HC Deb 18 April 1958 vol 586 cc514-38

It shall be the duty of the General Optical Council, after consultation with the organisations appearing to them to represent the interests of a substantial number of opticians, to publish from time to time as they think fit, recommended standards of conduct for the guidance of opticians in fixing charges to the general public for optical appliances or parts of optical appliances.—[Mr. Chapman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.58 a.m.

Mr. Donald Chapman (Birmingham, Northfield)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member also has on the Order Paper two Amendments to Clause 25, in page 20; one is line 16, at end insert: Provided that the Council shall first be satisfied that high standards of professional conduct are being generally applied by opticians in fixing charges to the general public for optical appliances or parts of optical appliances. and the other in line 34, at end insert "and their prices".

The two Amendments seem to provide an alternative method of effecting the same purpose as that of the proposed new Clause. Perhaps we can have one discussion covering the Clause and the two Amendments.

Mr. Chapman

That would be very convenient, Mr. Speaker, I understand from what you have just said that at a later stage I may be given the opportunity formally to move the Amendments and to call a vote on them if need be. At this stage we can discuss the Amendments and the proposed new Clause together. I shall be as brief as I can in explaining the situation covered, but perhaps I may be allowed to go into at least some of the history of the origins of the proposals. This matter is, perhaps, apart from the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Kirkdale (Mr. N. Pannell), the most controversial matter, and, therefore, perhaps I may take a little time in order to justify my proposals.

12 noon.

The effect of the new Clause, if I may take that first, would be that the General Optical Council, following its constitution, would have the duty of looking at the way in which opticians charge for privately supplied spectacles and the duty of publishing guidance to opticians about the system which they should follow in fixing those charges. Many of us believe that the high standard of professional conduct needed here is that of having a system of charging whereby a charge is made to the patient for doing the actual work of dispensing the spectacles and then of adding the cost price of the frames and lenses, as compared with the prevalent and almost wholly universal method today of simply charging, say, five or six guineas for a pair of spectacles.

The new Clause would give the Optical Council the duty of guiding the profession, once it is constituted as a regulated profession under the Bill, and of telling the profession how best in its own professional good interest it should proceed in fixing these charges. It would not, and I would repeat this time and again if I may, have the job of seeing that the charge was so many shillings or pounds for doing the work; it would only outline the system which should be followed and would leave the actual cost to be regulated either by the individual optician or on the recommendation of his professional association. The Council would be doing this job in order to get a change in the system.

Having done this, the Council would put pressure on the opticians to carry out this system by publicity, merely by saying, "This is the professional way of doing it. If you want a good reputation, this is the way to do it." The Council would not be able to force opticians to do it. There would be no penal clause. But I believe that if the profession is to live up to its own reputation it will want to carry out the sort of thing recommended by its Optical Council.

The first Amendment which we are discussing with the new Clause is that which would come into operation with Clause 25. Clause 25 was exhaustively discussed in Committee. The contentious paragraph of Clause 25 is paragraph (a) which gives the Optical Council power to prohibit advertising by opticians. I am saying that the alternative way of carrying out what I have in mind, which is to get a professional system of charging in the profession, is to say that this ban on advertising cannot come into force until the Optical Council has satisfied itself that the profession has put its house in order in this respect—until, in fact, the professional bodies have recommended to the individual optician that there should be a professional system of charging and opticians generally have put that system into practice. That is the effect of the Amendment. It is, as it were, an alternative way of carrying out what I have in mind.

The advantage derived from the new Clause would be that the Optical Council would not have the job of doing any investigating, of drawing up codes of conduct or of making recommendations and publishing them. It would simply have to be satisfied that the profession was doing the thing for itself and was being successful in securing acceptance of the system by opticians generally. To that extent, therefore, the Amendment is perhaps more acceptable than the new Clause to those who, so to speak, are not generally in sympathy with what I am doing. I will come to the Amendment a little later.

Let me take the two and try to give the history of and justification for them. There were great discussions on the matter in Committee upstairs. Throughout the passage of the Bill I have pointed to the grave danger that exists in the way that the profession at the moment overcharges for privately supplied spectacles and lenses. I am interested in protecting the patient—in consumer protection. What I have said throughout the passage of the Bill—and I repeat it now—is that this profession, which, so to speak, is to some of us a borderline profession, is to some extent a mixture of a profession and a trading function. In the profession there is the simple job of selling a manufactured product, a spectacle frame.

At the risk of tedious repetition I must repeat what I said upstairs, that all this talk about individually manufactured frames tailored to individual requirements is, generally speaking, a lot of nonsense. This happens only in a small minority of cases. Over 90 per cent. of spectacle frames are manufactured by simple manufacturers and sold in different sizes, with different styles of bridges and side pieces and measurements. To that extent, they are manufactured products generally sold, so to speak, in a trading fashion.

