HC Deb 02 May 1975 vol 891 cc893-942

11.16 a.m.

Mrs. Helene Hayman (Welwyn and Hatfield)

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 11, at end insert— '(aa) in section 2(3) after the words "office of the Council" there shall be inserted the words "and at such place or places in Northern Ireland as the Secretary of State may designate."' The purpose of the amendment is to probe exactly how the Government envisage implementing the extension of the Hearing Aid Council Act to Northern Ireland. Many hon. Members are concerned that this extension should not simply be to give Northern Ireland the same VAT concessions as operate in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The purpose of the original Hearing Aid Council Act was not to exempt hearing aids fom VAT. It had a much wider, more definite social purpose. I appreciate the many reasons behind the intention of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) in extending the Hearing Aid Council Act to Northern Ireland, but one of the main reasons must be the issue of VAT. Indeed, the Government have previously indicated their concern over this issue. They have made a specific extra-statutory provision, but this cannot go on for ever. It is only right that we should make sure that the position is regularised and that the VAT concessions extend to Northern Ireland by statute.

The original Act was very wide in its scope. It was brought into this House, before VAT was thought of in this country, primarily to protect the consumer by ensuring that the deaf and hard of hearing were no longer conned as they had been in the past. One of the main measures by which they were to be afforded this protection was that dispensers of hearing aids should be properly trained and registered and that, above all, it should be possible for the consumer to find out whether the person purporting to sell him a hearing aid was registered with the council, as he is legally obliged to be.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

Does my hon. Friend know that, because of the charlatan business in the sale of hearing aids and appliances, more so-called hearing aids are being thrown into dustbins than are actually being used because they become defective and useless after a few hours?

Mrs. Hayman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is absolutely correct. It was phoney practices of that kind that the original Act set out to conquer. It imposed penalties on people who dispensed phoney hearing aids and purported to be registered as dispensers when they were not so registered.

The original Act provides for a register of dispensers to be kept at the offices of the council in London. The amendment says that the register shall be kept not only in London but in other areas as well. We are seeking to extend the Act in all its provisions to Northern Ireland. Can we be satisfied that we are doing the job effectively if the only method by which someone can check whether a person purporting to be a registered dispenser is in fact so registered is to consult a register in London? As we are extending the provisions of the Act to Northern Ireland we should provide for the establishment of offices of the council at Belfast and possibly other places where the bona fides of dispensers can be checked by potential customers.

There are weaknesses in the original Act. There is only one register in London for the whole of the area to which the Act applies. This does not make things easy for people in the regions, and we have met these difficulties in practice. How much more difficult it will be if we leave the section of the Act as it stands instead of making sure that we have a kind of sub-office of the council in Northern Ireland to perform the functions of the council in that area in the way that they are performed in London.

I consider this matter to be of paramount importance because we, as Parliament, have for the moment to legislate for Northern Ireland. We must make sure that the legislative intent of this Chamber is carried out in practice in Northern Ireland, and it is not enough simply to amend the law. We must look at its implementation and make sure that it is effective in the areas to which we extend it.

The practice nowadays appears to be to increase centralisation and, if a measure is extended to an area, merely to add that area to the list without making sure that we give it the resources that are needed to ensure that consumers are provided with the necessary facilities. People in Northern Ireland should have the same protection and the same recourse to the council as are available to people in this country.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West is not able to be here today because he is concerned with events in his constituency, but it is only right that we should pay tribute to the work that he has done. I am sure he will accept that the amendment is very much in the spirit of what he is attempting to do in this extending measure. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being present to give us the Government's view of the amendment.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

I am pleased to join my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) for having introduced this important Bill. It is extraordinary that we should have passed the original Act as long ago as 1968 and not made provision in it for proper access and facilities in Northern Ireland.

The Act established the Hearing Aid Council. The purpose of the Bill is to establish a register of dispensers of hearing aids in Northern Ireland. The amendment is intended to ensure that access to the registrar of registered dispensers of hearing aids shall be possible at all times by the people of Northern Ireland. It seems appropriate that if we extend the original Act by means of the Bill to Northern Ireland, we should at the same time extend the facilities for the public scrutiny of the register of dispensers of hearing aids to the people in Northern Ireland.

We all have personal experience of the activities of hucksters on doorsteps and of constituents who have had trouble with so-called salesmen of hearing aids. It is important that there should be established a register in Northern Ireland and that people there should have access to it. I find it extraordinary that the Act was not extended to Northern Ireland in the first place.

People in Northern Ireland who want to establish whether a certain dispenser of hearing aids is a bona fide, respected and honoured dispenser have to made inquiries in England. Many of the Irish are not exactly trusting people, as I am sure you know, Mr. Thomas. They do not always trust the English, and they are not very happy about having to write to the council in England. Rather than receive a somewhat bureaucratic, often long-winded and sometimes equivocal reply to their letters, they would prefer to go to the office themselves and see the register. In any case, they cannot depend upon getting a quick reply because of the vagaries of the postal system.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I hope that my hon. Friend will reconsider the damaging statement that he has just made.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am at a loss to know to which statement my hon. Friend is referring.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

About the postal services.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I should not wish to cast a slur on the postal services, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) will know and accept, but I am sure he will accept also that there are occasions—and he and I have experienced them— when there are delays in the delivery of letters—not excessive delays but, nevertheless, delays.

The Irish people tend to be impatient, and rightly so. They want a quick reply to their queries, particularly on a matter of this kind. They want to know the bona fides of the dispensers of hearing aids. They want to know whether they are registered, and if there is a delay—

Mrs. Dunwoody

I cannot allow my hon. Friend's wicked slur upon the Irish to pass without comment. They are a people of monumental patience who, in some instances, could be said to have been waiting for 900 years for some change in their situation. Will my hon. Friend accept that they are people to whom tomorrow seems to be a day that will never come?

The Chairman

Order. Today has arrived for us and we are considering the amendment before the Committee.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The amendment is extremely important, Mr. Thomas, and I shall confine my remarks to it. Its purpose is to ensure that offices of the register are set up in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mr. Dunwoody) has just said, the Irish people are very patient—too patient in many cases—and their patience has been demonstrated yet again by the fact that they have waited seven years from the passing of the original Act to have its provisions extended to them. Even now we have to move an amendment to ensure that the extending Bill is tightened even further and that the register now located in England has offices in Northern Ireland. It is important that all citizens should have free access to the register.

As we have in England, and as we intend to have in Northern Ireland, a register of those who are entitled to dispense hearing aids, it is important that all those who wish and need to purchase these aids have access to some means of establishing the bona fides of those who are dispensing them. There cannot be proper access with a separation of several hundred miles. It is not reasonable access when one would have to write or make the long, arduous and expensive trip across the Irish Sea.

11.30 a.m.

The amendment is doing the Home Secretary a favour. I hope that I shall not be accused again of casting a slur on our Irish brethren. The Prevention of Terrorism Act will be coming up for renewal soon. It is specifically designed to keep people from Ireland out of this country, yet the location of the register here positively encourages people to come over. Perhaps that is a contribution to our export industries or to subsidies to British Rail ferries.

It is not reasonable to expect people to come here simply to check whether Johnny O'Flaherty who has just offered them a hearing aid is a bona fide dispenser. That information should be readily available.

I would make one slight criticism of the hon. Member for Belfast, West for not having included the amendment in the Bill, but no doubt he will welcome it.

Mr. Golding

My hon. Friend speaks as if with the authority of the hon. Member. Would he make it clear that there is no authority from the hon. Member for his Bill to be so amended?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I can only confirm that. I speak with no other authority than that which I possess by virtue of being myself, which it is not for me to judge.

Northern Ireland, like Merseyside, which I am proud to represent, has unacceptably high unemployment. The establishment of these offices in Northern Ireland will not give rise to massive bureaucracy, but it may provide some ancillary employment. This will be minimal by the standards of the welcome and necessary aid dispensed by the Secretary of State for Industry, which on Merseyside, as in other areas, is making a welcome contribution to employment prospects. So the establishment of these offices is not simply intrinsically useful: it will also contribute to employment.

People expect their public authorities to be accountable and open. We have established a register of Members' interests which is accessible to the public and is maintained on the premises. We shall not have to travel far. This principle is equally important in Northern Ireland. I therefore welcome the amendment.

Mrs. Dunwoody

It is a delight for me to support the amendment. It is rarely given to us to make an apologia pro vita sua

Mr. Kilroy-Silk


Mrs. Dunwoody

The advantage of a State education is that one acquires a number of Latin tags.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

My hon. Friend would not wish to imply, I hope, that I was not also a recipient of State education.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I judged from the brilliance of my hon. Friend's speech that that was so. I would not wish to cast slurs on his education.

As one of those concerned with the original Act. I am happy to be able to talk about its extension to Northern Ireland. It has been suggested that the Act should have included this extension. I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) has decided that these advantages should be extended to his countrymen. They were not included in the original Act because it was felt that there were few dispensers in Northern Ireland, but it has become painfully clear that this was a considerable omission.

The understanding of age comes to each of us in a different way. It came to me when I realised that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), who has spent a good deal of time looking after the interests of the deaf and those with partial hearing, are the only two hon. Members who were concerned with the original Act. I had the privilege of working on that Act with a colleague who is now in another place. It was recognised by the industry at the time that the public was being gulled into accepting inferior protection. The Hearing Aid Council was set up to maintain standards. No one was accepted for registration unless he could prove a certain number of years of training.

