Free Eye Tests

Oral Answers to Questions — Wales – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 30th October 2002.

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Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire 2:30 pm, 30th October 2002

If he will take steps to arrange for the devolution of powers to the National Assembly for Wales to enable free eye tests to be available in Wales.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

Certain groups of people, including those under 16, those over 60 and those in receipt of income support and other benefits, are already entitled to free NHS eye tests in the United Kingdom. The power to make regulations relating to fee exemptions for eye tests has been devolved to the Assembly.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank the Minister for that answer. I congratulate the Secretary of State on spelling out so clearly the achievements of the Liberal Democratic-led coalition Government in Cardiff. They are a wonderful Government. In 1989, the Conservative Government introduced charges for eye services as part of their continuing dismemberment of the national health service. Will the Minister ensure that, in any health Bill that appears in the Queen's Speech, an enabling clause is included to enable the National Assembly to deliver free health care? Will the Secretary of State put his mouth where his Nye Bevan statue is?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

The danger of being led by the Liberal Democrats is that they may lead us up a blind alley, as we have experienced in the past. Under the National Health Service Act 1977 and other regulations, certain groups are already exempt from charges for eye tests. Primary legislation would be required to abolition all fees for eye tests in England and Wales. As far as I am aware, the Government have no plans to do that.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

I also take this opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State to his new position in the Cabinet. I pay tribute to his predecessor, who won respect from both sides of the House. I wish him well in his new job in Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree with me that the Welsh Assembly might be perceived as more relevant if it concentrated on issues over which it has some responsibility, such as agricultural collapse, the NHS waiting lists crisis, and the meltdown of manufacturing jobs, rather than debating issues for which it has no responsibility, such as Iraq and the middle east, which it debated yesterday?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

I am not clear what that has to do with eye tests, although I note that yesterday's debate on Iraq was led by Plaid Cymru. Perhaps that party has a visual problem, as one would expect. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but the subjects to be discussed by the National Assembly are matters for the Assembly. The First Minister has made it absolutely clear that the Labour-led Administration in the National Assembly are concerned about the economy, jobs, health and education. Those are the issues that we will put across to the people of Wales, and which will give the Labour party a majority in the Assembly at the next election.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The House is far too noisy at the moment. It is unfair to hon. Members. I call Mr. Nigel Evans.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

We are always hearing demands from other political parties that they want extension of powers for the Welsh Assembly. The Minister will know that Lord Richard is conducting his own Assembly-sponsored inquiry into the number of politicians in the Welsh Assembly and the powers that they currently have. We already know that the Secretary of State for Wales and the Foreign Secretary are not so keen on referendums. The Foreign Secretary has told the people of Gibraltar that he thinks their desire for a referendum rather eccentric; indeed, he may not even take heed of what they say. If Lord Richard recommends extending the power of the Welsh Assembly, will the Minister—given the slight and slim majority that voted in favour of devolution—give the people of Wales another say in whether there should be such an extension of powers?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Richard commission is matter for the National Assembly. The Assembly set up the commission, and it has agreed the criteria by which it will operate. The Government will await the commission's conclusions, which will doubtless be debated by the Assembly, and we will respond at the appropriate time.