I would not go so far as simply to call them merchandise, as one optician who has written to me does. I have had a mountain of correspondence on the matter and some opticians support me to the extent of going much further and saying that these things are simply merchandise and that we should face that fact. I do not go so far as that. I am saying that here is a varied commodity which, with the skill of the optician, can be dispensed to fit the individual face, eye and taste. Nevertheless, it remains largely a trading function of things which can be bought at so much a gross or so much a dozen. That is how spectacle frames are normally sold.

What I have said throughout our deliberations on the Bill is that I do not want members of the profession to be placed in the position of using their apparent disinterestedness as professional men as a cloak for overcharging for a fairly standardised product. That is all I am saying. I am making no reckless allegations of widespread abuse, although I am prepared to give some figures in a minute. All I am saying is that the Bill as drafted gives a greater opportunity for abuse in that direction.

The Bill gives the Optical Council a power, which it will no doubt carry out, of banning all advertising and price display. That means that the public will never know the real worth of spectacle frames, and I will give some figures of what they are worth in a minute. The public will never know. People will be merely, as now, ushered into a consulting room, and then they will say, perhaps, as so many of them do now, that the frames available under the National Health Service are too plain for them, and that they would prefer something more fancy and attractive. They will then be told, "We can give you this pair of spectacles for 5 guineas, instead of the 30s.—" or whatever the figure is—"under the National Health Service." Nobody will be able to display any prices of goods, and there will be no advertising. Nobody will know what is the real worth of the frames or the cost of the lenses, or, in fact, whether or not they are being over-charged.

What we are doing in the Bill as it now stands is to take away consumer protection, and we are taking it away quite deliberately by putting in a ban on advertising and price display. We are putting in its place nothing at all to protect the consumer, who will be entirely in the hands of the profession and will just have to hope that the profession will not overcharge him and will live up to some professional reputation which—and I say this deliberately—it has not shown so far in this matter.

Let me quote what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Coldrick) said in Committee, upstairs, because I thought he put it very well, when he said, in justification of my view about not trusting these people too far, that we want them to have a sense of status. Do not let us pretend, however, that they are paragons among men. In a reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Baird), my hon. Friend said: My hon. Friend is quite mistaken if he assumes that some of us are so innocent as to imagine that just because people belong to a profession they are actuated by motives distinct and different from those of ordinary wage earners. It seems to me that behind a facade of providing for the public, or the consumer, we are really conferring upon a professional body powers which we should not dream of conferring on the ordinary trade union in this country. He added: The assumption is that because persons have trained in a profession for a period of time in order to administer to the needs of a certain section of the community they should have conferred upon them, not in consequence of their ability to organise themselves, but by legislation, great powers to regulate the whole of the profession as it affects the consumer."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 5th February, 1958; cc. 65–66.] My hon. Friend is quite right. We are handing over to people the power to sell spectacles behind closed doors, with no price display and no guarantee at all that the general public will not be overcharged. That is precisely what the Bill is doing.

Let me now come to the figures. My source of information, for which people have asked me, are the opticians who are friendly to my cause in this matter. They are reputable men who have had no reason to keep from me or anyone else the costs of buying and selling in their trade. The figures I propose to give are from no secret source, and with no personal interest in the industry. They are given to me by reputable professional men.

The cost of spectacle frames is measured not in pounds but in shillings. The National Health Service frames cost about 10s., but the fancy frames which people buy in the shops usually cost something between 10s. and 25s., but nearer 10s. more often than not. On top of that, we get lenses worth about 15s. I think that is general. Therefore, we have spectacles which, privately supplied, are worth in a trading sense about 30s. What should a professional man charge, and what does he charge? Under the National Health Service he gets a dispensing fee for providing spectacles, which the State fixes, I think, at 24s. At any rate, let us take the figure of 24s., because the optician has freely negotiated that figure himself inside the National Health Service. Let us add that to the 30s. cost of the frame and lenses, and the spectacles would then cost about 54s., privately supplied.

What, in fact, do they cost? The customer does not pay 54s., more often than not, except for the very cheapest kinds, which are not worth that sort of figure, because I have taken the highest total cost. He usually pays five or six guineas, and sometimes perhaps a little less; perhaps four guineas, but generally five or six.

12.15 p.m.

I had a look the other day at some spectacles supplied to one of my constituents. She came to me and said "These cost me five guineas." I had a look at them, and found that they were supplied by one of the biggest multiple firms, which does not do any advertising and which is all nicely protected by the British Optical Association—very good boys in the profession. I told my constituent quite frankly that these spectacles were worth about 35s. to 40s., and that, on top of that, she should have paid only the dispensing fee of about 25s. Instead, she paid not £3 5s., but £5 5s., and this is the sort of thing that is going on in this profession.

I am not saying that all opticians are disreputable. I am saying only that I am not willing to write into legislation the power for a profession to go on doing this without any public scrutiny or public regulation. In this Bill, we are taking away a form of consumer protection by removing the display of prices. In the light of the knowledge which we have of what is going on in that industry and profession, I say that we have no right to do this without writing into the Bill an alternative form of consumer protection, which is the way in which my proposals are intended to act. My new Clause and Amendments propose that an alternative form of consumer protection shall be written into the Bill.