This is not normal marketing that we are talking about. As one who has been privileged to work with the deaf for many years, I know that this is one of the most terrifying disabilities. We feel instant sympathy with someone who is blind or has a damaged limb, but we are irritated by a deaf child or adult who does not pay attention, although we know that they cannot hear us—

The Chairman

Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Lady, but it is rather a Second Reading speech that she is making. I hope that she will relate her remarks to the question of the registration of the council in Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I was hoping, Mr. Thomas, to show why it is essential that the registration of the council should carry with it considerable standards. This is tremendously important. Although the Bill appears not to involve the majority of the House today, it is of considerable importance to a great many people.

May I say, dear Mr. Thomas, that there are very few men who really have effect in my life. Mr. Speaker is one, you are another and my bank manager is a third. Although I am deeply hurt that Mr. Speaker has not seen fit to select my amendments to the clause, I have long learned that my life is one of bitter disappointments and that I shall have to deal as best I can with these problems.

The Chairman

Order. In order that at least Mr. Speaker may keep the hon. Lady's affections, I should like to indicate that the selection was mine.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am mortified, Mr. Thomas, that one of my countrymen should deal with me so unkindly.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)


Mrs. Dunwoody

I return to this tremendously important clause. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary present on the Front Bench today. I know that so much of his time is spent in the dangerous conditions of Northern Ireland. I am always delighted to see him return in one piece. I should like him to indicate how the relationship of firms which have branches both in Northern Ireland and in Eire will be worked out. This will concern those who are to register dispensers in Northern Ireland as to the standard of practice.

Will the doorstep salesman who is registered in Northern Ireland but who does not have the back-up service necessary to provide a very high level of service be able to say that he is providing those services in Eire, or will this be restricted in some way so that those firms which register in Northern Ireland will not need to have back-up services over the border? Will my hon. Friend seriously consider setting un a register in Northern Ireland, or at least providing a copy of the existing register, which is readily available?

I accept that in the first analysis we should have made facilities to examine the register available to people all over Great Britain, let alone Northern Ireland. It was definitely a mistake that we did not do so, because in this, as in so many other matters, the woman who is educated and interested in consumer affairs knows where to get advice about standards of hearing aids. On the other hand, the woman who is presented with a very plausible salesman at her front door and who knows that she is gradually losing some facility of hearing, but who in some instances is not even prepared to accept that this is a medical condition, is much more likely to be unaware of the existence of a register in London and totally unable to work out how she should obtain the information on that register to make sure that the person with whom she is dealing is a reputable salesman.

In supporting the clause I am not seeking to earn the wrath of those in high places. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will explain quite a lot about the relationship between Northern Ireland and Eire as it affects the firms concerned. I hope he will take great care to note that there is very clear evidence that in this country we have at least begun to deal with many of the abuses since 1968. There are still gaps in the legislation. We should like to hear my hon. Friend's views on this subject.

11.45 a.m.

Mr. Golding

I am one of the sponsors of the Bill. I am very pleased to congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) on introducing it. Together with other hon. Members, I am very sorry that, understandably, he is unable to be present today.

Another matter that we must regret is that while we congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), who is sitting on the Front Bench, on introducing the original Bill, we have to regret that because he is in the Government's service as a Whip he is unable today to move the amendments which I am sure he would have wanted to move on the basis of his experience since doing the sterling work on the original Bill.

Having said that I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South would agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) are considerably better looking than either he or myself.

Congratulations are due to those who have spoken to the amendment, be- cause it goes to the heart of one of the problems facing the person buying a hearing aid. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe—my parliamentary neighbour—explained, the purpose of the original Act was not to provide exemption from value added tax, although I am sure that both she and I would agree that it was absolutely essential that the VAT exemption should have been applied. However, my hon. Friend was right to point out that the Act was designed to protect the consumer.

First of all, it was to establish standards of competence and of honesty and to establish a register of those considered competent and honest. The establishment of the register was a great step forward in the relationship between the sellers of hearing aids and those who, unfortunately, have to purchase them—the hard of hearing. It was a great step forward, but it was not a step that meant very much without publicity.

I want to turn to the question of publication and accessibility of the register. It is a prior condition of the amendment that publicity takes place. If this debate serves no other purpose, it will draw the attention of the hard of hearing to the existence of the register in this country. I should have thought that it is a little obscure and remote, and that because of this many people may have been exploited over the last few years when they need not have been exploited. They were not aware of the existence of the register. One of the most important things in consumer affairs is that an individual should know his rights, not simply that the rights should exist, and that he should be easily able to exercise his rights.

I declare an interest in the affairs of the Post Office. That it why I jumped to my feet when my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) referred to Post Office delays. That question is irrelevant. I was surprised, Mr. Thomas, that you were able to contain yourself when my hon. Friend advanced that argument. His charge was scurrilous and irrelevant.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am sure my hon. Friend would not wish the word "scurrilous" to be applied to what I expressly described as the minor and infrequent delays which are experienced by those of us who need to use the services of the Post Office. Surely he does not believe that I should lightly make such comments about his and my colleagues who perform valuable work in the postal services. He will accept that we all experience delays from time to time which are regrettable. He will also accept that one has, and should have, the opportunity to express disappointment at those delays and regret that they have occurred.

No one, least of all my hon. Friend, whom I respect as a great defender of the Post Office and who I am always glad to see jump quickly to his feet when its interests are attacked or its motives impugned, should describe a mere expression of disappointment and regret as a scurrilous slur on his friends in the Post Office. Surely my hon. Friend will now willingly withdraw that epithet.

Mr. Golding

My hon. Friend has indicated that it was what I will call a youthful indiscretion. Perhaps he was too hurried in his speech and did not give himself time to explain what he meant. The hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) may say that my hon. Friend was right. I would not join issue with the hon. Gentleman as I did with my hon. Friend. Now that my hon. Friend has unreservedly withdrawn the implied suggestion, I in turn will say that there is no reason why my wrath should continue to fall on my hon. Friend's head.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am obliged.

Mr. Golding

I return to the amendment. If my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk had said that for many people the writing of letters and the obtaining of addresses was difficult, I would have sympathised with him immediately.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Does my hon. Friend accept that if the Government were to spend on advertising the existence of the register, its location, and how simple it is to check on the bona fides of the salesmen, one-twentieth of the amount that salesmen of existing and not very efficient hearing aids spend on both local and national advertising, we should begin to have something like a service from which the consumer could really benefit?

Mr. Golding

I take my hon. Friend's point. The time lapse that must inevitably occur between the sending of a letter and the receiving of a reply could be overcome by the use of Post Office facsimile developments, but this is irrelevant to the argument.

My name appears to the amendment, but since listening to my hon. Friends I have begun to develop doubts about its wording I confess that I should have taken more notice of this when I signed the amendment, but I wonder whether we should leave it to the Secretary of State to designate the places where the register should be displayed. I presume that in this case the Secretary of State would be the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection and that, given the present constitutional position, it would not be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary enlighten the House on this point?

Let me say at once that I have the utmost faith in every Secretary of State in this Government, particularly in my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for Prices and Consumer Protection. Although I have a particular regard for those Ministers, on more mature consideration I do not wish to give them the responsibility of deciding at which place or places in Northern Ireland the copy of the register should be kept.

It would have been better had we designated that in each local authority headquarters in Northern Ireland a copy of the register should be kept. I am not certain whether there are weights and measures offices in Northern Ireland. Were there to be such offices there and offices with responsibility for consumer protection, that is where the register should be. The officers in local government responsible for ensuring the protection of the consumer should be asked to ensure that those who are hard of hearing and who will be purchasing aids should be made aware of the existence of a register in their locality.

Mr. Kilroy-Sin

My hon. Friend is making an important point which is not unrelated to the point he made at the beginning about the desirability of publicity in this country of the existence of the council and its register. He is now referring to the siting of offices in certain locations in Northern Ireland. Perhaps he will give the Committee the benefit of his learned and deep knowledge of Northern Ireland and indicate where he thinks those offices should be located. Perhaps he will indicate how many there should be.

What is in many ways more important is that due publicity and notice should be given to the people of Northern Ireland of the existence and location of those offices. How, for example, would my hon. Friend expect that they be publicised? Mere advertising in local newspapers on a once-for-all basis does not seem to be an appropriate or adequate way of publicising the existence of the register or the location of the offices.

12 noon.

There is no point in making the amendment and establishing the offices where the register is to be kept if most of the people who need the services of the register do not know of its existence. Therefore, we ought to consider how we shall ensure that the people most affected will know of the register's existence. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), in the eloquent way in which he addresses you, Mr. Thomas, and the Committee in general, will cast his mind over that problem and let us have the benefit of his experience.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. J. D. Concannon)


Mr. Golding

May I first reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk and say that were I to answer the questions which he has just asked I should be out of order.

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman may be assured that I shall give him all the help I can in that respect.

Mr. Golding

Before I give way to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, may I say, Mr. Thomas, that I should apologise to you when rebuking my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe. I intended to say in a sotto voice—

Mrs. Dunwoody

A sotto voice?

