HC Deb 14 November 1950 vol 480 cc1635-48

7.20 p.m.

Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I propose to raise the question of the supply of spectacles for three specific reasons. First, it is in the interest of my constituents who are my primary consideration; second, to safeguard the interest of the opticians who have got a responsibility to comply with the terms of the National Health Act, and at the same time satisfy their clients; and, third, because I wish to assist the Minister of Health in developing an efficient and effective medical service. I and my party both believe in the service, and if we have an opportunity to discuss the administration of that service we may be able to make it work more efficient and more smoothly.

Mr. Daines (East Ham, North)

The hon. Lady said just now that she and her party were in favour of the National Health Scheme. Is she aware that in the last Parliament, of which she was not a Member, her party voted against the Second and Third Readings of the National Health Seri ice Act?

Miss Ward

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are not now on the hustings and that I have no intention of dealing with him as I would deal with an ordinary heckler in my constituency. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that that sort of misleading, stupid, and quite incorrect statement was made by supporters of his party during my election campaign. Fortunately, I was elected on the votes of my constituency, and I swept away my predecessor in the House of Commons. Therefore, the people of my constituency believed my story and not the story of the previous Member. If the hon. Gentleman wishes me to make an election speech I shall be delighted to do so, but all I would say now, in reply to hon. Members opposite, is that the speeches and views of my party convinced the electorates who supported us at the polls.

The subject I wish to deal with tonight is very important. I have always enjoyed good heckling, but we need not indulge in that tonight. Some time ago, the Minister of Health said that the average delay for the supply of spectacles to those entitled to them under the National Health Service ran to about four months. One of the opticians in my constituency had very great difficulty in getting supplies, the delay running to 18 months in many cases. He wrote direct to the right hon. Gentleman pointing out that so far as he was concerned the relatively favourable position outlined by the right hon. Gentleman did not operate in his case. After a little delay a letter was received from the Department couched in these terms: Dear Sir,—You recently wrote to this Department concerning delays arising in deliveries of certain orders for spectacles placed with Messrs. Lenton & Rusby, Ltd. In all the circumstances I would suggest that you should consider withdrawing the orders in question and placing them with other prescription houses. It must, however, be emphasised that in making this suggestion no criticism of Messrs. Lenton & Rusby is implied. That firm's work on behalf of the National Health Service over the last two years is well-known and appreciated in this Department.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

I should like to know why hon. Members on the opposite side of the House, who know nothing about this firm, should begin to be amused about it.

Mr. Bowen (Cardigan)

If I am one of the persons referred to, I should say that the implication of that letter is that the Ministry suggest that this optician would get better service if he went to another supplier.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

The hon. Gentleman should wait until he has heard the Debate.

Mr. Bowen

I am entitled at any stage to state what my reactions are, and, incidentally, without the permission of the hon. Member.

Miss Ward

With my permission, it I may say so. I am delighted to give way to the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen).

Mr. Bowen

It seems to me only reasonable to infer—if I have good reason to amend my reaction at the appropriate time I certainly will—that the Ministry were suggesting that it might well be that the cause of the delay was the present source of supply and that, therefore, if the optician concerned changed his supplier that might do away with his great difficulties.

Mr. Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook) rose——

Miss Ward

Perhaps the House will allow me to finish my speech. We have a great deal of time in hand, and if any hon. Gentleman wishes to contribute subsequently to the Debate the House will be delighted to hear his views.

When the optician concerned sent me that letter from the Department I was seriously perturbed. In the first instance, the letter did not contain a single word of regret about the difficulty in which the optician found himself. Neither did the letter make any suggestion that the Minister would subsequently take steps to ensure that my constituents were supplied with their spectacles. The letter was couched in very formal terms, and, personally, I did not particularly wish that Whitehall attitude to be conveyed to my constituency in communications relating to the National Health Service.