May I now give the House some quotations from a letter sent to me by a manufacturer's representative? Here is a man who knows what he is saying. This man works for an old-established firm in the Midlands which has a reputation for high quality goods, and, I think, a concentration on high quality goods. He signs his letter anonymously, because he does not want to lose his job. He writes: As a manufacturer's representative, with a reputation for quality work, I see many a case of price cutting that is positively disgusting, particularly when one considers that it is the spectacle-wearing public who suffer. My firm's products are time and time again turned down, not because of some fault in the workmanship, nor yet because the design is not suitable, but because we are too dear. "Too dear", he says, with a great big exclamation mark.

Not by a pound, or several shillings, but very often by a single shilling, or even 6d.! And yet the opticians' average profit is 300 per cent. For instance, a frame we may offer at 15s. they will sell at 45s. or 50s., and so on in proportion. Then a cheap-jack comes along and produces an inferior imitation at say 14s., and we have lost a customer. Does the optician cut his price accordingly? Not on your life! His retail price will remain the same even if he can purchase a similar article at 13s. or even 12s. Quality does not matter, shillings do. Do you wonder that the industry has some of the lowest-paid skilled workers in the country, and that we are losing more and more of them each week? The above remarks apply to lenses just as much as frames, and that of course is the greater tragedy. I feel certain that we in the industry should all like to see what you suggest come about. He goes on to talk about the proposition which I have been making during the discussions on this Bill. This is from a man who knows what he is talking about and confirms what I said. This is what is at issue. Spectacle frames, plus lenses, plus dispensing, should cost £2 or £3, but the average charge is £5. We are taking away the protection of the consumer and his ability to know what all this is about and we are writing nothing into the Bill to replace it.

After the discussions we had during the Committee stage, I entered into negotiations; again with the profession to see whether we could discover a generally agreed Amendment which could be moved at this stage. Under pressure from a number of opticians who are among the more reputable and idealistic members of their profession—I have in mind one gentleman in particular who took great trouble to write to me on this matter—I moved my position. So far, I had said that if the profession wanted to get what it could charge for spectacles, it must give the consumer the protection of advertising. But I moved from that position and said, "Well, if you will not have that, if you do not want advertising because you do not want to lower the tone of the profession by advertising, then you must take this whole thing right out of the commercial arena and make it into a professionally regulated system with a fee and a cost price of the thing you are selling." That is much more reputable and would have a much better smell about it than this business of quoting total charges.

Before I come to that, may I make this protest about the misrepresentation of my activities in this matter? I think the British Optical Association should be thoroughly ashamed of itself. I made clear throughout the Committee stage discussions that I never wanted widespread and scurrilous advertising. I said: To keep saying that the making of my Amendment would open the door to advertising of the kind carried on by the manufacturers of Daz and other detergents, or to advertise on a grand scale, as one hon. Member said, is a most unfair way of trying to distort its object. The Council will retain full powers to prohibit and regulate these advertisements and ensure that they are modest, while still allowing reasonable competition."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. Standing Committee C. 5th February, 1958: c. 79.] I said precisely the same thing on other occasions.

What did I find? This industry, this profession, which wishes us to believe in its reputation and standards, has been carrying out a scurrilous attack on me in its journal, saying that I want to open the door to cheap-jack advertising and that I want the old days back again, with cut-throat competition, and all that sort of thing. People in the industry were able to read and even to hear the words I said during the Committee stage discussions when I made clear that I wanted nothing of the sort. But, in order to discredit me, this sort of scurrilous attack has been made in the journal of the profession. It does not fill me with much confidence about its sense of professional conduct when this sort of thing is carried on as soon as a Member of Parliament speaks in the House of Commons. The profession could very well have published an apology. But let me come to the precise proposals in this new Clause——

Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

As my hon. Friend is complaining about the way in which he was treated in a professional journal, may I ask whether he requested an apology or wrote to the journal?

Mr. Chapman

Yes, I wrote to the journal, which published my letter without any comment at all, but with no withdrawal.

Mr. Griffiths

They do not agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Chapman

If they do not agree with what I am saying, it means they do not believe what I said during the Committee stage discussions. Either that, or they are telling me that I am not telling the truth——

Mr. Griffiths

The House of Commons is——

Mr. Chapman

If my hon. Friend wishes to interrupt me, I shall be happy to give way.

Let me come to the final justification for this new Clause or, alternatively, for the Amendment. I have put it to the hon. Gentleman who is in charge of this Bill, and the sponsor of the Bill, that the right way of proceeding from now is to take the whole matter of spectacle charges out of the commercial arena and make it a regulated service. In this I have, I think, the support of the Socialist Medical Association——

Mr. A. Blenkinsop (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East) indicated dissent.