Mr. Golding

That is how I learned to say it in a State school—to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe that we would have an opportunity of making some general points in the debate on the clause and that, therefore, it would be improper to stray from the amendment which we are discussing. I now give way to the Under-Secretary.

Mr. Concannon

I was merely going to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) that if we are talking about the reorganisation of local government in Ireland, it is somewhat different there from what it is in this country. There was a Constitutional Convention election yesterday, and it will be looking into this matter. There are only district councils there with district offices.

Mr. Golding

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling me that. It makes the position more difficult, but I would have thought it worth considering the district council level, because it may be that lists could be displayed at district council offices and libraries in Northern Ireland.

I am doubtful whether it was wise to include the words "at such place" in the amendment because it gives an open cheque to the Secretary of State to designate only one place at which the register shall be kept.

Mrs. Hayman

May I interrupt my hon. Friend on that point? Although I admit that the drafting of the amendment may give some concern, and while I share my hon. Friend's concern about giving carte blanche—I learned that also in a State school—to the Secretary of State, he will find that the words in the amendment are:

and at such place or places in Northern Ireland …". We have, therefore, given ourselves a little leeway. It does not refer necessarily to one place.

Mr. Golding

It is rather like my asking one of my sons "Will you wash one plate or plates?"

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I find my hon. Friend's criticism of the amendment extraordinary as he is one of its sponsors. Did he not notice the point of which he complains when he was agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) and myself in drafting the amendment? Indeed, he engaged in very close, in some cases intimate, conversations on the ways in which we could improve the Bill. I am surprised at such discourtesy—if I may use such a strong expression—from my hon. Friend in making this criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield and myself. He could have expressed himself with a great deal more courtesy then he has shown this morning—

The Chairman

Order. I appreciate that we are in Committee, but the hon. Gentleman's interventions seem to get longer and longer.

Mr. Golding

I think that those who read the report of my speech will see that in an early part of it, when my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk left the Chamber, I explained patiently and courteously that as a result of the.speeches which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield had made I had come to realise that we had perhaps worded the amendment incorrectly. I had not intended to be discourteous to my hon. Friends in any way. That is why, when my hon. Friend was out of the Chamber, I dealt at some length with the reasons why I was in the process of changing my mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk said that I had a wide knowledge of Northern Ireland. That is not so. I would not make such a claim. I have visited that country from time to time and I have appreciated the difficulties of communications there, even during the good times. I do not think it would be satisfactory at the present time for the Secretary of State to require that the register must be at Belfast. He would be bound to ensure that if copies of the register were to be found in Belfast or Londonderry they would be available in many other places as well.

When the Bill goes to another place it must be looked at very carefuly indeed with a view to improving the service available to people who are likely to purchase a hearing aid.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will my hon. Friend accept that it may be that in another place some of the amendments which have not been selected here may find themsalves on the Paper?

The Chairman

Order. It would be remarkable if they did, because they are beyond the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Golding

If we are to achieve our objective, there is one matter which the Government will have to take into account—namely, that the administration of the Act will be far more effective in Northern Ireland than in this country. Perhaps that is one good reason for having a fresh look at the precise wording of the amendment when these matters are considered in another place, with a view to introducing that better administration, since the Government would then have to turn their mind to amending the original Act for the rest of the United Kingdom.

I regret that interventions by my hon. Friends have made this speech rather longer than it would otherwise have been. However, perhaps they will contain themselves now so that, when we come to the debate on the clause as a whole, the important points which they addressed to me may be answered.

Mr. Concannon

We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) and my other hon. Friends for giving the Bill such a searching examination, and I am sure that the 1½ million people of Northern Ireland will welcome the attention which it has been given, if they ever get to know about this debate. Unfortunately, with the present happenings in Northern Ireland I doubt that the debate will have the publicity which it deserves. One of the unfortunate features of the present situation there is that, by the time the various news media get round to important matters of this nature, important especially for the ordinary citizen in Northern Ireland, their space is usually filled with news of bombs, bullets and the rest.

At the outset, I must say how touched I was at the concern for my well-being shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody).

Mrs. Dunwoody

It is very genuine.

Mr. Concannon

I know that it is, and I should never wish to think otherwise. My hon. Friend shows that concern whenever she meets me going through the Lobby or walking outside. In passing, I should say that some time later today I shall be going back to Belfast and, if my hon. Friend is unable to come over as well, I shall be able to tell people what a searching examination the Bill has had in the House of Commons today.

I add my thanks also to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), who unfortunately is not here today, since without his Private Member's Bill in 1968 we should not have had this opportunity to extend the benefit of this protection to the people of Northern Ireland. I have no qualms whatever about its extension to Northern Ireland. This is our opportunity to scrutinise the original Act and try to improve it, extending its operation to Northern Ireland.

When I catch up with him later on this afternoon, I shall tell the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) about this debate. I imagine that I shall be able to tell him about it earlier than he might learn of it by other means, and I know that he will be particularly pleased. He has expressed his regret at not being here today to pilot his Bill through Committee.

There has been some genuine concern in Northern Ireland not only for the hon. Member for Belfast, West but also for the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), who also is involved in the outcome of yesterday's elections for the Convention. I do not think we need worry about the hon. Gentleman's result today. I have no doubt that his majority in Down, North will be weighed in hundredweight sacks. I hope also that the hon. Member for Belfast, West will be successful today.

When the original Private Member's Bill was passed in 1968, it had for Northern Ireland by no means the significance that it has now. It was the Finance Act 1972 which gave the matter added significance in Northern Ireland, with the application of value added tax and other measures. There were very few dispensers in Northern Ireland—in fact, there still are very few—and the Act originally had virtually no impact. If things had been different, I am certain that a different course would have been taken. It was the Finance Act 1972 which had an unfair effect on people in Northern Ireland, because they were left out of the 1968 Act and had to pay extra for their hear- ing aids, without the protection given to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am interested in my hon. Friend's comments about the restrictions imposed on Northern Ireland under the original Act as a result of finance. We are now in a period of even greater financial stringency, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government as a whole exhorting us all to cut down. Indeed, the absent Members sometimes to be seen on the benches opposite—those benches so desolate today—frequently exhort us to make massive cuts in public expenditure. Can my hon. Friend assure us that the present financial stringency will not apply to this Bill brought before the House by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) and that no inhibitions will restrict its application to Northern Ireland?

12.15 p.m.

Mr. Concannon

My hon. Friend must have misunderstood what I said. I did not say that the trouble had anything to do with finance when the original Private Member's Bill was introduced in 1968. The matter of finance came in as a result of the Finance Act 1972, which meant that people in Northern Ireland had to pay VAT on their hearing aids, which people over here with bona fide entitlement did not have to pay. That state of affairs has continued since 1972, and we are now proposing to do something about it. The financial implications applied not in 1968 but in 1972.

The general question before us is the application of a code of practice to Northern Ireland, but the specific purpose of the amendment is to make the register more readily available to the public. No one could disagree with making the register public, and there is no objection to that purpose in Northern Ireland. I know that not only my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West but dispensers and all concerned are looking forward keenly to the operation of the register there.

The code of practice is a stern code intended to maintain a high standard.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I hope that my hon. Friend, while acknowledging that, will look at the code further, since there are certain aspects of it which we shall hope to discuss on another occasion, with a view to tightening it up. Although it was originally drafted in such a way as to apply a stringent code of conduct, there are loopholes in it.

The Chairman

Order. Before the Minister replies, I must remind the Committee that we are discussing not a general code of practice but the question whether the register is to be kept at a place or places in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Concannon

I do not know whether those strictures were aimed at me, Mr. Thomas, but I shall readily act on them. However, I am sure you will agree that some of the questions put to me ranged rather far. None the less, I at once accept your strictures and I shall now stick strictly to the amendment.

Although the maintenance of a register in Northern Ireland is a laudable aim, we at once come to the difficulty that under the original Act there is one register and it is kept in London. I think that a little earlier this morning we had the attendance of an hon. Member from Scotland, a member of the Scottish National Party, and I imagine that he, too, may have an interest in this question.

Mrs. Dunwoody

This is the whole point. I have to accept responsibility there because I was concerned with the original Bill, and I am certain that we made a great mistake. We should have designated all four capitals—Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and London—as places where the register should be available so that people could more easily check the record. Precisely because we have discovered in the interim how sadly lacking the facility is, we are asking my hon. Friend to consider setting up a register in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Concannon

That is readily acceptable, but unfortunately the keeping of the register is not the responsibility of my Department or of the Department of Health and Social Security. The register is a matter for the dispensers themselves and the provision of additional registers will have to be made at their expense. Negotiations will have to be undertaken with them on the point, but I have no doubt that they will pay close attention to what has been said in the debate.

At the moment, without a register in Belfast people living there who want to know which dispensers are on the register will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) pointed out, have to write to find out. Some people are better at writing letters than others, and some of our constituents are terrified at that prospect as they are terrified, perhaps, of using the telephone.

The problem is that we are simply extending the existing legislation to Northern Ireland. The imperfections in it will have to be discussed with other bodies, and they are self-financing. There is no Government finance in this matter. Those bodies impose their own levies and keep themselves going.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Surely it is in the interests of reputable dispensers to provide for these additional registers. Those dispensers supported the original Bill. If they are anxious to maintain a code of conduct, it would be in their interests that people should know that they were on the register. It is in their interests that the contents of the register should be widely available so that people know where to find a reputable dispenser.