I should have been very much better pleased if the Department had written expressing regret at the delay, and saying that if the optician was in any further difficulty he should once again get in touch with the Ministry of Health. That was not in the letter. It was a very curt letter, and it did not convey to the optician that thus were other suppliers with supplies available, which is a very important point, because this optician had been waiting for a long time, going back some 18 months, for the supply of spectacles for some of his clients. If, on that letter, he had attempted to change his supplier he might have found himself at the bottom of a list, which would have increased the delay to those people who looked to him for the implementation of their orders. When that letter was sent to me I wrote to the Minister of Health protesting about it. In the reply I received from him he referred, of course, to the name of the optician, but I shall withhold the name. The Minister said that my optician's complaint was one of many received in the early part of the year. At a time when the arrears with other prescription manufacturers were beginning to decrease Messrs. Lenton and Rusby, with a weekly output of some 1,500 pairs of spectacles, had about 57,000 orders outstanding. This delay caused us deep concern and we did all we could to get better deliveries. In early June the case of Mr. ——'s outstanding prescriptions was brought with others to Messrs. Lenton and Rusby's notice with an offer from us to assist in getting supplies if lenses were the bottleneck. We had previously received promises from the manufacturers that lenses would be forthcoming to get Messrs. Lenton and Rusby out of their difficulties. The firm's reply to our offer was not satisfactory and the only practical advice we could give to opticians was to place their orders elsewhere. As Messrs. Lenton and Rusby were at this time threatening legal action against opticians for withdrawing orders our letter to Mr.—— was, of necessity, somewhat re-strained. The advice, however, was right, as Messrs. Lenton and Rusby themselves now admit, and some 16,000 orders have been withdrawn. My comment on that was that some indication should have been given by the Department to the optician that other capacity was available.

I disapproved of the terms of the letter, and that was really why I entered into this matter. Nevertheless, having received that letter from the right hon. Gentleman, I proceeded to find out whether the Department had got in touch with my optician and whether he had taken cognisance of the advice contained in the original letter and had endeavoured to place his order elsewhere.

I once again wrote to the Minister, drawing attention to what I considered the unsatisfactory method of trying to meet the legitimate claims not only of the opticians concerned but of my constituents, who, naturally, were getting extremely agitated at having to wait such a long time for their spectacles. I got another letter from the Minister. I may tell hon. Members that I shook the Ministry pretty hard when I telephoned his Department. The Minister of Health does not mince his words and I do not mince mine either. The Minister wrote: The situation has been discussed by telephone with Mr. …, and he has been told that if he cares to withdraw any of these prescriptions and send them to this office, we will place them with firms which have offered to co-operate and give Mr. … quick delivery. I would add that over a period of many months my officers have had frequent meetings with the industry to find ways and means of reducing the number of arrears schemes have been put into operation which have proved very successful, but, unfortunately, Lenton and Rusby do not always co-operate with other manufacturers, and we have had to suggest to opticians who complained that they should consider cancelling very old orders and placing them elsewhere. I want to say, on behalf of my optician, that once I got the Department in communication with him direct that Department was most helpful and did everything it possibly could to assist him. For that, both he and I are extremely grateful. I telegraphed to my optician and told him to act on the advice contained in the Minister's letter to me. I subsequently got from him a copy of a letter he had sent to Messrs. Lenton and Rusby, in which he said: Within the last three days, I have received correspondence from Miss Irene Ward and the Minister of Health himself, in which he states that it may be advisable for me to withdraw my work from your firm and place it with some other firm who can complete the work more speedily. Further communication from the 'Supplies Department' of the Ministry of Health by telephone has been most helpful and I can now understand the position very clearly. That was quite a courteous letter, sent after very great difficulty and very great delay. I now want to read a letter which bears out the Ministry's indication to me that they were having difficulty with Messrs. Lenton and Rusby. I received the communication as a registered letter from Messrs. Lenton and Rusby, after what I consider was an extremely courteous letter sent by my optician to that firm. I will read the letter which they sent to him, a copy of which they sent me. We must object most strongly to your last paragraph—the Ministry of Health are perfectly aware that we have been working seven days a week and we can only state that this paragraph is grossly untrue, and that it is a great pity that the letter was not addressed to this firm rather than to me personally, otherwise the matter could have been dealt with in a totally different way. It is grossly unfair, attacking the head staff of a very large firm like this, by addressing this letter to me personally, which you know, legally, have no redress. No doubt you will inform Miss Irene Ward, M.P., that we are also taking this matter up through the following"— and here follows a list of organisations.

