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 examinationswe voted some years ago in favour of retaining themwe 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 eyewhich is the windowpossible 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 otheroften age-relatedeye 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 cataractsall 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.
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 60we introduced that provision in 1999and 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.
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 suggestedthey 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 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 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.
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?
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.
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
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 thatthe senior Law Lord is suggesting an important change in our constitutionis 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?
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