minister's remarks, is it not essential that free eye tests are made available to all, not just to the young and the old? On a less serious note, what account is the Minister taking of the Harry Potter effect?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I fear that I am very much in danger of falling into the "High Court judge" syndrome, particularly in relation to the latter part of the noble Lord's question. On the first part of his question, we already give free eye tests to a substantial proportion of the population: to children, to those over 60—we introduced that provision in 1999—and to those with a certain income eligibility. For those who do not get the test for free, its cost, at an average of about £18, is unlikely to be a significant deterrent to getting one's eyes tested.

On Harry Potter, I have been advised by my daughter to read the books. I will probably be better able to answer the noble Lord's question when I have done so.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, is the Minister confident that it is sufficient to ask a driver just to tick a box that states that he or she can read a number plate at 25 yards? Will that ensure that we have good, safe drivers on the roads, whatever the age of the applicant?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, people aged 70 and above have to go further than she suggested—they have to demonstrate in a range of tests that they are capable. If noble Lords will bear with me, I shall check my notes. My understanding is that at 70, everyone has to reapply for a driving licence and that when they do so they have to make a much more detailed statement about eye testing. If I am in error, I shall be pleased to write to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Trumpington: Wrong!

Lord Filkin: Wrong, my Lords? All right—I stand humbly corrected.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the question of eye tests for those over 70 who want to drive has often been discussed in your Lordships' House? We have never been able to succeed in getting an amendment through, but we think that it is desirable to have a more objective assessment relating to eye tests. In relation to those who are over 70, does the Minister agree that extra administrative costs would not be involved because one has to reapply at that age in any case?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I relish reviewing our discussion of those points and shall reconsider them.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is no standard sight screening in primary and secondary schools? What is he going to do

8 Nov 2001 : Column 299

about that, even if it means that we end up with lots of Harry Potters? I am sure that my children would be happy to be among them!

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for asking that question. We are concerned about the matter. It seems to us that screening to identify eye deficiency on school entry is important. That service has reduced during the past 10 or 15 years and the Government intend to look at how best to introduce screening for all children on entry to primary school. As regards later ages, the evidence and advice from the optical profession is less strong about its necessity. However, it would represent a significant movement if we introduced screening for all four or five year-olds on entry to school.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree that Question Time is much more fun when the questions and answers are short?

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): Yes.

Lord Colwyn: My Lords, is the Minister aware that next week is national mouth cancer awareness week? Will he assure the public that he will take steps to ensure that the diagnostic benefits of a regular dental examination similarly apply to optical examinations?

Lord Filkin: No, my Lords, but we will consider it.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, in a previous answer, the Minister mentioned the connection between diabetes and sight problems. What is the likelihood of having in the near future a relatively cheap screening test for diabetes, in order to establish whether a person has the disease? That would undoubtedly make some inroads into the connected eye concerns.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, departmental policy currently is that people with diabetes should have their eyes tested at least once a year. With regard to the more specific screening methodology that the noble Viscount recommended, we shall investigate it and write to him.

Supreme Court

3.8 p.m.

Lord Hooson asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they would like to see progress towards a Supreme Court separate from the House of Lords, as advocated by the senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, Lord Bingham of Cornhill.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, it is of course a singular arrangement for a Supreme Court to be housed in a House of Parliament; but it works. The contribution that the Law Lords

8 Nov 2001 : Column 300

make to our debates is highly appreciated. They chair various committees of this House. The Wakeham Royal Commission endorsed the continuance of their unique role, as do the Government in the White Paper of yesterday. In this country we have never applied a rigid doctrine of the separation of powers because we are pragmatists, not purists.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his Answer. However, is it not of great importance that the matter was raised by the senior Law Lord? In view of that—the senior Law Lord is suggesting an important change in our constitution—is it not of supreme importance that the House should debate the matter properly? In light of the fact that the matter was raised at such a level, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, with his influence in the Government, ensure that an opportunity is given for a full debate on the subject?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord has not misunderstood the senior Law Lord. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, has not, so far as I am aware, made any proposal in relation to the Law Lords' membership of this House. A new Supreme Court building of high architectural merit in the heart of London may be one of the most worthy of ambitions and is entertained by the senior Law Lord, but the Government have no plans for such a project.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, as most people in this country seek justice in the existing courts, can my noble and learned friend tell the House whether he has any plans to improve services in the existing courts?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page