I am in some difficulty about attacking a private firm in this House. I know that they had very great difficulty indeed, and I hope an hon. Friend of mine will emphasise the difficulties of the firm. I would state, however, straight away, that it is quite monstrous of any firm deliberately to refrain from allowing people to withdraw orders which, under the terms of the National Health Service Act, must be placed, when that firm is not in a position to deal with those orders. Whatever the difficulties of Messrs. Lenton and Rusby may have been—and I sympathise with them very much indeed—I do not consider that they were serving the interests of their firm, or opticians in general, of the Ministry of Health, or of my constituents—which, after all, is a most important matter—by threatening legal action against opticians who were trying to protect those whom they are supposed to serve under the National Health Act.

So far as I know, the story has now been told, and the position has been straightened out. My constituents will very shortly be receiving their outstanding orders; but there are just two points that I want to make. I hope that, in future, the supplies department of the Ministry of Health, when there is any hold-up, will go very closely into the matter to see what they can do to be of assistance. The closer the co-operation, the better the relationship, the more friendly the communication, the better will the Health Service be. That, after all, is what I and my hon. Friends want. I am bound to say that I find it most extraordinary that the Minister of Health, who is not lacking in courage, should try to safeguard his own interests and to throw over my optician and my constituents. I take very great exception indeed to his attitude in that matter. It angers me immensely that an optician of high repute in my constituency, who had served——

Mr. Blenkinsop

Will the hon. Lady explain how we have thrown him over? We seem to have saved him.

Miss Ward

The hon. Gentleman is not being very wise in making that interjection. What the Minister did was to safeguard himself against unpleasant action by Messrs. Lenton and Rusby and endeavour, at the same time, to persuade my optician to withdraw the order. If he had done that and had been prosecuted the hon. Gentleman's Department would not have said a single word in support of the action taken by my optician. That was made perfectly plain in the original letter which went from his Department to my optician, and that is what I am complaining about.

I think that the Department has a very legitimate complaint against the manufacturers concerned. In a matter of this kind surely it should fall to the Minister of Health to close with the manufacturer. If the optician had been prosecuted, surely the Ministry of Health could have told the story in court and he would then have had all the support of those people who do not like to see these delays in the National Health Service. Surely no right hon. or hon. Gentleman would wish to try to shake himself free from an unpleasant reaction, place the responsibility on a working optician and say to him, "That is your only redress, but do not come to me if you want any help."

I am told that a telephone conversation took place after I had protested to the right hon. Gentleman and that it was said over the telephone that if the optician got into difficulty with Messrs. Lenton and Rushy he could not look for any support or help from the Department. I do not consider that that is playing the game and I take very great exception to it. What is more, when we have as Minister of Health a right hon. Gentleman who is so outspoken, I should have thought that he would have had a little more courage and that he could have closed with Messrs. Lenton and Rusby and said, "You do your worst and I will let the country know how you have refused to co-operate in trying to get these orders dealt with at the earliest possible moment."

I find it extraordinarily queer that this "little bit of vermin" should be the person who advocates a firm stand when a private concern behaves badly and that this great Minister of Health, who is always fulminating about the country, has not the courage, when opportunity arises, to close with an unsatisfactory firm and come out on the side of the small man and my constituents. Subject to my hearing the Government's reply, I can only hope that if, in future, a similar occurrence comes to the notice of the Department or to the notice of an hon. Member we shall have the courage to remember that we have a responsibility to people in the National Health Service to give them what they are entitled to under the great scheme to which all parties have paid a contribution.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. E. Martin Smith (Grantham)

While I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Irene Ward) on the importance of hurrying up the supply of spectacles, I have been rather more fortunate in my dealings with this firm, having always found them extremely courteous and extremely willing to do their best to overcome the delays and difficulties, and there is no doubt that there have been many delays and difficulties. I know that some of my constituents have been waiting sometimes for a year and sometimes longer for their spectacles and that in many cases their health has been impaired, and I suppose that in many cases there may have been a measurable loss of production. But I think that some of the heat which has been engendered between Messrs. Lenton and Rusby, the Ministry and others may be due to the various controls and frustrations put upon the firm and upon all the industry.