Mr. Chapman

My hon. Friend does not seem to agree. I can only read what the Association published: Under the National Health Service, the ophthalmic optician is rewarded by fees. The principle has now become acceptable for something like 90 per cent. of his work. It is illogical when supplying a private frame this should be subject to a profit mark up; this procedure has led to criticism and to the suggestion that private frames are merchandise and N.H.S. ones are not! This Association therefore considers that the principle of fees as developed above should be applied universally to private practice as well as to the National Health Service.

Mr. Blenkinsop

As my hon. Friend has talked about being unfairly treated, as he thinks, I consider that he should make clear that the Socialist Medical Association takes the view that the Bill ought to go through more or less in its present form.

Mr. Chapman

I am not saying that it should not. I am saying that the Association clearly is in favour of the principle of what I am trying to do.

Mr. Somerville Hastings (Barking)

I have been a member of the Socialist Medical Association since it started, and the Association is in favour of a National Health Service staffed by full-time individuals, and among them should be ophthalmic opticians.

Mr. Chapman

My hon. Friend does not realise that what I have read out is an interim statement by the Association of what it wants to see happen before the ideal state comes about. In the interim before it gets what it is aiming at the Association thinks that this principle of fees should be applied in the private sector of the present system. It is as clear and obvious as that, if my hon. Friend would care to read it.

We started negotiations on this point and I said, "Let us see whether we can reach an agreement on some such Amendment." I wrote to the Minister and to the sponsors of the Bill and to the British Medical Association, or rather the committee of ophthalmic opticians which covers all the professional associations. Roughly speaking, the response has been—I do not think I am misinterpreting anyone in saying this—"We are thoroughly in agreement with you about the object of your Amendment, but we do not think it should be written into the Bill." I think that a fair summary. I received a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health and I do not think he would object to my saying that that is roughly what he said.

The committee of ophthalmic opticians says that while it is prepared to consider the question of introducing payment by fees on the lines of the National Health Service to people in private practice in future, it feels this is a matter which must be left to the profession. In other words, it says, "We agree with you, but we do not want it written into the Bill." Why do I insist upon this being written into the Bill? It is because we are taking out of the Bill the only alternative form of consumer protection, advertising. When we take out one form of consumer protection we have a duty to make sure that we put another in its place. If the profession agrees so much with what I say, why is it afraid to put it into the Bill? I will tell the House.

12.30 p.m.

The reason is that this point is a contentious one, as yet, inside the profession. The members of the profession do not want it forced upon them and made to come about by force of law rather than by a recommendation of the Optical Council. They are afraid that such a provision will upset too many members if we force the pace along these lines. That is why they oppose its being written into the Bill.

They tell me that another reason why this should not be written into the Bill is that no provision of this kind has ever been written into an Act of Parliament governing any of the other professions. Let us examine that statement with care. The pharmaceutical profession is usually advanced in this case. They say, "We do not try to prevent pharmacists from over-charging, so we should not try to prevent opticians from over-charging." But look at the difference.

In the selling of medicines, and particularly of patent medicines, there is great advertisement of price. The worth of medicines and medicinal products is roughly generally known. I agree that, even so, prices may be too high, but there are rough and ready standards of public comparison by which the pharmacist who makes high charges can be detected. In the case of the optical industry, nobody knows the worth of spectacle frames. When I go to people and say, "From what my optician friends tell me, I should think your spectacle frame is worth about 13s.", they nearly drop dead, especially if they have been kidded into believing that it is worth £3 or £4. In this profession there is a history of standard prices being unknown. That is why the optical profession is so different from the pharmaceutical profession and why we should write into the Bill the sort of consumer protection which I have in mind.

That is broadly my case. I have taken up some time in presenting it, but I make no apology for that. This is the most contentious point in the Bill. I repeat that I am not making widespread allegations of over-charging by opticians; but, on the information available to us and taking as a standard the sort of dispensing fee which opticians expect under the National Health Service, I suggest that spectacle frames sold privately should cost about 50s. or 60s., instead of in the region of £4, £5 or £6. There is a gap and we ought to legislate to protect the consumer rather than to take all consumer protection right out of the Bill.

Mr. Norman Pannell (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I beg to second the Motion.

Mr. Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

The proposed new Clause and the two Amendments, all of which are being considered together, are a further attempt by the hon. Member for Northfield (Mr. Chapman) to write into the Bill wording which will encourage either some form of advertising, which is not viewed with approval by any profession of this kind, or some form of control of prices.

My fellow sponsors and I are most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the trouble he has taken to reach agreement with us on these matters, and I am only sorry that I find myself unable to accept either the proposed new Clause or the Amendments. The trouble with the proposed new Clause is that it still raises the difficulty of compelling the General Optical Council to consider fees. As the hon. Gentleman himself pointed out, there is no similar Act, such as those governing the medical profession and the pharmaceutical profession, in which that is done. That is also true of industry, as distinct from the professions.

