HC Deb 02 May 1984 vol 59 cc373-5

'Schedule [Disciplinary provisions] to this Act—

  1. (a) Part I of which inserts new sections in the Opticians Act 1958 giving the Disciplinary Committee of the General Optical Council power—
    1. (i) to suspend the registration of a registered optician or the enrolment of a body corporate carrying on business as an opthalmic optician or a dispensing optician instead of erasing the name of the registered optician or the body corporate from the register or list; and
    2. (ii) to impose financial penalties on registered opticians and on such bodies corporate instead of or in addition to erasure or suspension; and
  2. (b) Part II of which makes minor and consequential amendments to that Act in connection with the disciplinary powers of the Committee,
shall have effect.'.—[Mr. Kenneth Clarke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this new clause it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 64, 103 and 109.

Mr. Clarke

The new clause, the new schedule and the other amendments will update and expand the disciplinary powers of the General Optical Council. The GOC is an independent, professional body which governs the affairs of a self-governing profession. Of course, its disciplinary powers are among its most important functions and one of the main protections for the public when dealing with a registered and qualified man or woman. For some time, the GOC has wished to have this updating of its disciplinary powers. When we were discussing the matter in Standing Committee I promised that we would produce a new clause to comply with its wishes as soon as the drafting was finalised.

The new clause and the amendments, which contain a full schedule, probably look voluminous. I should explain to the House that we have decided that the best way to tackle this is to put into the Bill a new schedule which, in effect, sets out in full all the disciplinary powers of the General Optical Council. Most of it restates the present position and only certain changes have been made to the powers. Had we merely amended the previous legislation, it would have been difficult for people in future because they would have had to jump about to find the full extent of the disciplinary powers.

Therefore, I propose only to tell the House of the main changes that the package will produce. First, it will enable the GOC to suspend registration or enrolment for up to 12 months. At the moment the powers of the GOC are restricted to striking off or doing nothing about the registration of someone against whom a complaint has been made. Suspension as an intermediary penalty is something that should be available to the council because it is available to other professional bodies when dealing with their members.

The new clause also gives the council power to impose a financial penalty of up to £1,000 on registered opticians or enrolled bodies corporate. That again gives the council more flexibility to apply suitable penalties when unprofessional conduct is being dealt with.

The GOC is being given a new power to discipline the registered optician directors of enrolled bodies corporate where such a body had itself been disciplined. It will also have a new power to replace the phrase:

infamous conduct in any professional respect by the phrase "serious professional misconduct". That is merely a less archaic description of the kind of things that professionals occasionally get up to which result in their being brought before their professional council.

The final change is to allow the use of recorded delivery in place of registered post. I cannot understand why that was not allowed before. I am sure the House will welcome the fact that the GOC will be allowed to use recorded delivery.

I hope that the House will support the whole body of changes.

Mr. Dobson

Once again, I should like briefly to welcome the new clause that the Government are moving and the associated amendments because these cover matters that my hon. Friends and I and hon. Members on the Government side requested. Before we incorporate the new clause in the Bill, I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that it has the full support of all professional bodies. It is my understanding that it has.

Also, in fairness to the Minister's officials whom I, from time to time, legitimately criticised in Committee about the convoluted nature of some of the proposals that were put before us, I welcome their undoubted initiative and the Minister's endorsement of that initiative in providing changes in the disciplinary powers in regard to opticians by way of one schedule instead of putting forward half a dozen changes which would have made it difficult for ordinary people to follow. I should like to thank them and the Minister for meeting the undertakings the Minister gave in Committee.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Can my hon. and learned Friend confirm two points before we conclude this brief debate? First, it is extremely rare for the GOC to have to deal with complaints about opticians. It is important to get that on the record because it might be assumed that complaints against opticians rain down on the desk of the GOC weekly or even daily.

Secondly, can he confirm that nothing in the new clause will give the GOC power to discipline those who are not members of the ophthalmic profession but who, under the Bill, will be dispensing glasses? If such people misbehave and do not carry out their job properly, appropriately and efficiently, am I right in thinking that even this new clause gives the GOC no power to deal with them?

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I thank the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on behalf of the Department for the thanks that he gave to my officials. Certainly the new clause has the support of the General Optical Council and, so far as we are aware, there is no one anywhere against it. We are not aware of any professional opinion opposing it.

I confirm both statements of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight). When a profession is self-governing, its professional body needs strong disciplinary powers. The existence of those powers is one of the best reassurances of protection for the public. The body may not have to use them often. The General Optical Council does not have to deal with numerous cases of unprofessional conduct, and there is no reason to think that it will have great need for these powers in future.

People who are not registered and not professionally qualified do not fall within the jurisdiction of the General Optical Council. Therefore, people who are not registered opticians cannot be taken before the General Optical Council on any disciplinary matter. This goes back almost to the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) a few moments ago. Of course, there is a difference between a professional person who is

offering a service to the public and someone who is not a professional. The professional person is offering both qualifications and the back-up of his professional body, which will discipline him if he behaves in an unprofessional way.

What the Government are saying is that only people who offer qualifications should be allowed to describe themselves in such a way as to imply that they are registered opticians. Then the public—the patient or the customer—is free to choose whether he goes to a qualified professional man or, for some reason, to an unqualified man. The customer will have to make his own decision as to which he prefers. That is what happens in practically every walk of life. Only opticians had the complete legal protection of their monopoly until the Government produced the Bill. We do not stop people going for treatment for illness to other than doctors. One may go to an osteopath, a herbalist or to whomever he likes, so long as that person does not describe himself as a doctor. We are putting opticians on the same footing.

5 pm

The powers of the General Optical Council are not often used to deal with consumer complaints. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston has in mind the person who finds that his glasses are less than satisfactory. It is rare for such a patient to go through the process that would take a complaint to the GOC. The GOC deals with unprofessional conduct, most of which is of other kinds. Consumer redress is obtainable in the same way as it is when dealing with any product. The day-to-day remedies are indistinguishable in relation to the professional and non-professional person. I am glad that my hon. Friend, like everybody else, wants the GOC to have the powers in the new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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