The important thing is to get the spectacles delivered with the least possible delay. First, I should like to have an assurance from the Government that there is sufficient capacity in the country for the production of these spectacles without unreasonable delay. Secondly, I should like to be assured that enough apprentices are entering the trade. This firm has told me that since the Act came into force 30 per cent. of their trained personnel have left. I have not time to go into the reasons for that now. Thirdly, if the Government want these spectacles produced, they must see that these firms are given the necessary licences to bring their factories up to date, and I should like an assurance also to this effect.

This factory has been waiting since 1939 to build flats for its employees and it can get no satisfaction from the Government Departments concerned. The road in front of the works, which is considered to be one of the best light industrial units in the country, was scheduled for widening in 1939, and this work has not been done in spite of the firm selling the land at a nominal price for the purpose. Their Waingate premises were destroyed by enemy action in December, 1940, the home of this firm for over 100 years. Not one brick has been laid yet.

It must be pointed out that part of the blame must fall on the Minister. If he helped in some degree in this way, we should get the spectacles delivered very quickly. I should be glad to have assurances that there is capacity in the country through this and other firms for the spectacles to be delivered on time, that sufficient apprentices are being attracted to the trade—it takes four years to train an apprentice—and, if not, that some way will be found to attract them, and that the Government will not impede the production of spectacles by refusing building licences to the firms concerned.

7.47 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Irene Ward) for raising this matter in the House tonight, although I admit that it is a little odd that as a representative of a party which vigorously supports private enterprise she should come to the House with the claim that the Ministry of Health ought to interfere more vigorously with private enterprise and assist private enterprise out of its difficulties. In effect, that is what she is asking us to do.

It seems to me that there is a limit to the amount that the Ministry can undertake in doing the work of the optician, and, in some cases, of the manufacturer, for him, because the contract is a contract between the optician and whoever may be the manufacturer with whom the optician decides to place his orders, just as in any other form of business. It appears to me that it would be quite wrong for the Ministry to interfere with that contract. Whatever the Ministry might wish to do and whatever advice they might give, it is quite clear that any responsibility with regard to the contract between the optician and the manufacturer must remain between those two parties.

There is no question at all about the position of the Ministry in this. I quite agree that we are anxious in the Ministry—we have shown it in this case—to help in every possible way we can both the opticians and the manufacturers to overcome the difficulties, but at the same time we must expect both the opticians and the manufacturers to do a bit for themselves. In this instance it appears to us that both parties might have done a bit more in effective private enterprise, instead of leaving as much as they did to the Ministry of Health to do for them.

I am glad to be able to say tonight in reply to the hon. Lady that, thanks largely to the efforts of the Ministry of Health, and those much maligned people the civil servants within the Ministry, we have now within a remarkably short space of time nearly overtaken the backlog of orders in this field. The problem now remaining is the problem of those particular types of lenses which still may give us trouble for some months ahead. However, as far as the simple types of lenses are concerned, we have now got to a reasonable delivery date throughout the country. So far as special types are concerned, bifocals and others, delivery dates are steadily improving month by month. There is no doubt, therefore, that we can give the assurance asked for by the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. E. Martin Smith), that there is sufficient capacity within the country now to deal with the demands we are receiving, both for the simple and for the more complex types of lenses.

In the early days after the scheme came into operation, orders were often placed with comparative newcomers to the trade on the manufacturing side who would accept only a simple type of lens that could be manufactured on a mass-production basis. These newcomers handed back the bulk of their more difficult orders, which almost inevitably fell to be dealt with by a comparatively limited number of old-established firms, of which Messrs. Lenton and Rusby were one. They have had a good reputation in the trade for the quality of their work, and I do not wish to make any complaint in that respect. It was inevitable that these old-established firms, getting a much higher proportion of the more difficult types of lenses to manufacture, had much later delivery dates than other firms who were merely dealing with the comparatively simple types of lenses.