The first of the hon. Gentleman's Amendments would prevent the General Optical Council from making rules under Clause 25 for the prevention of publicity or advertising unless it were satisfied that high standards of professional conduct are being generally applied by opticians in fixing charges to the general public for optical appliances or parts of optical appliances. The second of the Amendments goes back to the free competition which the hon. Gentleman advocated when we discussed the Bill in Committee.

Mr. Chapman

I have tried to make it clear that I was not proposing to move the second Amendment if the new Clause were accepted.

Mr. Russell

The hon. Gentleman has said that he would leave the matter entirely in the hands of the profession, but he is not in fact doing that. The profession will be governed by the General Optical Council, on which are representatives of other bodies. For example, there are doctors. A later Amendment proposes to increase their number from five to six. There are Privy Councillors. The General Optical Council is charged, under Clause 1, with the function of promoting high standards of professional conduct among opticians. Therefore, in the very first Clause of the Bill is a general instruction covering standards of conduct. No doubt the hon. Gentleman would agree that excessive charging would come under that heading, so that his intentions are already covered by the Bill as it stands.

In any case, the hon. Gentleman is pushing at an open door, as he said in Committee. The profession has the same objects as he has in regard to the prevention of overcharging. I have no doubt that he has received, as have most of us, a booklet called "Professional Conduct," issued recently by the British Optical Association. It brings up to date previous instructions, given as long ago as 1946 and 1951, on the subject of professional conduct. If the hon. Gentleman reads the booklet, he will see that it covers the points he has raised and that the profession feels as he does about excessive charging and wants an arrangement that will prevent it. Doing this upon a voluntary basis within the profession is very different from having it written into an Act of Parliament.

It is for those reasons that we feel unable to accept the suggestions which have been put forward by the hon. Member. They would conflict, also, with the provisions governing the supply of spectacles under the National Health Service. That is merely another reason for not being able to accept the hon. Member's proposals.

The hon. Member quoted letters he has received in support of his proposals. I could quote from one I received this morning. I am sure he has received a similar letter. It is from the National Optical Advisory Committee of the Association of Scientific Workers. It comes down heavily against his proposals and hopes the Bill will go forward in its present form. It is a very long letter and I shall not attempt to read it, but I think the hon. Member will agree that that is the gist of it.

Mr. Chapman

No, I would not agree. The letter is about advertising and is nothing to do with a professionally regulated fee structure. If that suggestion were put to those learned gentlemen, I think they would support me.

Mr. Russell

At any rate, this letter comes down against the proposal of the hon. Member in regard to advertising. I do not want to detain the House longer, because others can speak on the technical aspects of the matter far better than I can. I am afraid I cannot accept the proposed new Clause or the Amendments which we have been discussing with it.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I have listened carefully to the discussion. I oppose what my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield (Mr. Chapman) has said, not because I do not appreciate the point of view he has expressed and what is behind it, but because I think he is wrong in the conclusions he has formed.

For some considerable time, indirectly and directly, I have had the opportunity of ascertaining what the professional bodies concerned want. They have been anxious to see that this profession is put on to a proper and thoroughly responsible basis and treated as such by all concerned in the exercise of their particular craft. I think that a very commendable thing. The main body concerned with this matter, the Joint Committee of Ophthalmic Opticians, has done everything it could to try to put and keep the people engaged in this profession on a proper professional basis. The object of this Bill—a very worthy one, in my view—is to see that that is done.

My hon. Friend says, be that as it may, what about some kind of discipline being imposed on the question of prices? He compared this with the imposition of regulations in some of the other professions. The matter is not so simple as he puts it. Millions of people are involved. It is different from the profession of the law, for example. An ordinary man does not know the first thing about that, and the people who go to the law are really a small minority. A question of protection in regard to charges there is a very different matter. Here we are dealing with a commodity which is very extensively used. Therefore, people are in a position to compare prices easily.

Mr. Chapman indicated dissent——

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Janner

I am prepared to give way if my hon. Friend disagrees, but I consider that that is the position. If an optician were making exorbitant charges in a particular district it would soon be discovered. Those who had occasion to go to other opticians would immediately change their custom from one man to the other. The position would be, and in fact is, that there is not really a blind sale but an opprotunity of comparing prices.

If there is something to be put in order in respect of prices, the profession ought to have the opportunity to put its own house in order. The proposal is that advice should be given by the Council. Why cannot the professional bodies themselves give that advice? I believe they will see that advice is given in the same way as they have seen fit to have this Bill introduced. They would see that something was done within the profession to put the position right in regard to prices where there is an abuse.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

If the profession is so anxious to clear things up, as apparently is the case, why has it not done anything about the matter in past years?

Mr. Janner

It has taken a very long time for this Bill to be brought before the House. If my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) had followed the matter closely, he would have seen that it has taken many years to get some advance in respect of a Bill of this nature. Now it comes to us as a Private Member's Bill on a Friday. My hon. Friend will appreciate that it was not easy for the profession to get this Bill introduced in order to protect the public against those who are not acting professionally or ethically. At various times I have asked why this Bill was not brought forward earlier.