Mr. Concannon

There is one unfortunate side effect with respect to Northern Ireland. Other events there today will completely swamp all publicity of our debate. I doubt whether we shall get even a small piece on an inside page of the newspapers. Nevertheless, this subject affects thousands of people in Northern Ireland. The events of the last six years probably mean that there is a higher proportion of people in Northern Ireland than anywhere else suffering from ear injuries.

I can assure my hon. Friends that we in the Department will do our best to ensure that this subject is publicised. There are magazines through which we can ensure that the facts reach the people there. Fortunately the matter has had some prepublicity thanks to the ceasefire, which gave us a chance to get other matters into the Press and across to the public.

I thank my hon. Friends for initiating the debate because it gives a better chance of getting over to the people in Northern Ireland that there will be a register of reputable firms and that they are the firms which should be patronised by people purchasing hearing aids. It has given us a chance to tell people not to buy aids from doorstep salesmen but to go to reputable suppliers.

The people in Northern Ireland will have the difficulty of coming to London to see the register, but that problem will also face those living in Scotland and elsewhere. My Department will do its best to make sure that the people in Northern Ireland know who the reputable suppliers are, and the welfare organisations and community associations there will help in this.

In view of what I have said, I hope that my hon. Friend will not press her amendment. We can see the difficulties of the original legislation, and Private Members' Bills from as far back as 1968 have helped to highlight the anomalies. We know from our constituency experience that this legislation has been a great boon to those wanting hearing aids. The problems of buying hearing aids on hire purchase one day and of their conking out next day seem to have disappeared, and we hope that they disappear quickly in Northern Ireland too.

Mrs. Hayman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his very detailed and understanding reply to the amendment. I still feel some concern about the matter, however. I feel that in their generous approach to the Bill the Government have been motivated simply by the VAT considerations. I understand that they are in a difficulty. They have given an extra-statutory but temporary exemption from VAT for Northern Ireland. Obviously their move will need the backing of legislation so that they can simplify and legitimise what they are doing. We should all be very grateful for what they have done in the meantime.

As the Minister pointed out, the main and perhaps the obvious concern in seeking to extend the Bill to Northern Ireland concerns the application of VAT to hearing aids since the Finance Act 1972. The point of the amendment, however, was to make sure that the Government did not take too narrow a view of the Bill. The Hearing Aid Council Act was not designed to deal with the question of VAT—

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Lady may be able to make those points on Third Reading. I should be grateful if she would confine herself now to the question of registration.

Mrs. Hayman

I apologise Mr. Thomas. I was merely trying to relate my concern in moving the amendment to what seems to be the Government's concern.

I believe it is of great importance that the register should be available in Northern Ireland. That is the spirit of the amendment and of the whole extension of the Act to Northern Ireland. We want to make sure that the consumer protection element is paramount. We do not simply want to legitimise what the Government are doing. We want to give the consumer in Northern Ireland protection as good as that enjoyed by the consumer in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I accept that there are defects in the original Act, and I accept, too, that in seeking to have the register made available in Northern Ireland we are seeking also to give the consumer there better treatment than is meted out in Scotland or Wales, but I see nothing wrong in that. Our objective is to extend the facilities to Northern Ireland without perpetuating the original defects which allowed the council and the register to operate simply from London.

12.30 p.m.

I am concerned that the attitude seems to be that we should have the lowest common denominator of standards for the consumer rather than the highest. I should like to see Northern Ireland taking the lead in this area, having a better standard of protection for the consumer and dragging us up by our boot-straps, to make sure that there is similar provision for all the people of Great Britain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) made the valuable suggestion that, not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the country, local authorities' consumer protection centres and weights and measures offices should be the places to keep such a register. The information would be much more accessible there.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for saying that he will look into the question of how the information should be made available and that he will perhaps initiate discussions with the Hearing Aid Council on how it can be made available in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it would be appropriate to bring in some of his ministerial colleagues to examine the situation in this country.

My hon. Friend spoke of the question of money, saying that the council, which is responsible for the upkeep of the register, was self-financing. Unfortunately, the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) was not selected. That would have eased the council's financial position and perhaps made it easier for it to provide this service.

I said at the beginning that in many ways the amendment was a probing amendment, and I do not want to press it. I ask, however, for an assurance that my hon. Friend will at least have discussions with the council on how the register will be made available for consumers in Northern Ireland. I do not want the Bill to extend the Act to Northern Ireland simply to get the Government out of a bit of a jam on VAT and not to protect the consumer as well as we should like to see him protected.

Mr. Coacannon

I can only be responsible for the Northern Ireland aspect of the matter. I shall be in touch with the dispensers to see how we can get the extra publicity over to the people of Northern Ireland, without opening any further doors or getting any of my colleagues into more trouble there. There is a special problem with regard to the people in Northern Ireland, but I shall see what we can do.

Mrs. Hayman

The Bill has yet to go to another place, and it will be possible to make an amendment there if that should seem appropriate. I have been much reassured by the spirit in which my hon. Friend has tackled the problem of the help that I know he wants to give to the consumer in Northern Ireland. Some of my fears on the matter have been quieted, though I hope that I have not been lulled into a false sense of security. I hope that we shall see offices in Northern Ireland which extend a full range of protection to the consumer, and that we may follow the example of Northern Ireland.

We have had a useful discussion. My hon. Friend has rightly made the point that if we can secure publicity for that discussion people will be made more aware of the existence of the Hearing Aid Council, of the need for dispensers to register with it and of the penalties that can be imposed on people pretending to be registered dispensers.

In view of my hon. Friend's assurance, and the understanding way in which he has dealt with the problem, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Hayman

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 6, leave out

'unless they otherwise expressly provide'. This, too, is in many ways a probing amendment. I cannot understand why the words were inserted in the first place. I do not see what circumstances might arise in which we would wish, as a legislative chore, expressly to provide that Northern Ireland should not enjoy the same benefits as the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not see in what circumstances rules would be formulated, or would have been formulated, providing that the benefits should not extend to Northern Ireland.

We know that the protection in the Act is not satisfactory, and that we should all be seeing how we can strengthen the original Act. But a theme of our debate this morning has been that we are extremely anxious that every scrap of protection existing in Great Britain for the person unfortunate enough to need to purchase a hearing aid should also be available to consumers in Northern Ireland.

On the other side of the coin, the regulations, the examinations and the training of dispensers of hearing aids in Northern Ireland should be just as scrupulous as they are elsewhere.

Sharks and charlatans have made a great deal of money out of people's suffering by the sale of phoney devices. The penalties for people who pretend to be registered dispensers, who call themselves all sorts of pseudo-medical names to give the impression that they are giving the right advice, when they are selling dud appliances should be just as strict in Northern Ireland as they are elsewhere. Many of us are concerned because the penalties have not risen with the cost of living, and people can perhaps accept them as part of their expenses when they are running a profitable but shameful business of the sort with which we are dealing.

It would be a great shame if we allowed the words to provide a loophole which resulted in the citizens of Northern Ireland not receiving the same protection as those in the rest of the country, the charlatans of Northern Ireland being able to get away with lesser penalties, or registered dispensers in Northern Ireland not being subject to the same training and examinations as registered dispensers in this country. I fear that the words were perhaps inserted because of the lack of training facilities in Northern Ireland. I understand the difficulty that these courses are not being run there and that the proper examining facilities do not exist.

Mrs. Dunwooody

It is important to understand that the Hearing Aid Council is not a training body. Therefore, it cannot provide for training in Northern Ireland. It provides examinations to ensure that people accepted for registration have a certain background.

Mrs. Hayman

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's elucidation. I was aware of the situation. Although the examinations are approved by the council, it does not train operatives or dispensers. There is, however, a lacuna in training in Northern Ireland and that could possibly be one reason why the words which I propose to leave out have been inserted in the Bill.

But this is not the right way to tackle the problem. We should make sure that courses are available in Northern Ireland, that training opportunities exist and that the council can set examinations for the few but important dispensers operating in Northern Ireland and can take steps against the fraudulent and the charlatans.

It would be folly for us to allow a loophole through which inadequate services may be provided in Northern Ireland by letting these words remain in the Bill instead of tackling the more difficult problem—and I accept that it is much more difficult—of resources and organisation which has been made particularly difficult by the changes envisaged in the local authority structure in Northern Ireland.

It would be a mistake to let this phrase remain in the Bill. A coach and horses could he driven through it. I am, however, willing to listen to any explanation which may be given justifying its inclusion in the Bill. I cannot see any justification for it. In my scepticism and distrust, I fear that it may be a way of excusing shortcomings in the services which we are providing for citizens in Northern Ireland. I am sure that my hon. Friends who represent Belfast would not wish that to happen, nor would the Minister. I shall be pleased to hear what my hon. Friend has to say on the amendment.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am most anxious for a very simple reason that the amendment should be accepted. One of the absurdities of the House of Commons is that we frequently put on the statute book legislation which ordinary people are not capable of understanding and which excludes quite large portions of the British Isles. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman), who moved the amendment so ably, will forgive me if I point out that one of the terrifying things which can happen to politicians is a game played by an able group of gentlemen called parliamentary draftsmen. They present to Ministers in all Departments beautifully written legislation which is phrased in the obscure English of long-gone 17th century lawyers. An even more terrifying thing is to stand at the Dispatch Box and hear every lawyer in the House, every learned Member of that noble profession, ask why the Minister has not phrased his Bill in much simpler terms.

