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Medical Appeal Tribunals

8. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What steps he is taking to review the operation and effectiveness of medical appeal tribunals. [12308]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): Appeal tribunals and their decisions are totally independent of the Department. We do, however, have responsibility for their administrative support. From April 2006, that responsibility will be transferred to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We currently have no plans to review operational procedures of the appeal tribunals.
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Mr. Prentice: I must tell my Friend that that is a disappointing reply. Amazing as it may seem, doctors sometimes get things wrong and they sometimes underestimate the severity of the condition that they are diagnosing. My concern is that, in some cases, the medical appeal tribunals accept the original diagnosis at face value, which can lead to injustice. My question to my Friend is this. Notwithstanding the fact that appeal tribunals are independent bodies, surely training is needed so that members of the MATs can learn from their mistakes.

Margaret Hodge: I am still trying to find the question rather than the statement in that, but I took the first element of the statement as being that doctors occasionally get things wrong. Well, yes they do, but so do we all—[Interruption]—Opposition Members as well as Government Members, although some of us are better at admitting it than others. On the issue of training, all those who support the appeals process are trained and the chairman of the appeals tribunal has a statutory duty to ensure that all are trained. The medically qualified personnel are also trained and the chairman undertakes that training in consultation with the chief medical officer.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will the hon. Lady look carefully into the issue of expert medical witnesses in all tribunals and courts of law in the light of the discredited evidence given by Sir Roy Meadows? Will the Government pause for reflection and issue stringent guidelines as to the context in which such expert medical evidence should be considered?

Margaret Hodge: I have a lot of respect for the hon. Lady, but she has strayed a bit from what is relevant for discussion at this afternoon's questions. The issue that she mentioned has absolutely nothing to do either with social security appeals tribunals or with any of the tribunals that are responsible for ensuring benefits. I am sure that the issue that she has raised, arising from publicity about a decision taken last week, will be dealt with appropriately by all Ministers and authorities who have direct responsibility for it. We do not.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that those particular doctors are all employed by private firms. Although I am sure that the Department for Constitutional Affairs is full of people with great medical expertise, I wonder if my right hon. Friend can give me some assurance that there will be a medical audit of the medical skills of the people employed by those private firms?

Margaret Hodge: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. All those who give their advice as medical practitioners need to demonstrate to whoever they work for that they are appropriately qualified as medical practitioners. That will be part of the infrastructure for any of the work associated with any of the benefits for which we have responsibility.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): We know that more than 50 per cent. of appeals overturn the original decision, so there is obviously a big issue about
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getting the decision right in the first place. That is of particular interest to my constituents with mental health problems, who lose their benefit. They know that they are unfit to work and will not sign the jobseeker's allowance form because that entails stating that they are ready for work and so losing their income support. In both the cases I have in mind, my constituents won on appeal, but they suffered a great deal of stress while they were waiting because they had no income on which to live.

Margaret Hodge: I appreciate the issue that my hon. Friend draws to the attention of the House and we are looking at it as we think through the reforms that will be part of the Green Paper to be published in the autumn. All the matters that go before tribunals, or are subject to assessment, are always a matter for professional judgment and it is difficult to get utterly consistent, universal results. That is something that we all have to live with, but what we must try to do is to minimise the impact that that can have on an individual's standard of living or their life chances.

Health and Safety (Theme Parks/Fun Fairs)

9. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What representations he has received from the family of Megan Wilcox on health and safety arrangements at smaller theme parks and fun fairs; and if he will make a statement. [12309]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): First, I extend my sympathy to the family of Megan Wilcox for their tragic loss. I have received no representation from the family. I am aware, however, that my hon. Friend has himself been in recent contact with Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the Minister responsible for health and safety.

Mr. Allen: I thank my hon. Friend and Lord Hunt for the personal interest that they have taken in this tragic case of a seven-year-old girl who tripped and fell in a fun park and died from her injuries. Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I was to discover that owners of fun parks, theme parks and fairgrounds have no legal obligation to have adequate first aid available for members of the public? Will she redouble the considerable effort that she has put into this case already and ensure that local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive talk to each other and possibly bring forward new law or guidance to ensure that the tragedy that affected my constituents' young daughter never happens to any young person again in such circumstances?

Mrs. McGuire: There is no statutory requirement to provide first aid facilities for the public, but it is encouraged in the guidance for fairgrounds and amusement parks agreed between the industry and the Health and Safety Executive. We want to ensure that good practice is followed so that the circumstances that my hon. Friend has described do not arise. I shall therefore ask the HSE to explore how good practice in first aid provision could be better promoted in the theme park and fairground sector, including the scope for it to be attached to public entertainment licences as a condition.
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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): The tragic case of Megan Wilcox will remind the House—if indeed many Members are not already well aware of the situation—of the consequences for an individual family in the distressing circumstances of accidental death. More practically, it will remind us all that the aggregate consequences of trips and falls and so on are every bit as important as those of catastrophic safety accidents. In the light of that, will the Minister join me in expressing disappointment that in the five years since Ministers bravely set health and safety targets, there has been no clear evidence of improvement across the piece, and that the Department's recent performance report on health and safety shows that all three parts of the target are currently subject to slippage?

Mrs. McGuire: I echo the hon. Gentleman's words in the first part of his comments. The targets established in 2001 were challenging and it is disappointing that there appears to have been some slippage, but we have to reinforce constantly the importance not just of corporate but of individual responsibility for health and safety. I can give the House the assurance that the Health and Safety Executive will constantly reinforce the message that health and safety issues are everybody's business.

Stakeholder Pensions

11. Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on stakeholder pensions. [12311]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): Almost 2.5 million stakeholder pensions have been sold in their first four years and are increasingly helping to ensure that everyone has the chance to save for a decent income in retirement.

Mrs. Dorries: According to the Prime Minister, it is absurd to suggest that stakeholder pensions have failed. However, according to the Pensions Commission the vast majority of small company stakeholder schemes are empty shells with no contributing members. Who do we believe, the independent non-partisan commission or the Prime Minister?

Mr. Timms: Stakeholder pensions have enabled many people to start saving for their retirement. They have also led to sharp reductions in the charges for personal pensions across the board, and as the Minister who had a hand in starting them up six years ago I take some pride in the achievements that we have seen since then. There are certainly some issues that need to be addressed; a large proportion of employer-designated schemes do not currently have members, but the role of employers is, in our view, key to promoting pensions saving. Designation will give us an employer-based infrastructure for pensions saving. The challenge is to increase the use of that infrastructure, and that is what we intend to do.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Given that the Pensions Commission found little evidence of increased contributions owing to stakeholder pension schemes, does the Minister share the same definition of success as
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the current chairman of the Labour party who, when he was a Pensions Minister, said that the scheme was a tremendous success?

Mr. Timms: As I said to the House, there are almost 2.5 million stakeholder pensions, and contributions to them in the last year for which we have data topped £2 billion, so they are making an important contribution. The work of the Pensions Commission is to advise us how we can further increase pensions saving and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like everyone on the Labour Benches, is very much looking forward to the commission's report later this year.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Whatever the merits or demerits of the stakeholder pension system, does the Minister agree that, for many of my constituents who were pensioners of British United Shoe Machinery, stakeholder pensions are of little assistance? The BUSM pension disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Will the Government apply their mind to looking into the matter and finding out where the money went and what can be done to assist the pensioners of that company in my constituency?

Mr. Timms: I am happy to look into the instance to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred. In recent years, there have been too many instances of that kind, which is why we introduced the Pension Protection Fund and the financial assistance scheme, but I shall be happy to look at the particular case that he raises.

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