The profession has done a very useful service to the public as a whole in pushing this Bill up to its present stage. Ordinary advice on the part of the Council would be nothing more or less than advice which the profession could very easily exercise in respect of those who are abusing the situation. I am quite satisfied that if an abuse continues the profession will see to it that no slur could be cast against it. I believe that already it is considering the introduction of a fee structure similar to that of the National Health Service. That is already the view of some of the bodies which have been discussing this matter. We would be justified in leaving this matter as it stands, to the professional judgment of those who hitherto have shown that they are keen and interested in placing the ophthalmic opticians profession on a proper basis.

Mr. Lipton

When the Bill was in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield (Mr. Chapman) made a very strong case from his point of view. Nothing has since happened to persuade me that he is wrong. The difficulty arises from the fact that here we have a profession which is not only a profession but also a business. What my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield is trying to do is to ensure that there shall be some protection for the consumer on the business side.

No one will persuade me that the spectacle frame industry will be as easily controlled by the professional opticians as the opponents of the suggested new Clause and other Amendments have made out. If there were all this anxiety and readiness to ensure that there would be no overcharging, there would have been some little evidence of that in years gone by.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

The hon. Member is rather overlooking the difficulties of assessing the separate qualities of the frames and accessories which are used. Like most hon. and right hon. Gentlemen, the hon. Gentleman has no doubt had sent to him a pair of magnifying spectacles from a wholesaler, spectacles which obviously sell very cheaply. I do not want to use the word "inferior," but the quality of the frame is obviously lower than that of many others, although in their price range these spectacles may be very good value. It is extremely difficult to lay down hard and fast standards and to ask that a body should be set up to judge——

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a very long intervention. The hon. Member should make a separate speech if he wants to occupy the time of the House for so long.

Mr. Lipton

I am obliged to the hon. Member for not making his intervention longer than he did.

Spectacle frames are manufactured products; they are manufactured by the hundreds of thousands. In those circumstances, the difficulty suggested by the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) is not a problem of very great magnitude. I ask the House to consider the genuineness of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield. The public is entitled to some protection on the manufacturing side of this business.

In those circumstances, I am very disappointed with the reaction of the hon. Member for Wembley, South (Mr. Russell). I had hoped, after all the efforts that had been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield to arrive at an agreed Amendment, that the hon. Member for Wembley, South would have allowed a little more merit in the argument of my hon. Friend. I am sure that if the new Clause and the Amendments were accepted, the profession would find some reasonable way of operating the Bill with those additions.

Mr. Burden

I want to underline my intervention, and I am sorry that it took so long. The hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) exposed the complete weakness of this case when he rested on the fact that spectacles are manufactured articles and that because they are manufactured articles—he was including the frames and accessories—their price should be determined by the Council.

If his argument is correct, then what he is proposing is that for all manufactured articles, covering the whole range of consumer goods, there should be a committee to determine the retail price. That, obviously, would not be practicable in the case of everything, but if that is the policy of the Labour Party, I hope that we shall hear it said and that it will be made known as soon as possible.

Mr. Chapman

That is not what we are proposing. We are not proposing that the General Optical Council shall fix prices in terms of pounds, shillings and pence. We are proposing that the Council shall advise the industry, or profession, on the system of fixing prices. What we have in mind is what some of the professional bodies clearly want, namely, that the price shall be the dispensing fee and the cost of the frame, without mentioning pounds, shillings and pence.

Mr. Burden

If the hon. Member is proposing that this body shall fix the dispensing fee, or ratio of profit on that, plus the cost of the spectacles——

Mr. Chapman


Mr. Burden

—that would have to be written into the Bill, and I have no doubt that the people engaged in the optical industry, particularly on the retail side, would very strongly object. It would also involve the poorest possible quality of service to the public. The suggestion is not at all practicable, and in that I support the view of the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner).

Mr. Hastings

I very much regret that I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield (Mr. Chapman). I appreciate that he does not want the public to be overcharged, but the method which he has suggested is entirely impracticable, because it is impossible to value professional services in general. Those are determined either by collective bargaining, or by a Royal Commission—such as that which is sitting at the moment to determine fees in the National Health Service.

It is very difficult to say in an individual case what the reward should be. Some years ago, I had a friend who was a surgeon. His colleagues complained that he charged very low fees. He asked me, "Why do they complain? I am sure that no operation which I do is ever worth more than twenty guineas." Knowing the quality of his work, I had to agree with him entirely.

The same argument applies to ophthalmic opticians. Not only the quality but the difficulty of the work varies. In some cases, it may be easy to determine the type of lenses required. In other cases, there may be great difficulty. The same applies to spectacle frames. Some people have a standardised nose and it is easy to fix spectacles. Others, like me, have an awkward-shaped nose, and it is very much more difficult to fix spectacles.