12.45 p.m.

I am, therefore, anxious that we should not, even by default, leave in the Bill wording of the sort which the amendment proposes to leave out. If we were to do anything today, I should have hoped that we could pass on to Northern Ireland a Bill which was amended so that the code of practice, for example, could have been considerably tightened. I understand that there are only about 15 dispensers in Northern Ireland and that that was the reason why they were originally excluded from the legislation. However, they are absolutely vital to the operation of this legislation. We want to be absolutely certain that the standards which they have achieved make them suitable vendors of hearing aid equipment.

The nominal sum of £1 is paid for the inclusion on the register of firms employing dispensers. It is essential that the people whose names are inscribed on it should have a high standard of professional practice. They must be properly trained. It must be possible, if necessary, to bring them to justice if they violate the code of conduct, and it must be possible to fine them. The fines laid down in the Act probably are not appropriate today in view of the fall in the value of money. They are no longer the punitive fines which they were originally intended to be.

I had hoped that we should be able to change that today, just as I hoped that we would have done something about the problem in this country of firms which do not adhere to the code of practice, which advertise widely in local and national newspapers and which, once they have sold equipment not of the standard required by the code of practice, disappear or go bankrupt only to open again very shortly in a different area with the same directors perpetuating the con tricks which they use against people on the doorstep. We have had time to discover the abuses which the code does not cover as well as the abuses which it does cover—

The Deputy Chairman (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Order. I remind the hon. Lady that the Chairman has previously warned her about straying into making a Second Reading speech. I fear that the same is happening again.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am sure that you will forgive me, Mr. Murton, but, having had a Welsh father and an Irish mother, my emotional commitment to a matter as important as this is such that occasionally, in my womanly way, I stray outside the rules of order. It is, I regret to say, a sign that even the ignorant and uneducated can occasionally get themselves elected to the House of Commons. I speak fervently for that group.

Northern Ireland, even if it has only 15 dispensers, must he protected in the same way as Great Britain has been protected. It is a measure of our incompetence that we have taken so long to extend the legislation. It is extremely sad that we shall not pass on a better and improved Bill rather than the legislation which we have already learned has caused problems. I shall hope to catch your eye, Mr. Murton, on another occasion so that I may go further into the question of the abuses.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not feel moved to say, as so many of us have said when in his position, that what is required is legal phraseology. Northern Ireland needs this legislation, with a code of conduct which is tightly drawn, to protect the consumer.

Mr. Golding

I was sorry to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) receive her second booking this morning, Mr. Murton. I only hope she is not sent off. My hon. Friends and I are relying on her very heavily because of her experience as one of the Ministers who piloted the original Bill. I must plead with the Chair to show forbearance with my hon. Friend. It is clear that when a Minister has piloted legislation through the House, he or she will feel very strongly about any defects which might later appear in it.

My hon. Friends the Members for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) and Crewe have spoken eloquently to the amendment. Perhaps it was natural that they should have appealed to feminine weakness, but I must draw attention to the feminine strength with which they have pleaded the emotional case. However, I do not want to argue in terms of natural justice. I want to consider the actual wording of the Bill and to ask the Minister why it was necessary to have the clause in the Bill in the first place.

I see that you are studying the Bill assiduously, Mr. Murton. No doubt you will be looking at Clause 1(3), which reads: Any rules—

  1. (a) which have been made, or approved under the said Act by the Lord Chancellor; and
  2. (b) which are in force immediately before the commencement of this Act,
shall, unless they otherwise expressly provide, extend to Northern Ireland. Perhaps I should have prefaced that quotation by saying that Clause 1(2) reads: In its application to Northern Ireland, the said Act shall have effect subject to the following modifications". A suspicious man or woman would immediately ask "Why the modification?" That is what my two hon. Friends have done. They have done so in an intuitive manner befitting the female of the species. They did so very effectively, but, not surprisingly they did not sharpen up the question which has to be asked of my hon. Friend the Minister—namely, "What rules are we talking about?"

My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield spoke of hypothetical rules. Perhaps the difference between the species is that I have the actual rules in my hand—namely, Statutory Instrument 1971 No. 754, the Hearing Aid Council Disciplinary Committee (Procedure) Rules Approval Instrument 1971. The rules were made on 3rd May 1971 and came into operation on 1st June 1971. I shall refer to them shortly but before doing so perhaps I should give notice that the other statutory instrument of importance is No. 755 of 1971, the Hearing Aid Council (Disciplinary Proceedings) Legal Assessor Rules 1971. The rules were made on 3rd May 1971 and came into operation on 1st June 1971. Those are the statutory instruments to which the Bill refers.

It would have been better, although perhaps it could not be done for a reason I shall come to later, if it had been made clear that those are the rules we are talking about. It could be that there are other relevant statutory instruments, but those are the only ones I have been able to trace. I have it on good advice that those are the rules referred to in the Bill, and the only rules. The importance of establishing this will become clearer later in my argument.

If that is the position, the first question that must be asked is whether it would be justified in any way to exclude Northern Ireland. I do not intend to read the whole of Statutory instrument No. 754. However, it is necessary to refer to the headings and to establish its general nature and purpose so as to give the Committee an idea of whether there should be any exclusion. Statutory Instrument No. 754 established the procedural rules for the Hearing Aid Council Disciplinary Committee. In Section A of the statutory instrument, which was signed on 3rd May by Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone, the establishment is dealt with of investigating and disciplinary committees. The general remit of both committees is laid down.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I draw his attention to an important omission in that remit. The 1968 Bill was based on the fact that the presence of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 on the statute book would give sufficient protection to the customer from those who misused advertising in terms of deaf aids. It was considered that they would not be able to include anything other than the absolute truth in the wording of their advertisements.

Does not my hon. Friend accept that it should now be possible for the investigating committee to consider advertisements as well as other aspects of the code of conduct? There is clear evidence that firms are continually getting round the Trade Descriptions Act by using such obscure and semi-scientific language in their advertisements that the trading standards department is loth to take action against them.

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Golding

My hon. Friend is taking advantage of you, Mr. Murton. Were I to reply to her intervention, I should be making myself liable for a first booking this morning. I shall deal with my hon. Friend's point when we come to the Question "That the clause stand part of the Bill". However, it would be quite improper for me to deal with it in discussing this amendment.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Perhaps I might intervene again to point out to my hon. Friend that, since Mrs. Murton is a very charming lady, I have no intention of taking advantage of you, Mr. Murton.

Mr. Golding

I accept that correction from my hon. Friend and I offer my apologies to you, Mr. Murton.

I was drawing attention to the rules which are referred to in the subsection. They provide for such matters as the quorums which the investigating committee and the disciplinary committee require for their meetings. The quorum for the investigating committee is three; that for the disciplinary committee is five. But is it suggested in this form of words that such quorums could be varied, for example, in Northern Ireland? Could the Government say that they did not want these rules to apply in Northern Ireland? This is a matter about which we expect a reply from the Minister.

Section B of the rules is headed The Hearing Aid Council Disciplinary Committee (Procedure) Rules 1971", and the first part deals with the citation and interpretation. Again, I ask whether we are to have different interpretations in Northern Ireland. Would it be possible for there to be a separate interpretation of who was to be the chairman, or separate interpretations of what was meant in the regulations by "the Committee", "the complainant", "the Council", a "disciplinary case" or an "inquiry"? If it were, I suggest that that would be quite improper.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield, I think that in this case the parliamentary draftsman has gone too far in erring on the side of reserving everything to the State. It has to be said of Part II about preliminary proceedings, of Part III about disciplinary cases and the procedure upon postponement of judgment, of Part IV about the removal of the name of a body corporate from the register under Section 7(3) of the Act. It is true of Part V above of the restoration of names after erasure and of the general powers in Part VI. The same can also be said about the form of notice of proceedings for the purpose of Section 10 of the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968 which appears in the appendix.

In Statutory Instrument No. 754 we have a set of rules establishing that the Hearing Aid Council shall act according to the rules of natural justice. That is what we are discussing when we talk about Statutory Instrument No. 754. Is it really suggested that in arty way the rules of natural justice should be suspended in Northern Ireland in this respect? I submit that that would be quite undesirable.

Having said that, I have to correct myself, and in doing so perhaps I might correct my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe, because it was she who introduced the subject of the parliamentary draftsman in the first place.

We are considering a Private Member's Bill, and on reflection I feel that it would be quite wrong to attack the parliamentary draftsman for the wording contained in the Bill. I ought perhaps to say in the absence of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) that in this respect he was badly advised by legal advisers. It may be that the Minister will confirm later that the second thoughts which I have had this morning are correct and will, through you, Mr. Murton, convey my apologies to the parliamentary draftsman for having criticised him unfairly. I am sure, too, that were she to get the opportunity, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe on this occasion at least would wish to be associated with me.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I hope my hon. Friend will accept that I was making a general point. I am afraid that on that general point I do not feel that we should underestimate the power or strength of the parliamentary draftsmen. As I said, they are an extremely able and talented group of men and I would not dream of suggesting that in this instance they have not expressed their intentions in the simplest and most straightforward terms. However, I have found on past occasions that in my view the law could have been written in simpler terms.

