HC Deb 23 February 1979 vol 963 cc846-55

Order for Second Reading read.

3.23 p.m.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

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

I seek through the Bill to protect the most vulnerable sector of our society—those who suffer from deafness and at the same time have to cope with the problems of old age. Within that sector, perhaps even more vulnerable are those who cope with both those conditions but who, in spite of a lifetime of work in the community, have very few savings.

Deafness is the only disability in respect of which slick advertising and smart salesmanship are the main elements used to secure commercial profit. Nobody ever seeks to make a profit out of selling white sticks to blind people. Nobody ever seeks to advertise and make a profit from limbs for sale for people who are disabled, people who do not have an arm or a leg.

In my view, deafness is probably one of the most harassing complaints from which a person can suffer. Apart from the hearing disability, in work and everyday activities deafness cuts off a person from human contact, neighbourliness, community and human relationships. I once had the privilege of meeting one of the most famous deaf people, the late Helen Keller, who happened to be both blind and deaf. She told me that, of the two disabilities, the one which she found the most difficult to cope with was her deafness. She felt contained within a wall and unable to meet the human personalities of the people surrounding her. I seek in this Bill to give some protection to this sector of the community.

In essence, my Bill is exactly the same as that which came forward for its Third Reading at the end of last Session after completing all its stages elsewhere in the House. In that connection, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), who led for the Opposition in the Standing Committee, for his help in amending my original Bill and in reaching a compromise solution which at the time was acceptable to both sides. The Committee stage of the Bill encountered a great deal of opposition. It was only after representations had been heard by the Committee, especially from the organisations representing deaf people, that in the end the measure was commended by the Opposition to Report and Third Reading in this Chamber as one which they wished well and to which they hoped to be able to give a fair wind.

I came out of the Committee stage with a sense of euphoria, having accepted the plaudits of the hon. Members for Pudsey and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight). In the vernacular of the East End, Mr. Deputy Speaker, where I was born, you could have knocked me down with a feather when the Bill was blocked on Report. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) deliberately wrecked the Bill, and I still find it a little amazing. I am not one of those politicians who think that the Opposition have no sense of compassion or understanding for the sick, the disabled and the elderly. But that made it even more difficult to stomach when what I considered to be a Bill designed to help that section of the community, after securing a good deal of support from the Opposition, did not receive its Third Reading for procedural reasons.

The organisation concerned with people disabled by deafness were quick to rally to my support. I quote from a letter addressed to the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), whom I am pleased to see in his place, from the umbrella organisation, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. The right hon. Gentleman knows that under the previous Secretary of State for Social Services, the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), the voluntary organisations concerned to help deaf people were gathered together in a national conference annually to meet the Secretary of State under the umbrella of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. After my Bill was sunk at the end of the last Session, the director wrote to the right hon. Gentleman saying: It is unfortunate that conflict has arisen over the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968 (Amendment) Bill. We do hope that there can soon be measures to regulate unscrupulous hearing aid advertisements. There are still too many misleading and exaggerated claims of what hearing aids will do and hearing impaired people represent a very vulnerable group.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

I had not expected that the hon. Gentleman's Bill would be reached during the course of this afternoon. Does he recognise that in a subsequent letter to me Mr. Sydenham also expressed the view that, if it were possible, it would be better for these things to be dealt with by agreement rather than by legislation? He expressed that view in the context of the efforts being made by the industry to develop not only a code of practice but machinery to enforce it as possibly one way of achieving the hon. Gentleman's objective.

Mr. Pavitt

The right hon. Gentleman anticipates a further part of my submission to the House with which I hope to deal more extensively. The RNID also showed me a copy of that letter and I have been in contact with Mr. Sydenham and the chairman on these matters fairly constantly since that time. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, there have been moves, under the impetus of what happened last year, to do something along these lines.