We managed to secure an agreement between the bulk of the manufacturers of lenses to help each other. We encouraged the manufacturers, particularly those who were members of their own association, to join together to try to help each other out of difficulties in certain types of lenses. Unfortunately, Messrs. Lenton and Rusby were not prepared to join in that agreement. Of course, it was entirely up to them whether they did so or not, but their decision not to do so undoubtedly added to their difficulties. It meant that while other firms by co-operative effort were able to overcome many of their most difficult cases, this firm still had them mounting up on their order book.

It is true that we received complaints about the deliveries of this firm from many quarters. In addition to the cases mentioned by the hon. Lady, there were complaints from other parts of the country. It was obvious, from the number of orders outstanding, that something would have to be done to help to get deliveries. Therefore, we suggested to the firm that if there was anything on which we could help them, such as securing their supplies, we should be willing to give any assistance we could. Unfortunately, I cannot say that they were particularly helpful in response to that letter.

Then we suggested to them that, as an emergency measure, they should consider allowing the opticians who had orders with them to withdraw some part of their orders. Although at first that produced a rather unwelcome response, nevertheless after a good deal of correspondence—and the file is a particularly lengthy one—they agreed that this was the sensible thing to do. We suggested—and we did no more than suggest—to this optician in the constituency of the hon. Lady, and in one, if not two, other cases, that they might follow the course of withdrawing orders. We assumed that the optician concerned would know his trade to some extent, and possibly be able to consult his own association, in order to put orders with other firms which had not quite the same difficulty. We must assume that opticians know something of the trade and the different manufacturers concerned. We cannot accept the responsibility of having to spoon feed opticians generally. It would be quite impossible if the Ministry were expected to find suitable manufacturers for every optician in the country. We could not do it.

When, however, we found that this optician was not able to find alternative channels for his trade, we took the further steps described by the hon. Lady, and in the result we have been able to place the outstanding orders for him. I understand that in many cases delivery has been secured, and that for those which are still outstanding delivery will shortly be made. The result is that this optician may have secured some advantage over other opticians for whom we have not taken this action, and, indeed, who have not asked us to do so, but have taken their own measures.

I should say about the firm in question that they sometimes write peculiar letters not only to the hon. Lady but to the Ministry of Health, and all over the country as far as I can find out. In one letter quoted by the hon. Lady they said that they were, in addition, taking it up with Members of Parliament through the Central Conservative Office. Whether they did so, I do not know. We have not had any further approach from that quarter. When the hon. Lady said that the optician sent a courteous letter, she did not read out the last paragraph, which had quite a sting to it.

Miss Ward

That was simply because the letter was so long. Would the hon. Gentleman kindly read it out, because I would like it to be on record.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I was just about to do so. The last paragraph reads: I trust, therefore, that you will be good enough to return to me all the unfinished work you have in my name, as, apparently, very little effort is being made to complete these long outstanding orders which now date back some sixteen months or more. I think the firm might reasonably have been a bit upset about that, as it was attempting to meet them as rapidly as possible. As I have said, they have sent, not only in this case but in almost one hundred other cases, most odd letters. I do not want to criticise that, because hon. Members on all sides of the House from time to time write odd letters as well, and therefore one must not criticise a firm particularly about that. The point which, we are all agreed, matters is that the constituents of the hon. Lady either have got delivery of their spectacles or are about to get delivery of them, probably, in some cases, sooner than if their supply had been left to the normal operations of private enterprise.

In these questions we must expect the trade itself to take a good part of the action that is needed. We have provided the trade with a great opportunity, both of service to the country as a whole and to do business greater than they might have expected before. It is reasonable to expect both opticians and manufacturers to take advantage of this opportunity and to show that they are really capable of that energetic competitive spirit, which, we are always told, is vigorously pulsating through the mass of individual private firms. I am not sure that that has been so in the firms in this particular instance, although I pay credit to the many firms which have done very well and have helped us to secure the very much quicker rate of delivery which now exists.