Mr. Golding

That shows once again how reluctant my hon. Friend is to associate herself with the softness of approach which I try to adopt on these occasions.

I turn now to Statutory Instrument No. 755, the Hearing Aid Council (Disciplinary Proceedings) Legal Assessor Rules 1971. The point that I made in respect of Statutory Instrument No. 754 applies with equal force to Statutory Instrument No. 755. Again I refrain from reading it in full, although it is not a lengthy document. Again it provides interpretations, and it lays duties on a legal assessor to be present at all proceedings before the disciplinary committee relating to the refusal or failure to enter a person's name on the register, the removal of a person's name from the register or the restoration of the name of a person whose name has been removed from the register, and to advise the committee on any questions of law and the admission of evidence arising in the proceedings which the committee may refer to him. I believe that it would be equally right for that to apply to Northern Ireland as to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Why should Northern Ireland be excluded? On reflection, that question need not have been asked in the first place. Perhaps it would have been quicker for me to have revealed what I suggest a study of the documents would reveal to anybody—namely, that those two statutory instruments do not provide for the exclusion of Northern Ireland. Why should they? They were drawn up following an Act which expressly excluded Northern Ireland. Therefore, the orders themselves excluded Northern Ireland.

I think that we can ignore Clause 1(3)(a) referring to any rules which have been made, or approved, under the said Act by the Lord Chancellor". But that leads to a question which would arise in the mind of any reasonable woman or man. If this has no meaning for any rules in being at present, is there a thought that some rules are being drafted which would come into force before the passing of this Bill? I think that that would be the significance of Clause 1(3)(b). I am surprised that my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and for Welwyn and Hatfield did not notice that the rules have not only to be made or approved but to be

in force immediately before the commencement of this Act". Is it possible that new rules are being drafted? I ask the Minister to enlighten us on that point. If he tells us that no rules are being drafted and that there is no intention of bringing in new rules under the parent Act before the passing of this Bill, what is the point of the words

unless they otherwise expressly provide"? If there are no rules anywhere which "otherwise expressly provide", we must leave them. But we must ask why those words have been put there. It seems to us that they are quite superfluous.

I agree with my hon. Friends that the rules relating to Northern Ireland must be similar to those applying to the rest of the United Kingdom because the situa- tion for those dispensing and purchasing is the same.

I do not rest my argument this morning entirely on that point. I argue from the point of view of the rules and the necessity for the words to which reference has been made. In that way I have managed to avoid a booking.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Concannon

Again, I am indebted to my hon. Friends for probing this matter and giving me a chance to explain the situation.

The words unless they otherwise expressly provide were put into the Bill after a great deal of thought. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)—I hope he has now got through the first count—is wise in Northern Ireland affairs. He has been a Belfast city councillor, he was on the Executive and now presumably he will be a member of the Convention. He is well versed in the ways of Northern Ireland, of some of the Acts which appertain to that Province but not to Britain, and of other matters which appertain to Britain but not to Northern Ireland.

A great deal of thought went into this matter. There was a good deal of preplanning before these words were inserted into the Bill. I am not trying to make any excuses. The words were not put into the Bill for any ulterior motive. I understand my hon. Friends' worries about such words being put in to defeat the object of the Bill. However, they have entirely the opposite intention.

The amendment, if carried, would make the subsection read: (3) Any rules—

  1. (a) which have been made, or approved, under the said Act by the Lord Chancellor; and
  2. (b) which are in force immediately before the commencement of this Act,
shall … extend to Northern Ireland Therefore, if the words unless they otherwise expressly provide are not in the Bill, everything within the rules will automatically apply to Northern Ireland.

To be honest, there might not even be any reason for these words being in the Bill. But I think that the hon. Member for Belfast, West was prudent in putting them in in case in future there might be reasons for a difference in Northern Ireland. Basically, they were put in not to weaken the Bill but to strengthen the various laws, and so on, which might be made concerning Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Dunwoody

We accept that that is the intention behind the Bill, as my hon. Friend so kindly explained. However, does he accept that this degree of flexibility is also capable of being used in the opposite direction? In other words, if by some mischance there were some tightening up of the rules on the code of conduct in this country which was not acceptable to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it could be that, yet again, Northern Ireland would be excluded. We should then have the anomalous situation of having improved conditions for consumers here but made them worse in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Concannon

One would have to write Northern Ireland out of those rules. This is where the Lord Chancellor would come in. The rules have to go to the Lord Chancellor for his approval or rejection. In that respect the Bill would cover Northern Ireland. But there are other aspects on which the hon. Member for Belfast, West was keen to have protection in Northern Ireland.

As things are now, I could not argue that that was so. Obviously the hon. Member for Belfast, West is putting in a longstop to be absolutely sure that we do not have to keep coming back here if we find an anomaly in Northern Ireland which requires us to bring in amending legislation. With these words we can make the alteration to the rules if necessary, and that is what the hon. Member for Belfast, West wants. It is not a matter of making excuses or of having any ulterior motive.

I think it would be as well if I were to go through those parts of the 1968 Act which will protect the people of Northern Ireland. It provides in Section 5 for the Hearing Aid Council to set up an investigating committee, and it says in subsection (3): The Council shall make rules as to the constitution of the Investigating Committee, which shall not come into force until approved by the Lord Chancellor. That was the point that I made earlier. Any rules cannot come into force until the Lord Chancellor has seen and agreed them.

Section 6 says that the council shall set up a disciplinary committee, but, again, any rules made under this section shall not come into force until they are approved by the Lord Chancellor. All the rules have to be approved by him.

Section 10 of the Act provides for the council to make rules for the procedure to be followed by the disciplinary committee, and also the rules of evidence to be observed in the proceedings before it, but these have to be approved by the Lord Chancellor and may he modified by him.

Section 11 provides for there to be an assessor to the disciplinary committee, the rules as to the functions of which are to be made by the Lord Chancellor.

Some of the Lord Chancellor's rules relate to legal institutions in England. Some of the legal institutions in Northern Ireland are different, and it would be absurd to extend all the rules to them. This is where the hon. Member for Belfast, West was being so prudent when he drafted the Bill.

Some of the rules made by the council—and the rules themselves are not statutory instruments—will require a certain amount of modification before they can be applied to Northern Ireland. The council itself will be able to amend these rules before the Bill comes into effect. Even if we pass the Bill today, some of the rules already in existence and appertaining to England will have to be modified before they can be applied to Northern Ireland. The council will modify the rules and they will then go before the Lord Chancellor to be agreed before they can be applied to Northern Ireland.

One can see here the wisdom of having these words in the Bill. They strengthen, not weaken, the position of people in Northern Ireland. They strengthen the arm of the Lord Chancellor and everybody concerned in Northern Ireland, and they back up what my hon. Friends have been saying.

I hope that I have said enough to convince my hon. Friends that this will help to get over to the people in Northern Ireland what is being done. The rules are there, and they will be strengthened, not weakened, by these words being in the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friends will accept what I have said. Had the hon. Member for Belfast, West been here, he would have explained this provision in the Northern Ireland context much better than I have been able to do it.

I assure my hon. Friends that the hon. Member for Belfast, West and his advisers in Northern Ireland gave a good deal of thought to these words before they were included in the Bill. I repeat that their purpose is to strengthen, not to weaken, the position in Northern Ireland. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) will accept what I have said in the spirit in which I have said it. I shall put her misgivings to the hon. Member for Belfast, West when I meet him later this afternoon in Belfast, and if there is any doubt about what is being done I am sure that as soon as he returns to the House he will contact my hon. Friend and explain the position to her.

Mrs. Hayman

The Minister is too modest when he says that he has not given as full an explanation of the situation as the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) would have done for including these words in the Bill. He was most persuasive, and it is now difficult to decide whether these words should be included in the Bill. He argued most persuasively that these words will strengthen the position of the people in Northern Ireland in relation to the Hearing Aid Council Act, but when I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) I became even more concerned about the import of these words.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was right, and I was mortified when he looked at my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) and myself and said that we had acted instinctively in our opposition to these words. Perhaps we have not done our homework in as assiduous a way as he and the Minister have and have acted from feminine instinct, with a feminine distrust of words such as these which appear to be superfluous and yet give an option, or provide a loophole, an escape route, in legislation of this kind. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe stated her deep-rooted distrust of lawyers' language and phrases such as this being added to legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme spoke about the rules and statutory instruments that exist. As he said, if Northern Ireland is not already expressly excluded from these provisions—and it would not be, because the original Act does not extend to Northern Ireland—it would be pointless expressly to exclude it. Are some rules being drawn up which, before the Bill comes into force, either will or will not apply expressly to Northern Ireland? My hon. Friend's speech made me feel that my instinct was right, and it was backed by research into this matter.

But then I listened to my hon. Friend the Minister and heard his assurances. He argued persuasively that these words would not have been included if they did not have a purpose—a longstop purpose perhaps, but a purpose that will he wholly beneficial to the consumer in Northern Ireland.