It has been underlined that the purpose of this Bill remains necessary and relevant. Whatever way one seeks to achieve this purpose, there is no denying the need for something to be done. We have to consider whether my submission to the House is the best method. I shall seek to show that it is. After the campaigning that occurred last year, and having introduced the original 1968 Act—the only Act to which I have had the honour to put my name—I should not like to feel that I was taken for a ride in believing that what the industry and the hearing aid dispensers wanted was to enhance their professional status and to become professional in the same category as opticians and others rather than seeking to be placed on the same level as vacuum cleaner salesman.

It was in that belief that I managed to secure the original Act and get it on to the statute book. I do not believe that advertising of hearing aids necessarily enhances professional status. That is why this Bill seeks to deal with the problem. One of the objections to this kind of legislation, dealing with a quasi-professional and quasi-commercial concern, produced by Governments of all parties, is that it perhaps gives a coat of whitewash to practices that are hardly professional. It was because I was convinced of the integrity and the good will of the commercial sector providing hearing aids for those who suffer from deafness that I was happy to persuade the Government not to object to giving that professional status.

This Bill is an enabling Bill which does not ban advertising and contains nothing which has any immediate impact on the commercial practices of the hearing aid industry.

Advertisements need to be dealt with, because one of the most harmful things is to raise the hope of someone struggling with deafness who is in the depths of despair. The advertisement might say that, if only a deaf person spent £200, all would be well. I speak from experience. As the House knows, I am a deaf person. If I take my hearing aids off, I do not hear a word. We have looked for a miracle. If we thought that acupuncture would do it, we would go to China tomorrow. After being used to mixing freely in society, exchanging views and opinions and arguing, we suddenly retire into loneliness and into ourselves merely because of the embarrassment of having to say "I beg your pardon? What did you say?"

The main clause of the Bill seeks to deal with the problem of efficient, smartalec and dubious advertising giving hope to elderly ladies and gentlemen. They live in anticipation of getting their hearing back, only to find that the apparatus can only amplify sound and that if they suffer from sensory neural deafness it is unlikely to do anything more than give a louder confusion to the existing sounds.

The reasons for accepting the main clause in the Bill are supported by the following words of the director of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf: The wide advertising of the Hearing Aid Industry, considerably in excess of anything that has been undertaken in charitable and other social spheres, has served as impressive propaganda in claiming what an aid will do. We suggest, then, that this is a significant factor when assessing the public's attitude to deafness. That is an important point. Deafness is not yet socially acceptable. No one minds that I wear glasses, but many are reluctant to appear in public wearing a hearing aid. The attitude is that one is probably past it, over the hill.

Even worse, in the past, the deaf person has been a bit of a joke—the old gentleman with the ear trumpet. The social attitude towards deafness, which is the least regarded of all the disabilities, because it cannot be seen, is informed by the least sympathy and compassion.

The RNID is saying that the advertising is part of the background against which to build up that social climate of opinion. That is why it is important to do something about the advertising. The director goes on to say: The public has seen references to ' implant technology ' / ' out of focus ' / ' like having new ears ' / ' hearing booster ' / ' poppit improver ' / ' inside hearing module ' / ' you are not deaf but want to hear a bit better ' / ' help nature to help you hear well again '. The RNID has a dossier about 1½ in thick containing three months' advertisements from which those quotes are taken. All of those advertisements, and others, have been and are used in advertisements for hearing aids.

Gimmickry must not be linked with handicap. Deafness, which imposes so many communications barriers, as well as being misunderstood, carries with it a stigma. For that reason, few sufferers will admit to their hearing loss. Nobody knows that better than the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford. He and I have colleagues who have a hearing loss in one ear but nobody knows about it. We do not tell. On both Front Benches some Ministers and Shadow Ministers have hearing impairments but do not wear hearing aids. At a particularly awkward Question Time, such aids might be of help.

The advertisements continue to suggest that deafness is something which one does not admit. The RNID states: We represent a highly vulnerable group, receptive to misleading and exaggerated claims of what an aid will be able to do…Various words and phrases do not contravene the Advertising Standards Authority code, but the RNID is deeply concerned that many thousands of handicapped people have had their hopes dashed and their life savings taken after aids have been promoted in ways which cannot, by any standards, be deemed strictly or totally ethical. Are there other ways in which we can deal with this incipient tragedy for ordinary people? I turn first to the Trade Descriptions Act. The only reason why clause 5 of my original Bill was omitted was because it was thought that the Trade Descriptions Act adequately covered misleading or difficult advertisements.

