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Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but is he aware that the Trades Union Congress recently undertook a survey into the way in which the regulations are working, from which it transpired that a number of employers were failing to comply with the regulations, particularly in the area of sight testing and in making available free sight tests? Does the Minister agree that one of the ways in which employees can make absolutely certain that these very important regulations are being complied with is to belong to a union and to ensure that their union makes it clear to their employer that the regulations must be complied with?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am not surprised that the noble Baroness says that, but I do not know that I can confirm what she has said. If a person wants to join a union, he may do so, but I would not suggest that he should do so. That is a matter for him. I know that the TUC carried out a survey, as did the Health and Safety Commission. Its survey covered 1,200 employers, 660 employees and 100 union representatives. It found that over 95 per cent. of employers said that intensive users were allowed to

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take breaks; that 80 per cent. had made alterations to work stations; that 39 per cent. had made formal risk assessments of work stations; and that 35 per cent. had arranged eye tests, but eye tests only have to be provided on request. As a result, 1 million people have had their eyes tested. I do not think that is a bad record.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, can the Minister say whether there have been any prosecutions?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, in the period 1993-95 six improvement notices have been served by the Health and Safety Executive.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford: My Lords, can the noble Earl explain why employers have to pay for the eye tests and not the National Health Service? Are the Government secretly planning to sign up to the social chapter, which would mean that all kinds of burdens that are not normally placed on employers would be placed upon them?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord lets his imagination run ahead of himself. There is no suggestion that we should sign up to the social chapter. The fact is that we were obliged to comply with this directive which was passed by qualified majority voting. It was brought into effect in regulations on 1st January 1993. We were against the directive because we thought that it was unnecessary. Employers have to provide proper work places and proper conditions for their employees. If an employee requires his eyesight testing--not because he thinks he is short-sighted, but because he thinks that his eyes have been damaged as a result of working with a screen--the employer is obliged to arrange such an eye test.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford: My Lords, I am responsible for employing several hundred people who require eye tests because they work on computers. Why does the employer and not the National Health Service have to pay for them? That places an additional burden on employers which they would expect to have only if this country had joined the Social Chapter.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I do not believe that the noble Lord should worry too much. If he has hundreds of people working for him who require lots of tests presumably he must be arranging fairly good ones. But, so the theory goes, if people feel that their eyes are being damaged as a result of the circumstances in which the noble Lord obliges them to work, it is right that the noble Lord should arrange for them to have their eyes tested to make sure that they are all right.

Lord Peston: My Lords, can the noble Earl confirm that in this country we no longer have free eye tests? I hope that is right because only the other day I was charged for such a test. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, is unaware of what this Government have done. Does this particular set of regulations apply to employees in your Lordships'

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House? Is this House meeting all of the standards set out in the regulations, whether or not they apply to the employees?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is probably in a better position to answer that question than I am. He is chairman of the Refreshment Department. I am sure that all of the people who look into his computers as well as frying pans have had their eyes properly looked after. I cannot tell your Lordships whether or not that is so in this House, but these regulations apply to all people who work for employers where visual display units are used.

Lord Rochester: My Lords, is the noble Earl satisfied that Regulation 6 is being fully observed by employers? That regulation obliges employers to provide users of this equipment with adequate health and safety training.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, when the inspectors visit premises they ensure that people are given proper facilities. They are obliged to make sure that the working environment is good: in other words, that the employees have chairs which are properly adjusted, that their working routine is correct, that they have breaks and that they have training for the machines and systems. They are also required to arrange eye tests. The inspectors have found that, on the whole, it has worked sufficiently well, such that only six people have had improvement notices placed upon them. Of course, when inspectors make visits, they give advice to employers where that is necessary. I have no reason to believe that the position is other than satisfactory.

Social Security Benefits: Administration

2.52 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the plans reported in The Guardian on 29th June and 18th July to transfer social security functions to the private sector are correctly reported.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, the Secretary of State for Social Security announced on Friday three initiatives for further involvement of the private sector in delivering social security benefits. These are the administration of the child benefit centre; management partnerships in three Benefits Agency areas; and the launch of the procurement process for a new information technology strategy. These improvements to administration will not change any individual's benefit entitlement. As I announced on 28th June, we are also seeking to transfer ownership and management of the department's estate to the private sector.

Earl Russell: My Lords, as the Secretary of State so generously timed his Written Answer at 4.30 p.m. last Friday to allow us to question it today, can the Minister explain how the Secretary of State has discovered the

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philosopher's stone, which has eluded his predecessors for four centuries, so that it is possible for a monopoly provider to provide a public service for private profit without ripping off the consumer?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I suppose that the noble Earl is referring to the decision to see whether it is possible to outsource the administration of child benefit. We on this side of the House, unlike the noble Earl, believe that private enterprise has a lot going for it that state suppliers do not have. One of them is efficiency and effectiveness. We will be looking at the possibility of putting out a contract with the private sector to administer this benefit to our specification. From previous experience, we are likely to achieve savings in administration. In addition, as the IT system of child benefit requires to be updated and modernised we will have the expertise of the private sector to help us to do it.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that Mr. John Beckwith, chairman of the Premier Club, which offers to provide lunch with the Prime Minister for £100,000 and advises businessmen on how to break the law by not declaring these as political contributions in their accounts, is on the short list of bidders for the DSS premises? How does the Minister square that with his conscience?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers. A short list will not be drawn up until after 2nd August. Mr. Beckwith and a number of other companies have expressed an interest in the project and have asked for papers. Whether or not he returns those papers or makes the short list remains to be seen. With regard to the other part of the Question posed by the noble Lord, I did not think there was anything illegal about individuals helping political parties. Perhaps the noble Lord is jealous that his own leader cannot command the kind of dinner party interest that would bring in the level of funds that has been talked about.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the magic words to be uttered in response to the original Question are perhaps "direct labour organisations"? Does my noble friend recollect that only a few years ago most noble Lords on the opposite side of the House regarded direct labour organisations as wonderful things and said that if anything was done to them the whole fabric of government would collapse? They have just moved their ground a little. In another five years they will have caught up with this initiative, too.

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