It is on that basis that I am reconsidering the importance of pressing the amendment. If that longstop is necessary, if it could on occasion be found that the rules referred to judicial institutions in this country which are different from those in Northern Ireland, it would be folly to have to come back to the House expressly to prevent a totally ludicrous and inapposite reference being applied to Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, it is a source of considerable concern that again and again we see the Government creepingly getting more and more power into their administrative decisions. We find words such as these being inserted in a Bill so that the Government will not have to come back to the House each time they wish to change what was the will of the House.

No one wants to be pendantic about this. No one wants to create a ridiculous situation. My views about the hours during which the House sits are well known. It would be highly inappropriate of me to try to put more work on the legislature if what is needed could be done efficiently by statutory instrument, by rules or by the Lord Chancellor approving what the Hearing Aid Council suggests in a situation such as this. We already have a tremendous amount of legislation before us, to say nothing of the need to scrutinise properly a considerable amount of EEC legislation. We should consider how to lessen the burden, not increase it, but we should not go too far the other way and give the executive so much power that it can alter any provisions without returning to Parliament.

However, we are dealing with honourable men, and this kind of longstop could be necessary. The differences in law and institutions in Northern Ireland may need to be recognised in this way so as to allow sensible administrative decisions to be taken without unnecessary debate. I have been torn between what I have heard in this debate, which accords with my own instinctive dislike of "let-outs" like this, and the Minister's assurances. The hon. Member for Belfast, West included these words only after long consideration, and the Minister has told us that they are sensible. We wanted to air this matter by discussing the amendment, and we are grateful to the Minister for the depth of his reply. It is only right, therefore, to accept what he has said.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

1.30 p.m.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill, encompassing as it does many important aspects of the working of the Hearing Aid Council. When the original Act was passed, it was not envisaged that loopholes should remain to be exploited by unscrupulous people, but it has become clear that the code of conduct was not sufficiently tightly drawn. I should have hoped that we could have amended the existing Act before passing on to Northern Ireland legislation which has been found wanting, even if only marginally.

In several cases, small firms have widely advertised "hearing aid exhibitions", perhaps in a church hall. People who have bought what they subsequently find is inferior equipment and wish to get redress, then find that the firm has disappeared. If the council cannot deal with that situation, we should amend the legislation before it leaves this House. The council has tried to tackle the problem of the "bankrupt" firm which rises again the next week like a phoenix.

The Chairman

I am sorry to interrupt, but it is only to help the hon. Lady. We cannot discuss now the amending of the original Act. The Bill is intended merely to apply the Act to Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I accept your reprimand, Mr. Thomas. My life is full of chastening experiences today. I have no doubt of the warmth and kindness of your intentions towards me, ever, though they mainfest themselves sometimes in the harshest fashion.

One of my reasons for tabling so many amendments was that the penalties are far too low. Also, when VAT exemption is involved, people should attain professional standards. We cannot pass on the Bill to Northern Ireland without considering this and other aspects.

For example, the Hearing Aid Council is an examining body which has no training courses. Since he did not cover the point originally, I hope that the Minister will tell us how he views the problem of Northern Ireland firms which are registered in Eire. What will be the position of firms whose representatives arrive on a doorstep without sufficient testing equipment? If they are registered in Fire, will they be able to operate as too many firms operated before the original Act came into force in Britain, simply by saying that they have the necessary equipment, audiograms and so on, and repair facilities over the border? The incestuous relationship between Northern Ireland and Eire will not be enough to protect the customer if those on the register do not have proper back-up faciliites. The consumer cannot be protected unless the highest standards of professional practice are observed.

Some dispensers, for instance, have taken on trainees who do not complete their training, are used primarily as salesmen and leave before they are trained. We should restrict the number of trainees allowed under the council's code of conduct.

On the other hand, this is a definite step forward for Northern Ireland. Although, as has been said, there are only 15 dispensers there at present, those should be put on a register. I must repeat that I believe that the register should be available not merely in London but also in Northern Ireland.

I should like the Government to use a small portion of the moneys they have in order to publicise the existence of the register. I should like the Northern Ireland newspapers, if not in their editorial columns at least in their advertisement columns, to carry news of the existence of the Northern Ireland Hearing Aid Council by advertisements placed by Her Majesty's Government. Those advertisements should state very simply "From the passing of this Bill Northern Ireland will now be covered by the same sort of safeguards as Great Britain has had since 1968. The register will exist at such-and such a place. If you want to know what is in it, you may write to the above address and obtain information, free of charge, which will enable you to know whether the firm with which you are dealing is reputable."

This is tremendously important. For some bizarre reason, hearing aids remain of one of the few medical and semi-medical aids which are bought through commercial units, many of which are still not of the high standard that one would like them to be.

That was why the original Bill was so essential, and it is why this extension to Northern Ireland is essential—ignoring the whole problem of VAT. It is why I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), who has the best interests of his constituents in Northern Ireland at heart, will seek actively to promote publicity about this register.

It seems sometimes that those who most need this kind of protection are unable to get it. The working-class woman who answers the door and finds a very plausible salesman there and buys from him at very considerable cost—we must emphasise that we are talking not of small sums but of quite large sums in many instances—will commit herself to payment of a large sum over a period of months. She ought to know that she can check with a Government source whether the salesman is a respectable salesman who will give after-sales service, look after the aid when it has gone wrong and perform all the correct services in relation to a medical aid.

Unfortunately, the National Health Service still does not provide the attractive aids that people sometimes want to buy for themselves, although it provides aids of a very high standard. One can understand the psychological need for people who have partial hearing or who are even profoundly deaf to have an aid which is not ugly and immediately disfiguring and which, in a sense, declares their disablement to the world. While it is possible for modern commerce to produce such simple and attractive aids as the aid in the end of the spectacle arm, which can easily be tucked away, it is very important that those services should nevertheless carry with them a medical standard. This is wholly defensible in the interest of consumers.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be concerned very much with these aspects of the clause, with the code of conduct and with the facilities that we shall be providing in Northern Ireland. I welcome the extension, and I wish that the original Act had extended these advantages to Northern Ireland. I wish that we had then envisaged some of the difficulties and had dealt with them, thus avoiding the present situation with all its loopholes.

I hope that on a later occasion we can bring forward a small Bill dealing with the problems in the clause, extending the protection and making it possible for the Hearing Aid Council to deal with the whole problem of advertisements for aids, which are still not of a sufficiently high standard, giving even greater protection to the person who reads the beautiful glowing account of how different their life will be once they have bought so-and-so's aid. I hope that when that time comes my hon. Friend the Minister, on behalf of Northern Ireland, will be able to accept such amendments because he believes that it is only by improving matters in the whole of Great Britain that we shall improve the lot of the consumer.

1.45 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I have been present for two-and-three quarter hours, mostly in the Chamber, listening to the proceedings from the microphone so very conveniently placed behind the Chair which enables one to overhear what is being said without actually being seen. I have found the proceedings deeply instructive. However, I wonder how the general public, who do not have the advantage of being present here today, will make sense of the discussions which have been taking place in this Chamber. I wonder how relevant they will find what has been said to the discussion on a Private Member's Bill the sponsor of which is not even present. If the public contrive to make any sense whatever of today's proceedings, they will discern that what has been going on is a deliberate attempt by three hon. Members on the Government side of the Committee—who are normally held in very high esteem in Parliament—to prevent discussion on another topic on which they are particularly anxious to prevent discussion—in other words, to filibuster.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir A. Meyer

I shall not give way. The hon. Lady has bored the Committee—

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman must take it from me that what has transpired today is in order, otherwise I should have been on my feet.

Sir A. Meyer

I have too much respect for your judgment, Mr. Thomas, ever to query that anything out of order has been permitted. Certainly nothing out of order has occurred. I am sure that you will extend the same liberal view of the rules of order to my intervention as you have extended to the repeated and sometimes tediously repetitious interventions of the three hon. Members on the Government back benches.

Mr. Golding


Sir A. Meyer

I shall not give way.

Mr. Golding

On a point of order, Mr. Thomas. To accuse hon. Members of tedious repetition in circumstances in which the occupant of the Chair has not raised such a matter on any occasion today amounts to an attack on the Chair, and one which must be resisted.

The Chairman

Order. I think that the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer), whose feelings I am sure the Committee understands, must acknow- ledge that if there had been tedious repetition it would have been corrected. It might have seemed like it to the hon. Gentleman but what matters is how it appears to the occupant of the Chair, and I did not consider it to be so.

Sir A. Meyer

I gladly withdraw the charge, Mr. Thomas. It merely struck me that the repetition was sometimes so tedious as to induce a certain mood of somnolence into the occupant of the Chair. However, I withdraw any imputatation I have made upon the Chair in this regard.

I propose to question why the matter of extending the Hearing Aid Council Act to Northern Ireland, and in particular the clause we are now discussing, should take precedence over, and should be regarded as a matter so much more deserving of the attention of Parliament than the need to ensure that at General Elections all those who are entitled to vote are enabled to do so. In the course of my speech I shall be compelled to balance the two considerations.

The Chairman

Order. It may save the hon. Gentleman from getting into trouble if I tell him that we must deal with what is before us. This is a Committee stage. We must go through the Bill with the amendments which have been selected and deal with them in order. The question of the representation of voters who are on holiday is not covered by this clause.

Mr. Golding

On a point of order, Mr. Thomas. Is it not correct that, if the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) had been here last Friday and had objected to this Bill being taken on the Floor of the House today, it would not have received precedence? The answer to the hon. Gentleman must be that he was absent last week when the matter was decided.