My Act went on to the statute book in 1968. I was not in a hurry to meet this problem. I have given it plenty of time to see what developed. The trading standards officers with local authorities—who used to be called the weights and measures men—were most involved in that legislation.

A letter which I received from one such officer states: I discussed this with our Medical Officer of Health who referred me to a university lecturer in Dundee who thinks that many of the claims for this sort of equipment are spurious and some of the vendors' methods are dishonest but he states that civil actions have always failed because the manufacturers produce experts who ' blind the courts with science '. Only a prosecution witness who has carried out a full range of tests would be likely to succeed. This is because many of the advertisements rest in the vague area between what is possible and that which goes over the border.

This demonsrates how attempts to deal with the situation through the Trade Descriptions Act have failed in the last five years.

Let us consider whether it is possible to deal with this matter through the Advertising Standards Association rather than through legislation. The ASA backed this Bill. When the Bill failed earlier, I received a strong personal letter from the chairman of the ASA, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, expressing his sympathy and regret. He said that he hoped that I would reintroduce the Bill in a new Session. That Bill is now before the House. He went further. He said that he would consider it an honour to have the responsibility of piloting the Bill through another place. If the chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority thinks that this Bill is necessary in order to do the job, that surely is an indication of the need for legislation.

This is a highly specialised area of technology. One can have experts contradicting each other as to whether advertising is misleading or not. Therefore, the Bill proposes to put the vetting of advertising into the hands of the Hearing Aid Council. The council consists of six people from the industry. Five repre- sentatives of those who are disabled through deafness sit upon the committee. They include, for instance, Dr. Stephens, of the Royal Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital, Mrs. Freddie Bloom, who has done so much for children's deafness, Professor Coles, of Southampton university, and a representative of the British Association of the Hard of Hearing. There is also a representative of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf.

The point about the Advertising Standards Authority being the sole arbiter of these problems is satisfactorily answered by the way in which it has been prepared to support the Bill.

I come to the third aspect, which is that under pressure of the legislation passed last year the Hearing Aid Industry Association has sought to put its own house in order. It has established an advertising committee which commenced operations on 14 December. The aim has been to establish a small independent committee of three members to whom advertisements may be submitted by those who desire to submit them. The committee will consist of a professional arbitrator who will act as chairman, of a hard of hearing person who wears a hearing aid and who happens to be a barrister, and of a person with great experience in advertising practice but not involved in advertising.

The procedure for dealing with hearing aids is contained in a six-page document which lays down certain codes. If the codes are not observed, the matter goes before the independent committee, which then has a chance of cleaning up the mess. The people who will receive the advice will be those who are doing the advertising, because the Hearing Aid Industry Association is in the main the representative body of the large advertisers in this industry. At the end of the day, whatever the advice they receive from their committee, they are judge and jury in their own cases.

The blocking of my Bill last year made a nonsense of the claims of Tory Members about the need to help small businesses. On advertising, small businesses are 100 per cent. behind my Bill. The large firms are opposed to it. They are the main and powerful interest in the Hearing Aid Industry Association, which is seeking to make its own decisions on that.

There has been a great change over the past 10 years. There are now seven large firms, Scrivens, Ultratone, Amplivox, Ingrams, Hidden Hearing, Ardente and, since 1 January, an amalgamation called Seatons/Moss. Between them they employ 60 per cent. of the dispensers of hearing aids. The remainder are the small one-man businesses, the man in the High Street who has a hearing aid centre and who has a personal relationship with his patients.