The determination of the right fee is difficult and involves considerations other than those I have raised. In some areas prices are low while in others they are high, but rents may be high and overheads may be high so that the optician has to recoup himself by charging higher fees. I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be desirable if it were possible to do something of this sort, but it seems to me that in practice it would be entirely impossible.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present:

House counted, and, 40 Members being present—

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Chapman

May I reply to some of the things that have been said? I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings) has finished speaking. Perhaps I can first turn to what he said. He said that it would be very difficult to operate this proposal, because a dispensing fee, or whatever it may be, would be very difficult to determine. Of course it is. But we know that it has not been so difficult as to be impossible. For all kinds of noses, faces and measurements a dispensing fee has been happily agreed inside the National Health Service.

Therefore, I see no reason why we cannot have a dispensing fee happily agreed outside the National Health Service and one which the professional bodies could easily regulate and suggest to their members. I would not go so far as to want the General Optical Council or the professional bodies to fix the fee. What should happen is that when we go to buy a pair of spectacles the optician should present us with a bill showing that his dispensing fee for providing the spectacles is two guineas or 30s., or whatever he thinks is appropriate, and the cost of the frame is 13s. In that way the consumer would be properly protected. That would be fully in accord with the standards that we expect of a professional.

My hon. Friend's argument falls to the ground—and I say this in all friendliness to him—because it has been so practicable to do precisely what I am proposing inside the National Health Service. Therefore, no one can say that it is impossible to extend the procedure.

Turning from the speech of my hon. Friend to what the sponsor of the Bill, the hon. Member for Wembley, South (Mr. Russell), said, he has not a very strong argument. He said that this proposal has never been operated before. That is all he said, and indeed I think that is all he claimed to say. He said that because this has never been done in any other profession or professional legislation it should not be done in this Bill.

My argument is that if the professional bodies had done something before now we would feel that there was no reason to legislate for it. But it is precisely because they have done nothing so far that it is now proposed to write the proposal into the Bill. I would go so far as to say this. It is only because of the fuss that I created upstairs in Committee that there is a move on now to do it. It is only because of that that it is going on quickly. This is all the more reason for my expressing my distrust of the professional bodies and saying that the consumer is entitled to some sort of safeguard inside the terms of the Bill.

I shall not force a Division on the new Clause, but I shall on the Amendment, which is very innocent. The Clause which is to be amended says that the Council shall be able to prohibit advertising, but this ban shall not come into force until the profession has put its house in order. What is wrong with that? I am not forcing the pace and saying that the Optical Council has to take positive action to see that things are done. It has not to publish anything or express an opinion on standards of conduct, and it has not to say what the dispensing fee should be or anything else. I am simply saying that it cannot take away consumer protection of advertising until the profession has put its house in order. If the Council comes to this House and says, "Please do not write anything into the Bill that we will do ourselves," I have every right to say, "Right. When you have done it yourselves, then is the time when you can have restrictions on advertising." That seems to me to be eminently fair and reasonable, and I am at a loss to know why the sponsor of the Bill refuses to do it.

If the Bill goes through unamended, I shall take my battle to the General Optical Council, the privy council which has jurisdiction in these matters. Matters cannot be left in their present state. It would be wrong if the General Optical Council, without specified instruction about the system of charges, nevertheless refuses under Clause 1, which gives it the job of promoting a high professional standard of conduct, to do anything about the system of charges. It may well be that in the event I shall beat the hon. Gentleman at his own game, because what he will not have in legislation I may force through under Clause 1 in the General Optical Council. I have the right, as any of us has, to say to the Council, "This is a piece of unprofessional conduct which is going on. Are you going to do nothing about it? Will you continue to flout the law of the land?"

Mr. Russell

The Council is charged with doing something about it in Clause 1.

Mr. Chapman

That is the first time the hon. Gentleman has admitted that he intends that.

Mr. Russell

I said it just now in my speech.

Mr. Chapman

I did not understand the hon. Gentleman to go so far as that. We are making progress. I beg his pardon if I misunderstood him. He is agreeing with me now that if I fail in the House of Commons I can go to the General Optical Council and say: "A system of charges which leaves the consumer at the mercy of people who charge an inclusive fee for a pair of spectacles and therefore at the mercy of overcharging is unprofessional conduct and I want you to take action about it". This may well be much worse for opticians than my own way of doing things.

If the hon. Gentleman would only accept my view—which is that the General Optical Council cannot ban advertising until they are satisfied on this point—things would be much easier. I shall be able to say, "Mr. So-and-So charges five guineas for a pair of spectacles which is worth 30s.", and I shall challenge the Council to do something about it. If that is so, I am prepared to accept the hon. Gentleman's challenge. He will find that I shall get the General Optical Council to have to put on the carpet individual opticians, which will be a wrong way of going about this problem. The right way is to state what we believe are high codes of professional conduct, and not to start going by the back door and bringing in every optician to do it individually. That is a very wrong way of doing it. I return to my statement that the right method is by my proposal, which allows the ban on advertising and the taking away of this consumer protection once the consumer has been given the protection of a professional system of charges.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner), who is not at the moment present, said that people would not go to the man who overcharges. He implied that there is enough general knowledge about what is going on for people to be able to sort out those who overcharge. That simply is not the case, for the reason that everybody is charging an inclusive fee of so many guineas for private spectacles. To that extent, without saying that they are all in the scurrilous racket—I do not say that for one moment—they are all in the game together, because they are not allowed to show their prices.