The Chairman

I would not know, because I was not here last Friday.

Sir A. Meyer

The last thing that I would wish to do would be to inhibit the extension of this valuable measure to Northern Ireland. I share hon. Members' desire that the 1968 Act should be extended to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a province with more than its fair share of misfortune and it has been, as the hon. Lady for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) has frequently said today, discriminated against in certain matters. This Bill is designed to end one form of discrimination.

One respect in which Northern Ireland fares worse than the United Kingdom is in the very low number of people who turn out at elections, as was evidenced at the election for the Convention. This is why it is of the utmost importance, if only for the benefit of the people in the Province, that we do everything possible to extend the franchise and to ensure, for example, that those who have arranged to go on holidayperhaps to Northern Ireland for treatment—should be enabled to vote at General Elections.

The Chairman

Order. I should like to help the hon. Gentleman, but I am unable to do so. The establishment of the Hearing Aid Council in Northern Ireland will in no way affect the franchise.

Sir A. Meyer

At the last election I had a good deal of bother about Welsh-speaking voters who claimed that they were unable to find a polling station because the directions were not written up in Welsh. It occurs to me that there may be people in Northern Ireland who would be unable to take in verbal instruction as to how to get to the polling station.

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made a valiant effort hut, unfortunately, even the questions of Welsh polling booths and the franchise in Northern Ireland cannot be considered on this clause, no matter how much ingenuity the hon. Gentleman may exercise.

Sir A. Meyer

I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Thomas, for your kindness and forbearance. I shall therefore sit down, having made the point that today we have witnessed one of the grossest of filibusters that it has ever been my misfortune to listen to. It is obvious that the Labour Party wishes to deprive as many people as possible of the vote because it thinks that the result might go against it at an election.

Mr. Golding

The hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer), having accused others of filibustering—a form of behaviour which is entirely outside the rules of order of the House and would have been corrected by the Chair, and an accusation which is in itself a slight against the Chair—managed to get himself rebuked by the Chair twice for being out of order. Merely stating that fact draws attention to the hon. Gentleman's very lengthy intervention.

The Bill consists of Clauses 1 and 2. Clause 1 is more than half of the Bill and is the heart of the Bill. If we are to support the Bill at all, we must strongly support Clause 1. The 1968 Act did not extend to Northern Ireland. It provided for the establishment of a Hearing Aid Council responsible for professional standards and the registration of dispensers. Persons not regisiered are prohibited from acting as hearing aid dispensers.

Apart from meaning that persons purchasing or hiring hearing aids in Northren Ireland do not have the same protection as that afforded to people in Great Britain, the limitation of the 1968 Act to Great Britain means that people in Northern Ireland must pay VAT on their aids. This is because only medical and paramedical practitioners who are on statutory registers are exempt from VAT. Since 11th November 1974 VAT exemption has been granted extra-statutorily on the understanding that there would be legislation this Session. We on this side are anxious that this legislation should be passed this Session.

The purpose of Clause 1 is clear. It is to extend the 1968 Act to Northern Ireland. The extension will enable Northern Ireland dispensers to register with the council and thus enable them to claim exemption from VAT. The hard of hearing in Northern Ireland will then enjoy the consumer protection already afforded to hearing aid users in Great Britain.

Under the 1968 Act the council has drawn up a firm code of practice aimed at maintaining a high standard of service and practice to clients. Registration by the council is granted following a minimum of 12 months' training and success in the council's examination.

As was the case with the original Act for England and Wales, any Northern Ireland dispenser who has during the last two years acted as a dispenser for at least six months automatically qualifies for registration at the commencement of this Act.

The code and standards of practice are agreed in consultation with the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland was omitted from the original Bill which was introduced as a Private Member's Bill by the Government Whip now on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), of whom we on this side are all very proud.

That seemed of little significance at the time because of the small number of dispensers in Northern Ireland. However, the 1968 Act gained wide significance following the Finance Act 1972 which introduced VAT. It was announced on 31st July last year that the consumer protection afforded to hearing aid purchasers in Great Britain would be extended to Northern Ireland. As I understand it, it would be possible to set up separate machinery by Order in Council, but it would be better to deal with it in this Bill.

I do not intend to get "booked" for dealing with the deficiencies of the 1968 Act but I wish to say that I support the extension of the Act to Northern Ireland despite its deficiencies. One of the deficiencies of the Act is that advertising has not been adequately dealt with. It is also clear that the problem of bankrupt firms has not been dealt with adequately in the existing legislation.

The Chairman

That may well be, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will relate what he is saying to why the Hearing Aid Council Act should apply to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Golding

I am very sad at having been "booked" for the first time, Mr. Thomas, having explained to you the way in which my mind is working—that is to say, that despite these deficiencies we are prepared to extend the legislation to Northern Ireland. I am always conscious, Mr. Thomas, when your ruff is up and the limit of your patience has been reached. For that reason, and also because of messages received from the Deputy Chief Whip, apparently from outside the Chamber, I conclude by saying that I recommend the acceptance of this clause.

Mr. Concannon

I should not like the wrong impression to get back to Northern Ireland. I was a little worried by the intervention by the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir M. Meyer). I believe that he has underestimated the importance of this clause to 1 million people in Northern Ireland who for the last seven years have lacked the cover and protection which the Bill provides. This Bill will give them that cover and protection, and that is the one feature of the Bill which should hit the headlines in Northern Ireland. I was therefore very sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman's intervention. If he had nothing better to say, it would have been better had he not spoken.

We have our problems in Northern Ireland, and the border is one of them. It is very difficult to deal with the border, and I regret that I am unable to give the assurances for which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) asked.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I quite understand that this raises a much more complex matter than merely the Hearing Aid Council. Could not my hon. Friend ask his colleagues in the Department of Industry to consider suggesting to the Hearing Aid Council that it should urgently consider dual involvement? This is a very dangerous situation, in which 15 dispensers in Northern Ireland are adhering to a very strict code of conduct and anybody could come in from the South with his little suitcase and do precisely the things which we are seeking to avoid by saying that they emanated from Eire.

Mr. Concannon

I imagine that the council is well aware that this debate is taking place today, and this is one of the matters which, no doubt, it will be considering. Obviously it will be to the council's advantage if there is a strict code of conduct in Northern Ireland, and it may well be that the council will want to see what can be done in Eire. All I am saying is that it is beyond my responsibility, though obviously it will be pointed out to the council.

What the hon. Member for Flint, West apparently does not appreciate is that this debate will receive publicity in Northern Ireland. There are other directions in which one would like to see the extension of this legislation to Northern Ireland, one being the automatic appointment of a Northern Ireland member to the council. However, there are obvious difficulties. The members of the council are appointed by the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, and in view of the number of dispensers—there are 750 in the rest of the United Kingdom and only 15 in Northern Ireland—one could hardly demand that there should be a member appointed from Northern Ireland. There has been a Welsh member on the council, but there has never been a Scottish member. We could possibly get one in Northern Ireland but his appointment would not be on the basis of his coming from Northern Ireland.

One of the weaknesses in the 1968 Act to which reference has been made is advertising. Unlike legislation in other paramedical sectors, such as the Opticians Act, the Hearing Aid Council Act does not empower the Hearing Aid Council to control advertising of hearing aids, and this is a weakness. At the time that the Act was going through Parliament, the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 was also in passage and it was thought, apparently wrongly, that the latter Act would deal with misleading advertisements generally. The council can now only rely on the requirement set out in paragraph 3 of the code of practice that dispensers shall maintain at all times a high standard of ethical conduct. There are certain rules laid down in the code of advertising practice, but these by no means amount to an effective form of control. This is a weakness, which got through accidentally, in the Hearing Aid Act. It was thought that it would be covered in the other Act, but unfortunately it is not covered and we are left with this inherent weakness.

The publication of the register throughout Northern Ireland will assist those who have not enjoyed the same protection there as we have had in this country. Knowing the Irish as I do. I think it is unfortunate that the one feature of this debate which will be lifted out of context is the remarks of the hon. Member for Flint, West, and I am afraid that they will go down very badly indeed. I should have thought that the fact that 1½ million of our people in Northern Ireland will now be able to enjoy the same standards as we in this country have enjoyed would have been welcomed by hon. Members. There is no reason why, when we are passing legislation for Northern Ireland, we should not make it better than it is in Britain. Why should legislation in Northern Ireland always have to fall behind the standard of British legislation? Indeed, it would be nice if sometimes its legislation were to be ahead of ours.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

2.11 p.m.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I cannot allow the Third Reading to pass without putting on record one or two simple but heartfelt concerns. I have spent quite a lot of my adult life in work for the deaf, and I deeply deploy any suggestion that either the amendments put down in my name for consideration in Committee or the speeches made this morning were intended or used to keep the House from discussing other legislation. Lest anyone should have any doubt whatever in the matter, I shall personally undertake, given the leave of the House, to bring in the amendments to the 1968 Act which we have discussed today, because I believe that the hard of hearing and the deaf are still not well enough served by the 1968 Act.

I greatly deplore it when there are those who, because they seek to promote their own political ends, are prepared, out of arrogance, to assert that we have been seeking not to protect the deaf but to put back consideration of what can only be regarded as a very minor piece of legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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