The Guild of Hearing Aid Dispensers was disappointed about my Bill last year, and its strong support consoled me. The only opposition came from the seven big firms, and they have the largest number of so-called trainees who do the doorstep selling. The small business has no need to advertise. One of these small men, hoping to see the success of the Bill, says: I am a self employed independent hearing aid dispenser with established premises as above for the past 18 years. It is important that there should be such small businesses to which one can go when one's hearing aid does not work, instead of the salesman who comes to the doorstep. He continues: I have been of the opinion for some considerable time that all the advertising that should be necessary is one's name and address stating hearing aid dispenser. That is the position of opticians under the Opticians Act 1958. He says: any dispenser being established for any length of time and conducting his business in an ethical way should not have to resort to advertising, my business has survived and will continue to do so through the recommendations and good service of my patients of the last 18 years, there has been and still is advertising which tends to give the public a misleading impression as to the merit or otherwise of certain hearing aids, the sooner this matter is dealt with the sooner we will be accepted as a professional body whose interest is more than just selling an instrument. That is from Luxitone, which is quite a long way from my constituency in London.

The seven large companies are the big advertisers. Under the present advertising system there is a coupon that one can fill in to send for a free booklet. Within 24 hours a trainee is on the doorstep trying to sell a hearing aid. The cost of production of hearing aids is between £30 and £32. The top selling price is £220. So the profit is a great inducement to maximise one's salesmanship techniques. The two firms which spend most on advertising are Scrivens and Ingrams. I should be surprised if both those firms do not now spend well over £100,000 per year on newspaper advertising alone. The last figures that I saw are out of date. Naturally, it is difficult for someone in my position to get accurate figures.

What emerged clearly from the Price Commission report was that the high cost of aids rested on the amount of promotion and selling that has to be done to persuade people to wear these unacceptable things. I submit that the other ways of controlling this practice are totally inadequate.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection for the recent change in the code of practice of the Hearing Aid Council. That means that after 1 January 1981 the practice of being able unsolicited to knock on doors and go into a salesmanship act to persuade elderly people to buy hearing aids will cease. After 1 January 1981 it will be an offence to do that, unless there is a specific invitation to call.

I think that things are moving in the right direction, but this Bill is necessary if we are to get the kind of vetting which is needed in this area. It is not that there will be an immediate ban on anything. As I said at the outset, this is an enabling measure. If advertising is ethical and does not go over the bounds of raising false hopes, there will be no interference by the Hearing Aid Council. It is only on the borderline that intervention will take place.

One of the six people who will decide these cases works for Scrivens. If anyone knows about advertising, he should. I am happy that these people, who know something of the technicalities, shall sit in judgment on these advertisements. They know the naughty boys in their own industry. Of course, I pay tribute to the good boys in the industry. They have rendered a magnificent service, not least to hon. Members. I wear a hearing aid. I think that at least a dozen hon. Members have approached me at one time or another for advice. In consequence, I have directed them to one place or another where I know they will get ethical treatment.

I have dealt primarily within the Bill with the main purpose and bone of contention between myself and the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford but I have taken the opportunity to include other small matters which need tidying up.

First, the cash penalties and limits in the 1968 Act do not bear much relationship to cash values today. Therefore, I have suggested alterations in that respect.

Secondly, there was only one discipline—to be struck off the register. I have sought to alter and bring that down.

The last point concerns interpretation. It is unnecessary to add anything about Northern Ireland, because the Interpretation Act 1978 covers that aspect.

I commend the Bill to the House. Those who suffer from deafness get little recognition and understanding. That is all the more reason why we in Parliament should accept our responsibilities and provide recognition, understanding and protection.

3.59 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. John Fraser)

The Government support the Bill because there is a gap in the law in this area. It is not for the House or the Government to try to regulate advertising. The Bill will give the Hearing Aid Council, upon which the industry and consumers are represented, the opportunity to make the kind of code which will be acceptable to the industry as a whole. I think that that is the best way of dealing with the matter. It has been extraordinarily successful—

Mr. Michael Brotherton (Louth)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Fraser

It has been extraordinarily successful with the Advertising Standards Authority and it is the kind of procedure which should be adopted by the hearing aid industry. Therefore, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).