I believe that to some extent I should carry with me my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths), who is an optician, in saying that what is happening inside the private range of spectacle selling today is that the National Health Service is being subsidised, in effect, by the profits that opticians make in private sales. In other words, it may well be the case that opticians are not getting proper remuneration from the National Health Service and, to that extent, must rely on extra and, perhaps, even exorbitant profits made on private sales. I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange does not dissent.

If that is the case, there is all the more reason for my proposal. This matter needs to be brought into the open. If the National Health Service is not being run on economic charges, if they should be greater and opticians should have better remuneration out of the National Health Service, that ought to be known. It ought not to be that anybody is having to rook people outside the National Health Service to make his work under the Health Service an economic proposition to him. I strongly suspect that that is what is happening. If my new Clause were accepted and an optician had to start charging a reasonable dispensing fee for private spectacles, it might well throw into relief the whole situation inside the National Health Service and force reconsideration of it.

That brings to an end what I want to say. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wembley, South for what he said about the way in which I have tried to meet opposition and get an agreed solution. Throughout this long controversy, I have had intense arguments both ways on my proposals. I have gone stage by stage in steps to placate my opponents. When they did not want me to end the ban on advertising, I said, "Let us leave the ban on advertising but enforce reasonable competition." They would not have that.

I then said, "Now, let us take it right out of the commercial arena and make it a fee system, which the profession can regulate for itself without our interfering and without the Optical Council interfering, simply saying that there ought to be some sort of system without mentioning £ s. d." I moved to that stage and put the ball at the feet of the profession.

Having got to that stage and suggested that the Optical Council should issue guidance, I have gone a stage further in my attempts to meet my opponents. I have said, "Let us even withdraw the suggestion that the General Optical Council should publish, guide and advise. Let us simply say that it can have all the bans it wants on advertising once the Optical Council is satisfied that it has put its own house in order."

1.15 p.m.

That is as far as I am prepared to go. I do not believe that the hon. Member for Wembley, South will claim that I have been unreasonable. I have moved stage after stage. I have spotlighted what I know to be an abuse. I know that it goes on. I know that people are overcharged. I know that these facts and figures ought to be brought into the public limelight. I shall keep fighting all the way through the stages of the Bill and, if it becomes law, with the General Optical Council, because I believe that the consumer is having legitimate protection taken away from him in the Bill and the sponsor of the Bill is refusing point blank to write in any form of protection for him. I consider this totally reactionary and unwarranted.

For all the reasons I have given, the hon. Member's arguments about the other professions fall to the ground because they are not comparable. I hope that there are at least some people who will stand up for the consumer and support me in the Division Lobby.

Mr. Blenkinsop

This is a Private Members' Bill, although I would have been much happier if this important Measure had been taken over officially by the Government. If it had, we might have had more time in some of the earlier stages of the Bill and some of these fair and proper points which have been raised might have been disposed of earlier. We have, however, reached what seems to me to be a fairly satisfactory position.

I think it is highly desirable that the General Optical Council which is to be set up should consider these matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield (Mr. Chapman) and others who have raised these questions have done a service in directing this matter to the attention not only of the General Optical Council, but of the general public. I do not doubt that there are abuses that we want to overcome. It is simply a question of how best we can tackle the problem of overcoming them.

Some of us would have liked to see an extension of the field of National Health Service spectacles and the problem tackled in that way; there would have been full control of the prices of that widened range. That is a matter which we shall have to consider when, before long, we on this side will be in charge and will be carrying out our pledges concerning prescription charges. These are all matters which will come up again for consideration in that way.

As for this particular proposal. I think that all sides are anxious to see that professional status is awarded. I recognise that it must be difficult for the bodies concerned to establish really effective codes of conduct until the general statutory powers have been provided through a Measure of this sort. It is, therefore, a little difficult to attack the established professional bodies at this moment before the wider statutory provisions have been made.

Although, for my part, I hope that the Bill goes through broadly in its present form, I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield has been right to direct attention to what, I think, has been an abuse. My hon. Friend and, no doubt, others will be right in taking what action they can to ensure that the Optical Council, when set up, considers this matter, together with other matters of professional conduct which arise. I hope that now that my hon. Friend has said that he will not press his proposal to a Division, we can, on both sides, try to ensure a reasonably speedy passage of these broad proposals, which can be of real benefit to the general public.

Mr. Chapman

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.